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Archive for March, 2014

1. New Boot

I bought some new rubbery waterproof boots so I could walk in drainage ditches, swamps, and streams without getting my feet wet. The only trouble with them is, they aren’t insulated. When you’re walking on snow that means you don’t stand around in one place for too long with them on. I learned quickly that the way to keep your feet warm in these boots was to keep walking so, with boots for the water and Yaktrax for the ice, off I went in search of fruiting liverworts.

2. Drainage Ditch

Between the stone walls of this old railroad cut and the rail bed are drainage ditches that the railroad engineers designed in the early 1800s, and which still work well. But without boots on they also keep you from getting close to any of the mosses, ferns, and liverworts that grow on the ledge walls. The water isn’t much more than 8-12 inches deep but it is spring fed and very cold, even with boots on.

3. Icy Walls

In places the drainage ditches are still frozen over and I walked on them where I could, but much of the ice hanging from these 30 foot high walls is rotten at this time of year so you have to pay attention to what is hanging above you.

4. Ice Colors

I took this photo to show the subtle color variations in the ice. It can be quite beautiful in various shades of blue and green.

5. Fallen Ice

The ice can also be quite dangerous. The pieces in this photo are as big as tree trunks-plenty big enough to crush someone.

 6. Fallen Rock

Ice isn’t the only thing falling from these walls. I’m wondering if I shouldn’t also buy a hard hat, though this stone was big enough to make wearing a hard hat a waste of time.

7. Mossy Walls

Finally after a short hike I saw some signs of life.  The constant drip of water over these stones makes this a perfect home for all kinds of masses and liverworts.

8. Great Scented Liverwort Growing on Stone

It’s hard to tell from this photo but liverworts are quite small. Length varies but the width of the above example of the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) is only about a quarter to half an inch. Liverworts don’t have roots but they do have “anchoring structures” called rhizoids that help them cling to vertical surfaces. Liverworts that grow in flat, green sheets like this one are called thallose liverworts. Thallose means “a green shoot or twig.”  They are quite different from leafy liverworts.

 9. Great Scented Liverwort Closeup

I didn’t see any liverworts with male or female fruiting structures but many had small “buds” at the ends of the branches indicating that new spring growth has begun. Conocephalum conicum is the only liverwort that looks like snake skin so its beauty is all its own. The surface looks scaly because of the way the liverwort’s air chambers are outlined, and each of the tiny white dots in the centers of the “scales” is an air pore.

10. Marginal Wood Fern

Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) was in a perfect position to show me how it got its common name. Its sori, (spore cases) sit on the outer margins of the underside of each leaf (pinnule).

11. Marginal Wood Fern Sori

This is a closer look at the marginal wood fern’s sori. A single sorus is a cluster of sporangia, which are the structures that produce the spores. In some instances they look like tiny flowers on the underside of the fern leaf. Some ferns have sori that are naked or uncovered but marginal wood fern’s sori are covered by a thin, cap-like membrane called an indusium. If you can see the individual sporangia like those in the photo, then you know the membrane has come off and the fern has released its spores.

12. Dog Lichen

Something I hadn’t seen here before was this membranous dog lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Since it is a water lover it makes sense that it would grow here. This lichen often grows near moss because mosses retain the water that it needs, and this one was growing right on top of a large bed of moss. In her book Gathering Moss author Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks of lichens being the pioneers that etch rock faces so mosses can gain a foothold, but dog lichens seem to have it backwards since they seem to have moved in after the mosses.

13. Baby Tooth Moss aka Plagiomnium cuspidatum

Baby tooth moss (Plagiomnium cuspidatum) was busy with spore production. As they mature the sharply pointed sporophytes will become more barrel shaped with flat ends, and will bend until the capsules droop just past horizontal. I wonder why so many mosses, lichens and liverworts decide to release their spores at this time of year. I’m sure wind and water must have something to do with it.

14. Green Algae

The bright orange color in this green alga (Trentepohlia aurea.) comes from the carotenoid pigment in the algae cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color.

Since it prefers growing on lime-rich substrates these algae are a good indicator of what type of stone or soil is in the area. If you are looking for plants or wildflowers that like lime rich soil, like hepatica, marsh marigold, or many orchids, seeing orange (green) algae can be an important clue to the type of soil in the area.

15. Pocket Moss aka Fissidens adianthoides Closeup

The grayisg thing on the right side of this photo is a pine needle. I didn’t plan on it being in this shot but since it is it can be used to give a sense of the size of this maidenhair pocket moss (Fissidens adianthoides). This moss is a water lover that grows near waterfalls and streams on rock, wood, or soil. What shows in this photo would fit on the face of a penny.

Many of the things that grow here are very small and the light is often poor because of the high rock walls, so I have to get quite close to them to get a decent photo. These new boots let me do that and I’m happy with them. If you find yourself in a similar situation you might want to try a pair.

Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.  ~Rachel Carson

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1. Ashuelot River

Canada geese are flying in pairs up and down the Ashuelot River again and the ice that covered it for a while in this spot has melted. The deep snow that has kept me off its banks has melted enough so it is once again possible to explore, and it’s a great feeling because I’ve missed being there. The going can still be difficult though. Just after I snapped the above photo we saw snow squalls, so these shots had to be taken over 2 or 3 days.

2. Hollow Grass Stem

One of the first things I saw was a broken grass stem, so I thought I’d see how close I could get with my camera.

