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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

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

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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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Last Saturday was a beautiful warm spring day and though there was plenty of snow left, it was melting fast. The “plenty of snow” part of things is what dictates where I can go in winter because many parking areas have been plowed in or not plowed at all. Not only that but many places don’t see much foot traffic in winter so the snow hasn’t been packed down. This rail trail in Keene solves all of those problems and that’s why I chose it. There is plenty of parking space and the snow has been packed down by snowmobiles, making it easy to walk on. If you step off that packed trail though, you could find yourself knee deep in snow, so you have to keep that in mind.

I admired the branch structure of the trees against the beautiful blue of the sky. This one is a white poplar (Populus alba,) which is a weak tree that often loses large limbs. In ancient Rome this tree was called Arbour populi, which means tree of the people. These days it is also called silver leaved poplar. It originally came to the U.S. from Europe in 1748 and obviously liked it here because now it can be found in almost every state. It is very common here in New Hampshire and is considered a weed tree.

One of the easiest ways of identifying white poplar is by its diamond shaped lenticels, which are dark against the whitish bark. Another way is by its leaves, which are green on top and white and wooly underneath. The tree has a shallow root system and suckers aggressively from the roots, so it is best not to use it as an ornamental.

The native tree population in the area is mostly maple, pine, birch, and black cherry. This forest is young; I can remember when it was a cornfield, and knowing I’m older than the trees makes me feel a little strange. I can’t remember exactly when they stopped farming this land but if I go by the size of the tree trunks it couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30 years ago.

I finally saw birds eating birch seeds. This gray birch had a whole flock of them in it and they let me stand 5 feet away and watch them feed until a snowmobile came along and scared them away. These aren’t good photos at all but I wanted to show that I wasn’t imagining things when I say that birds eat birch seeds.

I tried looking these small birds up and the closest I could come was the black and white warbler, because of the stripes you can see in this  poor shot.  There was a resounding chorus of birdsong all along this trail on this day and now I know who was singing at least part of it. How could someone not be happy when so many birds are?

The whole of both sides of this trail are lined with American hazelnut bushes (Corylus americana) and I like the way the green-gold catkins shine in the spring sun. I looked several time for signs of them opening, but not yet. When they open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under those diamond shaped bud scales.

As I was taking photos of these sapsucker holes I could hear a woodpecker drilling off in the distance. Yellow bellied sapsuckers are in the woodpecker family but unlike other woodpeckers they feed on sap instead of insects. They drill a series of holes in a line across the bark and then move up or down and drill another series of holes before moving again, and the end result is usually a rectangular pattern of holes in the bark. They’ll return to these holes again and again to feed on the dripping sap. Many small animals, bats, birds and insects also drink from them, so these little birds helps out a lot of their forest companions.

I was admiring the sunshine on black cherry branches (Prunus serotina) when a plane flew by. A single engine Cessna practicing stalls, I think. It flew in a nose up attitude and was surprisingly quiet.

This black cherry had a bad case of black knot disease, which is what caused the growth seen here. Though it looks like a burl it is not; it’s caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. When it rains the fungus releases spores that are carried by the wind to other trees and almost every cherry along this trail had the disease, which is always fatal if it isn’t cut out of the tree when it’s young. It also infects plum and other ornamental cherry trees. It’s often mistaken for the chaga mushroom but that fungus doesn’t grow on cherry trees. Note the tree’s platy, dark gray bark with horizontal lenticels. Black cherries can grow to 80 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter if they aren’t attacked by black knot.

I saw what I thought was snow on a fallen branch but it was a bracket fungus that had degraded so badly it had become paper thin and the purest white.

I reached the point where ash swamp brook meets the Ashuelot River and there were two small black and white ducks here, splashing across the water very fast; so fast I couldn’t get a shot of them. They were probably half the size of a mallard with dark and light colored bodies and they could really move.

I used to come here as a boy and watch the bank swallows that lived in this embankment. That’s all soil, probably 10 feet deep, from the brook to the top, all deposited as river silt over who knows how many thousands of years and soft enough for the birds to dig in. It’s no wonder farmers have farmed this land for centuries. “Rich bottom land” I believe they call it.

