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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

1. Storefronts

In 2003 bulldozers and dump trucks moved onto a local wetland and began tearing it up. After two years had passed what was left was a sprawling 70 acre suburban eyesore, and any trace of what was once a natural wetland was gone. Or so I thought. I’ve been keeping an eye on this place since it was built just to see what kind of an impact it would have on the natural surroundings and I’ve been surprised again and again.

2. Pond

When they built the shopping center they also built a retention basin to manage runoff and hopefully improve the quality of the water that makes it into the Ashuelot River and from there ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean. Retention basins are described as “artificial lakes with vegetation around the perimeter which include a permanent pool of water in their design.”  This is more of a pond than a lake but it is able to hold the runoff from drainage ditches that were dug around the entire perimeter. The pond did come very close to flooding one summer but that was because beavers moved in and immediately dammed the outflow channel. The beavers also began cutting down and feeding on the very expensive ornamental trees that the landscape architects ordered, but they didn’t get far. After they dropped the first thousand dollar Bradford pear they “disappeared” and I haven’t seen a beaver here since.

3. Juniper Berries

For some unknown reason, possibly to keep people from driving into it, they built long mounds of earth called berms all along the edges of the parking lots and roadways near the retention pond. The berms are about 5-6 feet high but apparently that wasn’t enough so they planted evergreens on top of them. They used spruce, balsam fir, white pine and juniper and they do a great job of completely hiding any hint of of water. The junipers here fruit heavier than any I’ve seen and I wanted to get a photo of the beautiful blue berries (actually modified cones). So there I was with my Panasonic Lumix point and shoot that I use for macro photos all warmed up and ready to go when a blackish colored head popped up out of the snow not three feet from where I stood. It saw me and immediately dropped back down into the snow, but just a few seconds later popped up again and stared at me. I felt like I was playing one of those Whack a Mole games. “Well hello there,” I said, “what are you doing here?” A stupid question if there ever was one I know, but it was all I could think of with such short notice.

4. Mink on the Run-3

And then after a few seconds of trying to figure out what I was off it went, bounding over the snow, so I just pointed the Panasonic in its general direction and without even looking through the view finder clicked the shutter as fast as my finger could go. The very poor photo above is the result, but it along with a lot of detective work tells me that this sleek blackish brown animal with white under his chin and a tail that tapers to a point is very probably an American Mink. He was about 2 feet long and his round hairy tail made up about a third of his length.

5. Burrow

This explained how he could pop up out of the snow without having snow all over his face and head. Minks are burrowing animals but they usually take over the burrows of muskrats and other animals in embankments along rivers and ponds instead of digging them themselves. They are carnivores and eat just about anything including frogs, mice and voles, fish, and birds. They also kill and eat muskrats and will go right into their burrows to do so. I haven’t been able to find any information on whether or not they bother beavers but I wondered if minks could be responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the beavers from this pond.

6. MinkTracks

If I understand what I’ve read correctly, one way to tell a mink from other members of the weasel family is by its bounding gait. This one was a real bounder and moved surprisingly fast. Rough measurements with my monopod tell me that there are about 14 inches between these prints. Minks can also climb trees and this one headed right for the evergreens along the top of the berm.

7. Paw Prints

I went back the next day to see if I could get photos of the mink’s tracks but because of the powdery snow he bounded through the tracks were barely visible. The ones in this photo were the best and they aren’t great, but one of them does show claw marks.  I’ve read that minks have paws that are slightly webbed, but nothing like the webbing that otters have. The State Fish and Game website says that minks and other members of the weasel family are very rarely seen, so I feel lucky to have gotten these photos even if they aren’t great.

8. Poplar Sunburst Lichen

After the excitement of seeing the mink died down I decided to visit one of my favorite lichens, the poplar sunburst (Xanthoria hasseana.) These lichens grow on the Bradford pear trees that grow alongside the pond and this is the only place that I’ve ever seen them. I’ve been visiting them for several years and each year they get more beautiful. The parts that look like suction cups are their fruiting bodies (apothecia) where their spores are produced.

 9. Hawthorn Fruit

For the most part the landscaping here seems uninspired and unimaginative, but there are bright spots like the two or three hawthorn (Crataegus) trees planted off in a corner where few ever see them.  They usually fruit quite heavily and the birds snap up the berry-like haws quickly. The haws, botanically speaking, are pomes, like apples and pears.  One odd fact about hawthorns is how their young leaves and flower buds are edible and can be used in salads.

