Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural! Birds, Geology, Wildlife & More' Category

Oct 12 2013

The Scent of Apples: A Roadside Treat for Backroads Cyclists

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.

—  Robert Frost, “After Apple Picking”

This is another banner year for wild apples, and that’s good news for the birds and animals who depend on nature’s bounty to make it through the approaching winter. The apples are a gift that keeps on giving, too. The fruit which isn’t eaten in fall and winter freezes right on the tree. Then, come springtime, returning songbirds find the table already spread and waiting for them, offering a much-needed chance to recover from their arduous journey north before the demands of the breeding season begin in earnest.

Given the apples’ importance to wildlife, I don’t often eat them myself. (I’m a guest in the wild creatures’ home, after all, and no host wants a glutton for a guest.) Still, I do allow myself one or two treats now and then. And what treats they are! Wild apples don’t look much like the perfect specimens stacked up in bins at the HyperMart, but looks aren’t everything. One bite will show you what we’ve lost in making the transition to industrial agriculture. Of course, you need to discard your preconceptions. Wild apples are often small and irregular, with tough skins and frequent bruises. (That sounds like a lot of cyclists I know, come to that, including the one I see in the mirror.) They haven’t been waxed and polished, either. And you’ll probably find a worm in your apple at some point. Think of it as a protein supplement, if that helps. But what flavor! Sweet, subtle, and complex. Once upon a time, all apples tasted like this…

Wild Apple

But we’ve moved on. And speaking of moving on, a good apple year is also very good news for country-lane cyclists, who can often pick up a bite to eat right off the ground along the roadside.

Stopping for an Apple

The intoxicating perfume of ripe apples also makes a welcome change from the signature stink of suburbia, that all-too-familiar witches’ brew, compounded from equal parts of car exhaust, incinerated beef, and dryer-sheet effluvium. The only hard part for the cycling gourmet is stopping at one apple. But I do. I’ve missed more than my share of meals, and I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be hungry when there’s nothing in the house to eat. So in my menu plan, wild apples are a rare and valued treat, not a dietary staple. And when I finish off the one apple I allow myself, I always remember to toss the core into the tall grass, well off the road, where the seeds will make a feast for some foraging mouse or squirrel.

Who knows? One seed may escape the hungry mouths long enough to take root and grow a new tree, which in due course will drop still more apples to delight cyclists yet unborn. Now that’s a legacy worth leaving, don’t you think?

Road Apples

This article was originally published in a slightly different form on September 20, 2011.

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Sep 10 2013

The Small, Intricate World of Photographer Pat McKay

Back in the day, when America was still smarting from its failure to impose democracy on a tiny Southeast Asian nation by force of arms, a book entitled Small is Beautiful enjoyed a few minutes of fame. It hit the stores in the same year that the Arab oil embargo saw many Americans spending long hours waiting in gas lines in order to fill the big tanks on their big cars so they could travel the big distances between work and home. This unwelcome annoyance came as something of a shock to many Americans. Bigger, it seemed, was no longer better. But the lesson — if that’s what it was — didn’t really take. America was soon back in bigness again, and it’s bigness as usual to this day, despite the occasional headwind. (Can you say “too big to fail”?)

Which, to my mind at any rate, is too bad. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against big dreams, whether the dreamer is a kid or a country. But I also think it’s a mistake to ignore the beauty (and utility) of small things. And it seems that others agree. Take TNO Contributing Photographer Pat McKay, for instance. He’s done plenty of Big Things in his life, and he’s done them well. Yet he does Small Things, too. Moreover, he does them with grace and style.

Anyway, the following photos are only a sample of his work. Whether he’s exploring the world on a bicycle or in a kayak, Pat keeps his camera close at hand. But he doesn’t limit himself to snapping pictures. He observes his small subjects closely in the process. Gets on first-name terms with them. Tries to see the world as they see it. And I think his photos reflect this. That said, it’s not really important what I think. Spend a few minutes looking at things through Pat’s eyes. Then you can make up your own mind.

