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Archive for the ‘Things I’ve Seen’ Category

There are spring haters out there. I know there are because I’ve talked to some of them. They complain of dirty snowbanks, brown grass, bare trees, wind and cold, and just the blah-ness of it all. No color, they say. Well, this post is designed to show them how wrong they are. Spring shouldn’t be about seeing tulips and daffodils out of the car window as you drive past. It should be about walking slowly, looking closely, and marveling at what is in my opinion the most beautiful season of all. It should be about seeing the incredible beauty of nature, and witnessing the miracles that happen each and every day. It’s hard to deny the beauty of red maple blossoms (Acer rubrum) for instance, as we see in this photo. Though this shot is from last year they have started blooming now. The blooming period doesn’t last long, so now is the time to look for them. You won’t have to look hard though, because these trees are everywhere.

Silver maple flowers (Acer saccharinum) look a lot like those of red maples, but the fruits (samaras) of silver maple are far more beautiful, in my opinion. You can find these in mid-May here and no, you don’t need to be able to tell a silver maple from a red maple; all you need to do is look closely, regularly.  These samaras look like this for only a day or two.

American hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana) have also just started to bloom. These beautiful, rarely seen things are very small, so if your eyes are as old as mine you might want to carry a loupe or macro lens. Or, there are also free magnifying glass apps that you can get for a cell phone. I have one and it works well. I took this photo at just about this time last year. Hazelnut shrubs grow along rail trails, roadways, and in waste places.

Other tiny flowers are those of the speckled alder (Alnus incana.) The cylindrical flower clusters are long and thin and often appear in groups at the ends of branches. They are called catkins or aments. Each flower cluster has many crimson, thread-like female stigmas just poking out. Don’t be afraid to grab a branch of a tree or shrub and pull it toward you so you can see better; you won’t hurt the plant at all. This photo was taken on March 26th of last year and I’ve already seen hints of them this year, so the time to look is now in this area. Alders get little hard black cones called strobiles on their branch ends and usually grow near water.

If you can’t find anything to marvel at on shrubs or trees check the stones. They’re often covered with lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens) shown here. Unless the stones are covered with snow there are always lichens to see and they can be very beautiful.

If there aren’t any stones look in the bushes. You might be astonished by what you find. These robin eggs hatched in May two years ago.

The leaves of the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) look like tiny fingers as they pull themselves away from their protective covering of the flower bud and straighten up. Bud break comes very early on this native shrub; this photo was taken in mid-April of 20105. The purplish green flower buds will become greenish white flowers, followed by bright red berries. One of life’s simple pleasures is watching buds like these open and it costs nothing but a few minutes of time each day.

On every stone, on every branch and in every puddle, the beauty of spring can be found. Tiny new eastern larch flowers (Larix laricina) are beautiful and always worth looking for. They appear in mid-May and are quite small. Their color helps me see them and a macro lens shows why I bother looking for them in this photo from May 17th of 2014. They’re very beautiful so I hope you’ll take a look at any larch trees you might know of.

Leaves can also be beautiful, as this photo of the deeply pleated leaves of false hellebores (Veratrum viride) from mid-May of 2015 shows. False hellebore is one of the most toxic plants we have here, so you’re probably better off just admiring rather than touching this one. They like low, moist areas along streams and rivers.

The point of all this is to learn to see rather than to simply look. There is a difference; one day I met two college age girls on a woodland trail. They complained that they hadn’t seen a single wildflower, though the area was known for them. When I walked the same trail I saw flowers everywhere. They were small yes, but they were there. So how can this be? I’m guessing that they probably walked too fast and thought more about the end of the trail than what they might see along it. A toddler’s pace and a willingness to look a little closer would have let them see beautiful things that they probably hadn’t even imagined were there. Beautiful little Pennsylvania sedge flowers like those shown here are barely 4 inches tall, so you have to look the ground over carefully for them. They’ll appear along woodland edges and roadsides in mid-April, coming up out of what look like little tufts of course grass.

Orangey pink striped maple buds (Acer pensylvanicum) are a good example of why, when a bud or flower catches your eye in the spring, you should watch it every day because changes come quickly. In a day or two your beautifully colored bud might have become leaves. The tree or shrub you happen to be looking at wants food, and food means leaves that can photosynthesize. There is no benefit to keeping its leaves tightly wrapped in the bud unless it is to protect the tender new growth from cold. If it is warm they’ll open quickly.

Box elder (Acer negundo) is in the maple family but it’s a “soft maple” and in this area is considered a weed tree because of how they come up everywhere. A box elder was the first tree I ever planted when I was a boy though, so they’re special to me. I think they’re at their most beautiful in April when they flower. The lime green, sticky pistils of female box elder flowers seen in this photo appear along with the tree’s leaves, just a few days after the male flowers have fully opened, I’ve noticed. Box elders have male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another, unlike a lot of other maples. The earliest known example of a Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from its wood.

Fern fiddleheads just out of the ground are some of the most beautiful things to see in spring. One of my favorites is the lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina.) Lady fern is the only one I know of with brown / black scales on its stalks. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams.

If you’re in a moist, loamy area looking for lady ferns you might as well look for some horsetails too. The fertile spore bearing stem of a common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) ends in a light brown, cone shaped structure called a strobilus, and it’s a beautiful thing to see. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll, so most of it is a pale, whitish color. When it’s ready to release its spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish “ruffles” at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in the photo it has released its spores and will soon die and be replaced by an infertile stem. I find these at around the end of April.