10. Hawthorn Thorn

If the haws and the roundish, bright red buds don’t convince you that you’re looking at a hawthorn then the sharp, inch long thorns probably will.

 11.Spruce

I thought I’d use some of the evergreens that they planted on the berms to show you an easy way to tell a spruce from a fir. One way is by their cones. Spruce cones hang down from the branches.

12. Balsam Fir

And fir cones stand up on the branches like candles. This isn’t a great example but it’s the best I could find. Fir cones break apart as they ripen and the thing that looks like a skinny mushroom over on the upper right is what is left behind. Just a stalk and a few scales at the top. Since cones usually appear high up in the tree and are often only produced in 3-5 year cycles it’s wise to learn how to tell conifers apart by other means. Needle shape, length and color, bark appearance, overall growth habits and fragrance can all be used to identify conifers. Since spruce needles are sharp, stiff and square and fir needles are soft, flexible and flat I would have known these trees even if they hadn’t had cones, but the differences would have been much harder to illustrate here.

13. Meadow

The strip of unbroken snow in the foreground of the above photo is one of the drainage ditches and I come here in summer to take photos of arrowhead, nodding burr marigold and other wetland wildflowers that grow in great abundance here. This is a good spot to photograph them because I can get closer to them than I can when they grow in pond water. In the mini meadow in the background goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, boneset, purple loosestrife and other taller wildflowers create scenes worthy of a Monet painting in late summer.

14. Alder Tounge Gall

Native shrubs in the area include various willows, sumacs, and common alder (Alnus glutinosa). The long strap shaped growths coming out of the female alder cones (strobiles) in the above photo are tongue galls caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus causes a chemical reaction that deforms the alder strobiles and produces the tongue like galls. Early in the season when the galls are fresh they’re green but as they age they can become yellow, pink, red, purple or orange. Once they mature they turn brown or black and often stay on the strobiles until the next season. I always seem to miss their younger, more colorful stages.

Note: Julie has correctly pointed out that common Alder is a native of Europe. It also goes by the name of black or European alder and was introduced by the earliest settlers. It has taken well to its new home and is seen everywhere here in New Hampshire along with our native gray or speckled alder (Alnus incana.) It is so common that I think of it as a native, even though I know better. Thanks Julie!

15. Hawk

I happened to glance up and saw this hawk sitting on a light pole. I think it’s the same red tailed hawk that I’ve seen in the general area several times before, but I’m not positive about that identification. It’s a big bird; bigger than a crow-and always sits on the highest point available, watching open fields. I’m sorry again about the poor quality of these photos but I’m pretty sure if I could get a look into this bird’s nest I’d find a Canon Powershot SX40 manual that it reads when it isn’t out hunting, because every time I see him / her it makes sure that it is just beyond what the zoom on my camera can comfortably handle. These shots were taken at what would be the equivalent of about 840mm with a DSLR and I still had to crop them.

16. Hawk

When I’m around this bird never sits still long enough to even think about getting the camera on a monopod or tripod. As soon as it sees me with a camera it flies off. I wonder what the mink’s chances are now that it has moved into the neighborhood. If I were him I think I’d be just a bit worried.

Surprisingly, as this walk around this strip mall shows, nature seems to be thriving here. In fact if you include the mink and the hawk, I’ve actually seen a greater cross section of nature here than I usually do in the woods. While I was taking these photos and thinking about what I was seeing I had a strong feeling that nature couldn’t wait to reclaim this land.

Nature is what you see plus what you think about it. ~John Sloan

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             1. Deep Cut

Regular readers of this blog will recognize this rail trail “deep cut” in Westmoreland, New Hampshire and might be getting a little tired of hearing about it, but I never get tired of visiting this place because there is nothing else like it in this area. Blasted out of solid rock when the railroad was built in the early 1800s, these cliff faces are now home to many unusual plants, including liverworts, mosses, lichens, and ferns. It’s a perfect place to be on a hot day because the temperature is always about 10 degrees cooler but because of the height of the cliff walls it can be quite dark, especially in the late afternoon and on cloudy days, so it took 3 trips to get the photos that follow.

2. Cliff Walls

In the book Lost Horizon author James Hilton describes the fictional valley of Shangri-La as a hidden, earthly paradise and that’s what I’m reminded of every time I come here. In sunnier spots plants of every description, many that I’ve never seen anywhere else, grow on nearly every vertical and horizontal surface of these cliff faces and have grown virtually untouched for close to 150 years.

