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The last time I passed through this section of woods I couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. The house I grew up in was just a few yards from the railroad tracks and I’d guess I started walking those tracks almost as soon as I could walk. I knew that if I followed them one way (north) I’d get to my grandmother’s house and then downtown Keene further on. But I didn’t know where the other direction went, so one day I decided it was time to find out. It would be my first great adventure.

There was a slight problem though. The Ashuelot River was also just a few yards from the house and if I was going to follow the tracks the way I’d never been I had to cross it by way of the train trestle over the Ashuelot River. The trestle had gaps between the ties and if you weren’t careful my grandmother said, a skinny little boy like me could fall right through one of those gaps and end up in the river. That thought had held me back for a long time as she knew it would but on this day I was determined, so off I went across the trestle for the first time, headed south.

My father knew that a boy had to run and explore and learn, and he let me off the leash early on. I had no mother to say otherwise so I simply loved life and made my own fun. Unlike the other boys I knew who could only seem to focus on what they didn’t have I saw what I did have, and though we were poor when it came to money I knew that I was rich; I could see it, sharp and clear, and even at twelve years old I knew that no boy anywhere else on earth was having a better boyhood than I was.

But even so my father would have had something to say about this adventure and I probably would have had to eat standing up for a few days if he’d found out. That’s because he knew the river drew me like a magnet. He was forever having to tell me to stay away from it, and with good reason. As I was taking photos of the frozen river on this day it began to groan and crack open and my stomach fell into my shoes. It was the same sound I’d heard when I was walking down the middle of it so many years ago when the ice gave way. Even after 50+ years it’s a sound that can still make my stomach lurch and my hands shake.

I could have drowned that day but instead I learned a good lesson, and it’s one I’ve never forgotten. In fact I learned all kinds of things along these rail lines because I was curious and I wanted to know the answers to the thousand and one questions I had in my head. Since nobody I knew could answer the questions I turned to books. Botany books, wildflower books, tree books, bird books, I had them all and I learned from them, but even so I’m still what I call “overly curious” when it comes to the natural world, and it’s that curiosity that fuels this blog. For instance I’ve wondered for years why the buds on a black birch will suddenly form a cluster of buds like that in the above photo. It’s almost like a witches’ broom but not quite because they don’t seem to grow after they knot up like this. Actually I think they die.

This is what a normal, healthy black birch bud (Betula lenta) looks like. The young bark of these trees looks a lot like cherry bark but if you nibble a twig and taste wintergreen, it’s a black birch. It’s also called sweet birch and cherry birch, and birch beer was once made from it and so was oil of wintergreen. In fact so many trees were taken to make oil of wintergreen for many years the trees were very hard to find. This is the only birch that I’ve seen the strange bud clusters on.

Another mystery is why birds don’t eat sumac berries until spring in this part of the country. I’ve heard that in other parts of the country they snap them up as soon as they ripen but here they’re still on the bushes even into April in some years. I’ve heard that they’re low in fat and not very nutritious so that might have something to do with it, but why wouldn’t that be true everywhere? The berries seen here are those of the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) but smooth or staghorn sumac berries, most will still be there in spring.

Another mystery is how can a river look frozen solid in one place and then be free of ice less than a mile downstream. It could have something to do with restricted flow, I think. The place where I took the photo of the iced over river has a kind of S curve and an island, and both would slow down the flow.

I had to have a look at the shagbark hickory buds (Carya ovata) while I was here. There is no sign of any movement yet but come mid-May they’ll open to reveal some of the most beautiful sights in the spring forest.

I did see some movement in some of the beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) I looked at though it was almost imperceptible. You can just see how some of the silvery white tips of the bud scales have barely pulled away from the bud. Soon they will start to grow and lengthen and then in May will finally open, and then the trees will look as if they’ve been hung with tiny angel wings.

In places the woods were full of ice.

And in other places they were nearly ice free.

The drainage ditches that were dug by the railroad 150 years ago were still working fine, though they were ice covered.

What interests me most about this ice is the oak leaf shape in the lower left corner. I can’t even guess how that would have happened. Ice is such fascinating stuff.

