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:

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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

Kinglet!

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.

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Another shot of our walnut-loving friend

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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!

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Sugar Maple

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A perfect climbing tree next to the faculty club

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

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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.

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Inky Cap Fungi– Photo credit Tristan Wang

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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.

Mountaineering

By Jeff Ott

The warm wind of the Indian Summer wound its way in and out of the open windows as my sister (Grace), teammate (Nolan), and I pulled out of the stagnant artery of Alewife Parkway and onto the free-flowing lanes of Route 2 West. We were on our way to Jaffery, NH for a full day of hiking to cap off the third naturalist club trip of the weekend (see Eamon’s outstanding recap of our birding trip here).

Our destination for the day: Mount Monadnock.

According to Wikipedia, Mount Monadnock is one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world.

Prepping for a Full Day of Hiking

Stoked for a Full Day of Hiking

A fairly easy climb with spectacular views, and only an hour and a half from Boston makes Monadnock a very attractive destinations for a wide variety of outdoorsy folk. The balmy holiday weather only added to a day of hiking’s appeal; however, we were able to find a spot to park at the third lot that we tried.

We had to park at the lake campground (another Naturalist Club idea?), which meant we would get an added lake hiking bonus.

Lakeside

Lakeside

Wasting no time, we got started on our accent to the top. Along the way, we passed many picturesque picnic spots where we enjoyed some almond butter and recently picked apples.

Perfect Lunch Spot

Perfect Lunch Spot

One of the benefits of hiking Monadnock is the diversity of landscape that you get to see. During our five hour hike, we hiked along a beautiful lake, and through a mixed forest before finally breaking the tree line to scramble over boulders for the final third of the hike.

Scrambling

Scrambling

Our beautiful hike was highlighted with a 360 degree bird’s eye view of some of New England’s finest foliage.

New England's Finest

New England’s Finest

For those into hiking, Mount Monadnock is one of the best day hikes in the area (the other, slightly longer-9 hours or so, being Franconia Ridge). Especially with the changing leaves, there are fewer better places to enjoy some quality leaf peeping.

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Jeff, Grace, and Nolan

Until next time.

Your’s in Neature,

Jeff

10/10/15– A Great Morning at Great Meadows

By Eamon Corbett

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This past Saturday was a gorgeous fall day, and we were fortunate enough to be able to spend it at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a freshwater marsh in Concord, with Harvard ornithology professor Scott Edwards. Pulling myself out of bed at 6 a.m. on a Saturday was a bit of a challenge, but at 7:30 four of us (Ina, Lily, Jeff and me) met up with Professor Edwards at Alewife T stop and headed out towards Concord, fortified by the delicious pumpkin muffins that he had brought.

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Ready for some birding!

En route to the refuge Prof. Edwards spotted a bluebird by the side of the road, and we pulled over to get fleeting but good looks at bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and chipping sparrows in a weedy field for our first sightings of the day.

The view from the tower

The view from the tower

Not long after we arrived at Great Meadows, and quickly headed up the observation tower to survey the marsh– most impressive were the great blue herons and great egrets, joined by fly-by wood ducks, black ducks, and mallards. The trees by the tower held a greenish fall blackpoll warbler, jays, blackbirds, grackles, chickadees, and a nuthatch, while two sparrows on the ground turned out to be different species: a song sparrow and the less common swamp sparrow, giving us a great comparison between the two.

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Into the woods

We continued on to the trail into the wetland, stopping along the way for an adorable treetop red squirrel.

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel

The marsh itself was covered in the aquatic American lotus, which is native to the Eastern US, but the populations here are considered to have been introduced. Its odd hole-filled seed pods and big waterproof leaves were the dominant vegetation in the wetland. One enterprising downy woodpecker that had figured out that the lotus pods contained food, and was hammering away at the floating vegetation. I couldn’t find any other records of woodpeckers doing this, and it was fun to watch!

Downy woodpecker exploiting a novel food source

Downy woodpecker exploiting a novel food source

Lotus leaves seem to repel water

Lotus leaves seem to repel water

In addition to getting better looks at great blue herons, a great egret, and wood ducks, we spotted a distant belted kingfisher and 2 diving pied-billed grebes, and got good looks at them in the scope.

Great Blue

Great Blue

Great Egret

Great Egret

Scoping from the observation platform

Scoping from the observation platform

While on the path we were treated to a close fly-over of 3 accipiter hawks in quick succession– 2 Cooper’s Hawks, and a third that may have been a Sharp-shinned. By the end of the day we had seen at least 7 Cooper’s, and 1-2 Sharpies, all an unexpected bonus in addition to the wetland species.

Accipiters-- The close bird is a Cooper's Hawk. The far bird looked like Cooper's in the field, but looks a bit more like Sharp-shinned in the photo, so I'd leave it as Accipiter sp.

