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On Friday, April 16th nature decided to surprise us. This photo shows what I saw on my way to work that day. Parts of the state ended up with a foot of heavy wet snow but it was too warm for it to last..

…and in a day or two it was all gone.

It did get cold for a while but that didn’t slow things down for too long. Ferns like this lady fern  (Athyrium filix-femina) still showed off their stamina with their naked spring fiddleheads. Lady fern is the only fern I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk in the fiddlehead stage. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers. They don’t like windy places, so if you find a shaded dell where a grove of lady fern grows it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t ever get very windy there.

Interrupted fern (Osmundastrum claytoniana) fiddleheads wore fur and huddled together to keep warm.

Red maple (Acer rubrum) seeds (samaras) are growing by the many millions. These are one of the smallest seeds in the maple family. It is estimated that a single tree 12 inches in diameter can produce nearly a million seeds, and if the tree is fertilized for 2 years seed production can increase by 10 times. It’s no wonder that red maple is getting a reputation for being a weed tree.

For a short time between when they appear and when they ripen and fall American elm (Ulmus americana) seeds have a white fringe. When they ripen they’ll become dry and papery and finally fall to the wind. I grew up on a street that had huge 200 year old elms on it and those trees put out seeds in the many millions. Elm seeds contain 45% protein and 7% fiber and in the great famine of 1812 they were used as food in Norway.

As I write this the large, infertile white blossoms of hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) have most likely fully formed, but when I last went to see them this is what they looked like; almost there. Hobblebush flower heads are made up of small fertile flowers in the center and large infertile flowers around the perimeter. The infertile flowers are there to attract insects to the much less showy fertile ones and it’s a strategy that must work well because I see plenty of berries in the fall. They start out green and go to a beautiful bright red before ripening to a deep purple color.

Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) can be quite beautiful when it starts to unfurl its leaves in spring but Americans have no love affair with it because it is an invasive weed that is nearly impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. I’ve seen it killed back to the ground by frost and in less than 3 weeks it had grown right back. I’ve heard that the new spring shoots taste much like rhubarb. If we ate them maybe they wouldn’t be such a bother. Maybe in pies?

This mullein plant was one of the biggest I’ve seen; as big as a car tire. I loved the pattern the leaves made. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. They also used the roots to treat coughs, and it is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid. The Cherokee tribe are said to have rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat prickly rash and the Navaho tribe made an infusion of the leaves and rubbed it on the bodies of their hunters to give them strength. Clearly this plant has been used for many thousands of years. It is considered one of the “oldest herbs’ and recent research has shown that mullein does indeed have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum), also called ramps, are up. They look like scallions and taste somewhere between onions and garlic. They are considered a great delicacy and are a favorite spring vegetable in many parts of the world, but they’ve been over collected so harvesting has been banned in many parts of the U.S. and Canada. They’re slow growers from seed and a 10 percent harvest of a colony can take 10 years to grow back. They take 18 months to germinate from seed and 5 to 7 years to become mature enough to harvest. That’s why, when people write in and ask me where to find them, I can’t tell them. The two small colonies I’ve found have less than 300 plants combined.

This photo is from a few years ago when I foolishly pulled up a couple of ramps, not knowing how rare they were. It shows their resemblance to scallions though, and that’s what I wanted you to see. They are said to be strongly flavored with a pungent odor, but they’ve been prized by mankind since the ancient Egyptians ate them. Each spring there are ramp festivals all over the world and in some places they’re called the “King of stink.” The name ramp comes from the English word ramson, which is a common name of the European bear leek (Allium ursinum,) which is a cousin of the North American wild leek.

In one of the spots I go to find ramps I find false hellebore (Veratrum viride) growing right beside them. There is a lesson in that, and it is know your plants well if you’re going to eat them. Ramps are one of the most delicious wild plants and false hellebore one of the deadliest. As you can see from the photos they look nothing alike but people do still confuse them. As recently as 2019 a physics professor and his wife wanted some spring greens for breakfast at their cabin in Vermont. The greens they chose, instead of the ramps they thought they were picking, were actually false hellebore. They spent 2 weeks in the hospital and almost died. From 2014 to 2019 in Vermont 18 people were poisoned by false hellebore so again; know your plants. In this case it is simple: ramps smell like onions and false hellebore does not.

