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Archive for the ‘Things I’ve Seen’ Category

A cool damp spring like the one we’ve had can make New Englanders out of sorts sometimes and downright grumpy at other times, but a snowstorm in May can seem like a real slap in the face. Just as we were raking all the leaves we couldn’t get raked last fall because of November snows, along comes more snow on May 14th. Luckily this time we only saw about an inch but one year we saw about a foot of snow fall after the leaves had come out on the trees, and it caused an unbelievable amount of tree damage. I was still picking up fallen branches in July.

Luckily most of the leaves appeared after the snow had melted, so it was little bother.

Of course I watched the leaves appear. Beech leaves especially, are very beautiful in the spring. They look like little angel wings.

This photo shows how bud break progresses on a beech tree. Many people think one leaf comes out of each beech bud but in fact all of the current year’s growth for that branch is contained in a single bud. Here you can see at least 4 leaves coming from this bud. The branch will grow and elongate so the leaves are separated just enough so one doesn’t block the sunlight falling on another; just one of the many miracles of nature that so many never see.

A new beech leaf retains its silvery hairs for just a very short time so you have to watch closely to catch it. I try not to offer much advice to the readers of this blog but I know that what works for me might work for others so as I have said before; try to find joy in the simple things in life, because if you do joy will follow you wherever you go. When you find yourself passing up just about anything else to watch the unfurling of a leaf or to sit beside a giggling stream you’ll know you are there. And you’ll want to stay.

Beech isn’t the only tree growing leaves in spring of course. Oak leaves usually start life in some color other than green like red or purple, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen them wearing white.

Maple trees also have leaves that open to something other than green; usually red or orange if it’s a red maple (Acer rubrum.) If it’s cold or cloudy as the new leaves emerge they’ll stay in their non green state but sunlight and warmth will eventually coax the tree into producing chlorophyll and they green up quickly so they can start photosynthesizing and making food.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) can be beautiful in the spring; beautiful enough so you want to touch it, but if you do you’ll be sorry. I know the plant well and would never intentionally touch it but I got into it somehow and I’ve been itching for a week. You can get the rash even from the leafless stems and that’s usually where I get it.

There are a few evergreen trees in a local park that produce beautiful purple cones in spring and this is one of them. It’s a spruce tree but I don’t know its name. It’s needles are very stiff and sharp and I actually drove one of them into my finger when I was trying to get this photo.

Many plant parts are purple in spring, including flowers like those on what I believe is sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum.) Grasses can be very beautiful and I hope everyone reading this walks a little slower and looks a little closer so they can see them.

I thought these new tall meadow rue leaves (Thalictrum pubescens) edged in purple were very pretty. This is a fast growing plant which will tower over my head and be blooming on the fourth of July with little orange tipped white flowers that look like bombs bursting in air.

Right after I told Jerry at the Quiet Solo Pursuits blog that I hadn’t seen any butterflies I started seeing them, and that’s the way this blogging thing always seems to work. I don’t dare tell you it will be sunny tomorrow because if I did it would surely rain. Anyhow, this eastern swallowtail landed in a bare spot in a lawn I was standing on and I noticed that it had a large piece of its left wing missing. It was a close call because whatever took its wing just barely missed its body. I’m guessing a bird got it.

By the way, you can find Jerry’s blog over there on the right in the “favorite links” section and you should, because it’s a great nature blog that I’ve enjoyed for many years.

An ant was on a dandelion blossom but when I went to take its photo it crawled off onto a nearby leaf. I never knew they were so hairy.

This swamp is where I find many of the spring ephemeral flowers that you see on this blog. Goldthread, trillium, bloodroot, wild ginger, dwarf ginseng and others grow here. Great blue herons nest here and many types of ducks visit, but they’re very wary and almost impossible to get a good shot of.

Many ferns also grow around the swamp in the previous photo. This cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) was unfurling beautifully one recent day. It’s hard to believe this little thing will be waist high in just a short time.

I find chanterelle wax cap mushrooms (Hygrocybe cantharellus) growing in clusters on well-rotted logs, but I don’t think I’ve ever found them in May. This is a pretty little orange mushroom with a cap that might get as big as a nickel, but that’s probably stretching it. These mushrooms show themselves for quite a long time and I often still see them in September.

