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Archive for December, 2021

Half Moon Pond in Hancock iced over but then it warmed up and the ice melted quickly. All that was left early one morning was the mist that was left from the melting. I wanted to get a shot of it but all I had was my cell phone. I decided to try it anyway, and this is what the phone’s camera saw. What I saw was not quite so much bright sunlight up in the clouds, though dawn was just breaking over the hills behind me. I liked what the phone camera saw though, and I hope you will too.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked quite far into the woods after seeing what I thought was a beautiful flower, only to find instead that it was a feather. But I’m never disappointed because feathers can often be as beautiful as flowers. These “blossomed” on a hazelnut twig and changed shape contantly in the wind. They were very fine and soft, like goose down.

I know these are bird tracks and I know the middle longer toe points in the direction the bird was facing but I don’t know why they were so long or what the lines behind them were about. It looked to me like the bird went into a skid when it tried to land. Their feet weren’t very big but there were many prints around the area and I’m guessing dark eyed juncos made them. You can often see flocks of sometimes twenty or more juncos along roadsides in winter, presumably looking for small seeds.

At work one morning I spotted a dark colored animal a little bigger than a house cat running from one of the buildings. It ran with a kind of loping gait like a mink but quite fast. One of the paw prints we found afterwards is in the above photo but we can’t know if it belongs to the animal we saw. There are lots of animals in these woods. But judging by the animal’s size and the way it ran like a big mink, we think it must have been a fisher cat. Fisher cats aren’t cats, they are members of the weasel family, and they don’t eat fish. They were hunted for their fur almost to extinction in times past and though they are making a comeback they’re very wary of man and aren’t often seen. They’re usually active at night so seeing this one in daylight was a rare thing.

I believe these turkey feathers tell the story of the fisher cat and why it was near one of the buildings. They were found near the spot it ran from. Fishers eat small to medium sized animals and birds, and will also eat beechnuts, acorns, apples and berries. They will also eat porcupines, leaving nothing but the hide and a few bones behind. In fact they’ll eat just about anything and I’ve heard they have a blood curdling scream when they’re on the hunt. Just for fun (?) I went to You Tube and listened to a fisher cat scream, and now I understand how some people have been scared half to death by them at night in the woods. It’s an eerie sound, and that’s putting it mildly.

A huge old oak tree died where I work and when it was cut down the butt end showed purple staining, meaning it has steel or iron objects like screws or nails in it. Sawmills look for this kind of thing when logging trucks bring in a load of logs and they’ll reject the whole load if they see it. This log was easily four feet across but it will never be sawed into boards.

I used to feel comfortable in the knowledge that any time I saw this platy bark in the shape of a target on a tree, I was looking at a red maple. But then last fall I saw a very old yellow birch with target canker that looked just like the example in the above photo. Now, I thought, I can’t be quite so sure of what I’m seeing, so I returned to the book Bark; a Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech. In it he does indeed say that red maple is the only tree in the northeast that develops target canker, so what of that birch? I don’t know every tree in the forest but if I can’t tell the difference between a red maple and a yellow birch, I’d better give up nature blogging. The answer I think, is to go back and find that birch and better document its bark.

Here is the only photo I took of the yellow birch I saw with target canker, which can be clearly seen on the tree. I can remember how surprised I was and thought that I must be mistaken but no, I’ve never seen maple bark peel and curl like that. The trick will be to find this tree again in a forest full of trees.

I had to go to the local car dealership to have my car serviced and while I was waiting, I noticed this piece of tree bark sitting on a counter. I was happy to find it there, not so much because of the bark itself, but because someone thought it was beautiful enough to show in the waiting room like an art object. It grabbed someone’s attention, as it did mine.

Because of all the rain we had this summer fruits, seeds and nuts are everywhere, including the poison ivy berries (Toxicodendron radicans) seen here. I’ve never seen so many of the small fruits on poison ivy vines. Though I like to get photos of them when they’ve turned white and are fully ripe, the birds eat them so fast I usually can’t find any. All parts of this plant can give you quite a rash if touched, so I try not to get too close. Even inhaling the smoke from a fire where it is being burned can cause severe throat issues.

I finally found some ice needles that really looked like needles. Usually they have been stepped on and look stubby, with squared off ends. A lot has to happen for them to form but they’re fairy common once you know what to look for. And what to listen for; the soil they grow in will crunch when it’s walked on. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape and that needles 16 inches long have been found, but most of the ones I see are less than 5 inches long. These might have been closer to 6 inches long.

I saw this feature in some puddle ice. It looked like the disc or lens shape froze and the water moving around it created waves. But how could this be? Wouldn’t all of the puddle surface have frozen at the same time? I don’t expect anyone to answer this; I’m just thinking out loud. Puddle ice is an endless source of fascination for me because it’s amazing what you can see in it.

I think weevils must have killed the terminal leader of this hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) and then two of its branches became new leaders, giving it a U-shaped appearance. I usually see this on white pine, not hemlock. White pine weevils do attack lots of other evergreen species like spruce and fir but I haven’t heard of them attacking hemlocks, so I can’t say what might have caused it.

Speaking of eastern hemlocks, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to look out a window at work to see gray squirrels trying to get at the seed cones. They’ll hang from the branch by their back feet and tail and grab the small cones with their front paws. I’ve seen four or five squirrels working a single tree, and one day I saw an eagle flying over the tree they were in. The squirrels disappeared in a hurry that day. When I look at this photo of a cone I wonder if man thought up roof shingles by looking at something like this.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify.

