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Archive for the ‘Things I’ve Seen’ Category

I thought I’d go and see Brickyard Brook over in Richmond, New Hampshire last week because I hadn’t been there in a while. When I was here last I saw a very curious thing; the brook had plugged itself up and had changed course. More accurately it had always been split in two with a weak half and a strong half, and the strong half got plugged up so the weak half then became the strong half, and the original strong half is now all but dried up. I hope you can follow that. I saw it for myself and even I can barely follow it. But it was all very strange.

There is a trail of sorts that is blazed but you don’t need it. All you need to do is follow the brook.

I’m seeing lots of blowdowns this year and here was another. We’ve had some ferocious windstorms.

Here is the brook further up, still running strong.

And then all of the sudden, no more brook. It’s running a few yards off to the left now but you can’t see it in this photo. Just upstream from here there is a quite large pile of fallen trees and stones all in a tangled heap, and that’s what plugged up the original water course. The brook used to roar right through here when I first started coming here and there was a big stone you could lie on to take photos of the brook. The stone is still there but the brook isn’t.

If you moved a few small fallen saplings you could set a tent up over there and wake each morning to the happy sounds of the giggling, chuckling brook. To me that would be paradise right here on earth. I must have been a hermit in a previous life because for me a hermit’s life yearns inside of me, and when I see a place like this I dream of how wonderful it could be.  

I’ve seen purple cones on many species of conifer but this was the first one I had ever seen on an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis.) The scales on the cones were still closed tightly but soon they will open and the seeds will become winter food for black capped chickadees and other small birds. The 1/2 inch long cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans used the inner bark (cambium) as a base for breads and soups or mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to use in pemmican. They also made tea from hemlock needles, which have a high vitamin C content, and this saved many a white settler from scurvy.

Tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius) were also wearing purple, and this was the first time I had ever seen that as well. They were growing on a dead beech tree. The spores from this fungus enter the tree through damaged bark and cause rot inside. It usually grows on hardwoods but can occasionally grow on conifers as well. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that as many as 800 million can be produced in a single hour. Its common name comes from its usefulness as tinder for starting fires. The 5000 year old “iceman” found preserved in ice and snow in the Italian Alps carried pieces of this fungus with him. It is also useful medicinally and is known to stop bleeding, so he might have used it both ways.

A young eastern hemlock had broken off about shin high at some point in the past. I knew it was an eastern hemlock because of its bark and because the way the stump was rotting away.

In the book Forest Forensics, Tom Wessels describes white pine (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) stumps as “decaying from the outside in toward the center.” He also says that it takes 50 years for the wood to completely decay.  Hemlock has a very rot resistant bark that is usually still in place even when the wood has completely decayed, so the stump looks like a tube.

I could tell by the way the moss was worn off this log that I wasn’t the only one who had walked here. I usually step over logs rather than up on them because it’s easier on the knees. If you’re walking miles through the woods and step up on every log you see you’ll know why you shouldn’t have the next day.

Here was another tree down across the trail but it was easy to step over.

Your reward for this hike is a small waterfall that empties into a good size pool. The pool looked to be about 4-5 feet deep and on a hot August day would be very inviting. My father would have loved this place because he loved fishing for brook trout. He took me with him a few times when I was a young boy but I was more interested in exploring the forest than fishing so that didn’t last long. It’s hard to catch fish while you’re trying to catch your wayward son, I would imagine. 

I read once that you should always slow down your camera when photographing water to “show its movement.” Now, I’m betting that everyone reading this blog knows that the water in a brook is moving but just in case, I slowed down the camera so we could be sure that the water was indeed moving.

I saw an oak apple gall on the underside of an oak leaf and it looked like a bird had gotten the wasp larva within. These galls form out of leaf tissue when a gall wasp injects chemicals into it. It grows into a spherical shape like that seen in this photo, and a wasp larva grows at its center. 

The fronds of the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) stay green throughout winter, but their weak stems usually see them lying flat like these were so they’re often covered by snow. This example grew on top of a boulder, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen.

Looking for two rows of spore cases (sori) growing on the underside of the sub-leaflets and the large brown scales on the bases of its stalks are good ways to identify the evergreen wood fern. This fern contains toxic substances that can paralyze some reptiles and mammals, so it isn’t often eaten. 

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) plants are loaded with berries this year, so our wild turkeys will eat well.

Heart leaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grow here by the hundreds. They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

A hairy, maple like leaf that grows close to the ground, usually in large colonies, is a sure sign that you’ve found foamflowers. The hard part is remembering where you saw them when spring comes around.

Believe it or not there is a house at the top of that hill to the right, so this gorge is as far as I’ve ever followed the brook. The walls of the gorge are steep so I’d have to go to the top of the hill and follow the brook through that family’s yard. What a lucky family; imagine having all of this in your back yard.