The brook and river still flood to this day, and you can usually see huge plates of ice all around the trees in this area in winter, but I didn’t see any on this day.

I was able to climb / slide down the hill into the forest to get a shot of the trestle I stood on to take the previous 3 shots. This trestle is known as a “double intersection Warren pony truss bridge” and was probably built around 1900. It is also described as a lattice truss. Metal truss bridges were used as early as 1866 but railroads didn’t begin using them until around 1870. By 1900 they were common and replaced wooden bridges, which occasionally burned and often were washed away in flooding. I’ve seen water almost up to the bottom of this one and that’s a scary sight.

Some of these old Boston and Maine Railroad trestles have been here for 150 years and if man leaves them alone I’d bet that they’ll be here for another 150 years. I wish I knew if they were built here or built off site and shipped here. I do know that the abutments were built here from local granite, all without a drop of mortar.

Ash swamp brook was very low but since it hasn’t rained and no snow had melted for a week or so I wasn’t surprised. This brook meanders through parts of Keene and Swanzey and originates to the north of Keene. Hurricane brook starts it all near a place called Stearn’s hill. It becomes white brook for a while before emptying into black brook.  Black brook in turn empties into Ash Swamp, and the outflow from the swamp is called ash swamp brook. It finally meets the Ashuelot river at this spot after changing names at least 4 and maybe more times. I’m guessing all the different names are from the early settlers, who most likely didn’t know they were looking at the same brook. It’s quite long and I doubt anyone has ever followed it from here to its source.

I saw a small oak branch that was full of split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune.) These are winter fungi that in late fall and I was happy to see them because I’ve been looking for them all winter but hadn’t seen any. They are about the size of a penny and are very tough and leathery.

Split gill fungi wear a wooly fur coat and this makes then easy to identify. Split gills grow on every continent except Antarctica and are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Scientists have isolated a compound in them that is said to inhibit the HIV-1 virus.

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds of tissue on its underside that split lengthwise when the mushroom dries out. The splits close over the fertile spore producing surfaces in dry weather and open to release the spores when they’re rehydrated by rain. It’s a pretty little mushroom, in my opinion.

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

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As soon as I mentioned spring in a blog post winter returned and we’ve had a cold, snowy week. Last Saturday it was cloudy but not too cold at 37 degrees F. when I went to play on the banks of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey. I’ve been playing on these river banks my entire lifetime and I’ve seen a lot of trees in the river, but I’ve never seen one actually fall in. That leaning white pine over on the left is going to fall in any time now, I’d guess, but I doubt I’ll see it happen. Once it falls in it might be in this spot for a year or two or maybe more, but eventually the river will flood and off it will go on its journey to the Atlantic. White pines are our tallest trees and I’m guessing that this one is over 100 feet tall.

Ice baubles that would have been more at home on a chandelier hung from the slab of ice that had formed over a stone.

They hung from anything close enough for the river to touch.

Just like a candle dipped in hot wax the waves engulf an icicle again and again, depositing a new layer of ice each time. The excess water runs down its length and pools there, creating the fat bottom just above the water. In this shot the point from where the bauble dangles doesn’t look very strong.

Last Monday the temperatures fell into the single digits F. and the wind roared with 60 mile per hour gusts. After that it was snowy all week and cold enough to keep the snow from melting. Everything that fell stayed right where it landed.

And the snow on tree trunks marked the direction the wind had blown it in from.

I saw lots of beaver activity here. They had sampled this young beech at might have come back and cut it down that night.

Sometimes a beaver will sample a tree and find it not to its liking, and leave it alone.

But usually they know what they’re cutting and they cut down trees and haul them away. They like beech and I’ve seen them cut huge old trees down to get at the upper branches.

The chips the beaver left behind looked like the same things a pileated woodpecker would have left but I didn’t find any woodpecker damage on any of the nearby trees.

I’ve noticed many times that fallen oak limbs have a golden color on their bark. What I don’t know is if this happens when the branch dies or is it there when they’re alive. I’ve cut down and cut up oak trees but I’ve never noticed the color on a fresh limb.

