Harvard Yard Tree Trip

By Michael Genecin

It has been a while since this trip happened, but hey, better late than never! It turned out to be a really fun trip and we might be doing a few more when the weather warms up this spring, so keep an eye out if you are interested.

In mid-November, I led a ‘tree trip’ around the yard. The idea was to find trees around campus that we could climb, learn about them, and maybe try to find some cool things up in the trees. Though the trees had already lost most of their leaves, the weather was just cool enough for a sweater, and it turned out to be perfect day for some climbing.

We started off at the barker center, climbing an oak species (we never settled on exactly which, because all of the leaves had fallen and been raked away). It had large boughs, so we thought it would be an easy climb because it would be easier to balance, but it turned out the bigger boughs are actually harder climb because they are harder to grasp and there is usually more space between them. Only a couple of us made it up past the first bough. From up in the tree, we talked about oaks, some of the different species and where they could be found, and tried to guess which species this one was.



Things were getting romantic up in the tree



View from the top of the oak!

Then we moved into the yard and climbed the yews next to memorial church. We couldn’t get very high up because they weren’t tall trees, but they were fun because they had so many tightly packed branches going in different directions you could climb all around in them with ease. In terms of the lessons learned in this part of the trip, people did not find yews so interesting, so we mostly talked about the dawn redwoods across the path. These redwoods were once thought to have been extinct since the Mesozoic Era until a small population was found in a remote valley in China in 1944. Naturalists at Harvard’s very own Arnold Arboretum brought seeds back to the U.S. to begin growth trials, and the tree has now been reintroduced in several parts of China and is a popular ornamental. We decided not to climb these historic, once-endangered trees.

We then moved on to some of the trees in front of Canaday; the big central one being a crab apple and the others we could not identify without their leaves, though we suspected them of being some type of chestnut. We climbed these and talked about the birds we saw around Canaday for just a few minutes before we were kicked out by a freshman proctor who didn’t want us to hurt ourselves on her turf.

Finally, we wrapped up the trip by watching the sun set from the observatory on top of the science center. We even decided we would try to make watching the sunset a new weekly tradition of the club!


Sunset on the roof!


Nature on Campus, 11/15-12/15

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

IMG_3226We have one last Nature on Campus update for the end of the semester, covering the second half of November and the first half of December. Some highlights from late Fall at Harvard:

There were a number of reports of Northern Raccoons, including one seen by Richard He outside Kirkland on December 8th.

The Harvard Wild Turkey(s) seem(s) to have made it safely through Thanksgiving, with a sighting near Adams house also on the 8th of December, among other scattered sightings in the southern part of the Yard and between Mass Ave and Mt. Auburn. Christian Perez also took a video of it flying out of Lev courtyard on the 9th.

Amir Bitran saw a Great Blue Heron on the Charles on November 16th, and Corey Husic reports a Black-crowned Night-Heron flying over the Quad on November 20th.

Some common but colorful bird sightings: there was a bright red male Northern Cardinal on Winthrop Street on December 11th, a Blue Jay outside the science center on November 16th (and occasionally around Kirkland as well), and a Downy Woodpecker outside Northwest Labs on December 9th.

Harold Eyster had a rare Red Crossbill at the Arnold Arboretum on December 9th, which isn’t actually on campus but is Harvard property so it’s worth a mention.

The Eastern Gray Squirrel is the common squirrel species on campus and is, as the name suggests, usually gray. But some “gray squirrels” have black fur, and Corey Husic found one of these unusual melanistic squirrels in the Quad on December 9th.

Finally, on the fungi side of things, I found a mushroom on a tree next to the MAC, and with Tristan Wang’s help have tentatively identified it as member of the genus Pholiota. It’s been there for a couple weeks now, on the corner of Dunster St. and Winthrop St. 

Happy Holidays, and hope you all have lots of cool wildlife sightings over break!


Pholiota(?) sp.

Naturalists Past and Present at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

By Eamon Corbett


Looking at invasive hemlock woolly adelgids with Prof. Pfister

Finals period is a stressful time, but also a good opportunity for some mid-week nature trips! Three of us took a break from studying this afternoon to head to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with Professor Donald Pfister, a renowned fungi and botany expert and former interim dean of Harvard College.