I know what the big buds of shagbark hickory look like when they open but even so, they’re so beautiful they always stop me in my tracks and make me stand there with my mouth hanging open. They are easily one of the most beautiful things in the spring forest and I start watching for them in mid-May. I usually find them growing near water; along river banks or near lakes and ponds.

So why  should you bother looking for all this stuff in spring? Well, why should you bother going to an art gallery, or listen to music, or read a book? We do these things to enrich our lives, to help renew and rejuvenate our minds and spirits; to make ourselves more comfortable with the unknown; more at peace, and more creative. Nature will do all of this for us and more. Nature, from my own experience, is very healing. If you face a rough spot in life try just walking alone on a favorite woodland path each day. In no time at all your problems will seem to have been solved with very little effort. I would never tell you this if it wasn’t true; it has happened in my own life again and again. I think it’s because nature study makes us meditate quite naturally, so we don’t even realize we’re doing so. It’s hard to worry and fret when something captivates your attention so just look at all that’s happening in the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) shoot above. Just up out of the soil and it’s already amazing. When I see it I want to draw it, and I think I could sit and look at it all day.

A large part of why I spend every free minute in nature is because of the incredible beauty I see. It’s amazing to think that so much beauty has been in plain sight all along. For a large part of my life I never took the time to see it and I hope you won’t make the same mistake. Everyone knows where there is a beech tree. Just start watching the branch tips around the first week in May. You’ll see the long, pointed buds begin to curl quite severely and then a day or so later miracles will happen; it will look like a host of angles has swooped down and shed their downy wings. Even the gloomiest among us will feel their pulse quicken and magically, a smile will appear on their face. If they spend time with nature it will be there for a while, so they’d better get used to it.

So here we are at the end of this post and until now we haven’t seen a flower with petals on it, so if you’re one of those people who think the beauty of spring means tulips and daffodils I hope I’ve changed your mind. But, if it is still flowers you want try a woodland walk in mid-April. If you’re lucky you might just find some spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) like those in this photo. All of what you’ve seen here and so very much more is just starting to happen, so I hope very much that you’ll get out there and see it for yourself.

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.
~Edna Jaques

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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It was 22 degrees when I left the house last Sunday to explore a section of rail trail that I’d never been on, but had wondered about for years. It was cold but not as cold as Saturday, so I was able to dawdle and look for those special things that are hidden in plain sight.

One of those special things is this group of plum trees that grows beside the trail. 3 or 4 years ago logging contractors hired by the electric utility came through here and cut every living thing on their right of way except these plum trees, and that’s very strange. Here you had a strip of totally bare ground that stretched for miles but these plum trees were left standing. Why? How did the electric utility know that they were special trees? Do they have a botanist who goes ahead of the loggers / brush cutters? Native plum trees are worth saving. These are the only ones I’ve ever seen.

Something else that I think is special is this old bridge; the only one I know of that is still held up by wooden timbers. Trains once passed under it and I’ve driven over it many times but it is closed to all but foot traffic now. I think I heard that it will be replaced, which I’m sure will make the people of this neighborhood very happy.

The bridge uprights in the previous photo might look a little spindly but they’re actually stout 12 X 12 inch timbers that probably look as good as they did when the bridge was built. The railroad built things to last and many of the bridges and trestles along these rail trails have been here for nearly 150 years.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) was trying to take the bridge down. The railroad would’ve never let this happen. If the bridge wasn’t going to be replaced I’d report this to the town because it wouldn’t be long before the bridge was covered with it.

This vine was loaded with berries and that’s a good thing, because when berries remain on the vine it means fewer are being scattered by the birds.

 I’ve walked just a short way down this rail trail before but I’ve turned around at the bridge because beyond there was a huge ankle deep mud hole that never seemed to dry up. Going through it looked like it would have meant a boot full of mud so I turned around, but then the snowmobile club came along and cleaned up the original drainage ditches and replaced gravel on the trail, and now it is mud free. This photo shows how cold it was; the drainage ditches were frozen.

The snowmobile club has also put crushed stone on the embankments on either side of the trail near the bridge, trying to stabilize them and probably minimize runoff at the same time. I hope everyone will do what they can to help their local snowmobile clubs. If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have many of these trails to enjoy.

I’m sure you must have noticed the high tension electric wires in several of these photos. The electric utility ran their lines very close to the railroad tracks and walking this rail trail so near to them bothered me, because it was one of these wires that fell and electrocuted a maintenance worker in Keene a few years ago. It was on the ground and he accidentally got too close to it. I made sure that it looked like all of these were hanging the way they were supposed to.

This Pigeon didn’t seem to be bothered by me or the electricity. It seemed odd to see a single bird. They usually stay in large flocks here.

I’ve probably driven past this old brick building a hundred times but I’ve always seen the other side, which is by the road. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this side. It looks like bittersweet was trying to take it over like the bridge.  When walking on rail trails I sometimes forget that I can be walking through people’s back yards. I try to respect their privacy and don’t go poking around, so I have no idea what this building is or why it is here. I’d like to find out its history one day. It certainly was well built, and that tells me it must have been connected to the railroad somehow. It was just feet from the railbed.

Someone rode through on one of those bikes with wide, under inflated tires. It was about as wide as an adult foot, apparently. They seem to do fine on snow but I wonder how they are on ice. There is lots of it to be found right now, and it can be anywhere.

