By Bill Lawyer

One of the healthful and fun ways to spend a cold, bare-treed winter day is to study the many species of birds that spend their winters around Rye.

For the beginner, nothing comes close to the black-capped chickadees. For one thing, they have bright, contrasting colors that make them easy to spot — black cap and bib, white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and whitish underside with buffy sides.

For another, chickadees are quick to find backyard birdfeeders and they are not shy about eating as much birdseed as possible.

They are so popular that they have been designated the state bird of Massachusetts. And the High Park Nature Centre in Toronto, has put Jackie Day’s “Ten Reasons to Love Chickadees” on its website, Check out Reason No. 1.

Chickadees are thoroughly acclimated to life in the northeastern United States. They have good roosting sites, ways to elude predators, and many food sources. Studies have determined they’re not picky eaters. Their winter diet includes half plant matter (seeds and berries) and half animal food (insects, spiders, suet, and sometimes fat and bits of meat from frozen carcasses).

I’ve seen many incidences where people have trained chickadees to literally eat out of their hand, or from a tray that they hold out. This is a popular activity at nature centers and helps experts study the birds up close.

One of the other great things about chickadees is they make a call that actually sounds as if they’re saying “chickadee-dee.” In late winter and into spring, you’ll also hear their two- to three-note plaintive song that sounds like “fee-bee” or “hey, sweetie.” Maybe it’s just me, but what I hear is the romantic call of a chickadee suffering from unrequited love. And I’ve been hearing it bright and early as the sun is rising sooner these days and I talk my dog out for our first walk of the day. Their song reminds me that winter will be coming to an end, hopefully sometime soon.

Black-capped chickadees make a variety of calls depending on the circumstances. They’ll add a few extra “dees” if warning other birds of the threat of predators. (Hawks are quick to grab chickadees that linger too long at birdfeeders.) There are a number of YouTube videos in which you can hear them in full song. One I recommend was filmed while a chickadee was perched near the Seattle BirdCam (

Climate change researchers have studied a variety of plants and animals to learn more about the impact of rising temperatures around the world. A March 2014 study of chickadees by researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Villanova University, and Cornell University confirmed that this delightful songbird, like many animal species, is expanding its range northward as annual temperatures rise.

Whether you want to do your own scientific studies, or just want to get more in tune with nature, stop, look, and listen for the chickadees right in your backyard.


By Bill Lawyer

Winter is often seen as a time when most of the wild insects are gone, either hibernating, or, in the case of monarch butterflies, migrating south.

But in fact, this is not the case.

If your house is anything like mine (but probably a lot newer), and if you venture down to the basement, you’ll find that some invertebrate “critters” have not gone south but rather come in from the cold.

You might use this fact as an excuse to stay out of the basement or closets, crawl spaces, and the like. Most people have no desire to encounter a crawling critter moving across their basement floor or wall at any speed.

But if you’re adventurous, you can go peek in the nooks and crannies to see what’s going on down there. For the most part, these are not noisy intruders, and you rarely see them unless to turn on a light in a dark room.

Some of the more fascinating and harmless lodgers you are likely to encounter are the millipedes. They come marching in, but their many feet make no noise that we can hear.

Fortunately, millipedes are not predatory, and in many other ways are slow and harmless compared to such things as the speedy, spooky centipedes. (I’ve often wondered why no children have devised centipede Halloween costumes.)

While worldwide there are over 12,000 species of millipedes, the only one we’re likely to encounter in our nooks and crannies is the American Giant (Narceus americanus).

While by definition a millipede means 1,000 legs, all scientists consulted agree that most species have a few hundred or less. The most ever officially encountered was a species found in the Northwest with 750 legs. Curiously, centipedes can have 50 to 350 legs, and never 100 due to always having an odd number of pairs.

The North American centipedes are about four inches long, but in tropical climates some species get as large as 15 inches The largest one I’ve seen in the wild was a yellow and black striped species in Puerto Rico, about 7 inches in length.

Millipedes have the ability to roll up into a ball for protection, the way that pill bugs do. And like skunks, millipedes can produce a nasty smelling chemical that discourages would-be predators.

