urbpan: (Default)
I was going to respond to each of the comments to my last 365 post, but there were so many congratulations that it soon became overwhelming to even contemplate! Thanks so much. I really enjoyed the project, even if it was a lot of work, and made every evening an exercise in discipline.

Super huge thanks to the team of reader/scientist/naturalists who kept me accurate, thorough, and helped me identify many of the tough plants and bugs.

Special thanks to [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto, who joined in on the project willingly, even though I didn't warn her that I was going to do it a year ago today (really!), I just kind of started it on a whim. Her eye for natural beauty, her ability to find the most interesting part of the most commonplace object, and her talent with the camera make her the best partner I could have asked for on this project. Her amazing dedication, as a partner and a long-suffering but never complaining wife, put me in reverent awe. She never asked for this project, but she made it so much better than it would have been.

I'll try to continue to write an interesting blog, even if I don't have a rigid daily format. I'm still fascinated by the same things, and now I know much more about the living things around me than I did a year ago.

I should remind readers that there's a community called [livejournal.com profile] urban_nature that will hold to the subject of urban nature much more closely than I will. I'll still go off on tangents about animal usage, captive animal enrichment, environmental issues, how much I hate the snow, the goings on at my job, and for those of you on my friends list who should play Wonder Woman, and what muppet I most resemble (a cross between kermit and animal).

I'm happy that you liked the 365 project! I did too. Maybe the next thing will be even better. :)
urbpan: (cold)

Photo by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: Boston Common.

Urban species #365: Human Homo sapiens
Read more... )
urbpan: (cold)

Boxwood forms the border between two yards, as well as the edge along the sidewalk, here on Parkway Road in Brookline.

365 Urban species #364: Boxwood Buxus sempervirens

In my neighborhood, a densely settled area of apartment buildings and Victorians, there are square-cut hedges between many of the residences and the sidewalk. I hardly ever think of these hedges as living things--or even think of them at all, most of the time. Once or twice a year my neighbors, my wife or myself get the hedge trimmers out to shape the ones in front of our building, to cut the stems that have dared to bolt past the tabletop-flat surface of the collection of shrubs. Only recently did it occur to me that not only do our hedges have an identity, they share it with dozens of other individual plants on our block and on nearby blocks.

Boxwood, or common box, is an evergreeen shrub native to southern Europe that has been used as a hedge for centuries. It is a staple plant of topiary, resilient to cutting, ideally growing dense foliage. Many of the hedges in our neighborhood--alas, including ours--are sparse and weak, looking rather rangy and dying away at the edge closest the driveway. Possibly these are suffering from our occasionally harsh winters, or from the salt that is liberally spread on the sidewalks when they are icy. The winter cold also changes the small green leaves of the shrub to a not unattractive bronze.

Throughout its native range, boxwood comprises an important feature of bird habitat. The dense foliage provides protection from predators. In urban areas boxwood hedges are frequently nearly saturated with twittering house sparrows, that fall warily silent when a human stops to observe them. The small flowers that the plant produces are visited by bees, and the deer-resistant foliage, as well as the wood and bark, are poisonous. A history of medicinal uses (including treatments for syphilis, leprosy, and malaria) has largely been abandoned. The plant was also once used to make a hair dye, and its heavy wood (twice as hard as oak) was used to make printing blocks and other necessarily durable objects. Today boxwood's main purpose is to keep humans and their dogs on the sidewalk and out of the yard.


The bronzing winter foliage. Photo by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto.
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Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Location: Netherlands Road, Brookline.

Urban species #363: Japanese pachysandra Pachysandra terminalis

English ivy, periwinkle, and Japanese pachysandra are, by far, the most commonly planted evergreen ground cover plants in Boston, and many other cities. Pachysandra is fairly described as "overused," but it is so useful that it is hard to fault landscapers who choose it. It is shade tolerant, and so may be grown underneath trees or tall buildings. It is resistant to herbivores, so it is safe to plant in the suburbs without fear of being denuded by deer and rabbits. And it does its job well, forming a low-maintenance carpet that can be easily kept within the desired boundaries.