Fallen oak limbs often have jelly fungi on them, especially amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) like that seen here. This one was about the size of a nickel and frozen solid. Once it thaws it will grow on as if nothing ever happened. It’s the only jelly fungus I know of that holds its size when it dries out. Most shrivel down into little chips on the bark.

I love the soft brown color of last year’s oak leaves and the way they curl together as if hugging to keep each other warm.

I think the fungus on this tree was conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum,) which I’m seeing a lot of this year. It is also called bleeding parchment because of the blood red liquid it exudes when damaged but this example was very dry. The fungus causes heart rot and means a death sentence for a conifer. I’ve seen this fungus in just about every bit of woodland I’ve been in recently and after not seeing it for years, that seems strange. It’s almost like an outbreak.

Milk white toothed polypore was dry enough to be almost unrecognizable but I’ve seen it enough to know what I was looking at. This crust fungus has ragged bits of spore producing tissue that hang down and look like teeth, and that’s where part of its common name comes from. This common fungus can usually be found on the undersides of hardwood branches.

Common ground pine (Lycopodium dendroideum) is a clubmoss and has nothing to do with pines. It also has nothing to do with moss; it’s a vascular plant that produces spores instead of flowers. The spores are produced in the yellowish “clubs” called strobili. In this photo the strobili are still tightly closed. When they open to release the spores they have a kind of ragged look to them. The dried spores they are highly flammable, and they were once used in place of flash bulbs in photography. That’s one reason that clubmosses were so hard to find at one time. People also made Christmas wreaths from them and that also helped to nearly wipe them out. They’ve made a comeback though and I see lots of them.

Snow always melts faster under the evergreens because the branches block so much of it from falling next to the trunk. This gives birds and small animals places to scratch around and find any morsels that might have been missed.

The return of the bluebirds made me think that other migrants might be coming back as well, but the sumac berries still aren’t being eaten. I’ve heard that the fruit is low in fat and not very nourishing but I would think it would at least fill an empty stomach and get them by until they could find something a little more nourishing. These berries are on a smooth sumac (Rhus glabra,) which I’ve never seen growing here.

The birds have eaten all the seeds from the asters, but what they leave behind is still pretty enough to make me think of flowers. It’s hard to imagine birds getting much nourishment from such tiny seeds but I suppose if you happen to be a tiny bird they’re just right.

They say a warm up is coming starting next week so I hope to be able to show you something besides ice and snow soon. I still haven’t seen a sap bucket but I dreamed I was in a sugar bush of huge old trees with hundreds of buckets hanging from them, so I hope to also be able to show you one of those soon. I have seen that plastic tubing they use instead of sap buckets these days, so I know the sap must be flowing.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

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We’re still having the up and down weather we’ve had for a month now, with freezing temps one day and melting the next. This branch sticking up out of the Ashuelot River had a record of both how much the water has gone down and how long it had been freezing in that spot. It looks like it’s been about a foot of water, but how much time has passed I don’t know. Soon we’ll have above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing at night, and that will be the age old sign to start tapping the maple trees. Once the sap flows the earth has warmed and spring is here, no matter what the calendar might say.

Native Americans showed the early settlers how to tap trees for their sap and boil it down into syrup. Though we tap mostly maples they tapped birches as well. They had been doing so for about 12,000 years along this river, according to archeological evidence. In fact if it wasn’t for natives the settlers probably wouldn’t have survived here. -30 degrees F. can be a real shock to one’s system if they aren’t prepared for it. I took the above photo because it shows what it might have looked like back then, and because I loved the blue of the river.

This stone has bothered me for a very long time. It sits at the entrance to a local park and has what looks like the tracks of a small animal all over it.

Here is a closer look at what look like animal paw prints to me. I can’t imagine how they would have gotten on this stone because it doesn’t look like it is a sedimentary stone, which means it was probably never mud and therefore not soft enough for an animal to leave its tracks in. On the other hand maybe they’re just some kind of inclusion in the stone and not animal tracks at all. Though the photo doesn’t show it clearly they are depressions, just as if they were indeed a paw print.

