Montezuma Birding (and Nature) Trail

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Birding in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex of Central New York

                           Bur-marigolds  © Dave Spier  (more species follow below)

It’s that time of year when some of our wet meadows are covered with a golden haze of bur-marigolds (Bidens species).  Resembling small sunflowers, the bright-yellow flowers have an average of eight rays around a drab-colored central disk.  Not surprisingly both the sunflower and bur-marigold are in the Aster (or Composite) family.

Two attractive species occur in this region.  The Showy, or Larger, Bur-marigold (Bidens laevis) has rays longer than a half inch and flower heads two inches in diameter.  This species is found from California across the lower southern states, locally north into the Midwest and New York but widespread along the East Coast to Massachusetts.  A second species, Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua) has shorter yellow rays and smaller flowers that nod as they ripen.  It is widespread across Canada and the continental states except for the southeast.  Both species have opposite leaves that are narrow, long-pointed and toothed along the margins.

Dr. Bruce Gilman, botany professor at FLCC, commented that, "We also have large populations of Bidens frondosa in our region; [it’s] just not showy due to the lack of ray flowers.”  In addition, the leaves of this species are pinnately compound with three or five leaflets.

The bur-marigold’s alternate names are beggar-ticks and stick-tights referring to the sharply-barbed seeds (called achenes) that cling to your clothes as you brush by a ripe plant.  Different species have two, three or four prongs (called awns).  The numerous seeds are eaten by upland and aquatic birds including ducks. 

There was once a dense stand of bur-marigolds growing on the closest corner of the south pond and marsh at the Montezuma Audubon Center (north of Savannah).  The land around the center is owned by the state as part of the Northern Montezuma Wildlife Management Area.  Changing practices have reduced the bur-marigolds to a single plant growing in shallow water (as of September, 2010).  The exact identification depends on which field guide I consult; it has characteristics of both species, but is most likely the Showy Bur-marigold.  The water level in the south marsh has been dropped temporarily to provide additional shorebird feeding habitat, but five Great Egrets also were taking advantage of the shallow conditions.

The Main Pool at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge is still drained to facilitate marsh reconstruction near the Thruway.  As a result the ground is now covered with a forest of yellow bur-marigold and pink smartweed easily visible from the auto tour route (Wildlife Drive).  The best time to see the display is early morning when the sun is shining.  If you continue driving north past the photography blind, there is a variety of shorebirds on the new mudflats.  The drive is closed at the first bend, but there is plenty of room to turn around.  On the way back, stop at the refuge visitor’s center and scan the shallow wetlands from the deck.  The waterfowl and shorebirds sometimes attract a hunting Peregrine falcon or a smaller Merlin.  In addition, there are usually one or two Bald Eagles in the neighborhood.  The juveniles are all dark.  The wetlands continue south of the visitor’s center and the shorebirds are sometimes close to the refuge entrance road.  It’s worth a stop to look.

Questions, comments, additions and corrections can be e-mailed to The Northeast Naturalist.  

Duck Potato   © Dave Spier  (more species follow)

Indians, and then pioneers, once ate the nutritious tubers of a marsh plant commonly called “duck potato.”  It’s easy to recognize, but beware of a similar wetland plant that can really irritate your mouth if you mistake it.

In the wildflower guides, duck potato goes by the name “Arrowhead,” a reference to the shape of its leaves.  The pointed, three-lobed leaves vary from narrow to wide, and many leaf veins radiate from the stem and then curve to roughly parallel the lobe edges.  From each lobe’s center vein, smaller cross veins give the leaves a somewhat feathery appearance.  If you have a copy of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (available at the Montezuma Audubon Center gift shop), there is a good illustration on page 119.  Better yet, you can see an “island” of Arrowheads in the Audubon Center’s education pond northwest of the footbridge (a short walk south of the building).  Bring binoculars for a better look and also to see some of the resident birds, including Red-winged Blackbirds which have raised one brood and may be starting a second (as of early July).