And then there is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) which is also up at the same time as ramps and false hellebore. Though I haven’t heard of anyone mistaking skunk cabbage for ramps,. when the leaves of skunk cabbage just come up and start to unfurl I could imagine some thinking they were ramps. In any event skunk cabbage won’t kill a person but after smelling it I can picture it giving a person a good tummy ache.

There are is magic in the woods; beautiful things that many never see, and the glowing spring buds of the striped maples are one of them. Velvety soft and colored in pink and orange, they are one of the things I most look forward to seeing in spring.

But you have to be quick and pay close attention if you’re going to watch spring buds unfold, because it can happen quickly. This striped maple bud was all ready to break.

I saw a porcupine in a tree where I work. This porcupine, if it is the same one, had a baby with her last year. This year she doesn’t look well but since you could fit what I know about porcupines in a thimble and have room to spare, I can’t be sure. I do know that three or four of us thought she looked as if something was wrong.

I felt as if I was being watched one day when I was taking photos of violets and turned to find a very suspicious robin wondering just what it was I was up to. I said hello and it hopped even closer. It looked very well fed and I wondered if it was hopping in the grass because it was too heavy to get off the ground. Of course I didn’t ask. Instead I stood and walked across the lawn and when I turned to look again I saw that it was still watching me. Probably making sure I wasn’t making off with any of its worms.

I don’t see many wooly bear caterpillars in spring but here it was. Folklore says that the wider the orangey brown band on a wooly bear caterpillar is, the milder the winter will be. We did indeed have a mild winter but I doubt the wooly bear cared either way because wooly bears produce their own antifreeze and can freeze solid. Once the temperature rises into the 40s F in spring they thaw out and begin feeding on dandelion and other early spring greens. Eventually they spin a cocoon and emerge as a beautiful tiger moth. From that point on it has only two weeks to live. Since this one was on a step I’m guessing that it was looking for a place to make a cocoon.

The new shoots of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) are up and leafing out. Usually even plants this small will have tiny flower buds on them but I didn’t see any on this one. Each year the above ground stem leaves a scar, or “seal” on the underground stem, which is called a rhizome. Counting these scars will reveal the age of the plant but of course you have to dig it up to do that and I never have.

I finally found the female flowers of sweet gale (Myrica gale.) They’re bushy little things that remind me of female alder catkins. Sweet gale is also called bog rosemary and likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent.

These are the male catkins of sweet gale. They’re much larger than the female catkins and much easier to spot.

If there is anything that holds more promise than new spring leaves I’ve never experienced it.

Bud break is defined as “when the green tip of a leaf can be seen emerging from the bud.” It’s happening right now to a lot of trees like this sugar maple. I love the veining on sugar maple leaves just before they unfurl.

I complained in an earlier post how, though maple leaves often come out of the bud colored red, all I was seeing this year were green. Of course as soon as I say something like that nature throws me a curve ball and on this day all I saw were young red leaves. Actually my color finding software calls them salmon pink and orange.

All of the snow in that first photo ended up like this; spring runoff. That means of course that I get to enjoy the moisture in its two forms; first when it clothes every branch and twig and second when it becomes a beautiful waterfall. This is one of my favorite spring scenes. I call this the “disappearing waterfall” because it comes and goes depending on the weather. It was in fine form on this day but it could be gone completely the next time I go to see it.

I meant to do my work today, but a brown bird sang in the apple tree, and a butterfly flitted across the field, and all the leaves were calling. ~Richard le Gallienn

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This post will be the last with ice in it for a while, but scenes like this one were still common just two or three weeks ago. Beaver lodges can be quite big, with the floor a couple of inches above the water level. On the floor they scatter a 2 or 3 inch deep bed of dry leaves, grass, shredded wood and other materials to keep the floor dry. They don’t hibernate. They can swim under the ice but they can’t hold their breath forever so they can’t stray far from their lodges in winter. Their winter food is green branches and twigs they anchor into the soft mud around the lodge. When hungry they dislodge a branch, which stay green in the cold winter water, and drag it into the lodge.