Accipiters– The close bird is a Cooper’s Hawk. The far bird looked like Cooper’s in the field, but looks a bit more like Sharp-shinned in the photo, so I’d leave it as Accipiter sp.

The cattails and scrub were filled with sparrows, mostly swamp and song, but we did pick up 2 Savannah Sparrows, and, most unusually, a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow. We also had a few interesting insect sightings: a meadowhawk dragonfly that landed on Jeff, and milkweed pods covered in milkweed bug nymphs.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

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Large Milkweed Bug young

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Meadowhawk on Jeff

By the time we reached the other side of the wetland, however, our focus had shifted from birds to reptiles and amphibians. It began with an Eastern painted turtle floating serenely in a patch of open water, but soon amphibians stole the show. The path we were on skirted the marsh, with reeds and water on one side and woodland on the other, apparently making it a perfect spot for Northern leopard frogs. The first that we spotted was the first I had ever seen, but it was quickly followed by leopard frogs two through about twenty-five, including some that hopped right into our legs as they dove for cover. We tried to catch one, but despite all of efforts came up empty-handed.

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle

Leopard Frog!

Leopard Frog!

We had much more success capturing our next sighting, a garter snake that Jeff deftly grabbed as it sunbathed by the side of the path. It turned out to be a surprisingly friendly and calm snake, and we all got a chance to hold it before letting it return to its sunny patch of vines.

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The capture

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Lily with snake

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Me with snake

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Jeff and Ina with snake

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Snake portrait

We looped around and began retracing our steps, finding more leopard frogs and a single larger frog that could have been either a bullfrog or green frog. Our serpentine friend had been joined by another, much smaller garter snake when we found it exactly where we had left it, and we snapped a few more photos but otherwise let it be this time.

Another leopard frog

Another leopard frog

Early in the morning it had been chilly, but by then it had warmed up considerably, and the day couldn’t have been better. We spotted another blackpoll warbler, and had great looks at a pair of marsh wrens flitting and clambering through the cattails, before we rounded a bend and left the marsh for the forest.

Watching for a blackpoll warbler

Watching for a blackpoll warbler

We flipped over logs, finding slugs but not the hoped-for salamanders. We had better luck on the botanical side: trees in autumnal colors were joined by a variety of ferns and some clubmosses, with their powdery spores that can be released in a white cloud at a touch or in the wind.

Forest birding

Forest birding

Finally we returned to the parking lot, where we tallied species (~38 birds), chowed down on the remaining pumpkin muffins, and headed back to Cambridge. It was a great morning, thank you to Professor Edwards for leading the walk! Hopefully we’ll be back sometime soon!P1130770

9/19– Enjoying the Last Days of Summer in Cambridge

By Eamon Corbett

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A Clouded Sulphur butterfly drinks nectar from an aster at Alewife Reservation

On Sunday the 19th, a gorgeous late summer afternoon, four Naturalist Club members (Jeff, Scout, Sarah, and me, Eamon) took a “grand tour” of nature sites in Cambridge, from Alewife Reservation through Fresh Pond to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in search of migrating birds. Our first stop was Alewife, a preserve right at the end of the red line.

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Getting a close-up look at cardinalflowers at Alewife

The main draws here were insects and wildflowers: the meadows were filled with purple asters and yellow goldenrods, while the swampy wetlands had more aquatic wildflower species: purple pickerelweed, white broad-leaved arrowhead, and most strikingly, the big pink-and-white flowers of crimson-eyed rose-mallow. On the wet margins of the wetland were trumpet-shaped jewelweed flowers, with their seedpods that explode at the slightest touch, and my personal favorite, the searingly bright red cardinalflower.

The thing about Cardinalflower is that it's really, really red

The thing about Cardinalflower is that it’s really, really red

Buzzing and fluttering around this bounty of wildflowers were bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, cabbage white and clouded sulphur butterflies, and a variety of dragonflies. Small red Meadowhawks were most common, joined by a common whitetail and a few Green Darners. On some of the goldenrod we found a locust borer, a large and colorful black-and-yellow beetle that loves to feed on that flower.

Meadowhawk on Pokeweed

Meadowhawk on Pokeweed

Common Whitetail

Common Whitetail

Locust Borer on goldenrod

Locust Borer on goldenrod

There were vertebrates around too: a flock of high-flying gulls were joined by a migrating osprey, while catbirds meowed and cardinals chirped in the undergrowth. The wetland had a surprising number of fish: huge invasive carp were unfortunately common, but there were also some fish that could have been alewife, the namesake of the park, and a school of sunfish with a bright red-orange spot at their gills, which we were able to identify as pumpkinseeds.

Pumpkinseed sunfish-- note the bright red-orange dot on the gill covering

Pumpkinseed sunfish– note the bright red-orange dot on the gill covering

On the way out we spotted a flying red-tailed hawk, got an excellent look at a young male Common Yellowthroat, our first warbler of the afternoon, and I had distant but identifiable looks at a pair of Orange Bluet damselflies skimming over the river.

