Peering in the pond, part 1: Don’t fall in!

Vernal pond

With the days getting longer, and the turning forward of the clocks a few weeks ago, daylight lingers well into the evenings these days. When I finished the day’s house renovation tasks today there was still ample light to go padding about outside, and I wanted to get out for a bit to enjoy the relatively mild temperatures. It was beautiful and sunny all day today, and with the combination of the two factors the snow was doing its best to melt. Of course, with the giant snowpiles we have it’s hard to notice much of a difference, but there was a steady rivulet of water running down the tire-tracks in the driveway all day, as if there was a spring welling up near the house and feeding it.

I decided to go down and see if the warm sun had awakened anything in the ice-free water of the little vernal ponds in the backyard. There’s two small ponds, connected through small channels, both of which mostly or entirely dry up in the thick heat of summer. One I remember skating on when I was quite young. It’s since grown in with seedlings from the Silver Maples in the front yard, creating a miniature maple swamp. The largest of the young trees are now a good 10 cm (roughly 4 in) in diameter-at-breast-height, and while it’s a pretty, picturesque scene, the leaf fall has mostly choked the waters so that the pond that I recall being too deep to wade in even with our rubber boots is now fairly shallow through most of its length. Very little inhabits this pond anymore, although I regularly return to look.

The other pond is in the middle of the fenced-in field the horses get turned out in, but despite the disturbance it sometimes gets as a result, the horses generally aren’t all that interested in it and life does well there. (There’s actually two much larger swamps close nearby, but they’re harder to access without a pair of hipwaders.) It was to this little pond that I headed this afternoon.


The snow still lies thick over much of the pond. Portions of it have melted to expose the water, which was free of ice in the warm sunshine and mild air, but more than half is still concealed by snow. The crusty layer over the surface of the snow allowed me to gently pick my way across without breaking through to my knees, which was generally appreciated. The snow mounds up around the vegetation, creating little hummocks from which the red dogwood branches poke up, reminding me a bit of anthills.

Black-capped Chickadee

There was a fair bit of bird activity in the area. Behind me, in the larger true swamp, the Red-winged Blackbirds were perched at the top of the small trees calling loudly their familiar “oak-a-lee!” (despite that in most field guides it’s phoneticized as “konk-a-ree”, this is how I learned it growing up). There were a couple of Common Grackles up there with them, doing their best rusty creak.

The dogwood clumps are a favourite foraging spot of both the overwintering sparrows and the local chickadees. I’m not really sure what they’re eating when they’re foraging in or under these bushes, but there’s often a lot of little birds hopping among the branches. There were a few chickadees in the area while I was standing in the middle of the pond, and I watched them for a little bit.

Black-capped Chickadee bathing

This one came down and had a bath while I was standing there. Naturally, I had my short lens on the camera, and by the time I got the long lens switched over he’d finished up and hopped up to a branch in the back of the clump of dogwood to fluff up and dry off. The water through most of the melted area is quite shallow and perfect for bathing. Well, for the birds, anyway. I think I’d find it a little muddy and cold at the moment.

American Tree Sparrow

A couple of American Tree Sparrows were hanging out in the dogwood as well. This one gave me a rather pensive stare before moving into the thicker cover of the bushes. In the areas where the snow has now melted I could imagine there being a fair bit of grass seed and other such food items exposed that had been buried through the winter.

Vernal pond

After watching the birds for a bit I turned my attention back to the water. What I was specifically looking for was fairy shrimp. While growing up, we’d come down to look for these every spring once the snow melted, but I think I’m perhaps a tad early yet. Nonetheless, it’s worth a check.

Close call

I was a little hasty and forgot that I was standing on an ice ledge. As I moved to the water’s edge to peer in, the snow under my feet cracked and I nearly fell in. Whoops! I did manage to catch my balance without falling and back away from the danger zone. And then circled around to approach from the open, muddy area.

I picked my way across the little patches of grass and stone, the few areas that aren’t submerged, till I reached the point where the water began to deepen. I squatted down on my heels, peered into the water and saw……


Cotton candy for blackbirds

Edit: This post was recently included in the 182nd edition of the Friday Ark, a blog carnival focusing on animals of all sorts.