This winter I’ll remember for its ice. It was everywhere. It was terrible to walk on but often beautiful to see.

But ice melts, and in this photo it is doing just that on Half Moon Pond in Hancock. The ice usually melts off around mid-April but this year it happened about two weeks early due to above average temperatures and record breaking warmth.

This snowbank raised what looked like a defiant fist and seemed to say “I will not melt”! But it did melt; they all did.

In fact the ice and snow melted so fast the sign removal people couldn’t keep up.

The Canada geese knew the thaw was coming and they were here almost immediately after the ice melted. Many ducks have returned as well, and I’ve heard spring peepers, wood frogs, red winged blackbirds, and the beautiful but sorrowful sounding fee-bee mating call of male black capped chickadees.

I’ve been watching buds, like this blueberry bud. It always amazes me that a plant with blue fruit can have so much red in it. I think the white stripe running up the stem and around the base of the bud might have been frost.

Lilac buds can also have a lot of red in them. They’re starting to swell noticeably now.

Red elderberry buds are also getting bigger by the day. The deep purple fingers of unfurling leaves are beautiful as they come from their buds in the spring. It won’t be long now.

I think the buds of sweet gale have elongated some but they’re so small it’s hard to tell. They’re pretty little things. This small, very aromatic shrub is also called bog rosemary. I find it on the shorelines of ponds along with leatherleaf, alder and rhodora.

How beautiful the leaves of swamp dewberry are in spring before they turn green and start photosynthesizing. Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s in bloom and because of its strawberry like leaves, which are evergreen. This is a plant that can trip you up when hidden by snow. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

We lost a huge old pine tree where I work and I wanted to get photos of it because if you look closely you can see that the bottom half was completely hollow. A big pine like this one fell on a friend’s barn a few years ago and cut it right in half. A snow blower parked inside was crushed down to a jumble of mashed metal.

The scary part of this tree falling was how it fell right next to one of our roads. Thankfully there was no one going by at the time. When it fell it took two or three other smaller trees with it.

I saw a small delicate feather stuck on the bark of a tree and wondered if it might be a nuthatch breast feather. We have lots of them where I work. The rose breasted nuthatches are so fearless that one day I almost stepped on one. I’m glad I saw it at the last minute.

Blue jays stayed here all winter long; the first time I’ve ever seen this. And there were large flocks of them. Many people in the area were commenting about how unusual it was.

I found a beech leaf and a pinecone twirling slowly in the breeze at the end of a strand of spider silk. Since both leaves and cones fall from trees I’m guessing that they fell through a spider’s web. I’ve read that spider silk is five times as strong as the same diameter thread made of steel. I’ve also read that, if you had a piece of spider silk the same diameter as a pencil, it would be strong enough to stop a Boeing 747 in flight. It’s always good to have a little awe in our lives, I think.  

Here is one of the strangest things I’ve ever found in the woods. I said “Oh, a bird’s nest” and walked over to it. I could see bits of yarn and string like a bird would use but something didn’t look right. It was too perfectly round.

And it was as hard as a rock. That’s because it was a ball with the outer covering torn off. If you’ve ever taken the covering off a baseball you’ve seen this same thing, because this was indeed the inside of a baseball.

The inside had been hollowed out like a bird’s nest and I have to say that I have no idea how it got its outer covering removed or how it got stuck in the crotch of a willow tree. Did someone hit a homerun that landed in a tree? Did someone put it there hoping birds would nest in it? It’s a mystery to me.

Tree skirt moss (Anomodon attenuatus) does just what its name sounds like it would; it grows at the base of trees and makes them look like they’re wearing green stockings. It can also grow on soil or stone and can form extensive mats. This was a beautiful example of it. Jut look how it glows.