I found these squirrel tracks in my yard and I wasn’t surprised because there are also lots of hemlock trees here. I’ve seen chickadees eating the seeds but until this year I’ve never seen squirrels eating them.

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also grows in my yard. There are many seed pods on the cedars and robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in and robins nest in them each spring. The open seed pods always look like beautiful carved wooden flowers to me. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many medicinal uses, and maybe they were. They cured scurvy for many a European.

A few years ago I started noticing what I thought looked like teeth marks on lichens and wrote and showed photos of it here. Now I’m seeing those same marks on certain fungi, like this tinder fungus. The squiggly lines in the top bluish portion are what I’m talking about.

I finally found out when a knowledgeable reader wrote in, that these lines and squiggles are not chipmunk or mouse teeth marks. He measured the marks and found that no American mammal had teeth that small. Instead they’re caused by algae eating land snails. Accoding to what I’ve read “squiggly lines or tiny fan patterns on rock or tree bark show where a snail has scraped off algae or fungi, leaving a paler spot. Smooth-barked red maple or American beech are good trees to check for snail or slug feeding tracks. You can look closely at mushrooms to see if a chewed area is found along with a slime trail.” The top of this mushroom did indeed look chewed. Snail mouths (radula) are raspy and are said to feel like a licking cat’s toungue if you hold one in your hand. That’s another mystery solved.

Just before dawn one morning the full moon hung over Half Moon Pond and reflected in the new ice. This was after the ice I mentioned in that first photo had melted. I think the pond has frozen over and melted three times now, which shows what roller coaster temperatures we’re seeing so far this winter. It’s beautiful but a little unusual as well.

As children, we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love. ~ Ansel Adams

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I hope everyone will have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And a Happy Hanukkah too!

May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life. ~Apache Blessing

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Two days before I went on a walk down a rail trail in Keene temps were in the 50s F and the sun was shining. Then we had a storm and though some parts of the state saw eight inches of snow we saw about an inch and a half of glop. Glop, for those who don’t have to deal with it, is snow, rain and sleet all falling in the same storm. It freezes into white concrete and about all you can do with it is wait for some sunshine to come and melt it away.

As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was getting mixed messages. While someone wore Yak Tracks….

…. someone else rode a bike. I supposed I’d have to find out for myself if it was icy or not. It was certainly cold enough for ice at 30 degrees, and with the strong breeze coming over the hills to the west, it felt more like 20. You have to give weather like this a chance if you are going to be a nature nut, and you give it a chance by being smart about it and dressing for it. I was dressed for it and I knew that, once I started seeing things that grabbed my interest, I wouldn’t feel cold at all.

Sure enough though it was a gray, bleak looking day there were plenty of warm colors to be seen and all thoughts of cold left me when I saw a tree full of bright orange-red crap apples. Not a single one had been touched by birds and that may have been because they were quite large for a crabapple. I doubted any bird I know could swallow one. Also, though it grew here “wild” it might not have been a native crabapple. 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. For whatever reason they didn’t like these, even though there are usually birds everywhere out here.

These hazelnut catkins were encased in ice and that told me that it must have rained and then gotten cold fast. I can’t explain the hair. Maybe it’s not a hair at all. It could be a bit of silk left by a spider. Whatever it is I see things just like it everywhere I go, on all types of plants.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) 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. But how can the wind carry them away when they’re always wet, as they have been this year? Now they aren’t just wet, they’re frozen together. Maybe they’ll just wait for spring. Meteorological spring, which starts on March first, is only 69 days away. Astronomical spring will take a bit longer and that’s why I prefer meteorological spring. Meteorological spring is based on temperature cycles for a three-month period when temperatures are similar, as in March, April and May. Summer is June, July and August and fall is September, October and November. Winter of course, is what is left.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) grows all along this trail and though its berries add a bright spot of color in winter it is terribly invasive.

Almost all of this mass of vines seen here is Oriental bittersweet. They twine around trees with the strength of steel cables to get to the tree’s crown where there is more sunlight. Once there they compete with the tree for light while strangling it from below. Eventually the tree dies and falls over, and I’ll never understand how that benefits the bittersweet, which wants all the sunshine it can get.

This hole was probably six to eight inches across, and I thought it looked like a woodchuck’s hole. I didn’t see any tracks around it though so it might just be an escape tunnel, but someone falling into it could break an ankle.

A birch polypore lived up to the name of “shelf fungus.” There was a group of them at the base of this tree which had all had bites taken out of them. I’d guess by squirrels, but specific information about which animals eat this fungus is very hard to come by.

A tree had fallen and I was surprised to see that its upper branches had fomed a witch’s broom. The only other tree this big that I’ve seen with a witches’ broom was an old white pine that has since fallen. Witches’ broom is a deformity described as a “dense mass of shoots growing from a single point, with the resulting structure resembling a broom or a bird’s nest.” Witches’ broom can cause desirable dwarfism and increased branching in some plants. In fact, many well known dwarf evergreen shrubs are the result of witches’ broom.  For example, Montgomery Dwarf Blue Spruce is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and it is from a witches’ broom. Though this tree had lost almost all its bark I think it was a black birch (Betula lenta).

Mount Monadnock off to the east had its head in the clouds. I had my head in the clouds too whaen I was a teenager and one of my major dreams as was to pick up where Henry David Thoreau left off and finish cataloging the wildflowers that grew on the mountain. Then one day I helped the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on the mountain’s flanks to reestablish some species which were thought to have once grown there and that’s when I saw that, even if you lived three lifetimes you wouldn’t have time to find and catalog every flower that grew there. That’s a big mountain.