3. Black Eyed Susan Seed Head

Black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) still have plenty of seeds on them.  With a winter like the one we’ve just had I would expect every food source to be stripped clean but there are still large amounts of natural bird feed out there.  I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe it happens every year and I’ve just never noticed.

 4. Cord Glaze Moss aka Entodon seductrix

 Something I haven’t seen here before was a large clump of cord glaze moss (Entodon seductrix). This moss is a sun lover and it was growing on a stone in full sun. It is also called glossy moss because of the way it shines. Its leaves become translucent when wet and a little shinier when dry, but unlike many other mosses its appearance doesn’t change much between its wet and dry states.

5. Bitter Wart Lichen

Bitter wart lichen (Pertusaria amara) is a rarity here. The only one I know of grows on the limb of an old dead American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) tree that still stands near the river. When I went to visit this lichen I noticed with dismay that all of the bark is falling from the dead limb that it grows on, so this might be that last shot I get of this particular example.

6. Bitter Wart Lichen Closeup

This close up shot of the bitter wart lichen shows the darker gray, deeply fissured body (thallus) and whitish fruiting bodies (apothecia) that erupt from it. The apothecia look like warts and are how this lichen gets its common name. From what I’ve read about this lichen the apothecia are rarely fertile, and that might explain why I’ve only seen just this one. The “bitter” part of the common name comes from its bitter taste. Not that I’ve tasted it-I just take the lichenologist’s word for it.

7. Dry Deer Tongue Grass

There is a lot of dead deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) showing in places, all beaten down by the heavy snow load. This grass is tough and it amazes me how this can all just disappear into the soil in just a few short months. This grass gets its common name from the way its leaves resemble a deer’s tongue.

8. White Pine Buds

White pines (Pinus strobus) are showing signs of sticky new growth. In his writings Henry David Thoreau mentioned the white pine more than any other tree, and once wrote of being able to see distant hills after climbing to the top of one. The tallest one on record was about 180′ tall.

9. Staghorn Sumac Buds

Staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) grow along the edges of the woods that line the river and their buds are swelling. Up close the hairy, first year branches of this tree look more animal than plant. Another name for staghorn sumac is velvet tree, and that’s exactly what it feels like.

10. Staghorn Sumac Inner Bark

Along this stretch of river is where the inner bark on dead staghorn sumacs is a bright, reddish orange color. I’ve looked at dead sumacs in other locations and have never seen any others with bark this color. I’ve read descriptions that say the inner bark is “light green and sweet to chew on,” but no reference to its changing color when it dries, so it is a mystery to me. If you’re reading this and know something about sumac bark I’d love to hear from you.

11. Witch Hazel Seed Pods

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) also line the banks of the Ashuelot in this area. This is a shot of the recently opened seed pods, which explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never am.

12. Poison Ivy Berries

There are no man made trails here but there is a very narrow game trail which in places is crowded by poison ivy plants (Toxicodendron radicans) on both sides, so I always wear long pants when I come here. Even with longs pants one early spring I knelt to take a photo of a wildflower and must have landed right on some poison ivy because my knees itched for two weeks afterward. I’m lucky that the rash stays right on the body part that contacted the plant and doesn’t spread like it does on most people. In the above photo are the plant’s berries looking a little winter beaten, but which will also give you a rash if you touch them.  This is a good plant to get to know intimately if you plan on spending much time in the woods because every part of it, in winter or summer, will make you itch like you’ve never itched before.

 12. Ashuelot Waves

The river seems so happy now that the dam that stood here for more than 250 years is gone. Trout and other fish have returned. Eagles once again fish it, ducks and geese swim in it, and all manner of animals visit its shores.

I can remember when the Ashuelot ran a different color each day because of the dyes that the woolen mills discharged directly into it. I’ve seen it run orange, purple, and everything in between. It was very polluted at one time but thankfully it was cleaned up and today tells a story of not only how we nearly destroyed it, but also how we saved it. Knowing what I do of its history, it’s hard not to be happy when I walk its banks.

The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it. ~Chinese philosopher

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 1. Snowy Field

I went down a road that I had been curious about for years, just to see where it went, and found myself in a wide open, treeless field. When you live in a state with 4.8 million acres of trees places like this are pretty special, so I took a photo of it. When I looked at it later on the computer it looked like a tropical, white sand beach. Unfortunately the “sand” is snow, but I can dream.

After being surrounded by forest for nearly all of my life, being in a place like this makes me feel strange, like being in a house with no walls. It’s great to visit places that are so wide open and have such “big sky,” but I don’t think I could live there. I wonder how prairie people stand it.

2. Script Lichen

Since I complained about having only seen script lichen twice, not only am I seeing it everywhere now but I’m noticing different kids. The dark lines, which are the fruiting bodies (apothecia), are very different between the upper and lower halves of this photo. The upper ones are long and horizontal while the lower ones are short, branched, and squiggly. I think the upper example is elegant script lichen (Graphis elegans) and the lower common script lichen (Graphis scripta). There are 39 species of script lichen.

 3. Sulfur Firedot Lichen aka Caloplaca flavovirescens 

The yellow body (thallus) and dark orange, cushion shaped fruiting bodies (apothecia) tell me that this is a sulfur firedot lichen (Caloplaca flavovirescens).  Though I see this small lichen occasionally this is the first time I’ve ever seen its apothecia. I found this one growing on a stone in an old stone wall. There are 131 species of Caloplaca in North America alone, so identifying them can be challenging.