There are lots of old stone walls out here. They are “tossed” or “thrown” walls, where the stones were literally just thrown on top of one another, because the object was to get them out of what would become cropland as quickly as possible. I know this wall is quite old because of the lichens and mosses on the stones. Walls I built 45 years ago still don’t have any mosses or lichens on them and the stones haven’t even grayed yet. I’d guess this one must be at least 200 years old, built even before the railroad came through.

This boulder pile shows what those who first cleared the land faced. Left here by the last glacier, they had to be moved if you were going to plant crops.  I’ve collected stones to build walls with and I can say that it is backbreaking work.

I hoped to see some signs of hazelnut catkins opening but these were still closed tight. It won’t be long now though.

Distances seemed longer and time passed much slower when I was a child and this walk seemed very long indeed, but for the first time I had actually left my town and crossed into another: Swanzey, and that was quite a feat in my opinion. Swanzey lies to the south of Keene and it isn’t very far but I remember feeling so tired that day when I came to this road, and I had the walk home still ahead of me. I could have waited for the Boston and Maine freight and hopped it, but my grandmother told me in graphic detail what can happen to little boys who try to hop on trains. Of course she did that to keep me from hopping the trains I saw creeping by twice a day, and it was very effective. I wanted badly to try, but I never did.

So I walked back home dog tired but elated, and as I retraced those steps on this day once again I realized how very lucky I was to have had this place to grow up in; to be able to run and play in the fields and forests along the river, surrounded by and immersed in nature. It was such a glorious life and if I ever had a choice of where and when I could return to it would be that place and that time, because for me there is simply nothing better. I really do hope that all of you have a place that you feel the same about, and I hope you’re lucky enough to be at least able to revisit it occasionally.

A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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We’re having a very strange winter here, with roller coaster temperatures falling to -10 degrees F one day and soaring to 60 degrees the next. In between we’ve seen more rain than snow and all that rain has frozen into ice, because it can’t seep into the frozen ground. I took this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey in one of the colder stretches. Now, a week later there is no white to be seen in this view.

A week ago there were ice skirts around the stones and now there are none.

An icicle had formed in a tree, which is a sight you don’t often see.

I had to catch a wave while I was at the river. When the sun is right they have such beautiful colors in them.

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of any New Englander just tell them an ice storm is on the way. We’ve seen two so far this winter but they haven’t been bad enough to bring down trees and cause power outages. I’ve seen friends have to go for weeks with no power due to an ice storm in the past.

In an ice storm liquid rain falls on cold surfaces and ice coats everything. The added weight starts to damage trees like this birch and they begin to lose branches or fall over, bringing power lines down with them.

The more surface area exposed on the tree, the more weight the ice has. White pines (Pinus strobus) are particularly at risk of losing large limbs in an ice storm.

In spite of the crazy weather or maybe because of it, we’re having some beautiful sunrises.

I thought I saw some yellow on these male speckled alder catkins (Alnus incana) but that might be wishful thinking. Yellow or green would be pollen and pollen would mean they were flowering, and it’s too early for that. They’ll open in late March or early April after the maple sap has all been gathered, and then for a short time the bushes will look like someone has strung gold and purple jewels from the alder branches.

A bird’s nest fell off an outdoor building light where I work. It wasn’t very big but it was soft like a cushion, made mostly of mosses and grasses. It also had lichens and a few twigs in it. I think it was the nest of an eastern phoebe, which is a small gray bird about half the size of our robin. They nest all over the buildings where I work, but they don’t seem to be very smart because they will often fly into buildings when a door is opened. Chasing them out again can be a chore and it has taken two of us over an hour in the past. If you leave a door or window open and walk away they still can’t seem to find their way out again.

There was a lot of moss in the nest and it was easily the softest bird’s nest I’ve ever felt. I’ve read that eastern phoebes will take over the nests of swallows or robins but I don’t think this nest was built by either of those birds. They also re-use nests year after year, but this bird will have to re-build.

I think a lot of the moss used in the phoebe nest was white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata.) This is a very common moss that I find mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It would be a very easy moss for birds to harvest.

I’ve seen lots of galls picked open by woodpeckers and other birds but I don’t see too many oak marble galls opened. I was surprised at the thickness of the walls on this one. There would be plenty to eat all winter long for the gall wasp (Andricus kollari) larva had it survived the bird.