There are bars across most rail trails to keep people from driving on them but in winter they’re unlocked to let snowmobiles use them. They would have been just about ready to be locked up again but we had a nor’easter dump about a foot of snow on us Tuesday, so they’ll stay open for a while yet.

I thought someone had made a brush pile out of white pine (Pinus strobus) branches but it was an odd shape and relatively small size, and it was crowded between some trees. It didn’t look right for a brush pile.

As I walked around it I saw that it had a small doorway in it. I could have crawled through it on my hands and knees. Instead I bent down and stuck the camera through the doorway and snapped the shutter a few times.

It was big, open, one room hut, complete with another doorway and folding chairs. You can just see the folded chair legs on the right. There was nobody inside but I’m guessing if there were they would have boys about 10-12 years old; because that’s about the age I was when I built things like this. We called them hideouts and many magical things happened in them. I just couldn’t leave without getting on my knees and peeking inside. It was like being in a time machine; I felt like a boy again.

I think one of the best finds of the day was a pile of black cherry logs (Prunus serotina) covered with cinnabar polypores (Pycnoporus Cinnabarinus.) These bright red orange bracket fungi grow on beech, birch, oak, and black cherry.

The tough cinnabar polypore is red orange on its underside as well as its upper surface. It is considered rare and is found in North America and Europe. This is only the second time I’ve seen it and both times were in winter, but it is said to grow year ‘round. It is also said to be somewhat hairy but I didn’t notice this. They turn white as they age and older examples look nothing like this one.

A cinnabar polypore just coming into being looks like just a red lump but they are a beautiful color; quite startling against the white snow and dark tree trunk.

Something else that had me feeling like a boy again was this Baltimore oriole nest hanging from a tree branch. I couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 last time I saw one. Many nests like this one  used to hang throughout the huge 200 year old elm trees that lined my street but Dutch elm disease took the trees and the orioles disappeared. The birds are said to be found in open woodlands, forest edges, orchards, and stands of trees along rivers, in parks, and in backyards. They forage for insects and fruits in brush and shrubbery. I would think all of the wild fruits we have around in this area would attract them but I never see them. Maybe they like the plum trees.

Explore often. Only then will you know how small you are and how big the world is. ~ Pradeepa Pandiyan

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Last Friday the temperature started to fall and it didn’t stop until it bottomed out at a meager 4 degrees Saturday morning. Along with 30 mph wind gusts, that meant a wind chill factor of about 19 below zero. In that kind of cold flesh can freeze in 30 minutes, so I decided to wait until it warmed up a bit. By noon the temperature had risen to 15 degrees above zero with a wind chill of zero, so off I went to one of my favorite stands of American hazelnut shrubs (Corylus americana.) They grow beside the rail trail in the above photo. Snow squalls Friday night coated the ground with an inch or two of fresh powder and added to the arctic feel.

I wanted to see the hazels up close to see if the male catkins shown here had opened. They had barely started to open and didn’t look like they would have been releasing much pollen.

But much to my surprise on such a cold day female flowers were just starting to show. Each tiny crimson thread is a flower stigma protruding from the female buds. The golden catkins that we saw in the previous photo are the male flowers, and the wind blows their pollen to the female blossoms. This photo also shows how hairy this shrub’s stems are. They feel slightly prickly when you run your finger over them, and that’s an easy way to identify them.

Female hazelnut flowers are simple sticky crimson stigmas and are among the smallest flowers that I know of. I have to look up and down each stem very carefully to find them. Even then I often see only color and no real shape so I let the camera sort that out. I had been out in the weather for about a half hour and that was about all I could stand. I hope the hazel flowers weren’t hurt by it; last year I saw many that had been frost bitten.

On a warmer day I had spent some time looking at the alder catkins. The large ones in the foreground are the beautiful male catkins and the tiny ones in the upper left are the female flowers, which at this time were only showing a hint of their crimson stigmas, which are similar to female hazel blossoms in color and shape. The male catkins had already started releasing pollen so the female stigmas should have come out fully at any time, but then we’ve had this terrible cold so now I’m not sure.

Brown and purple scales on the male alder catkin are on short stalks and surround a central axis. There are three flowers beneath each scale, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers, which are usually covered in yellow pollen. The opening of alder catkins is one of the earliest signs of spring and when thousands of them open it looks like the bushes have been hung with sparkling jewels.

I was glad to see that the chubby little buds on the red elderberry hadn’t opened yet. Last year they opened early and were frostbitten. The week of 60+ degree temperatures at the end of February fooled a lot of plants. I just heard on the news that apple tree buds started opening and now orchard owners are lighting fires in barrels along the rows of trees, trying to keep them from freezing.

The bud scales on some of the red maple buds (Acer rubrum) have pulled back to reveal cups full of male anthers tightly packed together. When the fuzzy bud scales are closed they protect the flowers through winter and keep them from getting damaged by the cold.

Some red maple blossoms couldn’t wait and started showing themselves, and I’d guess that they’re probably blackened and shriveled by now. I saw many get frost bitten last year but it didn’t seem to hurt the trees any. What it will do is cut down on the number of seeds, so squirrels and other animals that eat them won’t be pleased. When maple trees blossom their sap gets bitter so seeing these flowers tells me that we’re near the end of the syrup season.

Daffodil leaves poked up out of the snow. At least it was just their leaves. Last year we had a cold snap after they had blossomed and I saw many blooms lying on the ground.

Tulip leaves were also covered by snow. I don’t know if tulips are coming up earlier each year or if I’m just not paying attention, but it seems very early for tulips.

