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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

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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I should mention, for newer readers, that these “Things I’ve seen” posts are made up of photos I’ve taken of things that didn’t fit into other posts, usually because the other posts were already far too long. Quite often I end up with too many photos to fit in one post but I don’t want to waste them, so here they are.

The pond in this shot shows very well what “rotten ice” looks like. Specks of dirt and bubbles get between the ice crystal bonds and weaken their strength, and when it looks like this, with a dark matte finish, you certainly don’t want to walk on it. Of course this was taken when we had a warm spell. The ice has firmed up now and is covered with about 6 inches of snow.

The pond in the previous photo connects to a swamp by way of a culvert under a road and beavers use it to travel back and forth, stopping long enough to cut some trees on the way.

The beavers have been very active here this year and have cut many young birch trees in this area. They do this every few years and then cut somewhere else, giving the birches time to grow back. I’ve seen these clumps grow back at least twice in the 30 years or so that I’ve paid attention.

You know you’re seeing some strange weather when a tree drips sap in January.

But then it got cold; cold enough to grow ice shelves on the Ashuelot River.

How enticing they are to pig headed little boys who don’t like to listen to their elders. I know that because I was one of those once, and I walked right down the middle of the frozen river. All of the sudden I heard what sounded like rifle shots and I ran as fast as I could for the river bank. When I was able to peel myself from the tree I had a death grip on and take a look, I saw water where I had been walking. It scared me more than anything else ever has I think, and I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

Even the stones were coated with ice.

The Ashuelot was tame on this day and there were no waves to take photos of.

The river had coughed up an ice bauble which caught the sunshine but didn’t melt. I’m always surprised by how clear river ice is. This bauble was so clear I could see a V shaped something frozen inside it.

Jelly fungi are made almost entirely water so of course they were frozen too. This amber example felt like an ice cube rather than an earlobe as they usually do. Freezing doesn’t seem to affect them much, I’ve noticed.

The seed eating birds have been busy picking all the prickly looking coneflower seeds in my yard. They had just gotten started on this one.

And they had just about finished with this one. Odd that these seed heads are hollow.

I don’t know if birds eat the tiny seeds of forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) but the seed pods look almost like a trough that would make them easy to reach. I can’t remember this pretty little annual plant having such hairy parts in life but they certainly do in death.

I thought the color of these dead fern stems (Rachis) was very beautiful on a winter day. I think they might have been hay scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula,) which grow in large colonies and have stems that persist long after the leaves have fallen.

Many things are as beautiful in death as they are in life, especially fungi. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call this one beautiful but it was certainly interesting.

This isn’t a very good photo but it does help illustrate how strange our weather has been, because you don’t see too many flies flying around in January in New Hampshire. Last Tuesday it was -13 degrees F. and everything was frozen solid. By Thursday it was 50 degrees; warm enough apparently to awaken this fly. It was also warm enough to cause an unusual snow slide in Claremont, which is north of here. A large amount of snow suddenly slid down a hillside and slammed into a house, partially destroying it. It also pushed a parked truck about 75 feet.

It’s easy to see how the horse hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) got its name. It’s also easy to see how this fungus grows, because its spore bearing surface always points toward the ground. If you see a fallen log with this fungus on it and its spore bearing surface doesn’t point toward the ground you know that it grew while the tree was standing. If it does point toward the ground it grew after the tree fell. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that it can produce as many as 800 million in a single hour; fine as dust and nearly impossible to see. The fungus is also known for its ability to stop bleeding and was recommended for that purpose by Hippocrates, who is considered the father of medicine.

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

Longtime readers of this blog know that I like looking at buds at this time of year and some of my favorite buds are found on the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa.) They’re about medium size as buds go, and nice and chubby. I love their beautiful purple and green color combination.

I think my favorite thing this time around is this river ice that caught and magnified the blue of the sky. I thought it was quite beautiful, but blue is my favorite color so that could have something to do with it.

