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Archive for January, 2022

This post won’t be as cold as the last one from the Westmoreland deep cut but you might still want to keep your sweater on. It’s -10 F. as I start this post but the above photo of the outlet on Half Moon Pond in Hancock was taken on a balmier 20-degree morning just after an ice storm. We’ve had a few of those as well.

I think I’ll remember this winter as one of near constant ice. It is everywhere and seems to cover everything, as this poor lowbush blueberry shows. The ice is keeping me from climbing any hills and making me check to see if I have my micro spikes any time I go outside.

I took a few steps out onto the ice of Half Moon Pond without spikes on and found it so slippery I thought I’d have to drop to my knees and crawl back to shore. It was all I could do just to stand still but the skaters loved it. One even had a sail, so the wind did all the work. If you need wind, this is the place to come. Sometimes the wind will scream across the pond with enough force to nearly tear a half open door right off its hinges. It howls through here and makes a howling sound, just like in the movies. I always wonder if Native Americans were afraid of places with howling winds and twanging ice like this place has. When that ice starts in with its creaking, twanging and pinging it can sound downright eerie, but you do get used to it.

I decided to stay on shore where I could stand upright and marvel at the designs in the ice. I can’t imagine what would have made such strange shapes.

Before the pond froze over as each wave reached the frozen sand on shore its leading edge would freeze and over time all the frozen wave edges intertwined and created these rope-like structures. This was the first time I had ever seen this happen.

I tried a few times to show the way the ice on the trees reflected the light in colors, as if millions of tiny prisms lined the branches, but though it’s an easy thing to see making the camera see it is not quite so easy. That’s too bad because it can be one of the most beautiful scenes found in nature in the winter.

In a recent post I did on buds I told how the bud’s scales protected the bud from water and ice infiltration, but after seeing something like this it always amazes me that the buds can survive at all. The new leaves and flowers that appear in the spring though, show that they’re a lot tougher than we might think.

Not a single bud or branch can escape ice like this. Anything over a quarter inch in ice thickness starts bringing down branches, and the branches bring down power lines. That’s why an ice storm can be such a terrible and beautiful thing.

The ice I could get close to looked quite thick but I didn’t see too much damage from this storm. I saw just a few smaller limbs down.

I saw a long-necked dinosaur eating an oak leaf in a frozen puddle.

This was the scene in another puddle. I can’t imagine how such things happen. It’s as if the skin of the ice is disappearing and leaving behind its skeleton.

Little bluestem grass looks so fragile, but here it took a plow full of heavy wet snow and didn’t flinch. I love to see a field full of little bluestem in the snow.

This is another failed attempt at showing you all of the colors that shine out at you from an icy forest. One day I hope to capture it because it’s a very beautiful thing to see. It’s one of those things in nature that make you just want to stand and look and marvel at the incredible beauty that surrounds us.

But most times, rather than just standing and looking into the woods I like to go into them, because things like this are much easier to see. This is one of the reddest examples of red bark phenomenon that I’ve ever seen. The color is caused by algae growing on the tree bark, and it being studied by scientists all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. It can also appear on stones and is even present in many lichens. So if you see a tree with red bark there isn’t anything wrong. It’s just algae looking for a place to perch. What might be wrong I’ve read, is what is causing the algae to want to perch on tree bark in the first place. It is a relatively recent phenomenon, happening within the last 20 years. Some think climate change, others simply don’t know. I notice it more and more, especially on eastern hemlock trees.

NOTE: A knowledgeable friend tells me that this red bark could also be the tree’s “under bark” which can become exposed when woodpeckers go probing for larvae on a tree. I’ve never heard of this so I’ll have to look more closely next time I see it. If this was done by a woodpecker that was a determined bird, because it was a very large area on the tree.

Here was something I had never seen; a large hemlock scar had healed nicely but it was covered with white frost, while frost couldn’t be seen on any other part of the tree. It’s something I can’t explain. Maybe the bark of the healed wound was moister than the older, thicker bark that surrounded it. Somehow, something attracted the frost.

One of the many things I see in winter is how the sun has heated a leaf or a twig enough so it melts itself down into the snow. This was a hemlock twig, which was barely larger in diameter than a piece of cooked spaghetti. How so much heat can be absorbed by what is a relatively small area is unknown to me, but I see it happen all the time.

I saw a strange something or other on a tree and though I had a feeling that it must be a lichen, I wasn’t sure. I had never seen anything like it so since I have a friend who has literally written the book about the lichens in his area, I sent him photos. He almost immediately identified it as Trypethelium virens, which I later found out is called the beech sucker or the speckled blister lichen. They grow on beech trees and the best time to spot them is in the winter, so that’s another good reason to go into the woods in winter. It’s a pretty lichen that was quite large and easily seen; maybe 2 inches across.

I found a curious little forest sprite face peeking out from the fringe of this example. From what I’ve seen online the appearance of this lichen can vary by quite a lot.

I went to the Ashuelot falls to get some shots of ice pancakes but I was too late. The river had frozen over and all I saw were icebergs at the floor of the falls. It was still a worthwhile trip though, because the water going over the falls looked like honey in the sunlight.

While at the river I saw black locust seed pods blowing around on top of the snow. They always seem to fall from the trees in the winter so there was nothing remarkable about that. What is remarkable is how such a big tree can come from such a small seed. They can’t be much more than a quarter of an inch long. They are obviously in the legume family along with beans, peas and so many other plants.

I’ve always loved how the white snow makes water look so dark in winter, so I hung by the side of this dark pool long enough to almost make me late for work. Of course I tried to get that perfect photo, and never did.

This last shot is from nearly the same spot as the first one in this post. It shows the difference over the course of almost a month and surprisingly, except for the addition of a little snow in this last shot, it didn’t change that much. Since we’re supposed to be in for a good old fashioned nor ‘easter today, it may change quite a lot. Stay warm and stay safe, wherever you happen to be.

Nearness to nature keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. ~Charles Eastman

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You might want to grab a shawl or a warm cup of something before you start reading this post because it will be a cold one. We’ve seen some of the coldest temperatures we’ve had since 2019 they say, and cold means ice, so at about 2:00 pm when it had reached the highest temperature of the day (21 F) last Saturday, off I went to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if I could find any big ice. Finding ice would not be a problem I quickly discovered, but keeping warm would.