3. Drainage Ditch

The reason the plants are able to grow here untouched is because of the wide drainage ditches that line both sides of the old rail bed. Only a serious plant nut would go out and buy rubber boots so they could wade through these ditches to get a closer look at the plants that grow on the ledges, and that description fits me. As I look at this photo and see all of the stones that have fallen from the rocks face I think that a hard hat might also be a good investment.

4. Liverwort

Liverworts grow here by the thousands, so thick in some places that you can hardly see the stone beneath them. So far I’ve identified three species but I think there are probably more.

5. Great Scented Liverwort

My favorite liverwort found here is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) Its scent is strongly aromatic and very clean; almost like an air freshener, and once you’ve smelled it you never forget it. I keep hoping I’ll see this liverwort in the fruiting stage but even though I’ve checked each month since last winter I haven’t seen any of its umbrella shaped fruiting bodies yet. It’s such a beautiful and interesting plant that I find myself staring at even its photo.

6. Threadbare Moss Anomodon tristis

Mosses of all kinds grow here but on this trip this one drew my attention more than any other because of its bright, lime green fuzziness. It lives under a constant drip of water as you can see by the surrounding stone. After much searching through books and online, the closest I can come is threadbare moss (Anomodon tristis,) but it is said to grow on tree trunks, not wet stone. It’s quite small; all that is shown in the photo couldn’t have been more than 8 inches long and 4 or 5 wide.

 7. Threadbare Moss aka Anomodon tristis Closeup

This is a closer look at the moss in the previous photo. It stays very wet in this spot. If you have seen it before or happen to know what it is I’d like to hear from you.

8. Green Algae

One of the most unusual things that grow here is a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Even though it is called green algae it is bright yellow-orange because of a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, and which hides the green chlorophyll. This is the only place that I’ve ever found this algae growing.

9. Green Algae Closeup

This is an extreme close-up of the green algae in the previous photo. It is surprisingly hairy and is described as a “filamentous green chlorophyte algae.”

 10. White Wood Aster aka Aster divaricatus

I’ve seen trees growing out of these stone cliff faces so I wasn’t too surprised to find white wood asters (Eurybia divaricatus or Aster divaricatus) doing the same. It really is amazing how such a huge variety of plants can grow where there is so little soil.

11. Thimbleweed Seed Heads

I didn’t know that thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) grew here until I saw these seed heads. Because they look like thimbles they give the plant its common name. They are also very difficult to get a sharp photo of, for reasons I don’t fully understand.

12. Spider

A place so filled with nooks and crannies is sure to have spiders and I’ve seen many here. This one built its web across the mouth of a small cave. I think it’s an orb weaver.

13. Turtlehead

I also didn’t know that white turtleheads (Chelone glabra) grew here but they do, and in surprising numbers. The sight of so many of them that I could easily walk up to made me kind of sorry to have crawled into that swamp in Keene to get photos of them for a previous post.

14. Meadow Rue

I was very surprised to see this tall meadow rue in full bloom. It usually blooms around July 4th in this area and I’ve never seen it re-bloom until now. More proof that magic happens in this place.

15. Barred Owl

And speaking of magic; I was walking slowly down the trail as I always do, eyeing the cliff walls for things of interest, when I had the feeling that I should look down. When I did I saw that I was about 5 feet away from the barred owl pictured above. I’ve never seen an owl up close and was so flabbergasted that I forgot that I even had a camera for a while. There we were for however long it was, looking into each other’s eyes, and it might sound strange but I had the feeling that somehow I knew this bird. In fact I knew that it would let me take as many photos as I wanted, so once I found myself I fumbled with trying to put my camera on the monopod that I always carry. The owl sat perfectly still and watched me the entire time. I could sense that it was not going to fly away while we stared at each other, so after taking 5 or 6 shots I turned to leave. When I looked back seconds later it was gone, without even a whisper of wings. Looking into those dark brown eyes is something that I won’t soon forget.

There is unfortunately another part of this story that I’d like to forget.  I went back the next day to retake some of these photos because it had been cloudy that afternoon and they hadn’t come out very well, and as I walked along I saw a dead barred owl in one of the drainage ditches. It is thought that barred owls mate for life, so the one in the photo might have been sitting by its dead mate or it might have been the one in the ditch. It’s something that I’ll never know for sure but I do know that I had a lump in my throat as I walked down that trail.

There are sacred moments in life when we experience in rational and very direct ways that separation, the boundary between ourselves and other people and between ourselves and nature, is illusion. ~Charlene Spretnak

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