Meadowhawk and Shadowmeadowhawk

We walked south from Alewife to arrive at Fresh Pond, where we found more wildflowers, popped some more jewelweed pods, added some common species to our bird list for the day, and had a great encounter with a palm warbler and an eastern phoebe, two unrelated bird species that both habitually bob their tails up and down. These two individuals seemed to have found common ground in their shared behavior, because they stuck close together on a grassy hillside and gave us excellent views.

Birding Lusitania Field, Fresh Pond

Birding Lusitania Field, Fresh Pond

Fresh Pond

Fresh Pond

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The Crew at Fresh Pond

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Eastern Phoebe

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Palm Warbler

We continued on to Mt. Auburn, where we enjoyed the beauty of the late afternoon in the wooded dell, but failed to track down the resident Great Horned Owls that are usually in the area. We did spot a White-breasted Nuthatch and a bunch of chipmunks, and before long it was time to head back to campus.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Mt. Auburn had one last surprise for us though, and as we headed for the exit chatting about the day’s sightings a red-tailed hawk took off from practically right over our heads, and alighted on a nearby branch. This impressive bird surveyed the area, and completely overshadowed the Monarch butterfly that fluttered by, our only one of the day. We watched the hawk as it relocated once more, then we headed back to catch the bus back to the square. A great way to end a fantastic afternoon!

Red-tail!

Red-tail!

Nature on Campus: September 2015

Compiled by Eamon Corbett

A very bad photo of a very cool butterfly: Harvester in front of John Harvard

A very bad photo of a very cool butterfly: Harvester in front of John Harvard

This is our first “Nature on Campus” post, which we’ll publish every two weeks or so with news on nature sightings on campus and in Harvard Square. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime at harvardnaturalists@gmail.com you see anything cool around campus, and I’ll put in the next email roundup. Here are some highlights from the past month:

A Great Horned Owl was seen last night (September 30th) in a tree just north of Lev tower F. Credit goes to Karl Aspelund for the report; I couldn’t re-find it but will definitely be keeping an eye out!

Also in bird of prey news, Red-tailed Hawks continue to be seen around the Smith Center and elsewhere on campus. Both them and the owl are probably eating all the rats, squirrels, and rabbits that are everywhere, so they must be getting plenty of food.

A huge surprise in Harvard Yard, right in front of John Harvard was a Harvester Butterfly on September 9th. This butterfly is the only species in the U.S. that is carnivorous—its caterpillars prey on wooly aphids. As a result it is rare and restricted to wooded streams with alders where the aphids are found, so it’s very strange to have one in the yard, with no alders in sight.

The tiny bright red dragonflies that were abundant in the yard for most of the month are Meadowhawks. There are three almost identical species, one of which, the Autumn Meadowhawk, could be around through the end of October (and there are records in MA as late as December).

The famed Harvard Square Wild Turkey (which is probably actually a handful of different turkeys) was reported by Aislinn Brophy from Bow Street earlier this week.

Further bird sightings include a Hairy Woodpecker in the yard on 9/21 and a migratory Bay-breasted Warbler in the Lowell courtyard September 29th, both found by Corey Husic. Fall bird migration was in full swing through the month, with many nocturnal migrant Swainson’s Thrushes reported calling at night over the MAC quad and other locations by Harold Eyster.

Hope everyone is having a great start of fall! Send me any of your campus nature sightings (harvardnaturalists@gmail.com), and stay tuned for the next update!

Middlesex Fells (9/12/15)

By Corey Husic

The crew, minus Michael (photo credit Michael)

The crew, minus Michael (photo credit Michael)

On September 12, Michael Genecin and I (Corey) led a hike to Middlesex Fells Reservation, a state park that lies just a few miles north of Boston accessible via the Orange Line. The Fells consist of over 2,000 acres of forest, meadows, small lakes, and granite outcrops. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the namesake of Harvard’s Winthrop House, explored the Fells in the 1600s.

Six participants (plus the two leaders) showed up for the hike on this beautiful Saturday. We hopped on the subway, and about an hour later accessed a trailhead near the Oak Grove T stop. We climbed up a wooded slope, flipping over rocks and logs in search of salamanders and insects. At the top of the hill, the tall oaks opened up to a clearing of scrub oak, lowbush blueberries, cherries, and sumac. One of our hopes for this trip was to find ripe blueberries. Unfortunately, we were much too late in the season and found nothing more than a few shriveled fruits.

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photo by Michael Genecin

Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves as we caught glimpses of the Boston skyline in the distance and found a number of insects flying around. Cabbage White butterflies fluttered by and a few Common Green Darner and Wandering Glider dragonflies patrolled back and forth over the clearing. Closer to the ground, we found a number of Autumn Meadowhawks, small, red dragonflies that are apparently quite friendly.