The woods were made for the hunters of dreams,
The brooks for the fishers of song;
To the hunters who hunt for the gunless game
The streams and the woods belong.
~ Sam Walter Foss

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Last Sunday was a beautiful but chilly day at about 30 degrees F. After almost two weeks of cold weather I thought I’d visit a local beaver swamp to see how they were doing. If beavers haven’t stored enough food underwater before their ponds freeze they can be in serious trouble, and this year the ponds have frozen earlier than average.

What might look like water is actually ice; very smooth ice, but also thin. I walked out on it and didn’t get too  far before it started creaking and cracking, so I quickly returned to shore.

There is a trail of sorts that leads a little way around the swamp. There were lots of fallen trees out here but they were caused by wind and old age, not beavers.

This one broke off about 10 feet up, making it a challenge for a chainsaw. Widow makers they call these, and for good reason.

Stone walls tell me someone used to live out here and farm this land before the beavers took it over. Nobody did the back breaking labor of clearing stones from the land unless it was absolutely necessary, so this wall wasn’t built here for the fun of it. I’m guessing it probably dates from the late 1700s to early 1800s. Many farmers went off to work in factories in the mid-1800s after the industrial revolution and gave up farming, and their pastures slowly returned to forest.

Vinca (Vinca minor) is one of the plants you often find near old stone walls and cellar holes. Others are wild roses, lilacs and peonies. All were passed from one neighbor to another. This colony is one of the largest stands of vinca I’ve seen and it still grows and blooms beautifully after hundreds of years. The word vinca means “to bind” in Latin, and that’s what the plant’s wiry stems do.

I was going to say that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky but there was one shy one hiding behind some trees.

Not all the water here was frozen. This is a seep, which happens when ground water reaches the surface. They are like puddles that never dry up and they don’t flow like a stream or brook. In my experience they don’t freeze either, even in the coldest weather. They are always good to look at closely, because many unusual aquatic fungi like eyelash fungi and swamp candles call them home. They’re also an important water source for many small animals and birds.

Stilted trees grow from seeds that fall on a rotted log or stump and grow their roots around the stump or log. Once the stump or log rots away what is left is a tree that looks like it’s standing on stilts. The strange thing about this stilted tree though, is how it grew over a stone. I don’t see them do that very often. I’m guessing that, probably over centuries, enough leaves fell on that stone to eventually turn into humus. Enough at least for a tree seed to sprout.

This is more what I’d expect from a stilted tree. Whatever it grew on has rotted into the soil and now it looks like it’s running away.

This beaver pond has two beaver lodges in it and this is one of them. I don’t know if that means there are two families of beavers or if one family uses both lodges. Beavers will move into a place, dam a stream to make a pond, and cut all the nearby trees and then move on. Their pond will eventually drain and new trees will start to grow, and then they will move back again to repeat the cycle. I’ve read that it takes about thirty years to go once around the cycle. I’m not sure what stage of the cycle this pond is in but I’ve never seen freshly cut trees here.

There are lots of standing deadwood here and that usually means it’s a good place for great blue herons to nest. I’ve seen the big birds fishing here but I’ve never seen one of their huge nests in any of the trees. What struck me most about this place was the quiet. I heard a bird or two but for the most part it was absolutely still, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Here was a sign of beavers. I think that dark line of ice was made by beavers trying to keep their channel from freezing. But freeze it did, later than the rest of the pond, and that means thinner, darker ice.

Much of the ice was made up of large crystals.

Leaves were frozen into the ice in places and they were white with rime.

Scratches on a tree were too small for a bear. I’d guess it was a bobcat because I found wild turkey wings very close to this spot one day. Bobcats are one of the most common predators of wild turkeys. According to the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game “Based on observation reports occurring over the previous 20 years, bobcat numbers appear to have increased in New Hampshire. They  take advantage of environmental conditions, such as winter snow depth, to kill large prey, such as deer and turkey.”

Seeing green goldthread leaves was enough to have me longing for spring, even though winter hasn’t yet arrived. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

Many mosses will grow on wood, stone or soil and delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) is one of them. Delicate fern moss is a beautiful little thing that isn’t as delicate as its name implies, but it certainly is fern like. The leaves of this moss are often bright yellow green in fall and are dull rather than shiny. It is fairly common and easy to find because it often forms very large mats. It grew on many of the logs here.

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) is also called teaberry or checkerberry and it is the first wild plant that I learned to identify, with the help of my grandmother. We used to love to eat the bright red minty tasting berries. It’s probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong, minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. Its leaves often turn purple as the nights get colder, as these plants show. The name teaberry comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries.

There is a much studied phenomenon called the Red Bark Phenomenon, and scientists have devoted much time studying trees with colored bark all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. I’ve seen it here and there on tree bark and after a lot of research a few years ago I found that it was caused by the algae Trentepohlia, which is a genus of filamentous chlorophyte green algae in the family Trentepohliaceae It appears on tree trunks, stones and is even present in many lichens. So if you see a tree with red bark there isn’t anything wrong. It’s just algae looking for a place to perch.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

Thanks for stopping in.

