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Archive for the ‘Lichens’ Category

Sometimes when you walk a trail you come back with more questions than answers, and that’s what last Saturday was like.

I chose a rail trail in Swanzey because the snowmobile traffic had packed the snow down, and that made for easy walking. I saw a few riding the trail that day. There goes one now.

The snow in the woods wasn’t all that deep but if you strayed too far off the trail you’d get a shoe full.

The old stock fencing along the trail still looked as good as the day the railroad put it up.

An animal had come out of the woods on the other side of the trail. I couldn’t tell what it was but it wasn’t a deer. The prints looked more like a fox or coyote, but they weren’t clear.

A window had opened up into the drainage channel that ran along the trail.

A quarter size beard lichen floated in the channel. These interesting lichens fall from the trees regularly.

An evergreen fern had stood against the weight of the snow. These delicate looking ferns are anything but delicate.  

I was going to tell you that these lichens were common greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia caperata) but something about them tells me they may not be that lichen. The branching and the lobes don’t seem quite right but it could be just because they were dry. I wish I had walked over to them instead of taking this photo from the trail but for now I’ll just say they are large round, green foliose lichens. Close to 20,00 species of lichens are said to cover 6% of the earth’s surface but few pay any attention to them, and that’s too bad.

The lichens will most likely be there when I get back; this land is protected.

I’ve taken photos of both alder and hazelnut catkins this winter and both have had a reddish cast to them that I’ve never seen. These American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) were a pinky-brown according to my color finding software, so it isn’t my imagination. They’re usually green and this was just one of a few mysteries that I came away from this particular trail with.

And here was another mystery. I found this strange growth on the same hazelnut that I showed in the previous photo. I believe that it must be some type of gall but I’ve never seen anything like it before on a hazelnut and I’ve looked at a lot of them.

It seemed to be a bunch of deformed leaves, which some galls are, but it was small; about the size of a grape. It was also quite furry.

This was not a mystery. Even in silhouette shagbark hickory trees (Carya ovata) are easy to identify because of their peeling, shaggy looking bark. These trees produce good crops of nuts each year and help feed many different birds and animals.

I looked at a hickory bud but I didn’t see any signs of swelling yet. It has still been quite cold but it won’t be long now before the sap starts to flow.

If you find what looks like a big clearing in the woods in winter you had better walk around it until you are sure, because this clearing is a river. When you can’t tell where the land stops and the water starts it’s easy to find yourself walking on ice. I’ll never forget walking down the middle of this very river as a boy and hearing the ice start cracking under me. I don’t think I have ever moved that fast since.

This would be a good indication that what you might think is a clearing isn’t a clearing.

It’s funny how in spots the river is clear of ice and in others it is frozen over. Another mystery. I’m guessing that the speed of the current has something to do with it.

The leg of rail trail crosses a road several times. The tire tracks of one of the monster machines that plowed the road were fun to look at but not so much fur to walk in.

I expect to see beech and oak leaves falling at this time of year but not maple. We do have a couple of sugar maples where I work though that are still clinging to a few of their leaves.

I saw a single white pine seed scale, which is odd. I usually see piles of many hundreds of them, left by squirrels. White pine seeds grow two to a scale. It takes them around two years to mature, and they usually ripen in August and September. They are light brown, oval in shape and winged so the wind can disperse them. I’ve tried to get the seeds, with their thin wings intact, from a scale and I can tell you that it is all firmly attached together. Squirrels can do it all day but I have yet to get one in good enough condition to show you here.

At first this was a mystery but after I looked at it for a while I thought it might be the seed head of a white flowered turtlehead plant (Chelone glabra linifolia). When I got home and looked it up there was no doubt and I was happy that I finally found the seedpods for this plant after so many years of finding the flowers. They look a little like the flowers and that makes them relatively easy to identify.

In the end I went home with a pocket full of mysteries but that was fine because it was a beautiful day, with the sky that shade of blue that only happens in winter and puffy white clouds to keep it interesting. I hope everyone is still able to get outside and enjoy. There is such a lot of beauty out there to see.

Outdoors is where the great mystery lies, so going into nature should be a searching and humbling experience, like going to church. ~Skip Whitcomb

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I didn’t realize, until I started cleaning it up, how much stuff falls from trees. There must be tons of it raining down; it falls 24 hours per day seven days per week. Eastern forest broadleaf trees alone, it is estimated, can drop 2 to 3 tons of leaves per acre in the fall. And then there are the branches, seed cones, acorns and everything else that falls. If it wasn’t for the animals, bacteria and fungi that process it we would surely be buried under it all.

The tiny black specks you see here are seeds of the gray birch (Betula populifolia). Tiny yes, but there must have been millions of them in this small birch grove. Pine siskins, chickadees, and other songbirds eat them. Deer, moose and rabbits eat gray birch twigs.

I thought the brown on the snow in this shot must be dust like seeds but I suspect it was just dust.

Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) drop an incredible amount of material each year; large branches, needles, cones and bark all end up on the forest floor.

Whenever I see a fallen pine branch I check it for lichens and probably 8 out of 10 times there are lichens on it. I believe this foliose example is in the Tuckermanopsis family, possibly Tuckermanopsis americana. It was quite dry even though it was on the snow, so I’d guess that its color had lightened.

After branches pine cones are probably the things that fall out of pine trees the most. They are everywhere, but they don’t always fall end first into the snow like this one had. The heavy end falls first sometimes like this one did but I’ve also seen them turned 180 degrees with the lighter end in the snow.

Usually when you see a fallen pine cone they look like this, but this one has done something special; the sun had heated it enough for it to melt its way into the snow. I’ve seen oak leaves melt into the snow in the same way.

When I see good size fallen pine limbs I always look for bark beetle damage. Bark beetles usually attack weak or dying trees but they can also kill healthy trees by girdling them.  Adults bore small holes in the bark and lay eggs in a cavity. Once the larvae emerge from the eggs they make tunnels in the inner bark, like those seen here. Once they stop feeding they will pupate at the end of these tunnels. The pupae then become young adults and fly off to find another tree. These beetles carry spores of various fungi which can grow on the outer sapwood and stop the upward flow of water to the crown. Bark Beetles include over 100 species and it is said that their work is like a fingerprint for the species. They can create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen.

Mosses of course, are also common on fallen branches. These were very dry but the shield lichen next to them didn’t look too bad. I think it was a common greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata) , which is indeed very common. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did in its center.

If white pine branches are the most common on the forest floor then eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches are the second most common. The difference about hemlock branches though, is how they are almost always small enough to decompose quickly.

