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Archive for the ‘Things I’ve Seen’ Category

Last Saturday the plan was for a quick visit the Ashuelot River to see if the burning bushes had all turned pink. I thought it would take no more than a half hour but nature had other plans, and I was there all morning. We’ve had close to ten inches of rain recently so as this photo shows, the river was quite high.

High water means good waves and since I Iove trying to get a good curling wave photo they drew me like a magnet.

Taking wave photos takes a while because the first step for me is watching and letting myself find the rhythm. Rivers have a rhythm which, without trying too hard, you can tune into. Once you’ve found the rhythm you can often just click the shutter button again and again and catch a wave almost every time. But they won’t all be perfect or blog worthy. This one was my favorite for this day.

This is what they look like when they’re building themselves up, getting ready to curl and break. My trigger finger was a little early in this case but you can’t win them all, even when you’re in tune with the river.

I finally remembered why I came and pulled myself away from the waves to see the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus.) They were very pink but not the soft, almost white pastel pink that I expected. They still had some orange in them, I think.

Though some leaves had gone white and had fallen from the bushes most looked like these. You have to watch them very closely at this time of year because hundreds of bushes can lose their leaves overnight. With it dark now when I get home from work it could be that I won’t have another chance.

They are very beautiful and it’s too bad that they are so invasive. As these photos show you can see hundreds of burning bushes and not much else. That’s because they grow thickly enough to shade out other plants and form a monoculture. Rabbits hide in them and birds eat the berries but few native plants can grow in a thicket like this. Their sale is banned in New Hampshire for that very reason.

The burning bushes grow all along this backwater that parallels the river. I don’t know how true it is but I’ve heard that this is a manmade channel that was dug so boats could reach a mill that once stood at the head of it, which is where I was standing when I took this photo. There is a lot of old iron and concrete rubble here, so it could be what’s left of the old mill. I had quite a time getting through the rubble and the brush to get to this spot but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, so I was determined.

On the way out a beautiful young beech lit by a sunbeam caught my eye.

It was a cool morning and several large mullein plants (Verbascum thapsus) looked to be an even lighter gray than usual with a light coating of frost.

Despite the cold, the mullein bloomed.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) grow along a path that follows the river and though I followed it I didn’t see a single witch hazel blossom, but I did see these beautiful witch hazel leaves. Witch hazels don’t seem to be having a good year in this area. I’ve only seen three or four blossoms.

This was surprising. The bit of land I had been walking on has always been a long, narrow peninsula; a sharp finger of land pointing into the river and surrounded on three sides by water, but now the river has made the peninsula’s tip an island. When I was a boy I knew of a secret island in the Ashuelot which I could get to by crossing a fallen oak tree. The last time I visited that spot I found that the river had washed the island away without a trace, and I’m sure that the same thing will happen to this one eventually. I was a little disappointed; there was a large colony of violets that grew right at the base of that big tree on the right, and I used to visit them in the spring when they bloomed.

I saw the startling but beautiful blue of a black raspberry cane (Rubus occidentalis) at the edge of the woods. It’s a color you don’t expect to see unless there are blue jays nearby. On this day there did just happen to be a blue jay there and he called loudly the entire time I was looking at the black raspberry. I wondered if he was jealous.

The river grapes (Vitis riparia) looked like they were becoming raisins, but this is normal. The birds don’t seem to eat them until they’ve been freeze dried for a while. River grapes are also called frost grapes because of the extreme cold they can withstand. Many cultivated grape varieties have been grafted onto the rootstock of this native grape and it’s doubtful that cold will ever kill them. River grapes have been known to survive -57 degrees F. On a warm fall day they can make the forest smell like grape jelly, and often my nose finds them before my eyes do. Native Americans used grape plants for food, juice, jellies, dyes and basketry. Even the young leaves were boiled and eaten, so the grape vine was very important to them.

I missed a blooming dandelion but I was able to enjoy its sparkling seeds.

Red clover (Trifolium pretense) bloomed everywhere near the river, even though slightly frost covered. The rabbits that live here come out in the evening to feed on these clover plants and their constant pruning makes for healthy, bushy clover plants.

The goldenrods (Solidago) were still blooming here and there but they’re looking a little tattered and tired.

A few Queen Anne’s lace plants (Daucus carota) were also still blossoming and looked good and healthy but the flower heads were small. I didn’t see any bigger than a golf ball, but they still provide for the few insects that are still flying.

Most Queen Anne’s lace flower heads looked like this. Nearly stripped of seeds already, even though I’ve read that the seeds are saturated with a volatile oil which smells faintly of turpentine and which discourages birds and mice from eating the seeds. The seeds are carried by the wind and snow.

I thought I saw a feather on a twig but it turned out to be a milkweed seed blowing in the wind. The wind was quite strong but the seed refused to release its hold.

So much for a quick trip to the river. Instead I got another lesson in letting life happen instead of making it happen. It’s always good to let nature lead because when you do you are often drawn from one interesting something to another, and time spent in this way is never wasted.

There is always another layer of awareness, understanding, and delight to be discovered through synchronistic and serendipitous events. ~Hannelie Venucia

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We burn a lot of wood here in New Hampshire because with 4.8 million acres of forest it is plentiful and usually costs less than oil heat. One of the things I like about burning wood is the handling of it. Cutting, splitting and stacking means you have to handle each piece a few times, and when you do you notice things that you might have never seen while the tree was standing. The following photos are of the various things I found in this woodpile.

Black jelly drop fungi (Bulgaria inquinans) grew on an oak log. They are also called poor man’s licorice but they aren’t edible. They look and feel like black gumdrops, and for some unknown reason are almost always found on oak trees that have been felled and cut up for firewood.