Another aquatic plant, the Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica) also has arrow-shaped leaves with feather veining, but these lack the multiple long veins converging toward the lobe tips.  Arrow Arum is related to Jack-in-the-pulpit and Skunk-cabbage and like them, contains calcium oxalate crystals that can pierce your tongue and mouth lining and cause an intense burning sensation.  The Arrow Arum flower is a long, pointed spathe or sheath concealing a slender spadix – essentially a vertically stretched Jack-in-the-pulpit.  As the cluster of berries develops, they turn from green to amber.  When ripe, they appeal to Wood Ducks.  This plant is on page 20 of Newcomb’s Guide, and it is more likely to be found in bogs and natural kettle lakes left by the retreat of the glacier at the end of the last Ice Age.

Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) flowers in early summer, and you’ll see that it has very different blossoms.  The large, conventional flowers, each with three white petals, grow in whorls of three around a single stem separate from the leaves.  The flower centers are fuzzy, yellow clusters of 25-40 stamens which produce the pollen.

Duck potatoes produce small tubers, one to two inches long, at the ends of long runners originating at the base of each plant and growing under the mud.  Diving ducks, especially Canvasbacks will uproot these plants to get at the food.  If you have a pond with an abundance of Arrowheads, you can use a hoe to free the tubers and collect them as they float to the surface.  Cook them like small potatoes.  On the other hand, you can be kind to the wild ducks trying to migrate south and leave the plants alone.  If you are a duck hunter, it might benefit you to encourage the growth of Arrowheads.

Questions, anecdotes and suggestions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.  E-mail me or the Montezuma Audubon Center (MAC) for times and details on my Wednesday series of hikes at the MAC.  Through-out the month, these include birding tours and walks, a casual photo stroll and a general nature hike. 

 Common Arrowhead leaf at Montezuma Audubon Center

Common Arrowhead flowers (and leaves) at Montezuma Audubon Center [both photos © Dave Spier]

The Arrowhead plant’s scientific name, Sagittaria, is similar to the summer constellation Sagittarius, the archer, which can be seen low in the southern sky after dark.  (The center of our Milky Way galazy is in the direction of Sagittarius and Scorpio.)

Pickerelweed   © Dave Spier  (more species follow)

  In the world of emergent aquatic plants, Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) is similar in size and habitat preference to the Arrowheads and Arrow Arums in the above article. Pickerelweed, instead of having arrowhead-shaped leaves with pointed lobes, has leaves that are more of an upside-down heart shape. These are held erect by stiff stems above the water. The leaf veins are linear (non-feathery or non-branching) and generally follow the shape of the leaf. In the spring, young curled leaves can be collected and added to salads or boiled for 10 minutes and eaten like spinach.

Pickerelweed [named for the pickerel fish which frequents the same habitats and sometimes hides under the plants) is common along sunny, shallow margins of rivers, streams and ponds in much of the eastern half of North America. Even though the plant can reach a height of three feet or more, some of that is underwater. A thick pad of fibrous roots anchors the colonies in the mud. Pickerelweed is intolerant of shade so you’re unlikely to find it in wooded swamps.

The showy blue to blue-violet flowers are arranged in distinctive clusters called spikes at the top of thick, fleshy stalks. Use binoculars to look at the individual flowers if you don’t want to get your feet wet (or don’t have waders). Each blossom is 2 lipped, and each lip has three lobes for a total of six "petals." Most wildflowers have golden anthers that produce yellow pollen, but the Pickerelweed has dark blue anthers. Instead, a double yellow spot on the top-center "petal" serves as a guide for bees and insects to reach the nectar.  

Seeds produced by cross-fertilization are sometimes eaten by Black and Wood Ducks. Muskrats may also eat a few seeds as well as some of the foliage, and deer feed on the plant. The nutritious, starchy seeds can be eaten like nuts or added to granola, but they are small. It takes roughly 5000 seeds to weigh a pound. They can also be roasted and ground into flour.

