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The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Bird

Black and White Warbler
A Dead Black and White Warbler
Detail of feathers of a Black and White Warb;er

I’ve been spending these late April mornings moving pachysandra to fill in worn spots where my dog lays after walks. I was about to drive my shovel into the earth, when I noticed –-and swerved just in time to avoid impaling –-a bird. I have handled dead birds before and every time, I am pained by their weight. The sensation of their little bodies in my hand is paradoxically weighty as if I can suddenly measure in tenths of an ounce.

Unsolicited dead birds remind me to take time out to appreciate nature. To memorialize them, I place them on my Epson V700 to scan them in at some ridiculously high resolution so that I can view an enlarged image of their feather patterns up close.

Normally, I’m not interested in their identity, just in their birdness. But thanks to my new bird identification app, Merlin, I learned that my guy is a Black and White Warbler (a guy because he has black cheeks). He comes from a family of tree foragers, good at picking out insects from the grooves of bark. But unlike some of his cousins such as the Brown Creeper, who starts at the bottom and forages upward, or the Nuthatch, who hops downward, my bird is quite talented and hops every which way.

Ugh, I’m getting attached, but it’s time for the final step in my bird appreciation routine. To pick up his floppy, rotund body and hurl it into the woods.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage

Symplocarpus Foetidus: smelly fruits


Skunk Cabbage Spathe

It’s March and there are hundreds of baby skunk cabbages in the creek near my house. I went six inches deep in the mud with my waterproof boots to visit them up close. The “baby” is actually a reddish purple or mottled yellow shell (the spathe) that holds a cluster of flowers attached to a spike (the spadix). The spathes are miraculous little space heaters that keep the prenatal buds between 60° and 70° and as a side-effect, can melt snow or ice. This thermogenesis is accomplished by metabolizing starch that had been stored in the roots over the winter. A few weeks ago, several of these pointy gnomes were peeking through the snow.

Next to the purple shell, there’s what appears to be a second spathe that’s green, though it’s actually a curl of green leaves. These will unfurl to be a large stinky adult skunk cabbage. The plants have evolved to smell like dead animals to attract early garbage-loving pollinators such as some flies and beetles while repelling early forest carnivores such as deer and rabbit. The fetid odor is actually a good thing for us humans, since the leafy greens look good enough to eat, but would in fact make a poisonous salad.

Mottled Yellow Skunk Cabbage

Oak Apple Galls

Oak Apple Galls
Oak galls that housed wasp larvae. Note the escape hole!

I found these mysterious balls attached to an oak tree in the winter. They are galls– abnormal growths of a part of a plant that has been injected with insect eggs. In this case, the galls were destined to be oak leaves before they were injected with wasp eggs. Instead of developing into leaves, they grew into these lumpy spheres, each protecting a single a wasp larva.

Apple galls are so named because they start out resembling green apples. The wasps who make these particular galls are nicknamed “oak apple wasps.” A oak apple wasp starts life as a larva feeding on the roots of an oak tree. During the second spring of its life, it matures into a wasp without wings which climbs the oak tree and injects an egg into the veins of a leaf. The egg contains chemical instructions that turn the leaf into a protective cocoon for a fully mature adult wasp to grow. In the summer, the wasp drills an escape hole and emerges into the big wide world to fulfill its duty, which is to spend the remaining few weeks of its life finding a mate to begin the process all over again.

Blue-green Birch Twig

Birch Twig colored by chlorociboria
Birch Twig Colored Teal by Chlorociboria Fungus
Example of Blue-green wood in Intarsia
Chlorociboria stained wood used in Intarsia.

I occasionally come across fallen birch twigs that are a shocking blue-green color. Fellow hikers have had the same reaction that I had — that the color does not look natural ; someone must have dyed the wood.

When Museum curators saw that same hue in artwork by Italian furniture makers working in intarsia –- elaborate designs made with inlaid wood –- they too thought that the wood was dyed. However, scientific analysis of the artwork showed that the blue-green wood is an example of spalting – the coloring of wood by a fungus, in this case, the elf-cup Chlorociboria aeruginascens. Fifteenth and sixteenth century artists used the green wood to depict grass, leaves, bird feathers, animal eyes, and luxurious clothing. Back then, chlorociboria-infested wood was as valuable as precious metals.

Intarsia with blue-green wood
Intarsia with blue-green wood

Sutures on a White-tailed Deer Skull

White-tailed deer skull

I found this white-tailed deer skull along with other parts of the carcass while exploring off-trail in an area of the woods that was not easy to navigate. In this relative wilderness, the deer had probably been taken down by a coyote or died a natural death.

Although the skull is damaged, the zig-zag markings on the top are beautifully intact. Similar to spalting, which is a network of lines marking fungal boundaries in wood, these cranial sutures mark boundaries between bones.

 

When the deer was young, the sutures were fibrous areas that allowed the bones to expand. They also indicate stresses placed on the skull by chewing. In male deer, the largest sutures (the coronal pair that meander horizontally across the top of the skull) indicate the presence of antlers. The smaller wiggly line in the back of the skull is the lambdoid, and the vertical one extended towards the mouth is the sagittal suture.

Sutures on Deer Skull

Revelation in a Piece of Wood

Slice of Spalted Wood
Spalted wood from a sawn tree.

This sliver of maple wood cut from a tree that fell over the Red Rectangle Trail looks like a map of some unfamiliar world so I was surprised to learn that it is exactly that. The squiggly black lines superimposed on the circular growth rings look like meandering rivers. Known as zone lines, they mark territorial boundaries between species of fungi competing for the dead wood. I felt a little sad to learn about this self-serving behavior of micro-organisms. The sadness made me realize that, even though I swear I never thought about it, I had assumed that fungi would share.

For more information on this process known as spalting, visit the Woodland Trust website or meet “Dr. Spalting” herself.