I saw a milkweed pod where I didn’t know they grew and of course I immediately thought of coming back in summer to hopefully see some monarch butterflies. I’ve seen more each year for the last three or so, but that doesn’t mean whole flocks of them. I think I saw 6 or 7 last year.

The birds and animals didn’t get to eat all the river grapes (Vitis riparia) this year and now the ones that are left look more like raisins than anything else. I was surprised to see them because they usually go as fast as they ripen. It could be that the birds simply had enough to go around; we do have a lot of wild fruits. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

An oak leaf skittered across the snow as if it had feet. More and more oak and beech leaves are falling, signaling spring isn’t far off. I hope.

You could almost believe you were feeling the warm breath of spring when two days of 60 degree weather turned the top layer of ice on Half Moon pond in Hancock to water. Ice fishermen are having a hard time of it this year because we haven’t had a lengthy spell of really cold weather to thicken the ice.

Since we’ve had some warm days and since the groundhog said we’d have an early spring, I went looking for signs. The ice was melting around the skunk cabbage shoots but I didn’t see any of the splotchy, yellow and maroon flower spathes. They are our earliest flowers so it shouldn’t be too long before they appear. Shortly after they flower the spring blooming vernal witch hazels will start in.

You might think that seeing daffodil shoots would be a sure sign of spring but these bulbs grow in a raised bed and raised beds warm and thaw earlier, so these bulbs start growing earlier. But I’ve never seen them this early and I’m sure they are being fooled by the few days of unusual warmth. They often come up too early and get bitten by the cold, which turns their leaves to mush. I’m guessing the same will happen this year but I hope not.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.
~Earnest Hemmingway

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I hope everyone can stand seeing more ice covered water because we have an awful lot of it here right now. This is a little pond I visit often in summer but I don’t think I’ve done so in winter, so I thought I’d give it a go. In summer it is full of fragrant white water lilies, and great blue heron, Canada geese, and ducks visit it often. I’ve seen mink and beaver here as well, so it seems to be a popular place with wildlife of all kinds. The pond ice was very shiny because we had a day of rain and warmth and then everything re-froze.

The rain washed a lot of the snow away again. It’s been going this way since November, with cold and snow one week and warmth and rain the next.

Not all the snow had disappeared but the top layer of this snow had and the tunnels of a mouse or vole became visible. There is a lot more activity under snow than a lot of people realize.

Near the shore the ice was thin and full of lacy patterns.

There are a lot of alders around the pond. You can often tell an alder from quite a distance because of all the tongue gall that grows on the female seed cones, called strobiles. They are what make these large dark bunches on the branches.

The male alder catkins (On the right) are starting to show some color. It will be a while before the much smaller female catkins on the left show any. Once they bloom tiny scarlet threads, which are the female flowers, will poke out from between the scales on the catkins. I watch for the male catkin’s release of pollen to know when to look for the almost microscopic female flowers.

Though I don’t know if this is one of their nests red winged blackbirds nest here in great numbers, and they aren’t afraid to protect their nests by flying all around your head.

They’ll use the downy seeds from the many cattails around the pond to line their nests with. This is where I first saw a female red winged blackbird grab a big white grub out of a dead cattail stem. I’ve seen them do the same in other places since. I had no idea that grubs were in cattail stems and I still don’t know what insect they turn into.

I could see a lot of plant growth under the ice.

I could also see thousands of bubbles in the ice and I wondered if they were coming from the plants.

Here was something I’ve never seen on a pond; the huge slab of ice on the right had broken away from that on the left and had fallen about 3 or 4 inches. That tells me there must be quite an air space under the ice. This happens regularly on rivers but not on ponds that I’ve seen. The ice was noisy on this day and was cracking, creaking, groaning, and grinding. If you’ve never heard the eerie sounds that ice can make you really should walk by a frozen pond or lake. You’ll hear things you’ve never heard.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw these pussy willows. In January!

Much of January was warm but I didn’t think it was warm enough to coax plants into bloom. Since we’re supposed to drop below zero again this week spring might be a little different this year. I would think that extreme cold would kill off these buds, but maybe not. They do have nice fur coats.

