Monthly Archives: February 2016

Weekly Puzzler #100

Wow, 100 seems like an amazing number of puzzlers!  (Imagine fireworks noises now)


When I first started this category I wondered if I could even continue to come up with new puzzlers, but having gotten started, I discovered there are an endless number of potential puzzlers. The natural world is FULL of mysteries waiting to be solved! Have you been with me for ALL 100 puzzlers? Do you enjoy this category? How often is your guess correct?

In honor of the milestone I am going to start a new tradition. Four times during the year I am going to award a lucky blog subscriber one of my photo products–this will change each contest. Examples include greeting cards, calendar, tote bag, journal, dvd, magnet, print, etc. For this first contest I will give away a sampler pack of a few of my favorite greeting cards. To be eligible to win all you have to do is guess the puzzler correctly! Just use the comment box below the puzzler to write your guess. At the end of the week I will select all of the CORRECT entries and put them in a box. At the end of the quarter, I will pull one name out and send that person the prize of the season. It’s that easy!

So let’s get started.

Here’s the first puzzler eligible for the contest. Puzzler #100! The prize will be given after the spring vernal equinox–March 20th.(So you have a better chance to win since that date is not far away!)

If you’ve been following along, you might know that the answer to last week’s puzzler was A BEECH BLIGHT APHID. I talked a little about aphids in this post.

Ants and aphids seem to always be together

Ants and aphids seem to always be together

ants-So here’s the question. If you are a gardener you’ve probably seen aphids at some point in your garden, likely munching on the stem of one of your prized plants. Have you ever noticed that ants often seem to be where aphids are? Why is this? Do they harm or help the aphids?

The puzzler then is: What is the relationship of ants to aphids? Check back next week to see if your guess was correct!

Have a great weekend! Oh, and since we are at 100 puzzlers, I think this would be a fabulous time for YOU to let me know what you think of this category… is it too HARD, too EASY? Not enough of ? Or too much of ? Please tell me what you think! Is there something you’ve seen on your walks in the woods that you are curious about? Send me a note to let me know–or even a photo if you have one. I will do my best to help you solve your mystery!

Weekly Puzzler Answer #99

Did you have a guess about last week’s puzzler? One creative subscriber guessed that it might be the devil’s purse… and really, if you look closely, that IS a good suggestion…. wrong, but certainly worthy of creativity points. I appreciate that he took the time to put his guess in the comment box! (By the way, there IS such a thing as a devil’s purse–it is a casing that surrounds the fertilized eggs of some sharks, skates and chimaeras. This is also called a mermaid’s purse)Did you know you can guess too–or that starting today I will be awarding some prizes for guessing the puzzler?


These black “growths” can take on all kinds of interesting shapes and if you see them during winter, they appear black and hard-looking.

They are a kind of sooty mold fungus that grows on American beech trees, called Scorias spongiosa. The interesting thing about this is how they come to be there in the first place–but in order to understand that you must first know a little about an insect called an aphid.

A kind of aphid that feeds on Milkweed

A kind of aphid that feeds on Milkweed

Aphids are tiny insects–from 1-10mm long! that feed on the sap of plants. Often called “plant lice,” they are the bane of many gardeners, farmers and forestry workers because they can inflict incredible damage to the plants they are sucking the juices from. There are 4,400 different species of aphids!

One kind–beech blight aphids,( also called beech wooly aphids)–specialize in sucking sap from the American beech. As the aphids feed, they produce a sweet liquid which is expelled from their butts. Called honeydew, this liquid falls on the branches, trunk and ground. Spores of Scorias spongiosa borne by the wind and rain land on the honeydew and start to grow. The more honeydew there is, the more mold will grow.

In a previous life I took many pictures of these aphids–they are white and look like tiny bits of cotton stuck to the limbs…the first time I ever saw one I thought it WAS bit of cotton stuck to a branch! but that was before I switched to a digital camera and looking through thousands of slides to try and find these pictures seems like looking for a needle in a haystack so if you want to see pictures of this aphid, you can check them out HERE. Or, if you want to read more about them, click  HERE.

Here’s the next puzzler.

Quote of the Week #54

What are the things you most look forward to about spring? Have you begun to see signs of it yet where you live?