The season of Lent began on March first, but I fear the Lenten roses (Hellebores) will give up blossoming for lent this year. The season doesn’t end until April 13th though, so I could be wrong. The flowers are beautiful and I’d like to see them, but not if there’s a chance of them being damaged by cold.

Pussy willows seem to have shrugged off the cold; they hadn’t changed since the last time I saw them.

There was no yellow showing and plenty of fur, so I’m guessing the pussy willows will be fine.

Because skunk cabbage can melt its way through ice and snow by raising their temperature by as much as 50 degrees through a process called thermogenesis I didn’t think the cold would bother them at all, but I found quite a few that had been damaged. Though the above examples look healthy many flower spathes had darkened and had become soft and rubbery. I found several like that last year and wasn’t sure why they seemed sick. Now I know.

The greatest shock for me on this day was seeing the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) all in bloom. I’ve never seen them bloom in this kind of cold and only time will tell if they were hurt by it. I saw this scene on Saturday afternoon and that night it dropped to 2 degrees F., so I won’t be surprised if these flowers show more brown than yellow next time I see them.

There is an old Chinese Proverb that says “Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men” and the plants, shrubs, and trees are telling me that as far as they’re concerned it is indeed spring, but the weather certainly doesn’t seem to agree. I hope that the cold doesn’t harm too many early blossoms but there aren’t many plants that I know of that can survive such a long stretch of below freezing temperatures and now snow as well. We’ll just have to wait and see.

There I was, hoping for a warm spring rain.
But instead frost flowers bloomed on my window pane.
It wasn’t right; this cold, cold March.
Instead of frost on the windows there should be blooms on the larch.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. ~Willa Cather

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1-beaver-brook

It has cooled off now but “cool” compared to the near 70 degrees of last week means 40s and 50s this week, and that’s still warm for March first. That means a lot of snow has melted and that has turned our normally placid streams into raging rapids, as this shot of Beaver brook shows. No beaver in its right mind would be swimming in that.

2-beaver-tree

But they do eat trees all winter long if the ice of their pond doesn’t freeze completely. This beech tree was still being visited each night well into February. The hole in the ice must have closed up because they haven’t been here for a while.

3-beaver-tree

A beaver’s teeth grow continuously so they have to be chewing on something all the time. In this instance a beech tree was chosen, but they’ll chew on just about any species of tree. I’ve even seen them tackle  elms, which is one of the toughest woods I know of. Their incisor teeth wear away faster on the rear surface than the front, so a chisel edge is created by the uneven wear.

4-beaver-tree

The chisel edged teeth of a beaver can leave a sapling looking like it has been cut by steel loppers. Native Americans called beavers “Little People,” and are said to have greatly respected them. They used beavers for food, medicine and clothing and Native children of some tribes would offer any teeth that they had lost to the beavers for good luck.

5-rose-moss

I decided to pay a visit to the one small patch of rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum) that I know of. Rose moss is a very beautiful moss; each little rosette of leaves looks like a tiny flower, and that’s how it comes by its common name. Rose moss is a good indicator of limestone in the soil so it’s wise to look for other lime loving plants in the area when it is found. This is a relatively rare moss in my experience.

6-smoky-eye-boulder-lichen

Not rare at all but still very beautiful are the smoky eye boulder lichens (Porpidia albocaerulescens) that I find growing on stone. The golden body of the lichen studded with blue apothecia could almost pass for a piece of jewelry. The blue color is caused by the way light reflects off a waxy coating on the fruiting bodies (Apothecia,) which is very similar to the “bloom” found on plums, blueberries, and grapes. It’s as if pieces of the sky had been sprinkled on the stones when the light is right, but the apothecia can also appear black or gray depending on which direction the light happens to be coming from.

7-spider

One morning as I was getting ready for work I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. It was a tiny spider with big eyes. It sat very still, watching me as I fumbled with my camera, trying to turn on the on board LED light. I finally got it and that’s what caused the shadows in this photo.

8-spider

It was a furry little thing. And it was little; it could have easily hidden behind a pea. It wasn’t frightened by the camera and remained still, seemingly very interested in what I was doing. It had plenty of eyes to watch me with. (They have 8 of them.)

9-platycryptus-undatus-female-tan-jumping-spider

I got a blurry photo of its back as it scurried away, and the markings lead me to believe that this was a female tan jumping spider called Platycryptus undatus. I’ve read that they live on vertical surfaces like tree trunks, fence posts, and outer walls so what she was doing on my horizontal table is a mystery. I’ve also read that they are very curious about people and can be quite friendly when they’re handled gently. I didn’t see this one jump but they do, up to 5 times their own body length. Which isn’t far when you consider that this one was half the size of a pea. I haven’t seen her since that morning.

10-bittersweet-berry-2

There are still quite a few oriental bittersweet berries that the birds haven’t eaten and that’s a good thing, because birds help this very invasive alien plant get around. This example didn’t look very tasty.

11-bittersweet-on-tree

Oriental bittersweet isn’t well liked by those who know it, and the above photo shows one reason why. The vines are as strong as wire and when one wraps itself around a tree it will not break or give, so as the tree grows the vine cuts into it and strangles it. The tendrils on the left are from another vine; a grape.

12-oak-leaf-surface

A stick figure walked across an oak leaf.

13-winter-firefly

I’ve never seen a firefly light up in winter but I have seen the winter dark firefly (Ellychnia corrusca.) It is commonly seen on snow and tree trunks  according to Bugguide.net, and can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like sap and will drink from wounds in trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, but this one was looking for a crevice in the bark of an oak to hide in. It looked at several before it found one that was to its liking.

