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There were two things I wanted to know last weekend; were turtles active yet and were trout lilies blooming. I couldn’t think of anyplace better to answer those questions than along the Ashuelot River, so last Saturday off I went along one of my favorite riverside trails. The water was quite high, probably from snow still melting in the higher elevations. Snow is still chest deep in the northern part of the state and they’re still having avalanches in the White Mountains, so reports have said.

I’ve been walking this trail for over 50 years so I know it well. There used to be a small wooden hut up ahead where that paved spot is. It had an open front facing the river and a bench to sit on, almost like a bus stop. It was made of wood so of course every young boy with a pocket knife had to come here and carve their initials into it, including me. I’ve wondered for years why it was there because in the 1960s this trail saw very little traffic. Traffic or not the trail was here and I think that it’s been here for quite a lot longer than I’ve been around because I think it was originally used by Native Americans. It’s close to many shallow areas in the river and there are lots of places to fish. It seems like it would be perfect for someone who lived off the land.

A pair of Canada geese chatted quietly off across a setback.

My question of active turtles was answered quickly. I also heard toads and tree frogs out here, as well as the little frogs we call spring peepers. It was great to hear them again. I wanted to get a better view of this turtle so I walked on, hoping for a side shot.

But all that was left was the log the turtle sat on. Not a very interesting subject.

I thought I had scared the turtle away but then I saw those two geese come steaming up the river and I wondered if they were what the turtle was afraid of. Do geese bother turtles? I don’t know the answer to that one. It’s a question that would require much sitting and watching to answer.

The geese weren’t afraid of me. In fact they followed along beside me as I went on. Maybe they thought I had a pocket full of bread. A couple of young boys on bikes came along, saw the geese and dropped their bikes. Once the geese saw them sit on the river bank they swam right over. Whether or not the boys had bread for them I don’t know.

It was a beautiful day but at 70 degrees F. it seemed warm and I was glad I hadn’t warn a jacket. The shirts I had on were plenty warm enough. There were lots of insects out but I didn’t get bitten by any of them.

There was still ice to be found in cool, shaded backwaters but the frogs were active and chirping even in places that still had ice.

A couple of posts ago I showed a papery trumpet shaped stem and wondered what it was. Luckily reader Eliza Waters recognized them and said they were jewel weed (Impatiens capensis) stems. I knew a lot of jewel weed grew in a spot along this trail and when I got there sure enough, there they were. Thanks again Eliza! Each stem is about a foot tall and has a trumpet shaped opening that looks just about right for a pea to sit in.

Ever since I was a young boy I’ve wondered what was over there on the other side of the river but since it probably would involve a lot of bushwhacking due to the lack of a trail, I’ve never gotten up enough ambition to find out. Maybe it’s better that way, but that glow does look inviting.

I suppose it’s a good thing I never did cross the river and follow along its far side. I might have been arrested. No hunting, no fishing and no trespassing pretty much covers everything.

That dark spot ahead is actually a wet spot, one of surprisingly few along this trail. The trail through these woods isn’t that far from where the railroad repair depot used to be in Keene, and the trail is black because it was “paved” with the unburned slag from the big steam locomotive fireboxes. This slag is usually called “clinkers” or “clinker ash” and it is made up of pieces of fused ash and sulfur which often built-up over time in a hot coal fire. Firebox temperature reached 2000 to 2300 degrees F. in a steam locomotive but they still didn’t burn the coal completely. A long tool called a fire hook was used to pull the clinkers out of the firebox and in Keene we must have had tons of the stuff, because it was used as ballast on many local railroad beds. The section that ran by my house was as black as coal.

I had finally reached the little red bridge, and this was the spot where my second question would be answered. I had been to another spot where thousands of yellow trout lilies grow and didn’t see any sign of them, not even a leaf. I thought this place might get more sunshine and maybe the soil warmed quicker, but there was still no sign of trout lilies. I could be rushing it though; I just discovered by looking back through the blog that April 20 is the earliest I’ve seen them.

I did admire some American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) The leaves are just coming out of their purple winter color and turning green so they can begin photosynthesizing again. This plant is also called teaberry or checkerberry and its small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it medicinally. They also chewed the minty leaves on long hikes.

Alders love water and many grow here. This speckled alder (Alnus incana) lived up to its name.

I’ve tried for a long time to show you what alders look like with all their male catkins open and dangling like jewels and with the help of a flash I was finally able to get a photo. It isn’t as easy as I thought it would be; it only took 8 years.