 

Let’s start our tour of Pat’s small, intricate world with a look at the flora — to be specific, some lovely begonias:

Pat McKay Begonias

Of course, flowers also attract insects, like this dronefly (Eristalis tenax) flitting between roadside daisies:

Pat McKay Eristalis Tenax Dronefly

And here’s a snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), also known as the bumblebee moth, tanking up on milkweed nectar (there are no gas lines here!):

Pat McKay Snowberry Clearwing

Or take this painted lady, one of the Cynthia group of butterflies:

Pat McKay Painted Lady

Often the butterflies compete with the flowers for top honors in the visual stakes. In this photo, a variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) is highlighted against a backdrop of brilliantly colored — and aptly named — butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a species of milkweed:

Pat McKay Variegated Fritillary and Butterfly Weed

Which isn’t to say that other milkweeds don’t draw their share of butterflies. This common milkweed has attracted a tiger swallowtail, and also what appears to be a common housefly:

Pat McKay Tiger Swallowtail

OK. Flowers attract butterflies. But water — and its attendant mosquitoes and blackflies — serves as a magnet for the equally diverse, and equally beautiful, winged predators we call dragonflies. Here, for example, is the familiar blue dasher:

Pat McKay Blue Dasher Dragonfly

And here, an uncommon painted skimmer (Libellula semifasciata):

Pat McKay Painted Skimmer

And speaking of predators, no matter how fearsome dragonflies must appear to other, smaller, insects, they’re little more than tasty snacks to larger animals. This female bullfrog, for instance, would like nothing better than to have a dragonfly stay to dinner:

Pat McKay Female American Bullfrog

And this eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) looks like she, too, wouldn’t mind a winged treat:

Pat McKay Eastern Fence Lizard

Many birds also find insects tasty, of course, including this eastern phoebe, easily identified by the characteristic tail twitch when perched:

Pat McKay Eastern Phoebe Shakes a Tail

So much for the birds and the bees (or at least the bumblebee moths), not to mention the butterflies and dragonflies. All are common sights along rural roads — at least in the days before the mowers go through. But how many cyclists have had occasion to brake for a crayfish? Pat has. He found this pugnacious specimen crossing the road ahead of him:

Pat McKay Make My Day

By the way, after making this portrait, Pat moved his protesting subject to safety. I, too, frequently find myself stopping to carry creatures out of harm’s way, and as the days grow shorter and the fall dispersal picks up, I’ll likely be doing it more often.

But nothing lasts forever, and summer is no exception. Before too long, snow will blanket the Adirondack hills, and town roads will be transformed into ribbons of salty slush, empty of all signs of life. And unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s when I’ll find myself revisiting this page again and again, to renew my acquaintance with Pat’s small, intricate world.

Pat McKay Dandelion Fluff

 
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Jun 01 2013

Make a B-Line for Wildlife:
A Modest Proposal for Rewilding American Roads

Roadside Wildflowers

Life in the slow lane has many pleasures. You can smell the flowers, for one thing. Roadsides, vacant lots, and brownfields will soon be a riot of color. Even the medians of divided highways now play host to vibrant floral communities. And as more and more forests, fields, and wetlands are lost to development, these often-overlooked pocket wildernesses are increasingly important.

Where harried motorists see only a green blur, cyclists and walkers can focus on the details. Not that everything we see is pleasant to look at, of course. From late spring to early fall, highway maintenance crews and utility companies wage constant war on roadside “weeds,” shredding roadside trash and scything wildflowers with equal zeal. The result? The eggs and hatchlings of ground-nesting birds are destroyed. Small mammals lose their homes. And countless insects are starved of food. For days after the mowers go through, the road surface is carpeted with dead bees and maimed butterflies.

Why should we care about a few dead bugs? Well, with some 35 percent of our food crops dependent on insect pollinators, and with the health of wild bee populations already precarious, you could say our own fate is linked inextricably to that of the butterflies and bees. And some perceptive folks are already working to right the balance. A UK organization going by the name of Buglife is working to establish a network of flower-rich “B-lines” throughout England.

Buglife Screenshot

Such B-lines would help ensure the survival of bees and other insect pollinators, and these, in turn, could help English farmers grow more food, and do it more efficiently. That sounds like a win-win scenario to me. Want to know more? Then just click through to Buglife’s website.

It’s too bad we don’t have something similar on this side of the Pond, isn’t it? But we could. And it wouldn’t be hard. We could make a start by asking state highway departments and private utility companies to let the “weeds” grow undisturbed wherever and whenever they don’t create a hazard. Then we could all smell the flowers.

Bee and Wildflowers



Further Reading

This article was originally published on March 27, 2010, in slightly different form.

 

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