The wide ditch that runs alongside the railbed has been full of water all year long. We’ve had more rain than I can ever remember.

Often in the fall deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) will turn many colors, with maroon, purple and orange or yellow sometimes on the same leaf. It’s quite pretty and I’ve searched high and low to find some so I could show it to you but every plant I’ve seen has been uniformly tan, just as these were. It seems kind of odd after seeing them so colorful all of my life.

There are lots of staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) out here that the birds haven’t eaten but they’ll probably be gone by spring. I’ve read that they’re low in fat so they aren’t a bird’s first choice.

Sumac means red in many of the old languages and that makes perfect sense because everything about it is red. Even these long dead staghorn sumac leaves still held their red color. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from it.

Sumacs fall over regularly and whenever I see one, I look at the inner bark to see the rich red color but the color only lasts for a short time and I found none of it on this tree. I did some reading about sumac wood when I got home and found that wooden flutes can be made of it.

I can’t remember ever seeing invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) out here when I was younger but there are a few here now. Usually the bracts that cover the berries are black but on this plant they were bright red. I’ve never seen this on a wild (escaped) plant.

These Virginia creeper berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) made me shiver but I wondered why they hadn’t been eaten. They and the Oriental bittersweet and burning bush berries we’ve seen are usually among the first to go. I’ve seen hawks flying around in this area and I wonder if they’ve scared all the birds away.

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is very common and can be found on many of the trees here. It’s a large lichen and colonies of them often grow big enough to cover entire trees. They often wrinkle like the example seen here. Like many lichens they change color, and go from grayish when dry to yellow green when wet. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did. A soredium is a tiny granular ball of fungal hyphae and algal cells. They can grow on the body of the lichen or on its margins and might eventually fall off to make new lichens. No matter what living thing you find in nature it’s always about the continuation of the species, and the will to survive is strong in all of the things I see.

Leaves shivered and rattled in the strong breeze. Though they were maple they spoke beech. A man came walking down the trail as I was taking this photo and said good morning. I retuned his greeting and remarked on the cold. “Yes” he said, “it’s cold, but it’s white.” Must be a winter lover, I thought. I’m not a winter hater but at that point I’d had enough to last for a while, so I turned for home.

The splendor of Silence—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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Last Sunday was supposed to be a nice day so I thought I’d go for a climb up Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey. When I left the house it was 40 degrees and two hours later it was 50 degrees, so for December in New Hampshire it was a beautiful and unusually spring like day.

I’d guess, from all the woodpecker holes, that this hemlock is full of carpenter ants. The rectangular holes were made by a pileated woodpecker, which is our biggest.

We’d had quite a rainstorm the day before and the weather people said we’d had 60 mph wind gusts overnight, so I wondered if that was why this old tree was leaning so badly. I don’t remember seeing it when I came here last fall.

An old hemlock had a leaf shaped scar on it. Fully healed, I’ve heard that you can count the rings to know how long it took for the scar to heal. If I’ve counted accurately, I think this one took about 20 years.

Though sunshine breaks through here and there this forest is generally quite dark due to all the conifers.

I said in the last post that the yellow crust fungus I showed I had only seen on conifers, but here it was on a dying birch. As I said then, though I once believed it was the conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum,) now I’m not so sure. The examples I see are always very dry and thin, almost as if they were part of the bark. This example almost looks like a lichen but I would doubt that.

Growing right beside the birch was an eastern hemlock and here was the crust fungus on it as well. I wonder now if it will grow on any tree.

The trail just before you reach the summit is the steepest part. It seems to usually be that way on our hills.

I was finally able to get a shot of Tippin Rock and the sign pointing to it. I always have to laugh at the sign because it seems to me that nothing could be more obvious.

The people who climb this hill almost always do so to see Tippin Rock, and I’m sure they know what they’re seeing. It’s like having a sign saying “The Sky.”

Since I found this crack in the stone a few years ago, I haven’t been able to stop inspecting it every time I come here. It goes almost all the way around the boulder, so it’s probably a good thing that most people don’t know how to get the huge stone moving. Until I saw it rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle, I thought the legend was probably just a story but no, it really does move.

The top of this hill is solid granite where the glacier dropped Tippin Rock. I’m always stunned when I think of all that had to happen, not only for a 40-ton boulder to be up here at all, but for it also to be perfectly balanced enough to rock back and forth on a bed of flat, level granite. The bedrock is exposed right at the surface so nothing but mosses and reindeer lichen can get a foothold, and that’s why the big stone sits in a clearing all by itself, almost as if man placed it there. Maybe in a few thousand years there will be enough soil for trees to grow.

Usually in December I would expect to see icicles on the ledges up here, but not this year. Not yet. You can see how the stone is wet from groundwater though so as soon as it gets cold enough, they’ll be there.

My camera wanted to focus on the tiny hemlock needles it saw rather than the comparatively huge barred owl that sat behind them so this isn’t a very good shot of the bird, but it does show that they are up here. I watched it fly silently through the forest and land on that tree but when I bent to fiddle with my camera settings, off it went.

I tried to do the Limbo under this hemlock that had fallen across the trail but I failed miserably so I just went around it on the way back.

I couldn’t shoot the view to the left because that was where the bright sunshine was, and the view to the right is blocked by trees, so this is it.

I went to see how the toadskin lichens were doing. Some were pea green and happy but most were not.