Driving down my road recently I spotted a woodchuck in a corn field–a sure sign he is done with his long winter nap! The day was cold and the field barren, but still, there he was.

Two days ago after some warm temperatures and lots of rain, we heard the wood frogs calling from the pond on our property. They sound like ducks, quacking up a storm as they float about on the surface of the water, looking for love.

Then this morning as I sat on the front porch listening to the wood frogs and the bird songs, two canada geese flew over, honking their arrival.

So at least here in western North Carolina, spring has arrived! Or IS arriving anyway. For those of us intimately acquainted with the natural world, we know there is a lot more that goes on besides flowers blooming and trees wearing new leaves. It is a wonderful time of year!! Don’t you agree?

My quote of the week then–from one of my favorite authors and naturalists, Rachel Carson:

wood frog eggs

wood frog eggs

“Those who contemplate the beauty of earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after winter.”


Weekly Puzzler #99

So since we were talking last week about beech trees, I figured I would do one more relating to them. Look at the photo below. Have you ever seen this? Know what it is or what causes it? You will sometimes find it in the forest on beech trees and it is especially noticeable in the winter when lots of leaves are missing from the trees.

Check back next week to learn the answer.



…until then, have a great weekend and week! See you again soon.

Weekly Puzzler Answer #98

beech-7343So the question of why beech trees (and others like oak) keep their leaves in winter provided an interesting subject to research, with lots of theories about this. Do you know why the beech trees keep their leaves in winter? Have you noticed this in a forest near you? Have you paid attention to the actual trees and whether ALL of the leaves stayed or just some of them? Do you have a theory about this?

By the way, Botanists, who as you may have noticed, like to give fancy names for things, call this retention of dead plant material marcescence (mahr-CESS-ent). Beech are not the only trees with this characteristic but since so many beech trees might be found in one spot, it is often the most noticeable species exhibiting this characteristic. (Marcescence is also present in many species of oaks,ironwood, musclewood and witch hazel.)

In my research, I came across many theories about marcescence in the beech trees –like that by keeping their leaves they deter deer from browsing or that shedding their leaves at the end of the winter, rather than the beginning, means the decomposing leaves will be added to the soil at a time the trees need it most. Another is that the leaves on the trees mean more snow will be held there and then, when it melts, will fall at the base of the tree, thus giving more water and nutrients to the tree.

beech-7347But interestingly, the answer that was the most definitive AND made the most sense is about sex. (Are you surprised?) That is, beech trees keep their leaves when they are sexually immature. Sexually mature in trees is defined as when they start flowering and depending on the species and growing conditions, a tree may not reach sexual maturity for a few years to a few decades. Beech trees do not reach sexual maturity until they are 40-60 years old. Imagine!

Maybe to understand this better you need to know why trees lose their leaves in the first place. As cold weather approaches, deciduous trees move all the nutrients from the leaves into their stems and form an abscission layer where the leaf meets the stem, basically “ungluing” the leaf. By doing this they reduce water loss and prepare for winter.

In some years an early frost might interrupt this process and “kill” the leaves quickly, resulting in a higher incidence of marcescence. These trees did not have time to “unglue” their leaves.

beech-2If you look around the forest and notice beech trees with their leaves still on–despite that we are well into March and some animals, like the woodchucks and birds have declared winter is nearing its end, you will see most of them are young trees. These are not sexually mature.

Of course you may also notice that even on some big trees, some branches still have their leaves. How can that be, you might ask, surely those giant trees are sexually mature by now? Well the answer interestingly is that some trees, for whatever reason, keep some branches–especially those at the crown and close to their trunks–in an immature condition. If you watch, these juvenile branches will not bear flowers come spring.

So now you know! And if anyone ever asks, or wonders aloud in your presence, you can say “It’s because of SEX–what else!”

Have a great Saturday! Check out the next puzzler HERE.

10 Things You May Not Know About Spotted Salamanders

What changes do you associate with spring? Probably warmer temperatures, rainy days and the coming of flowers and buds on trees, right? While all of these ARE undeniably signs of spring, there is so much more to it once you look more closely.

Did you know many amphibians come out of hiding in the early spring to visit ponds, wetlands and/or vernal pools where they will breed and lay their eggs. Did you ever wonder how they know when it’s time?