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It has gotten cold enough now to start freezing up our ponds and rivers.  I’ve seen pancake ice on rivers many times and I’d expect to see it there; it’s the current that constantly moves circles of river foam or slush and makes them bump into each other and form rims, so that they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it on the Ashuelot River almost every winter. What is strange about the ice pancakes in the above photo is that they were in a pond, not a river. Normally there is no current in a pond but we had very strong winds and I think they were what made the current that formed the ice pancakes.

In this photo you can see the ice ridge caused by the wind blowing across the pond. It blew all the slushy ice that had formed on part of the pond to this end and then spun some of it into pancakes.

On shore the ice kept piling up into higher ridges. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. In two days after it warmed up a little all of this ice had disappeared.

A milkweed seed was stuck on a very hairy branch of an American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The male catkins of an American hazelnut are bigger in diameter and longer than those of the beaked hazelnut, from what I’ve seen. In spring they’ll slowly grow even bigger until finally turning golden yellow and bursting with pollen. I wait impatiently for it to happen.

If the male hazelnut pollen reaches a female ovary then there’s a good chance that hazelnuts like those seen here will be the result. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

Here is a common sight in winter: milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do. This is a very common winter fungus that grows on the undersides of limbs. The “teeth” are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

If you pick up a fallen limb and touch something that feels cold and rubbery, it might be milk white, toothed polypore. They are very tough and can stand all the snow and cold that winter can throw at them. I’ve never seen the interesting patterns that this one displayed.

If two trees or parts of trees like limbs of the same species grow close enough together the wind can make them rub against each other, wearing the outer bark away. Once the outer bark wears away and the cambium or inner bark touches, the trees can become naturally grafted together. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see at least a couple of self or naturally grafted trees each year.

If you thought you saw scratches on the bark of the maples in the previous photo you weren’t imagining it. Squirrels leave claw marks all over smooth barked trees and sometimes if you look closely you can see trails up the tree that they use over and over again. On those kinds of trails the scratches will appear thickly like those in the photo. I’ve known for a longtime that squirrels will nip off buds to make tree branches easier to travel on, but this is another of those bits of nature that I have never understood until just recently.

The beautiful color of a maple branch healing itself held me rapt for a time, and I remembered all of the times I’ve felt down when I walked into a forest, only to return having forgotten what it was that bothered me. The forest is such a loving place; a place full of miracles and one that reveals the secrets of creation, and it pains me to know that some people think it is a dark, forbidding place to be feared. Given a chance it will change you, and even heal you. If you spend enough time there first will come joy, and then a deep sense of gratitude and finally, after a time that might be weeks, months, or even years, a great love will well up inside of you. It is the love of all things; of creation, and at times it is so powerful it can bring tears to your eyes and make you want to kneel; not because someone tells you should but because of the love, gratitude and joy that you feel inside. You’ll begin to understand that you aren’t separate from all of this and you never have been. You are as much a part of nature as the birds that sing overhead and the leaf mold you might one day find yourself kneeling on.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata,) seed pods dry as thin and weightless as a sheet of paper, so though their spines are sharp at this point you can’t throw them at your friends. In the lower right quadrant of this example you can see a bit of the netting that is inside these seed pods. A man wrote to me once and told me that he decorated pens that he makes with that same netting. For me these plants are like a time machine that always takes me back to my boyhood, when we used to throw the soft spined fruits at each other before they dried out.

Wild cucumbers have two large seeds that look like cucumber seeds but they’re at least 10 times bigger. The cavities seen here are where they grew. I’m seeing fewer and fewer of these vines each year and I can’t understand why. When I was a boy they were everywhere but now I have to search, often for days or even weeks, to find them.

Last year I saw a very strange pouch like cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to a local insect expert who explained that it was a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Now here was another one, almost exactly a year later.

All of the gypsy moth egg cases I’ve seen have been smooth and hard, like this 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 recently and that’s why foresters say that gypsy moth egg cases should be destroyed whenever they’re found.

This little moth was on the door of the maintenance shop where I work one morning and it stayed there all day. Since it was about 30 degrees that day I thought it was odd behavior, but then I looked it up and found its name is the Winter Moth. It is a European species that was first noticed in Nova Scotia in the 1930s and now is found coast to coast in the U.S. It’s a very destructive insect, especially to apple and blueberry crops because its caterpillars eat the emerging buds in spring just as the bud scales open. They also feed on maple, oak, ash, crabapple, cherry, and many deciduous shrubs. According to the University of Massachusetts “The eggs are green at first, but turn red-orange soon thereafter. In March, prior to hatching, the eggs turn a bright blue and then a very dark blue-black just before hatching.” They sound very pretty but I think I’d rather not find any.  