14-gypsy-moth-egg-case

I saw this gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) egg case on a tree. Gypsy moths were first introduced from Europe to Massachusetts in 1869, to breed with the silkworm moth to produce a tougher silkworm. Naturally, it escaped and has become one of the chief defoliators of deciduous trees and conifers in the eastern United States. Each egg mass can contain 100-1000 eggs and should be destroyed when found. It looked like a bird had been at this egg case.

15-beard-lichens

I see beard lichens (Usnea) almost always growing on tree branches but occasionally they grow on tree trunks; especially white pines (Pinus strobus.) Even rarer are those that grow on stone. I see maybe 1 out of 100 growing on stone. If you see beard lichens in your area rejoice, because they are very fussy about pollutants and will only grow where the air is clean and of high quality. The air here must be very good because I see these bushy little lichens everywhere, even growing on wooden fences. Lichens in the Usnea genus contain usnic acid and have antiseptic / antibiotic properties. They have been used since ancient times throughout the world to heal wounds.

16-unknown-lichen

I’ve spent years trying to identify some lichens and I might have to wait that long before I know this one’s name. I’ve searched lichen books and online and can’t find any lichens that look like it. Blue and yellow doesn’t seem to be a very common color combination among lichens. This example grew on maple tree bark.

17-mealy-rim-lichen

The book Lichens of North America says the fruiting bodies (apothecia) of the mealy rim-lichen (Lecanora strobilina) are flat to convex and a waxy yellowish color. These look more orange but I’m sure they must vary some. They grow on bark and wood of many kinds in full sunlight and the apothecia are very small at about .03 inches.  I think this is one of those lichens that prefers winter for producing spores. I’m suddenly seeing it everywhere.

18-disc-lichen

I know disc lichens because of rock disc lichens (Buellia geophila) but the problem was the example in the above phot was growing on tree bark. For that reason I think it must be a cousin of the rock disc called simply disc lichen (Buellia erubescens.) The body of the disc lichen is gray, grayish white to ivory, dull, and smooth. Its fruiting bodies are convex and black, and are called discs. It grows on the bark of oaks, pines, and junipers, or other trees with bark of low pH. I found this example growing on an oak.

19-feather

This is just a small feather in the mud but it was pristine and very downy, like it came from a bird’s breast.  It’s a beautiful thing.

Leisure is a form of silence, not noiselessness. It is the silence of contemplation such as occurs when we let our minds rest on a rosebud, a child at play, a Divine mystery, or a waterfall. ~Fulton J. Sheen

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1-half-moon-pond

February has shown us what a strange month it can be once again. After snow and cold in the first half of the month the temperatures suddenly shot up into the high sixties for the second half. This photo shows what happens when warm air meets the cold ice of a pond: fog; sometimes very heavy fog, as this was. On Saturday morning February 26th at 7:00 am it was close to sixty degrees and then warm enough to wear just a tee shirt by noon, which is just about unheard of in February in New Hampshire. By 8:00 pm they were saying we might see thunderstorms.

2-thin-ice-sign

The ice at a local skating pond became too thin to skate on but this has really been a problem throughout the state all winter, with many people falling through the ice this year. It never really got cold enough to form the kind of ice that is thick enough for vehicles to drive on and pickup trucks and many snowmobiles have gone through the ice, in some instances with fatal results.

3-icy-trail

Unfortunately not all of the ice was thin enough to melt. The warmth melted most of the snow quickly enough to cause a flood watch to go into effect but as this photo shows, when hard packed snow melts it can turn to ice. This trail was icy in spots and completely bare in others.

4-skunk-cabbage

What a welcome break the record breaking warmth was from the cold winds and deep snow. The skunk cabbages responded by sending up their flower spathes. Skunk cabbages can fool you into thinking they’re growing when you see the green sheath on the left, but it covers the leaf buds and appear in the fall. Only the mottled maroon and yellow flower spathe on the right shows new spring growth.

5-yellow-skunk-cabbage

Some flower spathes can show more yellow than maroon as this one does. Bears that come out of hibernation too soon will sometimes eat skunk cabbage. There is little else for them at this time of year.

6-mud

Why am I showing you mud? Because here in New Hampshire we have an unofficial 5th season called mud season. When the frost is 3 or 4 deep in the ground and the top two feet of a road thaws the melt water is sitting on frozen ground and has nowhere to go, and this results in a car swallowing quagmire that acts almost like quicksand. Those who live on unpaved roads have quite a time of it every year. The mud can sometimes be as much as 12-16 inches deep but I haven’t seen it that bad here yet this year. Quite often the mud gets bad enough to close unpaved roads and the logging and over the road shipping industries virtually grind to a halt until things dry out. Mud season has come early this year, so if you need a load of sand, gravel, loam, building materials or other such things you should be prepared to wait until April or May.

7-dandelion

I’ve seen dandelions blooming in January but that was during an extremely warm winter when the temperature barely fell below freezing. I’ve never seen one bloom this early after a winter like the one we’ve had. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.

8-cress-blossom

Tiny white flowers bloomed in a lawn. They were so small that three or four of them could have been hidden behind a pea, so I had to kneel in the muddy grass to get a photo of them. I think it belongs to the cress family, which is large with many plants that look alike. It might be spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa,) but I’m really not sure.

9-crocus

These crocus blossoms were a real surprise because I’ve been checking crocus beds and have only seen the leaf tips poking out in all but this bed. I’ve also seen tulips leaves just out of the ground. They might be rushing things a bit.

