Westford Wildlife by Marian Harman
Probably you are discouraged by the severe drought we are having in the northeast. It’s hard on our yards and gardens, and especially hard on wildlife, which need extra water put out at our bird feeders to survive. But there is one very big upside of the drought from my point of view. I have found two plants that I have been looking for since 1994. I have recently rediscovered two plants first described in 1911 by the highly respected Westford botanist, Miss Emily Fletcher. Emily Fletcher was known about town as the lady who hiked up her long skirts and tramped through the fields and wetlands in search of rare plants. Women were not at that time invited to be members of the New England Botanical Club, so when she had an identification question, she sent her plants to men who were members. Her letters were often published in the club’s publication, “Rhodora”. All of her 630 pressed specimens, most from Westford, were donated to the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University at her death in 1923.
Emily Fletcher reported in a 1911 entry to the “Rhodora” that she had found “a rare grass, Juncus pelocarpus, which occurs only on the bottom of the middle of Grassy Pond when it is dry”. She also reported Rhexia virginica also known as Virginia meadowbeauty. When I read this report in 1984, I hadn’t realized that Grassy Pond ever dried up. Since then, I have found that the pond does almost dry up occasionally, and therefore is classified as a vernal pool. In the 22 years in which I have been searching for this plant, however, Grassy Pond was never dry in the middle. This year, eureka! The pond is completely dry and one can walk right out to the middle. We walked out there recently and found a plant that looked a lot like Juncus pelocarpus as illustrated in my Gleason and Cronquist Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. I took multiple photos and sent them to Arthur Haines of the New England Wildflower Society. Mr. Haines, who is the author of Flora Novae Angliae confirmed that the plant is, indeed, Juncus pelocarpus. He told me that it is actually a rush, not a grass, and that it is also known as Brown-fruited Rush. He said that it is not on the state list of rare plants, but is uncommon, due to the fact that it only grows in seasonal wetlands. The also uncommon Virginia Meadowbeauty is much easier to identify, and my Peterson’s Field Guide to Wildflowers was all I needed for that. Its a beautiful, startlingly bright pink mass of flowers blooming at Grassy Pond’s margin.
Emily Fletcher was an important contributor to the publication Flora of Middlesex County. At the time of her death at the age of 78, she was movingly recognized by members of the Botanical Club. You can find out more about Emily Fletcher by reading companion papers titled “Emily Frances Fletcher” written by Jean Downy and Marian Harman in 1994. It is available at the Fletcher Library.
After twenty-two years of searching, I am delighted to find that these plants have survived at least 105 years at Grassy Pond, and are now appearing again to have their day in the sun. I like to think that Emily Fletcher would be delighted to see that they are still flourishing. Go to see them before the fall rains cover them again!
Many thanks to all flora and fauna reporters for the month of August. Please send reports by August 26 for publication in next month’s column. You can write me at 10 Chamberlain Rd., call me at 692-3907, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Late July Reports:
Dot Mooney, at Howard Rd. July 21, so many very small painted turtles in water, hugging the arrowhead leaves. Small water snake, about 15 inches long. They get to be about 30 inches long, quite sturdy and grow darker with age. They look scary but are non-venomous and should not be harmed. A second snake soon appeared near the first one. This water is going down fast, more mud stretches. Monadnock Dr., July 22, three tom turkeys poking around. July 23, female red-bellied woodpecker visiting empty feeder by woods. I filled it and it was instantly visited by a goldfinch, chickadee, titmouse and house finch. They are a bit like us. We all have our own regular food, but its fun to go out to dinner. A pair of blue jays teaching three noisy youngsters how to use the feeder. July 24, rabbit scampering along edge of grass, red-eyed vireo singing in woods, several house finches on bird bath. Red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers often on suet. July 25, bird bath getting busier, just saw a downy there. I rarely see a woodpecker in for a drink. July 26, at Howard Rd. wetland, numerous really small painted turtles. I noticed an animal moving through the dense foliage, a mink. A nice surprise. Many white water lilies blooming. At Monadnock Dr. July 29, small cooper’s hawk on back lawn. He lifted something up and took it into the woods. July 31, three blue jays on bird bath at once. A downy quickly hopped on after them. Two white-breasted nuthatches on deck together, busy checking tiny spaces between boards. Goldfinches regularly visit my pots of zinnias and coneflowers, nipping seed heads apart. Some scattered dove feathers on the ground out front suggest a sad end.
Sue Bonner, Plain Rd. July 25, a bobcat seen in the conservation land between our house and Almeria Circle. A coyote appeared across street, headed onto our property. Two coyotes seen on Plain Rd. earlier. Two yearlings and one adult ground hog frequent our deck to prune my hibiscus and giant zinnias in a pot. Chipmunks and squirrels also eating hibiscus leaves and blooms. “It is a tough summer for all of us.” We feed birds with mixed seed, black oil sunflower seed and suet and enjoy watching the mom sparrows feed the fledglings as they perch on the shepherd’s crook. We also provide a large saucer of water on the deck for birds, squirrels and chipmunks, and another larger container of water on our stone wall. We have cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches, red-winged blackbird, mourning doves, starlings and grackles.
Marian and Bill Harman, at Grassy Pond, July 25, plants seen: Virginia meadowbeauty, Carex scoparia (a sedge), lance-leaved goldenrod, toad rush, a bulrush, twig rush, Juncus pelocarpus.