Both pines and hemlocks catch much of the snow on their branches, and underneath them the ground is often bare or nearly so in all but the snowiest winters. These bare spots are often full of small birds like juncos scratching around for seeds.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) seed pods are pretty things. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Honey locust seed pods look a lot like giant flat string beans about 9-12 inches long and often curled. Some of them look like polished mahogany and others can be purple. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family. Deer love the seed pods, which often fall in such abundance they cover the ground under the trees.

You want to watch where you walk under a honey locust because fallen branches can be very thorny. Honey locust thorns grow singly and can be 3 to 6 inches long. They will sometimes branch like the example in the photo. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and can cause a nasty wound. In the past the hard thorns of the younger trees were used as nails. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps. Native Americans used the wood to make bows, and medicines were made from various parts of the plant.

The orangey color of these leaves caught my eye. I think they may have been American hornbeam leaves (Carpinus caroliniana). This tree is also know n as muscle wood, ironwood, hornbeam and blue beech, and younger trees will often hang onto their leaves quite late into the year.

In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus), this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence. When I start seeing lots of beech leaves blowing around in late winter I get excited, because that means spring isn’t far off.

I think this pile of beech leaves, blown by the wind, was fairly recent.

I see a lot of woodchips around dead and dying trees, almost always left there by woodpeckers. These small bits of wood disappear quickly.

Trees losing their bark isn’t anything strange but there were a lot of animal tracks around this tree and it looked like an animal might have pulled this piece of bark off. Porcupine maybe?

This white pine had lost some of its bark but it wasn’t lying on the ground anywhere near the tree that I could see. Wounds like this are how fungi can get into a tree and start things like heart rot.

I was surprised to see a virgin’s bower vine (Clematis virginiana) on the ground. This vine can climb high enough to make it into the trees occasionally but usually it just drapes itself over shrubs and hangs on tight. It’s more likely to decompose right there on the shrub than to fall on the forest floor. Those long feathery filaments called styles are on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them, but that can’t happen if they’re on the ground.

This switch grass did most certainly not fall from a tree but its delicate beauty caught my eye so I’ve put it here. I hope you enjoy seeing it as much as I did.

Anyone who thinks fallen leaves are dead has never watched them dancing on a windy day. ~Shira Tamir

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Since the last time I did one of these posts it has gotten colder; cold enough to freeze over our ponds and lakes in fact, as this morning scene from Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows. Many ice fishermen and skaters have been enjoying the ice this year. The ice has also been very vocal, and the pinging and twanging sounds I hear daily signal cracking of the ice. If you’ve never heard it the ice can sound eerie, but some people hear it as music. There is a good video with accurate reproduction of these sounds here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chxn2szgEAg
Nature just never ceases to amaze.

Pressure ridges have been building in the ice on the shore of the pond. It’s easy to think of ice as hard and rigid but it can be quite plastic and it moves around a lot.

Here was a window through the ice; a window into spring.

But it will be a while before spring arrives. We still have to get through February which, though it is the shortest month, can sometimes seem like the longest.

Of course cold doesn’t let snow melt so what looks like a lot of snow in this photo is what has built up over the course of two or three storms that have carried only three or four inches. “Nuisance storms” are what they’re called because, though the amount of snowfall is minimal and hardly worth shoveling or plowing, you never know what the next storm will bring so you’d better get out there and clean it up. It might be a nuisance but you feel better about having done it.

When the snow is light and powdery the wind can sculpt it into all kinds of shapes. That’s how these ripples were made.

I wonder if anyone knows what made these marks in the snow?

The marks were made by a pine cone, blown by the wind and rolling through the snow. I see this a lot.

Animals have started digging through the snow to find acorns and other seeds. I’m guessing these dig marks were made by a squirrel. They have a rough time in the extreme below zero cold we’ve seen lately.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are patiently waiting in their swamp for the weather to be right before showing their mottled spathes, but it won’t be long. Once the modified leaves called spathes have unfurled and the flowers on the spadix have produced pollen the shoot you see here will grow and unfurl and become the large green, cabbage like leaves that the plant gets its name from. Skunk cabbage, through a process called thermogenesis, can produce its own heat and melt its way through ice and snow. They are a sure sign that spring has arrived.

I’m seeing lots of blackberries hanging onto their leaves this winter, and I’m always happy to see them. These were a pleasing shade of maroon. To see actual leaves in January is a great gift, in my opinion.

When a sunbeam lights up a single bit of nature in a given area I pay attention, and on this day one fell on a golden birch. Golden sunshine on a golden birch; a gift of gold that warmed my spirit on a cold blue winter day.

Blue is a color I see a lot of in winter. Here the normally white or greenish white stripes on a striped maple trunk (Acer pensylvanicum) have turned blue. Since I’ve only seen this happen in winter I assume that it is the cold that does it. This native tree is also called goosefoot maple due to the shape of its leaves, and moosewood maple because moose eat its leaves. Another name that I haven’t heard much of is snake bark maple. Native Americans are said to have used the wood to make arrows, which would make sense because these trees grow very straight. They also used it medicinally to treat coughs and colds.

My favorite part of the striped maple at this time of year is its pink buds at the tip of orange branches. From this point until they leaf out they will get even more beautiful.

This photo taken previously what those striped maple buds will look like in late April or early May, just before they break and the leaves come out. A tree full of them is very beautiful.

A young striped maple’s bark is smooth and green or greenish brown with long white or whitish green vertical lines. As the tree ages the bark turns reddish-brown with darker vertical lines, as can be seen in this photo. It’s a tree that goes through many very visible changes and I like to watch them over time.

I saw an old river grape vine that was as big around as my arm. The bark on grape vines peels naturally and birds use it for nest building. North America has about 20 native species of wild grape and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so the grapes were used for juice and jelly or cooked and used in various recipes. Grapes were also used to dye baskets with a gray violet dye.

There is a disease of grapes called black spot disease, also known as anthracnose of grapes, but this isn’t it. This was like a thin black film on the vine that could be peeled off. I’ve searched grape diseases online for a while now and have found nothing like it. I’d hate to think there was a disease spreading among our wild grapes.

I believe that I do know what these black spots I saw on an oak log are; hypoxylon canker, which is a fungal disease of oaks. It appears as black, dead lesions on limbs, branches, and trunks and can kill the tree by causing white rot of the sapwood. The disease usually affects trees that are under stress or which have been damaged in some way. Signs are smaller leaves which are yellowing, along with a thinning canopy and falling twigs and branches.

I can remember when I was surprised to find a single maple dust lichen (Lecanora thysanophora), the only one I had ever seen, but now I’m seeing them everywhere. I don’t know if they were always there and I didn’t see them or if they are spreading, but I’m always happy to find them. They grow usually on smooth barked trees like beech and young maples. Most that I see are an inch or so across but they can get larger.  I like their stark simplicity.

