Friday, February 27, 2015

Invasive Species Awareness Week: Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental bittersweet vine girdling a tree. Photo by Angela Isackson.
 Post contributed by Samantha House, seasonal natural resources technician:

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is not commonly known, but it is a noxious weed according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This troublesome vine should be on every Minnesotan’s ‘watch list’. Native to Asia, this plant easily overtakes forested areas by wrapping and twisting around trees ultimately girdling and killing them. In addition to smothering trees, Oriental bittersweet is capable of pulling down trees in its attempt to accrue sunlight. The vine has been recorded to grow up to fourteen inches in only a couple of months  – you can imagine how quickly a young infestation can take over an area if left untouched.  

Oriental bittersweet fruit. Photo by Angela Isackson.
One should note this deadly vine has a native counterpart, American bittersweet. The easiest way to identify Oriental versus American bittersweet is the fruit positioning on female plants. Oriental bittersweet has axillary fruit – meaning, the flowering/fruiting occurs at the leaf axils and along the stem; whereas American bittersweet has terminal fruit – fruiting occurs near the end of the stem. Furthermore, Oriental bittersweet generally has yellow fruit capsules versus American’s bright orange capsules. Some sources claim that if no fruit is present (i.e. a male plant) one can differentiate native/nonnative based on Oriental bittersweet’s rounder leaf shape, but this is not always the case. Often, this invasive plant can have leaves that closely resemble the native’s leaf structure and vice versa because the two species hybridize in nature. If in doubt, watch the plant over a period of time. American bittersweet seems to grow slower and does not have a malicious intent. Whereas, Oriental bittersweet will quickly cover an area with vines and tightly girdle trees. 

Knowing how to properly identify Oriental bittersweet is imperative if we are to properly eradicate the invasive. Though the seed is commonly spread by birds, humans play a part as well. This invasive vine is frequently used as ornamental pieces for their bright colored fruits. Some plant distributors have even mislabeled Oriental bittersweet as American.

Even though Oriental bittersweet is a high threat to Minnesota’s forests, its current distribution is limited – the silver lining. There is only one known infestation on Saint Paul Parks and Recreation land to date. Hence, if people are on the lookout for this smothering killer and take the proper steps to control it, we can realistically stop this invasive in its tracks before it becomes too late. Remember early detection and rapid response makes all the difference when it comes to invasive species!

For more information, please visit:

Test your knowledge of Oriental bittersweet and many other invasive species:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Layering for Winter

Post contributed by Pat, Conservation Corps crew leader:

Winter is here and and without the proper clothes it can become difficult to enjoy the outdoors or even go to the grocery store. With the right clothes and layering them correctly you'll be able do all this and build a snowman after. You will have the carrot after-all. 

Example of a base-layer
Layering is a way to use your clothes to keep you warm for any activity. There are three main parts of layering. The base layer (on your skin), mid-layer (over base layer), and outer layer (what the wind hits). Putting these three parts together is simple and can insure a great time outside.

The base layer is the first thing you put on. This layer is to get moisture away from you. Fabrics such as merino wool, silk, or a synthetic blend will take the moisture away from your body to keep you dry. Avoid fabrics that will absorb moisture. Cotton is one of these fabrics to avoid as it will keep the moisture which cools fast in cold weather. 

Example of mid-layer
The mid-layer is there help retain warmth. Wool and fleece are great for mid-layers. They both have there pros and cons. Fleece is lighter but only keeps heat if dry as wool is a bit heaver but keeps you warm if wet. 

Outer layer is what protects you from the elements. There is a huge variety in outer layers. Waterproof, wind breaker (don't vent as well), and softshell are all considerations for this layer. For winter you're likely to go with something that protect you from the wind and is water resistant. Different weather conditions will change what outer layer you choose. There are links below to help you make the right decision about outer layers for weather conditions. 

Example of outer-layer
That's the basics of layering. Play around with different combinations in different weather conditions to optimize comfort and warmth. Enjoy the views around parks and lakes in St. Paul with the sound of snow crunching under your boots. Stay safe!

P.S. Layering if for your both torso and legs. Don't forget mittens and a hat!


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Frosty Feathers: How to help out Minnesota's winter birds

Post contributed Meredith, Conservation Corps of Minnesota crew leader:

As Minnesota transitions from fall to winter (that’s right, it’s happening) we here at Conservation Corps have been lucky to witness many seasonal changes as we go about our work in the city parks. Piles of red and orange leaves, squirrels stashing walnuts and over-wintering birds busy in the trees around us.  As fall colors start to fade and winter’s grays, whites and browns set in its important for us Northern dwelling humans to look for the beauty in these upcoming winter months.  For many, the splendor of winter is glaringly apparent when watching a resident chickadee or cardinal flit around a backyard feeder.  Many bird species endure Minnesota winters along with us and just as they bring cheer to our winter months we can be of service to them as well.
Black Capped Chickadee, a Minnesota winter resident
There are many challenges that resident birds (birds that do not migrate south) face during the winter. Sure, birds don’t have to shovel the driveway but they do have to stay warm, find food, and find water which can often be scarce during the winter.