Though they look like jelly fungi black jelly drops are sac fungi. Their fertile, spore bearing surface is shiny and the outside of the cups look like brown velvet. They are sometimes used for dying fabric in blacks, browns, purples and grays.

This is an example of a true jelly fungus, which is little more than a bag of water that inflates to about 60 times its dry size when it rains. If it was dry this amber jelly fungus (Exidia recisa) would be just a dark flake on the tree’s bark.  After absorbing plenty of rainwater this example was about as big as an average adult fingernail. Jelly fungi feel cool to the touch and kind of rubbery, like your ear lobe. Their spores are produced on their shiny surfaces. If you look closely at them you can see that one side is shiny and the other has more of a matte finish. I find these on oak more than other species, but sometimes on poplar and alder as well.

This brown jelly cup fungus (Peziza repanda) looked a little tattered and dirty but it’s a good example of the variety of fungi you can find on cut logs. Though it is called a jelly cup it is a sac fungus and different Peziza species can grow on wood, soil, or dung. This example is a cool weather mushroom that grows on hardwood logs or wood chips, and it is usually seen in spring and fall.  Mushroom expert Michael Kuo says brown cup fungi can be very difficult to identify.

Hairy Stereum (Stereum hirsutsm) is also called the hairy curtain crust fungus. The common name comes from the way these fungi are covered with fine velvety hairs on their upper surface when they’re young. They like to grow on fallen hardwoods and can be found just about any time of year. The color can vary but the wavy edge helps identify them. These examples were very young.

Witch’s butter on a log in a woodpile might alert you to the fact that you’ve got some soft wood mixed in with your hardwood, because this fungus usually grows on hemlock logs. You can burn soft woods like hemlock but they burn faster and don’t heat quite like hardwoods. They can also cause a lot of creosote buildup in a chimney.

Many of the logs shown in the first shot in this post were dragged. It’s a common practice to have to drag cut trees out of a forest to a landing so they can be cut into manageable pieces and loaded onto logging trucks, and when this one was dragged a woodpecker hole became filled with soil. This is a good time to mention that nearly every log shown in this post came from a tree that had something wrong with it. Woodpeckers dig holes in tree trunks to get at insects living in the tree; often carpenter ants. The ants eat the cellulose and weaken the tree, and it isn’t that unusual to find that the tree you’ve cut is completely hollow.

This example was hollowed out either by insects or heart rot cause by a fungus. Mushrooms and other fungi growing on trees is never a good sign. All of this weakens the tree and when a good wind comes along, down they go. Friends of mine just lost their barn to a hundred + year old pine tree that fell and cut the barn right in half. The tree people estimated its weight at 20 tons. That’s 40,000 pounds of wood, and we’re all very thankful that we weren’t anywhere near it when it fell. It was hollow, just like the one in the photo. It was also full of big, black carpenter ants.

This tree had a double whammy. The channels were caused by insects, probably carpenter ants, and then fungal spores got in and revealed themselves when they fruited into these little white mushrooms. It’s possible that the insects in the tree were farming this mushroom and brought parts of it into their channels to feed on. In any event this tree’s life was shortened by quite a few years. It could have stood hollow and lived on for a long time but heaven help anyone who was near it when it finally came down.

A woodpecker made two holes in this oak tree, one above the other, and as the tree tried to heal itself the holes became spoon shaped. It’s another example of what was a standing hollow tree.

Everyone knows that moss grows on trees but what everyone might not know is that many trees like this oak have channels in their bark which direct rainwater down to the tree’s roots. They can be clearly seen in this example, and so can the moss growing right beside and between them. Mosses like a lot of water and when they grow on a tree trunk they get it by growing next to these vertical streams. Do they grow on the north side of trees? Yes, and on the east, west, and south sides too; whichever is more moist.

Lichens are a common sight in woodpiles and beard lichens are very common. Often you can see them growing all up and down the trunks of trees and much like mosses, lichens grow near the channels in the bark so they can get ample moisture. I think this example is a fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula,) so called because of its resemblance to the backbone of a fish. Many people seem to think that lichens will kill a tree but they are simply opportunists looking for all the rain and sunlight they can get and they just perch on trees like birds do. They take nothing from the tree, so if I pulled this one off this log and put it on a living tree it would just grow on as if nothing ever happened as long as it received the right amount of moisture and light. Lichens are virtually indestructible and that’s why some scientists say they are immortal, or as close to immortal as any living thing can be.

I think this is the start of a beautiful crust fungus called the wrinkled crust (Phlebia radiata.) These mushrooms lie flat on the wood they grow on and have no stem, gills or pores. They radiate out from a central point and can be very beautiful. The darker area on this example is where it was wet and the lighter ones where it was dry. They don’t mind cool weather; I usually find them at this time of year and I’m hoping I’ll find a few more.

I’m not a logger or an arborist so I don’t know why this log has such a dark ring just under its bark. I zoomed in on the photo and counted the rings and found that the dark ring started about 12-14 years ago. Something must have happened back then to cause the change, but I can’t guess what it was.

I do know what caused the purple staining in this log; iron, meaning it has foreign objects like screws or nails in it. Sawmills look for this kind of thing when logging trucks bring in a load of logs and they’ll reject the whole load if they see it.

Here’s an example of a foreign object embedded in a tree. In a few more years the tree would have grown over it and it never would have been seen. The only thing that would have given it away was the purple staining when the tree was cat. Nothing will destroy a saw blade or chain quicker than something like this.