Memorial to the “US Exploration Expedition” to the South Pacific

Not only was Prof. Pfister able to point out all of the plants and fungi around, he gave a fascinating historical tour of the cemetery, which contains the graves of some of the most important figures in Boston, Harvard, and scientific history, including Asa Gray, Louis Agassiz, and John Thornton Kirkland, among others.


Asa Gray’s final resting place

Gray and Agassiz are of particular interest to evolutionary biology students, because they were at the center of the first great debates on evolution in the United States: Gray, the pioneering botanist, was a friend of Darwin’s and an early champion of his ideas, while Agassiz, a geologist, was the first to recognize the influence of glaciers in shaping landscapes, founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology but was a staunch opponent of evolution. They never agreed in life, but in death they lie only a few hundred yards apart in Mt. Auburn.


Agassiz’s grave is appropriately marked by a rock

On the more biological side, we also got a firsthand look at the damage done by invasive species in the cemetery, including hemlocks infected by woolly adelgids and a winter moth on a gravestone.


Winter Moth


All of the trees at Mt. Auburn are labelled, making it a perfect place to study tree ID, such as with this Douglas fir

The common resident winter birds were out in force, including Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and, most unusually, a single Red-breasted Nuthatch.


Blue Jay


Couldn’t manage to get these turkey tail fungi in focus… That single piece of wood had at least 5-6 visible fungi and lichen species

There were also plenty of fungi, including polypores like the turkey tail fungus, as well as a cluster of mushrooms whose name I forget (maybe Coprinus?)



We ended our walk at the tower, where we had a fantastic view of the entire region, from downtown Boston to Harvard to Middlesex Fells and beyond. It was a great way to spend an unseasonably warm December afternoon, and certainly beats writing papers!


View from the top

P1140312 (1)

I love Mt. Auburn, but that seems like a bit of an overstatement…


Nature on Campus, November 1st-15th

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

As we approach winter, nature sightings have slowed down a bit: insects are scarce, and migratory birds have for the most part continued south. But there’s still a surprising amount to see on campus! Some recent highlights:

Raccoon photo credit and copywright Christian Perez

Raccoon photo credit and copyright Christian Perez

Christian Perez spotted a Northern Raccoon on November 11th on a fence outside of Lowell House. It was having some difficulty navigating the pointy bars on top, but Christian reports that after about 30 minutes it was able to find its way down.

For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to spot a raccoon, there are still 4 species of mammals that can be easily seen on campus (and sometimes even in dorm rooms): we continue to find plenty of Eastern Gray Squirrels, Eastern Cottontails, House Mice, and Brown Rats.

Redtail photo credit and copyright Thomas Lingner

Redtail photo credit and copyright Thomas Lingner

Thomas Lingner watched one of the regular campus Red-tailed Hawks catching lunch—a mouse—outside Memorial Hall on November 4th.

The Harvard Wild Turkey is still very much a fixture along Mass Ave and in the Southern part of the yard: she was near Grays on the 2nd, outside Gato Rojo on the same day, behind Boylston on the 11th, and many probably many more places as well.

A Double-crested Cormorant flew high over the MAC quad on November 13th. Also keep an eye out for cormorants diving for fish in the Charles, often with only their head and long neck visible above water.

A White-breasted Nuthatch was in the yard, in front of Matthews, on the 9th. Nuthatches are the only songbirds that regularly can climb headfirst down tree trunks, using only their feet for grip. Woodpeckers use their tails to prop themselves up, and as a result can only climb up. Listening for their nasal calls is usually the best way to locate this species.

Cup fungi photo credit and copyright Tristan Wang

Cup fungi photo credit and copyright Tristan Wang

Shifting kingdoms, Tristan Wang reports a Peziza varia cup fungus, a type of ascomycete, next to the Museum of Comparative Zoology on the 12th.

Send any nature sightings to harvardnaturalists@gmail.com, and stay tuned for the next update!

Nature on Campus– October 15th-31st

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

This update covers the second half of October. Hope you’re all enjoying the beautiful autumn foliage! We have a lot of avian, botanical, and mycological sightings from the past two weeks. Some highlights:


The Turkey at Lehman Hall

The female Wild Turkey(s) that frequents the area around Mass Ave has become a campus celebrity, and you can follow her exploits on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/harvardturkey/?fref=ts. Just a sampling of recent sightings: in front of Lehman Hall on the 19th and 29th, Mass Ave. on the 28th, and in front of the Holyoke Center, also on the 28th.

