One of the little bushes just outside the window of my office rustled, so much so that they caught my eye. A black furry tail poked out of the bush; one of the fat black squirrels 1 that lives on the church grounds was in the bush. I was surprised that it bore its weight.
Five minutes went by. The bushes started rustling again. This time, it was a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). I realized that a couple of Oregon Juncos (Junco hyenalis oreganus) were chirping at the squirrel; maybe the juncos were nesting in the bush and the squirrel was going after their eggs! I ran outside and scared the squirrel away. I looked quickly in the bush for a nest, didn’t see one, then retreated into my office because if there is a nest I don’t want to drive the birds away from it.
The juncos are still noisily chirping away. The squirrels have returned to stealing food from the trash cans. I still don’t know if there’s a nest out there or not.
A gray squirrel came back (perhaps the same one again), and nosed around beneath the bushes outside my window. A junco harassed it constantly, chirping, flying at the squirrel’s head, causing the squirrel to duck and twitch. At last the squirrel gave up, and scampered off with the junco chasing it.
1 Melanistic form of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), an invasive species which has been introduced into the San Francisco Bay region.
Yup, you can now get a pen made out of the invasive strain of Phragmites or Common Reed, a plant which is choking out wetlands in North America. The Phragwrites pen has a body made from Phragmites reed legally harvested in New Hampshire (legally harvested means a permit was obtained, and seeds or roots were not dispersed to infest new areas). But… we’ll have to buy lots of pens to make a real dent on the Phragmites population. Via.
Alianthus altissima, known as the “tree of heaven” or Chinese sumac, grows everywhere in our neighborhood. Alianthus is an invasive species that grows incredibly quickly, and can reach twenty or more feet in height in two years. It will thrive in places where no other tree will grow: it will spring up in the narrow bands of rank weeds that grow between dreary parking lots; it will sprout along chain-link fences; it thrives along the trash-strewn edges of busy highways. I remember reading one field guide to trees which described alianthus as a “coarse, malodorous tree,” but that’s not an entirely fair description. It is fair to say that alianthus tends to grow in coarse, malodorous places — sometimes a stray alianthus will be the one oasis of greenery in some blasted post-industrial wasteland.
On my walk today, I passed the alianthus altissima that has been growing up near the pedestrian overpass that crosses Route 18 in downtown New Bedford, growing right next to and choking out a fir tree. Yesterday, the alianthus was still covered with green leaves; but today, suddenly it has no leaves left. The leaves never turned red or orange or yellow or even brown, they just fell off. A mature alianthus altissima can become a beautiful tree, with masses of creamy white flowers in the spring, and in the winter with its many branches reaching up towards the sky. But it adds nothing whatsoever to the autumn landscape.
Today is Carl Linnaeus’s 300th birthday. Linnaeus invented binomial nomenclature, those two-part Latin names biologists have for living organisms.
I celebrated Linnaeus’s birthday by going out for a walk.
Just down the street from our apartment, I noticed that several Alianthus altissima — an invasive exotic that can be difficult to eradicate — are springing up near the pedestrian bridge over Route 18, and I wondered if the city would remove them before they overwhelmed all the nearby plants. Then I realized that the nearby plants were Euonymus alatus, an equally pernicious invasive exotic.
On the Fairhaven side of the bridge, the tide was low. Standing on the mud flats I saw quite a few Larus delawarensis and Larus argentatus, and a Larus marinus standing there preening. Two Branta canadensis swam in amongst the gulls.
Happy birthday, Carl Linneaus. For even though using binomial nomenclature in ordinary conversation is a pain in the neck, we still admire your genius as a taxonomist.
In the late afternoon, I drove down to the hurricane barrier for a walk. A damp chilling breeze blew down the Achushnet River, and I walked along the outer side of the barrier to stay out of the wind. Out of the wind, the day was pleasant even if it was gray. The Martha’s Vineyard ferry went out through the barrier, scattering ducks and gulls as it picked up speed once in the outer harbor.
On the walk back, I walked down on the windward side of the hurricane barrier. The tide was quite low, low enough that you could walk out to little Palmer Island. As I got onto the island, over a hundred Brant took off together and flew low over the water up the harbor. Ducks were scattered everywhere over the water; a couple of Long-tailed Ducks bobbed in the water up near the Palmer Island lighthouse. The interior of the north end of the island was covered with trash; there was not a square foot that wasn’t covered with trash: a computer monitor without any glass, a square plastic bin, a chunk of foam padding, a worn two-by-four with rusty nails, styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, trash that can’t be identified. In the junipers near the lighthouse, half a dozen Yellow-rumped Warblers flew about cheerfully eating juniper berries. Invasive bittersweet and phragmites, dominated the vegetation of the upper end of the island, along with poison sumac; brambles and thorns grew here and there; a small remnant of salt hay grass clung to the east side of the island.
I scrambled off the island before the tide could cover over the mud and sand that connects it to the hurricane barrier; passed a dead horseshoe crab, stepped on a squishy bit of yellow foam, curnched over broken shells and bits of broken glass. I was cold, and hurrying back to the car, but something made me pause and look at one waterbird through the binoculars: a Barrow’s Goldeneye, close enough to see every detail; an uncommon duck that I just didn’t expect to see in the heart of the city.
Back on December 16, the “Invasive Species Weblog” reported on the ban of 140 non-native plant species from the state. I was walking around the Slocum’s River Reserve in Dartmouth yesterday, looking at the bittersweet and phragmites that are choking out native species while contributing little to the overall ecosystem. (And in addition the invasive plants, there were the sixty or so Mute Swans on Slocum’s River yesterday — talk about agressive non-native species competing with and overwhelming native species!) So I’m glad that once again Massachusetts is at the forefront of ecological action.
I walked across to Pope’s Island today, and over to Fairhaven. A skim of ice covers the quiet backwaters of the harbor on the Fairhaven side. And on the water by the Holiday Inn Express parking lot, two big white graceful birds: a pair of Mute Swans swimming side by side. I also saw dozens of ducks and geese; the inland waters must be freezing over, driving the waterfowl to the estuaries and bays, where the salt content keeps the water mostly open.
The swans had the usual arrogant way of swimming that Mute Swans seem to have. They know they’re pretty so humans won’t touch them; they know they’re bigger than any other animal on the water. All the ducks and geese were fairly shy, and swam warily away as soon as I got too close; but the swans didn’t care where I stood. If they were human, I would have said they’re show-offs.
Waterfowl list for birders: 40 Canada Geese; 2 Mute Swans; ~12 Mallards; 56 Scaup (prob. Greater); 38 Bufflehead; 1 Common Merganser.