Fuzzy foot mushrooms (Xeromphalina campanella) are easy to confuse with chanterelle wax caps but they have a dense tuft of orange brown hairs at the base of the stem and these mushrooms didn’t have that. Chanterelle wax caps have pale yellow gills that run down the stem. They also have occasional short gills, which means they stop short of the stem. Both features can be seen in this photo.

The skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) swamp is green with new leaves. Many thousands of plants grow here as they have for who knows how many hundreds or even thousands of years.

I love the spring green of the forest floor seen here. It’s hard to tell but the green comes from many thousands of wildflowers, including sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia.) This forest along the Ashuelot river is where I come to find them each spring.

I also visit the Ashuelot River to watch the buds of shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) break each spring. They’re one of the most beautiful things seen in a New England forest in spring in my opinion, and I wouldn’t miss their opening. I’ve always thought this tree liked lowlands but I recently saw them growing high on a hillside in a hardwood forest.

Indescribable, endless beauty and deep, immense joy. These are what nature offers to those willing to receive them, and all it costs is a little time. I hope you’ll take that time, if you can.

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

Thanks for coming by.

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Flowers take center stage in spring but they aren’t the only things out there to see because spring is busting out all over. I always love watching for fern fiddleheads like these examples to suddenly appear. Sometimes it seems like they grow inches overnight so you have to watch carefully each day.

Hairy fiddleheads like these belong to either cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) or interrupted fern (Osmundastrum claytoniana.) Both are beautiful right up until fall, when they turn pumpkin orange.

Lady fern fiddleheads (Athyrium filix-femina) are also up. Lady fern is the only fern I know of with brown / black scales on its stalk. This fern likes to grow in moist, loamy areas along streams and rivers. They don’t like windy places, so if you find a shaded dell where a grove of lady fern grows it’s safe to assume that it doesn’t ever get very windy there.

I was walking the shores of Half Moon Pond up in Hancock when I saw a curious shrub that I hadn’t ever seen before. It grew almost in the water and leaned quite far out over it. It also had what looked like orange catkins all over it.

Once I got home with the photos it didn’t take long to identify the shrub as sweet gale (Myrica gale,) which is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. The catkins shown above are the male catkins. Now I’ve got to go back and look for the beautiful female catkins, which remind me of hazel catkins but look much larger in the photos I’ve seen. I’ll let you know what I find.

We’ve had a lot of rain over the last few weeks so one day I went to see how Beaver Brook was doing. It wasn’t full on this day but it wasn’t exactly placid either.

I went back two days later and Beaver Brook was raging, and there were streams of water pouring off the hillside into it. It’s amazing how this can happen in two short days, but we had about an inch and a half of rain which fell on already soggy ground.

It poured off the hillside in a torrent, making waterfalls where I’ve never seen any.

All of our brooks and streams in this area eventually empty into the Ashuelot River, and if the streams are raging it’s a pretty fair bet that the river is as well. It certainly was on this day, and I saw a beautiful wave form right in front of me.

I should say here that this and several other photos in this post were taken with a new camera. My trusty Canon Powershot SX-40 has given up the ghost, I think. I couldn’t seem to get a sharp photo out of it anymore no matter what I did and with glaucoma I need a camera I can count on, so I bought a Canon EOS T6. I really didn’t want a digital SLR because I didn’t want to have to carry a bunch of lenses around but at $300.00 off it was hard to say no. I think it’s the 6th or 7th camera I’ve used for this blog because they have a tough life in the woods, and simply wear out. I can only hope this new camera does as well as the old Powershot, which was a great camera that took many thousands of photos and more than a few hard knocks. I hope you’ll bear with me while I learn how to wade through its seemingly endless menus. The technical aspect of photography is my least favorite part so it might take a while.

Macro photos like this one of a maple bud will still be taken with my trusty Olympus Stylus TG-870. It is called the “war camera” with good reason. If you’re looking for a camera that can take good macro photos even after it has been dropped and rained on several times, it’s the one you want. It did well to show the beautiful veining on this small bud.

White baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is an extremely toxic plant but I love the movement that its new spring shoots have. Every time I see them I think how nice it would be to sit beside them and draw them, but I never seem to find the time. This one makes me think of someone contemplating a handful of pearls, which of course are actually its flower buds. Soon it will have a club shaped head of small white flowers. Native Americans brewed a tea from the roots of this plant and used it medicinally to treat pain and other ailments, but no part of it should ever be ingested. In late summer it will have bright white berries with a single black dot that give the plant its common name of doll’s eyes. The berries especially are very toxic.

We have field horsetails (Equisetum arvense) where I work and I was finally able to confirm that yes, they really do come up overnight. I watched this spot each day and they weren’t there and then, one day they were. This is a very interesting plant so I was happy to see them. Thankfully they don’t grow near a garden. If they did I wouldn’t have been quite so happy to see them because they’re close to impossible to get out of a garden.

The fertile spore bearing stem of a common or field horsetail ends in a cone shaped structure called a strobilus. Since it doesn’t photosynthesize at this point in its development the plant has no need for chlorophyll, so most of it is a pale, whitish color. When it’s ready to release its spores the cone opens to reveal tiny, mushroom shaped sporangiophores. The whitish “ruffles” at the base of each brown sporangiophore are the spore producing sporangia. When the horsetail looks like the one in the photo it has released its spores and will soon die and be replaced by the gritty green infertile stems that most of us are probably familiar with. Horsetails were used as medicine by the ancient Romans and Greeks to treat a variety of ailments.

What I can’t explain about this particular horsetail strobilus are the tiny lozenge shaped bits seen here and there in this photo. I’ve never seen them before but a guess would be that they’re part of the reproductive system, possibly a zygote, which is a fertilized egg cell that results from the union of a female gamete (egg, or ovum) with a male gamete (sperm). If you know what they are I’d love for you to let me (us) know.

More people are probably familiar with the infertile stems of horsetail, shown here. They grow from the same roots as the fertile spore bearing shoots in the previous photos and they do all the photosynthesizing. Horsetails spread quickly and can be very aggressive. If they ever appear in your garden you should remove them as soon as possible, because large colonies are nearly impossible to eradicate.

I looked up at the sun shining through newly opened horse chestnut leaves. I was hoping to see its beautiful flowers but I was too early, so the new spring leaves were beautiful enough.

Silver maples have given up on flowers and now all their energy is being put into seed and leaf production. What I find interesting is how the leaves come last in the process, which means that stored energy from the previous season must be used to produce this season’s flowers and seeds, since there is no photosynthesis going on at the moment. This samara will quickly lose its red color and become green, and the white hairs will disappear.

Japanese knotweed can be quite beautiful when it starts to unfurl its leaves in spring but Americans have no love affair with it because it is an invasive weed that is nearly impossible to eradicate once it becomes established. I’ve seen it killed back to the ground by frost and in less than 3 weeks it had grown right back. I’ve heard that the new spring shoots taste much like rhubarb but I’ve never tried them.

The flowers stalks (culms) of Pennsylvania sedge are about 4 inches tall and have wispy, white female (pistillate) flowers below the terminal male (staminate) flowers. Sedge flowers are actually called spikelets and the stems that bear them are triangular, hence the old saying “sedges have edges.” They’re pretty little things that I think most people miss seeing.

I thought that this unfurling shoot of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) was very beautiful. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and I wouldn’t be surprised to see others with flower buds already. Native Americans sprinkled the dried powdered roots of this plant on hot stones and inhaled the smoke to alleviate headaches. All parts of the plant except the roots and young shoots are poisonous but sometimes the preparation method is what makes a toxic plant usable.

The buds have split open on some striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum,) revealing the leaves within. It always amazes me how such large leaves can come out of such relatively small buds. They’re often bigger than my hand.

In my last post I told of how American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. This photo shows a bud being opened by that tension. Soon the new leaves will emerge, covered in silvery downy hairs that make them look like tiny angel wings. They are one of the most beautiful sights in a New England spring forest.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

Thanks for coming by. Happy Mayday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for coming by.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With daytime temperatures above freezing the snow is melting more each day. The woods in this photo have a southern exposure so the snow melts quickly. In fact I drove by them again yesterday and saw that all the snow had melted before I could even get this post posted. Soon there will be trout lilies blooming here. False hellebore, Pennsylvania sedges and ramps also grow here and this is one of my favorite places to visit each spring.