Dot Mooney, Monadnock Dr. August 1, a male goldfinch spent an extended time splashing, fluttering and drinking in the birdbath. House finches and chipping sparrows are often on the feeder by the woods. August 4, a young hairy woodpecker likes to stay on the suet a long time. Little downies get very annoyed with him hogging the suet. Perky little red squirrel by front woods. Little hummer on the porch, not interested in my flowers. August 6, I’m seeing more birds arrive for little sips of water and then quickly leave. This drought is getting worse. I set out a second dish of water. August 7, the pair of cardinals has become a family and are in and out of the feeder. Various bees also drink at the bird bath. Beautiful red-tailed hawk over the back woods. August 11, being an early riser, I can listen to the summer night insect sounds briefly before they begin to fade. Before the sun rose today, a robin was very loudly annoyed at something out in the woods. I guess we all have some drama in our lives. Chickadee and titmouse visiting suet, along with various woodpeckers. August 20, my feeder was empty for a few days but a friend filled it for me. There were many little birds sitting in the bushes nearby and could not wait to get to the seed, making noise as they waited. “When I rose very early this pleasant morning the night insects could still be heard. These familiar soft sounds usher in the late summer season, just as the peepers usher in spring”.
Marian/Bill Harman, Chamberlain Rd. August 1 at Grassy Pond, cowwheat, a magnolia turning bright orange already, marsh St. Johnswort, yellow-eyed grass, Canadian St. Johnswort. August 4. A mockingbird doing a long imitation of a whippoorwill. I wonder where he picked that up? “Our red squirrel has a clever way of getting seed from our “squirrel proof” feeder. He puts both back feet on the side of the feeder, then leans most of his weight on his left arm which pushes the bar down and closes the feeder. Then he does a little hop up and down which releases a few seeds. These he scoops up with his right paw and puts in his mouth. Such a clever animal, we can’t be angry with him. August 24, screech owl calling from our woods tonight.
Kate Phaneuf, Drawbridge Rd. August 6, one lone turkey pecking at a shiny black car on Providence Rd. Dead water snake on Drawbridge Rd. and a dead garter snake in the woods. The beaver pond is pretty much gone now. The beavers were trapped and moved.
Carol Engel, Lowell Rd. August 7, large baby cowbird being fed by a tiny adult sparrow.
Kate Hollister/Peter Mahler, Vinebrook Rd. August 7, snowshoe hare seen between Trailside Way and the pond, also saw barred owl. August 10, garter snakes, water snakes, green frog, catbirds at Kennedy Pond. Female whiteface dragonfly (Leucorrhinia sp) near Vine Brook. “The new growth on all the small pines trees on the Emmet Conservation land is dying. Many of them won’t survive the drought.”
Ginger Dries, Sherwood Dr. August 9, Mama turkey here every morning for last three days. August 15, rose-breasted grosbeak. Our hummingbird feeders are very busy, and the woodpeckers and a chickadee are using it now too. Two rabbits come every morning and evening. A cooper’s hawk visits and sits on birdbath, porch or feeder. Three to four pair of cardinals here with jays, finches, doves, titmice, chickadees, sparrows.
Rosemarie Koester, Providence Rd. August 14, twenty-three visiting wild turkeys. Saw a bobcat across the street last night, chasing something. August 16, purple, house and goldfinches, two pairs of cardinals with one juvenile, house sparrows, doves, two blue jays, up to six grackles. The grackles toss out the seeds they don’t like, which brings the squirrels and chipmunks to clean it up. Downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker at feeder with a juvenile. A young pileated woodpecker here for a few days, chickadees, tufted titmouse, nuthatch, one lone male red-winged blackbird, hawk flying overhead. About three hummingbirds, very territorial. “One night they were almost battling in the air.” During the hot weather I had to fill the feeder almost every day. Birds, squirrels turkeys all drink from the bird bath. I put another dish on the ground. Coyotes calling to each other one night. Many chipmunks. They come on the deck and try to get our tomatoes, also eating my hostas. Many gray squirrels chasing each other, one red squirrel. Two hen turkeys with little ones (about 12 at first, now down to four). Hungry bunny ate all my hibiscus plant flowers and buds and tops of other blooming annuals. Garter snake by rock wall, wasp nest in gutter. Little black ants, a few bees. Squirrels climb our two very small mountain ash trees and nibble on the last set of leaves. Chunks of oak leaves on the lawn as well. My tall Rose of Sharon bush has many buds missing. Tops of smaller trees are dry, some turning color and dropping leaves already, brook almost completely dry. Bittersweet is still growing and encircling bushes and trees. If people would only check their areas and cut it down. It is so destructive.
Rick Ferry, Tenney Rd. August 10, I video’d a downy woodpecker sharing a hummingbird feeder with a hummingbird [Rick sent a great video of this unusual behavior-MH]. Our pond is very dry. All the birds are thirsty and looking to wash. Our birdbath which Sue fills daily gets a lot of action.
Peggy Bennett at Lake Nabnasset. August 10, while in a kayak, I saw a bald eagle flying past Edwards Beach going to Shipley Swamp and landing. At Nabnasset St., a raccoon comes to the bird feeder regularly.
Debbie Prato, Hayrick Lane. August 26, Canada geese, two female turkeys with ten poults, chipping sparrows, two blue herons flying over yard (to the great excitement of the turkeys), woodchuck, skunks, bats, walking stick on the screen.
Marian Harman is a member of the Westford Conservation Trust, a non-profit conservation organization. The Trust welcomes new members and volunteers. Check out the Trust’s website at westfordconservationtrust.org, or visit on Facebook.