10-daffodils

Last year these daffodils came up too early and got badly frost bitten. I fear that they’re repeating the same mistake this year, because we’ve gone from the 60s back down to the 30s now.

11-red-maple-buds

Huge swaths of forest bleed with a red haze from red maple buds (Acer rubrum) each spring and it’s starting to happen now.  I’ve tried to get photos of it from above and below, but so far I haven’t had any luck.

12-red-maple-buds

The bud scales on red maple buds can be deep purple in winter, but when it warms up in spring the scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds they’ve been protecting, and that’s what causes the red haze seen on our forested hillsides. Seeing what must be millions of them together is a spring sight not soon forgotten.

13-pussy-willow-buds

I told myself I was on a fool’s errand the day I went to see if the pussy willow catkins were showing, but there they were. The single bud scales of what I think is the American pussy willow (Salix discolor) open in late winter to reveal the fuzzy gray male catkins. As these flowers age yellow stamens will appear and will begin releasing pollen. The bees will be buzzing at about that time and they will further cross pollinate the many willow varieties. Henry David Thoreau once said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused,” and I have to agree.

14-pussy-willow

The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the medicinal properties of willow in the fifth century BC, and Native Americans across North America used the plants medicinally for pain relief for many thousands of years. Finally in 1829 scientists discovered that a compound in the bark of willows called salicin was what relieved pain. Chemically, salicin resembles aspirin.

15-witch-hazwl-blossoms

I was surprised to see the spring (Vernal) witch hazel blooming so early. Though we do have a native vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), it doesn’t grow naturally this far north, and since this one is in a park I’m betting it’s one of the cultivated witch hazels, so maybe it has been bred for early blooms. The other American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that is native to New England blooms in the fall and grows in the same park.

The Native American Mohegan tribes are believed to have been the first to show English settlers how to use Y-shaped witch hazel sticks for dowsing, an ancient method of finding underground water. Settlers all across the country used this method to find water and it was successful enough to be exported back to Europe. Its twigs are still used by dowsers in the same way today.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

The Native American Osage tribe used witch hazel bark to treat skin ulcers and sores and my father always kept a bottle of witch hazel ointment for his hands. Many people have most likely used witch hazel without even realizing it; it’s a chief ingredient of Preparation H. Studies have found active compounds in witch hazel such as flavonoids, tannins (hamamelitannin and proanthocyanidins), and volatile oils that give it astringent action to stop bleeding.

17-witch-hazwl-blossoms-close

Witch hazel blossoms are pollinated by owlet moths, which are active in winter and are called winter moths. These moths raise their body temperature by shivering. Their temperature can rise as much as 50 degrees and this allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold.  I think these blossoms were ready for a visit from them.

18-orange-witch-hazel

I have to say that I’m not a fan of orange witch hazel blossoms because they aren’t as bright and cheery as the yellow ones, but when it comes to fragrance the orange flowers beat the yellow hands down. I know a spot on the local college grounds where several large orange flowered shrubs grow and on this day all I had to do was follow my nose, because their clean spicy fragrance could be detected from two blocks away. Someone said the fragrance was like that of clean laundry just off the line, but I think it’s even better than that, especially after a long winter. One shrub still had a nursery tag still on it that read “Hamamelis vernalis,” so they are our native vernal witch hazels. Odd that they don’t grow naturally this far north. They seem to do well here; these examples must be 10 feet tall. If I were planting witch hazels I’d mix the yellow and orange flowered varieties; one for cheer and one for fragrance.

19-puddle-ice

The paper thin white puddle ice that makes that strange tinkling sound when it’s broken always takes me back to my boyhood. Seeing this ice on puddles after a long winter meant that spring was here and though nights still got cold and icy, the days were warm and muddy. My spirits used to soar at the thought of spring when I was a boy and that’s something I’ve carried with me all of my life. The difference is now I look at the ice instead of breaking it to hear it tinkle, because I can see so much in it. The waves that formed it, bubbles and birds flying, mountains, distant suns, space and time; all are there for the seeing, but few take the time to look.

20-sap-buckets

As I write this last entry the thermometer reads 34 degrees, so our week long flirtation with high spring has ended. The dandelion blossom has probably been frost bitten and the witch hazels have most likely stored away their petals for another warm day, but 34 degrees is above freezing and that’s what maple syrup producers want. Days above freezing and nights below freezing get the tree sap flowing  and the sap buckets have been hung, so there’s no turning back now. True spring must surely be right around the corner.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

Thanks for coming by. Happy March first!

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1-out-the-back-door

After a cold December and the eighth warmest January on record, February is doing it again; we’ve had so many storms in the first two weeks I’ve lost track. This view is of my back yard after one of them; a light one, by the looks.

2-ashuelot-river

We’ve also had cold, but not much of the bitter below zero kind. Still, as this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey shows, temperatures in the teens for a few days are enough to get rivers freezing.

3-snow-wave

We’ve had plenty of wind too, and below zero wind chills one day. Because it has been so cold when the snow falls it falls as light powder which blows and drifts easily. In one spot it had been blown into a snow wave; curled just like an ocean wave.

4-snow-wave

I tried to be clever and get a photo through the curl of the snow wave but all I had was my cell phone so it didn’t work out very well. I was trying not to get snow all over the phone while kneeling and bending in the snow.