The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves. ~Kahlil Gibran

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We still haven’t seen much snow and the temperature would average out at about 35 degrees, I’d guess, so winter has been easy so far and that means easy hikes as well. Last Saturday I decided to go and see if the Ashuelot River had any ice on it out in the woods where nobody can see it, and to get there I had to use this rail trail.

White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) lived up to its name with its perfect pin cushion shape. This moss gets its common name from the way its color lightens when it dries out. It often is a good example of how dry winter can be.

I saw a mushroom that looked like it had been painted by van Gogh. It was a beautiful thing; a painting and a poem, and was more beautiful in death than it would have been in life.

A tree decided to eat the small sign that had been tacked to it. As it grows the tree will grow out around it and finally engulf it so it can’t be seen. Many things are found in trees when they are cut down, including screws and nails, signs, pipes, fencing, cannonballs, bullets, beer bottles, hammers, handsaws, horse shoes, chains, ropes, stones, and one arborist even found a Chevy Corvette rim. Trees will grow around just about anything, and this doesn’t bode well for the wood cutter.

This sign was for the Yale Forest, which borders this trail. How it got into the tree in this way is a mystery, but I saw two or three of them doing the same thing.

Hard little oak marble galls had grown on a small oak. These are formed when a gall wasp called Andricus kollari lays its eggs inside a leaf bud. The plant reacts by forming these small spherical galls.

The wasp larvae live and grow in the gall by eating the plant tissue, but in this case they didn’t have a chance. A bird pecked its way into each gall and ate the insects.

The hard little wood-like seed pods of Indian pipes stood here and there along the way. Interesting in this grouping was how some of the seed heads pointed towards the ground. The stems usually become erect and point the flowers toward the sky once they have been pollinated.

This is how an Indian pipe seed head usually looks at this time of year. They look like little carved wooden flowers and when their seams begin to split open it is a signal that the seeds have ripened. The pods split open to reveal 5 separate chambers full of dust like seeds which will be taken by the wind. Each individual seed is just about microscopic at only 10 cells thick.

Blowdowns throughout our forests tell of the strong winds we had last summer. We lost many trees, and many houses, cars, and outbuilding as well when the trees fell on them.

Wood pulp where its heartwood would have been showed in one white pine that had been twisted off its stump by the wind. It was a huge old tree that was all but hollow. Carpenter ants had turned its insides to dust. It’s amazing how many trees there are just like this one, still standing and waiting for a strong wind to knock them down.

What looked like white animal hair was tangled on a bramble and quivered in the slight breeze. It might have been from a skunk or a dog. Lots of people walk their dogs here but skunks should be hibernating by now.

I think the bramble was a rose, possibly the invasive multiflora rose, but if so it was a young example. I can’t account for the two tiny black beads of liquid at the base of the bud.

An animal sampled this birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) and apparently didn’t find it very tasty. They’re said to smell like green apples and I wonder if they taste the same. This common fungus is also called razor strop fungus because of its ability to sharpen knives when it dries out. It has also been used medicinally for thousands of years due to its antiseptic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains betulinic acid, which has shown promise in cancer research.

I love these old trestles out here in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been playing on them since I was a young boy so they come with many great memories.

This is the last trestle I know of with its tell tales still in place. These are pencil size pieces of soft wire that hang down low enough to hit the head of anyone standing on top of a freight car. They would warn the person, or “tell the tale” of an upcoming trestle. I walked from the trestle to this one in under a minute, so whoever was on top of the train wouldn’t have had much time to duck before they’d hit the trestle, and that would have been too bad. Tell tales used to hang on each end of every trestle in the area, but this is the last one I know of.

I saw a few small bits of ice along the trail in shaded spots but there wasn’t any on the river. This is an unusual scene for January but it speaks of the mild temperatures we’ve seen so far. As I write this on New Year ’s Day at 11:00 am the sun is shining and it is already 37 degrees F, with an expected high today of 47. I might have to stop writing and get outside.