Considering all the rain we’d had the day before I thought all the lichens would be at their best but many had already gone from green to brown and even more were already ash gray. This told me that these lichens don’t even stay moist for 24 hours after a rain, and that’s amazing.

There are blueberry bushes up here, and also wasps. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring. This example was a highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) but this wasp isn’t choosy and will also use lowbush plants (Vaccinium angustifolium.) The galls do no real harm to the plants. I think this one was empty, because of all the exit holes.

I was kneeling down getting a shot of a face on a log when a father and his little boy came along. The boy asked me if I was chopping the log and I told him no, I was looking at the face on it. He couldn’t have been more than four or five and when I said “see the face?” his eyes got wide and his mouth dropped open, and I’m afraid that it might have scared him. He didn’t say anything about the face but he told me he and his dad were going to Tippin Rock. I said I had just come from there and told him to have fun, and we went our separate ways. I hope the little guy doesn’t have bad dreams about the face on the log. It reminded me of the painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. An interesting though disturbing side note about that painting was how Edvard Munch said he had sensed an “infinite scream passing through nature,” and that’s why he painted it.

Anyhow, I wished I had been kneeling by Mister Smiley Face when the boy came along. He couldn’t scare anybody.

Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things. ~Edward Steichen

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It comes in waves. News of the war between the Edgewood Civic Association and the Federal Aviation Administration will suddenly erupt in the local newspaper and then, after a few weeks, will disappear until the next eruption, and it’s been happening for as long as I can remember. The crux of the whole argument is about tree cutting in Edgewood Forest and it hinges on whether or not a 1983 amendment to the original deed, which said that trees on the property “may be cut or topped in order that they will not constitute an obstruction to air navigation,” is legal and binding. Residents say it isn’t, because the parties involved lacked the authority to make such an agreement, and the city of Keene says it is legal. In the end it seems that it will be up to the courts to decide but the original deed did say there was to be no tree cutting allowed on this deeded parcel.

Injunctions are filed and other court procedures go on, but meanwhile so does tree cutting. A friend told me about this tree topping and when I saw it, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would go to all of the trouble to top trees when they could have just cut them down. If they had cut them down, they wouldn’t have needed all the equipment it must have taken to lift them to such lofty heights to cut the tops off. Now of course, all of these trees are dead and will fall, and some are mere feet from the main trail.

The topped trees are also not too far from the many wires that follow this trail.

I don’t know what the W stands for on this huge old pine tree, but I’d say it’s a fair bet that it isn’t wisdom. Since our tallest trees are white pines which these days might reach 150 feet on a good day, and by law aircraft cannot fly “closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure,” I don’t know what all the fuss is about. It seems to me that if a plane hits a tree, it was flying far too low and was breaking the law. It seems simple, but I’m not a pilot.

On this day I just wanted to wash my hands of the whole thing and go into the woods. Or what’s left of them, anyhow.

There is something about the place, probably the fact that the soil has lain undisturbed for so long, that draws many native wintergreen plants that you don’t see anywhere else, like striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata.) It is my favorite of the native evergreens because I like the way its foliage turns deep purple in cold weather. The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love,) so it loves winter and does not die from the cold. It is relatively rare; I know of only two or three places where small colonies grow.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) also grows here in great numbers. In spring its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear and that’s why it was once over-collected into near oblivion. In fact my grandmother and I looked for it for years and never could find any. Though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. These days it can be found at many nurseries but it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type. That’s true of many of our native evergreens, in fact. They want to grow where they want to grow.

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) is another of our native wintergreens that grows in large numbers here. It’s interesting to me how so many native evergreens have chosen this place to grow in. Other than the long undisturbed soil I don’t know what the attraction would be. It might also have something to do with the humidity level as well, because there is plenty of water in the area. Shinleaf’s common name from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. Like several other native wintergreens it contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used to soothe many ailments.

Fan shaped clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum) grow fairly well here but I haven’t seen large numbers of them. They’re pretty clubmosses that look quite different from others, and that means they’re easy to identify. They were once collected almost into oblivion for Christmas wreaths, and not that long ago. I can remember seeing clubmoss Christmas wreaths. That’s why I don’t usually tell anyone specifically where they grow.

I saw quite a few dead fan shaped clubmosses here, which is something I’ve never seen before. I hope it doesn’t signal something ominous.

Years ago I found a single downy rattlesnake plantain orchid growing behind a tree so I marked the tree with my pocket knife so I could find the orchid again. Of course the tree grew, its bark healed my little X mark over, and I couldn’t find it or the orchid again. Then, on this day I found another orchid just sitting there, not by any tree at all, and that means they are spreading. I’m very happy about that because they’re a beautiful little plant. And I do mean little; this one would fit in a teacup with room to spare. The flowers look like tiny white teapots and are very hard to photograph.

There is quite a lot of swamp land in Edgewood Forest and this particular spot is rich in peat mosses.

I have enough trouble identifying mosses without taking on the peat mosses but I do like to see them. This one seems to turn bright yellow in winter. I keep hoping to find spore capsules on them but since there are over 380 species of sphagnum peat mosses, I never really know what species I’m looking at.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) leaves turn a nice purple color in winter but they will stay on the plant under the snow. It’s a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s pretty white flowers bloom.

Young yarrow plants grew here and there. Considered one of the nine “Holy herbs” by ancients, this plant has been healing mankind since before recorded history, important enough to be traded from one country to another until now it is found in nearly every country on earth. The young leaves are very feathery and very pretty.

It looked like these pear-shaped puffballs had puffed out all their spores already. People have gotten deadly lung infections from inhaling puffball spores so It’s really best to just let them be.