When I say big ice, I mean tree size ice columns that start sometimes 50 feet off the ground. This is the kind of ice that you don’t find just anywhere, and that’s why I and many others come here. If you’d like a better view you can click on the photo and see a larger version.

Sometimes the ice is colored due to various minerals in the groundwater, I believe. I’ve wondered if there are impurities in the colored ice that weaken it because I’ve noticed when the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train, they never seem to climb the colored ice. You can see a few of the climbers there in the distance to the right. They call this place the icebox.

These ice climbers are the most focused people I know of. They have excellent powers of concentration, but I’m still always wary of disturbing that concentration. When this climber paused and looked at me, I asked if my being there would bother him. He said no so I watched for a bit. It was a bit disconcerting because every time one of the picks he held hit the ice it made a hollow “thwock” sound, but if there is one thing I’ve learned by watching these people it is that they know the ice, so I don’t ask questions. In fact unless they have both feet on the ground, I don’t say a word. I just stand and watch. When my nerves have had enough I leave, and with my fear of heights sometimes it doesn’t take long.

I suppose one reason I get a bit nervous watching them because I’ve seen a lot of this. There is a crack running through that ice column. The column diameter is about the same as three or four men side by side so if it came down well, I don’t like to think about that. I’ve seen them after they’ve fallen in the spring and some can reach from one side of the trail to the other. If you happened to be there you would be crushed, and that’s why I don’t come here in spring when things start to thaw out.

By this time I was feeling a little chilled so I decided to go south into the southern canyon where all the sunshine was hiding. The blue ice on the left was pretty. I’ve heard that blue ice is the hardest and most dense. Ice climbers tell me they like their ice “plastic” with a little give, so maybe that’s why they weren’t climbing the blue ice.

I stopped to admire a frozen waterfall. It’s hard to tell it’s a waterfall I know, but I’ve seen and heard it countless times so I was surprised to see it completely frozen and silenced for the first time. The ice has mounded up and is engulfing that tree.

I stopped again to see some intersting frost formations on the ice of a drainage channel. I’ve seen frost grow directly on ice before but these appeared to be growing on leaves and twigs. The various shapes were feathery and lacy or long and sharp. They were so delicate a single breath would have most likely melted them.

I thought I was going to tell you that frost was even growing on the stones but a closer look at the photo shows that it was actually growing on bits of moss that hung down. These kinds of frost crystals must need high humidity to grow because they grew over and on the drainage channels.

The ice on the drainage channels was interesting in places but I couldn’t get too close to it since I didn’t have my rubber boots on.

The southern canyon wasn’t quite as icy as I thought it might be but it still held some impressive ice columns. The walls aren’t as high here as they are in the northern canyon so more sunlight gets in. In this view looking south it is the wall on the left that gets the most sun.

This snowmobiler gives a good sense of the hieght and scale of the place. This was the only one I saw on this day. I’ve heard all the arguments against snowmobilers but since they’re the ones who keep these trails open, I think we’re very fortunate to have them.

You have to stop sometimes and remind yourself that the ice here didn’t grow in a flood or a waterfall. The groundwater seeps from these walls almost imperceptibly, drop by drop. In the summer you can hear the drops falling into the drainage channels but in the winter, you can see just how much water there is here. This ground is full of it, and much of it is very close to the surface.

Quite often, in fact almost always, the most colorful ice is found in the southern canyon. I’ve seen blue, green, orange, red, tan and even black ice here. As I said when we were in the northern canyon, minerals in the groundwater seems to be the only explanation.

This was the best example of colored ice that I saw on this day. You don’t see things like this just anywhere. It is one of those special, beautiful gifts of nature.

Here you can see how the colored water that makes the ice can also stain the snow.

When a drainage channel freezes solid like it had in this spot the water has nowhere to go so it pools at the base of the ledges. This ice had humped up and was slowly inching its way into the trail.

In other places there was no ice at all in the drainage channel. I don’t know what the difference bewteen the two places was. Maybe the depth of the water has something to do with it or maybe this spot gets more sunlight.

In other places the ice was growing slowly but it hadn’t covered the water yet.

Before I knew it, I was at the old lineman’s shack. It looked to be leaning even more than it was the last time I was here but that could just be my imagination. Last time it seemed to be at about 30 degrees but I’d say it was tilted more than that this time.

There really isn’t much left of it to fall but the place sure was built to last, with railroad tie sills and a slate roof. Now it’s the weight of all that slate on the roof that is helping to pull the place apart.

By this time, after about an hour and a half in the icebox, I was about cooled off right down to the bones, so it was time to go. The sunshine was bright enough but it held little heat. The car thermometer still read 21 degrees, just as it had when I arrived. I hope you stayed warm and aren’t feeling too much of a chill after reading about all this ice. It’s cold, but it’s also amazing.

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’ve met people who thought that buds appeared in spring just before the leaves came out but no, buds actually form in late summer, when trees begin storing reserves to help them get through winter. The period is called lignification and it happens when trees stop their active growth cycle. 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 (cataphylls) 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. I’m starting this post with some unusual trees that aren’t often seen in this area, and the bud shown above is a sweet gum bud. It is a good example of an imbricate bud. It is also a good example of a rarity here.

Sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) are easily identified by their unusual seed pods, above, and by the large size of their buds, which can be green, red or orange. I’ve read that Native Americans used the hardened resin from these trees for chewing gum. The resin was also used in a tea to calm the nerves and, when powdered and mixed with shavings from the tree, was used as incense by the Maya. The resin is said to look like liquid amber, and that’s where the first part of the scientific name, Liquidambar comes from.

Another tree you’ll have a hard time finding in this area is the European copper beech (Fagus sylvatica purpurea.) I’ve looked at its buds before in March and maybe they were swelling up to prepare for bud break, but they seemed bigger than those on our native trees. This year in January they really don’t look much different than our native beech buds. Long and pointed, they are a different shape than the sweet gum bud we saw but are still imbricate buds because of their shingle like, overlapping bud scales. They’ll open with maroon foliage, which over time will become a beautiful bronze / purple.