While millipedes look somewhat like worms, they are not. Except for the first few segments that have one or no legs, most of their bodies are divided into segments with each one having two pairs of legs.

Like many invertebrates, millipedes have hardened plates on their segments for protection. Also like most invertebrates (cockroaches, for example), they are well adapted to the changes to the earth caused by climate change. The warmer and more moist the environment, the better they thrive.

Scientists have determined that millipedes were among the very first animals to evolve to live on land.

They reproduce using spermatophores, which are either taken by females directly from the males or collected from spermatophores deposited on or under the ground.

The females make nests and lay up to 100 eggs, which hatch in about a month. But because they have a variety of enemies, the overall population of millipedes in the environment is fairly stable.

While not recommended for everyone, a number of people keep millipedes as pets, generally the African Giant millipede, which grows to be about 10 inches long.

Meanwhile, be nice to millipedes — they help break down leaf litter and other vegetative matter, which provides free mulching and decomposing services right in our backyards.


A North American millipede rolled up in protective mode.



By Bill Lawyer

The winter days may be cloudy — not sunny. And for some of us, the new tax laws say we’re out of the money. But one thing we know is on our side is the slow but steady increase in the amount of daylight coming our way. Thank you Mother Nature!

This is due to the fact that our beloved blue planet rotates around the sun at an angle. The equinoxes, and our seasons, are caused by the earth orbiting the sun and the earth’s tilt.

Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees on its vertical axis. During spring and summer, the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. How did the earth get tilted? And can it happen again?

Clark Wilson, a geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, says earth’s tilt came about some four and a half billion years ago.

“Back then, a lot of dust and rocks were floating around and crashing into each other. That debris eventually stuck together to form the planets,” notes Wilson.

“That process is a little messy, and in the case of the earth, probably led to some big impacts that eventually tilted the axis to what it is: 23 degrees. One of those big impacts, for example, ejected a lot of debris that eventually coalesced to form the moon.”

Wilson says it’s unlikely to happen again.

Long before geophysics came along, humans developed some theories of their own.

In Celtic folklore, a special holiday, <Imbolc>, celebrates the passage of the mid-point between the start of winter and the beginning of spring.

The word literally means “in the belly”. The holiday is symbolized by the image of a young woman “wakening beneath the surface of the ground” — also an image of fertility, as the soil warms up and planting begins.

In the Christian era, the same mid-season holiday was known as Candlemas.

According to Celtic scholar Nora Chadwick, the connection between the sun and human behavior go back to the Neolithic era. A number of Stonehenge-type monuments can be found all around Ireland. One such example is the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, where the inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun on the dates of <Imbolc> and <Samhain>, the mid-point between fall and winter.

The simple explanation is that throughout history people have had enough of cold, dreary weather by the time they reach the halfway point.

The weather may not be any better, but at least the days are significantly longer than they were 40 days earlier — both in the morning (11 minutes in Rye) and the evening (42 minutes).

In our area, the month with the highest average snowfall is February, with 8.8 inches. The yearly average is 25.

But February has its rewards — a few native plants (witch hazel shrubs and skunk cabbage, to name two) begin flowering in February. Witch hazel has strange, twisted yellow flowers, which some people confuse with spicebush.

Skunk cabbage has distinctive wide leaves and a putrid smell (but don’t take my word for it, check for yourself). It grows in wet areas that are often covered by water when the spring rains arrive.

So cheer up and get out there and smell the skunk cabbage.


Skunk cabbage flower

Witch hazel shrub



By Bill Lawyer

I recently spent twelve days hiking about 140 miles from Porto, Portugal, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In that time I must have awkwardly stepped over at least a 1,000 nasty chestnut “balls”. Their outer coverings are also commonly known as burrs.

Technically, the covering of the chestnut nut (actually a fruit) is a spiny, leathery <cupule> two to five inches in diameter. Along with sweet gum and horse chestnut balls, they are among the least pleasant tree fruits to walk on. But you can’t easily avoid chestnuts along the woodland trails in Portugal and Spain, as they’re everywhere.