Lumpy bracket fungi (Trametes gibbosa) grow on many species of hardwood logs. They’re usually white or cream colored but I think this one had some algae growing on it, which is said to be common. These fungi decompose wood by causing white rot.

The pores on a lumpy bracket fungus look as if they’ve been stretched and look maze like, unlike the round pores found on a turkey tail fungus.

For years now I’ve seen this yellow crust fungus on conifers and though I once believed it was the conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum,) now I’m not so sure. The examples I see are always very dry and thin, almost as if they were part of the bark, and they are hard enough so, though I try to dent them with my fingernails, they remain undamaged. What I see here in this photo does not match the conifer parchment fungi I see online so for now, I’m still in the dark.

Powdery mildew grew on oak leaves. Powdery mildew is a fungal disease which usually grows where there is little direct sunlight, high humidity and poor air circulation. Some plants like bee balm, lilacs, and grape vines seem particularly susceptible to it. I think this is the first time I’ve noticed it on oak.

Because bracket fungi like birch polypores grow with their spore bearing undersides pointed toward the ground you can always tell if they grew before or after a tree fell. All of these grew after this birch fell.

A huge old birch tree had two trunks but one fell away, leaving what you see here. I thought the colors and grain patterns were beautiful. I wish I could make a table top from it.

Last year a group of volunteers came together to remove invasive water chestnut plants from this swamp that borders Edgewood Forest. Water chestnut is native to Eurasia and Africa, and was brought to the U.S. in the 1870s as an ornamental. The plants form a thick mat on the surface and crowd out natives. It was nice to see them gone from this spot and nice to know that people worked together in a place that has been so divided for so long. That’s exactly what needs to happen here.

In any conflict there are always three sides; two opposing and the innocent who are caught in the middle. ~A.J. Garces

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Finding ice baubles along the shore of the Ashuelot River last week made me wonder if the ice was growing at the deep railroad cut called the “icebox” up in Westmoreland, so last Saturday I decided to go and have a look. There was ice on the man-made canyon walls but it was too early for the ice climbers who named the place to be here.

Broken ice at the base of the ice falls told me that the icicles had formed and melted a few times. It takes a good cold period to get them going but once they start growing in earnest, they can reach the size of tree trunks in just a few weeks.

The groundwater that seeps through the fractures in the stone never stops. Winter or summer, it still flows. The reason the ice grows so well is because, the walls are shaded in this part of the canyon. The canyon rim is 50 feet high in some places, so sunshine might kiss the canyon floor for an hour each day. That’s also why you find no plants growing here.

In this photo from a few years ago you can see the scale of the place and you can also see that the ice climbers don’t wait long to start climbing. These are very focused, intent people and I don’t like to bother them when they’re up there.

In places water pours from the walls in streams but in most places it just seeps slowly, drip by drip.

Never was moss so green as it was on this day.

As you can imagine it is cold here, usually made colder by the breeze that blows through, so the 28 degrees F. I started with was probably more like 18 or 20 when I finally turned south to find some sunshine.

The railroad engineers had a lot of stone to get rid of once the canyon had been blasted through the hillside and one of the ways they got rid of it was to build massive retaining walls along sections of railbed. For the most part they’re still in perfect shape after 150 years.

The southern canyon’s walls aren’t quite so high so more sunshine pours in, and that means more plants grow here on the southern end. At this time of year it seems kind of empty but in summer the growth here is lush, with every vertical and horizontal surface covered by growing things, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton described in Lost Horizon.

Last summer I discovered ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) growing here and here was the evidence; their feather like fertile fronds, covered with spore capsules. There will most likely be more of them here in the future. They’re a beautiful fern so I hope so.

There are lots of blackberries growing here as well and most still had leaves to show off.

But just because the sun shines brighter here in the southern canyon, that doesn’t mean that ice doesn’t grow here. The cold wins out over the weak winter sunshine and these walls are often trapped under ice that is feet thick until spring.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here is the southern canyon in March of 2015. The ice columns, stained various colors by minerals in the groundwater, were thicker than tree trunks. It’s a good idea to wear warm clothes if you come here in winter.

Until and unless the drainage channels freeze over the ice, no matter how big it might get, is cutoff by the flowing water.

You can see how easily the groundwater can flow through the cracks and fissures in the stone. That’s what makes this place so special. I’ve been in other deep cuts but none have had ice like I find here. Everything has come together perfectly to create a land of water, stone and ice.

Here was new mineral staining that I hadn’t seen before. If an ice column grows in this spot, it will most likely be orange.

An evergreen fern grows in a grotto, set back from the face of the wall and each year icicles, like prison bars, surround it until spring.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of nature, because in other places the ice was rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Compare the ice in this shot with that in the previous shot and the difference will be obvious.

There was puddle ice to see. Do you see the fish?

In one spot on the wall of the southern canyon a green alga called Trentepohlia aurea grows. Though it is considered green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange. It’s is very hairy, but with the drainage channels filled with water I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) also grow on the southern canyon walls. This beautiful liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, and they will stay that way until spring. It doesn’t seem to hurt them any because there are thousands of them growing here.

The saddest thing I saw on this day was how the trail had flooded over half the length of the southern end. Nobody has maintained the drainage channels enough to keep them fully open and with all the rain we had over last summer they failed and flooded the trail. Snowmobile clubs try to keep up but there is only so much they can do with hand tools. To fix this properly now you’d have to bring in truck loads of gravel and heavy equipment to restore the drainage channels to the condition they once were in. It won’t be easy or cheap but I hope someone will do it because it would be a shame to lose this one-of-a-kind place. There is simply nothing else like it in this area.