The white / gray fringe around the outside of a maple dust lichen is called the prothallus and using it is a great way to identify it, because from what I’ve read there isn’t another that has it. A prothallus is defined as a “differently colored border to a crustose lichen where the fungus is actively growing but there are no algal cells.” The brownish field or body of this lichen is considered a sorediate thallus, meaning it has powdery structures called soredia that can fall from the lichen and grow new lichens.

If you see this do not touch it, because this is what a poison ivy vine can look like in winter. Poison ivy can appear as a plant, a shrub, or a vine and if you’re going to spend much time in the woods it’s a good idea to know it well. In the winter a vine like this can help identify the plant because of the many aerial roots that come directly out of its bark. It’s best not to touch it because even in winter it can cause an itchy rash. Other common vines like bittersweet, grape, and the trumpet creeper vine do not have aerial roots. They climb by twining themselves around the tree.

What I believe was a dead banded tussock moth was lying on a windowsill where I work. I was shocked when I saw the detail that my new phone camera captured. I think it has passed the macro test.

“Big deal,” I can hear someone say “it’s just an old leaf.” But to me, in the depths of winter when the world sometimes seems black, brown and white, a beautiful spot of color like this will stop me dead in my tracks. Can you be taken out of yourself by an old witch hazel leaf? Can you see that the beauty that you behold is in its essence, who you are? Can you melt into the gratitude that washes over you from having been given such a gift? Yes you can, and nature will show you how if you will let it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ~A.A. Milne

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I’ve seen some really stunning photos coming from smartphones lately so since it was time for me to get a new one I spent quite a lot of time researching which one had the best camera for the money. By the end of this post I hope you’ll agree that I made a good choice; the tiny mushroom in the photo above was hardly bigger than a pea. Yes this phone does macro photography, and it does it well.

Tiny bird’s nest fungi weren’t much of a challenge for the phone but depth of field was slightly off. I think that was my fault more than the phone’s though.

I was splitting wood at work and there, deep inside a piece of oak, was this mushroom mycelium. I was lucky I had a phone with me that could see it and get a half way decent photo of it. I always love finding mycelium because I never know what my imagination will have me see in it. You might see a river delta. Or a tree. Or bird feathers. Or you might see the vast one-ness from which all life arises. Whatever you see in it let it be beautiful; let it reflect the beauty that is inside you.

One of the haircap mosses, either mountain or juniper haircap moss I believe, peeked out from under a dome of paper thin ice. This is a male moss and you can tell that by its color and by the tiny male reproductive structures called antheridia, which look like tiny flowers scattered here and there.

And here was a female haircap moss with its spore capsules almost ready to release their spores. There was a breeze this day and the phone camera didn’t freeze the movement of the capsules as much as I would have hoped but something about this photo grabs me so I’ve added it here, slightly blurred capsules and all. It’s a mouse eye view of the landscape with a certain minimalistic Japanese feel to it, and maybe that’s why I like it.

This bristly beard lichen growing on a white pine is another photo where the depth of field was slightly off and I think it’s happening because I’m getting too close. In fact the phone has told me to “back up for better focus”. But I’ll learn; I’m used to taking photos with my Olympus macro camera, where I can be almost touching the subject. A bristly beard lichen has isidia, which appear as little bumps along its branches. An isidium is a reproductive structure common to some lichens and their presence is a good identifier.

This liverwort, called flat-leaved scalewort (Radula complanata) was about 3/4 of an inch across and grew on a tree, and I thought the phone handled it well. I’ve read that this liverwort is common on trees and shrubs but I rarely see it. Plants are usually flattened, either forming patches like the one seen above or single stems creeping among mosses. It has round, flattened, overlapping leaves which are quite small. Each one is no more than 1/16  of an inch across. This liverwort is said to like sunny, sheltered, moist conditions and will sometimes grow on streamside rocks. Liverworts are epiphytes that take nothing from the trees and shrubs they grow on. ­­They simply perch on them, like birds.

Color reproduction seems to be quite accurate with this phone but beware that this is coming from one who is colorblind. Still, even someone colorblind can see the difference between the hemlock in the foreground and the one beside it, because the one in the foreground is “artificially” colored by Trentepohlia algae. I don’t think I’ve seen this much algae on a single tree before. I wonder how it chooses which trees to grow on and I wonder why, in this case, it hasn’t spread to other trees.

Here is a phone camera macro look at algae on a different tree.

Tiny lichens are a big part of the content on this blog so of course I had to see what the phone could do with them. Again, I think I was a bit too close to this one but I was impressed with the camera. This lichen was only about a half inch across.

In this photo I backed the phone away from the subject lichen and the shot came out much better. This lichen was about half the size of the previous one but it came out much sharper so I’ve got to watch out for getting too close.

Compared to the lichens these alder catkins were huge but the phone camera handled them well, even in a breeze.

I wanted to show something that everyone reading this would know the size of, so for that I chose lilac buds. This is an excellent example of what this phone can do.

The bud of a Norway maple is not something everyone will recognize but they are slightly smaller than the lilac buds.

If you’ve ever wondered why woodpeckers spend so much time drilling into trees, this is why. This yellow insect larva was deep inside a red oak log, seen only when I split it. The tiny creature was about the diameter of a piece of spaghetti and maybe an inch long.

This is just simple stream ice but it was beautiful, I thought.

Of course I had to try plants with the phone camera and it did well on this trailing arbutus. I didn’t want to kneel in the snow so I just bent down and clicked. This phone is said to use a kind of artificial intelligence chip that I don’t fully understand, and it said to be able to compute very fast. In fact I’ve read that some phones can do 5 trillion operations per second.  Speed is one thing, but this phone seems to know or sense what you want before you tell it what you want and I find that a bit odd, if not unsettling. It’s almost like having an assistant who does all the work for you.

Here were the dried flower heads of sweet everlasting. There was a breeze on this day and once again the phone handled it well.

The color red is a challenge for any camera so I thought I’d try some holly berries. The phone camera once again did well, I thought. I like the detail that came through on the leaves as well.

Boston ivy berries (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) are about as big as a small pea, so while I was walking past them while going in for a haircut I thought I’d see what the phone could do with them. I was happy with the shot. Boston ivy isn’t a true ivy and it isn’t from Boston but it is pretty on buildings, especially in the fall when its leaves turn bright red. True ivy belongs to the genus Hedera but Boston ivy is the ivy that lends its name to ivy league universities.

The phone camera seems to do well on landscapes as well. It also has a “night vision mode” but I didn’t use it for this shot of a stream I pass on my way to work early each morning.

The phone tells me I was 11 meters (36 feet) from this tree when I took it’s photo. Why it thinks I need to know that is a mystery. I would have fumbled around with my camera settings for several minutes for this shot, trying to keep the trees light and the clouds dark, but the camera phone did it in two shots without my changing any settings.