 4. Rock Disk Lichen

I thought this crustose lichen might be one called tiny button lichen (Amandinea punctata), but after some reading I find that tiny button lichen rarely grows on rock. It prefers bark or wood dust.  Since this lichen was growing on nothing but rock I have to lean more towards rock disk lichen (Lecidella stigmatea), which is described as having a dirty white, gray, brownish gray to sometimes partly pale rusty thallus (body) with blackish brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia).

 5. Rock Disk Lichen Closeup

The fruiting bodies of the rock disc lichen are either even with the body of the lichen (plane) or are convex like those shown in the photo. If they were concave we would most likely be looking at one of the map lichens. Each one of these little apothecia isn’t much bigger than a period made by a pencil on paper, so you have to look closely when trying to make a good identification. Luckily the camera often sees what I can’t.

 6. Woodpecker Condos

Pileated woodpeckers were building condos in this pine tree.  They roost in hollow trees and have many entrance holes to the nest, but I’m not sure if that’s what was going on here.

 7. Woodpecker Hole Closeup

I had to hold the camera up over my head and shoot blind to get this view looking inside a pileated woodpecker hole, so it isn’t the sharpest shot you’ve ever seen on this blog. You can see that he has excavated all the way to the hollow heart of the tree. I wonder if they know the tree is hollow before they start excavating.

 8. Zig Zag Tree Wound

It took me a while to find it because there are a lot of trees out there, but I found the tree with the zig zag scar again. I don’t know why I thought I’d learn any more now than I did when I first ran into it last fall, but I wanted to see it again and take a closer look. Of course I don’t know any more now than I did then-just that it’s a scar deep in the bark of a white pine that looks like a zig zag. It starts below the soil level and runs up the trunk about 3 feet and then stops. I don’t know if lightning or another natural event caused it or if it was a boy with a pocket knife.  It is an oddity though, no matter what caused it.

I did some online searching and didn’t find anything that looked like it but I was contacted by another blogger who found an old hemlock with an even stranger scar. If you’d like to see it, just click here.

 9. Zig Zag Tree Wound Closeup

This close-up shows how thick the bark is on either side of the zig zag scar and how they come together like a zipper. The bark on older white pines is naturally platy and deeply furrowed, but it looks to me like the tree has been trying to heal this scar for a very long time.

 Mini Waterfall

I saw a culvert that directed spring water off a hill and into a pond. I tried to get a shot of the miniature waterfall and the ice cloak that it had wrapped itself in, but it’s a little hard to see that in this photo.

 10. Wire Through Pine Limb

There is a lot of old fencing left in our woods from the 1800s when this was all pasture land. One day I saw a dead pine limb that had grown around the wire of an old stock fence and had broken away from the tree and was now hanging from it. The diameter of the limb was probably about 2 1/2 to 3 inches.

 11. Wire Through Pine Limb Closeup

For the limb to have grown around the wire as it did, both would have had to have been undisturbed for quite a long time, I would think.  I’ve heard of some strange things being found in trees, but wire isn’t that unusual. It is a logger’s nightmare though-imagine running a chainsaw into that. .

 12. Thin Pine Bark 2

I found a piece of pitch pine bark that had orange colored parts that were as thin as paper.

 13. Thin Pine Bark

This is what I saw when I held the piece of pitch pine bark up to the light. Is this what a squirrel sees from inside a hollow tree?

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes. ~ Arthur Conan Doyle

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 1. Sap Buckets

People who collect maple sap the old way in buckets like these are becoming a rare breed. The sap is flowing but syrup producers say it’s coming slowly, in fits and starts, because we’ve had so many cold days. Daytime temperatures need to be in the mid-forties and nighttime temps at around 28 degrees  for optimal sap flow. Though some days and nights have been perfect it hasn’t been consistent. We’re still seeing below zero nights and, since the 4-6 week season ends in early April, each cold snap brings a renewed sense of urgency. Last year New Hampshire produced 176,000 gallons of syrup. In the abnormally warm winter of 2012 producers didn’t even see half that amount, and this year it might be cold that hinders production.

 2. Muddy Road

When we have the kind of cold we’ve had this year it drives the frost deep into the ground. In spring when the soil begins to thaw the water can’t seep into the frozen ground so it sits on top, saturating the soil to the point where it can’t hold any more water. When the soil in question happens to be a road, things can get very interesting. Here in New England we call it “mud season” and when I drove over the road in the above photo I knew it was upon us, because it felt like I was driving on gelatin. Our roads become quaking quagmires that have been known to swallow even 40 foot long school buses.  If you’d like to see some photos of mud season in all its muckiness, just click here.

 3. Peat Mosses

In the swamps, peat mosses aren’t wasting any time. They seem to green up almost immediately after the snow melts. I just read that scientists took a piece of moss from part of an Arctic ice core sample that was over 1000 years old. When they exposed it to light and warmth the ancient moss grew just fine. This moss that is now green once again was alive when Rome was in its infancy. This is why some people wonder if mosses and lichens ever really die.

 4. Skunk Cabbage 

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are growing fast in spite of the cold nights. Since they produce their own heat through a process called thermogenesis, they don’t care how cold it is. This photo shows skunk cabbage spathes partly out of the soil. Once they reach full size they will open so flies can visit the flower covered spadix within.