Pachysandra is an Asian native that, once introduced to a new place, doesn't seem to participate very much in the local ecology. It does prevent other plants from growing, by forming a thick mat of plants, but it spreads very slowly, and is considered at worst mildly invasive. Its small flowers are visited by honeybees, but because cultivated pachysandra is usually composed of single-sex clones, fruit rarely develops. A North American relative, Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) is promoted by native plant enthusiasts, but loses its leaves in northern winters, and so will not become popular in Boston.


This sad group of pachysandra plants in front of my building is suffering from poor soil drainage, I believe.

semi-wild pachysandra )
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Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. This planting in Boston's Longwood Medical area has succumbed to its ground cover of ivy, spilling over the edges of its planter.

Urban species #362: English Ivy Hedera helix

While holly has become a symbol tied to a certain holiday, ivy is symbolic of eternal life and fidelity, but is not necessarily associated with Christmas. It clings year-round to the trunks of trees, providing dark green leaves after the tree's own have yellowed and fallen. Even long dead trees standing bare are given the appearance of life with a coating of ivy vines. However the ivy itself may contribute to the demise of the tree it adheres to. Its weight makes the tree more susceptible to storm and ice damage, and the ivy's foliage eventually covers the tree's own, stealing the sunlight.

English ivy is thought to be originally native to central Eurasia, but its attractiveness has encouraged humans to bring it to North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and many other places. There are hundreds of cultivated varieties available as houseplants, ground cover, and even shrubs and small trees. Ivy takes a decade or more to mature--most urban plantings are a juvenile phase of the plant. It's only when ivy is able to climb a tree or other object that it's able to change into the mature phase and bear flowers and fruit. Ivy is popular as a ground cover because it covers so thoroughly, and its toxic vegetation is resistant to the attentions of rabbits and deer.

Its ability to grow in deep shade makes its presence troubling to woodland stewards. In a forest, ivy may completely overwhelm the habitat, creating what has come to be called an "ivy desert." In the Pacific Northwest a war is being waged against English ivy. In the city of Portland, a group called the No Ivy League has formed to tackle its invasion of Forest Park, the largest urban forest in the country. They attack it by pulling and clipping, but also by encouraging students and researchers to learn more about the plant. For example, its widely thought that birds eat ivy fruit and spread the seeds, but there also seems to be evidence that the fruit is toxic to native North American songbirds. The North American pollinator is likewise unknown. The League also works to educate the public about the ecological danger of ivy, and helped to get the plant listed as a noxious weed by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.


English ivy battles with pachysandra for the habitat of this parking lot planter.
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Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Speckled alders reach over the Muddy River in Brookline.

Urban species #361: Speckled alder Alnus incana rugosa

When a catastrophe happens to a habitat--a fire, a flood, or other vegetation-killing event--new plants quickly colonize the area. These plants tend to be those that spread on the wind or water, grow quickly, and like bright sunlight. Dandelions and ragweed are well-known annual weeds that fit this description, but even some trees and shrubs do as well. Speckled alder is one of these, growing in northern forests in the wake of forest fires, or where trees have been cleared for the construction of a new mall. It also likes to grow along streams and swamps, in rich wet soil. Its roots survive even if the top of the plant is cut or burnt away. It can spread vegetatively, the roots growing horizontally and sprouting new shoots. Like legumes, alders fix nitrogen in the soil, making growing conditions better for the plants that will eventually replace them.

Speckled alder is the eastern North American variety of gray alder, a species also found in Europe, and was previously considered to be a separate species. It can be an important food for mammals, including eastern cottontails and muskrats. Alders are distinctive for bearing both male and female flowers at the same time. The male flowers are catkins, similar to the flowers of the pussy willow, and the female ones developing into conelike fruit, like that of their relatives, the birch trees. The seeds are eaten by birds, including goldfinches and redpolls.


Persistent alder fruits hang in the air. Seeds not taken by birds will fall in the water and float to new habitats downstream.
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Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Locations throughout Brookline Village/Longwood Medical area.

Urban species #359: American holly Ilex opaca
Urban species #360: European holly Ilex aquifolium

A plant that in winter has rich green foliage and bright red berries suggests many things in the human imagination. For many centuries these plants have reminded people that though life seems to have abandoned us in winter, it goes on, and will return in spring. A recurring religious theme, in many cultures, has personified this hope with a god that dies and comes back. In Christianity, it is said that Jesus' blood will save us--the blood red berries of holly remind Christians of this belief. The sharp leaves of the holly evoke the crown of thorns He wore, or the nails used to crucify Him. It is small wonder that the hollies have been a staple of winter decorations, and in relatively recent times, Christmas decorations.