If all the stars and planets are aligned perfectly and you pay close attention to your wood pile you could find something as rare and beautiful as this cobalt crust fungus (Terana caerulea) in it. This photo was taken about three years ago and I’ve been looking for this beautiful fungus ever since, but have never seen another one. This is just the time of year for it to appear, so I’ll be watching for it.

The old saying, as I’ve always heard it, says that firewood warms you three times; once when you cut it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it, and I’d have to say that was just about right. If you dress in layers against the cold you’ll find yourself peeling them off in a hurry once you get to the wood pile. I’ve always looked at cutting and splitting wood as an enjoyable job though, and I hope this post might make the job of getting your woodshed filled just a little more enjoyable too.

The knots in the wood can’t be untied. ~Marty Rubin

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I’m not seeing many now, possibly because the nights are getting cooler, but I was seeing at least one monarch butterfly each day for quite a while. That might not seem like many but I haven’t seen any over the last couple of years so seeing them every day was a very noticeable and welcome change.

For the newcomers to this blog; these “things I’ve seen posts” contain photos of things I’ve seen which, for one reason or another, didn’t fit into other posts. They are usually recent photos but sometimes they might have been taken a few weeks ago, like the butterflies in this post. In any event they, like any other post seen here, are simply a record of what nature has been up to in this part of the world.

After a rest the knapweeds started blooming again and clouded sulfur butterflies (I think) were all over them. I’ve seen a lot of them this year. They always seem to come later in summer and into fall and I still see them on warm days.

This clouded sulfur had a white friend that I haven’t been able to identify. I think this is only the second time I’ve had 2 butterflies pose for the same photo.

I saw lots of painted ladies on zinnias this year; enough so I think I might plant some next year. I like the beautiful stained glass look of the undersides of its wings.

The upper surface of a painted lady’s wings look very different. This one was kind enough to land just in front of me in the gravel of a trail that I was following.

A great blue heron stood motionless on a rock in a pond, presumably stunned by the beauty that surrounded it. It was one of those that likes to pretend it’s a statue, so I didn’t wait around for what would probably be the very slow unfolding of the next part of the story.

Three painted turtles all wanted the same spot at the top of a log in the river. They seem to like this log, because every time I walk by it there are turtles on it.

Three ducks dozed and didn’t seem to care who was where on their log in the river.

Ducks and turtles weren’t the only things on logs. Scaly pholiota mushrooms (Pholiota squarrosa) covered a large part of this one. This mushroom is common and looks like the edible honey mushroom at times, but it is not edible and is considered poisonous. They are said to smell like lemon, garlic, radish, onion or skunk, but I keep forgetting to smell them. They are said to taste like radishes by those unfortunate few who have tasted them.

There are so many coral mushrooms that look alike they can be hard to identify, but I think this one might have been yellow tipped coral (Ramaria formosa.) Though you can’t see them in this photo its stems are quite thick and stout and always remind me of broccoli. Some of these corals get quite big and they often form colonies. This one was about as big as a cantaloupe and grew in a colony of about 8-10 examples, growing in a large circle.

Comb tooth fungus (Hericium ramosum) grows on well-rotted logs of deciduous trees like maple, beech, birch and oak. It is on the large side; this example was about as big as a baseball, and its pretty toothed branches spill downward like a fungal waterfall. It is said to be the most common and widespread species of Hericium in North America, but I think this example is probably only the third one I’ve seen in over 50 years of looking at mushrooms.

Something I see quite a lot of in late summer is the bolete called Russell’s bolete (Boletellus russellii.) Though the top of the cap isn’t seen in this shot it was scaly and cracked, and that helps tell it from look alikes like the shaggy stalked bolete (Boletellus betula) and Frost’s bolete (Boletus frostii.) All three have webbed stalks like that seen above, but their caps are very different.

Sometimes you can be seeing a fungus and not even realize it. Or in this case, the results of a fungus. The fungus called Taphrina alni attacks female cone-like alder (Alnus incana) catkins (Strobiles) and chemically deforms part of the ovarian tissues, causing long tongue like galls known as languets to form. These galls will persist until the strobiles fall from the plant; even heavy rain and strong winds won’t remove them. Though I haven’t been able to find information on its reproduction I’m guessing that the fungal spores are produces on these long growths so the wind can easily take them to other plants.

Elderberries (Sambucus canadensis) are having a great year. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many berries (drupes) as we have this year. The berries are edible but other parts of the plant contain calcium oxalate and are toxic. Native Americans dried them for winter use and soaked the berry stems in water to make a black dye that they used on their baskets.

Native cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are also having a good year. The Pilgrims named this fruit “crane berry” because they thought the flowers looked like Sandhill cranes. Native Americans used the berries as both food and medicine, and even made a dye from them. They taught the early settlers how to use the berries and I’m guessing that they probably saved more than a few lives doing so. Cranberries are said to be one of only three fruits native to North America; the other two being blueberries and Concord grapes, but I say what about the elderberries we just saw and what about crab apples? There are also many others, so I think whoever said that must not have thought it through.

In my own experience I find it best to leave plants with white berries alone because they are usually poisonous, and no native plant illustrates this better than poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans.) Though many birds can eat its berries without suffering, when most humans so much as brush against the plant they can itch for weeks afterward, and those who are particularly sensitive could end up in the hospital. I had a friend who had to be hospitalized when his eyes became swollen shut because of it. Eating any part of the plant or even breathing the smoke when it is burned can be very dangerous.