 5. Vernal Witch Hazel 

The vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) keep poking out their strap like petals, only to roll them back up again because of the cold. They, like the maples, are going through fits and starts this year.

 6. Red Maple Buds

Red maple (Acer rubrum) and other tree buds are swelling and the hills off in the distance have taken on a reddish haze that is impossible for me to take a photo of, so I settled for a branch. Red maples are one of the first trees to flower in spring and I always look forward to seeing them because they are very pretty. The sap can be made into syrup just like that of sugar maples but it turns bitter when the buds start to break. Since they appear earlier than those of sugar maples, the season doesn’t last as long.

 7. Red Maple Buds

Both red and sugar maple buds are high energy foods and eastern gray squirrels eat them in spring. These buds also have high moisture content and that means that squirrels don’t have to leave a tree for a drink at this time of year.

 8. New Fern Growth 

I spotted this fern growing on a boulder. The cluster of round buds in its center will grow into new shoots, called fiddleheads, before too long. The only fern in this area with fiddleheads that are safe to eat is the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). They are considered an early spring delicacy but they need to be prepared and cooked correctly or they can make you sick. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has investigated a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness cause by raw and undercooked fiddleheads. They should always be boiled for at least 15 minutes.  Some say you can also eat lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) fiddleheads but there is a great debate raging about the safety of eating them, so I can’t say for sure if you should or shouldn’t.

 9. Trailing Arbutus

The snow has melted enough to reveal the tough, leathery, evergreen leaves of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). My grandmother always called this plant mayflower but I’ve found its fragrant pinkish flowers much earlier in April. Because it has been so cold this year though, it might live up to its common name. I usually find it in mixed forests growing on sunny embankments.

 10. Oak Leaf on Snow

Last year’s oak and beech leaves are starting to fall. More signs of spring.

 11. Grasses in the Sun

The afternoon sun catching these dry grasses looked very spring like, but the scene looked better in person than it does in the photo.

12. Melting Snow

Sometimes spring comes creeping in quietly and slowly and is hardly noticeable, so we seem to go from winter right into summer. I have a feeling that this year will be that way.

Tomorrow, the first day of spring, will mark the 3 year anniversary of this blog. I remember wondering how I’d ever get through 6 months of it, so thanks go to all of you who have kept it going.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month.  ~Henry Van Dyke

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 1. Beaver Brook

Another warm sunny day last weekend prompted me to follow this old abandoned road up to Beaver Brook falls once more. I thought that, the way things were warming up so fast, it might be my last chance to see them in their frozen state.

 2. Blue Ice Formations 

The blue ice on the ledges reminded me of the aquamarine crystals I used to find while mineral hunting. I can’t say that blue ice is rare but I’ve only seen it in two places. As I learned from reading Sue’s Back Yard Biology blog, blue ice happens when the oxygen-hydrogen bonds in water absorb the red parts of the spectrum and reflect blue light back. Further reading tells me that it is also very dense. These ledges are about 15-20 feet high and the ice formations are bigger than tree trunks.

 3. Ice Formations

Beaver brook also had some interesting ice formations growing in it.

 4. Amber Jelly Fungus

It was warm enough to thaw the amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa). I like holding it up to the light so I can see through it because it looks like stained glass, but I’ve never noticed the yellowish spots in it before. Amber jellies are true “winter fungi” and that is when I usually find them.

 5. Aster Seed Head

There are still plenty of seeds on the New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). In fact I’m still seeing an abundance of seeds, nuts and berries everywhere I go. That strikes me as odd but it could be that I’ve just never noticed how much is left in the spring before.

 6. Giant Boulder

This boulder sits in the woods on the far side of the brook so I can’t get to it to see if it is a true glacial erratic, but it’s easy to see from where I stand that it’s as big as a house.  There is quite a steep hill on that side of the brook and I wonder what stopped its rolling further down the hill and into the brook.

 7. Smokey Eye Boulder Lichen 

There are some interesting lichens here, like this smokey eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens). One thing that makes it so interesting to me is how the whitish coating on the black fruiting disks (Apothecia) changes color when the light comes from different anglers.  They can appear light gray, dark gray, light blue or dark blue.  They change color because of the whitish waxy coating that reflects ultra violet rays and is very similar to the bloom on plums, blueberries, and black raspberry canes.

 8. Greater Whipwort Liverwort aka Bazzania trilobata

Every time I come here I see something that I’ve never seen here before and this time was no different. In the case of the greater whip wort (Bazzania trilobata) in the above photo I’m sure that I missed it because you have to look closely to see that it is a liverwort and not a moss.  Bazzania trilobata is a leafy liverwort that likes high humidity. It always reminds me of centipedes.

 9. Greater Whipwort Liverwort Closeup aka Bazzania trilobata

I’m not sure why it is called greater whipwort, because each leaf is only about an eighth of an inch wide and the group of plants in the previous photo isn’t 6 inches across. The trilobata part of the scientific name refers to the way that each leaf ends in 3 triangular notches.  The root-like growths are branches.

 10. Beaver Brook Falls 

Ice must be a great insulator because the 40-50 foot tall falls, like the brook itself, was silent. It seems so strange for this place to be silent after hearing the very load roar of the falls in summer.

To get a really good view of the falls you have to climb down quite a steep embankment, which I’ve decided would be foolish to do in winter, so that’s why there are trees in the way in this shot.