For plants, having green foliage and red berries is a very earthly matter of life and procreation. Most hollies are green year-round, though some, such as winterberry, are deciduous. Evergreen hollies that occur in cold places have waxy leaves that resist water loss. Red berries contrast starkly with the green foliage, not because that makes for better decorations, or to make a religious statement, but to advertise their food value to the birds. The fruit (which are technically drupes, not berries) persist through the winter, because they don't taste good to birds until they have been frozen and thawed. In North America, goldfinches and cedar waxwings, among many other species, eat the fruit and disperse the seeds, allowing the plant to reproduce. The fruit is mildly toxic to humans, but squirrels and other mammals eat them. They edges of the leaves of European and American hollies are thorny, which helps keep mammals, which are not efficient seed-distributors, from eating the fruit. Nesting birds are likewise protected from predacious tree-climbers in the holly's thorny refuge.

Each holly plant is either a male or female (monoecious like ailanthus and ginkgo as opposed to dioecious, like ragweed and Norway maple, which have male and female flowers on the same individual). This means that in order to have the red berries present, landscapers and decorators must choose female plants. Those wishing to sexually propagate holly are obliged to include males nearby. Their flowers are pollinated by wasps, moths, and bees, and the honey made by honeybees from holly nectar is said to be of high quality.

There are a few dozen different species of holly, the two most commonly planted being American (I. opaca) and European, or common (I. Aquifolium) hollies. American holly is native to the middle latitudes of east coast of North America, and has generally less glossy leaves and shorter thorns than European holly. It is the only holly native to North America that may grow bigger than a large shrub, becoming a small tree (up to 50 feet tall). European holly has been widely planted around the world, and is considered invasive on the west coast of North America, as well as in Australia and New Zealand. A myriad of cultivated varieties exist, including some with variegated leaf color, and some with yellow, rather than red fruit.



I would greatly appreciate some photos of American holly, as it seems most of the plantings nearby appear to be European.

Read more... )
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Urban species #358: Yew Taxus spp.

Yew should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburbs or the city. Sometimes cut into gumdrop shapes, sometimes planed into rectilinear hedges, and rarely left in its natural shrub shape, yews grace the front yards of homes and businesses around the world. An evergreen conifer that may, in wild conditions, grow to 50 feet, is exceedingly common as a four to ten foot geometric shape--a small lump of cultivated bush to accent a yard or conceal the front of a building. There are species of yew native to Europe, North America, and Asia--in Boston we see Japanese yew, Taxus cuspidatta, or occasionally European yew, T. baccata, or even a hybrid of the two Taxus x media. What we seldom see is the native yew T. canadensis, a threatened species in several southern states.

Yew bushes are used as shelter by many urban birds. Growing up in the suburbs between Springfield and Hartford, I remember American robins nesting in the yews in front of my house. Robins and other birds feed on the red, fleshy cones of female yew shrubs. Human children may enjoy squeezing these cones to release the sticky juice, and then often throw them at friends and siblings. They are not good for most mammals to eat, including humans. The foliage of yew trees is even worse, and one veterinary source underscores the danger this way: "First aid is usually impractical, since the animals die so quickly." Captive animals in enclosures with yew trees, bored enough to browse something poisonous, are the usual victims. Wild deer and other herbivores may nibble on yew, but will not generally eat enough to hurt themselves. Deer and rabbit resistance is one of the reasons for the popularity of yew plantings.

urbpan: (dandelion)

Photo by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Location: Among the mud and Phragmites chaff in the Riverway.

Urban species #357: Song sparrow Melospiza melodia

The song sparrow is a common, but welcome bird throughout North America. It prefers habitat that includes forest edges, mixed vegetation, and water margins, conditions found in many urban areas. Boston's Fens and other wet parks can claim the song sparrow as one of the most abundant species. Along both coasts and through the middle of the continent, the song sparrow is a year-round resident making its presence known in spring and summer through its song, and conspicuous in winter as well. Its song is a short, uncomplicated set of phrases, which almost always includes a trill, reminiscent of the red-winged blackbird (who often shares habitat with it). Though always well camouflaged, song sparrows show a range of patterning that varies according to geography; some ornithologists recognize up to 40 different subspecies! Song sparrows are largely granivorous, eating seeds of many different plants, probably contributing to the spread of both native and invasive species. During the breeding season their diet shifts to include insects and other invertebrate prey. A recent study, conducted near San Francisco, showed that song sparrows choose territory based in great part on the availability of invertebrate prey.
urbpan: (cold)

Photos by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: the Riverwalk, Hartford.