Lev Ruby-crowned Kinget

Lev Ruby-crowned Kinget

A Naturalist Club trip around campus on the 18th turned up a wide variety of trees—dawn redwoods, black walnuts, apples, tuliptrees, and many more– as well as both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets in Leverett Courtyard. Check out the full trip report at our blog: https://harvardnaturalists.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/kinglets-redwoods-and-no-owls-in-harvard-yard/.

For those in river houses, a Great Blue Heron was visible from JFK Ave on the Boston side of the Charles at night on the 25th and a migrant Yellow-rumped Warbler was near the river during Head of the Charles on the 18th. Mute Swans have also been seen with the usual Canada Geese and Mallards.

Other migrants in the area include numerous Blackpoll Warblers in the MAC quad and the yard, and a Palm Warbler was behind Robinson Hall on the 26th. Jeff Ott reports a Black-and-white Warbler on the 28th near the Divinity School.

Sever Redtail

Sever Redtail

A number of the more common resident birds have been out in force in recent days. Red-tailed Hawks were on Sever on the 18th, Memorial Hall on the 29th, and over the Old Yard on the 28th. Blue Jays were near Robinson on the 18th, and near the Holyoke Center on the 31st. Downy Woodpeckers were on Oxford Street on the 27th and in the dawn redwoods next to Sever on the 29th, the latter of which was also joined by Black-capped Chickadees. A female Northern Cardinal was in front of the Barker Center on the 18th, and a White-breasted Nuthatch has frequented the trees in from of Kirkland the past couple weeks.

Insect sightings have trailed off, but Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies continue in the MAC quad, as late as the 31st.

G. frondosa fungus

G. frondosa fungus

Professor Pfister reports a Laetiporus sulphureus fungus, commonly known as sulphur shelf or chicken-of-the-woods, growing on a swamp white oak between Sever and Emerson. This is an edible wood-rot polypore fungus. Tristan Wang reports a similarly-named but quite different Grifola frondosa fungus, commonly called hen-of-the-woods, growing under an oak in front of the MCZ.

As always, send any nature sightings to me or havardnaturalists@gmail.com, and stay tuned for our next November update!

Kinglets, Redwoods, and (No) Owls in Harvard Yard

By Eamon Corbett

Gray Squirrel eating a walnut in a Dawn Redwood

Gray Squirrel munching on a walnut in a Dawn Redwood

A spate of recent owl sightings on campus inspired us to have a walk around the yard this past Saturday (10/17) looking for roosting owls and whatever else happened to be around. We were unable to spot any owls (which wasn’t terribly surprisingly– they are very tricky to find), but there was still plenty to see!

Any owls up there?

Any owls up there?

Ten of us met at John Harvard and first searched the yard near PBHA, where Corey had spotted an owl at night a couple weeks ago. No luck, but we did get a nice snack from the apple tree growing there. While looking for owls in the trees, we also tried to identify the trees themselves, and found plenty of species: catalpa, swamp white oak, larch, locust, redbud, sweetgum, elm, horsechestnut, and many more. We also had a Red-tailed Hawk fly over Mass Ave.

An apple!

An apple!

On the way past Memorial Church we spotted a tiny bird fluttering around Tercentary Theater: a migratory Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a cute bird that never sits still for more than a split second.

Kinglets do not sit still, making taking photos difficult


In front of Robinson Hall we checked out the small grove of dawn redwoods, a fascinating “living fossil” that was thought to have been extinct for millions of years before it was rediscovered in China in the 1940s and brought to the US by Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum. Despite being a conifer it is not an evergreen, but the leaves had not yet fallen, making a home for squirrels, jays, and a large wasp nest.


Another shot of our walnut-loving friend


Huge wasps’ nest in a redwood outside Robinson Hall

The same area also has some black walnut trees, and we tried to salvage a bite or two of walnut, with limited success, especially compared to the gray squirrels that we saw munching on the tough seeds without any trouble.