There is still a lot of snow left to melt in places though. This pile was about ten feet high and three times that long. It’s best for it to melt slowly so it doesn’t cause any flooding so daytime temperatures in the upper 40s F. and lower 50s are best, and that’s just what we’ve been getting.

Of course all the melting makes mud and we have plenty of it this year. I’ve already come close to getting stuck in it two or three times. We call this time of year mud season, when the upper foot or two of soil thaws but anything under that stays frozen. Water can’t penetrate the frozen soil so it sits on top of it, mixing with the thawed soil and making dirt roads a muddy quagmire. It’s like quicksand and it’s hellish trying to drive through it because you’re usually stuck in it before you realize how deep it is.

As this photo shows mud season has been with us for a long time. If you Google “Mud season” you’ll see cars, trucks, school buses and just about any other vehicle you can name stuck in the mud, just like this one. Some towns in the region have already closed roads because of it. This old tin Lizzie had chains on its wheels but it still got stuck.

One of the things I enjoy most at this time of year is walking through the woods to see what the melting snow has uncovered, like the purple leaves of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) seen here. Though the plant is an evergreen it doesn’t photosynthesize in winter so it doesn’t need green leaves. In fact many evergreen plants have purple leaves in winter but they’ll be greening up soon. This plant is also called teaberry and checkerberry because of its minty, bright red berries.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) also has purple leaves in winter. This is a trailing vine with white flowers and black berries that look much like blackberries. Though it acts like a prickly vine botanically it is considered a shrub. It is also called bristly blackberry but I’ve heard that the blackberry like fruit is very sour. Native Americans used the roots of this plant medicinally to treat coughs and other ailments.

It isn’t always plants that appear from under the snow. I love seeing these curled fern leaves from last year.

Puddles get very big at this time of year and some, like the one seen here on a mowed lawn, could almost be called small ponds. It had a thin layer of ice on it on this cold morning.

Trail ice unfortunately is some of the last to melt. I’m guessing it’s because it has been so packed down and has become dense. It’s very hard to walk on without ice spikes.

Did this tree look like that when it fell or has the yellow conifer parchment fungus been growing under the snow all winter? Whatever the answer, the tree was covered with it.

Conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum) causes brown heart rot in trees, which is a reddish brown discoloration in the wood of conifers. It is also called bleeding parchment fungus because of the red juice they exude when damaged, but so far all of the examples I’ve seen were very dry and hard, and fairly impossible to damage.

Conifer parchment fungus is beginning to concern me because I’m seeing so much of it, virtually everywhere I go. If it’s on a standing tree like this one it means a death sentence for the tree. Nature will have to run its course and find a balance; I doubt there is very much we can do to stop it.

There were mallards on the Ashuelot River but the river wasn’t quite at bank full despite all the melting going on.

Regular readers know that I like to try to catch cresting river waves with my camera, but the water level has to be just right for good waves. If the river is too high or too low the waves will be small or nonexistent. This one was small but I still wouldn’t want to be hit by it.

Instead of the usual teardrop shape ice baubles along the river took on more of a flattened disc shape this day. They look like coins on sticks in this photo.

This one looked more like an orb but it was a disc. These may be the last ice baubles I get to see this year but that’s okay. They’ll be a happy memory and I’ll be warmer.

Fan clubmoss (Lycopodium digitatum) is one of my favorite clubmosses but I don’t see it too often because it has been so over collected for Christmas wreaths and other things. A single plant can take 20 years from spore to maturity so they shouldn’t ever be disturbed. This plant gets its name from the way its branches fan out at the top of the stem.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) has made it through the winter just fine. This plant is also called Mayflower because that’s when its small, very fragrant white or pink flowers appear. It was one of my grandmother’s favorites and seeing it always makes me think of her. Even ice won’t hurt its tough, leathery leaves.

So what I hope I’ve shown in this post are all the beautiful and interesting things that are buried under the snow in winter; things like the turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) above. This is the time, before plants start growing new leaves and hiding them, that is the best time to find things like this.