I love the bark on this old beech tree. It reminded me of an elephant’s skin. This tree lives on the grounds of the local college and there is another in Dublin, but otherwise I don’t know of any other European beeches in this area.

Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula Tibetica) is another tree you might have a hard time finding but if you had studied your buds, you would recognize these big, shiny red buds as more imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills any spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If water ever reached the bud and froze it could kill or damage it, so nature found a way to prevent that from happening. The shape of many imbricate buds also ensures that water will run off, rather than stay on the bud. Bud scales also help prevent moisture loss. These buds are very pretty, in my opinion.

The bark of a Tibetan cherry is very interesting. It 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, which are similar in shape and size to other ornamental cherries. 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, so it “breathes.”

The most unusual tree bud to appear in this post is that of the ginkgo, which I find at the local grocery store, of all places. The short shoots bear terminal buds that are small at less than an eighth of an inch, with room for just two overlapping scales. A bud with only two overlapping scales is called two ranked. You can see how the terminal bud and many leaf scars are crowded together. Ginkgo is considered a “fossil tree” that has been on earth for millions of years. It is also considered the oldest living seed plant. It is said to be capable of living several hundred years, and there are trees in China that are thought to be at least 400 years old.

Buds with two scales that meet but do not overlap are called valvate buds, and a good example of a valvate bud can be found on nannyberry shrubs (Viburnum lentago). Though the scales in the photo do happen to overlap somewhat normally they would not, so they are still considered valvate. Nannyberry is one of our few native viburnums with edible fruit. They can get quite tall, almost the size of a small tree. According to the book The Origins of English Words “nannyberry” is also called sheep berry and that name comes from its fruit, which is said to resemble sheep droppings. The nanny part of the name comes from the nanny goat. Squirrels and birds are said to eat the fruit but I see huge numbers of them still on the bushes well into winter.

Cornelian cherry buds (Cornus mas) are also good examples of valvate buds. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the two scales part to let the bud grow. What confuses me about this shrub is how the two outer scales never seem to be completely closed. It doesn’t seem to matter though because they always flower beautifully. Some bud scales like these are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud. Cornelian cherry 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.

One bud scale covering a bud is called a cap, and magnolia bud scales are good examples of that. Magnolia flower buds are described as “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds” and that’s what we see here. The hairy single scale will fall off when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming. Once the plant flowers the ground under it will be littered with these hairy caps for a short time, so if you’d like to see one up close that’s the time to look.

I was lucky to find a seed pod on the magnolia that I looked at but unfortunately it was quite dry. I’d like to find a fresh one because I’ve read that they’re full of bright red seeds. I’ll look for one this spring to show you.

Big, black and pointed mountain ash buds (Sorbus americana) fooled me into thinking they had a single cap like bud scale at first, but they actually have several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. I finally got a photo that shows this. You have to look closely at buds to see what is really going on, so it helps to have a loupe or a macro lens.

The terminal buds on a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) are oval shaped and imbricate with many bud scales. Sometimes the scales pull back from the bud (reflex) as these did, creating what look like tiny green flowers. In a way they remind me of the male flowers on a haircap moss, but of course they’re much bigger.

Here is a look at the side of the bud in the previous photo. Evergreen buds can be very sticky, but I’ve noticed that much more sap or resin flow occurs on warm days. On a cold day in January these buds were hardly sticky at all. You can also see the rows of whiteish breathing pores (stomata) on some of the needles in this shot. Carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor enter and exit the tree through these tiny openings. There are many millions of them on a single tree.

If you see that some of the branches on your Colorado blue spruce are a bit deformed like those seen in the above photo your tree has the Eastern spruce gall adelgid living on it. They cause crab claw like galls but don’t do any real harm to the tree. I’ve had them on a tree in my yard for years now and it is still as healthy as the day I planted it. By the way, a blue spruce can be green.

If I had to choose a favorite tree bud the flower buds of the red maple (Acer rubrum) would have to be at the top of the list. They’re very beautiful but more than that, they are one of my first signals that spring has finally come. It doesn’t matter what the calendar says, when I see red maple flowers, I know winter is over. Of course sometimes they get a little over anxious and will get frost bitten, but more often than not they’re a reliable indicator. Each small flower bud has four pairs of bud scales.

Sugar maple terminal buds (Acer saccharum) appear on the end or terminus of a branch. The larger, pointed, very scaly bud is flanked by lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud and the twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples. These buds have imbricate bud scales and they show the whitish, sticky resin that “glues” one scale to another.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides) buds are also imbricate but instead of sticky resin on the edges of its bud scales they have a fringe of fine hairs which help shed water. These buds are relatively large and easy to study using a hand lens, so they’re perfect for children in the field.

Buds that have no bud scales but are very hairy like those seen on witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana,) are called naked buds. The hairs take the place of bud scales when it comes to protecting the bud and it works well. Other naked buds are found on staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and the native viburnum called hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides).

Witch hazel flower buds are also very hairy, but rounder than its leaf buds. It won’t be long before the yellow or orange strap like flower petals appear on the spring witch hazels. It’s something I’m impatiently looking forward to.

I know that not everyone gets as excited over buds as I do but I also know that there are children who read these posts so I often have them in mind when I do a post like this one. I hope something like a post on buds might help jump start a child’s interest in nature. They aren’t that complicated and hopefully bud scale terminology won’t seem too intimidating.

If you are interested in learning about tree and shrub buds, start with one in your own yard that you are sure of, like a maple tree or even your rhododendron, and then branch out to those you don’t know well. The following information might help to get you started:

A bud scale is made up of modified leaves or stipules that cover and protect the bud in winter. Usually the number of bud scales surrounding a bud will help identify a tree or shrub.

Imbricate bud: A bud with numerous scales that overlap each other like shingles.

Valvate bud: A bud with two or three scales that do not overlap.

Two Ranked Bud: A bud with two scales that do overlap.

Caplike bud: A bud with a single scale that comes off in the spring.

Naked bud: A bud with no scales.