5-ashuelot-river

Unfortunately the river is on the low side and calm, so I couldn’t get any photos of waves at my favorite spot for wave watching. With the drought last summer cancelling most of the wave action I’m starting to feel wave deprived. I love to see if I can tune in to the rhythm of the river and click the shutter at just the right moment.

6-ashurlot-wave

This earlier photo of river waves shows what I was hoping to see, but we need more rain or snow melt to make this happen again. And then we’ll need some sunshine too.

7-oak-leaves

I love the beautiful rich, warm orange brown of oak leaves in winter. They and beech always add a little color to the winter woods. And quite often add sound as well, when the wind blows.

8-oak-branch

I’m not the only one who appreciates oaks in winter; a deer came along and ate buds from this branch. They’re having a rough time of it this winter I think, with lots of snow on top of ice it’s very hard to get around. I tried to wade through knee deep snow the other day without snowshoes on and was quickly turned back. I’m not young enough for that anymore. It’s exhausting.

9-squirrel-nest

I saw what looked like a bundle high up in the top of a tree one day.

10-squirrel-nest

A closer look showed it to be a bundle of leaves; a gray squirrel nest. Leaf nests start with a floor woven from twigs with damp leaves and moss packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the base and leaves, moss, and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6 to 8 inches across has been created. Gray Squirrels can have nests that are up to 2 feet wide. This one was quite big; at least the size of a soccer ball. Squirrels will also use hollow trees as nests when they can find them. Last spring I saw a hollow tree with three baby gray squirrel heads poking out of a crack, but of course I didn’t have a camera ready.

11-squirrel-tracks

Gray squirrels have 4 toes on their front feet and 5 on their rear feet, and when they’re bounding along at speed the tracks have the smaller front feet behind the rear feet, as this photo shows. Gray squirrels don’t hibernate. I see them every day when it is warm enough, out foraging for nuts and seeds. Like deer they can have a hard time of it in the winter. Only 25% of gray squirrels survive their first year but those that do might live 4 or 5 years, and can have 2 litters of young per year. They were a favorite food of Native Americans. Some tribes considered the squirrel to be a messenger who often alerted them to danger.

12-birch-eye

This birch tree seemed to be keeping an eye on things.

13-woodpile

And so did this woodpile.

14-lichens

Even the lichens seemed to be watching with their many different colored eye like fruiting bodies (apothecia.) They were really vying for space on this tree that grows beside a pond, so they must all be moisture lovers. There are at least 6 different lichens in this photo. I think the large one in the center is a rosy saucer lichen (Ochrolechia trochophora.) The color of its apothecia can range from pink to orange but these looked more red than pink or orange.

15-grape

Most of the grapes have been eaten by the birds except for a few unappetizing examples. We have quite a lot of wild fruit growing in this area and I keep hoping that it will attract Baltimore orioles, but I never see them. There used to be lots of them when I was a boy and I used to like seeing their hanging basket nests in the trees. I haven’t seen one in probably 50 years, since they cut down the last American elm on the street I grew up on.

16-willow-gall

Galls are much easier to see in winter than they are in summer and some can be really interesting so I usually watch for them. This is a stem gall which was formed when willow gall midges (Rhabdophaga) burrowed into the willow’s stem last year. These galls are usually red and are very hard and tough. I’m not sure if the holes in this example were made when midges burrowed out, or if birds burrowed in. Many bids including wood peckers rob different galls of their larva.

17-witch-hazel-bracts

The small cups found on native witch hazel shrubs (Hamamelis virginiana) at this time of year are formed by four bracts that curve back. The strap like flower petals unfurl from these cups on warm fall days. Soon the spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) will be unfurling their petals on warm days.

18-drifted-snow

I wanted to get a photo of the way the windblown snow sparkled in the sunlight but instead it came out looking like white stone.

19-snowy-road-2-2

This is what my approach to work looked like early one recent morning after another snowstorm. It’s very beautiful but I’m ready for the kind of beauty that is found in spring. The outlook is good; the weather people say we’ll see above freezing temperatures from now well into March, so that means that our maple syrup season will start any day now.

Snow was falling
so much like stars
filling the dark trees
that one could easily imagine
its reason for being was nothing more
than prettiness.
~Mary Oliver

Thanks for stopping in.

 

 

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1-crab-apple

Since I often tell readers of this blog that they don’t even have to leave their yards to enjoy nature I like to practice what I preach every now and then and restrict my wandering to my own yard.  This time I found that the birds had eaten every crabapple from my tree except one. Things like this always make me wonder what it is about that one crabapple that turned them away. It also makes me wonder how they knew that it was different from all the others.

2-rudbeckia-seedhead

The seed eaters haven’t touched the black-eyed Susan seeds (Rudbeckia hirta). That’s odd because the birds planted them; one year a few plants appeared and I just left them where they grew.

3-coneflower-seedhead

The birds seem to have gone for the coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) first, as just about every seed head has been at least partially stripped. I planted one plant years ago but now there are several scattered here and there in the yard and like the black eyed Susans I let them grow where the birds have planted them.  If that makes my gardening abilities seem lax, so be it. The last thing I wanted to do after gardening professionally for 10-12 hours each day was to come home and spend more time gardening, so the plants in this yard had to be tough enough to take care of themselves. I simply didn’t have the time or the inclination to fuss over them, and still don’t.

4-hemlock-cone

The plants in this yard also have to be able to withstand a certain amount of shade, because they’re surrounded by forest.  Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are numerous and so are white pines (Pinus strobus) and both soar into the sky on three sides of the property. Black capped chickadees flock here to eat the seeds from the hemlock cones like the one pictured above. The 1/2 inch long eastern hemlock 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 in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments.