The bent tree marks a side trail that I keep telling myself I’ll have to follow one day, but I never do. I hope to have much more time for such things once I retire. I’d love to be able to just sit in the woods again without a care like I did when I was a boy.

One of the many feeder streams along the trail had a lot of what looked like orange rust in its water and that’s why this photo of it looks so strange. It might be algae coloring it, or maybe last year’s decaying leaves. The reflections of the trees look as if they have leaves but the leaves are really on the bottom of the stream.

The greatest joy is not finding something that we’ve been looking for. The greatest joy is when we’d given up on ever finding it and then it found us.
~Craig D. Lounsbrough

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The male (staminate) flowers of speckled alder (Alnus incana) have just started opening, making the forest edges look as if someone has hung jewels from the bushes. Soon they will release their pollen and start a new generation of alders. Two of these catkins haven’t fully elongated and opened, so you can see what they look like both before and after blossoming. At first they are tough and rigid, almost like twigs, but when they open they’re pliable and blow in the wind. They’re quite pretty, I think.

Each stalked brownish-purple bud scale on a male speckled alder catkin opens in spring to reveal three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 ½ inches long.

When I see the male catkins open on alders I start looking for the female flowers. In this photo the tiny scarlet female stigmas poking out from under the bud scales are hard to see. The whitish material is the “glue” the plant produces to seal each shingle like bud scale against the wet and cold winter weather. If water got under the bud scale and froze it would kill the female blossoms. When pollinated each thread like female stigma will become a small cone like seed pod (strobile) that I think most of us are used to seeing on alders. These female flowers are just threads and aren’t much bigger than female hazelnut flowers.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) has come along all of the sudden and I’m seeing flowers by the hundreds in some places. It’s a pretty little thing which can also be invasive, but nobody really seems to care.

American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) are still blooming, as this shot of the female flowers shows. What’s odd about this bud though is that it is terminal, and sits at the end of a twig. I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen this. They usually appear along the length of the branch at an angle. Each tiny bud is about the size of a cooked piece of spaghetti, so that should tell you how small each scarlet, thread like female flower is.

I saw some willow flowers way up high at the top of the tree, far out of reach of a macro lens. I never knew that willows went from the top down so it was an interesting find.

The willows I could reach were still in the bud stage. Though I’ve never experimented with it I’ve always been fascinated at all the uses willows have. They contain a compounds similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used them for everything from pain relief to basket weaving. They even used the twigs to make fish traps and dolls. The burnt wood is said to make excellent drawing charcoal.

Dandelions are still blooming and will do so until the weather warms up. I never noticed until two or three years ago that they don’t like the heat of summer. It’s almost impossible to find one blooming in July and August these days.

They aren’t wasting any time about continuing on with new generations.

I got excited when I found budded spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), let me tell you. They’re very beautiful little flowers and it’s been so long since I’ve seen them. I’m guessing that, by the time this post sees the light of day they’ll be blooming.

This photo of spring beauties from two years shows why I got excited when I saw those buds. It’s hard to put into words how I feel when I find such beautiful little flowers; it’s like I’m lost in them for a while and this world no longer exists. A hint on photographing spring beauties: their color will be more saturated if you find and photograph the ones in shade. It doesn’t take much sunlight to wash out such delicate colors.

Speaking of harsh sunlight, that’s all I had when I went to see what the skunk cabbages were doing. As I suspected, leaves are beginning to show. Just when the leaves develop is the only time these plants even remotely resemble cabbage, in my opinion.

The open spathe of a skunk cabbage flower allowed a peek at the spadix with all of its flowers inside, which is something very few people ever get to see. Only if you hunt for it and look carefully will you find it, and I suppose a lot of people don’t even realize it’s there. Each tiny flower on the spadix has both male stamens and female styles and pistils. It’s all about pollen at this stage but science doesn’t know for sure how it gets between one plant and another. My money is on insects; I’m seeing lots of them right now. Small, fly like creatures that don’t sit still more than a few seconds. I guess you’d call them gnats.

I found a bed with hundreds of crocus blossoms in it, and they just happened to be in one of my favorite color combinations.

I’ve spoken before about how some things can be as beautiful in death as they are in life and this passing crocus blossom reminded me of that. If you’re serious about nature study you have to get used to seeing death, because it’s part of the cycle of life.