If you find that you have the itch to learn even more about buds and trees, this little book is for you. I’ve had my copy since I was a teen but it’s still in print. It is very helpful and easy to understand.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.  ~David Polis

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I’m still taking vacation days from work to use them up before I retire and that’s a good thing, because the weather forecast was for dangerous wind chills of -30 F last Saturday. Flesh freezes in 15 minutes in that kind of cold, I believe the weather people said, so instead of testing their accuracy I opted for a Friday walk, when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees F. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would have packed snow from snowmobiles, but I was surprised to see the summer gate still up. It’s there to keep wheeled vehicles off the rail trails in warmer months but is lowered in winter for snowmobiles. Still, there it was. In any event the snow had still been well packed by snowmobiles.

I like this trail because it still has a lot of the old railroad artifacts still here, like this whistle post. The W on the post told the engineer to blow his whistle or horn to warn traffic on the road up ahead. Where I grew up it was two shorts and a long on a horn and I could hear it inside the house with all the windows and doors closed. I used to love seeing those trains, so much so that I spent years building an HO scale model train layout.

Something else left out here from the railroad days is the stiff wire stock fencing they used to keep animals off the tracks. Miles and miles of it were strung along each side of the right of way, usually on stout metal posts, but in this instance a wooden fence post was used, and it showed its age beautifully, I thought.

Slowly, it was becoming hollow. The railroad came through this area about 150 years ago, and I wondered if this post had stood here all of that time. It looked like it might have so maybe it was black locust, which is known to last 100 years or more in the ground.

I saw many wood aster seed heads here and I noticed that many had been eaten, so that made me happy. Cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, nuthatches, sparrows, towhees and other birds are said to enjoy aster seeds, so that’s a good reason to let them grow rather than treating them as weeds.

The birds had picked this flower clean except for one tiny seed, and that was perfect so I could show you what an aster seed looks like. It has a little tuft of filaments at the top which acts as a parachute. When a seed hits the ground the wind can catch in the filament parachute and blow the seed along the ground to a spot where it can grow.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve seen a bird’s nest in a shrub overrun with Oriental bittersweet. I can see how the invasive vine’s many leaves would provide good cover, but since the berries don’t appear until late fall, I doubt it has anything to do with the nesting bird eating them. It would be nice for the mama bird if she could just sit in the nest and eat the berries that surrounded her but nature doesn’t work that way. There is plenty to eat but they have to go and find it.

What does Oriental bittersweet do when there are no trees around to strangle? It strangles itself.

As I began paying closer attention when I was in the woods and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed things on trees in winter that didn’t seem to be there in the summer. At least that’s what I thought but no, they were there all the time. It was just that they became more visible in the winter, like the way frullania liverworts darken to a dark purple color in the winter. All of the sudden the trees were covered by these dark spots, so I began looking at them closely.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some of them are said to be very fragrant but I haven’t been able to smell them yet. There are over 800 species of this liverwort. I haven’t tried to identify them but I have noticed that the ones I see must like high humidity, because they never grow too far from water.

This drainage ditch looked to be frozen solid. The black spots on the snow are hemlock seeds and scales from the cones. Birds and squirrels had been busy.

Not all of the drainage ditches were solidly frozen, so I got to see some beautiful patterns in the ice.

Beech leaves are falling I’ve noticed, and while I’ll miss seeing them I know they’re letting go so new leaves can appear in the spring. Seeing buds breaking on a beech tree is one of the great gifts of spring in a northern forest. How very beautiful they are as they unfold from the bud like silvery angel’s wings.

I saw a pheasant feather in the snow; the first I’ve ever seen that was not on a bird. This bird had met an untimely end, judging from what I saw just out of camera range to the left. I’ve learned to be at peace with seeing death in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some fungi and trees I’ve seen, death can even be beautiful. As John Muir said “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”  

If you happened to be standing on top of a moving train, not knowing there was a bridge or tunnel up ahead, that probably wouldn’t have turned out well. To solve the problem the railroad came up with what they called “Tell tales.” They were lengths of soft, pencil thick wire that would hit you and “tell the tale” of a low obstruction up ahead. If you were smart you would drop to your knees immediately. These wires used to hang on either end of tunnels and trestles. I used to see them regularly when I was a boy but now this is the last one I know of.

The railroad engineers often used what they had at hand, like splitting boulders and ledges to get useable stone for building. In the case of tell tales they simply stood a section of rail on end and sank it into the ground. Then they added a rod that stood 90 degrees to the rail and hung the wires from it.

And here was the old trestle, just like the one that was near my house when I was a boy. Back then there was no solid floor like the snowmobile clubs have installed these days. Instead there were wooden ties, spaced just as far apart as they were on the railbed, and between each pair, far below, you could see the water. This was a fence when I was young, and it prevented me exploring the land of mystery to the south. I was told that little boys who weren’t careful could fall between the railroad ties and end up in the river, and for a while that possibility was an insurmountable fear. At six, seven or eight years old I was probably thin enough to actually fit between the wooden ties but I kept trying, going further and further out on the trestle, all the while hoping that a train didn’t come. Then one day at maybe twelve years old I made it across and I was free to explore the far side of the river. It was like a great space had suddenly opened around me, and I’ll never forget how happy I was about being able to see more of the river and the woods along its banks.

I looked at the Ashuelot River through a silver maple, which seems to lean just a bit more each time I come here.

There was ice along the riverbanks and since we’ve had below zero cold since I was there, I’m guessing it has grown some. It will grow from each shore and meet somewhere near the middle if it stays cold enough.

The snowmobile club had put up a warning sign on a pine tree, but I was more interested in the burl behind it.

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

You know it has been cold when the sap of white pines turns blue.

I finally found a fresh blueberry stem gall and all signs pointed to the tiny wasps still living inside, because when the wasps have left the gall, the sides are shot full of small round holes. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on the tip of 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.

But not so fast. There was one very large hole in the end of the gall and that told me a bird, possibly a woodpecker, had robbed the gall of all the wasp larvae. I’ve seen this happen to the round galls on goldenrod and have seen black capped chickadees pecking at those. This gall and its inhabitants appear to be done for but someday I hope to be able to show you a fresh inhabited one.