This shot looking up a pine tree was taken in almost full darkness, well after sundown and with twilight almost gone. When you push the shutter button on the phone you can hear the shutter click twice when it’s in night vision mode and the photo comes out like this. How it does this is unknown to me as yet. I wanted to show you a dark sky full of bright stars but it has been cloudy every night since I bought the phone.

This shot, taken before sunup early in the morning, was the first shot I ever took with the new phone. I suppose I should give you the name of this phone after putting you through all of this, shouldn’t I? It’s a Google Pixel 4A, 5G and for the same money, according to the reviews I’ve read, no other phone camera can touch it. I find that it is especially useful in low light situations but I also find it a bit awkward to hold a phone while taking photos. I’m certainly happy with it but I think I need more practice. I’m guessing that when the newness wears off it will become just another tool in my tool kit; a camera I can speak into.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
~Marshall McLuhan

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Last Sunday I decided to visit Beaver Brook in Keene. It’s been so long since I’ve been there I didn’t remember when the last time was, so I thought it was time. There is a lot here to see and I wanted to check on a few things.

One of the things I wanted to see was the plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea). This is the only place I’ve ever seen it. Not only does it seem happy here but there are 5 or 6 new plants near it. The leaves on this plant are about 3/4 of an inch wide I’d guess, and they look like crepe paper. It will bloom in late April / early May when the purple trilliums bloom.

I also wanted to see the hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) that grow here. They are one of our most beautiful native viburnums when they bloom with hand size white flower heads in May. Luckily our woods are full of them. This photo shows the flower bud in the center and a new leaf on each side. Their buds are naked, meaning they have no bud scales to protect them, so they have wooly hair instead.

I was a little surprised that Beaver Brook wasn’t frozen over. It has been cold for the past couple of weeks, especially at night. There was still plenty of ice to see though.

Here was some foam that turned to ice, shaped like turkey tail fungi. This is the same kind of foam that forms ice pancakes in the river.

I liked the lacy patterns in this bit of ice. Ice comes in so many shapes and even in different colors, and it can be beautiful.

Here, ice baubles hung off a stone. When it’s cold like this ice will form on any surface that gets wet and with all the splashing going on here there are lots of wet surfaces.

Here were more ice baubles. Some can get quite long but I’d guess these were 5 or 6 inches.

The seep that is here wasn’t frozen but that didn’t surprise me. 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. It rarely freezes solid and it never dries out. 

There are many trees around the seep and all had script lichens (Graphis) on them. Once you get to know a place and know the trees you begin to better understand the things that grow on them. By coming here and watching I’ve learned that the script lichens that grow here only show their apothecia (the dark squiggles) in the cold months. In the summer all you see are whitish growths on the bark. It really is amazing to me that all of this can disappear and reappear each year. Especially because when you look at them closely they look like scars or knife cuts in the body of the lichen. There are at least two different types here, and maybe three. They’re beautiful forms.

I think the greater whipwort liverworts (Bazzania trilobata) were frozen solid. Each one of these tiny worm like beings is about half the diameter of a pencil. A close look shows that they look almost if they had been braided. Each leaf on this leafy liverwort is only about an eighth of an inch wide and has three triangular notches at its base. This is where the trilobata part of the scientific name comes from. It means “having three lobes.” It’s very easy to mistake this common liverwort for moss so you have to look closely. I almost always find them on stone.

When young the female spore capsule (Sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra which protects it. it is very hairy and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually as the capsule ages it moves from vertical to a more horizontal position and the calyptra falls off but something must have gone wrong here because out of hundreds of capsules this is the only one I saw with the calyptra still in place. When everything goes well the spore capsule continues to ripen after the calyptra comes off and when the time is right the beaked end cap or lid called the operculum will fall off and release the spores to the wind.

I had to stop and check on the stairstep moss (Hylocomium splendens). It is also called glittering wood moss and it’s easy to see why. It’s a beautiful moss that grows on stones as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

The brook, on the right, was in deep shade most of the way. That made getting shots of ice a challenge.

But the ice on the ledges was at least partially sun lit.

An evergreen fern was on ice, waiting patiently for spring.

One of the best examples of a frost crack that I know of can be found here on a golden birch. Frost cracks happen when the sun warms the tree and its cells just under the bark expand. If nighttime temperatures are cold enough the bark will cool and contract rapidly, quicker than the wood underneath, and this stress on the bark can cause it to crack.  It’s fairly common to hear trees cracking with a sound like a rifle shot on cold nights.

A fallen golden birch dripped icy fingers.

Everything within 10 feet of the brook was covered in ice.

And it still has a month or so to grow even more.

I told myself all the way up here that I wouldn’t do it but then I met a man and woman who told me how beautiful Beaver Brook falls was, so I knew I had to see it. It’s quite a climb down here but I had micro spikes on so I wasn’t worried about slipping. You do have to worry about falling though because the path down is very steep and momentum will get you moving fast if you aren’t careful. Luckily there are trees to hang on to so I made it down without incident. Once there I found a very icy waterfall.

The sun just happened to be falling right on the falls, which helped with photos. It can be quite dark down in this natural canyon.

I remembered the year the falls was sheathed in ice, which almost completely deadened the sound. It was a bit eerie. Not today though; they fell with a roar and were a beautiful thing to behold. There was also a strong breeze coming up the brook toward the falls, so it was a bit chilly here.

Looking up from the brook I thought this might have to be the last time I climb down here. My trick knee seems to get a little trickier each time I do it.

But for now I didn’t want to think of such things because the sun was shining and there was beauty everywhere; even in a piece of icicle someone had dropped.

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

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I’ve heard stories about a deep cut rail trail up in Hancock New Hampshire for a couple of years now so last Saturday I decide to see what it was about. This railroad was different than the ones that I’m familiar with because it went out of business before the second world war and all of the steel, including the rails, bridges and trestles were sold off during the second world war to help the war effort. The original railroad, built in 1878, was called the Manchester and Keene Railroad. It was taken over by the Boston and Maine Railroad in 1893 and used until flooding damaged many of the trestles. Since replacing the trestles would have been extremely costly, the line was simply abandoned.

What I thought was a drainage channel was actually a stream. It was nice to have its music with me as I walked along.

The water was crystal clear.

Just as I was thinking that it was strange that the stream wasn’t frozen I ran into ice on the trail. I had my micro spikes on so I wasn’t worried about ice.

I like looking at the patterns in ice.

Ice can do amazing things and it can also be very beautiful.

I saw some unusual things out here and this was one of them. This wall is not holding back anything so it isn’t a retaining wall. It looks more like a loading dock but it’s too far away from where the rail cars would have been, so it’s original use is a mystery. Someone went through a lot of time and effort to build it though so it had some importance in its day.