I saw a very strange pouch like web or cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I’ve never seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to insect expert Charley Eiseman and sent him the photo. In about 5 minutes he had written back and explained that this is a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Tussock moth caterpillars are very hairy and their hairs can cause a rash when touched, so I’m glad I didn’t touch it. Thanks very much to Charley for the help.

If you like seeing and reading about insects Charley’s blog is the place for you. It can be found at bugtracks.wordpress.com

That isn’t water. It’s ice and yes, it was as slippery as it looks. I didn’t think I’d need my micro spikes out here so I was bare soled and sliding.

I went off the road into the brush to look at something and got snagged on these, the sharp, ripping thorns of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora,) which is an invasive plant from China that seems bent on taking over the world. The raspberry plant-like blossoms appear in June by the hundreds and are extremely fragrant.

Of course each blossom turns into a rose hip and birds (and squirrels) love them. That’s why and how the plants spread like they do. They crawl up and over native shrubs and take up most of the available sunlight. The native shrub, deprived of light, eventually dies.

Overhead were thousands of red maple buds. It won’t be much longer before they start to open. It usually happens sometime in mid-March.

Milk white toothed polypores (Irpex lacteus) are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter mushroom with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can often be found on the undersides of hardwood branches but these examples grew on a stump. They seem to thrive in the cold but also seem to shun direct sunlight, because I often find them on the shaded side of whatever they’re growing on.

Geum urbanum is also called herb Bennet or wood avens, and it’s originally from Europe and the Middle East. The flowers are yellow with 5 petals and have the “look” of the avens family like our native white or yellow avens. But the seed heads are very different and that’s why I think this must be the seen head of Geum urbanum. According to what I’ve read the plant’s roots have the same compounds as the clove plant and are used as a spice in soups and for flavoring ale. Modern herbalists use the plant medicinally as it has been used for many centuries. The idea for Velcro came from a plant with barbed seeds much like this example.

I think the seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) are very pretty but I never thought I’d see them in January. There were quite a few plants here, all full of seeds. Though the leaves of curly dock are poisonous to sheep and cattle humans can eat it. The leaves are high in beta carotene, vitamin C, and zinc and the seeds are rich in calcium. Curly dock was an important vegetable during the great depression and the humble plant kept many people alive. They are said to have a lemony flavor.

The cold of winter does things to people and it also does things to plants. Sap from conifers like the white pine and certain spruces like that seen here is usually a honey, amber color but in winter the cold can turn it blue. The deeper the blue, the colder it’s been. It’s quite a beautiful cornflower blue on this tree at the moment and that might be because we’ve seen below zero cold.

All in all I found the pond to be the same quiet, serene place in winter that it is in summer. That should be surprising because this little pond is actually a man-made retention pond that holds water for firefighting, because there is a large mall just off the edge of some of these photos. It just goes to show once again that you don’t have to go very far to enjoy nature. It’s just outside.

Looking at the pond all I could think was that it is an incredible thing how a whole world can rise from what seems like nothing at all. ~Sarah Dressen

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I should mention, for newer readers, that these “Things I’ve seen” posts are made up of photos I’ve taken of things that didn’t fit into other posts, usually because the other posts were already far too long. Quite often I end up with too many photos to fit in one post but I don’t want to waste them, so here they are.

The pond in this shot shows very well what “rotten ice” looks like. Specks of dirt and bubbles get between the ice crystal bonds and weaken their strength, and when it looks like this, with a dark matte finish, you certainly don’t want to walk on it. Of course this was taken when we had a warm spell. The ice has firmed up now and is covered with about 6 inches of snow.

The pond in the previous photo connects to a swamp by way of a culvert under a road and beavers use it to travel back and forth, stopping long enough to cut some trees on the way.

The beavers have been very active here this year and have cut many young birch trees in this area. They do this every few years and then cut somewhere else, giving the birches time to grow back. I’ve seen these clumps grow back at least twice in the 30 years or so that I’ve paid attention.

You know you’re seeing some strange weather when a tree drips sap in January.

But then it got cold; cold enough to grow ice shelves on the Ashuelot River.