I saw a sedum seed head that looked more colorful than the flowers that were here 3 months ago. I think they were pink.

Some trees are taking on that magical golden color that only happens in spring. Willows especially will do it but I don’t think this was a willow. I couldn’t get close enough to its buds to tell.

Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer. This seep is a warm one; in all the years I’ve known it I’ve never seen it completely freeze. Seeps don’t have a single point of origin like a spring, instead they form a puddle that never dries up and doesn’t flow. They’re an important water source for many small animals and birds and unusual plants and fungi can often be found in and around them. I’ve found some interesting fungi like swamp beacons and eyelash fungi in seeps.

When ice formed on a mud puddle it must have cracked, because this is the pattern it left in the mud of the puddle after it melted.

This tree showed the height of the water but the odd thing was there was no water, so there must have been flooding there at some point. Flooding is common at this time of year, especially after a couple of warm days when the ice on rivers and streams melts. Then it freezes again and becomes a solid mass which can dam up any flowing water course. Ice dams can be very dangerous and so far this year there have been a few north of here which have caused some flooding.

I was disappointed in this photo of a field of little bluestem grass showing through the snow. In the sunshine it was a beautiful golden color but try as I might the camera just couldn’t see what I saw. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it, or maybe you’ve seen it yourself. It is stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful.

In places like the northwest and Scotland you expect to see trees festooned with ferns but it’s a rare sight here. Apparently though, this polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) didn’t know that and took root on an old white pine. It seems strange to me that more ferns don’t do this.

The snow on this stump showed the depth of the latest snowfall, but what it didn’t show is the crust that formed after it rained on top of the snow. It’s a shiny, slippery, solid crust that will almost support you when you walk on it, but not quite. You step on it with one foot and it supports you until you lift your other foot, and then you plunge through the crust with the first foot. I wanted to go out hill climbing but even on flat, level ground walking in this stuff is just exhausting work.

The slab that the sun is shining through is a good example of the crusty snow. The crust is about an inch and a half thick and it is hard to manage, even with a plow. To shovel it you have to cut it into square, manageable pieces then move the pieces one at a time, but you’d better do it right after the precipitation stops or you’ll face even more ice. It’s a mindless task but mindless tasks can be valuable because since you don’t have to think when you are doing them, you can think higher thoughts. You can for example think about how lucky and very grateful you are to be alive and to be able to shovel snow.

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 wall. It’s the first I’ve seen do that.

I saw some poison ivy the other day and it was wearing its vine disguise. Poison ivy can appear as a plant, a shrub, or a vine and if you’re going to spend much time in the woods it’s a good idea to know it well. In the winter a vine like this can help identify the plant because of the many aerial roots that come directly out of its bark. It’s best not to touch it because even in winter it can cause an itchy rash.

Vines like bittersweet, grape, and the trumpet creeper vine (Campsis radicans) shown here do not have aerial roots. They climb by twining themselves around the tree. I like the rings on this vine’s bark, like a ring shank nail. It’s something I never noticed before but this vine is quite old, so maybe that’s why.

The seed cones of gray birch trees (Betula populifolia) are often called female catkins, but botanically speaking they are strobiles, and a strobile holds seeds, not flowers. Though birch seeds ripen in late fall they are still common into late winter, even as other plants with catkins like alders and hazelnuts are starting to flower.

Each strobile holds many tiny bracts and seeds and birds seem to love them. What looks like a twig on the right is what is left, the core of the strobile, after all the seeds had been eaten from it. I’d guess that some of the seeds and bracts were blown about by the wind as well. They’re very thin, light, and papery.

There is always something on any walk in the woods that can’t be explained and this is one of them. This clothespin was clipped to a branch of a shrub that grew next to a trail. Maybe it’s there so you could leave a message for the next trail follower, if you were so inclined.

Never has the earth been so lovely or the sun so bright as today. ~Nikinapi, an Illiniwek chief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In places the woods were full of ice.

And in other places they were nearly ice free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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