Ice needles grew here and there by the thousands.

I saw the seed heads of heal all (Prunella lanceolata) so I know there are flowers out here. Heal all has been known for its medicinal value since ancient times and has been said to cure everything from sore throats to heart disease, and that’s how it got its common name. Native Americans believed the plant improved eyesight and drank a tea made from it before a hunt. There are Botanists who believe that there are two varieties of heal all; Prunella vulgaris from Europe, and Prunella lanceolata from North America.

I saw the tracks of wild turkeys that had come out of the woods. Turkeys have a “toe” at the rear of their foot that leaves a little dot in the snow and though it’s hard to see in this photo, they are there.

There are whitetail deer out here as well.

The land sloped away on my right and an old stone wall marked what was once pastureland. Many of what are today forests were cleared pasture lands in the past. Most stone walls dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Many farmers went off to work in factories in the mid-1800s after the industrial revolution and gave up farming and their pastures slowly returned to forest, but I have a feeling this land was still being used for pasture when the railroad came through in 1878.

The original stock fencing, so common along these old railbeds, wouldn’t have been needed if the land wasn’t being used to keep animals on. You didn’t want animals on the tracks so many miles of this fencing was strung up along the railways.

And then there was this; a tunnel under the railbed. I doubted it was a culvert because there wasn’t a stream nearby so I think it was a passage for animals. A way to get them from one side of the tracks to the other without them having to cross the tracks.

It was all concrete. Concrete has been around since Roman times so it wasn’t a clue to age but I’d guess it had to have been built while the original railbed was being built. The roof wasn’t high enough to let a horse, cow or tractor through but it was plenty high enough for sheep. Sheep farming was very big in New Hampshire’s rocky ground in the 1800s so a passage under the railbed would make perfect sense. You wouldn’t want your flock on the tracks when a train was coming.

And here was the deep cut, snowier than I had hoped. I like to see what grows on these old exposed walls and that isn’t an easy thing to do when they’re snow covered.

It was easy to see what they did with all the stone from the cut. There are several of these big piles in the woods.

I wondered if they had blasted the stone and sure enough, there were the marks of a steam drill. The railroad workers cut through solid rock by drilling holes into the stone and then blasting. Holes like these were often drilled by steam power and are evidence that black powder rather than dynamite was used. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it. Dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force before that. Since this railroad was built in 1878 they might have used dynamite but I doubt it. It would have been far more expensive and harder to get than black powder. After the wall face was blasted away someone had to clean up tons of stone, and that’s how all the stone piles came to be in the woods.

There were signs of groundwater seeping through the stone and the staining on the snow pointed to minerals in the groundwater.

All in all though I didn’t see that this would be a good location for great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) because of the lack of water. They like to grow on stone that hangs over water. That way they get plenty of the humidity that they need.

But there were liverworts here; or at least I think so. I believe this example might be ciliated fringewort (Ptilidium ciliare). Wikipedia says the Ptilidium part of the scientific name comes from the Greek word ptilidion, meaning “small feather”. According to what I’ve read it is widespread in Canada, Alaska, the northeastern United States, Greenland, Iceland, and northern Europe. I’ve never seen it before, so if you know that I’ve given it an incorrect identification I hope you’ll let me know. I suppose it could be a very dry moss but I don’t get a moss feeling from it.

NOTE: A lichenologist friend told me that this liverwort is actually called  grove earwort or (Scapania nemorosa) . It’s great to have helpers.

I also saw an old friend; a single smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens), and the light was just right to show off some of its beautiful blue spore producing apothecia. Like jewels sprinkled on the stone; that’s what they always remind me of.

Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) peeked out from under the ice.

I was surprised to find a red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) out here. These shrubs are on the rare side in this area so I hope nobody cuts it. From its purple buds in winter to its pretty white flowers in spring to its bright red berries in fall this is a beautiful native shrub. We had a beautiful well shaped example where I work until someone who thought they knew what they were doing hacked at it. Now there is a lot of dead wood on it and I’m not sure it is going to make it.

It looked like a mouse or chipmunk had done some house cleaning. Acorns keep a lot of birds and animals alive in these cold winters.

No matter how much fun you’re having it can’t last forever so I finally headed back down the trail, promising myself that I’d come back in the spring. I have a feeling this might be a good place to find some spring wildflowers. Because of all the deciduous trees a lot of sunlight must reach the ground in early spring and that’s what they like.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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New year’s day dawned sunny but cool, with a promise of warmer temperature later in the day. Since rain had washed all the snow away I though it might be a good opportunity for a winter climb, so I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey. At about 11:00 am the trail across the field was still white with frost and hard to miss.

In the shade the previous night’s frost still clung to the plants.

And there was ice. I had my micro spikes with me but I hadn’t yet put them on because I had a feeling things might be different in the forest.

Some kind soul had built a boardwalk of halved logs over a wet spot. This wet area wasn’t here when I first came here but it seems to have grown over the years. I wonder if foot traffic had something to do with that.

Pretty brocade moss (Hypnum imponens) decorated many logs near the wet area. I often have trouble finding this moss when I do a moss post but apparently that’s only because I’ve been looking in the wrong places.

As I suspected the forest was clear of ice and snow. The snow on the trail had been washed away by rain before people could walk on it and pack it into ice, so we were back to bare ground.

I’ve always thought that the weight of snow was what flattened evergreen Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) down to the ground but according to an interesting article in Northern Woodlands Magazine science has found that  some cells in their lower stems die, forming a ‘hinge’ which allows the fern fronds to sprawl on the ground. What they gain by doing so is the warmer ground surface, which may keep them up to 18 degrees warmer than if they remained standing upright.

If you look at the leaflets on a Christmas fern you’ll see that each one looks like a Christmas stocking, each with a “toe.” This and their leathery look and feel make them very easy to identify. The name “Christmas fern” is thought to come from the early settler’s habit of using its fronds as Christmas decorations. Native Americans used them to treat chest ailments like pneumonia and to relieve flu symptoms.

Concentric boulder lichen (Porpidia crustulata) gets its name from the way its black apothecia grow in concentric (or nearly so) rings around their center. The gray body of the lichen forms a crust on stone and that makes it a crustose lichen. They grow in sun or shade and don’t ever seem to change color. This lichen is relatively rare here and I only see them once in a blue moon but here they were; four or five of them grew on a boulder I’ve walked by a hundred times.  As I’ve said before; I’m as amazed by what I miss as what I see.

There are lots of bent trees in this forest and I’d guess they got that way by having other trees fall on them when they were young.

The soil was crunching when I walked on it in places and I knew what that meant…

…Ice needles. Ice needles form when hydrostatic pressure forces groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. I’ve read that each hair thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in these photos, frozen together into ribbons, were about 3-4 inches long I’d guess. 