How enticing they are to pig headed little boys who don’t like to listen to their elders. I know that because I was one of those once, and I walked right down the middle of the frozen river. All of the sudden I heard what sounded like rifle shots and I ran as fast as I could for the river bank. When I was able to peel myself from the tree I had a death grip on and take a look, I saw water where I had been walking. It scared me more than anything else ever has I think, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

Even the stones were coated with ice.

The Ashuelot was tame on this day and there were no waves to take photos of.

The river had coughed up an ice bauble which caught the sunshine but didn’t melt. I’m always surprised by how clear river ice is. This bauble was so clear I could see a V shaped something frozen inside it.

Jelly fungi are made almost entirely water so of course they were frozen too. This amber example felt like an ice cube rather than an earlobe as they usually do. Freezing doesn’t seem to affect them much, I’ve noticed.

The seed eating birds have been busy picking all the prickly looking coneflower seeds in my yard. They had just gotten started on this one.

And they had just about finished with this one. Odd that these seed heads are hollow.

I don’t know if birds eat the tiny seeds of forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) but the seed pods look almost like a trough that would make them easy to reach. I can’t remember this pretty little annual plant having such hairy parts in life but they certainly do in death.

I thought the color of these dead fern stems (Rachis) was very beautiful on a winter day. I think they might have been hay scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula,) which grow in large colonies and have stems that persist long after the leaves have fallen.

Many things are as beautiful in death as they are in life, especially fungi. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call this one beautiful but it was certainly interesting.

This isn’t a very good photo but it does help illustrate how strange our weather has been, because you don’t see too many flies flying around in January in New Hampshire. Last Tuesday it was -13 degrees F. and everything was frozen solid. By Thursday it was 50 degrees; warm enough apparently to awaken this fly. It was also warm enough to cause an unusual snow slide in Claremont, which is north of here. A large amount of snow suddenly slid down a hillside and slammed into a house, partially destroying it. It also pushed a parked truck about 75 feet.

It’s easy to see how the horse hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) got its name. It’s also easy to see how this fungus grows, because its spore bearing surface always points toward the ground. If you see a fallen log with this fungus on it and its spore bearing surface doesn’t point toward the ground you know that it grew while the tree was standing. If it does point toward the ground it grew after the tree fell. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that it can produce as many as 800 million in a single hour; fine as dust and nearly impossible to see. The fungus is also known for its ability to stop bleeding and was recommended for that purpose by Hippocrates, who is considered the father of medicine.

Lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) start life as a tiny bright yellow disc and look as if they lie flat on the log, but they actually hover just above the surface on a short stalk. As they age each disc becomes cup shaped. The Citrina part of the scientific name comes from the Latin Citrin, which means “lemon yellow.” They are very small, so you’ll need a loupe or a macro lens to see them properly.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I like looking at buds at this time of year and some of my favorite buds are found on the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa.) They’re about medium size as buds go, and nice and chubby. I love their beautiful purple and green color combination.

I think my favorite thing this time around is this river ice that caught and magnified the blue of the sky. I thought it was quite beautiful, but blue is my favorite color so that could have something to do with it.

The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves. ~Kahlil Gibran

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Robin Hood Park is a 110-acre park located in the northeastern corner of Keene that I visit often at all times of year, but especially in summer to see all of the amazing fungi and slime molds that grow there. In 1889 George A. Wheelock sold a piece of land known as the Children’s Wood to the City of Keene for a total of one dollar. This area was eventually combined with an additional parcel of land purchased from Wheelock, known as Robin Hood Forest, to form Robin Hood Park. This park has been enjoyed by children of all ages ever since. I decided to go there last Saturday because I couldn’t remember the last time I had been there.

The small pond in the park has drawn ice skaters for a very long time, but this year the unusual warmth has kept people off the ice. This is where I learned how to ice skate 50+ years ago.

There are various small streams and rivulets that feed into the pond. Even though it was only 22 degrees F. on this day none of them had frozen over but they were trying, as this one shows.

There were lots of bubbles in what ice there was.

The spot where the little stream enters the pond showed just how thin the ice was.

But still, even with all the warnings both natural and man-made, someone had shoveled off a large rectangle to skate in. We humans can be very stupid at times. Note how wet the snow is where the water is coming up through the crack in the ice.

I got away from the pond and followed the trail that leads around it. There are many interesting things along this trail and I see things I’ve never seen almost every time I come.