Cattail head

I’m sure we’ve all seen these in our local wetlands, cattail heads that have become all poofed out as winter progresses, like so much cotton-candy on sticks. I’d never given it much thought before, and if I had I suppose I’ve just assumed that the fluff has something to do with the cattail releasing its seeds to the wind, much like milkweed does.

A few weeks ago, my mom bought the book Insects: Their Natural History and Diversity (with a photographic guide to insects of eastern North America) by Stephen A. Marshall. Steve Marshall is a prof at the University of Guelph, where I did my undergrad, and was one of the instructors leading the Ecuador field course that I took. I didn’t spend much time with him (I knew the other prof better), but he was a really nice guy. So I thought it was cool that Mom had got this book, and I sat down to leaf through it. I was primarily interested in the 40-someodd pages of moth plates, and while flipping through those I spotted an image of fluffy cattail heads. Intrigued, I read the plate caption associated with the figure.

Turns out, those fluffy cattail heads you see in the middle of winter aren’t just the cattail doing its thing. Sure, it will naturally begin to loosen the fluff and lose some to the wind. But the cotton-candy formations? They’re the work of a tiny, drab little moth called the Shy Cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella). Its caterpillars are appropriately known as Cattail Caterpillars. They feed on the seeds of the cattail in the fall and spring, overwintering inside the head as a larva. In late spring they pupate and emerge as an adult moth in early summer.

Cattail head

In order to ensure that they have a secure home for the entire duration of their stay, they spin tiny silken threads that act as a web holding all the fluff inside. The cattail will still loosen its seeds from the stalk to try to spread them on the wind, but the caterpillar’s netting holds them in place. The result is a rather lumpy cotton-candy appearance.

I thought this was all pretty cool, so I did a bit of searching on the web and discovered a post about the Shy Cosmet, made recently, by Gerry Wykes at Naturespeak (he calls Detroit home, so is within my rather broad neck of the woods). In it he brought in a cattail head and gently dissected it to expose the caterpillars hiding within. Now, I suppose I could have just taken him at his word, but I really wanted to go out and have a look for myself. Insatiable curiosity. In the name of science, of course. I brought in two heads for good measure, and opened them up in a tub to contain any wandering worms.

Cattail fluff

Gerry indicated that it would take a moment or two for the caterpillars to poke their heads out of the fluff, that they wouldn’t be immediately visible. So I sat there and patiently waited. And waited. Nothing happened. No heads, no tails even, not a hint of movement. I’ll admit that they should all be dormant at this time of year, but since he’d had such luck with his coming out as soon as they were warm, I was beginning to wonder if I’d picked a dud cattail head, one that really was simply just loosening up its fluff.

Cattail seeds with caterpillar frass

So I started gently teasing apart the clumps. I found lots of what looked to be frass in with all the seed heads. The seeds are tiny, flat and boxy at the end, and brownish in colour. The frass, on the other hand, was gray and round, spherical. There was lots of it, but no caterpillars associated with any of it.

Finally, after standing with my head bent over this dish for many minutes, I discovered one. Only one, just a single, lone, under-developed caterpillar. Perhaps the cattail head had already been picked over by foraging birds and this was the only guy to have survived. Perhaps there never were many to begin with, maybe I missed one or two. But I went through the entire two cattail heads and only found one. By the time I was done, they looked like this:

Cattail fluff

Cattail Caterpillar

Here’s the caterpillar. I found him tucked in a clump of relatively undisturbed fluff, nearly comatose. He wiggled a bit when I first picked him out, but didn’t go anywhere. Gerry was describing his caterpillars crawling all over the place, making getting a good photo difficult. Mine was very photogenic.

Cattail Caterpillar

This is the caterpillar posed with my mom’s finger for scale. He was tiny. Tiny tiny. This is why I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed a couple others, although I was paying close attention. Below is the caterpillar beside a measuring tape. You’re looking at the inches side of the tape. Each one of those black dashes is 1/16″. See? Tiny tiny, it’s not that my mom has big fingers…

Cattail Caterpillar

Cattail Caterpillar

I actually found the dried husk of an older caterpillar in the fluff as I was starting to clean up. This gives you an idea of what it should grow to before pupating. He’s got a ways to go.