5-hemlock-needles

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify.

6-the-forest

This view of the forest just outside of my yard shows what messy trees hemlocks are, but it is a forest so I don’t worry about it. It’s too bad that so many are afraid to go into the forest; I grew up in the woods and they have kept me completely fascinated for over a half century. There are dangers there yes, but so can cities be dangerous. Personally I’d sooner take my chances in a forest than a city.

7-hazel-catkins

I found that an American hazelnut had decided to grow on the property line between my neighbor’s yard and mine and I was happy to see it. Now I can practice getting photos of the tiny scarlet, thread like female blossoms that appear in spring. For now though the male catkins will have to do. As I was admiring them I saw a black something clinging to one of them.

8-hazel-catkins-close

I thought the black thing on the hazel catkin was an insect of some kind but it appears to be just part of an insect. I can’t imagine where the other half went. Maybe a bird ate it? I looked up insects that are partial to hazelnuts but none of them had parts that looked like this.

9-cedar

The color blue appears in some surprising places in nature, and one of the most surprising is on the egg shaped female flower tips of the northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis.) There were three examples of this native tree in the yard when I moved here and I’ve watched them grow big enough to provide welcome shade from the hot summer sun over the years. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses, and maybe they were. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

10-cedar-seed-cone

There are many seed pods on the cedars and robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in and robins nest in them each spring. The open seed pods always look like beautiful carved wooden flowers to me.

11-rhodie

When the rhododendron buds look like they’re wearing choir robes you know that they’re singing Baby It’s Cold Outside, and it was cold on this day but at least the sun was shining. That hasn’t happened that much on weekends lately. These rhododendrons were grown from seed and started their life in this yard as a small sprig of a plant. Now some are taller than I am. It is thought that their leaves curl and droop in this way to protect their tender undersides from the cold.

12-quartz-crystals

I built a stone wall in my yard years ago and, since I collected rocks and minerals for a time, many of the stones in the wall have surprises in them. This one is studded with quartz crystals. Others have beryl crystals, mica, tourmaline and other minerals in them.

13-crispy-tuft-moss

It took several years before I could confidently identify the tiny tufts of moss I sometimes saw growing on tree trunks but I eventually found out that its name was crispy tuft moss (Ulota crispa.) Now I see it everywhere, including on the maple trees in my own yard. This one was less than an inch across.

14-fringed-candleflame-lichen

I was happy to find a tiny bit of bright yellow fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) on one of my maple trees. Lichens simply use tree bark as a roosting place and don’t harm the tree in any way. This lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good. I hope it grows and spreads to other trees. As of now it’s the most colorful lichen in the yard.

15-amber-jelly-fungus

I found an oak twig in the yard that had fallen from a neighbor’s oak tree. I saw that it had tiny, hard flakes of amber jelly fungus (Exidia recisa) on it. Luckily though this is a wood rotting fungus it only grows on dead wood so it won’t hurt the tree.  Since the twig was barely bigger than a pencil I decided to try an expiriment and brought it inside.

16-amber-jelly-fungus-3

This is what the hard little flakes in the previous photo turned into after I soaked the twig in a pan of water for just 15 minutes. What were small hard lumps had swollen to I’d guess about 40-50 percent larger than their original dry size,  and instead of being hard now felt much like your earlobe. In fact they looked and behaved much like the cranberry jelly served at Thanksgiving. These fungi have a shiny surface and a matte surface, and the shiny side is where their microscopic spores are produced.

17-black-knot-on-cherry

I found another twig, this time from a black cherry (Prunus serotina.) It showed that the tree had black knot disease, which is caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa, which can also attack plums, peaches, and apricots. Spores from the fungus can be spread by rain or wind and typically infect trees from April through June on new growth. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots like those in the above photo. This disease can eventually kill the tree so infected limbs should be pruned off 2-4 inches below the knots and buried or burned before bud break the following spring. Since this tree is a fully grown black cherry and lives in the forest there is little that can be done for it.

18-sedum-seedhead

I don’t know if any birds eat the seeds of the Russian stonecrop (Sedum kamtschaticum) in my yard but I always let them go to seed because the shape of the open seedpods mimics exactly the shape of their bright yellow flowers. It spreads but couldn’t be called invasive. It is a tough little groundcover that can stand drought or flood. I haven’t done a thing to it since I planted it about 30 years ago.

19-white-pine

The tallest and straightest tree in my yard is a white pine (Pinus strobus.) I put my camera on its trunk and clicked the shutter, and this is the result. It doesn’t show much except that it was a sunny day and they have been rare here lately. White pine needles contain five times the amount of the vitamin C of lemons and were used by Native Americans to make tea. This knowledge saved many early settlers who were dying of scurvy, but instead of using the tree for food and medicine as the Natives did the colonists cut them down and used the wood for paneling, floors and furniture. When square riggers roamed the seas the tallest white pines in the Thirteen Colonies were known as mast pines. They were marked with a broad arrow and were reserved for the Royal Navy, and if you had any sense you didn’t get caught cutting one down. This practice of The King taking the best trees led to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772, which was an open act of rebellion. Colonists cut down and hauled off many marked mast pines in what was just a taste of what would come later on in the American Revolution. I think this tree, so tall and straight, would surely have been selected as a mast pine.

Even in the familiar there can be surprise and wonder. ~Tierney Gearon

Thanks for coming by.

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