 11. Hole in Brook Ice 2

This is part of the reason I don’t climb down the embankment to the falls. If you tipped a Volkswagen Beetle on its side it would fit right into this hole with room to spare.  The depth from the top of the snow layer down to the water surface was about 7 feet, and I stood there thinking that if I accidently stumbled into a hole like this, I would most likely never get out of it. It reminded me once again why you have to have your wits about you when you’re in the woods.

 12. Egg Case Hanging from Moss

This is probably the strangest thing I saw this day. I’m assuming it is a spider’s egg sac, but I’m not sure. It was hanging from some moss by a thread of silk like a tiny Christmas ornament.

 13. Egg Case Hanging from Moss 2

This is a closer look at the whatever-it-is. It had a little stocking cap like growth on top that was opened, but I couldn’t see any of this until I cropped the photo because it was so small. The “orb” itself was no bigger than a sixteenth of an inch across. If you’re reading this and know what it is I’d like to hear from you.

Note: If you’d like to read more about this place just type “Beaver Brook” in the search box in the upper right corner.

The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.  ~George Sand

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 1. Rail Trail

Last weekend really felt like spring with warm sunshine and warm southwesterly breezes blowing, so I decided to walk an old rail trail that runs right behind the house I grew up in. When I was a boy there were railroad tracks here and I spent many hours walking along them. Now snowmobiles get the most use out of the area. I appreciate them packing the snow down so you don’t need snowshoes, but it means that there is far less solitude here than there used to be.

 2. Wild Cucumber

There are many things along this old rail bed that take me back to my childhood, including the wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) that we all used to throw at each other. This is one of the plants that made me want to know more about why and how plants grew the way they did. I had lots of questions and since nobody I knew could answer them, when I got a little older I turned to books like Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.

 3. Black Raspberry First Year Cane 

By reading Gray’s Manual and other botany books I was able to answer many questions, like why do some plants have this bluish white coating on them? I learned that, in botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the color. The coating is called bloom and is a wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water from the leaves.  I see it mostly on plums and blueberries.

In the case of the plant in the above photo the bloom on the cane (along with the prickles) taught me that it was a black raspberry, rather than a red raspberry or a blackberry. I also learned that bloom on canes means that they are first year vegetative canes (primocanes) that would bear no fruit until their second year. There were plenty of others that did bear fruit though, and I used to eat bellyfuls of them.

 4. Winter Woods

At one time there were large fields of corn growing along the rail bed but now some of the land has started reverting back to forest.  Most of the trees seen here can’t be more than 40-45 years old. Knowing that I’m older than the trees brings on kind of an odd feeling.

I learned how badly corn plants can make you itch can be by running through the cornfields that were once here. Each corn leaf has tiny, saw tooth serrations on its edges that can cause quite a rash on exposed skin. Of course I could have prevented it by wearing a long sleeved shirt, but you would have had to have hog tied me to get long sleeves on me in the summer.

 5. Virgin's Bower Seeds

My grandmother taught me about the wind blowing pollen from one corn plant to another, but here on the tracks is where I learned how other plants use the wind. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) for instance, grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks.

 6. Feathers-2

Every time I see a feather stuck in a bush I wonder what bird left it there. I usually come away scratching my head and this time was no different.  It’s odd that the wind can send clematis seeds flying, but feathers seem to stay stuck fast to whatever they land on.

 7. Ash Swamp Brook in Winter

Ash Swamp brook meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River here.  I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy. Coming this far south down the tracks was quite an excursion but it was always worth it. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment.

 8. Willow Branches

Spring never came by the calendar here. I learned early on that plants could tell you more than the calendar ever could. Willows for example, take on a golden hue when they feel spring coming on.

 9. Pinecone Gall on Willow 

The coming of spring wasn’t the only thing willows taught me to see.  Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which let nature get its hooks into me early on.

10. American Hazelnut Catkins

This is where I also started paying attention to things like catkins; though half a century later I still struggle with the identity of some of the shrubs and trees I find them on. American hazelnut (Corylus Americana) catkins are easy because of the hairy young twigs they often hang from. These hairs are called stipitate glands. Botanically speaking a stipitate gland is a gland on the end of a stalk (stipe).  If you find a hazelnut that doesn’t have hairy young twigs and leaf petioles, it is a beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

11. Elderberry Buds

We used to make small “pipes” by hollowing out an acorn, putting a hole through the side of it, and then inserting a pipe stem. The choice for the pipe stem was always elderberry because it has soft pith that is easily pushed out of the stem with a hardwood twig.  American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) pith is white and spongy, so when you pinch its twigs between your thumb and forefinger they will deform. If it doesn’t deform it isn’t elderberry.  It’s a good thing that we kids never smoked anything in these pipes because elderberry is toxic, especially to kids who make whistles and pipe stems from its parts.

12. Puddle Ice 3

Nothing takes me back to my boyhood at this time of year like the white ice on mud puddles. I remember, once the snow melted off the roads, riding my bike to school through the ice covered puddles that froze at night and melted during the day. I can remember how my spirit soared knowing that once the white ice appeared on the puddles it wouldn’t be long until summer because these were special puddles, not caused by rain but by snow melt. Soon the red sox would once again play at Fenway Park, school would be over until fall, and everything would be right with the world. There was as much joy in the anticipation of the event as there was in the event itself. Lately I’ve been feeling that same joy anticipating the arrival of spring.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.  ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

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1. Stream Ice

This year winter seems determined to overstay its welcome and has brought record low temperatures and record high snowfall amounts. Even though we’ve had mini thaws where the temperature rose to 40 degrees for a day or two, most of the time we have been well below freezing during the day and below zero at night. Because of that the snow that has fallen is melting very slowly.