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

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

I think the above photo is of the yellow fuzz cone slime mold (Hemitrichia clavata.) The most unusual thing about this slime mold is how it appears when the weather turns colder in the fall. Most other slime molds I see grow during warm, wet, humid summers but I’ve seen this one even in winter. Though it looks like it was growing on grass I think there must have been an unseen root or stump just under the soil surface, because this one likes rotten wood. It starts life as tiny yellow to orange spheres (sporangia) that finally open into little cups full of yellowish hair like threads on which the spores are produced.

I was looking at lichens one day when I came upon this grasshopper. The lichens were on a fence rail and so was the grasshopper, laying eggs in a crack in the rail. This is the second time I’ve seen a grasshopper laying eggs in a crack in wood so I had to look it up and see what it was all about. It turns out that only long horned grasshoppers lay eggs in wood. Short horned grasshoppers dig a hole and lay them in soil. They lay between 15 and 150 eggs, each one no bigger than a grain of rice. The nymphs will hatch in spring and live for less than a year.

The gypsy moth egg cases I’ve seen have been smooth and hard, but this example was soft and fuzzy so I had to look online at gypsy moth egg case examples. From what I’ve seen online this looks like one. European gypsy moths were first brought to the U.S. in 1869 from Europe to start a silkworm business but they escaped and have been in the wild ever since. In the 1970s and 80s gypsy moth outbreaks caused many millions of dollars of damage across the northeast by defoliating and killing huge swaths of forest. I remember seeing, in just about every yard, black stripes of tar painted around tree trunks or silvery strips of aluminum foil wrapped around trunks. The theory was that when the caterpillars crawled up the trunk of a tree to feed they would either get stuck in the tar or slip on the aluminum foil and fall back to the ground. Today, decades later, you can still see the black stripes of tar around some trees. Another gypsy moth population explosion happened in Massachusetts last year and that’s why foresters say that gypsy moth egg cases should be destroyed whenever they’re found. I didn’t destroy this one because at the time I wasn’t positive that it was a gypsy moth egg case. If you look closely at the top of it you can see the tiny spherical, silvery eggs. I think a bird had been at it.

Folklore says that the wider the orangey brown band on a wooly bear caterpillar is, the milder the winter will be. If we’re to believe it then this winter will be very mild indeed, because this wooly bear has more brown on it than I’ve ever seen. In any event this caterpillar won’t care, because it produces its own antifreeze and can freeze solid in winter. Once the temperatures rise into the 40s F in spring it thaws out and begins feeding on dandelion and other early spring greens. Eventually it will spin a cocoon and emerge as a beautiful tiger moth. From that point on it has only two weeks to live.

This bumblebee hugged a goldenrod flower head tightly one chilly afternoon. I thought it had died there but as I watched it moved its front leg very slowly. Bumblebees sleep and even die on flowers and they are often seen at this time of year doing just what this one was doing. I suppose if they have to die in winter like they do, a flower is the perfect place to do so. Only queen bumblebees hibernate through winter; the rest of the colony dies. In spring the queen will make a new nest and actually sit on the eggs she lays to keep them warm, just like birds do.

I’ll end this post the way I started it, with a monarch butterfly. I do hope they’re making a comeback but there is still plenty we can do to help make that happen. Planting zinnias might be a good place to start. At least, even if the monarchs didn’t come, we’d still have some beautiful flowers to admire all summer.

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

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Or at least this post is. As this early morning view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows, our trees are starting to change into their fall colors. The trees on the far side of the pond start very early and that’s my signal to start watching for color wherever I go. Our foliage colors usually peak around the first week of October, but warm weather can slow down the process and cool weather can speed it up.

Right now the colors are spotty and seen just here and there but changes can happen fast so I usually keep a camera close at this time of year. I thought this red maple was worth a photo or two.

Another maple was yellow. Maples are usually our most colorful trees in the fall and come in reds, yellows and various shades of orange.

I could see the sky and the clouds and the earth and the shining sun in this mussel shell. Raccoons regularly fish in the Ashuelot River and one of them probably ate the mussel and left the shell for anyone who happened along to admire. Its colors were beautiful.

Also beautiful are pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana) when they ripen to their deep purple-black. I love seeing the little purple “flowers” on the back of pokeweed berries. They are actually what’s left of the flowers’ five lobed calyx, but mimic the flower perfectly. People do eat its new shoots in the spring but all parts of this plant are considered toxic, so it’s wise to know exactly what you’re doing if you choose to try it. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

Heavy with ripe red fruit is false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa.) I see large bunches of these berries everywhere I go, so it’s going to be a good year for birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters. These berries are bright red when fully ripe and speckled green and red as they ripen. You can still see 3 or 4 unripe berries in this bunch. Soil pH can affect fruit color and not all berries will be the same shade of red. Native American’s used all parts of this plant.

Most staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) are still green but this one had already gone to red. Sumacs are one of our most colorful shrubs in the fall. They can range from lemon yellow to pumpkin orange to tomato red, and anything in between.

The reason invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) have been so successful at spreading throughout the countryside is because people have planted them extensively for fall color, making it easy for birds to find the berries for food. Most burning bushes start out red like this example.

As fall progresses burning bushes in the wild will turn from red to a pinkish magenta…

..and will finally turn the palest pastel pinkish lavender just before the leaves fall. These three photos of burning bush foliage were taken at the same time and place but the 3 branches were on different plants.

Our native highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are a good alternative to invasive burning bushes. They also often turn bright scarlet in the fall, but will also show shades of orange, yellow and plum purple. Purple is a common color in the fall. A Washington Post article last year said that “Studies have suggested that the earliest photosynthetic organisms were plum-colored, because they relied on photosynthetic chemicals that absorbed different wavelengths of light.”

Even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) turns purple occasionally but it is more common to see it wearing red in the fall.

