False Baby’s Breath, and Birdsong Identification

2021 July 11

The pine plantation behind our house was thinned about a decade ago, which opened up the woods enough that light could reach the ground. This made the formerly-nearly-barren ground under the pines suddenly become an attractive environment for a variety of plants. As a result, there have been several waves of plant colonization, first the mulleins, then the daisies, then the raspberries/blackberries. The most recent arrival has been carpets of thin plants that grow about 2-3 feet tall, and have masses of tiny white blossomes, like these that we photographed on June 27, 2021:


The blossoms are fairly attractive to pollinating insects, there were a lot of wild bees and pollinating flies in them, although I didn’t get any of them to stay still long enough for a picture. These plants definitely go all-in on their blossoms, I think they had more of those little white flowers than leaves.


The plants don’t appear to be toxic. There were spittlebugs on them sucking out their juices,


and this healthy-looking grasshopper was also hanging out on them, and probably feeding on them.


The individual blossoms are pretty simple, with four petals, four anthers producing pollen, and a not very obvious pistil in the center for receiving pollen.


The leaves were pretty sparse, occuring as whorls of 8 or so leaves at the nodes along the stem. Additional branches also came off of the nodes.


There were a few false starts identifying these, but we eventually narrowed them down to probably being Galium mollugo, which goes by various names including False Baby’s Breath, Hedge Bedstraw, White Bedstraw, Wild Madder, Whorled Bedstraw, and Smooth Bedstraw. It’s a Eurasian species that has been accidentally introduced to North America as well as many other places. It doesn’t appear to be as noxious as some other foreign species, as its leaves are so sparse that they don’t shade out other plants much, and they don’t appear to poison the soil for other plants. Apparently this plant, and the other related bedstraws, used to be used for stuffing mattresses because the stems are fairly soft and don’t mat down too quickly, making for a nice, fluffy bed. They smell kind of nice, too.


And as a second part of this posting, something that might be of interest if you are curious as to what birds might be singing around you:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been making their Merlin Bird ID app available for a while now, and it is a handy storehouse of bird identification tools that you can keep on your smartphone. Just in the last few weeks, they released an addition that is something of a breakthrough. The Sound ID add-on allows you to just hold up your phone, record the birds singing around you, and then have the app go through and try to sort out individual birdsongs and identify them.

And it works!

Downloading the data files took a bit of time, but once it was all loaded up we went out into the yard in the evening, and I started up the app, pressed “record”, and let ‘er rip.
It correctly identified American Robins, White-Throated Sparrows, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow Warblers, Song Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, a Red-Tailed Hawk, and a Common Raven. The Robin, Waxwing, Warbler, and White-Throated Sparrow were even all identified at the same time, on a single recording! It generally takes about 10 or 15 seconds to sort one out, but once it has it, a link pops up that will be highlighted every time the recording shows that bird singing again, so you can be sure which song it is identifying as which bird. And once you are done recording, you can follow the links to each of the birds identified, which include recordings of their songs that you can use to double-check, along with other identification information.

Granted it isn’t quite perfect. It identified our chickens’ noises as being Common Ravens at one point, and another time it said a Scarlet Tanager’s song was a Robin. But, to be fair, Ravens do sound a lot like chickens sometimes, and I thought the Scarlet Tanager song was a Robin song at first too, until we got a look at him through binoculars. And they really do sound almost identical. The Tanager just sounds like a Robin with a slight accent.

They don’t have recordings of all North American birds yet, but it looks like they have about 400-500 of the most common ones. So if there is some bird singing around your house that you just can’t get a good enough look at to see what it is, I recommend this app.

Note on July 15, 2021: So, this morning, I used the app on the song of what we have been calling the “Ray-Gun Bird”, because it sounds like the ray-gun sound effects that get used in movies. We’ve been hearing this bird for some years now, but never seen it. The app says it is a Northern Cardinal, which is kind of exciting, because according to the range maps we are just outside of their normal range. Unless . . . are there any birds that come this far north, that make a convincing shot at mimicking a cardinal?

2 Responses
  1. Anne Bingham permalink
    July 11, 2021

    I downloaded the BirdNet app a few weeks ago. Husband decided to try to fool it by making a birdish noise. App identified creature as “Human–almost certain.”

    We have been having a LOT of fun telling that story.

  2. July 12, 2021

    I’m sure that your husband is reassured that the computers are willing to acknowledge that he is “almost certainly” human.

    It looks like Cornell has both the BirdNet app as a standalone, and the SoundID add-on to Merlin. I think maybe they trialed it as Birdnet first to get the bugs out before adding it to Merlin.

    My daughters found our old goose-call and tried to fool the Merlin app with it, but it just didn’t acknowledge the call as sounding like a goose at all. I guess they need to practice more.

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