 2. Melting Snow

The snow in the woods is knee deep, which makes going rough. I recently bought some gaiters to keep my pant legs dry and make life a little easier, but another good storm will mean snowshoes for sure. One way to make it easier to get around is to look for south facing spots like that in the photo above where the snow has pulled back some. These are great places to look for mosses and other plants that stay green throughout winter.

 3. Fern on Ice

Ferns might look fragile but evergreen ferns like this intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) aren’t. This one was growing in the midst of an ice sheet. There aren’t many ferns that are evergreen in New England so winter is a good time to hone one’s identification skills by getting to know them. This one is very similar to the marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis). Both the words “intermediate” and “marginal” in the fern’s common names refer to the placement of the spore bearing structures (sori) found on the undersides of the leaves.

 4. Evergreen Christmas Fern

Another fern commonly seen in winter is the evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). This one is easy to identify by its leaflets that resemble little Christmas stockings. The narrow fine teeth that line the edges of the leaflets and the short leaf stalks can also be seen in this photo. When seen at this time of year it is obvious that evergreen Christmas fern has had its branches flattened by the weight of the snow because they splay out all over the ground. Once new fronds emerge these will brown and die off.

 5. White Poplar Bark

Winter is also a good time to learn how to identify trees by their bark since there is no foliage in the way. A tree with light to dark, mottled gray bark with diamond shaped marks in it is a young white poplar (Populus alba). The diamond shapes are the tree’s lenticels, which are air pores. The bark on white poplars can be very white at times like a birch, but it is usually light gray when young. Older trees have darker gray, furrowed bark at their bases.  White poplar was introduced from central Europe and Asia in 1748. It can now be found in every state except Alaska, Arizona, and Hawaii.

 6. Hedwigia cillata Moss 

Mosses are easy to find in winter if you look at logs and stones where the snow has retreated. This Hedwigia ciliata moss with its white leaf tips is usually found growing on boulders and is very easy to identify. Common names include Hedwig’s fringeleaf Moss, Hedwig’s rock moss, and Fringed Hoar-moss. Johann Hedwig was a German botanist who studied mosses in the eighteenth century. He is called the father of bryology and lends his name to this and many other mosses.

 7. Slender Tail Moss aka anomodon attenuatus

This moss has never appeared on this blog in this dry state before. Long-leaved tail moss (Anomodon attenuates) is also called tree apron moss because it is quite common on the lower part of tree trunks. When wet its leaves stand out from the stem and it takes on a more feathery appearance and looks completely different than it does in the photo. This is a good example of why serious moss hunters do so after it rains.

 8. Moss aka Dicranoweissia cirrata

This is another first appearance on this blog. Curly thatch moss (Dicranoweissia cirrata) grows on rotting logs and stumps and is very small, with leaves that curl when dry. After a rain its leaves will straighten out and this moss will look very different than it does in this photo, which is why I’ve found it so hard to identify. Tiny growths on the leaves called gemmae are intended to break off to perpetuate the species.

 9. White Cushion Moss

White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) can appear silvery, white, bluish green or grayish green but it always forms a thick cushion and stands out from the mosses that might surround it. It likes plenty of water and shade and grows on rotting logs or on stone when there is enough soil. It is probably the easiest of all the mosses to identify.

 10. Beard Lichen

March is a month known for its wind and anyone who studies nature can take advantage of that fact, because there are all kinds of things falling from the trees at this time of year. This beard lichen (Usnea) was lying on top of the snow and at 4 1/2 inches long is the longest I’ve ever seen. It is said that if you take a single strand of this lichen and gently pull it apart lengthwise you’ll find a white cord inside, but it must take extreme magnification to see it because I’ve never been able to.

 11. Gilled Bracket Fungus 

Another bracket fungus that mimics the common turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is the multicolor gill polypore (Lenzites betulina).  Since turkey tails have pores and these have gills they are hard to confuse. Multicolor gill polypores start life very white but turn gray as they age. They have some zoning like turkey tails and are often covered with green algae.

 12. Gilled Bracket Fungus Closeup

This is an extreme close-up of the underside of the multicolor gill polypore in the previous photo. These are clearly not pores.

NOTE: Thanks to help from a knowledgeable reader and more experience identifying fungi I now know this to be the Thin-maze flat polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa). The photo does actually show pores but they’re elongated and can resemble gills. I’m sorry if my incorrect identification caused any confusion.

 13. Hobblebush buds 

In my last post I talked about bud how scales enclose and protect buds throughout winter. Not all plants use bud scales for protection though; some like the hobblebush in this photo have naked buds.  Instead of using bud scales plants with naked buds often use fine hairs like those that can be seen on the fuzzy leaves and stems of the hobblebush. If there isn’t a flower bud between them the tiny naked leaves almost look like hands clasped in prayer. I like to imagine that they’re praying for spring like the rest of us, but I don’t know for sure.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. ~Willa Cather

Thanks for stopping in. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead 1 hour tonight!