Unfortunately there was nothing new about the thick ice on parts of the trail. There is a lot of groundwater here and ice like this is common in winter so I wore my new micro spikes. With them on I walked right over this ice and didn’t slip or slide one bit. It’s amazing how they grip; you feel like you couldn’t slip if you wanted to.

One of the things I saw on this day that I’ve never seen before is a liverwort called the Bifid crestwort (Lophocolea bidentata.) It grew on a log and at first I thought it was a moss.

But I’ve never seen a moss that looked like this and I suspected right off that it must be some type of liverwort. It is a leafy liverwort and each leaf is flattened with two notches at its tip (Bilobed.) Each lobe is drawn out to a long, narrow point. As you move up the stem the leading edge of each leaf is tucked behind the trailing edge of the leaf ahead of it. Both of these features help with identification as does the pale yellow green color. What I didn’t know at the time I saw it is that the plant is very aromatic, so the next time I see it I’ll have to smell it.

There was no question that this was a moss. Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) gets its name from the way its curly tipped leaves look like they have all been swept to one side. In fact the scoparium part of the scientific name is Latin for broom. It prefers dry shaded places and won’t tolerate wet feet. Florists call it mood moss but I’m not sure why.

Mosses can change color in the cold and so can lichens. In the summer the blue gray lichens on this stone will become ashen gray and all but disappear into the color of the stone. It’s something I’ve noticed happening for years but I’ve never been able to identify the chameleon like lichen.

This buttressed tree root reminded me of a beautiful yellow slime mold I saw here one day a few years ago. Buttressed tree roots usually grow on all sides of the tree but this huge old oak has just the one. Roots that grow like this are said to grow because of nutrient poor, shallow soil but if that were true then it seems like all of the trees in this forest would have them. They are usually found in rain forests on very tall trees.

Something I’ve never been able to explain is the zig zag scar on this tree. I’ve shown it here before and blog readers have kicked around several ideas including lightning, but none seem to really fit.

The scar is deep and starts about 5 feet up the trunk from the soil line. If it were a lightning scar I would think that it would travel from the top of the tree into the soil. I happened upon a large white pine tree once that had been hit by lightning very recently and it had a perfectly straight scar from its top, down a root, and into the soil. The bark had been blown off all the way along it.

I’ve seen some strange things in the woods and this is one of them. Someone put a chain around this tree for no apparent reason. What will happen is the tree will grow around it and over time simply absorb it. It will become a tree cutters nightmare; one of those thing you hope you never run into with a chainsaw.

This granite stone has a spear of either quartz or feldspar in it. I think, if I remember my geology correctly, that it would be called an intrusion or vein. Granite itself is considered an intrusive igneous rock.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) are common enough but you don’t often find them growing on a standing tree as these were. There were many hundreds of them all around the tree.

Some of the turkey tails were quite colorful with lots of orange and lavender bands.

Other turkey tails on the same tree were much less colorful and this is interesting. For years I’ve tried to find out what determines the color of these fungi and I assumed it must be the wood itself, but these examples with widely varying colors were all growing on the same wood, so that can’t be it. These are in fact wood eaters which decompose wood so it can be returned to the forest soil to be used again by a new generation of trees. Life is a circle and not a single molecule is lost or wasted.

When I was a boy I found a book in the attic called “Nibbles and Bobtail.” It was all about animals of the forest acting like people, and their escapades. The animals lived in stone houses with thatched roofs and had fields bordered by stone walls. I was in my drawing phase then and I was interested in illustration, but this book bothered me because everything made of stone was colored. There were red stones, blue stones, orange, yellow, purple stones, etc. I thought well, it’s obvious this person has never seen a stone wall; everyone knows they’re gray. But it was I who didn’t know what I was talking about because instead of seeing I was just looking, and it took several years for me to finally see that stone walls could indeed be very colorful, as this one shows. Not only are the stones colorful but the lichens on them are as well. The orange in this photo is caused by the sidewalk firedot lichen (Caloplaca feracissima.)

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

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In New Hampshire a class six designation means a road isn’t maintained by either the state or the town, so it could be rough going. I don’t know if this road actually has that designation but I do know that it can be impassable in winter, so whether or not you will make it over its entire length is anyone’s guess.