After the red-winged blackbird returns from their southern migration

After the red-winged blackbird returns from their southern migration

For the Spotted Salamander, folklore says that the cue is the first all-day rain on a warm day after the return of the red-winged blackbird. After dark, these salamanders will emerge from their hiding places in the forest and migrate towards the same vernal wetlands where they were born.

Here are some more facts about these fascinating creatures:

1.Spotted salamanders ( Ambystoma maculatum) are found throughout the eastern United States north of Florida. Their range extends west to Texas and then north to the eastern parts of Canada

Adult spotted salamander

Adult spotted salamander

2.Spotted salamanders require two different habitats–a vernal pool/wetland as well as hardwood and mixed hardwood forest. Vernal pools are pools that usually fill with water in the late winter, early spring, but dry up before summer. Vernal pools lack fish but often contain an animal called fairy shrimp. (In many places in their range, spotted and other salamanders are in jeopardy because of their dependance on these vernal pools. Human impact is high– be it disruption or destroying of essential habitat when people modify natural drainage or runoff patterns, paving or building over the pools, the construction of roads with curbs salamanders cannot navigate or, roads that divide habitat and require the salamanders to cross them.Click HERE to read about how one town is addressing salamanders needing to cross roads.)

3.Except for maybe two weeks of the year when they adults are at vernal pools, these salamanders spend their entire  lives hidden on land–hence their nickname of “mole salamanders.” (They are not the only type of mole salamanders) As adults, spotted salamanders have lungs and strong legs and will spend their days beneath logs, rocks, soil or leaf litter. Most people never see them!

Most people never get to see a spotted salamander

Most people never get to see a spotted salamander

4. Adults are, on average 6 -7 inches long but can be as long as 9 inches. They have black bodies with two, irregular rows of yellow dots running their body length. Their underside is dark gray or blue-black.

puzzl-00085. Adult salamanders live within half of a mile of their breeding pools. Males return to pools a day or two before females. They find their way, perhaps several hundred yards, by following chemical cues. At their pools they will gather with many other spotted salamanders.

Male spermatophores on the bottom of the wetland

Male spermatophores on the bottom of the wetland

6. Males cling to females and release what is called a “spermatophore” which is a milky, white packet containing sperm. They will attach this to a submerged stick or vegetation. Females then bring the spermatophores into their bodies through their cloaca where the eggs will be fertilized. They may pick up spermatophores from multiple males. Then they produce clusters of eggs, which they might attach to submerged vegetation.

7. Egg masses may contain up to 30-250 eggs. Each egg is surrounded by a gelatinous mass and then there is another layer around the whole mass, called a matrix. Frog eggs lack this outer gelatinous mass. (Click HERE to see photos comparing eggs, or HERE to read about wood frogs, another amphibian that uses vernal pools)

Eggs can survive a freeze.

Eggs can survive a freeze.

8. Depending on the temperature of the water, eggs will hatch into gilled-larvae in 2-8 weeks. If the pond dries up before this, they will likely die. If it freezes, they will survive.

9. Adult salamanders have a sticky tongue and eat various invertebrates including worms, spiders, centipedes, slugs, millipedes, crickets, etc. Aquatic larvae eat zoo plankton. The survival rate for the larvae is very low and they don’t reach sexual maturity until 2-5 years. If they survive the larval stage and reach maturity, they can live for more than 20 years!

beech-07610. Egg masses sometimes contain a symbiotic blue-green alga that consumes the carbon dioxide the embryos produce, transforming it into oxygen that they can use. Read a fascinating article from Discovery Magazine HERE or HERE from Nature News.)

Check out these posts showing how some towns are addressing the problem of spotted salamanders getting to their vernal pools:


From the Hitchcock Center for the Environment

Weekly Puzzler #98

Have you been out in the woods lately? If you’re dressed properly, winter is a great time for hiking–sometimes you can have the trails all to yourself! Maybe you’ve noticed the beech trees, with their leaves still clinging to the branches, even though it IS the middle of winter! Why do the beech trees (and oak trees) sometimes have leaves well into winter? Why don’t they lose their leaves like all of the other deciduous trees? That’s this week’s puzzler! CLICK HERE  to learn if your guess was correct.


Why do the beech trees still have leaves on them?