The high water mark on the river’s flanks showed the water had dropped what looked to be 5-6 feet. You can see the fine white silt the river deposited near the high water mark.

Pine bark beetles had penned abstract calligraphy on a fallen limb. Shallow channels like these are made by the female beetles and the males make much deeper channels. It’s all about having chambers to deposit eggs in and when the eggs hatch even more chambers are made.

The sun had lowered by the time I had turned around and it cast a golden light on the trail ahead.

The sun was also caught in the little bluestem grass across the way. It made the grass even more beautiful than it usually is. It, combined with all of the other interesting things I saw, made this walk very enjoyable.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. Peter Fiore

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Last Saturday’s sunshine and 50 + degree temperatures made it easy to fall into spring daydreams. I decided to walk along the Ashuelot river in Swanzey where there are witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) growing to see if they might be blooming. They often blossom on warm winter days and I’ve even seen them blooming in January.

The river had tamed itself and the water level had dropped considerably since the last time I was here. There weren’t even any waves to photograph.

There were ice baubles still hanging onto the twigs in shaded areas but their gray opaqueness told me they were rotting in the sun.

Here was one with a hole right through it, which I can’t explain. I’m guessing it was made by a twig, but where is the twig?

There was green grass along the river and that made it even easier to dream of spring. It was a beautiful day; a well-deserved bonus day after the terrible weather of the last month or two.

I’m not sure what caused this bright yellow color on this and a couple of other stones. It wasn’t lichen. These stones spend time submerged when the river rises so I wonder if it might be some type of algae. I doubt the color is natural to the stone itself, it looked more like it was on it rather than part of it.

The spot where the witch hazels grow is on a small peninsula that juts out into the river. There was a trail out to its end but it has come close to disappearing over the years. I thought it was an old fisherman’s trail but I’ve seen enough deer tracks out here to wonder if it isn’t a game trail. It’s still being used;  you can just see the disturbed leaves that mark the trail just to the right of center in this photo.

Off to the right of the trail, closer to the river, the high water mark lies just above silt which has been deposited by the river over the years. I’ve seen this high water mark grow closer and closer to the trail, which means flooding on the river is getting worse. This is a very scary place when the river is high.

The ice on this tree branch shows how high the water was just recently. I’d guess about two feet higher than it was on this day, and I’d have had very wet feet and probably wet knees as well.

The silt the river leaves behind is as fine as sugar and anything that falls or steps on it will leave a mark. Even raindrops pock mark it. I wondered if these tracks were made by a beaver but there were none of the usual claw marks. They were big enough to be made by a bobcat  and cats have retractable claws, so that’s a definite maybe. Whatever made them comes here a lot because there was a trail of these prints through the silt, going in both directions.

There are beavers here. This was a freshly cut tree, and a beaver would make a good meal for a bobcat.

The witch hazels were indeed blooming and even though these aren’t spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) the sight of flowers just made my dream of spring all the more real. The thought hit me while I was here that it is this intense longing for spring that makes winters seem so long for me. Desire causes pain. Remove the desire and remove the pain. It sounds so simple.

One of my favorite mosses grew on a log.  I love the way it reaches out to colonize new lands. I think it might be beaked comb moss( Rhynchostegium serrulatum) but I can’t be sure because I’ve never seen it with spore capsules. It might also be Isopterygium tenerum, which is another creeping moss.

A woodpecker had pecked very small holes in a limb that was no bigger than 2 inches across. I was thinking that it must have been a very small woodpecker when I heard a tapping behind me.

It was a woodpecker pecking at a tree and it wasn’t tiny. Judging by where its red spots are I’m guessing it is a hairy woodpecker, but since I don’t do birds I could be wrong. It didn’t sit still long, whatever its name.  There were lots of other birds here too including chickadees and juncos and this small piece of forest was full of birdsong, which of course made it seem even more like spring.