Tree skirt moss grows up to 3 feet high around the bases of hardwoods, especially oaks. Knowing where certain mosses prefer growing, whether on soil, stone or wood, can help with identifying them. This moss is very changeable and changes its appearance depending on how dry it is. This example was moist and happy.

This one is for Ginny, who last fall said she couldn’t imagine what a leaf pile the size of a box truck would look like. These are all the leaves that were collected last season where I work.

Of course the pile has settled some over the winter but that’s still a lot of leaves. It takes three full months to collect them all; maple, birch, basswood, oak and beech mostly, and once they decompose we use the resulting compost for lawn patches and what have you. You can just see the top of an older pile in the background that we have dug into.

My little friend here and his cousins try to collect all the acorns and pinecones that fall but we had another mast year and there must be millions of both still left to cleanup. I’ve read that mast years happen when the trees are stressed and I’d guess that drought over the past couple of years would have stressed them severely.

I do hope everyone has a healthy and happy Easter and I hope the sun shines for you, wherever you are.

It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see. ~Henry David Thoreau

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I was driving along an old road looking for fall color when I saw a barred owl in a tree. I stopped the car and got out and much to my surprise the owl stayed put.

A few years ago I came upon a barred owl sitting right in the middle of a trail and like this one it let me take as many photos as I wanted. This one was much bigger than that one but like that owl, this one sat perfectly still and watched me almost the entire time. In this shot you can see that it did look away, and I’d like to think that was because it sensed that I meant it no harm. After taking A few shots I got back in the car and got ready to leave, watching as the owl flew deeper into the woods. Being able to look a wild creature directly in the eyes for a while is a rare thing, and something you never really forget. I’ve stared into the eyes of everything from black bears to porcupines to chipmunks and each time it feels as if they’re giving you something of themselves, willingly. And you want to do the same.

Wilde Brook in Chesterfield was a little wild on the day I was there and it was good to see.

Many streams like this one have dried up completely and though we’ve had some rain this part of the state is still in moderate drought. Other parts of the state are seeing extreme drought so we’re fortunate.

I find tree roots like this one on well-traveled trails. How beautiful it is; like a work of art worn smooth by who knows how many years of foot traffic? It looks as if it had been made; sanded, polished and crafted with love. But how easily missed it would be for someone who was more anxious to see the end of the trail than what could be seen along it. I’m guessing that many thousands of people have rushed by it without a glance, and this is why when you ask them what they saw they will often say “nothing much.”

A piece of driftwood on a pond shore reminded me of the bleached bones of an ancient creature. It is, or was a tree stump and I liked the flow of its roots and its weathered silvery finish. It grabbed me and held my attention for a while.

Witch hazels are having a glorious year. I’ve never seen them bloom as they are now. Apparently drought doesn’t really bother them.

New England asters didn’t have a very good time of it this year but what I did see were beautiful. This is probably the last one I’ll see until next year.

Golden pholiota mushrooms (Pholiota limonella) usually grow in large clusters on dead or dying logs and trees, but this tiny thing grew alone. It’s cap was no bigger in a diameter than a penny. These mushrooms are toxic and are said to smell like lemon, garlic, radish, onion or skunk. They are said to taste like radishes by those unfortunate few who have tasted them. Note how it seems to be growing out of a tiny hole in the log.

Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. Yellow jellies (Tremella mesenterica) like this one are called witch’s butter and are fairly common. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. Jelly fungi can be parasitic on other fungi.

Puffballs grew on a log. The biggest, about as big as a grape, had been partially eaten and I would guess that a chipmunk had been at it. I never knew chipmunks ate mushrooms until I saw one doing so this past summer. I often see gray squirrels eating them as well.

A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. This maple tree shows that even limbs on the same tree can do it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happen this way.

Native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) catches the light and glows in luminous ribbons along the roadsides. This is a common grass that grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington, but is so uncommonly beautiful that it is grown in gardens. After a frost it takes on a reddish purple hue, making it even more beautiful.

It is the way its silvery seed heads reflect the light that makes little bluestem grass glow like it does.

