About Jennifer Soles

Jennifer Soles has been playing in the woods and creeks of Arlington for over 40 years – and encourages the next generation to enjoy them as well. She works as a Naturalist at Gulf Branch Nature Center.

Can’t See the Flowers for the Sneeze?

OR The Oaks are Covered in Flowers but All We See is Pollen.

car with pollenI often tell people not to worry about allergies if they see flowers.  If even distracted humans take notice, a flower’s sweet scents or bright colors are definitely conspicuous to the pollinator the blooms are actually trying to attract.  With their targeted aid, these beauties need to produce a lot less pollen.  And they don’t want what they do produce getting tossed around and lost by the breeze.  So their pollen is more likely to stay on the plant and less likely to end up in your nose.

It’s the flowers we don’t notice that fill the air with pollen.  Many trees rely on the errant winds of spring to carry their pollen from stamen to pistil, from male to female flower.  Most of us have probably never seen the female flowers of wind pollinated trees, or even known to look for them.

And few of us have consciously thought of the dangling catkins on oak trees as strands of flowers.  Flowers with few or tiny petals. Flowers the same greeny-yellowy-browns as their trees. Merely functional flowers. But they have a subtle beauty of their own and deserve a closer look.  Trees are worth seeing.  Don’t be put off by my poor quality pics, go and look for yourself!  This week oak, beech, birch, sweetgum, hackberry, and more are all in bloom.

All the pollen they produce is good for more than just making you sneeze.  Pollen is rich in protein, and is a staple food of many insects – most significantly to us, it is the required food for larval bees. And, secondly, “The Reason for a Flower is to make a seed”.  How many male flowers must spend their pollen in the wind for fertilization of one female flower to occur? How many acorns must mature and fall for a chance of seedling taking root?  How many seedlings must start growing for the sky for a mature oak to stand?

oak seedling

Oak seedling

One in hundred pollen grains? One in a hundred thousand? And so to have any chance at all, at the beginning of the chain that leads to an oak tree, the air must be filled with the golden pollen of trees.

PS. I just went on a hunt for seedling trees in our woods. I found many cherries (distasteful to deer) and some tulip poplar (one of our most common trees, and the seed itself is less often eaten). I found two oak seedlings in five minutes of searching.

A Look at Skulls Found in Arlington

Halloween brought skulls and bones to mind. People brought in bones to our nature centers to share their finds, to offer donations, and for help with identification. We are most frequently asked about raccoon skulls, followed by fox. These may not be the two most common animals in Arlington, but smaller critters’ skulls are less easily found, more fragile, and don’t have exciting big teeth. Our largest wild animal skull most people can identify on their own:

Deer Skull with Antlers

Deer Skull with Antlers

The easiest way to differentiate raccoon and fox skulls is to compare them to other known specimens, but if you don’t happen to have a skull collection of your own at home, here are a few tips. First, raccoons are bigger than you think – or maybe the truth is that foxes are smaller than you think. Both species typically range in weight from 6 to 15 pounds. For comparison, an average house cat weighs about 10 pounds. Raccoons can reach 20 pounds though, so don’t assume a larger skull is a fox!

Fox skull isolated on the black background. Half-opened mouth. Diagonal view.

Fox skull

The easiest way to distinguish skulls of these two species is to look for ridges on the top of the braincase. Fox skulls have two ridges that begin over the eye sockets and join a few inches back. We have two fox species in Arlington – the red fox, Vulpes vulpes and the far less common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Conveniently enough for skull ID mnemonics, the ridges of Vulpes join in a V, and the ridges of the gray fox, Urycon, join in a U shape. Raccoon skulls are rounded and smooth on top. You may see sutures, bumps, and a faint central ridge but nothing like the two distinctive ridges on foxes. A few other things to look for: the noses of foxes are longer and narrower proportionally, their eye sockets are more defined, and ok, yes, they often are a little bigger.

Raccoon Skull on Black Background

Raccoon Skull

After raccoon and fox skulls, I’d say next most common one we see is the opossum. We love this one because it’s unmistakable. Look for a prominent ridge-like a Mohawk running along the top of the skull.  Like all naturalists, I am fundamentally incapable of mentioning opossums without also noting how many many teeth they have – 50 – more than any other mammal in North America.


Opossum skull

Whatever bones you find, one thing I love to look for are marks from gnawing teeth – bones are nature’s calcium supplement for lots of smaller critters, from snails looking to build strong shells to growing young chipmunks.  So enjoy them bones, them bones… and I hope you had a happy Halloween!