If you've spent any time around Greenburgh Public Library, you've probably heard the phrase "lifelong learning." It's a key part of our mission. It's also a key part of my personality, so maybe it's inevitable that I ended up working in a library. Whenever something catches my attention, the library has plenty of resources to explore. But it wasn't always so easy to get information.
When I was eight years old, we moved to a new house. It was only a few blocks from our previous rental house, but the overgrown yard was a wonderland to me. I was a Girl Scout, and I loved animals and nature, and relished every encounter. But the barrier islands of New Jersey are a very specific ecosystem, and in the 1970s and 80s, wildlife was rare: no deer, no raccoons, no skunks--not so much as a squirrel! The flora was limited, too; even at eight, I was already familiar with the wild oats, coreopsis, blanketflower, wild roses, and goldenrod that grew in the area. I learned to make bayberry candles from the bushes that grew in our yard, melting the wax into clamshells. I loved the scrubby pines and the cedars, even though the evergreen pollen tormented me each spring.
Our new house was old by local standards, an original summer house built in the 1920s and converted to year-round living. The yard was basically sand, with a variety of native weeds, and a tall hedge out front which attracted masses of bees. I was in my glory in this yard. There was a climbable tree in the back, and a thicket of bayberries. The side yard had spiderwort, and a pink flower that our wildflower book suggested might be soapwort. Soon my sisters and I were “washing” our hands with crushed leaves and water from the hose.
Along the side of the garage was a tangle of Virginia creeper and pachysandra. I was very excited to spot another plant in there, with three shiny leaves. I thought they even looked a little reddish, like we had learned in Girl Scouts. Jackpot! I was sure we had poison ivy! A fan of the scientific method from a very young age, I picked a leaf and rubbed it vigorously against the back of my left hand. A few days later, the data proved my hypothesis. The itchy rash was totally worth it! It was an extremely valuable lesson for me to carry into adulthood; poison ivy thrives in Westchester!
My latest obsession first caught my attention back in March, and luckily I’ve outgrown my tendency to conduct hands-on investigation. Walking out near the Tarrytown Lakes, I noticed an area where there were a bunch of bare sticks coming up from the leaf litter. A closer look revealed a scary sight--the entire stalk was covered in sharp thorns! I snapped a photo, and went home to Google. An image search for “identify stem with spines New York” returned some horrifying results, but I soon found the aralia spinosa, which has the catchy common name of Devil’s Walking Stick. It’s also known as Hercules Club, Angelica Tree, and other regional names.
All year, I’ve observed these trees, from bare prickly stem, to terminal shoots, to almost tropical tri-palmate leaves. In the summer, they bear clouds of white flowers, which attract bees and butterflies. After pollination, the flower bracts turn pink with small black berries that feed wildlife. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow and orange, and by late November, the stems are bare once again. Devil's Walking Stick is a pioneer species, which means it’s among the first to grow as a forested area develops. It needs sunlight, so you won’t find it in areas with taller mature trees. It's a pretty fascinating plant, but you might not notice it at all unless you're up close.
Next spring, I’m planning to pay more attention to the bazillion kinds of fungi I’ve noticed this year. (When my kids were small they loved to eat mushrooms.They also seem to have inherited my penchant for experimenting. After an incident involving a three year old, the seed pods of pink sweetpea flowers, and a call to the Poison Control hotline, I was always careful to call the things we found in the woods “toadstools,” just to be safe.) I’m hoping to learn about some different species, but my fascination will be limited to photography. I have no plans to sample anything I find in the woods; I’m science-minded AND risk-averse.
Now I don’t need to field-test my suspicions. Instead of one illustrated wildflower book, I have the entire internet at my fingertips. Plus, I work in a library; if it’s information you want, there’s no better place!
Since Westchester has so many parks, the libraries have quite a large selection of field guides. I've borrowed guides for birds, trees, mushrooms, wildflowers, and ferns.
There are also great websites and free apps available to help with identification. These are some of my favorites:
Birdnet: record a snippet of birdsong. The app will generate a visual soundwave; isolate the sound you want to identify, tap “analyze,” and get a quick ID. This is great for those times when you hear a bird, but can’t get a good look.
Merlin from the Cornell Lab is great for birds you’ve seen. Answer questions about location, size, and color, to narrow down the possibilities. Create a free account and join the Great Backyard Bird Count. Connect with eBird.org to start your Life List (a list of all the birds you’ve seen)
iNaturalist: crowdsource your ID. Upload a photo, input your location, and the app will suggest likely matches. If you’re still not sure, other users might make suggestions. There are lots of photos for comparison, and plenty of expert contributors.
InsectIdentification.org Search by color, location, or type of bug.
USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station: This site offers more than 12,000 publications, including this gem: Publication 38089, Field guide to common macrofungi in eastern forests and their ecosystem functions
I have my dog to thank for all this year's nature exploration; he's a great incentive to get outside and explore.
We're coming up on his one-year "gotcha" day, and I'm really looking forward to another chance to watch the seasons go by.