I had quite a time trying to find out what was wrong with this blueberry leaf with big black, tar like spots and I’m still not sure I have but it might be blueberry rust (Thekopsora minima,) which is a fungal disease which infects the leaves and fruit of blueberries and other plants in the Ericaceae plant family. The disease can eventually kill the plant if left alone so it’s important to treat it if you have a lot of bushes. I don’t see many problems on wild blueberry bushes so I was surprised to see this. I wish I had thought to look at the underside of the leaf. That’s where the spores are released and wind and rain can carry them quickly to other plants.

This mullein plant was as big as a car tire and will most likely have an impressive stalk of flowers next year. Mullein is a biennial that flowers and dies in its second year. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. They also used the roots to treat coughs, and it is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid. The Cherokee tribe are said to have rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat prickly rash and the Navaho tribe made an infusion of the leaves and rubbed it on the bodies of their hunters to give them strength. Clearly this plant has been used for many thousands of years. It is considered one of the “oldest herbs’ and recent research has shown that mullein does indeed have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

The spiny, 2 inch long fruits of the wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) have a watermelon shape and boys have been throwing them at each other for as long as I’ve been around. The fruit is not edible and the menacing looking spines are soft and pliable at this stage.

Inside a wild cucumber seed pod you find two chambers which hold a single seed each. These seeds look like giant cucumber seeds. A kind of netting is also found inside wild cucumber seed pods and once they dry the netting is even more interesting. A man wrote to me once and told me that he decorated pens that he makes with that same netting. For me these plants are like a time machine that always takes me back to my boyhood.

A friend’s tomatillos have ripened and are ready for salsa Verde. Tomatillo usage dates back to at least 800 B.C. when they were first cultivated by the Aztecs. Today they are also called husk tomatoes and they can be eaten raw or cooked. Scientists have found fossil tomatillos in Argentina dating back 52 million years, so they’ve been around a long time.

Here was another hemlock root, polished by thousands of feet. Do you see its beauty? Part of the beauty I see comes from knowing how much work would go into trying to create something like this in a wood shop, and part of it comes from the artistic bent I was born with. Much of what I choose to show you here I choose so you might see the beauty that shines out of those every day bits of life that we ignore so readily. Instead of stepping on a root without a thought maybe you could just stop and be still for a moment and really see what is there in front of you. It doesn’t have to be a root; it could be a blade of grass or a mountain or an insect. But just see the beauty in it. The more you let yourself see beauty, the more beauty you will see. Finally you will see beauty everywhere, in every thing, and you will become filled with a deep gratitude for being allowed to see the true wonder and beauty of this earth. This is not hard; all it takes is your attention, your contemplation, and a bit of time.

These are some of the things I have learned simply by spending time in nature. I make no secret of the fact that this blog’s sole purpose is to see you spending time in nature as well. It’s kind of like dangling a carrot before a horse, but why do I care what you do? Would you like an occasional glimpse of bliss? Would you like peace to wash over you like a gentle rain and comfort to cover you like a warm blanket? If you experienced these things would you want to harm this earth? Of course you wouldn’t, and that’s what this is all about.

Can we go from fall to winter just like that, with a snap of the fingers? Yes we can because this is New England and the weather can change that quickly here. Snow on Halloween is unusual but it isn’t unheard of; in 2011 we had a nor’easter come through that dropped close to two feet in my yard and cancelled trick or treating for that year. On the other side of the coin sometimes we don’t see any snow until well after Christmas. Nature seeks balance and we’ve had a several months long drought, so we might get a few surprises this winter.

This was a wet, heavy snow that stuck to everything and reminded me of the quote by William Sharp, who said: There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

This blueberry bush with its red fall leaves did look radiant with its frosting of white snow.

The oaks were beautiful as well, but too much heavy snow when the leaves are still on the trees can cause major damage and power outages which can last for weeks. Luckily this storm was minor, with only 3-4 inches falling.

Still, leaves fell and autumn leaves in the snow are always beautiful. How beautiful this scene was with its simplicity and that amazing color. I couldn’t just walk away without a photo of it, and then I couldn’t stop taking them.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
~Albert Einstein

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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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