I think the reason so many birds populate this area is because there is plenty here for them to eat, but unfortunately much of that food comes from plants that are invasive, like the oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) seen here.

This maple tree shows what bittersweet can do when it wraps itself around a tree trunk. The vine is as strong as wire and doesn’t expand as the tree grows, so the tree has no choice but to grow out around it, and this deforms the tree.  The tree will eventually be strangled to death unless something is done.

I saw what looked like a blush of blue on a lichen that grew on a tree so I took a few photos of it, but it wasn’t until I got home and looked at the photos that I saw something very unusual.

Very unusual in my experience, anyhow; each of the lichen’s apothecia, which in this case are little round spots where its spores are produced, had liquid in them. It hadn’t rained for a while so I’m not sure what this is all about. I have seen lichens with wet apothecia right after a rain but nothing like this. This lichen looked more like moisture was being squeezed from it rather than it picking up any moisture from its surroundings. If you know what it happening here I’d love to hear from you. I’ve searched and searched but haven’t had any luck.

The sun had gone by the time I was ready to leave but that didn’t bother me because it had been a great spring like walk with plenty of interesting things to see. Any day that reaches 50 degrees in December is a good day in my opinion. That night I actually dreamed lilacs were blooming and the strangest thing about that is, I rarely remember my dreams.

Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. ~Edgar Allan Poe

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“All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray…I’ve been for a walk, on a winter’s day.” California Dreaming by The Mammas and the Pappas has been playing in my head a lot lately; maybe because I hoped to do one more fall foliage post. But now, since all the leaves are brown I doubt that it will happen.

I shouldn’t say all the leaves are brown because bracken fern’s leaves (Pteridium aquilinum) have turned kind of a pinky gray. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns; fossils date it to over 55 million years ago, so it has been very successful. That might be because it eliminates competition by releasing chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants. That’s why large colonies of nothing but bracken fern are seen, often along roadsides. Some Native American tribes peeled and cooked the roots of bracken fern to use as food but science has shown that all parts of the plant contain carcinogens.

It has gotten cold here all of the sudden; cold enough to be record breaking in parts of the state, so scenes like this one of frosty leaves and grass have become commonplace in the morning. I was hoping I could get all of the leaves picked up before it snowed, but that isn’t going to happen.

This juniper haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperinum) was about as frosty as it could be but mosses can handle extremes and this little plot of moss should come through winter completely unscathed.

The thin, crinkly white puddle ice that I used to love riding my bike through as a boy has appeared on the puddles. I was never thrilled to see it in the fall but I loved seeing it in the spring because it meant that the earth was warming up after a long winter and soon school would be letting out for the summer. I’ve learned since then that the white color comes from bubbles, because this ice contains lots of oxygen. I’ve also learned that you can see some amazing things in this ice; I’ve seen wave ripples, birds flying, high mountains, distant stars, and space and time. All of that and more can all be there for the seeing, but most of us don’t take the time to look.

At the river there was ice of another kind. Just seeing it in a photo makes me shiver because I remember how cold it was that day.

Speaking of the river, the Ashuelot’s banks won’t hold much more. We’ve been getting 1-4 inches of rain each week since about mid-July and so far there hasn’t been any serious flooding but as this photo shows, something is going to have to give soon if it keeps up. Luckily the weather people are finally talking about a pattern change, and except for a few snow showers the upcoming week looks fairly dry for the most part.

Of course streams are running furiously as well. I visited Beaver Brook in Keene recently to admire the stone wall that was built over and around the brook, probably well over a hundred years ago. It’s the only stone wall built around a brook that I’ve ever seen; essentially a box culvert on top of rather than below ground, built by a clever farmer I’d guess. The only time you can get a good look at it is after the leaves fall.

Even beavers are saying “enough rain already!” This beaver dam was breached by high water because apparently even the industrious beavers can’t keep up.