Silky dogwood berries (Cornus amomum) go from green to white and then from white to blue. Once they are blue and fully ripe birds eat them up quickly, so I was surprised to see them.

Bright red bittersweet nightshade berries (Solanum dulcamara) look like tiny Roma tomatoes, but they’re very toxic and shouldn’t be eaten. Red has the longest wavelength of all the colors and it is the easiest color to distinguish, unless you happen to be colorblind.

Blue is my favorite color and I was able to see plenty of it in this view from a cornfield in Keene. I read recently that 40 percent of people choose blue as their favorite color. Purple is next with only 14 percent.

There are other places to see the color blue as well; many plants like the black raspberry cane (Rubus occidentalis) pictured here use the same powdery, waxy white bloom as a form of protection against moisture loss and sunburn. On plants like black raspberries, blue stemmed goldenrod, smoky eye boulder lichens, grapes and plums, the bloom can appear to be very blue in the right kind of light. Finding such a beautiful color in nature is always an unexpected pleasure.

The bloom on grapes and plums can mean they’re ripe, and these grapes were. Soon the woods will smell like grape jelly from all the fermenting grapes.

Maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) isn’t offered by nurseries but I’ve always though it should be. It’s a very low growing shrub; I think the tallest one I’ve seen might have reached 3 feet. It has white flowers at the branch ends in the spring but I’ve always thought that fall was when it was most beautiful because of the amazing range of colors in its leaves.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has started its long, slow change from green to red. Though some trees and bushes seem to change color overnight, Virginia creeper won’t be rushed. This example was just entering its bronze stage.

This beautiful shade of red is what most Virginia creeper vines will look like before their leaves fall.

This pale tussock moth caterpillar was very hairy, and very beautiful. I don’t see as many of these as I do the hickory tussock moth caterpillar. That one is everywhere this year and I see several whenever I go out for a walk.

I’m happy to say that, over the past 3 or 4 weeks, I’ve seen many monarch butterflies. I can’t say if they’re making a comeback but I’ve seen more this year than I have in the past 5 years combined. I’ve seen at least one each day for the past couple of weeks.

I think that to one in sympathy with nature, each season, in turn, seems the loveliest. ~Mark Twain

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I decided to take a walk through my neighborhood recently. I do this now and then when I don’t feel like driving anywhere, but also because it’s a good way to learn about everything that grows in my area. As I’ve said before if someone knocked on my door and asked where to find any one of a hundred different plants, there’s a good chance that I could lead them right to it. That’s when you know that you know a place well. The old road in the above photo cuts through a mixed hard and softwood forest of the kind that is so common here. It makes a pleasant place to walk and look.

There is a small pond nearby which over the years has gotten smaller and smaller due to the rampant growth of American burr reed (Sparganium americanum.) The plant has now cut the pond in half and I expect the far half to be completely filled in a few more years.  I’ve seen many ducks, geese, and great blue heron here in the past but they don’t seem to come very often anymore. I’ve also seen this small pond grow to 3 or 4 times its size after a heavy rain, so full that it overran its banks. That can get a little scary, because that means the one road in and out of the neighborhood can be under water.

There is a small grove of gray birch (Betula populifolia) near the pond and I often search their branches to see if any new lichens have moved in. Gray birch doesn’t have the same bright white bark that paper birches do, but lichens seem to love growing on their limbs.

Black eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) bloomed near the pond. This is one of our longest blooming wildflowers. It usually blooms from June right up until a hard October frost.

Flat topped white aster (Doellingeria umbellata) also bloomed near the pond. This aster can get 5 feet tall and has smallish white flowers. Its common name comes from the large, flat flower heads. Butterflies and other pollinators love it and I often wander down to where it blooms to see if there are any butterflies on it. It likes moist, sandy soil and plenty of sun, and it often droops under its own weight as it did here.

Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) winds itself among the tall stems of the flat topped white asters. It is said that bindweed purifies and cleanses the body and calms the mind. Native Americans used the plant medicinally for several ailments, including as an antidote to spider bites.

The small pond that I showed a photo of previously eventually empties into a large swamp, which is called a wetland these days. I’m guessing that beavers and muskrats keep the water way open through it; it has been this way for as long as I’ve lived in the area.

I’ve seen two odd things on staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) this year that I’ve never seen before. First, when the berries were ripening they went from green to pinkish purple to red instead of from green to red, and now they are a dark purple, which from a distance looks black. I wonder what is going on with these plants. I’ve never seen this before.

A bumblebee worked hard on Joe Pye weed blossoms. Soon the cooler nights will mean that bumblebees will be found sleeping in flowers in the morning.

Native rough hawkweed (Hieracium scabrum) is one of the last of our many hawkweeds to bloom. An unbranched single stem rises about knee high before ending in a terminal cluster of small yellow flowers. The plant blooms in full sun in late summer into early fall for about 3-4 weeks. Many species of hawkweed, both native and introduced, grow in the United States and I’d guess that we must have at least a dozen here in New Hampshire. Some of our native hawkweeds bleed a bitter white latex sap and Native Americans used to use it for chewing gum. I’m guessing that they had a way to remove the bitterness and probably found ways to flavor it too.

There is a lot of sand in this area and it is one of only two places that I know of where sand jointweed (Polygonum articulatum) grows. I didn’t see any of the tiny white flowers on this walk but I did see the plants. They should be blooming any time now and will appear in a future flower post.

I’ve found that it is close to impossible to get a photo of a forest while you’re in it. I’ve tried many times but it never seems to work. There’s just too much going on.