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 1. Keene State Plaque

Recently a little birdie told me that some of the students in a certain biology class at a certain college were saying that it was “too cold” and that they “couldn’t walk in the snow.” And how were they supposed to find anything anyway when there’s “snow everywhere?”

Just for fun I decided to return to college myself just to see how valid these complaints were.

 2. Keene State Parker Hall

This was my chosen starting point on the campus of Keene State College. The great thing about nature study is it doesn’t matter which path you take. Nature will have something interesting to show you no matter where you go. With a willingness to participate and a little extra attentiveness you will learn things that you’ve never even imagined.

Oh-you will notice that the snow isn’t “everywhere.”

 3. Boston Ivy Berries

My first stop was the ivy covered walls of Parker Hall shown in the above photo. This photo is of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), which lends its name to the “ivy league” schools. The odd thing about Boston ivy is its name, because it isn’t from Boston and it isn’t an ivy; it’s a member of the grape family and comes from China and Japan. This vine attaches to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight.

4. Crabapples

If you are a biology student reading this blog then this photo should have you asking questions like why haven’t the birds eaten these crabapples?  You can see the hundreds of them in the background on the snow even though many birds, including robins and cedar waxwings, love crabapples. In a winter as harsh as this one you would think they would be gobbling them as fast as they could, so why aren’t they? Science has shown that birds will leave fruits that are lower in fat for last but are crabapples low in fat? The answers are simple; many crab apples are ornamental cultivars that birds just don’t like. Some other cultivars have fruit that birds will eat only after it has frozen and thawed several times.  If you want to attract fruit eating birds with crab apples (Malus) the choice of cultivar requires some research.

 5. Lilac Buds 

One of the ways to identify trees and shrubs in winter is by their buds. The size and placement of buds as well as the number of bud scales can all help with identification. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some just one scale called a cap, and some buds have none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate and have scales that overlap like shingles. The lilac buds in the above photo are good examples of imbricate buds.

 6. Cornelian Cherry  Bud  aka Cornus mas

Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

 7.  Powdery Goldspeck Lichen aka Candelariella efflorescens 

Powdery goldspeck lichens ( Candelariella efflorescens) grow on tree bark of all kinds. The round, flattened, yellow patches are very small but grow in large colonies that make them easier to see.  Winter is the perfect time to look for lichens because they aren’t hidden by foliage. I saw plenty on this campus.

Lichens are great indicators of air quality because they refuse to grow where the air is polluted. There was a famous study done by schoolchildren in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. They produced a “mucky air map” that showed the absence of lichens from areas polluted by coal burning. Such a study (on a much smaller scale) done on a college campus might be a real eye opener. The lichens wouldn’t even have to be identified; simply recording their presence is enough. The absence of lichens is not a good thing.

 8. Lenticels in Bark

The Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula Tibetica) is also called the paper bark cherry because of the way its bark peels as it ages, much like a birch. It is used as an ornamental tree as much for its bark as for its flowers. The mahogany bark has very long, closely spaced lenticels that give it an unusual appearance. Lenticels are corky pores that allow gases like oxygen to reach the living cells of the bark. Without enough oxygen, bark can die.

9. Sweet Gum Pod

I was surprised when I finally realized that these were sweet gum seed pods, because Massachusetts is the northernmost point that sweet gum grows naturally in the U.S. and, though it is native to the east coast, it is considered a “southern tree.” But, there is an old (often risky) trick that landscape designers will sometimes use if a client is determined to have a certain plant that isn’t hardy-they use masonry. If a plant that isn’t reliably hardy is planted near masonry it will often survive lower temperatures than it would otherwise because the masonry absorbs heat from the sun during the day and releases it slowly at night, keeping the plant warm enough to survive. There were several of these sweet gum trees near a massive wall of brick, and they were protected from wind by other buildings.

10. Sycamore Fruit

I’ve never heard of a dwarf sycamore tree but this is an empty sycamore seed head that I plucked from a tree with very mottled sycamore bark that stood no more than 7 feet tall. There are a large number of ornamental trees on this campus and I’m not sure how I would identify them all without occasionally asking the head gardener.

 11. White Rot Fungus aka Fomitiporia punctata

White rot fungus (Fomitiporia punctata) covered this fallen oak limb. There are many species of white rot fungi and they play a major part in wood decomposition. Scientists have discovered that they will also biodegrade environmental pollutants and certain chemical wastes. Researching that might be very interesting.

 12. Amber jelly Fungus

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) were on the same fallen oak limb, but frozen solid by the looks. This is the first time I’ve seen these growing on oak. I usually find them on alder. Some jelly fungi are also good at helping wood rot. This one fruits in late fall and winter and is a true winter fungus. I’ve always wondered why certain fungi only fruit in winter.

13. Barberry Berries

I was surprised to see this very invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ) growing as a hedge but as I think about it I shouldn’t have been. I’ve planted barberry hedges myself back when we didn’t realize how invasive it was.  I also saw burning bushes used in a hedge. Also called winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus), they are also very invasive and until recently were widely used. The final invasive that I found was oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). These were growing near a chain like fence-right where a bird might sit for a while after eating its berries.

Exploring their campus for invasive species would be a good project for a biology class and could be done at any time of year. The results might be surprising for those in charge of such things since, in this instance, this is a state college and the state has banned selling or importing these invasives.

 14. Daffodils 

The most satisfying thing I found on this campus was the little taste of spring provided by these inch high daffodil shoots. I was surprised since we had just seen a temperature of 7 below zero the night before.