Beavers have been very active near my house. They cut down this 5 inch diameter poplar tree and I was surprised because in the past they’ve always cut birches first. There are quite a few birches in the same area but so far they’ve left them alone. They can cut and drag off an amazing number of trees in one night.

Usually it’s the top branches of a tree that beavers want most for winter food so I was surprised that they left this poplar limb behind. I’m guessing that they probably came back for it that night.

Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. Yellow jellies (Tremella mesenterica) like this one are called witches butter and are fairly common. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. Jelly fungi can be parasitic on other fungi.

The most common of all jelly fungi is the amber one in my experience (Exidia recisa,) because I see it all the time, especially after a rain. This one always reminds me of jellied cranberry sauce. Jelly fungi dry out when it’s dry and appear as tiny colored flakes that you’d hardly believe could grow as much as they do, but they absorb water like a sponge and can grow to 60 times bigger than they were when dry. Jelly fungi have a shiny side and a kind of matte finish side and their spores are produced on their shiny sides. After a good rain look closely at those fallen limbs, big or small, and you’re sure to find jelly fungi.

Hemlock varnish shelf fungi (Ganoderma tsugae) can be quite big but they are still easiest to see when the leaves fall. Their color can vary greatly but they’re almost always shiny on top, hence the “varnish” part of the common name, but this example had no shine. In China this mushroom is called the Reishi mushroom and it has been used medicinally for centuries. It is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese medicine and scientists from around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential.

When I started my current job I saw a tree / shrub that I hadn’t ever seen. I watched it for a while to see what it would do but even after watching it for months I couldn’t find it in any guide, so I put it on the blog as an unknown. Right off my blogging friend Clare from the Suffolk Lane blog told me it was a spindle berry, native to Europe,  and after researching it I was happy with that name and I’ve called it that ever since. But recently I found out that we have a native version called eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus,) so now I’m going to have to watch it even more closely to see which one it is. I think it’s probably the native version. The photo above is of its interesting bright red fruit.

In my last post I mentioned how the inner bark of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) was often a beautiful bright red, but the odd thing about it is that it seems to turn red only after exposure to the elements. I’ve peeled the bark from dead staghorn sumacs and have never been able to find any red color, but if I look closely at dead sumacs with bark that has peeled naturally like that in the above photo, it’s often quite red. How and why it changes is a mystery to me but it’s nice to see in winter when there isn’t a lot of color.

Wooly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellatus) are sucking insects that pierce the bark of an alder and suck out the sap, so they do harm the plant. They can be winged or unwinged and need both alders and silver maples to complete their life cycle. Eggs overwinter in crevices in the bark of silver maple trees. In spring the nymphs hatch and begin feeding on the undersides of new leaves until in late May through July they develop wings and fly off to find alders. Once on an alder they begin feeding on the sap and reproducing. Soon the colony is made up of aphids in all stages of growth and becomes covered in a fluffy white, waxy “wool” like that seen in this photo. Some aphids mature and fly off to silver maples to mate and once mated the female will lay a single egg in a crevice in the bark and the cycle will repeat.

Last year I was able to do an entire flower post in November but this year it got cold quickly, so I was surprised to see this little lobelia (Lobelia inflata) still blooming. The flowers are no bigger than a pencil eraser and its common name of Indian tobacco comes from its inflated seedpods, which are said to look like the pouches that Native Americans carried their smoking mixtures in.

I’ve seen native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) bloom in January in a warm winter, so it wasn’t a surprise to see it blooming in November, but even witch hazel can have too much cold and I doubt I’ll see these pretty blooms again until the spring witch hazels bloom in March. It’s an event I’ll be impatiently waiting for. Just the thought of spring, my favorite season, is like a soothing balm that gets me through winter.

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

I hope everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving! Thanks for coming by.

 

 

 

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As I write this 3 straight days of November rains have finally stopped but now there’s a howling wind blowing, so I expect the landscape will look very different tomorrow, possibly with more leaves on the ground than in the trees. Will this be the last fall foliage post? It could be, but the oaks and beeches are still in full color and I even saw a few maples that were still hanging on, so maybe not.