So since I can’t get a good photo of the forest itself instead I take photos of the things that live there, like this purple cort mushroom (Cortinarius iodeoides.) Purple corts are having an extended fruiting time which is now in its fourth week, I think. I’ve never seen so many and I’ve never seen them fruiting over such a long period of time.

Something else that’s is strange in the fungi kingdom this year is how jelly fungi like this witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) has fruited all summer long. I usually only see it in early spring, late fall and winter when it is colder. It could be because of all the rain I suppose; jelly fungi are almost all water. I almost always find them on stumps and logs; often on oak. After a rain is always the best time to look for them because they’re at their best when well hydrated.

We’ve had at least a day of rain each week all summer but it’s been on the dry side over the past couple weeks, so I was surprised to see this white finger slime mold (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa, variety fruticulosa) growing on a log. The log was very rotten and held water like a sponge, so maybe that’s why.

There is a small glade of lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) out here and I like to stop and admire the lacy patterns they produce and how they wave in the breeze like they were on this day.

Bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) are starting to show some fall color. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns; fossils date it to over 55 million years old. The plant releases chemicals which inhibit the growth of other plants and that is why large colonies of nothing but bracken fern are found. Some Native American tribes cooked and peeled the roots of bracken fern to use as food but modern science has found that all parts of the plant contain carcinogens.

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is also starting to turn. These plants sometimes turn a deep purplish maroon in fall but more often than not they go to yellow. Native Americans used the root of this plant as emergency food and it was also once used to make root beer.

Giant foxtail grass (Setaria faberi) grew in a sunny spot at the edge of the forest. This is a big annual grass that can form large colonies. Its nodding, bristly, spike like flower heads (panicles) and wide leaves make it easy to identify. The flower heads go from light green to straw colored as they age.

This walk ends in a meadow full of little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium,) which is one of my favorite grasses. I hoped to show you its flowers but it was a little early for it to be blooming. Little bluestem is a pretty native grass that is grown in gardens throughout the country. It’s very easy to grow and is drought resistant. Purplish-bronze flowers appear usually in August but they’re a little late this year here.

This was one of those perfect New England days in late summer where the spirit of autumn takes a first stealing flight, like a spy, through the ripening country-side, and, with feigned sympathy for those who droop with August heat, puts her cool cloak of bracing air about leaf and flower and human shoulders. ~Sarah Orne Jewett

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The clouds were very angular on this morning at Half Moon Pond in Hancock, but they weren’t what I was trying to get a photo of. I was interested in the trees along the far shoreline, which are starting to show just the first hint of their fall colors.

Some of our native dogwoods like this silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) have already turned a beautiful deep red-maroon.

Silky dogwood berries go from green to white and then from white to blue, but for a short time they are blue and white like Chinese porcelain. In fact I’ve always wondered if the original idea for blue designs on white porcelain didn’t come from berries just like these. Once they are blue and fully ripe birds eat them up quickly.

Among the birds that love silky dogwood berries is the beautiful, sleek cedar waxwing. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the name waxwing comes from the brilliant red wax drops you can see on its wing feathers. Cornell also says because they eat so much fruit, cedar waxwings occasionally become intoxicated or even die when they run across overripe berries that have started to ferment and produce alcohol. I met a drunken cedar waxwing once so I know that story is true. I got between a bird and its fermented dogwood berries one day and it flew directly at my face at high speed, only pulling up at the last second. I wondered what is with this crazy bird as it flew at me several times, but once I finally realized what was happening and moved away from its berries it left me alone. I can still remember the feel the wind on my face from its drunken aerobatics.

If you’re wondering if I climbed a tree to get above that cedar waxwing in the last photo the answer is no; I just stood on a bridge and looked down on it. There is a huge brush pile against one of the bridge piers and the birds rest here between flights. They fly out quickly and grab insects out of the air in the evening, just before the sun sets. Earlier in the day they feed on silky dogwood and other berries and rest in the bushes.

Cedar waxwings are beautiful birds that don’t seem to mind me being above them, but if I walk down along the riverbank so I can be eye to eye with them it causes quite a ruckus among the flock and they all go and hide in the bushes. Though this photo looks like we were on nearly the same level I was quite far above the bird when I took the photo. Once I saw the photo I thought that the bird’s wing didn’t look quite right. Or maybe it does; I’ve never been much of a bird studier and it was obviously able to fly, but it does seem to be missing the red wax drops.

Rain can be a blessing to an allergy sufferer because it washes all of the sneezy, wheezy pollen out of the air, but on this day it washed it into the river where it could reveal the otherwise invisible currents and eddies.

One of the reasons I like cutting and splitting firewood is because, unless you want to lose a finger or two, you have to be focused on the task at hand and on each piece of wood before you. When you focus so intently on any subject you see many unexpected things, like these robin’s egg blue “insect eggs.” At least I thought they were insect eggs, so I put this piece of wood aside to see what happened when they hatched. They hatched all right, but after turning white and splitting open instead of baby insects out came black spores, and then I knew it was a slime mold. Blue is a rare color among slime molds and I’m happy to have seen it.

This event really was an insect hatching and there were hundreds of baby hickory tussock moth caterpillars (Lophocampa caryae) crawling all over this tree. I’ve never seen as many as there are this year.

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars have a stark beauty but each one should come with a warning label because those long hairs can imbed themselves in your skin and cause all kinds of problems, from rashes to infections.

I’ve done several posts that included hickory tussock moth caterpillars but I just realized that I’ve never seen the moth itself, so I went to Wikipedia and found this photo of a very pretty hickory tussock moth by Mike Boone from bugguide.net.