All of the water in the drainage channels becomes a stream that runs off into the woods under that old bridge, and I was shocked to see how much soil had washed away from its banks. What was once a little surface stream is now about two feet below the surface.

I don’t know what this old bridge was used for but there was a lot of stone to be moved out of the canyons and I’m guessing that it was wheeled across this bridge and dumped in the woods. The railroad did that a lot and you can find piles of blasted stone all over this area. If I could find a way out there I’d go and see, but nobody is crossing this bridge unless they’re a tightrope walker.

And then there was the old lineman’s shack which, with its ridge beam broken, can no longer support its own weight. It now tilts at about 30 degrees, and if we have any mentionable amount of snow this winter I think it will surely come down.

It looks to me like the heavy slate roof is actually pulling what’s left of the building apart. It’s a shame that something so well built has to give itself up in this way but with absolutely no maintenance over a century or more, it has put up a good fight.

Though the old shack is beyond repair I hope the townspeople will somehow vote to find the funds to repair the damage to the trail itself one day. Other parts of the rail trails that surround Keene have had extensive work done to them, but they’re closer to town so more people use them. Meanwhile I’ll continue enjoying the place for as long as I’m able. I hope you enjoy seeing it as well. It’s a rare and special place that should be appreciated more than it is.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

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In 1889 a true visionary named George A. Wheelock sold a piece of land known as the Children’s Wood to the City of Keene for one dollar. This area was eventually combined with an additional parcel of land purchased from Wheelock, known as Robin Hood Forest, to form Robin Hood Park. This Park has been enjoyed by children of all ages ever since, and since it was originally designed for them that is as it should be.

Many thousands of children have fished in the pond and skated on it in winter, and have explored the forests on wide, well laid out trails. The place is a child magnet and I see them here having fun every time I come, even in the rain. Every town should have a place like it, in my opinion.

Small streams chuckle and giggle their way down the hillsides and add a song to the place and of course, that’s just the kind of thing any child loves. Even those in their 60s.

I came here too, as a boy and then as a teen, and now as a senior citizen, and the reason I’ve come here my whole life is because I learn so much about nature here. In the spring this is where I’ll come to take photos of coltsfoot flowers to show you. They’re one of our earliest blooming plants and they and many other interesting and unusual plants live here. For instance this is one of only two places I know of to find the rare dwarf ginseng.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a red clover blooming on this cold, cloudy day. If we were still in the days of heraldry when every family had a crest, this blossom would be a prominent part of mine because it is a plant that taught me to truly see. I found out, with nature’s help, that there is a huge difference between looking and seeing.  

I looked up the trunk of one of the old oaks that live here and saw what I expected. When even the oaks have bare branches winter is here, no matter what the calendar might say.

I found out where all the leaves were.

Actually not all of the leaves were in the pond. These were a beautiful spot of color.  

But this is what our forests look like now. One of the things I love about this time of year is how easy it is to read the landscape. All the stones and bones of the forest are there, easily seen. If you came through here in June, you’d hardly know that ridge in the distance was even there. That’s why if you want to really know a place it’s important to visit it again and again, at all times of year.

Beech leaves are still beautiful. It’s a tree that gives all year round.

Sometimes I imagine what a forest might be like without the decomposition that the wood eating fungi perform, but I don’t do it often. It’s not a pleasant thing to think of. We’d be up to our eyeballs in forest litter without them and this is one of the best places I know of to find fungi of all kinds doing their work.

According to The Gymnosperm Database spiral growth in trees can be right or left-handed, and a tree can reverse its spiral growth direction several times over its lifespan. While the article I’ve linked to is very interesting reading, the answer to why spiral growth happens in trees is left unanswered. There are many hypotheses but in the end it’s a mystery because nobody knows for sure. One of my favorite quotes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that “You find peace by coming to terms with what you don’t know.” I like to remember that occasionally (often) but in case you were wondering the right side of this log was the root end when it was a tree, so it spiraled to the left.

Bark beetles had been excavating egg laying cavities on this tree and had girdled it, and that had killed the tree. Once the connection between the roots and the crown is lost so is the tree.

Someone had put a mushroom on a log. It had nice color, and I loved the accordion like shape and texture of its gills.

Though the water in the pond wasn’t completely still, it was a good day for reflections.

When I was a teenager, I used to love to go and hear live bands play at the local high school, YMCA, and even right here in this park. Of course they were rock bands in the 60s and 70s, and it was all about psychedelics and expanding your consciousness. Back then a “light show” consisted of someone shaking a glass dish full of colored oil floating on water on an overhead projector, hopefully in time with the music. There were no lasers or strobes and this sheen floating on the surface of the pond reminded me of how simple things were then. Imagine loud rock and roll music and a light projecting this pulsing, colorful sheen on a screen in a darkened gymnasium and you’ll understand what the “concerts” of yore were like. Pink Floyd it wasn’t, but it sure beat watching The Dating Game on television.

In the summer nobody pays much attention to the ferns because there is just so much greenery to see, but at this time of year they are the only green thing to be seen, and they stand out. Some are evergreen and others can simply take a lot of cold before their fronds pass on. Marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) is an evergreen fern and one way to know you’ve found one is to see if the leaf blade is wider in the middle than it is on either end.

You also know that you’ve found a marginal wood fern if the spore cases (sori) are on the margins of the sub-leaflets as they are in this example. This fern is rather leathery and is often colored blue green, but not always.