Here’s what the maples and birches looked like one recent sunny day.

Oaks have an amazing color range but their colors don’t shout it out quite like the maples.

When you’re in the woods and a beech tree gets between you and the sun it can be amazingly beautiful. They seem to glow under their own power. Luminous is the word, I think.

Many birches and especially gray birches like those shown here are still hanging on to their leaves. Or at least they were before this wind. The weather people say there are 60 mph gusts blowing in parts of New England.

This is a good post to compare foliage colors on cloudy and sunny days. It was drizzling when I took this photo of young maples. I think the color is often more intense on cloudy days. Perhaps it’s the gray background.

But there’s a lot to be said for sunshine too, as this road leading to my workplace shows.

The colors of the oaks along the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked a little dull on a rainy day, I thought. In fact everything is on the dull side in this photo.

We’ve had large amounts of rainfall since July; 11 inches above average in fact, and the Ashuelot River was flooding in places on this day.

No matter where you go the woods are flooded by large puddles like this one. The ground is completely saturated and the two or three inches of rain falling each week simply has nowhere to go. We need a dry week or two to dry things out but it doesn’t look like that’s in the cards. Many are also hoping for a drier winter. If all this rain was snow we’d all be doing some serious shoveling.

The invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the river seemed to glow on a recent rainy day. Before they drop their leaves they will become a soft pastel pink to almost white. Right now they’re in their loud orange / red / yellow stage. It’s too bad they’re so invasive because they really are beautiful, but as you can see they dominate the understory and create so much shade nothing else can grow.

Here is a closer look at a burning bush. I’ve seen thousands of these shrubs along the river drop their leaves overnight when the weather is cold enough and I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this year so I can show them to you in their pastel pink stage. It really is a beautiful sight.

You can find color in unexpected places. This is the first time I’ve noticed how yellow the foliage of slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) becomes.

I pay attention to lake sedge (Carex lacustris) in the fall because I like the way it seems to flow like the waves of the pond and lake shores it grows on. It is really the wind and its own weak stems that make it bend so, but I think it makes a pretty display. Lake sedge is native to Canada and the northern U.S. and can at times be found growing in water. Waterfowl and songbirds eat its seeds.

The blue of this monkshood (Aconitum napellus) I saw growing at a local bank was a complete surprise. I went looking for this plant at a local children’s butterfly garden earlier and found that it had finally been removed. That’s a good thing, because monkshood is one of the most poisonous plants known. People have died from its sap simply being absorbed through their skin, and in ancient Rome you could be put to death if you were found growing it. That was because to the Romans the only reason you would grow such a thing was to poison your enemies.

Toxic or not monkshood has a beautiful flower. Another name for it is winter aconite because it blooms so late. If you look at the side view of a flower you can see how it resembles the hoods that medieval monks wore, and that’s how it comes by its common name. I’m not sure which insects would pollinate it this late in the season, but there must be some that do.

You might think that this was a big yellow tree but you’d be wrong because it’s actually a big green tree; a white cedar that is covered by invasive Oriental bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus.) These twining, wire like vines want all the sunshine they can get and they will climb anything to get it. Trees, telephone poles, and even houses aren’t safe from it, and it will most likely pull this tree down eventually. Not only does it block all the light from the host tree, it also wraps around the tree’s trunk and slowly strangles it.

Oriental bittersweet berries are big, plump and showy and birds love them, and that’s why man will never defeat this invader. Even its seeds germinate faster than those of our native American bittersweet.

The hillsides that surround Keene are still showing quite a bit of color thanks to the big old oaks. There could be some beech and maples here and there as well.

We’ve had a beautiful fall season this year and it might not be over yet, but even if it is there is still plenty of color to be seen. I hope you are able see beauty like this wherever you may live.

How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days. ~John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

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