These are some of the most beautiful turkey tails I’ve seen and there they were, in a spot I’ve visited many times, but I’ve never seen them. I hope you’ll see something as beautiful when the snow melts where you are.

Like the seeds dreaming beneath the snow, your heart dreams of spring. Kahlil Gibran

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I was hoping I’d be able to show flowers on the first day of spring and, though they might not seem like much, these vernal witch hazel petals (Hamamelis vernalis) just coming out of the fuzzy buds were wonderful to see. Actually tomorrow is the first full day of spring but it does start today.

Forsythia is a shrub that takes on a kind of golden hue in spring and this year many are going for broke.

Alder (Alnus) catkins are also coloring up, preparing to open and release the pollen from the male flowers, hundreds of which are hidden behind the scales of the catkins shown here.

Willow catkins aren’t showing any color yet but I think that any day now yellow flowers will start to show among the gray fuzziness of the catkins.

Crocuses are up and budded but I didn’t see any blossoms fully open yet.

It’s great to see a crocus, blossoming or not.

There are reticulated iris in the same bed as the crocuses and I think this might be one of them. they’re very early and often are the first spring bulb to bloom.

Daffodils are still thinking about things and can’t seem to make up their minds whether it is really spring or not. Who could blame them, with 60 degrees one day and 40 the next?

I remembered that what I thought were tulips a post or two ago are actually hyacinths. They look a lot alike at this stage and I seem to make the same mistake every year.

The daylilies at a friend’s house are up and about 3 inches tall, but they get warmth from the house’s foundation. They are an early plant but I haven’t seen any anywhere else yet.

I can’t explain the feeling I got when I saw the yellow buds showing on this Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) but it was a good one. It wasn’t because the flowers are spectacular but more because it is a sure sign of spring and my heart soared at the thought of it. Many people haven’t heard of this non-native, early blooming shrub but it hails from the Mediterranean regions and was well known to Ancient Greeks and Romans. Archeological digs show that it’s small, tart, cherry red fruits have been eaten by man for thousands of years. It has quite small bright yellow, four petaled flowers that bees absolutely love.

I haven’t seen anything happening with the magnolias yet but soon their fuzzy caps will come off to reveal the buds within.

Lilac buds on the other hand, have started to open. You can see how the bud scales, which are very tight and shingle-like in winter, have started to pull away from each other. By mid-May they’ll be in full bloom and their wonderful fragrance will be on the breeze no matter where you go in this area.

Last year I saw red maple flowers (Acer rubrum) on March 25th. This means that these buds have about a week to fully open if they want to do that again and I think that they probably will because we’re supposed to have a week of above freezing temperatures.

But I’ve also seen red maple buds open too early, and the flowers have been badly frost bitten. Luckily the blossoming time of red maples is staggered from tree to tree and since not all flowers have opened there are always some that don’t get damaged by frost. In this shot the uppermost buds on the right and left look to be about ready to open.

I went to the forest where the spring beauties bloom. I didn’t expect to see any flowers but I wondered if I might see a leaf or two. I didn’t see any but they’ll be along soon. Many thousands of beautiful little spring beauties should carpet the floor of this piece of forest sometime in mid-April.

I didn’t see flowers but I saw that the beavers sure had been busy.

And so had the woodpeckers.

The mottled yellow and maroon spathes of skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are up and so thick you have to be careful not to step on them. If you do step on one you know it; the smell of skunk can be very strong sometimes. It’s too wet where they grow right now to kneel and get a shot of the flowers inside the spathe but I hope to be able to do so soon.

That’s a leaf shoot on the left of this skunk cabbage spathe, and that’s very unusual. The leaves don’t usually appear until after the plants have bloomed. Young leaves can resemble cabbage leaves, but only for a very short time.

Here’s another beautiful vernal witch hazel that I found blooming by following the scent. I know a place where several large shrubs grow. When I visited them I couldn’t see any blossoms but I could smell them so I knew they were there somewhere. And they were; way in the back was a single branch loaded with these blossoms. Their wonderful clean scent has been compared to a load of laundry just taken in from the line, and that’s as good a description as I’ve heard. Maybe a tiny bit spicy as well for this variety.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month. ~Henry Van Dyke

Thanks for coming by. Happy first day of spring!

 

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