I was surprised when I saw something dark among the moss growing on a stone. The dark bits were so small I couldn’t tell what they were by eye so I got out the macro camera, and it showed me that they were tiny dog lichens (Peltigera,) just starting life among the mosses. I’d guess that spores must have landed among the moss but that can’t be the whole story because spores account only for the fungal part of the lichen. To be a lichen there must also be an algal or cyanobacterial partner present because a lichen is a composite organism. In any event it was interesting to see the “birth” of a lichen.

NOTE: A knowledgeable friends tells me that this lichen is actually a blue  jellyskin lichen (Leptogium cyanescens.) It’s one I’ve never seen before so I’m excited that I found it and excited that I remember where it is so I can go back and see it. There are no veins on the underside of the lobes, which differentiates it from Peltigera lichens. I hope my mistake didn’t cause any confusion.

For no reason that I could see there is a chain around this tree. Eventually, as the tree grows, the chain will be in the tree. It will become part of the tree and some poor woodcutter in the future will find it the hard way. If you want to see something quite incredible just Google “Things found in trees.” Everything from bicycles to glass bottles to cannon balls have been found inside trees.

Someone had built a squirrel size hut. It’s a good sign that it is the children who rule this place.

If you wish your children to think deep thoughts, to know the holiest emotions, take them to the woods and hills, and give them the freedom of the meadows; the hills purify those who walk upon them.  ~Richard Jefferies

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According to statistics November is on average the cloudiest month in this part of the country, but as you can see by the above photo not every day is totally cloudy. This was one of those blue sky, white puffy cloud days and I took this photo because of the clouds. That lower one was growing quickly and I thought it might become a thunderhead, but it never did. It just got bigger.

Many of the photos in this post were taken before the snowstorm I showed in the last post. Snow or not I won’t be seeing anymore fleabane flowers for a few months now. It’s just too cold now for flowers.

November can be a very cold month, when we start to really realize that winter is right around the corner. Frost on the windows helps remind us of that, and I caught this frost crystal growing on my car winshield. They’re beautiful things that most of us pay no attention to.

Ponds are starting to freeze up as well. Bright sunshine has little real warmth in November unless it is coupled with a southerly breeze.

I went to the river to see if any ice baubles had formed along the shore but I got sidetracked for a bit by the beautiful light.

I’ve never seen this stretch of water look gold and blue like it did on this morning.

It was like seeing molten light. None of these colors have been enhanced by me. Nature did all the enhancing.

And on another, colder day, there were ice baubles growing along the shore. If you’ve ever made a candle, you know that you dip the wick in hot wax over and over again, letting the wax harden between dips. If you think of the twigs as wicks, you can see how every wave crest “dips” the twigs in water and the cold air hardens that water into ice. Over time, ice baubles like those seen here form.

Twigs aren’t the only thing that the ice forms on. Anything that the water splashes on over and over will ice up.

The ice baubles are usually as clear as blown glass but on this day a lot of them had air bubbles trapped inside. Many of these examples were nearly round as well but they’re often more pear shaped. Along a river or stream is the only place I’ve ever seen them form in this way, though I suppose they could form anywhere where there is splashing water in winter.

On shore, the sun lit up an oak leaf beautifully.

Some of the biggest oak leaves I’ve ever seen belong to the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor.) This is a rare species in the woods here but in 2010 the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services removed a 250-year-old timber crib dam in this section of river, and when they replanted the river banks, they chose swamp white oak as one of the tree species. Though the trees are barely 10 feet tall this leaf must have been 8 inches long. Brown is the fall color for the leaves of this oak. The New Hampshire state record for the largest swamp white oak is held by a tree in Swanzey. It is 67 feet tall and has a circumference of 192 inches. That’s 16 feet, so I’m not sure if even 4 people could link hands around a tree that size.

One characteristic of swamp white oak is peeling bark on its branches, giving it a ragged look. On young trees like these even the bark of the trunk will peel, as it was on this example. Planting this species of tree here makes sense because it is tolerant of a variety of soil conditions and can stand drought or flood. The only thing they can’t bear is beavers, and these critters have cut down and hauled off many of them.

When I was taking photos of this tree’s branches I looked down and sure enough, beavers had been at its bark. This tree is a goner, I’m afraid. It has been girdled.

At this time of year, when the soil starts to freeze but before any snow falls, you can often hear the soil crunch when you walk on it. That’s the signal that you should get down on your hands and knees and peer down into those tiny frozen canyons. If you do you’re liable to find ice needles there, because the crunching you heard was probably them breaking. Several things have to happen before needle ice can form. First there has to be groundwater. Next, the air temperature has to fall below 32 degrees F right at the soil surface while the soil and groundwater remain thawed. Hydrostatic pressure forces the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in these photos were 1-3 inches long I’d guess, and they were frozen into ribbons. They’re another of those gems of nature that many never see.

Puddle ice has been a friend of mine for a very long time. When I was a boy, after the snow melted in spring, I’d get my bike out and ride it to school. It was still cold enough for ice to form on the puddles and I used to think it was great fun to ride through them so I could hear the strange tinkling / crinkling sounds that the breaking ice made. I have since found out that the whiter the ice, the more oxygen was present in the water when it formed. These days instead of breaking the ice I look for things in it. This time I thought I saw a penguin in that curvy shape to the right of center.

I saw a pair of mallards but this is the only shot that came out useable. I thought this was unusual because usually one will tip up while the other stands guard and watches.