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) berries are ripe and red. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

Staghorn sumac berries, like the rest of the plant, are very hairy. They are said to be an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers in other parts of the country but like the smooth sumac berries seen in the previous photos, staghorn sumac berries aren’t usually eaten until spring here. That could be because we have so many other native fruits and berries for them to eat. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.

Even on a cloudy day the stems of staghorn sumac glow, and they really do resemble deer antlers. (Antlers are not horns, by the way, and a stag has antlers.) If this were a smooth sumac this branch would be as smooth as a maple branch.

Many things in nature will turn blue when it gets cold enough. Ice can be blue and so can the sap of the white pine tree. I’ve also seen the white striations that give striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) its name turn blue. This is the only maple tree in New England that has bark that is striped like this. Other names for the tree are snake bark maple, moosewood maple, goosefoot maple, Pennsylvania maple, and whistle wood, because the soft pith makes the wood easy to hollow out and make whistles from. Native Americans used the bark of the tree to treat many ailments including coughs and colds.

I like the flowers of thimbleweed but I never see many of them. Until recently, anyway; I stumbled into a forest of them and for the first time, saw them going to seed. The plant gets its name from the seed head that grows to look like a thimble and I’ve seen those, but until now I’ve never seen one actually producing seed. The seeds are on the sticky side and before I was through trying to get a photo I was covered with them, so I might find them growing in my own yard one day.  

Here is a beautiful turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) for your Thanksgiving. If you walk off that big meal on a wooded trail you might see some in person. They’ll be far more beautiful there than they are here.

I thought I’d end this post with one of the things I’m thankful for; this view of Mount Monadnock I see every morning on my way to work. If you click on it you’ll see a larger version and then you might be able to see the snow on the summit.

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. ~Tecumseh, Shawnee

I hope all of you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving day. Thanks for coming by.

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I couldn’t remember the last time I was at Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene so last weekend I thought I’d take a walk up the old abandoned road to the falls that are at the end of it. As far as I can tell the old road was laid out in the 1700s and was abandoned in the early 1970s when a new highway was built-literally right across the existing road. Nature has been taking back what is hers ever since and the old road slowly gets narrower as the plants and trees grow in toward its middle where the sunlight is. It is kept open to the public as a nature trail and follows Beaver Brook, so named because of the beavers that once thrived here.

It was cold the night before and was still cold when I started out. Below freezing weather had created ice here and there on the brook, mostly in areas that don’t get much sun.

I like to come here because I can find things here that I don’t see anywhere else, like this smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens.) Actually I see this lichen just about everywhere I go but nowhere else are its fruiting bodies (apothecia) so blue. The blue color comes from the way the light falls on the waxy coating that covers the black outlined apothecia and often when the light is just right the stone they grow on appears golden, which makes for a very beautiful scene.  

Plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea.) Is another reason I come here. This is the only place I’ve ever seen it so when I want to see how it changes as it grows I have to come here. Today I discovered that it must be evergreen because we’ve had over a week of real cold weather, with nighttime temperatures sometimes in the single digits, and it was still as green as it is in May.

I like the crepe paper like leaves of this sedge. The prominent midrib, two lateral veins, maroon bases, and puckered look of the leaves are all used as identifying features for plantain leaved sedge. The leaves can be up to a foot long and an inch wide and I can’t think of another sedge that has leaves that look quite like these. I’ve read that it likes cool shady places where the humidity is relatively high. There is a stream just a few feet from where this one grows.

There are calm pools along Beaver Brook and this is one of them. It had a thin skim of ice along the stream banks but it still caught the forest in reflection.

Where the water splashed and dripped, icicles grew in long fingers.

In places the old guard posts and cables survive. These posts used to have to be hand painted black and white, one by one, all the way along this and every other road in the county. Of course it was a lot more open here then, when the forest wasn’t allowed to grow so close to the road.

The guard rails were a necessity on a narrow, two lane road. You didn’t want to drive into the brook because in places the embankment is quite steep. This is a view across the brook to the hillside beyond. There is a boulder fall there and when we get enough rain a stream runs down through and over it. On this day there was only ice.

The utility pole in the distance is broken off at the base and it leans precariously toward the brook. I think it will eventually fall into the brook if something isn’t done. It looks like it might be taking these two poles with it.

I’m not sure what these electric lines power but whoever receives their power from them must be frequently in the dark because every time I come here there are trees on the wires. In fact there are fallen trees all through here.

Here was a huge pine tree in the brook. It had fallen with its top pointing perfectly downstream. Whether or not it will dam up the brook is anyone’s guess but it looked to be about 100 years old and was big enough so I doubt the brook will be able to move it, even in flood.

Beech nuts and their husks littered the old road. There are lots of beech trees here and this seems to be a mast year, so the forest animals will eat well. Native Americans ate beech nuts raw but they contain toxins that can be removed by cooking, and they are said to taste better when roasted.  Early settlers pressed the nuts and used the oil for lamp oil and as a substitute for olive oil.