Human attempts to crack a walnut

Human attempts to crack a walnut

Successful walnut consumption by a squirrel-- their sharp incisors let the chew their way into the nuts

Much more successful walnut consumption by a squirrel– their sharp incisors let the chew their way into the nuts

There was a red-tailed hawk on top of Sever, but the large white pines behind the building were unfortunately devoid of owls.

This Red-tailed Hawk would not turn around for a photo

This Red-tailed Hawk would not turn around for a photo

We tried two more spots where there had been sightings, but with similar lack of success. There was plenty to look at though: an impressive tuliptree outside the Barker Center (a major feature of our logo), the vivid scarlet and crimson leaves of winged euonymous and sugar maples, fragrant spicebush stems, colorful cardinals and blue jays, and in Lev courtyard a small flock that contained both kinglet species: Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned!


Sugar Maple


A perfect climbing tree next to the faculty club


Female Cardinals don’t have the bright red plumage of the males, but their bills are still colorful


Corey and Harold practice their plant identification

In the end we didn’t see any owls, but looking for them was a great excuse to get outside on a beautiful autumn afternoon and see what nature Harvard Yard had to offer!

Nature on Campus– October 1st-15th

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

Our second issue of the Nature on Campus newsletter covers the first two weeks of October (with some belated reports from the end of September). It’s now definitely fall, and the trees are changing color, but there’s still plenty of wildlife around! Some highlights:

Barred Owl outside Barker Center-- Photo Credit English Department Instagram

Barred Owl outside Barker Center– Photo Credit English Department Instagram

A Barred Owl was seen in the daytime on September 23rd roosting near the Barker Center, according to a photo posted on the English Department Instagram. This is in addition to a probable Great Horned Owl outside Leverett on September 30th, and another large owl (potentially also a Great Horned) near PBHA in the yard on October 7th. There seem to be plenty of owls around—keep an eye out for them! Corey Husic will be leading a Naturalist Club trip to look for owls in the yard this Saturday (10/17) at 2:30pm, email me or him (coreyhusic@college.harvard.edu) for details!

Kirkland Raccoons

Kirkland Raccoons

Outside Kirkland at night on October 6th I was startled to see two large Raccoons practically blocking the main entrance to the courtyard. They ambled away, seemingly unconcerned, toward the annex. One seemed somewhat bigger than the other, so given the time of year I am guessing they were probably a mother and a nearly fully-grown cub.

Rounding out the campus mammal list are the familiar Eastern cottontail, brown rat, house mouse, and Eastern gray squirrels.

Speaking of campus mainstays, Red-tailed Hawks can still be since pretty much daily on the South side of the Holyoke Center, and occasionally perched majestically on the spire of Memorial Church. A Wild Turkey was next to Lehman Hall and another (or the same one) was in the community garden, both on the 13th.

After a few days of heavy rains, Tristan Wang reports a fungi bonanza in Harvard Yard on the 2nd, including Bird’s Nest Fungi (Crucibulum sp.) near the herbarium and on Dunster St., Inky Cap Fungi (Coprinus micaceus) in the yard, as well as species of puffball and bracket fungi.


Inky Cap Fungi– Photo credit Tristan Wang


Bird’s Nest Fungi– Photo credit Tristan Wang

Fall bird migration continues: a small falcon (probably a merlin or kestrel) zipped by over the Science Center Plaza on the 13th, there are reports from Corey Husic and Harold Eyster of a Tennessee Warbler, Blackpoll Warblers, and Swainson’s Thrushes from the MAC quad and the Winthrop Courtyard on October 11th, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler was in Kirkland courtyard on the 14th. Migratory White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos on the night of the 14th are also (sadly) an early sign of the coming winter.

A Mockingbird was loudly singing away on the corner of Dunster and Winthrop Streets (Near Noch’s) on the morning of the 5th. Their distinctive song is a series of phrase, each repeated about 5 times, which are often imitations of other birds (or even human sounds like car alarms!).

Jeff Ott reports a Black-crowned Night-Heron flying over Weeks footbridge at dusk on October 8th.

On the invertebrate side of things, couple of species of dragonflies are still out in force: Autumn Meadowhawks and Green Darners were in the MAC quad on the 11th, seen by Corey Husic.

Hope everyone is having a good fall! Email me any campus nature sightings you have (harvardnaturalists@college.harvard.edu), and I’ll add them to the next issue, at the end of the month.