According to what I’ve read the banded net-winged beetle (Calopteron discrepans) is commonly found resting on leaves in moist woods, and that’s right where I found this one. Its bright Halloween colors warn predators that this insect contains acids and other chemicals that make it at best, distasteful. The adult beetles eat nectar, honeydew, and decaying vegetation.

I find more feathers than you can shake a stick at but this is the first time I’ve ever found one like this one. It was quite big as feathers go and I think it was a great blue heron feather.

But the feather wasn’t from this great blue heron. I walked around a tall clump of Joe Pye weed at a local pond and almost ran nose to beak into this bird. We both looked at each other for a moment and I don’t know which of us was the most startled, but instead of flying away the big bird just calmly walked into the cattails and began hunting for food while I fumbled around for my camera.

Instead of pretending to be a statue the heron bent and jabbed at some unseen morsel several times, but from what I could tell it missed every time because it never swallowed.

Each time after the heron had dipped and missed whatever it was it was trying for it would look back at me and grin in a self-effacing way before wiggling its tail feathers vigorously. I’m not sure what it was trying to tell me. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again?

The berries of the white baneberry plant (Actaea pachypoda) are called doll’s eyes, for obvious reasons. The remains of the flower’s black stigma against the porcelain white fruit is striking, and so are the pink stalks (pedicels) that they’re on. Though Native Americans used its roots medicinally all parts of this plant are extremely toxic. As few as six berries can kill so it’s no surprise that “bane berry” comes from the Old English words bana or bona, which both mean “slayer” or “murderer.”

Another baneberry that can have white berries is red baneberry (Actaea rubra) but I know these plants well and I’m sure they’re white baneberry. It really doesn’t matter though, because both plants are extremely toxic. Finding baneberry in the woods tells the story of rich, well drained loamy soil and a reliable source of moisture, because those are the things that it needs to grow. I often find it at or near the base of embankments that see a lot of runoff.

On their way to becoming brilliant red, the berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) are speckled green and red for a short time. This plant is also called treacle berry because the berries are supposed to taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They are rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative to those who aren’t used to eating them. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from the burning roots to treat headaches and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

From a distance I thought a beautiful spotted butterfly had landed on a leaf but as I got closer I saw that the beauty was in the leaf itself.

I did find butterflies though; they were all on the zinnias at the local college but only the painted ladies were willing to pose. I was able to tell the difference between this butterfly and the American painted lady thanks to a link posted by blogging friend Mike Powell. If you love nature but aren’t reading Mike’s blog you’re doing yourself a real disservice. You can find him by clicking on the word here. I’ve also seen several monarch butterflies lately but none would pose for a photo.

How very lucky and grateful I am to be able to see such beauty in this life. I hope all of you will take time to see it too.

Beauty is the moment when time vanishes. Beauty is the space where eternity arises. ~Amit Ray

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I think since March we’ve had one completely dry week and that was last week. Other than that we’ve had at least one rainy day every week, and sometimes as much as 4 inches of rain has fallen in that one day. Parts of the state have seen flooding and roads have been washed away, but so far in this part of the state we seem to be weathering the storms quite well. All that water means waves in the Ashuelot River though, so I was able to practice my wave photography skills. I try to catch them just as they curl, as this one was.

Deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) blossomed along the Ashuelot. I don’t suppose many people have seen a deer’s tongue but I have and the leaves of this grass really do look like one, so it’s a perfect name for the plant. This is a very course, tough grass that is common in waste areas, roadsides and forest edges. It can be very beautiful when its leaves change in the fall; sometimes maroon, deep purple or yellow, and sometimes multiple colors on one leaf.

All the rain means a great mushroom season is upon us. The American Caesar mushroom (Amanita jacksonii) starts out bright orangey red and then turns to orange or yellow. Its flesh is white and its gills are bright yellow. It is said to be the American version of the European Caesar mushroom (Amanita caesarea,) which got its common name by being a favorite food of early Roman rulers. This mushroom is closely related to the toxic fly agaric and the deadly death cap and destroying angel mushrooms, so great care should be taken with identification before it is eaten.

Violet toothed polypore (Trichaptum biformis) looks a little like the turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor,) and I’m fairly certain that I have misidentified it as such here on this blog. Once you get to know the two though, it’s obvious that the purple edges on these are not found on turkey tails. I wish I had taken a photo of the undersides of these as well because it is supposed to be a beautiful lilac purple color and that’s something I’ve never noticed before. I see this pretty fungus rarely enough to always forget to peek underneath.

Elderberry flowers have been successfully pollinated and are slowly becoming berries, but at this stage the big flower heads look like star charts.

All the rain, heat and humidity we’ve had means perfect conditions for slime molds. I found this example searching for food on a fallen branch. Through a process called cytoplasmic streaming slime molds can reach speeds of up to 1.35 mm per second, which is the fastest rate recorded for any micro-organism. Scarcity of food is what drives them on, always searching for bacteria and yeasts to feed on. As this photo shows, slime mold plasmodium can be a mass of glistening vein-like material (actually a single-celled amoeba) that creeps across dead leaves, wood, or soil. I think this example might be the many headed slime (Physarum polycephalum.)

Here is another form that shape shifting slime molds can take. I believe this is the plasmodium stage of egg shell slime mold (Leocarpus fragilis.) In one stage of their life cycle these slime molds have a brittle outer shell that cracks and fractures like an eggshell. They will mature and become dry and turn first brown, and then gray. Blackish spores will be produced. Eggshell slime molds like to hang out on pine needles logs, stumps, and sometimes will even appear on living plants.