In this light it was easy to see how the golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) came by its common name. There are many of them here right alongside the road and they make a beautiful contrast on winter afternoons when the snow is deep blue in the shadows. These trees like it cool and moist and are often found near streams and ponds. They can also stand a lot of shade so a cool, shaded forest is perfect for them. Golden birch is also called yellow birch, and Native Americans tapped this and other birch trees for their sap, which they boiled down into syrup. They also made a medicinal tea from the bark.

We have several vase shaped evergreen ferns and a few species grow here. This one was a little flat but it was still green.

The two rows of spore cases (sori) growing on the underside of the sub-leaflets and the large brown scales on the bases of its stalks told me this was the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia.)

Black raspberry leaves (Rubus occidentalis) provided some late fall color.

There was ice on the ledges and it wasn’t a surprise.

The groundwater that created the ice in the previous photo is slowly bringing down the ledges, which are weakened and shattered after close to 300 years of freeze / thaw cycles. This big rockfall could have killed anyone standing under it so I don’t get too close to these ledges anymore. Most of the stone here is feldspar, which is why it appears white in the photo. Feldspar is a soft rock when compared to quartz or granite and it can be split with a sledge hammer. When you strike it with a hammer it has a very unusual smell.

Beaver Brook cascades over ledges into a small, shaded pool that was once a popular swimming hole. There seems to be a lot of conflicting information about how high the falls are; I’ve heard everything from 10 feet to 100 feet, but I’d guess that they are closer to 30 to 40 feet and maybe 50 if you include the part that isn’t visible in this photo. They’re big enough to make a roar that can be heard from a distance.

Up above the falls there is a small turn off; I guess you’d call it a rest area, where cars could have pulled off the main road. The guard posts seen in this photo would have stopped a car from tumbling into the falls, but just beyond the last one you could walk right off the edge and fall into them if you weren’t paying attention. That’s probably why I can’t remember my father ever stopping when he drove through here on our way to see relatives. I was what you might call a “handful” when I was a boy and he probably thought he’d have to fish me out of the brook if he let me out of the car. A few years back a teenage boy was fishing up here and fell in and was swept over the falls. He was lucky to come away with only some bruised ribs and a broken arm.

Right before the turnoff is a fairly good side view of the falls when the leaves have fallen. In fact I think just after the leaves fall is the best time to come here because you can see the falls from the old road, and that’s important if you happen to be a little too creaky to slide down the steep embankment to the brook. Soon it will be winter and the roar of Beaver Brook will most likely become a whisper under the ice for a while; some winters even the falls are muffled by the ice.

But for now you can still see the old no-passing lines in the road. I could do 5 posts on this place and still not show you all of the beauty found here, so if you live nearby I do hope you’ll pay it a visit. It isn’t far from the center of town, which makes it a perfect nature spot for anyone living in Keene.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

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November on average is the cloudiest month, but we’ve seen quite a lot of sunshine so far. Unfortunately the sunshine hasn’t warmed us up much and we’ve had a string of several cold days and below freezing (32º F) nights. This week we’re to see January type cold that could break records that have stood for 150 years. Historically the colder the November the snowier the winter, but we’ll see. In spite of all the cold this dandelion struggled to come into full bloom.

And this chicory blossom did the same. I was very surprised to see it.

We’re at the stage where the grass is coated by frost overnight but then it melts off as soon as the sunlight reaches it.

Leaves that have gone unraked get covered by frost and then become wet when it melts off.

Ice baubles formed in the Ashuelot River one cold night.

The waves in the river splash up on twigs or anything else that the water touches and it freezes there in the cold air. Much like dipping a candle in molten wax the waves splash again and again and ice baubles like the one in this photo form. It was about an inch across but I’ve seen them get bigger. Just as a side note: that small starburst over on the right hasn’t been added. This is just the way it came out of the camera. The ice is very clear and will act as a prism in the right light.

There was hoar frost on the fallen pine needles on the river bank. Hoarfrost grows whenever it’s cold and there is a source of water vapor nearby. When it is below freezing the water vapor from unfrozen rivers and streams often condenses on the plants and even trees all along their banks and covers them in hoarfrost. It looks so very delicate that I often have to remind myself to breathe while I’m taking its photo.  One touch of a warm finger, a ray of sunshine, or a warm breath and they’re gone.

I’m guessing there was plenty of water vapor coming from the river. The river wasn’t really raging but I did get to practice my wave catching skills on this day. At a certain time of morning the sun hits the river just right for a wave photo at this spot and the colors are ofen very beautiful. I love the how the colors of the water change as the light changes. The river taught me that if you want blue water in your photo you should have the sun more or less behind you, and it taught me that right in this very spot.  