These little caterpillars form one of the primary food sources for Red-winged Blackbirds upon their arrival here in the spring. It seems like they’d need to eat a lot of them to get much nutrition, but evidently it works for them. A couple springs ago I got a photo of a female Red-wing poking at cattail heads. I thought at the time she was looking for nesting material, but having learned this, it seems apparent that she was actually searching for caterpillars. Who knew? Cotton candy indeed.

As for the book, I highly recommend it. It’s got great photos for an identification reference, and excellent information to complement them. The notable entomologist E.O. Wilson is quoted on the cover: “I wish I’d had Stephen Marshall’s book when I started out in entomology. Its countless photographs and notes bring alive the vast diversity of the insect world.” That’s like Roger Tory Peterson endorsing a bird reference book. There’s so much cool stuff in the book, lots to look at. The only downside: it weighs a tonne. Probably almost literally. At 730 pages and nearly two inches thick, a field guide it’s not. Still, it has the best collection of printed moth photos I’ve seen, plus so much other stuff, I ended up getting a copy myself (should be in the mail). It retails in store for $95, though generally cheaper online, but I found a copy on eBay for $33 plus shipping, so if you look around you should be able to get a good deal on it. Amazon has it on sale for $60. It’s also got a couple images of inside the book so you can take a peek before you buy.

Hairy berries and velvet twigs

Staghorn Sumac

Between all the gray and white and evergreen of the winter landscape, nature provides the occasional little pop of colour. The deep red of sumac berries is one of my favourites. These particular sumac trees were photographed at the Rouge, but really the tree is so common you could find it just about anywhere. It favours scrubby, disturbed and edge habitats, so it’s usually associated with young fields, and woodlot and road edges. The main criteria are lots of sun and well-drained (not swampy or regularly flooded) soil.

Staghorn Sumac

There are several species of sumac in North America (and many more through the rest of the world), but the one that grows in abundance here in the northeast is the Staghorn Sumac. It is so named because the velvety texture of the young branches resembles the newly-grown antlers of a male deer (stag). Despite that I associate this feature with sumacs, not all species have hairy twigs.

Staghorn Sumac

For most people, probably what comes to mind when they think of sumacs is the brilliant displays they put on in the fall. The leaves change colour most commonly to a brilliant red or red-orange, but can run the gamut from yellow to purple.

Staghorn Sumac

Interestingly, individual sumacs are either male or female, but not both on a single tree as is the case with many tree species. Only the female sumacs form berries at the end of the summer, males drop their flowers and then remain bare. While flowering, male plants have greenish-yellow flowers, while those of females are pinkish and much more tightly clustered. This page by Brian Johnston provides an excellent reference to telling the two genders apart.

Staghorn Sumac

A grove of sumacs is actually many stems growing from a single root system, and are, as a result, a single plant. Once germinated, a sumac will continue to put out new shoots through “suckers”, long underground roots that pop up a new stem some distance away from the original. Any given stem may last a couple decades, but a root system as a whole can last much longer. New stems can grow up to 15 feet from the mother plant, so sumacs have the ability to spread over a large area of ground, and don’t always respect boundaries like property fences. They spread like crazy, and within ten years can completely take over what used to be an open area (the hill I used to toboggan down as a kid is now completely choked with sumac). A grove forms a nearly continuous canopy that often prevents other plants from growing in the dense shade beneath it.

Staghorn Sumac

Sumacs have been used historically in a number of ways. Native Americans would harvest leaves in their fall colours and dry them, then smoke them, often in combination with tobacco. The stems were used to make pipes. The ripe berries, picked at the end of summer, can be soaked in hot or cold water to make a tangy tea-like drink, or as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. The roots can also be made into a tea that was used to stop bleeding. The berries can be used to make dyes. The bark and leaves are full of tannins that have been used in tanning processes.

The berries are rich in fats and vitamins, and are an excellent food source for hungry animals, especially migrating birds. For some reason, however, they’re not a favourite, and berries may remain on trees until spring, when most other food sources have been depleted. Perhaps it’s due to the fuzzy skin? In any case, these spring berry caches can be an important diet item for spring migrants. For this reason sumac would make a great addition to a bird-friendly backyard, but you need to have enough space for them to spread a bit (and for you to have both male and female trees, to get berries), or you’ll be spending a lot of time cutting back saplings! If you have the inclination to try, the trees can be easily propagated from a cutting taken from the root system of a mature tree in late fall, once the tree goes dormant, or by transplanting a young seedling.