Urban species #356: Red osier dogwood Cornus sericea

Most of the invasive species covered here so far have been Eurasian species that are problematic in North America. Japanese knotweed, buckthorn, and burning bush are all attractive shrubby plants that were deliberately introduced to the new world, and then spread out of control. Red osier dogwood is native to North America, and has been introduced to Europe, Australia, and other places. It's considered invasive in New Zealand and Great Britain, and has been put on a "black list" of invasives by the Swiss Commission for the Conservation of Wild Plants.

In northeastern North America, the native range of red osier dogwood, the shrub is planted along rivers and other wet urban areas. Its ability to spread vegetatively and form thick stands makes it unwelcome in Switzerland, but is useful for stabilizing streambanks and preventing erosion. Its also chosen for its bright red color, which stands out especially well in winter. White berries decorate the fiery stems, until they are eaten by birds. Red osier dogwood is one of several species of dogwood shrubs used as urban ornamental plants.

more pictures )
urbpan: (eastern hemlock)

Photos by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: Brookline Ave, Brookline.

Urban species #355: Rocky Mountain juniper Juniperus scopulorum

It took me some time and concentration to think of coniferous shrubs as real urban species. But once I became aware of them, I was surprised by their pervasiveness. They are most often used as living fences or screens, erected like plywood to shield the view of a wall or a building. They almost seem more like furniture than actual living things. Rocky Mountain juniper, specifically the "Wichita blue" cultivar, is widespread in Boston. Its bluish foliage, reminiscent of Colorado (blue) spruce, is distinctive and interesting. In its wild state, Rocky Mountain juniper can be a small tree or large shrub, more rounded than this engineered variety. Like other junipers its fruit (Now, you know that I really mean cone, right? Go look at the entry and comments for ginkgo if you don't remember why.) is an important winter food source for fruit eating birds, like robins, mockingbirds, and especially cedar waxwings. Native Americans apparently sometimes ate juniper cones, but their insect-repelling properties are fairly repellant to mammals, too. Diluted it can have a pleasant taste, and European juniper cones have lent flavor to gin for centuries. Though resistant to most insects, Rocky Mountain juniper is susceptible to cedar-apple rust, and quince rust.
urbpan: (dandelion)

Photo by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Location: Castle Island, Boston.

Urban species #254: Red clover Trifolium pratense


"What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows." Doug Larson

"A weed is no more than a flower in disguise."
James Russell Lowell


"Man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved." Jack R. Harland.

"Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them." Eeyore

Obviously James Russell Lowell was strongly influenced by other great thinkers, such as Eeyore. You will know a weed when it flowers on a heap of discarded soil on a December day, in a major northern city, on a sidewalk, ten feet from the ocean. Red clover is a weed because it can do this, in the farfetched hope that some pollinator will not only visit, but carry its pollen to another hopeful red clover elsewhere. Weeds take advantage of opportunities--as Harland states above, these are always man-made opportunities. Such opportunities include disturbing the soil, so that more sensitive plants can not establish themselves, or removing the surrounding vegetation so that only those weeds that like strong sunlight can survive. Red clover has the added advantage of being useful to humans. Because it is a member of the legume family, it traps nitrogen and makes the soil it grows in better for crops. It provides good food for honeybees, and decent forage for livestock. It has been used for a variety of medicinal uses, and red clover sprouts are grown as vitamin and protein rich health food. It is the national flower of the densely populated country of Denmark, and the sparsely populated state of Vermont, which indicates its esteem and range of habitat. It grows taller than white clover, so it tends to appear in waste areas, while white clover can grow in a mowed area, becoming part of the turf. Red clover is undeniably a weed.
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Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanfesto. Location: Castle Island, Boston.