There were lots of ice needles along the trail but many had been stepped on, probably by people who heard the crunching but never saw them.

A young tree root grew over a stone and lashed it down.

I stopped to admire the grain patterns on a hollow log. Wood like this is very beautiful in my opinion and I’m seeing more of it everywhere I go.

I saw several stilted trees on this day. Stilted trees grow from seeds that fall on a rotted log or stump and grow their roots around the stump or log. Once whatever it grew on rots away what is left is a tree that looks like it’s standing on stilts. Or about to run away.

And before I knew it there was Tippin Rock, the 40 ton glacial erratic that rocks like a baby cradle if you push in the right spot. Every time I think about all the things that had to happen for this boulder to be here on the summit my mind gets boggled. How thick can a glacier be, I always wonder.

Tippin Rock has a crack but I don’t think it goes all the way through. If it is rocked much more it might though. I’ve seen photos from the early 1900s of people standing by it so I’m guessing it has been rocked for quite a long time.

This was not a day for views, and that was okay. I had forgotten that the sun points right at you up here at this time of day. What looks like brush in the foreground in this shot is actually the uppermost branches of a mature oak tree.

Instead of looking out into the sun I looked down. As always I was fascinated at being so high above the tree tops, and I wasn’t surprised to find that my fear of heights was still healthy and strong.

Of course I had to say hello to my friends the toadskin lichens. Water dripped down the stones and fell on some of them and that meant they were their “normal” pea green color. They will not die without moisture but what you see here is what I think of as their happy state.

Many of them were dry and ash gray. Lichens are very patient beings and they will stay in this state waiting for rain for as long as it takes.

This one was drying out and was partly gray, and if you compare it to the one we saw two photos ago you can see how the shine has gone out of it. The tiny black dots are this lichen’s spore producing apothecia. Toadskin lichens attach to the rock at a single point that looks sort of like a belly button, and this makes them umbilicate lichens. It was once thought that they were a combination of fungus and algae, but science has learned that they are actually composite beings made up of several different organisms.

I hiked over to the ledges and marveled at the silence of the day. Not a bird call, not a breeze, not a chipmunk, no falling ice or water, nothing. But then while I was taking this photo I heard behind me and down below in the forest the loud crash of a tree falling. This was only the second time I’ve heard a tree fall without seeing it, but it’s a sound you can’t mistake for anything else. It always reminds me of the question “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, will it still make a sound?”

I looked down again thinking I might see that fallen tree, and wished I hadn’t. That’s quite a drop.

After the butterflies had flown from my stomach I headed back down the hill and found a lady and her dog who were lost. She walked a lot faster than I do and had passed me a couple times at different spots, and was now coming back up the main trail looking for the side trail that would lead her out of the woods. I pointed her in the right direction and told her which tree and stumps to watch for. I didn’t see her again so I assume she made it home safely. I’ve been lost in the woods just once and I can say  that I’d rather have just about anything else happen, so I think I know how she felt.

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

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A few years ago I found a beautiful lichen on one of the trees you see in this photo and then I went back later on and found it again, but since then I’ve never been able to find it, and that’s what this post is about. The lichen post I did a while back reminded me that the fruiting (spore producing) bodies of some lichens only appear in the winter. I had been looking for it in the summer and hadn’t seen a thing, so on this coldish day I had high hopes of finding it.

I walked here two days before Christmas so the rain hadn’t yet washed away the 16 inch snowfall. Thankfully snowmobiles had packed it down. My days of breaking trails through knee deep snow are over so I wait for them to do it for me. They make winter walking much easier.

The weather people said partly cloudy and I had to let them get away with it, even though it was more cloudy than not.

I didn’t see any change in the American hazelnut catkins but it’s early. In February they’ll start to lengthen and soften and then will finally turn yellow with pollen and flower when the female blossoms appear at the end of the month. It’s an event I look forward to each year.

I saw a branch covered with milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus). This fungus is common and easily seen in winter. It is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do.

The “teeth” of a milk white toothed polypore are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

Last year when the corn in the nearby cornfields was ripe I came out here and saw 15-20 squirrel’s nests in the trees. This year the corn didn’t grow due to the drought, and I saw just one dilapidated squirrel nest that looked like it had been abandoned.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), covered with fine velvet like hairs, glowed in the dim sunshine.

The velvet on a staghorn sumac is much like that found on a summer deer antler and I wondered if a male whitetail had tangled with this sumac stem. “Buck rubs” happen when a male deer rubs its antlers on a tree to get the dry, shedding velvet off its antlers. This velvet covering is soft and blood filled through summer but once the antlers mature and start to harden the velvet dries and begins to peel in strips.

But a deer didn’t do this; this sumac looked like it had been through a sickle bar mower.

The inner bark of dead staghorn sumacs is often bright red for a time but it does fade as this example was. I’ve heard that a rich brown dye can be made from sumac bark.

There was the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes and I wasn’t surprised. These old rail trails are a great place to pick berries in the summer, just as they were when the trains were running. I used to eat my way down the tracks when I was a boy.

I saw a bird’s nest so small you couldn’t have fit a robin’s egg in it. I don’t know which bird made it but it was very well made. It would have fit in the palm of my hand with plenty of room to spare.

Virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) glowed in the sunlight. This shows how this native clematis vine grows up and over shrubs, trying to reach as much sunlight as it can.

Virgins bower seed heads remind me of feeding furry tadpoles. It is said that the plant is toxic but early settlers used parts of the vines as a pepper substitute. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and herbalists still use it to treat those same illnesses today.

Someone marked a gray birch tree with a bow. Trees are often marked for cutting, especially those that are in danger of falling, but not usually with a bow.

My favorite view of Mount Monadnock can be seen from here, and it’s my favorite because it’s the one I grew up with.

A plane droned by overhead and it reminded me of those lazy summer days as a boy when I would lay on my back in the grass and watch the clouds. Summer seemed like it would never end back then.

Finally I was at the spot where I thought the lichens grew. Luckily I had taken a photo of the group of trees that I had originally found the lichen on so I was able to find the group of trees, but I had no pointer to which tree in the group I had to look at, so the first trip was fruitless and I didn’t find the lichen. I tried again the next day and finally found it, slightly bigger than a pea growing on the smooth bark of a young red maple it was unmistakable with its yellowish body (Thallus) and blue apothecia. The first one I found years ago was dime size but this smaller one tells me there is more than one here. If I have identified it correctly it is the frosted comma lichen (Chrysothrix caesia) and this is the only spot I’ve ever found it in.