This photo changed my mind about what I thought were oyster mushrooms because of the brownish cast I saw, which I couldn’t see in person. They might have been flat creps (Crepidotus applanatus,) which start out white and then shade to brown. Flat creps resemble oyster mushrooms but without a microscope to study the spores with it’s hard to be sure. I could have done a spore print; crepidotus species have brown spore prints and oysters have a white to lilac spore print, but I didn’t bring one home.

I’ve said a lot about turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) over the years, including how they are showing value in cancer research and how they have been used medicinally by the Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans for thousands of years, but I keep coming back to their multitude of color combinations and their beauty. For me, that’s enough to keep me interested.  

I had been looking for scarlet elf cup fungi (Sarcoscypha coccinea) for a very long time and then a friend showed me a photo of something growing in the gravel of his driveway and I thought I’d found them. I went there and took the photos that you see here, shocked that they grew where they were, with just sand and gravel around them. That’s especially surprising when you consider that this fugus typically grows on moist, rotting branches. I would have guessed that there might be a branch or root buried under the gravel but they grew in groups over a wide area, so that theory didn’t work. That fact leads me to believe that they are instead the orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia.) It likes to grow in clay soil or disturbed ground, often in landscaped areas.

The clincher is, my color finding software sees shades of orange, but no scarlet. I was surprised by how small they were. Some were as big as a penny at about 3/4 of an inch, but a pea would have nestled perfectly in this example. Orange peel fungi get their common name from the way they look like orange peels strewn on the ground.

I always look for juniper berries at this time of year because I love that shade of blue. A waxy coating called bloom reflects the light in a way that makes them that color. I always wonder how many gin drinkers know that the unique flavor in their drink comes from this plant’s fruits. Though they’re called berries, botanically speaking juniper fruits are actually fleshy seed cones. Unripe green berries are used to flavor gin and the ripe, deep purple-black berries are the only part of a conifer known to be used as a spice, often used on game like venison, moose and bear meat. Birds also love them.

The golden sunlight on the blueberry bushes in the foreground was lighting up the trees on the far side of Half Moon Pond in the same way and it was beautiful, but I wasn’t fast enough to catch it. It disappeared in just seconds and before I could turn my camera on it was gone.

Here is that same golden light caught in the tops of these bare trees. Sometimes I see it in the morning on my way to work and it’s very beautiful. On this morning I had to stop and watch.

I like lake sedge (Carex lacustris) because of the way it seems to flow like the waves of the pond and lake shores it grows on. It is really the wind and its own weak stems that make it bend so, but I think it makes a pretty display. Lake sedge is native to Canada and the northern U.S. and can at times be found growing in water. Waterfowl and songbirds eat its seeds. Even when it isn’t blowing in the wind it seems to have movement.

Henry David Thoreau said about polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) “Fresh and cheerful communities of the polypody form a lustrous mantle over rocky surfaces in the early spring.” I would add that, since they are tough evergreen ferns they are there in the winter too, and that’s what cheers me most about them. They are also called rock cap fern or rock polypody because they love to grow on top of rocks, as the above photo shows. There were hundreds of them on a large boulder.

Turn over a polypody fern leaf and you’re apt to see tiny mounds called sori, which are made up of clusters of sporangia (receptacles in which spores are formed) and are naked, meaning they lack the protective cap (indusium) that is found on many fern sori.

Once they ripen polypody fern sori are very pretty and look like tiny baskets of flowers; in this case yellow and orange flowers. They always make me wonder why so many ferns, lichens, fungi and mosses produce spores in winter. There must be some benefit but I’ve never been able to find out what it is.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries shown here will remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring. The berries are edible, but fairly tasteless and eaten mostly by birds. If I was going to spend my time in the forest looking for small red berries to feed on I’d be looking for American wintergreen, (teaberry) which are delicious.

Partridgeberry flowers always appear in twos as twins fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. I like the hand hammered look of the leaves.

A big beech tree fell where I work and damaged one of the buildings, so it had to be cut up. When we cut it down to the stump we found it was spalted, and spalted wood is evidence of fungal damage. Sometimes woods affected by fungi can become very desirable to woodworkers, and spalted wood is one of them. Spalting is essentially any form of wood coloration caused by fungi but there are 3 major types; pigmentation, white rot and zone lines. Sometimes all 3 can be present as they are on the end grain of the beech stump in the above photo. Pigmentation is the blue gray color, which is probably caused by bluestain or sapstain. The white rot is in the areas that look soft or pulpy, and the zone lines are the dark, narrow lines found radiating randomly throughout the log. Zone lines often form where 2 or more types of fungi meet.

There is beauty everywhere in this world, even in an old tree stump. The question is, will we let ourselves first be drawn into it and then actively seek it out or will we ignore it? I choose to seek it out, and now I see it wherever I go.