My favorite thing from this day was this stump. No bigger around than a tennis ball where it was cut but it looked as if it had been there for a thousand years. It’s a good thing I have never found a way to bring all of the beautiful wooden things that I find in the woods home with me because I wouldn’t be able to move.

I don’t mind going nowhere, as long as it’s an interesting path. ~Ronald Mabbitt

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I had plans for last Friday; I took the day off from work to use up vacation time before I retire, and I was going to spend the whole day in the woods taking photos of interesting things for you to see, but nature had other plans. It started snowing at about 5 that morning and the roads were treacherous. I went out once (above) but quickly came home again, glad I didn’t have to drive for an hour. On Saturday I went to Beaver Brook and on Sunday we had pouring down freezing rain almost all day. So since I wasn’t able to get enough time outside, for the first time in almost 11 years I’m going to repost something I did a couple of years ago. It was quite a popular post then and I hope new readers will enjoy it. I also hope that regular readers won’t be bored by the repeat. I called it Nature Study 101.

Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest, I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, just like this one. That day a side of nature that I never knew existed was revealed and from then on, I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two-year-old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the everyday one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet, I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently, it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.
  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.
  3. Walk at a toddler’s pace. Cross and crisscross your path.
  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.
  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.
  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.
  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.  
  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.
  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.
  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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Last Saturday I woke up to not only the snow that fell on Friday but a temperature of 9 degrees F. That told me we wouldn’t be seeing any melting going on. By 11 am it was 22 degrees, but with the wind the feel-like temperature was more like 18 degrees, so I opted for a place where I knew I could be out of the wind. Beaver Brook and the abandoned road that follows it lie at the bottom of a natural canyon sheltered by hills on 3 sides, so there usually isn’t much wind there.

It was still cold though.

I have a friend in California who grew up here and is very fond of this place, so I like to come here at least once in each of the four seasons so he can see what it’s looking like. The place itself doesn’t change much but the weather sure does. I’ve seen waist deep snow on the old road.

There is a small cave here that I’ve always thought looked like a perfect spot for an animal den and sure enough I could see tracks in the snow that looked like they might have been bobcat tracks, but since we’d had a little more snow overnight it was hard to tell. The cave goes much further back into the hillside than what it looks like here.

Stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) is a pretty moss that I only find in this place. It’s very delicate looking but it can take a lot of winter ice and snow and grows as far north as the arctic tundra. It is also called glittering wood moss because it sparkles when the light is right. It grows on the stone that caps the cave and seems to like places where it can hang over an edge.

The seep hadn’t frozen, but it rarely does. When you see this frozen over you know it is extremely cold. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer, and this one stays just like this winter and summer. I saw it freeze one winter but I’ve never seen it dry up. It’s a good place for birds and animals to come and drink.

Near the seep is a boulder fall, and on some of the stones in the boulder fall dog lichens grow. I hoped to see them on this day but they were covered by snow. The sky was a beautiful blue though, and that more than made up for their lack.

Also near the seep is a tree that I’ve been watching. It died at some point and has been sloughing off its bark for at least two years now. When you find a tree in the woods that is completely without bark, this is why. Sometimes you can even find a bunched-up pile of shed bark at a tree’s base. It is normal for live, healthy trees to lose some bark, but not like this.

A goldenrod held out its seeds for birds that didn’t seem interested. There seems to be a lot of that going on here. Many fruits and seeds are not being eaten like they were a few years ago.

I love to see the sunlight falling on golden birches. It shows how they come by their name. They are also called yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) but to me they’re golden. Swamp birch is another name for this tree that is the largest and most valuable birch. They can live to 100 years regularly but at least one was found that was over 200 years old.

I was lucky to find a fallen golden birch branch that had the female seed heads (strobili) attached. They are quite big on this birch; about the size of bush clover seed heads, or the tip of your thumb.

And here was a single fallen golden birch seed, which is about twice the size of the gray birch seed I showed in a recent post. I’ve read that redpolls, pine siskins, chickadees, and other songbirds eat these seeds. Ruffed grouse eat the seeds, catkins, and buds, and red squirrels like the seeds and sap.

Golden and paper birches both have bark that peels like this. As any camper knows, it’s great for starting a campfire. That’s because it contains betulin, which is highly flammable. It is also water repelling, and that’s probably why Native Americans used birch bark for their canoes.

There was lots of ice on the ledges. These ledges don’t see a lot of sunshine; I’d guess maybe two or three hours per day, so the ice grows slowly. It is clear and hard.

The sunshine that falls here in winter comes over the hillside to the right, out of this view. In winter it takes its time reaching the other hillside on the left, so much of the road is shaded. It can be a cold walk. The overhead electric wires just follow this handy corridor. There are no houses here.

I met and old timer up here once who told me that rock climbers used to practice on that erratic over on the other side of the brook. It is big; maybe twice the size of the 40-ton Tippin Rock in Swanzey.

I loved the way the reflected light fell on the water in this spot. So much beauty, everywhere you look.

In the place where the brook becomes wide and calm it had iced over. I’ve seen Beaver Brook with ice three or four feet thick on it, so thick that the brook lost its singing voice.  I’m hoping I don’t see that this year.

The icicles hanging from the stones in the brook have large “feet” and I think that is because they grew in length as far as the water surface and then, once they couldn’t grow any longer, they grew wider instead. I’ve watched the ice in the Westmoreland deep cut and when it reaches the surface of the drainage channels it widens, just like this. If that is what is happening here then the water level has dropped about a foot since the icicles grew.

Ice hung from every stone. Anywhere water splashes is a good place to look for ice formations.

The seed pods of Indian pipe plants (Monotropa uniflora) look like small, carved wooden melons. This one had split to release the tiny, winged seeds. They split into five parts and each segment will eventually fall off, leaving the hard, dried central style behind. I had to take my gloves off to get this shot so it is a bit rushed. I wanted to show more of the top so we could see the funnel shaped hole in the stigma, but it was cold. The wiry looking bits are what is left of its ten dried stamens which, when the plant is flowering are inside the petals. You can see one of the dried petals behind the seed pod there in the lower right. It really is fascinating how much of the flower’s structure is still there in the dead plants. I always like to stop and take a closer look when I see them.