Also known as Arthonia caesia, this photo shows its granular thallus and blue gray apothecia (actually  called ascomata on this lichen) which get their color from the same waxy “bloom” that colors the black raspberry cane we saw earlier. They make this lichen easy to identify, but don’t make it any easier to find. Though it might seem a lot of work for little reward I now know that this lichen only fruits in winter and I’ve also read that some of them can be sterile. I also know that it’s a waste of time to look for them in summer, so I learned a lot about another being that I share this planet with.

Live this life in wonder, in wonder of the beauty, the magic, the true magnificence that surrounds you. It is all so beautiful, so wonderful. Let yourself wonder. ~Avina Celeste

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When I thought about the title of this post I wondered if anyone would really want to look back at the last year, but then I thought that these “looking back” posts are as much about looking forward as they are looking back, because in nature it’s a pretty fair bet that what happened last year will happen this year. To a point anyway; I hope the drought will ease this year so I can see mushrooms and slime molds again. The above shot is from last January, when I was stunned by the beauty of fresh snow.

I was also stunned by pussy willows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in January before.

In February the first skunk cabbages appeared from under the snow. A welcome sign of spring in February, which can sometimes be the coldest and snowiest month of all.

It was in February that I also saw the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Very small but beautiful, and with a fragrance that you can smell from two blocks away.

In March I saw the first of the American hazelnut blossoms; truly the first wildflowers of the year.

Things start happening in gardens in March as well. That’s usually when reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) appear. They are one of the earliest bulbs to show growth. They’re very cheery after a long winter without flowers.

April is when our spring ephemerals start to appear, and one of the largest and showiest is the purple trillium (Trillium erectum).These flowers are often an inch and a half or more across and very visible because of their color. Trilliums are all about the number three, with three red petals and three green sepals. In fact the name trillium comes from the Latin tres, which means three. The three leaves are actually bracts which the flowers nod under for a short time before finally facing outward. Inside the flowers are six stamens and three stigmas, and if pollinated they will become a red, three chambered berry. 

With so many flowers appearing in spring it’s very hard to choose the ones to put into these posts but one I felt I had to choose for April is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and I chose it because most people never see it. They aren’t with us long but luckily colonies in different places bloom at different times, and in that way their bloom time can be extended. They will for the most part bloom only when the sun shines on them but you can occasionally find them on a cloudy day. Their common name comes from the bright red or orange sap in their roots.

One of my personal favorites among the spring ephemerals is the spring beauty (Claytonia carolinana.) Though they sometimes appear in April, May seems to be the month I can really count on seeing them. I know where a colony of many thousands of plants grow and I have happily knelt in last year’s leaf litter taking photos of them for years now. I love their aspirin size, pink striped blossoms.  

Around the end of May is when I start seeing the beautiful little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia). Their color and the fact that they sometimes grow beside violets make them easy to miss so you have to pay attention. The small 3 inch tall by inch and a half wide plants usually bloom in quite large colonies but not always. They are in the milkwort family and are also sometimes called flowering wintergreen and / or gaywings. Once you’ve found some you can go back to see them year after year. They seem quite long lived.

June is when our most well known orchid, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) blooms. Once collected into near oblivion by people who thought they could just dig them up and plant them in their gardens, they have made a strong comeback and I see quite a few now. They’re beautiful and unusual, and should be left alone so we can all admire them. If transplanted they will not live long.

June was also when I found some larch flowers (Larix laricina). These tiny but beautiful things are so small all I can see is their color. I have to point the camera at the color and “shoot blind” until I get a shot. They can appear in mid May but I usually expect them in late May to early June. If you know a larch tree you might want to have a look. These tiny things will become the cones that hold the tree’s seeds, so if you look for the cones first that will give you an idea of which branches the flowers are most likely to appear on.  

Around the end of June and the first week of July I start looking for one of the most beautiful wildflowers I’ve seen; the purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora). The big, two foot tall plant looks like a bush full of purple butterflies. They are quite rare in this area and that’s most likely because they grow in swamps. I can usually expect to have wet ankles after taking photos of this one.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) blossoms right at the same time every year; just in time for the 4th of July, and its flowerheads just happen to look like fireworks. Flowers on both male and female plants lack petals and have only anthers (male) or pistils (female). These are male flowers in this photo.

One of our prettiest and smallest wildflowers bloom in early August. Forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) get barely ankle tall and like to grow in sandy soil in full sun. One unusual thing about the flower, other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. You can see the tiny white pollen grains at the end of the anthers on this example.

In my last post I described how colorblindness prevented my ever seeing a cardinal. It works the same way for cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) unfortunately, so I was elated last August when a coworker and I stumbled upon a group of them. I knew what they looked like, and once I was right on top of them I could see their color, which was beautiful. Note how this much larger flower with its arching stamens uses the same strategy as the tiny forked blue curl we saw previously. The chief difference is, these stamens dust hummingbirds with pollen instead of bees.

It wouldn’t be September without New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and this one just happens to be my favorite color aster. Unfortunately it’s also the hardest color to find so each year I have to go hunting for them. I can’t complain though; hunting for flowers is a pleasure, not a chore.

I could have shown a fragrant white waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) in any month following May but this is the only photo from last year that showed the center of the flower, where a golden flame burns. I remember standing on the shore of a pond full of hundreds of these beautiful flowers last summer and being able to smell their glorious scent on the breeze. It was one the most amazing things, and I suspect that it wall last in my memory until I no longer have one.

I did see things other than flowers last year; things like this beautiful cedar waxwing I saw eating the berries of silky dogwoods at the river one September evening.

In October I went to see if the old stone staircase was still standing; all that’s left of Madame Sherri’s “castle” in Chesterfield. The castle was actually more of a chalet but it had quite a lot of elaborate stonework. It also had trees growing through the roof. How they kept the rain out is a mystery. Though I didn’t mention it in the original post I walked to the spot I had chosen and promptly tripped over a tree root and fell flat on my face in front of about 15 people who were all jostling to get a shot of the stairway. The camera was unscathed and I got my shot. The fall foliage was beautiful that day and the weather was perfect but the stairway was in need of some immediate help from a mason.

I also went to Willard Pond in October and walked through one of the most beautiful hardwood forests I’ve ever seen.

In November witch hazels bloomed. Also in December, but I doubt I’ll see any in January.

Also in November I was looking at lichens, including the smoky eye boulder lichen seen here. It’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion and I’ve put it here as an answer to the question “What is there to see in winter?” There is as much beauty to be seen in winter as there is at any other time of year. You just have to look a little closer, that’s all.

What could be more beautiful that this mossy hillside? It was like a green carpet covering the earth. What I like most about the colder months is how you can see the bones of the forest. There is no foliage to block your view in December.

One thing I’ll remember about the past year is how it was too dry for fungi. I saw very few until December, when I saw these mock oyster mushrooms (Phyllotopsis nidulans). They were big and beautiful, and looked as if they had been covered in orange velvet. They were well worth the wait but I hope to see more in 2021.