When I was gardening professionally not a single client grew snowdrops and as far as I know nobody in my family did either, so I don’t know them well. I do know that they’re scarce in this area; I see small clumps of 4 or 5 flowers every spring but not the huge drifts of them that I’ve seen online. They simply don’t seem to like it here and that could be because they aren’t used to our kind of cold.

Scilla (Scilla siberica) came up fast. They’re very cheery little flowers and they’re my favorite color. The only complaint I’ve heard about these nonnative bulbs is that they can be invasive. They can get into lawns here sometimes but people don’t seem to mind. In fact that’s just what many people want them to do.

Another plant related to scilla is the striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides, var. libanotica) and I love to see it each year, but the one place I know of where they grow has had a new in ground sprinkler system installed and this year I’m not seeing a single blossom. It’s too bad because they’re a very beautiful but rare blossom in this area.

I’ve been watching the trees and one of the things I’ve seen was a magnolia bud shrugging off its winter fur coat. I’d guess it will be a flower by next week at this time. Some magnolias are very fragrant and I’m looking forward to smelling them again.

It’s actually a little too early for grape hyacinths here but these were warmed by growing near a building’s foundation, so they came up with the crocuses. It was nice to see them; almost like a reward, but you can see how they’ve been bitten by the cold. It’s the price I’ve seen many plants pay for over exuberance in the spring.

I’m guessing that hyacinths are going to be beautiful this year. I’ve seen a lot of them showing color.

It’s just another guess but I’d say you’ll be seeing a lot more flowers in the next post like this one. I could be wrong though because we’ve had a cold week. Nighttime temperatures have fallen below freezing a few nights and we had a dusting of snow Wednesday, so we’ll see. One thing is certain: spring will happen.

Keep your faith in beautiful things;
in the sun when it is hidden,
in the Spring when it is gone.

~Roy R. Gibson

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I’d been almost everywhere I knew of where coltsfoot plants (Tussilago farfara) grow and hadn’t seen a single one, so last Sunday I decided to visit the last place I knew of to find them; the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland. I don’t like going there at this time of year because this is when all the ice that has accumulated through winter starts melting, and when it starts melting it starts falling, and this can be a dangerous place to be when tree size pieces of ice come crashing down.

There was a lot more ice than I expected and it was rotten, which means it has probably released its hold on the stone and could come down at any time.

3. Falling Water

Melt water ran off the stone walls in gushing streams.

4. Trail

I decided to get out of the deepest, northern part of the canyon and head south where the coltsfoot plants grow.

5. Columbine Seedlings

This rail trail includes the ledges where the wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) grow, so I thought I’d see what was happening there as well. I saw lots of columbine seedlings but still no blue cohosh shoots.

6. Red Elderberry Buds

I also got to see some red elderberry buds (Sambucus racemosa) opening. They always open with tiny purple fingers like those seen here. It won’t be long before this plant is covered with bright red berries. The birds love them so much and eat them so fast it’s almost impossible to get a photo of them. I think I’ve gotten just one photo of red elderberry fruit in the 8 years I’ve done this blog.

7. Turkey Tail

I saw a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) wearing colors that I don’t often see. I’ve been seeing a lot of blue ones this year so this one was a pleasant surprise.

8. Unknown

I also found this chunk of blue something. It’s light and feels like plastic but it also crumbles so I doubt it is. I don’t know what it is or where it came from but I love its color; almost the same as the blue of cohosh fruit.

9. Unknown Stems

And then I saw these strange little trumpet shaped stems. They easily pulled right out of the wet soil and had a tap root.

10. Unknown Stem

The stems were thin and hollow and felt like paper. I don’t know what plant they’re from but there is a huge selection of plants growing here. I’ll have to see if I can figure it out in the summer when they’re growing.

11. Drainage Ditch

The drainage ditches had so much water in them in places it looked like they would wash up over the trail. I moved some bunches of wet leaves that were holding back the flow in a couple of places.

12. Fallen Ice

And this is where I had to stop. If you look closely you can see ice columns that have fallen completely across the trail. These columns are huge, easily as big as trees, and if one ever fell on you it wouldn’t be good.

13. Fallen Ice

This “small piece” was about two feet square. I can’t imagine what it must have weighed but I wouldn’t want to feel it falling on me.