An oriental bittersweet vine had reached the top of a small tree and many of its berries had fallen into a bird’s nest, built where the branches met underneath the bittersweet. Birds love these berries but I think the bird that built this nest must be long gone for warmer climes. These vines are terribly invasive so the fewer berries eaten by birds, the better.

The birds have been eating the river grapes, finally.

They have plenty to eat. It has been an exceptional year for grapes and many other plants.

I love that shade of blue on juniper berries. A waxy coating called bloom reflects the light in a way that makes them that color. I always wonder how many gin drinkers know that the unique flavor in their drink comes from this plant’s fruits. Though they’re called berries, botanically speaking juniper fruits are actually fleshy seed cones. Unripe green berries are used to flavor gin and the ripe, deep purple-black berries are the only part of a conifer known to be used as a spice, often used on game like venison, moose and bear meat. Birds also love them so they won’t last long.

The winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are covered with berries this year. This native holly holds its berries through the winter and they look great against the white snow. They have a very low-fat content and birds won’t eat them until other fruits with higher fat contents have been eaten. Other plants that fruit in the fall like maple leaf viburnum, high bush cranberry, and staghorn sumac also produce fruit that is low in fat content. That’s why you often see these plants with the previous season’s berries still on them in the spring. Due to the light of the day all three cameras I carried had a hard time with these berries but I wasn’t surprised because red is one of the hardest colors for a camera to capture.

I found a very old hemlock log. The branches had been cut off long ago but the stubs that were left were amazing in their texture. It was if someone had carved them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before.

Orange fan shaped jelly fungi (Dacryopinax spathularia) grew on the dark end of a log and looked like tiny lights. Actually they were more nose shaped than spatula shaped but I’ve found that fungi don’t always live up to what they were named. In the winter they’re a pretty spot of color in a white world.

But for color in winter turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) have to take the prize. These examples were beautiful, and they wore my favorite turkey tail color combinations.

I saw this foreboding sky at dawn one morning. I thought it was beautiful and I hope you’ll think so too.

In a few blinks you can almost see the winter fairies moving in
But first, you hear the crackle of their wings. ~Vera Nazarian

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Last Saturday I had a plan, but so did nature. It had been raining the night before when I turned out the lights but then it got cold enough to change the rain to snow, and in the morning my world had gone white. If you read this post you might want to turn up the heat and get something warm to drink.

My plan was to climb Mount Caesar in Swanzey, seen above, and since the snow barely measured two inches that wasn’t going to stop me. Instead the cold kept me back. It was about 22 degrees F. with a strong wind that made it feel much colder, so I decided to let it be. It takes a while to get used to that kind of cold and I haven’t seen enough of it to be used to it yet. By February 22 degrees will feel balmy.

So instead of following my plan I drove around looking for snowy scenes like this one to show you. I know many of you don’t get the kind of snow we get here and some of you never have snow at all, and I know many of you like to see it.

I chose to drive along an old class 6 road in Swanzey. Class 6 roads have no winter maintenance, so it won’t be long before this road is impassable to all but four-wheel drive trucks. You would have a rough walk ahead of you if you got stuck out here in winter, so I stay away.

On this day the road was easily passable and I was glad I chose it, because the forest views were pretty. When it rains before it snows the snowflakes stick to everything, so everything becomes covered in white.

Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) are evergreen but heavy wet snow can flatten their fronds. These weren’t flat but by spring they will be. Once they get completely buried under snow they usually stay that way until spring. Only when the new fronds, or fiddleheads, appear in spring do the previous season’s fronds turn yellow and then finally brown. The dead fronds then form a mat around the living fern that helps prevent soil erosion.

Some of the smaller ponds had frozen and beech and oak leaves were trapped in the ice.

Other leaves were just beautiful. You can always count on seeing at least some color, even on a snowy day.

Beech trees provide a lot of color in winter.

Sometimes the blue of the sky seems to be the only color I can see.

Bright sunshine broke through the forest but it held little real warmth.

In full sunshine the snow-covered forest was beautiful. As William Sharp once noted “It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.”

I happened upon a small stream that was also clad in radiance. It isn’t cold enough to freeze streams and rivers yet, but it probably won’t be long if temperatures like these keep up.

I thought I might see some ice starting to grow along the stream edges but there wasn’t any.

There was quite a lot of aquatic grass growing in the stream and I loved the way it moved with the current. I don’t know if it was eelgrass or something else. It was a little cool to go wading to find out.

Deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) is another plant that adds a little color in the winter.

Mallards swam happily in water that was probably a lot warmer than the air was.

The rain falls equally on all things, and so does the snow.

There is grass under there and I took this photo to show you just how little snow we had gotten. It was loud, icy snow that crunched when you walked on it. Luckily there wasn’t enough of it to have to shovel. Maybe 2 inches in some places but I’d say it averaged maybe an inch or so over all.

Every twig on this tree was covered, but it’s hard to see that in this shot.

This shot of a hillside across Swanzey Lake shows that not a single tree escaped the snow. As wintery as it might look the sun did its work and most of it had melted by the end of the day.

Snow or not the witch hazels still bloomed. These flowers are pollinated by owlet moths, which purposely shiver to keep warm. They can raise their temperature as much as 50 degrees, and this allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold.

I hope you enjoyed this unexpected post and I hope it didn’t make you feel too cold. There’s nothing quite as beautiful as the first snowfall and I’m glad that it happened on a weekend so I could show it to you immediately after it happened, when the snow was fresh.

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? ~ J. B. Priestley

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