So, if anyone reading this happens to be a student attending a certain biology class in a certain college, this post is for you. All of these photos and at least twice as many more were taken in less than an hour while meandering around the Keene State College campus and I didn’t once have to step in snow deeper than the soles of my hiking boots. It was cold but I dressed for it. That’s what we have to do to keep warm in a New England winter.  I hope this post has shown how easy it is to find things in nature with very little effort.

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.  ~Henri Poincaré

Thanks for coming by.

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Goodbye February! It might be the shortest month, but it always seems like the longest to me. It’s still very cold here with below zero nights but the sun has greater warmth and the days are longer so the snow is slowly melting away from the places where fungi, mosses and lichens grow. What follows is some of what I’ve seen on recent walks.

 1. Gouty Oak Gall

Gouty oak gall is caused by a wasp called, not surprisingly, the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis quercuspunctata). In spring the wasp lays its eggs in expanding plant tissue and secretes chemicals that will cause the abnormal growth seen in the photo. The gall grows quickly and once the eggs hatch the larvae feed on its tissue. It can take two years or more for the gall wasps to reach adulthood. One adult exits the gall through each hole.

 2. False Turkey Tail aka Stereum ostrea

I saw hundreds of these small bracket fungi covering a tree trunk and thought Great-false turkey tails-I won’t have to spend two weeks trying to identify them for the blog!  Nature had other ideas though- one look at the undersides told me that they were not false turkey tails (Stereum ostrea) at all. Unfortunately my peek at their hidden faces didn’t tell me what they were, and after looking through 4 mushroom books and countless web pages, I still don’t know. I thought I’d include them here to once again illustrate how important looking at the spore bearing surface of a mushroom is when you are trying to identify it.

 3. False Turkey Tail aka Stereum ostrea Underside

This is what the underside of the bracket fungus in the previous photo looked like. I’m sure I’ve seen them before but I can’t find a similar example in a book. False turkey tails have a smooth, whitish underside-much different than the maze like surface seen here.

 4. Barberry Inner Bark

The bark of the common or European barberry (Berberis vulgaris) contains berberine, a yellow crystalline, bitter alkaloid. It is said that chewing a piece of bark, even on the hottest days, will make your mouth water and slake your thirst. The inner bark is very yellow and it and the bark from the plant’s roots have been used for centuries to make yellow dye used to dye fabric and leather.

 5. Gypsy Moth Egg Case

I recently found several gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) egg cases on a tree. Gypsy moths were first introduced from Europe in Massachusetts in 1869, to breed with the silkworm moth (Bombyx mori) to produce a hardier silkworm. Naturally, it escaped and has become one of the chief defoliators of deciduous trees and conifers in the eastern United States. Each egg mass can contain 100-1000 eggs and should be destroyed when found.

 6. Partridge Berries

There are still plenty of partridge berries under the evergreens and on south facing slopes where the snow has melted. Turkeys love these berries so I’m surprised to see that there are any left.

 7. Trametes hirsuta

I think this grayish white bracket fungus is the hairy bracket (Trametes hirsuta). This fungus is very hairy and turns brown as it ages. It is closely related to turkey tail fungi (trametes versicolor) and is zoned like they are, but its zones aren’t as pronounced or as colorful as those on turkey tails, and are easy to miss.

 8. Wavy Starburst Moss aka Atrichum altercristatum

I think this moss might be wavy starburst moss (Atrichum altercristatum).It doesn’t look like it has been affected by winter at all. When wet its bright green, rippled leaves spread out and give this moss a star like appearance and when dry they curl and turn brown. Finding green mosses in winter seems to make it easier to get through somehow.

 9. Northern Catalpa Leaf Scar aka Catalpa speciosa

Northern catalpa has some of the largest leaf scars of any tree I know. This one was a half inch long. The leaf scars are sunken and come in sets of three spaced around the diameter of the twig. The heart shaped leaves of catalpa are also some of the biggest that I know of. Its large clusters of orchid like flowers are beautiful and its wood is rot resistant and makes good fence posts.

 10. Oak Buds 3

Red oak (Quercus rubra) buds don’t seem to be swelling much. The terminal buds of this tree usually appear in a cluster and are conical and reddish brown. I like the chevron like pattern that the bud scales make. Red oak is one of our most common trees in New England but in the past many thousands were lost to gypsy moth infestations. It is an important source of lumber, flooring and fire wood. The USDA says that red oaks can live to be 500 years old.

11. Striped Maple Buds 2

Native Striped Maple buds (Acer pensylvanicum) buds always remind me of a trident. The large central terminal bud is unusual because it has only two bud scales. Red oak buds like those in the previous photo have 3 or more bud scales. Striped maple is very fussy about where it grows and will not stand pollution, heat, or drought. It likes cool, shady places with sandy soil that stays moist. They bloom in June and have very pretty green blossoms. I can’t say that they’re rare here, but I don’t see them very often. I’ve been searching for one in bloom for 3 years and haven’t found one yet.

12. Vernal Witch Hazel

This vernal (spring blooming) witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) grows in a local park. I think it miscalculated this year and bloomed too early. You can see how some of its strap shaped petals got too cold and browned before retracting back into the tiny cup like bracts. Proof that even nature can make an occasional mistake. Our native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blooms in late fall.

The most beautiful things in life go un-noticed. ~ Omar Hickman

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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