I stopped to look at the chubby purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). Buds with many bud scales that overlap like shingles are called imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If ice should form inside the bud scales it could kill the bud. I’ve seen these buds in the past with purple and green stipes and they were beautiful. The colors reminded me of drawings of court jesters that I’ve seen. I can’t say why some buds are striped and others are not but I have a feeling that temperature might have something to do with it. Many plants like American wintergreen, turn purple in winter and I’ve noticed that the color is darker when it is cold.

As is often the case these days I didn’t dare to climb down the embankment to get a good view of the falls, but this shot from 2015 is a good representation of what I saw by peeking through the brush on this day. There was a good roar but I’ve seen even the falls covered by ice in the past, quieted by the cold.

As I was leaving, I noticed that the sun was higher in the sky and its light had reached the brook. There wasn’t much warmth but there was light. This shot also shows how treacherous climbing down to the water would be, and this spot would be much easier than at the falls. You’ve got to be careful up here because you’d wait quite a little while for any help to come and in this cold that wouldn’t be good.

The sunshine had also reached the icicles on the ledges but I’d be surprised if it had enough time to do any real melting. It won’t be long though. There is a little more daylight each day and it will be March before we know it.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

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On a recent murky day I went to the Ashuelot River. It wasn’t raining but there was an unseen mistiness in the air that the cameras didn’t like. It was relatively warm and the river was just as smooth as glass, so the plusses outweighed the minuses.

There were a single pair of mallards in the shallows. She watched while he ate.

Then when he was full, he sped off upriver without her. A fine how do you do for having watched out for danger for him.

The reason I wanted to come here was because all of the snow had melted again and I knew the trail would be an easy walk. Snowmobiles aren’t allowed here so in snowy winters you find snow packed down by the many people who walk this trail. Once it gets packed down it turns to ice and makes walking very difficult. This might be the last time I get out here until March.

This is a good example of what happens when snow is packed down, but it wasn’t too bad on this day because it was so warm. It was more slush than ice and wasn’t very slippery. If it had been 20 degrees I would have been walking off trail in the woods.

With no ice on the river the beavers are able to cut trees just as they would in warmer weather, and they had been hungry. I watched a nature show that said they will eat part way through a tree like this and let the wind do the rest. The trouble with that is, there are lots of people using this trail.

The wind blew that large tree in the foreground over some months ago, but the smaller one further on is new.

Here is the smaller tree we saw in the previous photo, felled by hungry beavers. They’re really going to town out here this year.

They cut the top off the tree they had felled and dragged it into the river, and then stripped and ate the bark. They seem to strip trees like this more in the colder months, I’ve noticed. I’d guess the bark must be the tastiest and most nutritious part.

They bit off all the smaller branches and stripped them of bark and then a human came along and put them all into small piles according to size. It looks neat and tidy I suppose, but I doubt the beavers care.

The river was fairly high and I’d guess that would make dragging trees a bit easier when branches didn’t snag on the bottom.

Here was another tree felled and stripped of bark. I’ve never seen so much beaver activity in one area. Easy pickings for them though, so why go anywhere else? With the cleared trail there they don’t even have to drag the trees through brush to get them to the river.

Everything out here was dripping wet. I thought we would probably have a snowless winter because nature always tries to find a balance, and we had feet of rain last summer. To offset all that rain it would make sense that we’d have no snow in winter and we don’t. But it still rains.

A six-foot-tall pokeweed plant had collapsed into a tangle of beautiful blue caned black raspberries.

The pokeweed plant had a lot of berries on it that the birds had missed. They were looking a bit past their prime now.

The pretty color of these royal fern leaves (Osmunda spectabilis) caught my eye. I like seeing warm colors in winter, I’ve recently realized. Royal ferns are thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years.

I admired the healing that this tree had gone through before it died. It hadn’t completely covered the wound but it had obviously tried. Actually no, there was no trying involved. I’d guess it was as natural as breathing is to us. Either way it didn’t matter how or why it happened. It was as if the tree had pulled back its outer skin just a bit to show me its heart, and I thought it was beautiful. It was one of those forest artworks that I always enjoy seeing.

Someone had scratched a skull into a shield lichen. I’ve never thought of doing that.

Bat boxes are fairly common out here but spotting one is not. They’re eight feet or so off the ground and I think most people walk right by them without even knowing they are there. I thank the bats for keeping this walk relatively mosquito free in summer.

This small tree had the strangest bark I’ve even seen. It was soft and spongy like cork and I don’t know what could have caused such a thing. I do know it can’t be good. I think this little tree’s time with us is over.

I saw many Japanese knot weed seeds (Fallopia japonica) but I’ve read that, because the seeds have a very hard time germinating, seed dispersal is not the way this plant usually spreads. Instead it spreads by its roots and stem pieces, so when it is dug, cut or weed whacked and pieces of it get strewn around, more plants will grow. If I understand what I’ve read correctly, the practice of mowing it down on roadsides is often what helps it spread. This is what has been tried here on parts of the riverbank and over the years I’ve seen it spread.

In its native habitat the knotweed’s winged seeds help it get around, but in its native habitat there are natural defenses that keep it in check. There are none of those here; none of the insects or diseases that help control it came with it when it was brought here, and that’s why importing plants from other areas needs to be controlled. I would guess that this country must spend billions each year fighting just this one plant, but the list of invasive species is a long one.

This sums up winter here so far. Little snow but plenty of ice.

Slowly, the river widens and undercuts the roots of trees. They will eventually succumb to gravity and fall in, to be washed away to some unknown place or to sink and lie on the bottom. This maple was halfway there and may not be here at all next year at this time. If you want to be able to see the slow pace of a river widening watch the trees along its banks. I’ve seen many that have fallen into the water over the years and I’ve seen huge old trees stuck on rocks or sandbars out in the middle. It’s all part of the river’s natural cycle, and it is one I’ve watched since I was a very small boy. The river drew me to it like a magnet not too long after I was born, and it has kept me fascinated ever since. Maybe I too am part of its natural cycle.