Since we have had very little snow this winter I doubted there would be much snow on it and I was right. There was a dusting but nothing that needed plowing.

If anything would give a driver trouble on this day it was ice; the road was like a skating rink so I walked on the edges, which is where I would have walked anyway. It’s hard to see anything interesting from the middle of a road.

The road was also heavily rutted. I’ve driven over it in spring and between the ruts and the washboards, sometimes you feel like the teeth will rattle right out of your head.

It’s common in this area to see huge boulders right on the very edge of the road. That’s because in the 1700s when many of these roads were laid out stones this big were impossible to move and it was too much work to drill and blast them, so the road was simply built around them. And there they still sit to this day. This one was easily as big as a delivery truck.

I loved the beautifully bright green brocade moss (Hypnum imponens) that grew on a log. This pretty moss gets its common name from the way it looks like it has been embroidered on whatever it grows on. I’ve searched high and low for it so I could include it in my moss posts, but I never could find any.  Now all I need to do is remember where it is.

There was a lot of logging going on out here last summer. It looks like they left a lot of the deciduous trees and took mostly evergreens, probably hemlock and pine.

The logging was being done on a tree farm, which in New Hampshire means a privately owned forest managed to produce timber with, according to the New Hampshire Tree Farm Program, “the added benefits of improved wildlife habitat, water quality, recreation, and scenic values.”

A small stream had formed a pool and it was covered over by what I call puddle ice. It’s that brittle white ice full of oxygen bubbles that makes tinkling sounds when you break it. Seeing it always takes me back to my boyhood when I would ride my bike through puddles covered by it in spring. I’ve thought of it as a sign of spring ever since, even though I see it in fall and winter too.

The little stream also had some beautiful ice formations in it as well.

If you know where to look you can find a winding trail through the woods that leads to a beaver pond.

It’s a large pond, several acres in size.

This shows what happens when a forest is flooded by beavers; what trees they don’t cut down drown and die. Areas like this often become rookeries for great blue herons because they’re full of frogs and small fish. I’ve seen herons here before but I haven’t seen a nest yet.

There are several beaver lodges here and the open water near this one suggests beaver activity. They work hard to keep channels open in winter. This lodge doesn’t look like most I’ve seen. It looks as if it has had a lot of mud added to the outside, which is something I haven’t seen.

This is more what I think of when I imagine a beaver lodge. They usually look like a pile of sticks, but the one in the previous photo looks more like a pile of dirt.

I think this one might have been abandoned. It had a light coating of snow on it and from what I’ve seen beaver lodges aren’t snow covered for very long unless we’ve had heavy snows. Heavy snow helps insulate the lodge and sunshine helps warm it. The temperature at water level in a beaver lodge is usually about 32 degrees F. but it might fluctuate a bit due to outside temperature and body heat generated by the beavers themselves. They have to leave the lodge to eat but they lose body heat quickly in the cold water, so they aren’t very active in winter if it is very cold. So far this winter they’ve had it easy but that’s about to change, with wind chills of -14 degrees F. expected on Monday.

I thought these were rabbit tracks but I think the smaller front feet should be directly in front of the larger rear feet, not off to the side like what is seen here. Maybe it was a turning rabbit.

I can’t even guess what made these swishy tracks. I’ve looked at examples of both animal and bird tracks and nothing comes close to matching. And it’s too cold for reptiles, so I’ve struck out.

Someone lost their hat and a kind soul picked it up and put it on a mossy rock. You meet very few unkind people in the woods, I’ve found.

The reminders of the terrible winds we had last summer are all around me each time I go into the woods, in the form of tangled blowdowns like these. In fact I saw several just like it in these woods. I think thousands of trees must have fallen in this area but I also think that the trees that were already weekend by disease were the ones that fell. You can see bracket fungi all over the largest of these and that’s a good sign of a sick tree.

I’ve spoken about how water resistant oak leaves are on this blog for years, but now I can show it. Oak leaves can take a year or more to decompose because they are leathery and contain a lot of woody substances like lignin and cellulose, and I’ve always believed that it is also because they don’t absorb water as readily as leaves from other trees. This photo shows how water will puddle on an oak leaf.