Birds have a few ways of staying toasty in colder temperatures. Many birds fluff up the layer of feathers closest to their skin, also called down feathers, to trap warm air close to their body. Species that are social, like Black-Capped Chickadees, will roost in colonies to take advantage of each other's body heat. We can provide comfy roosting spots by cleaning out old nests and bedding from bird houses and replacing it with dry leaves or wood shavings.  Sawdust retains water so it is not a good choice for birdhouse bedding. It is also good to seal ventilation holes in bird houses, which are important on a hot summer day, but can be detrimental to birds trying to stay warm in the winter.
Downy Woodpecker, another winter resident
Providing food for birds in your backyard can be helpful as well.  Many people already have tube feeders in their yards but there are other ways to cater to your neighborhood bird’s appetite.  High calorie foods like meat scraps, suet (fat rendered from processed beef), and peanut butter can give birds important high caloric fats to sustain them through the winter. Coating a pine cone in peanut butter and then sprinkling it with a bird seed mixture and hanging it by string from a tree branch is an easy way to provide a meal to winter birds.

A bird bath heater is an option to keep liquid water available for birds throughout the winter. This is particularly important if it is below freezing and there is no snow on the ground that birds can use as a water source. Bird Watcher’s Digest suggests placing several rocks in your bird bath if you are heating it in the winter to keep birds from actually bathing in the bath.  When birds get wet at below freezing temperatures their feathers can freeze solid which can be deadly for them. Allowing enough room in your bath for birds to drink but not bathe is important.

We hope that as you prepare yourself for winter you also think about doing something Minnesota’s (winter) feathered friends! Please visit these sites for additional info about winter bird necessities!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Bad Business for the Bats

Post contributed by Mary, Conservation Corps Youth Outdoors crew member:

As night time temperatures drop below 50 degrees, it is time for bats to hibernate. With hibernation, however, comes a new danger – White-nose syndrome (WNS). WNS is a bat disease that has been rapidly spreading across the United States and Canada. It is a skin infection caused by a fungus, Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which develops over the bats wings, ears and muzzles during hibernation restricting their breathing. This causes the bats to awaken from their deep hibernation sleep, which in turn causes them to rapidly deplete their fat stores before winter’s end resulting in death from starvation. Some bats appear to die directly from the infection as well, so the exact cause of this rapid death is still unclear. WNS, which is thought to have been brought from Europe to a cave in New York eight years ago, has spread to 25 states and five Canadian provinces decimating bat populations. If WNS infects a cave it can wipe out over 90% of the bat population. Bat populations cannot recover quickly from losses such as this because bats usually lead long lives and have only one pup a year.
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via flickr
There are seven species of bats in Minnesota, four of which hibernate as opposed to migrate and are therefore susceptible to WNS. All four of these species, Little Brown Myotis, Northern Long-Eared Myotis, Tri-Color Bat, and Big Brown bat, have been affected by the disease in eastern states. The fungus associated with WNS has been found in two Minnesota caves, Mystery cave and the Soudan mine, but so far bat populations have remained healthy. We hope the 2014/2015 winter will bring the same results because bats are essential to Minnesota’s ecosystems and agriculture and their disappearance could be detrimental. Bats are one of the only predators of night flying insects and consume them in huge numbers. A female caring for her young can eat her weight in insects in one night. Bats help keep down numbers of insect pests who can damage crops, prairies and forests, and not to mention are a nuisance to humans.

We can all help slow the spread of WNS by reporting to the Minnesota DNR any bats that you see flying during the day in the winter; a sign that they have woken up from hibernation and may be looking for food. It is also a good idea to not enter any caves where bats are hibernating as not to disturb them or possibly spread the disease which is thought to enter caves on the shoes and gear of spelunkers. If you do go in a cave make sure to wash your clothes, gear and shoes before and after entering. 

Want to know more?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Bluebird Trail Winding Down

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Five one-week old bluebirds
All is well on the trail this week. The eight week-old bluebirds occupying two boxes appear quite content and healthy. I did not open the box containing five close-to-fledging bluebirds, but caught a glimpse of a beak poking up towards the entrance hole from inside as I passed by. The rest of the boxes remain empty and I will soon remove them, to clean and store them for next spring.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

All is Well on the Trail

Young male bluebird out on his own!
Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Only three boxes are occupied now on the trail. In those boxes are a total of 13 healthy young bluebirds (five over a week old, and eight recently hatched). The other eight nest boxes remain empty.

Ants had moved into the box with the unused bluebird nest inside it, so I removed the nest (and some ants). Since no new bluebird eggs had been laid in the nest where the four eggs disappeared last week, I removed that nest also.

I was pleased to come upon a speckled young male bluebird perched in a little tree near one of the occupied boxes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Week of the Disappearing Eggs

Post contributed by Sharon, volunteer bluebird trail monitor:

Five bluebirds hatched recently. There were no new fledgings or eggs laid in the past week.
Gorgeous tall grass prairie in bloom,
site of Gilbertson nest box occupied by bluebirds
Unfortunately, there has been a reduction in the number of bluebird eggs on the trail. Four bluebird eggs disappeared without a trace from one box—the nest inside was completely undisturbed and clean. It could be the work of house wrens, though the box is not located near a brushy area (typical house wren habitat).

There are still eight bluebird eggs in two other boxes.

The last tree swallow nest filled with feathers turned out to be empty—no eggs, no birds, no mess—used tree swallow nests end up very messy by the time the young birds fledge. There definitely were eggs in there earlier, but they never hatched—this nest was pristinely clean. The phantom yellow beak in the photograph from two weeks ago must have been the thick blade of yellow grass I discovered when I removed the empty nest. What happened? Perhaps house wrens removed these eggs, too.

Eight boxes are now unoccupied.