There is no rushing a river. When you go there, you go at the pace of the water and that pace ties you into a flow that is older than life on this planet. Acceptance of that pace, even for a day, changes us, reminds us of other rhythms beyond the sound of our own heartbeats. ~ Jeff Rennicke

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We’ve had more ice than snow here so far this winter and if there is one thing that will strike fear into the most winter hardened New Englander, it is an ice storm. Trees, weighed down by ice, fall and take wires down with them, and there have been times here when the power has been out for weeks. No power when it’s cold means you move, unless you happen to have a non electric heat source or a generator. In any event I wanted to take a walk after a recent ice storm because though terrible, on a sunny day ice can also be beautiful.

The trouble was, there wasn’t much sunshine to make the ice sparkle like prisms, and instead of clear and beautiful some of the ice was kind of slushy, as the ice on this beaver cut tree shows.

This clear, hard ice covered every exposed twig and branch but luckily, I saw only a few that had fallen. There was no sunlight to make it sparkle.

Even the beech leaves had a coating of ice, and that made them even more beautiful. Simple, everyday natural beauty is available to everyone at any time but we can’t just look. We need to see.

That’s ice, not a water droplet. Sometimes it seemed like every living thing must be coated in ice on this day.

This puddle ice was unusual. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a puddle do that.

The sun and clouds just couldn’t decide who would win out and I found that trying to time my shutter clicks to when the sun did shine was fighting a losing battle so I just enjoyed the day, sun or clouds.

Pretty little goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) leaves grew in a crook made by pine roots. You wouldn’t think such a tender looking plant would be evergreen but they are. In spring the leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will often be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and small white flowers will appear. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots.

I saw a single small jelly crep growing on a log. Jelly creps (Crepidotus mollis) are small, quarter sized “winter mushrooms” that like to grow on hardwood logs. They are also called soft slipper mushrooms and feel kind of spongy and flabby, much like your ear lobe. When they grow in groups, they grow with an overlapping shelving habit like shingles.

Here are the jelly crep’s gills. This mushroom was only about half an inch across so this was a tough shot to get.

A small bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) somehow remained ice free. Determination, I thought.

There was sunlight at the end of this tree tunnel.

If you follow the trail long enough you find the closeness of the forest opens up into quite a large expanse of wetland, which is home to fish, frogs, beavers, herons and other critters. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets right here in this spot as well. I’m glad there are laws that prevent the filling in of wetlands now. When I was a boy, I saw load after load of concrete rubble and just about anything else you can think of dumped into wetlands to fill them so they could be built on.

The stream in the previous photo goes under a road and though it looked like spring on that side of the road I found winter on this side. It seemed odd to have such a change happen over such a short distance.

This is the only gray birch I’ve ever seen with inner bark that color. It is beautiful and so bright, the first time I saw it I thought it was a plastic marker. I was glad that it wasn’t.

There was quite a large clear spot under some pine trees and I knew what that meant.

The pine’s branches had taken on the weight of the ice. This is why limbs break off and take down power lines. Ice can be very destructive.

I looked at the gray birches (Betula alba var. populifolia) in a small grove to see if all the seeds had been eaten yet.

There were quite a few left but they were being eaten. Ripe female catkin-like strobiles like the one seen here resemble small cones. Fruit (seeds) are blown about by the wind in late fall and winter. Unless that is, birds get to them. Many songbirds love them. You can often find the snow under a gray birch littered with hundreds of tiny winged seeds. Seeds can persist for years in the soil and will grow if the soil is disturbed.

I wanted to show you a gray birch seed so I brought home a strobile and put a single seed on a white background. They are very small and I couldn’t think of anything to compare them to, so I put a period on the paper with a blue pen. Each tree must produce hundreds of thousands of these seeds, which are technically called nutlets.

This is a gray birch catkin. A true catkin is really just a long string of small flowers spiraling around a central stem, and these will open in May.

I saw what looked like a stream through the woods but it was actually a giant puddle. Quite a beautiful reflecting pool, I thought.

Their deep warm color, the shine of their icy coating, and the the way that the soft light falling on them seemed to caress them made these oak leaves a thing of great beauty. As I’ve said before; if you can find joy in the simple things in life, joy will follow you wherever you go. These beautiful leaves certainly put a smile on my face on such an icy day.

By walking in a snowy forest you can really forget about this world, and every time you forget about this world you leave this world, and every time you leave this world you gain a very special wisdom that does not exist in this world. ~Mehmet Murat ildan

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It seems that these “looking back” posts get harder every year. Choosing a handful of photos is never easy but this year it seemed daunting at first. But then I sat down and remembered what this blog was all about, which is showing you the beauty of nature. I dangle a carrot and entice you into going out and seeing nature for yourself, and when you do you fall in love with what you see, just as I did. That’s the plan, anyway. So as you look at what I’ve chosen remember that these photos are about the beauty of this world and nothing else. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you might not think the stream ice in the above shot is beautiful at all. Hopefully though, as you wade through this post, you’ll find something that catches your eye. And remember, if I saw it, you can too.

This is more stream ice, this time with leaves trapped in it. This reminded me of putting a leaf between 2 sheets of waxed paper and then ironing the paper so it sealed around the leaf. It’s always slightly fuzzy, never clear like glass.

The first two photos were taken last January. In February I was at the North Pole, or so it seemed when I was looking at this wind sculpted snow. I love to see the designs the wind can make in snow, but it has to be the right kind of snow with the right consistency or it doesn’t seem to work.

This shot, taken later in February, makes me want to say “whew,” because it shows the first sign of warm colors and melting ice after a long white winter. I’ve always believed that once we’ve made it through February winter’s back is broken. Sure, we can get more snow and even cold, but it doesn’t usually last for weeks like it can in January and February.

In early March there was still snow on the ground but the willows burned brightly and this scene reminded me of an impressionist painting. Vincent van Gogh, maybe?

March is when the first flowers appear but I doubt many people notice the beautiful male alder catkins dangling from the bushes like strings of jewels. A catkin is really just a string of flowers and there are probably hundreds of tiny male blossoms in this shot.