14. Green Ice

The ice here is often colored, I think because of the various minerals in the groundwater, and there was some green ice left. It was very rotten and I didn’t get near it. Rotten ice has a matte, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it gives it away. It should sound like a sharp crack. Ice becomes rotten when air and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

15. Great Scented Liverwort

The beautiful great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) made it through the winter just fine despite many of them being completely encased in ice. They like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water but of course in winter that means ice. They show that the groundwater here is very clean and most likely drinkable.

16. Great Scented Liverwort

This is the only place I’ve ever seen this beautiful plant and they are one of the things that make this place so very special. Their amazing scent is where their common name comes from; if you squeeze a piece and smell it you smell something so clean and fresh scented you’ll wish it came in a spray bottle. I didn’t have my rubber boots with me to walk through the drainage ditches so I had to take this shot from about 6 feet away, but at least you can see the pores and air chambers outlined on the many leaf surfaces. It makes them look very reptilian and leads to the name snakeskin liverwort.

17. Algae

The green algae called Trentepohlia aurea looks to be spreading some. Though it is called green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes it orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you. Algae produce millions of spores and colored rain has fallen all over the world because of the wind taking the spores up into the sky. If you ever hear of red rain chances are it’s algae spores coloring it.

18. Mosses

It was so nice to see so much green for a change. It was also nice and warm here, which was a surprise with all the ice.

19. Ostrich Fern Frond

I was surprised to find the fertile frond of an ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) because I’ve never seen one growing here. Now I want to come back to get photos of the fiddleheads, which are pretty and very hard to find in this area. There are thousands of ostrich ferns growing along the Connecticut River but most of the land along it is privately owned.

20. Unknown Leaf

Well, in the end I never did find coltsfoot plants in bloom but I certainly found lots of mysteries along the trail on this day. Here’s another one that maybe one of you can solve. I know I’ve seen this plant and I should know its name, but I can’t think of it. The leaves are large at about an inch and a half across, and I think the bronze color is just what they do in winter. They sprawl on the ground in all directions from a central crown like a violet, but the leaves are too big to be a violet. It’s a pretty thing but without flowers it’s hard to identify.

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life. ~Lewis Mumford

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Dandelions have responded to a few warm days by blossoming heavily but many other plants don’t seem to be in any hurry and some are even blossoming later this year.

I’m always happy to see dandelions at any time of year. They are often one of our first flowers to bloom and sometimes one of the last as well.

Sometimes their flowers get frostbitten again and again but once the red maples (Acer rubrum) get started opening their buds keep blossoming no matter what the weather. This photo shows the male blossoms I found just opening on one tree. Each tiny red anther will become greenish yellow with pollen, which the wind will then carry to the female blossoms. They’re packed very tightly into each bud and there are thousands of flowers on a single branch.

This photo shows just how fast the blossoms can explode from the buds. I found the buds on the same tree as the ones in the previous photo fully open just a day later.

These are the female (pistillate) flowers of the red maple, just emerging. They are tiny little things; each bud is hardly bigger than a pea and each crimson stigma not much bigger in diameter than an uncooked piece of spaghetti. Once the female flowers have been dusted by wind carried pollen from the male flowers they will begin the process of becoming the beautiful red seeds (samaras) that this tree is so well known for. Many parts of the red maple are red, including the twigs, buds, flowers and seed pods.

I was surprised to find tiny little female American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) on a single bush recently. I think this is the earliest I’ve ever seen them. Reading back through spring blog posts shows that I usually find them in mid April, so why they’re blooming so early when many other spring plants are late, I don’t know. Native Americans used hazelnuts to flavor soups and also ground them into flour. In Scotland in 1995 a large shallow pit full of burned hazelnut shells was discovered. It was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so we’ve been eating these nuts for a very long time.

What is really baffling is why the female hazelnut blossoms have opened when the male catkins, shown in this photo, aren’t open. Without pollen from these male catkins the female blossoms are wasting their time. You can just see three tiny buds with female flowers above and to the left of these catkins. I think this is the first time I’ve been able to get both in a single photo. It gives you an idea of the huge difference in size.

Five days later the male catkins had opened but weren’t releasing pollen yet.

And five days later the female hazel blossoms were fully opened and looked as if the were reaching for that pollen. By the time the wind brings it to them they’ll be very sticky and receptive. If everything goes well I’ll be able to show you hazelnuts this fall.