Life can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty, if a person would only pause to look and to listen. ~Rod Serling

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I planned last weekend to show you the last of the fall foliage colors but a freeze the night before finished that plan and all the leaves had fallen by the time I was able to get to one of my favorite rail trails. But, and this is a big but; just because all the leaves have fallen doesn’t mean you can’t still see colors. They’re always there, but in some months you just have to look a little closer to see them.

When I set out the fallen leaves were edged in frost. It had been a cold night.

These little red mushrooms didn’t seem to mind the cold. I don’t know what their name is but that doesn’t matter. I can admire and enjoy them without knowing it.

Little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) glowed a luminous pink in the sunshine.

It is the seed heads on little bluestem that catch the light as they ripen. This grass is a native prairie grass which grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington. According to the USDA its appearance can vary in height, color, length of leaves, flowering, and clump diameter from location to location. It is also grown in many gardens.

When you’re on a rail trail and you see a stream running under it, that’s the time to climb down the embankment to see what kind of culvert it runs through.

As I expected, this one was an old box culvert built by the railroad about 150 years ago, and still working just fine.

Down by the culvert a boulder was covered by moss.

Most of it was brocade moss (Hypnum imponens.)  This pretty moss  is very shiny and sometimes has an orange brown color. Its common name comes from the way it looks as if it has been embroidered on whatever it happens to be growing on.  It is easily confused with knight’s plume moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis,) but the spore capsules on knights plume moss are elbow macaroni shaped and horizontal, while those of brocade moss are cylindrical and stand vertically.

I saw quite a few small tree stumps with beaver teeth marks in them, meaning they came quite a way from the river to get them.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) also told me there was water nearby. I often see this native holly growing in standing water but I’ve heard that it will grow in drier soil. Birds love its bright red berries. These shrubs are dioecious, meaning they need both a male and female plant present to produce seed. If you have a yard with wet spots winterberry is a great, easy to grow native plant that won’t mind wet feet and will attract birds as well.

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

You might see dark green or purple spots on the bark of smooth barked trees like maple and beech and think you are seeing moss but this is a liverwort. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees and shrubs where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on, so this liverwort does no harm to trees. As it gets colder they turn color until they become a dark purple; almost black, so they are much more noticeable in winter than in summer when they’re green. Some can get fairly large but this example was about an inch across.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some frullania liverworts are said to be very fragrant but the few that I have remembered to smell didn’t seem to have any scent at all. This liverwort can cause something called woodcutter’s eczema. This eczema, called phytodermatitis (basically an itchy rash,) has been seen on loggers and others who regularly handle logs or cord wood with it on them. It doesn’t sound like anything serious and usually disappears in two or three weeks once the person stops handling logs with liverworts on them.

If you see a flat, whitish bracket fungus on an oak or other hardwood you might think it wasn’t very interesting but you could be seeing a thick walled maze polypore (Daedalea quercina,) which is actually quite interesting.

The Daedalea part of the scientific name comes from the Daedalus of Greek myth who designed the labyrinth that hid the Minotaur, so it makes sense that you’d find a maze on the underside of this polypore. Of course the maze is simply this mushroom’s way of increasing its spore bearing surfaces. The more spores it produces the better its chance of continuing the survival of the species, and the survival of the species is of prime importance. The quercina part of its scientific name refers to the oaks it prefers but it will also grow on other hardwoods. It appears in the colder months and causes brown rot in the tree. Fresh example are white and older examples more grayish brown, or even black.

There were fence posts along an old stone wall, and that told me that animals were probably kept here at one time.

The fence posts were strung with barbed wire as I suspected. You can leave a trail at any time and just walk into the woods, but you had better know what you’re doing and you had better watch where you’re going because much of what is now forest was once pasture and there is barbed wire everywhere. I still shudder when I think of the book I read once by a man in Massachusetts who said one of his favorite pastimes was running through the woods at night. Good luck to him is about all I can say.

This oak seedling was wearing its fall best and I thought it was a beautiful thing.

A wasp nest was somehow damaged and part of it had blown into the trail. It was a fascinating thing to see, with its multicolored ribbons of paper.  According to what I’ve read “paper wasps gather fibers from dead wood and plant stems, which they mix with saliva, and use to construct water-resistant nests made of gray or brown papery material.” Usually the ones I see show swirls of various shades of gray but this one was quite colorful.

There are people who seem to think that a plant’s buds magically appear in spring but the buds are there now, just waiting for spring. This photo shows the male catkins of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) A hazelnut catkin more or less, is a string of flowers which will open in a spiral pattern around a central stem. The pollen these flower produce will be carried by the wind to the sticky female flowers and we’ll have another crop of hazelnuts.

Before I knew it I was at one of the many old railroad trestles that cross the Ashuelot River. I stopped for a while and admired the view of the river that I’d probably never see if this rail trail wasn’t here. I’m very thankful for these trails. They get me quite far out into the woods without having to do a lot of work bushwhacking my way through.

