Thom Smith | NatureWatch: What is the 'W' for on the Rail Trail?

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Q: Regarding your article about the wonderful rail trail, I have a question. Along the trail, there are occasional pillars with a large letter W carved into it. Do you know what this signifies?

— Sheila, Lee

A: Remember that you are on a historic railroad corridor that crosses roads along its way. The pillars were placed to remind engineers to blow the whistle as a warning of their approach.

Q: We have been wondering what has happened to the lightning bugs or are they fireflies? I see very few now.

— Randy, Pittsfield

A: I do agree with you. You may prefer to call them flies or bugs, but they are actually (Coleoptera) winged beetles and would be more correctly fire beetles or lightning beetles, even if those names don't sound as romantic. They prefer warm, damp nights and not the hot, dryer nights of August, so keep looking. My only guess is that fireflies prefer tall grass, something at a premium where I live, and before the heat of August, I may go firefly hunting, perhaps off Holmes Road on the road into the Pittsfield's sewer treatment plant and check the fields.

Fireflies create light as if by magic, but what appears to be magic is chemistry. A chemical called luciferin combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate, (Google it, if need be) and a chemical reaction creates the light we call bioluminescence. And this light is nearly 100-percent efficient! I recall gathering a peanut butter jar of them and reading a comic book one night as a child, with not a clue that I was saving electricity.

In Massachusetts, to get an idea of when, where and how many fireflies others are seeing, go to; I was unable to confirm if Vermont has a firefly-watch.

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At, I read, "Fireflies love humid, warm environments. In the U.S., almost no species of fireflies are found west of Kansas— although there are also warm and humid areas to the west. Nobody is sure why this is." In the Tropical Americas, Central and South provide the needed humidity and warmth to offer the group the highest number of species.

Q: Where have all the seagulls gone? Every year, a huge flock of them hang out at Onota Lake and also are frequently seen at McDonald's on Merrill Road and all over the skies in Allendale, and throughout the Berkshires. I wonder: Did they get sick or something? Onota's skies are like a ghost town. It seems very strange. Oh, and by the way, not seeing many ducks either.

— Theresa S.

A: First, while I often call them "seagulls," this is a good example that all gulls are not seagulls. There are a number of species of gulls. The species most commonly seen in The Berkshires and Southern Vermont is the migrant ring-billed gull, often seen at fast-food restaurant parking lots, malls and scattered about some golf courses and parks at various times of the year. The ring-billed gull is as much, or more, a freshwater species as it is a seashore species. They do not, to my knowledge, nest and raise young, at the ocean, but rather at larger freshwater lakes.

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We see them here and when they are most common is in April and May, and from September through November. A few have been seen occasionally every month of the year. The next most common gull seen here is also a migrant, the herring gull. This is more the "seagull" that we see so often along the New England coast.

The skies may appear to be ghost skies, but there is an assortment of species, for instance, swallows flying low over the water catching insects, the occasional bald eagle and osprey fishing comes to mind. There are black ducks, wood ducks, and Canada geese nesting. And when the water is low with muddy banks and sand bars (not too often in recent years), sandpipers have been seen. The great-blue, and green herons are seen in marshy places along with red-wing blackbirds.

Ducks and other water birds are not very conspicuous at this season, except for early morning, when the water is quiet.


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Berkshire Natural Resources Council will offer two different kinds of outings this month.

- The Thomas & Palmer Brook Family Scavenger Hunt Hike will be held from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Hand lenses and a field microscope will be available to look at the little things. Bring water and a snack, and wear sturdy footwear.

Thomas and Palmer Brook is on State Road (Route 23) east of Great Barrington. Look for a sign between 301 and 309 State Road.

- The Fountain Pond/Threemile Hill Woodland Family Walk will be held 10:30 a.m. to noon, Tuesday, July 23.

Experiment with leaf and bark rubbings; learn how to identify what you see.

Meet at the northern trailhead at Fountain Pond State Park. Take Route 7 north through the commercial district of Great Barrington. From the traffic light at the McDonalds/Price Chopper shopping center, the trailhead is 1-mile north, on the right.

For more information, email or call 413-499-0596 (Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) Severe weather will cancel either event.


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