Sugar maple buds are indeed swelling quickly and will probably be blossoming in a week or two. That will mean the end of the maple sugaring season this year. I saw a maple stump that had been left by a beaver the other day and it was bleeding sap heavily, so it’s running well right now.

Cornelian cherry buds (Cornus mas) are still opening, but very slowly. The yellow is the actual flower. They’re usually always in bloom by mid April and it’s looking like they will be this year as well.

I thought I had wasted my time when I didn’t see any flowers on the willows, but I heard red winged blackbirds in the alders and that was even better. Ice is melting quickly off the smaller ponds and vernal pools and soon we’ll hear the spring peepers.

It was a rainy day when I was taking photos for this post and all the crocuses were closed so I thought I’d show you this shot from last week, but then the sun came out and they all opened again.

I saw some new white ones that were pretty.

I thought that some of the white ones were even prettier when they were closed.

This blossom had just a naked stem and no leaves, so I’m not sure exactly what it is but I’m guessing it was a crocus but I can’t remember ever seeing pleats in the petals of a crocus.

The reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) have finally blossomed. They’re often the first spring bulb to flower here and I’m not sure what held them back this year. I’ve seen them bloom in the snow.

I thought this one was very beautiful. I’ve never grown them but from what I’ve seen these bulbs seem to slowly peter out and disappear. Groups of 10-15 flowers a few years ago now have only 1 or 2.

I wish you could smell these flowers. There is a spot I know of with about 8 large vernal witch hazel shrubs all in bloom at once and their fragrance is amazing. I can smell them long before I can see them. I can’t think of another flower that smells quite like their clean, slightly spicy scent.

There is a lot of promise for the future. Many of these hyacinth buds were showing color.

I didn’t see any color on the daffodil buds but they’ll be along. I expect by mid April spring will be in full swing with new flowers appearing every day. I hope everyone will be able to get out and enjoy it.

So many hues in nature and yet nothing remained the same, every day, every season a work of genius, a free gift from the Artist of artists. ~E.A. Bucchianeri

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Spring is happening, but ever so slowly this year. April showers have come along right on schedule and though they’ll take care of the remaining snow they’ll also enhance mud season, which has already been a bear. The ground froze deeply this year and the deeper the freeze the worse the mud. None of this has anything to do with the above photo of juniper berries but I love their color and I was surprised that the birds hadn’t eaten them yet.

From a distance I saw what looked like a patch of small yellow flowers. I couldn’t even guess what yellow flowers besides maybe coltsfoot or dandelions, would be blooming in March.

But they weren’t flowers at all. They were the fruit of horse nettle plants, hundreds of them. Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) isn’t a true nettle but instead is in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes and many toxic plants. This plant is also toxic, enough so to be named devil’s tomato. It contains alkaloids that can make you very sick and which have caused death. There are also spines on the leaves which can break off and embed themselves in the skin. Skunks, pheasant, and turkeys are said to eat the fruit but it didn’t look to me like a single one had been touched. Nothing seems to eat the stems or foliage.

I saw these pretty buds on a small ornamental tree in a local park. It had a weeping habit and couldn’t have been more than six feet tall with many weeping branches. I thought it might be some type of elm but elm buds are flattened, not round, so in the end I’m not sure what they were.

This shows what happens when a sap spigot, actually called a spile, isn’t removed from the tree after sap season. The tree has almost grown completely over this one and has squeezed what should be round into a teardrop shape. The crushing power of the wood must be incredible.

This photo that appeared in a previous blog post shows what a spile looks like when the tree hasn’t grown over it. Things like this inside trees are a woodcutter’s nightmare. Spiles started out as simple wooden pegs which were hammered into a hole in the tree to direct the sap into the buckets which were hung from them but these days they are made from galvanized steel.

I found this mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) growing up through the pavement in an old abandoned parking area. It’s in the process of shedding its large old, outer leaves from last year to make room for the its new leaves. This plant stays green all winter long under the snow and starts growing quickly in spring as soon as it melts. Another name for this plant is flannel leaf because of its large soft, fuzzy leaves. Pliny the elder of ancient Rome used the warmed leaves as poultices for arthritis and Roman legionnaires dipped the long stalks in tallow and used them as torches. The plant is originally from Europe and is considered invasive.

I see this plant in a flower bed every time I go looking for spring bulbs blooming at the local college, but I’ve never seen it bloom. I think it’s a hollyhock but I’m not sure, whatever it is it’s very tough and stays green all winter long. I like the pebbly texture of its leaves.