Urban species #353: Seaside goldenrod Solidago sempervirens

Field guides will tell you that seaside goldenrod blooms from Ausust to as late as November. This December is turning out to be pretty special in Boston. For the first time turkey vultures (a species that migrates south of New England in winter) have appeared on the Christmas Bird Count. The unseasonable warmth has meant that I've proclaimed that I was posting my last wildflower two or three times already. This native goldenrod species is a pretty sturdy weed, and in these photographs was just beginning to bloom. When it is mature it will bear a thick plume of yellow flowers. Each flower that makes up the composite blossom is much larger than those of most other goldenrod species.

Like sea rocket, seaside goldenrod has adapted to its salty habitat by developing thick waxy flesh. The spray of salt water along beaches, salt marshes, and coastal cities draws the moisture out of the tissues of other plants.

This late blooming species can be a boon to insects that may still be active. Monarch butterflies that are still straggling along a coastal migration route may depend on finding seaside goldenrod to fuel their journey. Native plants enthusiasts promote the planting of seaside goldenrod because of its attractiveness to pollinators (and humans) and its urban hardiness.

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The calm of Pleasure Bay in South Boston was disturbed by strong winds, but this male merganser is relatively unperturbed. Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto

Urban species #252: Red-breasted merganser Mergus serrator

Mergansers are ducks with narrow, serrated and hooked bills, especially adapted to catch small and slippery fish. Red-breasted mergansers prefer to do this on shallow coastal waters, in North America and Eurasia. Throughout their range, red-breasted mergansers are noted for breeding late in the season. They begin nesting in June or July, while most other ducks start early in spring. Their breeding season is possibly an adaptation to the movements of small fish in their wintering grounds. Red-breasted mergansers breed in the tundra of Alaska, Canada, and northern Europe, but spend their winters on large still waters--often places where humans have built cities. The Great Lakes, the Great Salt Lake, and the Black Sea, as well as little old Pleasure Bay, are among the urban waters favored by this duck.


These mergansers are difficult to identify--they may be juvenile or female common or red-breasted mergansers. Because they are on salt water (common mergansers prefer bodies of fresh water) and the male red-breasted was nearby, they are more likely red-breasted mergansers.
urbpan: (glass raven)

Photos by [livejournal.com profile] cottonmanifesto. Location: Leverett Park.

Urban species #351: Golden-crowned kinglet
The golden-crowned kinglet is one of those urban species that you aren't likely to find unless you are looking for it. Most people, even if they were enjoying a walk through a wooded city park, surrounded by tiny birds flitting all about them, might not know what the little birds were. In Boston they would most likely be chickadees or titmice; but there's a chance that they might be kinglets. There are half a dozen species of kinglets, all found in the northern hemisphere, and as a group they are the smallest songbirds on earth. They weigh about 5 and a half grams each. Golden-crowned kinglets move in disorganized groups through dense shrubbery and the branches of conifers, picking spiders and mites, and insect eggs and larvae off of the needles, buds and leaves. They prefer a habitat of mixed spruce and other trees, and construct nests concealed in the thick foliage at the top of fir or spruce. They may be drawn to Christmas tree farms for feeding, but the trees are too small for them to nest in. Their range is expanding in many parts of North America, due to the widespread planting of blue spruce and especially Norway spruce.
urbpan: (eastern hemlock)

Photos by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: Bushnell Park, Hartford.

Urban species #350: Northern catalpa Catalpa speciosa

The native range of the northern catalpa is not known for sure, but was probably a fairly small area of the Mississippi River basin. These days it can be found throughout eastern North America. It was discovered to be a valuable source of timber, as well as a hardy urban shade tree, and is widely planted. Catalpa is interesting year-round, with huge heart shaped leaves, profuse attractive flowers, and most distinctively, long straight seed capsules. The capsules can be up to two feet long, and remain dangling on the tree well into winter. Catalpa flowers are open night and day, producing more nectar at night, for the benefit of moths, but producing a more sugary nectar in the day, to attract bumblebees and carpenter bees. There are many species of catalpa, most of which are tropical; southern New England is nearly the northernmost edge of the range of northern catalpa.

Let's look at those pods! (I mean capsules.) )
urbpan: (cold)

Photos by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: Forest Park, Springfield Mass.