There are roads known by everyone and there are roads known by no one. Choose the second, the mysterious one where many glories are hidden. ~Mehmet Murat Ildan

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All week long the weather people said last Saturday, January 5th would be rainy and Sunday the 6th would be sunny. It did indeed rain Saturday and even dusted the landscape with snow overnight but there was very little sunshine on Sunday. The sun did break out eventually and I decided to follow a small stream that meanders through my neighborhood. It weaves its way through a small slice of true wilderness where nobody ever goes; just the kind of place you would have found me when I was a boy.

A deer had come this way not too long ago.

I could see where they crossed the stream.

There is a small tributary on the far side and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had walked right down it.

The stream bed is gravel and the water is very clean.

But this stream can fool you and I remember having to carry my son across it once as it came up and over the road in a flood. Since then it has flooded a few times and is scary enough for me to know that I don’t want to be anywhere near it when it does. The Christmas fern with its fronds all pointing in the same direction told of recent high water.

There is a beautiful burl here that I’ve been watching for years. It isn’t very big; about the size of a baseball, and if it’s growing it’s doing so very slowly. If it was bigger it would make a beautiful bowl.

There on the bank of the stream was a clump of something I wanted to see.

I like to visit my friends the tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) every now and then but I think it has been a year or more since I saw them last. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light. This is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common in this area, but I was happy to see that they’re spreading here along the little stream. They must not mind being under water for a time because it’s getting so the stream floods once or twice a year now. When I moved here it flooded once each decade.

It was dark in the forest because the sun had gone.

And it had started to rain again.

The oddest thing I saw was a free standing river grape vine (Vitis riparia.) This is odd because the top of the vine was in the trees and grapes need something to climb on. The stems are too weak to support themselves and without something to climb they’ll sprawl on the ground. I’m guessing that the tree it originally grew on had died a long time ago; so long ago that all traces of it had disappeared.

I’ve seen some magical things in grape tendrils. This one reminded me of someone sitting cross legged. Maybe it was the beautiful Hindu dancer I saw in another tendril a few years ago.

Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is a good wetland indicator and they grow all alongside the stream in the almost always wet soil. Their shin high, spore bearing fronds full of round black spore cases make them very easy to see in winter. Early colonists noticed that this fern was very sensitive to frost and they gave it its common name. It has toxic properties and animals rarely eat it, but some Native American tribes used its root medicinally.

Delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) grew at the base of a tree. Whoever named this moss couldn’t have known it well, because it is far from delicate. This example has been under the water of a fast moving stream many times but you’d never know it. Orchid growers use this moss in commercial orchid cultivation.

Papery beech leaves whispered in the breeze. I hadn’t thought about beech trees having such a strong presence in the forest until recently. All year long they are there, from the time of their beautiful buds breaking in May until the pale white leaves fall from their branches the following spring, a continual woodland companion, always welcome.

I’ve been seeing turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) in various shades of brown and orange but I haven’t seen many in blues and purples, which are my favorites. The scientific names of this fungus mean thin (Trametes) and many colored (versicolor) and that’s exactly what they are. Someday I hope to learn what determines their color.

This large fungus looked like it was trying to form brackets or shelves but it wasn’t having much luck and looked more like a misshapen blob than anything else and I couldn’t identify it. I don’t feel too bad about not being able to identify mushrooms though, because there are an estimated 3.8 million different fungi on earth and about 90% of them haven’t been identified. Science has found that mushrooms are closer to animals than plants because they contain chemicals that are also found in lobsters and crabs.

Black jelly fungi (Exidia glandulosa) have become rarer than other jelly fungi over the years and that’s why I don’t show them here very often. I saw some good examples this day though, and they were nice and plumped up because of the rain. When this fungus dries out it loses about 90% of its volume and shrinks down to tiny black specks of the bark of what it grows on. These pillow shaped, shiny black fungi grow mostly on alders in this area.

I thought I might see some witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom but all I saw were the little cup like bracts that the strap shaped yellow petals come out of.

The most beautiful things I saw on this day were the witch hazel’s orange brown leaves. It’s a pretty color that warms you even on a winter day, and I was happy to see them.

To sit in solitude, to think in solitude with only the music of the stream and the cedar to break the flow of silence, there lies the value of wilderness. ~ John Muir

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