I’ve written about Edgewood Forest in past posts. It lies near the Keene airport and there always seems to be a controversy boiling over the trees there. The Federal Aviation Administration says the trees are tall enough to pose a hazard to planes, but the original documents that deeded the land to the city says that the land should be left as is, with no cutting of trees. What this has amounted to is trees being cut all around the deeded parcel called Edgewood Forest, leaving it a kind of forested island. The place shown in the above photo was forested until not too long ago but then all the trees were cut, all the stumps pulled and this-whatever it is- was built. Picnic tables were placed here and there. Apparently the higher powers thought that people would flock there and love it enough to even want to picnic there, but I’ve been by it hundreds of times and have never seen a soul there, picnicking or otherwise. Since there are hundreds of trees that are taller very nearby this seems like a total waste of effort and money to me.

This kind of thing is happening all over and town governments can’t seem to get the fact that people go to these places to enjoy nature. They stand and scratch their heads, wondering why the people don’t still flock to the same places after they’ve been “improved” like this one. Instead of attracting people they are driving them away, and I’m sure the income from tourist dollars is going to start reflecting that, if it hasn’t already. Meanwhile we’ll have monuments like this one to shake our heads at as we pass by in search of places that are more open and welcoming to nature lovers.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is one of the plants that grew in that forest before it was turned into a lawn. Luckily I know where there are more of them. Native Americans showed the early settlers how to use goldthread to relieve the pain of canker sores and it became an extremely popular medicine. At one point in the 1800s more of it was sold on the docks of Boston than any other plant and that meant that it was severely over collected. Now, 200 years or so later It has made a good comeback and it will always be with us if we stop turning forests into lawns. It gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. It will bloom in late April with a pretty little white flower. I love its leaves, which look like they were hammered out of sheet metal.

When a sunbeam picks out something specific in nature I usually pay close attention, thinking that maybe I’m supposed to see that thing for whatever reason. On this day a sunbeam picked out this beech leaf, which was perfect and unblemished. It was a beautiful thing, as the things picked out by sunbeams almost always are. A sunbeam showed me how incredibly beautiful a red clover blossom was once and completely changed my opinion of what I always considered an ugly, unwanted weed.

A sunbeam also fell on this single turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) and its dominant blue color just happened to be my favorite. Turkey tails can vary greatly in color and I think I’ve seen them wearing just about every shade this year.

I’m hoping this is the last of this winter’s ice I’ll have to show here. Both day and nighttime temperatures are rising and ever so slowly the white is disappearing.


If you’ve never looked through a knothole this photo is for you. Knotholes like these happen when branches die and their wood shrinks faster than the surrounding wood of the tree. Eventually they fall off the tree, leaving a hole behind. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Other “improvements” I’ve seen lately involved cutting all the alders and other native shrubs from the banks of a small local pond, but since this pond is used as a water source in case of fire I can understand the thinking behind wanting to keep the brush cut back. I thought this stump, cause by two young alders growing together, looked like the face of an owl.

I had the face of this barred owl to compare the stump to. A few years ago I met a barred owl sitting in the middle of a trail. It just sat there, staring directly into my eyes while I walked to within 5 feet of it. I stood for several minutes, feeling as if I was being drawn into those big brown eyes that were much like my own, until I finally turned and left. The last time I saw that owl it still sat on the ground, which is a very odd thing for an owl to be doing. It was a strange experience and seeing this owl reminded me of it. This owl was much bigger than that one but sat quietly in the same way, letting me take as many photos as I wanted. The photos would have been much better had it been a sunny day but you can’t have everything, and being able to look into the eyes of an owl should be enough.

If you’d like to see what it’s like to stare into the eyes of an owl, look at the beautiful photo of a saw-whet owl that Montucky recently posted on his blog. You can see it by clicking on the word HERE. Its eyes are yellow instead of brown like a barred owl, but the effect is the same.

Just a note: This post is the first I’ve done on my new computer and I’m having trouble getting photos to look right on the new monitor, so if things look a little stranger than usual that might be why. It’s a nice big monitor that’s easy to see but it’s also very bright so photos look like they were overexposed. I hope you’ll bear with me.