Spotting slime molds from a distance isn’t that hard if you know what to look for and where to look. It’s important to remember that hot sunlight dries them out, so they’ll be on the shaded sides and undersides of logs, on stumps, mossy rocks, and in the leaves on the forest floor in the darkest part of the forest where the soil stays moist. I look for what look to me like white or colored smudges. The closer you get to the smudge the easier it is to see detail, as this photo from about 3 feet away shows.

Here’s a closer look at the slime mold in the previous photo. I think it might be coral or white fingered slime mold (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa.) Most good mushroom books will include a section on slime molds that can help identify some of the most common ones, but uncommon slime molds can be very hard to identify.

A juvenile male widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) landed on a grass seed head for a few seconds. I think it’s a juvenile male because the females don’t have white wing markings and adult males have a whitish blue body.  The luctuosa part of the scientific name means sorrowful or mournful and it is thought that it might be because the darker wing markings make them look like they are draped in mourning crepe.

I haven’t seen a single monarch butterfly yet this year but I’ve seen a few of the other large butterflies, like this eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus).  Butterflies can absorb minerals and salts from the soil and I think that’s what this one was doing. It’s called puddling.

This eastern tiger swallowtail found a tasty heal all plant (Prunella vulgaris) to snack on.

I thought that this stunning creature was a butterfly when I first saw it on the grass in a lawn but after some research I found that it was a virgin tiger moth (Grammia virgo.) It is a large, butterfly sized moth and I’ve read that its hindwing color can vary from yellow to scarlet. Unfortunately they can’t be seen in this photo. The larvae feed on various low growing plants, which is apparently why I found it in a lawn. Though there are countless photos of this moth online there is very little information on it. It is certainly one of the prettiest moths I’ve seen.

I’ve been checking milkweed plants for signs of monarch butterflies but so far all I’ve seen are red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus.) These beetles eat milkweed plants and absorb its toxins much like monarch butterflies do and this and their red color keeps predators away. I’ve read that milkweed beetles squeak when they’re feeding on milkweed, but I saw hundreds and didn’t hear a single peep out of any of them. The ancient Greeks called this insect four eyes because of the way their antennae bisect and seem to grow out of their eyes.

Timothy grass was unintentionally brought to North America by early settlers and was first found in New Hampshire in 1711 by John Hurd. A farmer named Timothy Hanson began to promote cultivation of it as a hay crop about 1720, and the grass has been called Timothy ever since. Timothy-grass (Phleum pratense) flowers from June until September and is noted for its resistance to cold and drought.

Timothy grass is an excellent hay crop for horses but what I like most about it is its flowers. Each flower head is filled with tiny florets, each with three purple stamens and 2 wispy white stigmas. This one wasn’t showing the purple stamens so I might have been too early. Quite often the heads look completely purple when they bloom. The example shown does show the tiny, feather like female stigmas. Flowering grasses can be very beautiful and I hope more people will stop and take a look at them.

If you want purple in your grass it’s hard to beat purple top grass (Tridens flavus cupreus.) This is a perennial grass that can get 3-5 feet tall. It likes to grow in disturbed soil and I see it along field and forest edges. I’ve tried for several years to get the camera to see what I see when I look at purple grasses but the photos were never accurate until I discovered the secret just recently, and that is taking the photo just after sunset when the light is still bright but there is no direct sunlight on the grass heads. There is also less wind to blow them around at that time of day as well.

I actually learned the secret of purple grasses last year when I was taking photos of purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis,) but it didn’t click in my mind until this year. As a nature photographer you never stop learning, and nature itself is often the best teacher. You try and try and then try again, and eventually you hit on the right light, or the right background, or the right perspective and then finally you have it, and then you can show the plant or any other bit of nature at its best. In my line of thought, this is how you get people interested enough to want to get out there and see nature for themselves; by showing it at its most beautiful. This beautiful little shin-high grass grows on sandy roadsides and flowers in late summer and early fall. Its purple flower heads will eventually turn a tannish color and break off. They are often seen rolling and floating along the roadsides like tumbleweeds in the fall.

When the tiny green flowers of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) have been pollinated they become fuzzy red berries, but before that they go through a fuzzy purple stage, as can be seen in the above photo. I’ve never seen this before this year, probably because I wasn’t paying attention. Native Americans made a kind of lemonade from these berries and they can also be dried and ground to be used as a lemony flavored spice.

The black willows (Salix nigra) along the Ashuelot River have gone to seed. Willows have been used medicinally for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks made willow bark tea to ease the pain of stiff joints and headaches and to reduce fevers, and Native Americans used the plant in the same way. Willows are so useful for pain relief because they contain a compound called salicylic acid. The acetylsalicylic acid found in aspirin is a synthetic version of it. Willows like wet feet and usually grow on the banks of ponds and rivers.

The blue of blue bead lily berries (Clintonia borealis) is quite different from the blue of blueberries; what I call electric blue. The seeds in these berries can take two years to germinate and adult plants can take twelve years to finally show their yellow, lily like blossoms. This plant is also called “cow tongue” because of the shape of its leaves. Deer, chipmunks and many other animals and birds love the berries and I often have trouble finding them because they get eaten so fast. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat burns and infections, and bears are said to be attracted to its root.

What I believe is a male slaty skimmer (Libellula incesta) is easily one of the most beautiful dragonflies I’ve seen. Its deep indigo blue color isn’t seen often in nature, but the blue bead lily berries do come close. I actually thought this dragonfly was black when I was taking its photo from several feet away and didn’t realize it had such a beautiful color until I saw the photo.  Nature is full of surprises, and that’s one reason I’m outside as often as possible. I just love seeing things like this that I’ve never seen.

Nearness to nature keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt and in touch with the unseen powers. ~Charles Eastman

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