That’s probably why Portugal is the seventh largest exporter of chestnuts in the world, despite it being one of the smallest countries (112th).

Around here, you could walk for hundreds of miles and only find one small place (about three acres) where chestnut trees are growing. And that’s a site on Westchester County’s Lasdon Park property in Katonah.

This wasn’t always the case. When European settlers came to our area, they found the forest teeming with chestnut trees. These trees didn’t have to be planted and nurtured; they functioned quite nicely on their own. Biologists have estimated that in the early 20th century there were some 4 billion chestnut trees in the United States.

Native Americans and colonial settlers used all parts of the trees — for lumber, food, fuel, fencing, tanning, shingles, furniture, and many other products. The nuts were an important food for wildlife such as jays, pigeons, wild boar, deer, and squirrels.

Chestnuts were made popular in literature and poetry as a symbol of living an upright, sturdy lifestyle. Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” sets that tone in his first stanza:

<Under a spreading chestnut-tree

The village smithy stands;

The smith, a mighty man is he,

With large and sinewy hands;

And the muscles of his brawny arms

Are strong as iron bands.>

But by the early 1940s nearly all the country’s population of chestnut trees was destroyed. How did this happen? In two words, the cause was what is known as the “chestnut blight.” It came into the United States from Asia around 1900 through what they call “nursery stock.” Slowly but steadily the blight made its way around the entire country, leaving just a few stands of American chestnuts intact.

The blight is a fungus that produces spores that are spread from tree to tree by the wind. Cankers caused by the fungal infection cause the bark to split.

The fungus enters through wounds on susceptible trees and grows in and beneath the bark, eventually killing the cambium all the way round the twig, branch, or trunk.

While not all trees die, the fungus causes them to lose their main trunk and branches, leaving just some shoots to grow back for a few years then start the cycle over again.

Chestnut trees are so rare around Westchester County that when I first saw some of the spiky shells on the ground in Portugal I had no idea what they were. It was only thanks to our trusty iPad that we were able to look up the Portuguese name and translate it into English.

But things are actually looking up for the American chestnuts.

Westchester County’s program to bring back chestnuts is part of a much larger project, being developed under the leadership of the American Chestnut Foundation. The Foundation conducts basic and applied research to develop a blight-resistant American chestnut tree for reintroduction back into forest ecosystems within the native range of this species. That’s what is going on at Lasdon Park.

So it’s very likely that in the years ahead, when we go out for a walk, we may be able to pick up some chestnut balls from nearby trees, remove the shells, and take the nuts home to become part of our next meal — right from our own backyards.


Chestnut tree cupules on a tree

A Chinese-American hybrid chestnut




By Bill Lawyer

Every year around late fall and early winter, many people in the northeastern United States start thinking about hibernation. Maybe they think it would be nice if <they> could hibernate. They wonder how it is that some animals do hibernate, while other, seemingly similar animals don’t.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just go to sleep after Christmas and wake up the first of April? No worrying about driving on snow and ice, no having to go to work or school and back all bundled up in the dark.

Until the advent of electric lights, the long winter nights were very conducive to getting into bed and staying there.

While scientists have been studying hibernation for many years, once the Space Age dawned they focused their attention on human hibernation, in case astronauts needed to hibernate for long periods of time — in between habitable planets.

Rye pediatrician Bruce Reidenberg points out that for many years a very brief version of hibernation has been used to shorten the length of surgical procedures.

The extreme version of this is cryogenics — freezing people in a near-death state until a cure can be found for their disease.

First, let’s clear up what kinds of animals do or don’t hibernate. The Elementary Science Program offers some information on this topic. Among the mammal hibernators in New York State are black bears, groundhogs, jumping mice, and some bats. Many other animals also hibernate, including turtles, frogs, salamanders, and snakes, as do some fish and insects. Carp cover themselves with mud and sleep at the bottom of the pond. Woolly bear caterpillars hibernate as larvae, cecropia moths do so as pupae; and the mourning cloak butterflies as adults.