April is when things really get going and large willow shrubs full of bright yellow flowers appear at wood edges and out in the fields. They’re a breath of spring that I look forward to each year and their blossoming usually signals the return of red winged blackbirds.

Bloodroot is one of our most beautiful wildflowers which don’t often appear until early May, but last spring they came along in April. I’m not sure how a flower could be more perfect than this. Its simplicity is what makes it so beautiful, I think. It isn’t busy and there’s nothing to deduce or discover; it’s all right there so all you need to do is just admire its beauty. If you happen to find bloodroot growing in the wild you should remember the spot because this plant will come up in the same spot for many years if undisturbed.

May is when I start looking at buds and though there were many to choose from, I chose this velvety soft, pink and orange, striped maple bud. They seem to glow, and seeing a tree full of them is a sight not soon forgotten. This is a smallish tree and common in this region, so the next time you’re walking along a trail in early May, look out for it.

By mid to late May some of our most beautiful wildflowers are just coming into bloom, like the wild columbine seen here. The columbines grow on stone ledges off in the woods where few people ever see them, but some like me consider them very special and make it a point to go to see them each year. They’re quite a rare find; this spot in Westmoreland is the only place I’ve ever found them. It’s a bit of a hike but it isn’t any work at all to go and see them on a beautiful spring day in May when the leaves are just coming out on the trees and the air is full of sunshine and birdsong. In five short months it will be time to take that walk again, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In this area nothing says June like our native blue flag irises. I watch the roadside ditches because that’s where I find a lot of them blooming beautifully in large clumps. I also see them on pond and river edges. They like a lot of water and can sometimes even be found in standing water. They’re a beautiful flower that always says summer to me and you don’t have to hunt for them, because they’re everywhere.

Flowers come fast and furious in June and you can find many newly opened species each day. For this post though, I chose Robin’s plantain, a fleabane that’s considered a lowly weed. It comes up in lawns everywhere but even though it’s a weed, nobody mows it until it’s done blooming. I think this photo shows why. It’s such a beautiful weed.

There are times in the woods when I see something I can hardly believe I’m seeing, and that’s how it was the first time I saw this fringed bog orchid. I know I’ve found something special when all thoughts leave my mind and I just want to be quiet. I know I’m in the presence of something rare and very special, and I imagine that I feel as I would if I were walking into one of the world’s great cathedrals. It’s hard to explain, but you just know that this is a special moment and it deserves all of your attention, and your gratitude as well. You are humbled, I suppose is the best way to explain it, and it happens the same way each July when I go into the swamp where this magnificent orchid grows.

Also in July, this past July at least, because of all the rain, fungi and slime molds began to appear. I learned a lot by paying attention and watching closely this past summer. I saw a huge variety of fungi and slime molds appear that I had never seen before and as far as I can tell it was all on account of the steady rains we had. After two years of drought it was an amazing show of what nature can do under the right conditions.

In August I found the tiny flowers of the field forget-me-not growing in a lawn and that seemed appropriate, because August was the month that I lost a sister to lung cancer. Though nature has shown me that there is a deep well of peace within us all we have to find it before we can drink from it, and it isn’t something that one of us can give to another; each of us has to find it for ourselves. This was the unfortunate truth that I realized there alongside the forget-me-nots in August.

The concentric circles in tiger’s eye fungi also seemed appropriate for August. To me life is like a song, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When one song ends a new one begins to take its place, and on and on it goes in a never-ending circle, through all of eternity.

In September I saw one of the prettiest displays of mushrooms I’ve seen when I found these Jack O’ lanterns growing on and around this old red maple. There were hundreds of them and they grew in a ring on all sides of the old tree. A day or two later and I would have missed this beautiful display, and that’s a good reason to get into the woods each day if you can.

This shot is a bit ironic with a monarch butterfly on a purple loosestrife because we wish we’d see more of the butterflies and less of the very invasive purple loosestrife. I didn’t count but I saw a fair number of monarchs, mostly in August and September of last year. I wish I knew why there were so many more, and I wonder if the weather had anything to do with it. I wouldn’t think a butterfly would want to be rained on but there were so many flowers blooming because of it.

This shot from October shows what I mean about having so many flowers blooming. This is just a roadside meadow of sorts that I pass each day on my way to and from work. It’s there every year but this past summer was the best I’ve seen it look. Because of this spot I discovered that New England asters like an awful lot of water. Seeing them in such a wet spot made me take note of soil conditions in other places they grew and each one was quite wet, or at least more than just moist.

You certainly receive plenty of hints in September and even in August of summer’s passing but October is when it really hits you. At least, that’s when it hit me one October morning when I stood on the shore of Half Moon Pond and saw how all the trees had colored. It was a beautiful way to end our summer and it went on and on, and again I think that was because of all the rain we had.

Very late October and early November is the time to visit Willard Pond in Hancock if you want to experience all the majesty of a New England hardwood forest in the fall. The oaks and beeches put on what is easily the most beautiful autumn spectacle that I’ve seen. It’s a quiet, peaceful place with well placed benches where you can sit and listen to the calls of loons and enjoy the beauty of the pond and surrounding forest.

I took a hike down a rail trail in November and just before I left, I snapped this shot of a distant hillside. I could see color on the hillside from where I was but it was like a smudge, with no real detail. I was surprised when I looked at the photo and saw that it was a hillside full of oaks. Everyone seemed to like this one so I’ll show it again.

We had our fist snowfall in December, barely an inch here, so I went out and got some photos of it. It was a nuisance storm and we’ve had two or three since, but no real snowstorms. People who have to shovel it are counting their blessings, but people who make money plowing it don’t feel quite so lucky. I think we all need to face the fact that winter has changed. Just over the course of this blog’s 11 years I’ve watched it go from cold and snowy to rather mild on average in comparison. Spring starts earlier and fall lasts longer now.  

It did get cold enough in December for me to get a shot of this frost crystal on my car windshield one morning. Everyone seemed to like seeing it, so here it is again.

And that’s 2021 in New Hampshire in a nutshell. I hope yours was even more beautiful, and I hope everyone has a safe, healthy and happy 2022!

The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come. ~Mick Kremling

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