I am grateful for the magic, mystery and majesty of nature – my loyal friend and companion – always there, welcoming and waiting for me to come; to be healed. ~Tom North

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Last year I found a blue cohosh plant on the rail trail out in Westmoreland and I’ve gotten to see the flowers and fruit but I’ve never seen the spring shoots. From what I’ve seen in photos they’re very beautiful things, like little dark blue hands coming up out of the soil, so last Sunday off I went with a pocket full of hope.

There was a little ice on the start of the trail but after that it was ice free. It was a beautiful early spring day with the trees full of bird song and a temperature of almost 60 degrees F. It’s amazing how much snow one warm day can melt. If we had a week of days like this it would all be gone.

There are plenty of reminders of the history of this place, like this signal base. The Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here for many years.

There are some nice old stone box culverts out here, still working fine after 150 years. The stream that runs through this one must be off and on because there was no water here on this day.  Leave it to the railroad to build something “just in case.” That’s why these railbeds are still here 150 years later with virtually no maintenance.

Someone found a bent rail spike and put it on a boulder.

The stone walls out here are very unusual in that there isn’t hardly a round corner to be seen anywhere. That’s because these are stones left over from when the railroad blasted their way through the ledges. They’ve never gone through the grinding action of a glacier. Rather than the usual stone walls built by farmers clearing their land, these walls are simple property markers.

There must have been many thousands of tons of stone blasted out of the hillsides and that’s a good thing because this railbed had to be built high above the surrounding terrain and all of the blasted stone had to be used essentially to fill in a valley between hills. When you build a road bed through a hilly area you take everything you’ve cut from the hills and use it to fill in the valleys, and in that way you end up with a flat, level roadway, hopefully without having to bring in a lot of fill. This shot shows that I was almost in the tree tops where I was walking.

When you look down the side of the very high railbed you see large chunks of stone and realize that you’re walking on a huge, long pile of it.

But you’d never know it from this view of a flat, level trail. The railroad engineers were very good at what they did and the sheer amount of stone under this trail boggles the mind.

If you’re on a rail trail and see a stream going under it that almost always means a box culvert, and I always look for them if the hillside isn’t too steep.

This one was bigger than the first I showed and it had water running through it. It was under the snow though, so you can’t see it. There is mortar on this culvert and that tells me that it has probably been repaired because I’ve never see railroad masons use mortar on anything they’ve built.

Before I knew it I was at the ledges where I found the cohosh. The question was, where exactly did I find it and could I find that spot again? There were a lot of leaves to poke around in.

This is the spot where wild columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) also grow and this is the ledge most of them grow on. Both columbine and cohosh like limestone and that tells me that there must be a lot of lime in these ledges.

There was a columbine leaf from last year, still hanging on. I never knew they were so hairy.

The mosses were as beautifully green as I’ve ever seen them.

I’m not sure what this one is but it’s a very pretty moss. And it was covered by ice.

I tried to dig around in the leaves at the base of the ledges in several spots and found ice under them each time. The only plant I know of that can melt its way through ice is skunk cabbage, so I knew I wouldn’t see blue cohosh shoots on this day.  I’ll have to try again.

In this place it was still a little too cold for emerging plants.

And the snow on the ski slopes of Stratton Mountain over in Vermont proved it. I’m sorry I couldn’t show you those blue cohosh shoots. I’ll see what I can find this weekend; It will be worth the effort to see such a rare plant.  If you’re interested just Google “Blue cohosh shoots” and you’ll see why I want to see them.

That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself, then how to come pliantly back to life again. ~Ali Smith

Thanks for coming by.

 

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Spring is happening but very slowly. We just had a week with nighttime temps in the teens F. and days that hardly reached 40 degrees. This is slowing the sap flow down, according to the maple syrup producers, and it’s looking like a poor year for the industry. This farmer used traditional sap buckets to gather his sap but many have switched over to plastic tubing that runs from tree to tree and then into a large holding tank. Squirrels love sweet maple sap and will nick maple bark with their teeth and then lick it up, but they’ve discovered that chewing a hole in the plastic tubing is easier and the sap flows better, so they’re doing that instead. Because the sap is drawn through the tubing by a vacuum pump even a small hole in it causes the entire system to stop flowing. That means the farmer has to walk miles of tubing to find and patch the hole, so I’m guessing that we can expect the price of maple syrup to go up. It’s about $70.00 per gallon now. I’m also guessing that more sap gatherers will return to the old ways and hang buckets again.

