Alpine Wildflowers – Inventors, Tricksters, and Thieves

At first glance, alpine wildflowers are simply beautiful. Get a little closer and you can see how delicate and complex they are. Learn a little bit and you will discover that there’s a lot more going on that meets the eye.

Yellow Violet

Yellow Violet

I’m talking about their adaptations. Take, for example, the yellow violet. If you look closely, they have stripes on the flower petal. They are called nectar guides because they literally act as a guide for pollinators to find the nectar and pollen like a landing strip for a plane. One of my favorite flowers, elephant heads (each tiny flower on the stalk actually resembles the head of an elephant), lures pollinators to its “trunk.” When the unsuspecting insect lands on it, the spring-loaded stamen shoot out and SLAP! The insect gets covered in pollen.

Arctic Gentian

Arctic Gentian

Another flower, the alpine buttercup, has a trick for staying warm in the chilly tundra. Its cupped petals are shiny, which directs sunlight inward toward developing seeds. It’s like it is its own tiny greenhouse! The old-man-of-the-mountain flowers’ trick is to always face east. That’s so they catch the first rays of the sun in the morning and pollinators will visit them first. The artic gentian, on the other hand, has a different trick for attracting pollinators. They are the one of the last to bloom in the short alpine season and are nicknamed the “boo hoo” flower because summer’s almost over. Being a late bloomer, though, is a survival trick…it gets more attention from pollinators!

Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush

And then there are many beautiful, beautiful alpine flowers that survive on outright thievery. One of my favorites, the Indian paintbrush, is among them. Deep underground, paintbrushes hook their roots to other plants. Then they steal nutrients. And water! Apparently the amazing elephant heads are thieves too.

Next time you see a field of wildflower, you can bet there’s some amazing inventing, trickery, and thievery going on!

Puffin Patrol

Photo Credit – Charles J. Sharp

It’s puffin season! I suppose any season is puffin season, but right now the pufflings are fledging. You read correctly – baby puffins are called pufflings. Puffins are sea birds, and breed in colonies on islands in the North Atlantic. They winter on the open ocean, spending 9 months at sea. But during breeding season, the birds return to the rocky islands to mate, often with the same mate in the same burrow. In May or June, the female lays one egg and both parents take turns incubating it. After the chick hatches, both parents take turns keeping the hungry mouth fed. About seven weeks later, the puffling is ready to leave the nest.

Puffins use the moon and the stars for navigation toward the sea. But then there’s light pollution. Sea turtles aren’t the only one affected. Many pufflings are misguided by artificial light and instead of flying out to sea, they fly inland where they are not only confused, but up against a myriad of challenges. Enter the Puffin Patrol.

It began in 2004 when a German couple recognized the problem on their annual visit to Witless Bay, Canada. They began to rescue the pufflings using butterfly nets, flashlights, and gloves. Soon enough they were joined by local kids and their families, and other Newfoundlanders. In time the media got wind of the story and the news spread. Then tourists began booking vacations during Puffin Patrol to be part of the effort. In 2011, the couple partnered with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to expand the program, increase education about light pollution, and include other nearby communities in the patrol. Every year hundreds of pufflings are rescued and released to begin their journey in the right direction, toward the open ocean. It’s on my bucket list to be a part of the Puffin Patrol one summer!

Why Hummingbirds Hum

Some of my favorite things about summer are the sounds. I love the dawn chorus of birds in the morning and their calls to each other throughout the day. Crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, and other bugs chirp, click, trill, and rattle. Frogs peep. And hummingbirds hum. In my yard, the sound of hummingbirds whizzing through the air has been constant this year.

UC Botanical Garden, Berkeley, California

But why do they make that noise? It’s not a purposeful call or song. Instead, it’s the sound of their wingbeats, roughly 70 strokes per second. More specifically, the upstroke of the birds’ wingbeats creates the sound.

This discovery was made by curious researchers at Standford using high-speed cameras, hundreds of microphones (2,176 to be exact), and some Anna’s hummingbirds. The technology created a 3D sound map of the wingbeats. What they found is that hummingbirds’ wings create lift on both the upper and downstroke of their wings, unlike other birds who create lift only with the downstroke. Further, the speed of hummingbird wingbeats, and the differences created in air pressure, make the humming sound. Different hummingbirds generate different sounds as a result of how air moves over their feathers and the shape of their wings.

It amazes me that the tiny wings on those tiny birds can fill the air with a summer song. I am going to savor that for a few more weeks…

Green-Tailed Towhee

Earlier this summer I had a new visitor to my bird feeder. It was bigger than a finch and smaller than a robin. It had a reddish tuft of feathers on it’s head like a bad toupee and the edges of its tail and feathers was yellowish-green. As it turns out, I was lucky to catch that glimpse of the green-tailed towhee because they are usually more secretive and stay hidden in bushes.

Photo Credit Francesco Veronesi

These birds migrate to the western mountains for breeding. They build their nests in dense thickets. The females are responsible for the construction that takes up to 5 days (which brings up the question, what are the males doing this whole time?). The finished nest is a deep cup about 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep made of stems, twigs, and bark. The females also take the time to line the inside with stems, grass, and hair. Some nests have even been found lined with porcupine hair!

Once the eggs are laid, the female defends it (again, where are the males?). When she spots a predator, females leave the nest and may run along the ground with her tail in the air. This mimics a chipmunk running, distracting the predator from the nest.  Brilliant!