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Autumn Meadowhawk on Mollie’s nose (photo by Michael G.)

Michael and I took the opportunity to show the group a number of fragrant plant species growing in this area. The Fruit Loop-like smell of Sassafras trees was well-received, as was the spice of Sweetfern.

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We also found several interesting plants at this location. Blue-stemmed Goldenrod was just starting to bloom between the rocks and a few Pink Lady-Slippers had gone to seed on the shaded slope below us. These plants were exciting to see, as they are not particularly common species–especially within the greater Boston area!

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Pink Lady-Slipper

We wandered our way down the hill and onto a trail that took us East. We went slowly, watching butterflies flutter across the trail and listening to a noisy flock of chickadees foraging in the pines. After a while, we decided to head back towards the T along a small trail that took us down into a ravine. We (well… mostly I) fervently searched under rocks along muddy stream beds for salamanders to no avail. We did, however, begin to find a number of Black Birch trees as we went down the hill. The twigs of this tree have a pleasant wintergreen flavor. After Michael showed the group, everyone was chewing on birch twigs for the remainder of the hike!

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We bushwhacked our way out off the trail and back to the road that led us back to the train. Although we found almost no migrating birds or blueberries, we had a fun afternoon exploring the Fells and introducing several new member to what the Naturalist Club is all about.

Reading Period Trips: Baby Salamanders, Birds-of-Paradise, and George Washington’s Pheasants

By Eamon Corbett

Cassowary feet at the MCZ: it's not hard to see that birds evolved from dinosaurs when you look at those claws!

Cassowary feet at the MCZ: it’s not hard to see that birds evolved from dinosaurs when you look at those claws!

This is a bit of a belated post, but the club had two fantastic trips at the end of spring semester, so better late than never! The first was a tour of the bird collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, led by collections manager Jeremiah Trimble. Harvard has one of the best and most historic bird specimen collections in the world, so this was an incredible opportunity to look behind-the-scenes at some of the museum’s treasures.

We saw drawers full of a spectacular array of species, from albatrosses with 11 foot wingspans to the bee hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world, weighing in at just 2 grams and measuring under 2.5 inches long. The dazzling biodiversity of the tropics was on full display, with tray after tray of vividly colored tanagers, bizarre birds-of-paradise, and many others.

One of the most impressive specimens was a bird-of-paradise, the Wallace’s Standardwing, named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution and one of the greatest field biologists ever. That would have been cool enough, but this particular bird was not just named after Wallace: it was collected (shot) by Wallace himself!

This wasn’t the only item of historical significance: the collection also contains one of the few existing specimens from the Lewis and Clark expedition, a Lewis’s Woodpecker that could very well have been collected by the man himself. And locked away in a special cabinet is a mounted display of two golden pheasants that once were the pets of George Washington!

The museum also has sobering reminders of the ongoing loss of our world’s biodiversity. While the collection is full of dead birds, for most of them the species lives on, whether in the parks of Cambridge or the remote forests of Halmahera (the standardwing’s native home). For others, lifeless skins is all we have left: Eskimo Curlews, a Great Auk, Carolina Parakeets, Passenger Pigeons, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, Ou, Nukupuu, Bachman’s Warbler, Hawaii Mamo, and more. And that’s just the American species. Seeing the specimens firsthand drove home the need to protect what we have left, so that no more species join their ranks.

Later in the week, three of us ditched studying for an afternoon to head to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with Herpetologist Joe Martinez to check out the amphibians that were hatching and growing in the vernal pools of the cemetery.

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The Dell at Mt. Auburn

The ponds of Mt. Auburn are home to a diverse group of reptiles and amphibians, and Joe was able to find eggs and tadpoles of two of the key species, the spotted salamander and the American toad. Both of them are making a comeback in the park thanks to recovery projects, and we learned about the ongoing research on amphibians in the cemetery, which will hopefully result in the re-establish of a couple more species.

Joe Martinez explains spotted salamander life cycles

Joe Martinez explains spotted salamander life cycles

Spotted salamander egg mass

Spotted salamander egg mass

A very newly hatched salamander tadpole

A very newly hatched salamander tadpole

American toad tadpole

American toad tadpole

We also checked out two other Mt. Auburn “landmarks”: the resident Great Horned Owls in the pines above the dell, and the grave of Asa Gray, the pioneering Harvard botanist who became one of Darwin’s good friends and an early champion of evolution.

Another look at the local Great Horned Owl

Another look at the local Great Horned Owl

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Asa Gray’s grave

Exam period can be a stressful time, but we all were happy to take a few breaks from studying to explore nature and history right here in Cambridge. Many thanks to Jeremiah Trimble and Joe Martinez, and we hope to return soon!