The syrup farmers don’t have much time because once the trees start blossoming the sap turns bitter, and sugar maples usually flower around the second week of April.  This cluster of red maple buds (Acer rubrum) had a few opening. You can see one just above and to the right of the center of the bud group. It looks like there might be female flowers inside.

Native Americans used to also tap another member of the maple family for its sap: box elder (Acer negundo.) The twigs and buds of this tree are pruinose, which means they’re covered with white, waxy, powdery granules that reflect light in ways that often makes their surfaces appear blue. It doesn’t look like these buds have started swelling yet but they will soon. Its flowers are very beautiful and I enjoy seeing them in spring. The earliest example of a Native American flute, from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of this tree.

I thought for sure I’d see the yellow flowers of willows appearing through the gray catkins this week but the cool weather must have held them back.

The catkins of the white poplar (Populus alba) are gray and fuzzy much like willow catkins. They grow to 3 or 4 inches long and fall from the trees in great numbers. This tree was imported from Europe in 1748 and liked it here enough to now grow in almost every state. Soon their fluffy seeds will be floating on the wind.

I saw a flock of robins throwing leaves around in the forest litter, probably hoping worms or insects were hiding beneath them. One spring I had a robin land right beside me and do the same, but these birds were skittish. These are the first robins I’ve seen in many months.

There were starlings doing the leaf flipping trick along with the robins but I couldn’t get a very good photo of them because they were even more skittish than the robins.

I went to the swamp where skunk cabbages grow and saw a pair of mallards swimming away as fast as they could go. At least I think they were mallards; I’m not good with bird identification.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are fully up now and many have opened the split in their splotchy spathes to let in insects. You wouldn’t think there would be many insects out in this weather but I’ve seen many this year on warmer days.

You can just see the round spadix with its many stubby flowers through the slit in this spathe. Photos like this one are hard to get; you’d better be prepared to get your knees wet if you want to try.

The spadix of a skunk cabbage is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but they do have four sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that insects bring in from other plants. The spadix is what carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that the plant uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. These tiny blossoms can produce large amounts of pollen and sometimes the inside of the spadix is covered in it.

Alder catkins have started to take on quite a lot of color, as the one on the right shows. They swell up and lengthen as the season progresses and the colors change to maroon and yellow-green. They sparkle in the sunlight and make the bushes look like someone has hung jewels from the branches. When they are fully opened and the tiny male blossoms start to release pollen I’ll look for the even smaller female flowers, which look like tiny threads of scarlet red. You can just see three of the much smaller female catkins at the very top of this photo.

I saw a strangely shaped cloud. I’ve never seen another like it and can’t even guess why it had that shape. Maybe it was a good luck horseshoe.

Vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) still bloom and perfume the air with their wonderful, clean fragrance. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten. These ones have withstood temperatures as low as 15 degrees F.

The “Hamamelis” part of witch hazel’s scientific name means “together with fruit” and speaks to witch hazels being the only tree in North America which has flowers, fruit, and buds all at the same time. Though the seed pod has opened you can see in this photo how all three can appear at once; past, present and future all on one branch. The “witch” part of witch hazel comes from the Anglo Saxon word that means “to bend,” and refers to the way the branches can bend without breaking. These branches were used by the early settlers in water witching (dowsing) to find underground water.

I had to go back 3 times to do it but I finally caught these crocus blossoms fully opened. If it’s the least bit cool or cloudy they refuse to open but I was more stubborn than they were and refused to give up.

These were my favorites. How pretty is that after 5 months of winter?

There’s nothing quite like the sight and smell of green grass in spring. All thoughts of winter immediately just fly out the window.

Do you see what looks like a tiny white butterfly just to the right and just above center in this photo?

It’s a winter cress blossom; the first I’ve seen this spring. Cress is in a huge family of plants known as Brassicaceae with 150 or more species but I think this plant might be hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta,) which is a common weed that stays green under the snow all winter and blooms as soon as it melts. Its tiny flowers are about the size of Abraham Lincoln’s head on a penny. Seed pods appear quickly on this plant and explode if touched or walked on, flinging the tiny seeds up to three feet away. Each plant can throw as many as 1000 seeds so if this plant is in your yard, you should probably just learn to enjoy it.

There was something I was hoping to see; the first dandelion blossom.

At this time of year not even an orchid blossom could please me more. It looked as if it were only half awake; shaking off its long winter sleep and thinking about getting down to the business of making seeds. I haven’t seen a bee yet but I have seen quite a few smaller insects flying about.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

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