I hope this look back at 2020 wasn’t as bad as what you might have imagined. I’d rather have this blog be an island of calm in a sea of chaos than a running commentary on current events. Current events come and go like the tides and have no permanence, so about all you’re ever going to find here is nature, which is timeless. I do hope that’s why you come.

You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward. ~Soren Kierkegaard

Thanks for stopping in. I hope you’ll all have a happy, heathy new year.

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A cute little red squirrel ran up the backside of a pine tree and peeked around it to see what I was doing. I probably see one red squirrel for every hundred gray squirrels so they aren’t that common in this immediate area. They’re cute but if they get into your house they can and will cause a lot of damage. I worked for a lady once who had them in her attic and I spent all summer trapping and relocating them. They had chewed all the wiring, got into stored items, and made a mess in general. A big mess.

I’ve mentioned the storm that dropped 16 inches of snow in other posts but what I haven’t mentioned is the below zero cold that came after. Ponds and streams froze quickly, but as I write this it’s near 60 degrees F. and raining like it was June, so I’d guess tomorrow all the snow will be gone and all the rivers and streams will be at bank-full.

I saw ice doing strange things. I’m sure the wind had a lot to do with this teardrop shape on a standing shrub but I couldn’t quite figure out where the water had come from. Maybe it had simply trickled down the branch but if so why didn’t the wind blow it while it trickled? It seemed to have all collected in this one spot.

Though it’s hard to tell from this photo this is ice, frozen onto deck boards in very strange patterns. I can’t even guess why water would have pooled and frozen in this way, but it was pretty.

Just as I got to work one morning the sun was just kissing the clouds, and I had to stop and watch. I try not to let such things go unappreciated. If you let yourself pay attention to the beauty in this world more and more you’ll find yourself saying a silent thank you. Serenity, gratitude, joy; these are just some of the things that nature will fill you with.

Just to the right of that last shot the sun was also kissing the moon.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I’ve doubted for years that that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and they don’t always melt into the soil. As I walked in this area around the stone the soil sank about two inches with every step, so now I’m certain that frost had heaved up and lifted all the soil and smaller stones that surrounded the bigger one. Frozen soil is a lot more plastic than we realize.

I was happy to see some tiny bird’s nest fungi, which few people ever get to see. I think they were fluted bird’s nest fungi (Cyathus striatus) and this is a view of them from the side. They grow in a funnel or vase shape and have flutes around the rim of the body, which is hollow like a cup. They are so small not even a pea would fit inside them.

The “bird’s nest” is actually a splash cup called a peridium and when a drop of rain falls into it with enough force the “eggs” are splashed out. These eggs, which can be seen here, are really spore cases called peridioles. Once ejected from the splash cup the peridioles degrade over time to release the spores.

There is a much studied phenomenon called the Red Bark Phenomenon, and scientists have devoted much time studying trees with colored bark all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange and yellow as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. I’ve seen it here and there on tree bark and after a lot of research a few years ago I found that it was caused by the algae Trentepohlia, which is a genus of filamentous chlorophyte green algae in the family Trentepohliaceae. It appears on tree trunks, 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. This example was on an eastern hemlock.

Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are numerous here and black capped chickadees flock here to eat the seeds from the hemlock cones like the one pictured above. The 1/2 inch long cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered by them in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans also showed Europeans how to prevent scurvy by making tea from the tree’s needles.

Gray birch (Betula alba var. populifolia) flowers grow in long clusters known as catkins. They flower, which means the male flowers release pollen and the female flowers accept it, in April and May and then the female flowers ripen into seeds throughout the summer. Ripe female catkins like the one seen here are called strobiles and 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, which are called nutlets. Seeds can persist for years in the soil and will grow if the soil is disturbed.

Other plentiful winter seeds for birds include those of asters, which I’m still seeing a lot of.

A beech leaf was caught by the sun and was beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. Beech is a tree that lends great beauty to the forest all year long. Its orangey brown leaves will slowly lighten to a yellow so pale it is almost white, and then they will finally fall to make room for new leaves in spring.

The deep blue shadows on snow always remind me of a special high school art teacher who taught me to see rather than just look. To me, probably due to colorblindness, winter shadows looked gray but she convinced me that they were and should be blue. The odd thing about all of that is how, once I began painting them blue I began seeing them in blue and I have ever since, so she gave me a great gift. Colorblindness is a very strange thing and it doesn’t behave as many people think it does. I can see red and green separately for instance but when a red cardinal lands in a green tree it completely disappears. In fact I have never been able to see a cardinal, even when someone pointed at one and said “It’s right there, can’t you see it?”

But blue still isn’t always blue to these colorblind eyes. I know that cold will turn the normally amber sap of the white pine tree blue but this looks kind of pinky / lavender to me. My color finding software tells me it is steel blue though, and it always wins the argument. Colors come in shades or hues and telling them apart can be quite confusing to the colorblind.

Here is something I’ve never seen before; pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) growing on a tree. I know lichens can and will grow on just about anything but until now I’ve only seen this particular one on soil and very rotten wood; never on a live, growing tree. Lichens surprise me continuously. Pixie cups are squamulose lichens, and the tiny golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus), and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes, which is the green growth seen here. But though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are its podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. 

This is the first time I’ve shown the seed pods of the beautiful native shrub known as rhodora (Rhododendron canadense). I’m going to have to watch and see when they open. Quite late, apparently.

I thought I’d show the beautiful flowers of the rhodora because I don’t think most people ever see them. Even in this area it’s a shrub that many don’t know. The flowers appear just when the irises start to bloom and I often have to search for them because they aren’t common. Rhodora is a small, knee high, native rhododendron (actually an azalea) that loves swampy places. It is native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada and both its western and southern limits are reached in Pennsylvania. The flowers appear before the leaves, but only for a short time in spring. By mid-June they will have all vanished.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams just like the rhodora we saw previously. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Is it too early to think of spring? It’s never too early in my opinion and it’s usually in the depths of winter that I start checking buds. These lilac buds were quite pretty, I thought. They are great examples of imbricate buds, which have scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If water got in and froze it would destroy the future flower or leaf embryo within, so buds go to great lengths to prevent that.

While I’ve been working on this post we’ve had just about every kind of weather imaginable. We had snow but of course since it’s so dark before and after work I really couldn’t show it to you. Then on Christmas eve through Christmas day we had temperatures near 60 degrees and 2 inches of rain fell. The shot above shows what the Ashuelot River looks like after 2 inches of rain and a 16 inch snow melt find their way into it. It will boil like this for a few days and then return to its placid self, but meanwhile it will have the wild, rugged beauty we see here. I love watching the waves.

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself. ~L. Wolfe Gilbert

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone will have a happy and healthy 2021.

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