So in the end we’ve seen quite a lot of color even though it wasn’t in the form of flowers or leaves. All seasons have their own beauty; who can deny the blue of the river, always seemingly darker than the blue of the sky? My hope is that readers will get outside in all of their seasons, whether they have two or four, and enjoy the beauty that will be there waiting.

Nature conceals her secrets because she is sublime, not because she is a trickster. ~Albert Einstein

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Last weekend I decided to visit Yale forest in Swanzey, and I chose the part of the forest with the old paved road running through it. Yale University has owned this parcel of land since the 1930s and allows public use. The road was once called Dartmouth Road because that’s where it led, but the state abandoned it when the new Route 10 was built and it has been all but forgotten ever since.

There were a lot of leaves down so you couldn’t see the pavement that still exists here. Yale founded a school of forestry and environmental studies in 1900 and owns parcels of land all over New England. Alumni donated the land in some cases and in others the University bought or traded other land for it, and in time good sized pieces of forest were put together. This particular parcel is 1,930 acres in size. Since logging vehicles occasionally come through here the pavement is slowly being broken up and nature is taking it back.

Beech trees were beautiful along the old road but even they are starting to change.

Even so it was a beautiful time to walk through here.

Even deer tongue grass wore its fall colors. Deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) gets its common name from the way its leaves resemble a deer’s tongue. It’s one of the earliest denizens of the forest floor to start showing its fall colors. Purples, yellows, oranges, and other colors can often be found in its leaves.

I also saw a beautifully colored puffball far beyond “puffing.” It had split wide open and was full of grayish spores. When raindrops hit these spores they are splashed out, and I’m guessing there will be a fine crop of puffballs here next year.

A lot of maple leaves had fallen but a few trees held on, and they were beautiful.

I saw a few maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora.) Plain and undressed without the fussiness of other lichens, it is beautiful in its simplicity. But how does it reproduce? I’ve never seen any reproductive structures of any kind on it so I had to look it up. The answer is that it does have apothecia, but very rarely. It also has “a thin patchy layer of soredia,” though I’ve never noticed it. The white fringe around the outside is called the prothallus and using it is a great way to identify this lichen, because from what I’ve read there isn’t another that has it.

Yale University did some logging in this part of the forest a few years ago so it’s thin in places but there are plenty of young tree coming along.

A large pile of logs was left behind from the logging. I’m not sure why.

One of the most noticeable things about this walk were all of the fallen trees. I must have seen at least a dozen of them, including this maple.

In two places huge old pine trees had fallen. We had strong winds just a while ago and it looked like these trees had been blown over. Trees like these are bad news when they fall across a trail because you can’t go over or under them due to all the branches.

The rootball on this fallen pine was taller than I was and it left quite a crater in the forest floor when it was torn up. There were many fallen trees right in this area and I was forced to go quite far into the forest to get around them.

I noticed a lot of pine bark beetle activity on the branches of these trees. Not only do the beetles transmit disease from tree to tree, if they chew one of their channels completely around a branch it will die from being girdled. These beetles are small and range in size from about 1/10 to 1/4 of an inch in length, but they can do a lot of damage when enough of them are in a forest. Dead branches mean no photosynthesizing which will weaken the tree and eventually it will die. For those who have never head the term; girdling of a branch or tree happens when the phloem and bark has been cut around its diameter in a complete circle. Native Americans and then early settlers used girdling to remove trees from fields and pastures and it is still used by some today.

Fungi of any type on a standing tree is a sign that something is wrong, and these branches had a lot of jelly fungi on them.

But in spite of the blowdowns the forest is recovering well from the logging. There are lots of new hardwood shoots coming along and they will make excellent browse for deer and moose.

When you’re close to where the old road meets the new Route 10 a stream cuts its way through the forest.

On this day I was once again able to step / hop across the stream but I’ve seen it when I couldn’t.

Once you’ve hopped the stream the road becomes a closed in trail. I could hear cars going by on the nearby highway.

Moments after crossing the stream you come to what was once a beaver pond on the left side of the road, but it was abandoned quite a while ago by the looks. This place is unusual because when the beavers were active there were ponds on both sides of the road, or one large pond with a road running through it. It seems kind of an odd place for them to have built in.

Beavers, from what I’ve read, will work an area in what averages thirty year cycles. The first stage is damming a stream and creating a pond. The flooding kills the trees that now stand in water and the beavers will eat these and the other trees that surround the pond. Eventually the pond fills with silt or the beavers move away and the dam fails. Once the land drains it will eventually revert back to forest with a stream running through it and the long cycle will repeat itself. Many other animals, birds, fish, amphibians, waterfowl and even we humans benefit from beaver ponds. I’ve seen mallards here in the past but there were none on this day.

Until this walk I knew of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) so I was shocked (and happy) to see them blooming here so late. On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant. They were a perfect ending to a beautiful forest walk.

He who does not expect the unexpected will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored. ~Heraclitus of Ephesus

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