The perennial Pickerelweed is a monocot, meaning that each seed produces a new sprout with one (mono) seed leaf, just like cattails, lilies and irises (all plants with parallel-veined leaves). Another similarity with lilies is the trumpet-shaped flowers with six fused petals. Pickerelweed is popular for water gardening because of the attractive blue-violet flowers.

The shed nymph cases of dragonflies and mayflies may sometimes be found clinging to the plant stems. The previous occupants, after spending their youth underwater, climbed into the air, split the shells and emerged to spend the remainder of their lives above water.

Questions, comments and suggestions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist

                             [both Pickerelweed photos © Dave Spier]

White Water-lilies   © Dave Spier

There are several versions of the common name, but American White Water-lily (Nymphaea odorata) will suffice.  It’s widespread on ponds and the edges of slow rivers, including the Seneca River north of Carncross.  This familiar plant is native in the east from Central America to northern Canada, but its introduction to the Western U.S. made it an invasive weed, especially in the state of Washington.

White water-lilies come in two similar varieties, fragrant and tuberous.  They are identified by round, floating leaves, each with a slit to the stem, and showy flowers with numerous petals and 70 yellow stamens in the center.  The leaves of the Sweet-scented (Fragrant) subspecies are usually purple underneath as seen when the wind rolls the edges.  The white petals taper toward the tips and sometimes close by mid-day. 

Tuberous Water-lily leaves are green underneath, and the larger flowers have broad-tipped petals.  The brown tubers, which grow to the size of a hen’s egg, can be collected and prepared like potatoes, but you’ll have trouble finding enough because this subspecies is declining.  It also has a more restricted range centered on the Great Lakes.

The young, uncurling leaves of both types, along with unopened flower buds, can be boiled and eaten with butter.  At the end of the growing season, collect the globe-shaped fruits and remove the seeds which contain starch, oil and protein.  Fry them like popcorn, grind them into flour, or cream them like corn.

Although they appear to be free-floating, water-lilies are rooted in the mud.  The branching rhizomes (underground stems) send up long, spongy stems to the surface.  Air channels in these stems carry oxygen down to the rhizomes.  After flowering, the stems contract into a spiral and pull the fruit underwater where it matures. 

Muskrats sometimes dig up and eat water-lily rhizomes.  One of the plant’s nicknames, “beaver root,” refers to its use as a wildlife food.  Deer supposedly eat the leaves, but this is second-hand.  Waterfowl eat the buoyant seeds.

                     Swamp Rose-mallow   © Dave Spier

"Swamp" is a little misleading; "marsh" would be much more accurate but Marsh Mallow is already taken for a similar plant. (Yes, there was a natural version of the confection before it was made commercially from corn syrup and gelatin. Mallow root thickens water when beaten.) The Swamp Rose-mallow (originally Hibiscus palustris, but now given as a variety of H. moscheutos) is a wetland standout with large, pink blossoms resembling hollyhocks. It can grow to 6 feet high.

Mallow syrup, when mixed with white wine, almond oil and nutmeg was once used as a remedy for kidney stones as well as dysentery and lung ailments. The entire plant is mucilaginous (think Okra), but primarily the roots were used. There are cooking recipes for using the young leaves, flowerbuds, fruits and roots of several mallows, but no direct reference to rose-mallows, so I’m not sure if this species can be used.

The range of rose-mallow extends from the Province of Ontario down to Florida and west to New Mexico but that likely includes its close relative, the Crimson-eyed Rose-mallow which I have not found in this area. The all-pink Swamp Rose-mallow occurs in the Montezuma Marshes around Savannah and the Main Pool at the refuge. Questions, comments and additions may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist. 

                   Links to related wetlands articles

Bluegills (sunfish) *

Bulrushes (Scirpus validus) *

Cattails *

Painted Turtles *

Purple Loosestrife * 

Skunk-cabbage *

Wetlands in March *

*on The Northeast Naturalist's blog