Some animals go into deeper hibernation than others, and scientists are still trying to determine why these variations occur.

Hibernation occurs when an animal lowers its metabolic activity rate — slowing heartbeat and breath rates, and the like. A popular phrase for this is “suspended animation.”

As life on earth’s landmasses evolved, a wide range of hibernation techniques occurred, depending on minute changes in climate, as well as more drastic changes, during the various ice ages.

Whereas some species migrate to warmer climates, others have adapted through low metabolism and using up stored food sources. And they frequently find niches that are above freezing — such as the muddy bottom of a lake with ice cover to minimize the impact of temperature drops.

Here’s a description of how water turtles hibernate from the Turtle Puddle website:

“They go deep into the pond and snuggle down into some mud and leaves at the bottom. Their bodies slow down so they don't need to eat anymore.

Their hearts slow down too so that they beat only once every few minutes. They stop breathing through their lungs. Because their bodies are running at such a slow speed, they don't need much oxygen, but they do need some.

They can get the small amount of oxygen they need from the water. It sinks in through specialized skin cells that are just inside the tail opening.”

Pretty amazing stuff.

Just to further complicate things (Mother Nature likes to hedge her bets), there are animals, such as fish, that can’t hibernate, but go dormant.

The study of hibernation falls into the category of physiological and biochemical zoology. It will be interesting to see how animals adapt to climate change and global warming.

Even people who don’t mind the cold dark days of winter, get a chance to think about hibernation every February, when media attention is focused on groundhogs and whether they will come out, and, if so, will they see their shadow.

But you don’t have to wait until then. There are still plenty of non-hibernating animals, such as chipmunks, skunks, and squirrels, out and about on mild winter days or nights — right in our backyard.


Groundhog, a hibernator

Chipmunk, a non-hibernator

By Bill Lawyer

If you ever find yourself complaining about walking into a spider web some evening or early morning, consider this: you’re not running into a swarm of angry fire ants, escaping from their flooded nests, as featured in a recent article in The New York Times.

During my summer evening neighborhood walks with my dog, my flashlight illuminated dozens of spider webs being constructed and utilized.

The spiders seemed determined to use any object at hand (at legs, actually) to catch unsuspecting flying insects. Along Oakland Beach Avenue a web was attached to a telephone pole, parked car, and shrub.

The night of Rye Town Park’s outdoor movie, as people were leaving, they discovered a huge web strung out at the Playland Pool parking lot — using two trees and a pile of branches.

Even on my backyard deck, I’ve had to do a sweep to remove the webs that get built every night between my house, the deck stair railing, and a deck chair.

But thanks to several generations of children brought up reading “Charlotte’s Web”, people are more likely to let the spiders do their thing.

And what they do is eat lots of insects.

How many, you ask? According to the Live Science website, scientists estimate that each year, about 27 million tons of spiders consume somewhere between 440 million and 880 million tons of insects, new research finds.

The new study, published in the journal The Science of Nature, finds that spiders’ food consumption is similar to the amount of food that all whale species (Cetacea) eat annually, biologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and ecologist Klaus Birkhofer of the Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany wrote in their paper.

Spiders that weave the typical roundish webs are known as orb-weavers. Even with everything we know about them, they’re still remarkable in how they combine planning and the use of various chemicals to design, build and maintain their webs.

And of course, even without non-suspecting people barging into the webs, spiders nearly always have to spin new webs each night, particularly after a heavy rain.

Orb weavers rarely bite anything other than insects, and then — only if they’re startled. And, their venom is mild.

Among the lessons we are learning about orb weavers is what is it about the webbing that makes it work so well.

This is one example of the research that’s known as biomimicry — how we can learn things from nature that can help solve human problems while protecting the environment.

Another attribute of orb weavers is how they are able to distinguish the difference between an inanimate objects such as a leaf fragment caught in their webs, rather than insects.

And these are just a few of lessons to be learned, if we look for them, as we take our evening walks around the neighborhood.

So let’s all do our part in letting the spiders do their part, right in our backyards.

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