Urban species #349: Japanese barberry Berberis thunbergii

Barberries are thorny shrubs, and there are species which are native to Europe, one native to North America, and this one, native to Asia. American barberry was the target of an eradication program to control stem rust (Puccinia graminis). Stem rust, like quince rust and many others, is a fungus that feeds on two different types of plant during its life cycle. Stem rust lives part of its life cycle on barberry, and part of its life cycle on wheat. In the early part of the twentieth century, stem rust was an epidemic in wheat fields in North America, and the federal government waged war on barberry in order to save the country's grain supply. Barberry was almost completely eradicated from America.

Japanese barberry had been brought to the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, by way of Russia, in the late 1800's. It was shown to be resistant to the rust, and not a target of the eradication. These days some states are trying to control it however, as it is considered an invasive species. Both Japanese and European barberry will escape cultivation, either by vegetative propagation, or when birds eat the fruit and distribute the seeds in their droppings. In areas where growth of Japanese barberry has been ignored, it forms expansive thickets of thorny bushes. It is still sold as an ornamental at plant nurseries, but is less popular than it once was.

Read more... )
urbpan: (eastern hemlock)

Photo by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: Forest Park, Springfield, Mass.

Urban species #348: Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Adelges tsugae

This insect spends most of its life hidden in a fluffy white shelter. It sucks the fluid from the needles of hemlock trees, and it is believed that as it feeds it introduces a toxic substance into the tree. Every plant has sap-sucking pests that feed on them, and most are not seriously damaging. An infestation of these hemlock woolly adelgid can cut the lifespan of an eastern hemlock down from hundreds of years to less than ten. The Asian hemlocks that the insect feeds on in its native range developed resistances that allow the trees and adelgids to coexist.

Adelgids are close relatives of aphids. Like some aphids, hemlock woolly adelgids are all female, and several generations are born in a single year. In the short time that the insects are mobile, they are carried from tree to tree by animals or by the wind. Adelgids have fully infested the hemlocks in all counties of southern New England, as well as the areas around New York CIty, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New Jersey. It's possible that the adelgid affects urban trees more severely because they are already weakened by pollution and other stresses. Methods to control the infestation include saturation of individual trees with pesticide, and the introduction of predatory beetles.
urbpan: (Default)

Mating swarms of non-biting midges drift in the mid-day air on an unusually warm December day in Hartford. River birches frame the photo. Photo by [livejournal.com profile] urbpan. Location: The Riverwalk, Hartford, Connecticut.

Urban species #347: Non-biting midge Family: Chironomidae

A column of insects gathers in the air, slowly drifting, sometimes toward a light source, sometimes toward an object such as a passing human. The column may be a small vertical puff of a few feet, or a towering nimbus hovering from face level up to thirty feet tall. If you are like me, you swish your hat through the cloud to catch one or two of these tiny flyers, to see what they are. You may be alarmed to see what looks like a mosquito! But if they were all mosquitoes you would be covered with bites by now. Midges can be told from mosquitoes by the lack of scales on their wings, different mouthparts, and by the fact that their front pair of legs is their longest. The cloud moves on, perhaps leaving one or two tiny flies in your hair or, if you were riding through on your bike, your eye.

The insects are midges, specifically "non-biting" or "chironomid" midges. (They are called non-biting midges to distinguish them from small biting flies such as no-see-ums, which are sometimes called midges.) The columns are mating swarms, and the vast majority of the midges in the swarms are the males. Male midges (and males of mosquitoes and moths) can be recognized by their plumose, or featherlike antennae. These are surface-area maximizing structures which catch scent molecules and draw the males to their purpose.

Midges are almost always found near fresh water, where they live as larvae. Midge larvae are among the most abundant and important aquatic invertebrates. They are food for other insects, as well as young fish and amphibians. Astute ecologists can determine a great deal about a body of water by the midges that live in it. Each species can tolerate different levels of different pollutants, as well as different pH levels, temperatures, levels of oxygenation and so on.

Adult midges, though tiny, can be important food for birds and bats. Swallows and swifts are drawn to bodies of water to catch the adults as soon as they emerge from their aquatic pupae. One imagines that this swarm of midges photographed at the bank of the Connecticut River in December has an adaptive advantage: by engaging in the mating swarm in winter, they have thwarted their bird, bat, and dragonfly predators, who have migrated or are hibernating.


A male midge swept out of its swarm with my hat.

Thanks for identification help from [livejournal.com profile] rockbalancer!
also [livejournal.com profile] nutmeg and [livejournal.com profile] phlogiston_5

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