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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

We haven’t been seeing a lot of sunshine yet this year but I did see a bit of it caught in the Ashuelot River recently.

By the time I pointed the camera at the sky though, it was gone.

We’ve seen slightly above average snowfall for the season and to show you how deep it is now I took a shot of this fire hydrant, which actually should have been shoveled out in case of fire. Anyhow, the snow is melting again now and by the time you see this quite a lot of it should be gone.

The weather hasn’t been all snow and cold all the time. We’ve had very up and down temperatures and a few days that were warm enough to send me out looking for witch hazel, which is our latest (and earliest) blooming flower. I found some color, but it came from what looked like two or three blossoms that had lost the battle to the cold. That was probably the last chance I’ll have to see our fall blooming witch hazel flowers (Hamamelis virginiana,) but the spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) will be along next month.

I went to see if there was any sign of willow buds swelling but instead of seeing furry gray catkins I saw furry gray willow pine cone galls. These galls appear at the branch tips and are caused by a midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying eggs on them. Once the eggs hatch the larva burrow into the branch tip and the plant reacts by forming a gall around them. The galls are about as big as the tip of a thumb.

I saw this spider indoors at work one day and took a couple of photos and then let it be. Hours later at home it felt like something was crawling on my lower leg so I stamped my foot hard and out fell a spider that looked exactly like this one. I doubt very much that a spider could have been on my leg all day without my knowing it, but I still had to wonder where and when it had decided to hitch a ride with me. It’s possible that it was in my car but that sounds doubtful too. Maybe it was right here at home and I just didn’t see it. I guess I’ll never know. I haven’t had any luck identifying it, so if you know its name I’d love to hear from you.

A waxy coating called bloom on juniper berries reflects the light in a way that makes the deep, purple black berries appear to be a bright and beautiful blue. This waxy coating is common on fruits like blueberries, on black raspberry canes, and even on some lichens. Though the fruit is called a berry botanically speaking it is actually a seed cone with fleshy, merged scales. Birds love them and I was surprised to see them so late in the season.

Many gin drinkers don’t realize that the flavor of gin comes from the juniper plant’s berry. It is the unripe green berry that is used to make gin. The ripe berry is the only part of a conifer known to be used as a spice. Whole and / or ground fruit is used on game like venison, moose, and bear meat, and man has used juniper for a very long time. The first record of usage appears on an Egyptian papyrus from 1500 BC. Egyptians used juniper medicinally and Native Americans used the fruit as both food and medicine. Stomach disorders, infections and arthritis were among the ailments treated. Natives also made jewelry from the seeds inside the berries.

The maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) in my yard had a single, dark purple berry left on it. I was surprised how textural it was when I saw the photo. Birds seem to love these berries and most of them go fast, but I always wonder why they leave the ones that they do. They obviously know something that I can’t fathom. The shrub is also called arrow wood and some believe that Native Americans used the straight grained wood for arrow shafts.

This is the way the rest of the maple leaf viburnum looked; picked clean.

There are plenty of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds left so the birds must be happy. I always let plants go to seed in my own yard because I don’t use bird feeders due to occasional visits from bears, and they feed a lot of birds. Speaking of bears, state biologists say the acorn crop was large enough to feed bears through the winter, so many of them aren’t hibernating. I can’t say that was wonderful news, but at least the bears aren’t starving.

The motherwort seeds (Leonurus cardiaca) have all been eaten now. A helpful reader told me that she has seen goldfinches eating the seeds of motherwort, so they must be doubly happy because they eat the coneflower seeds too. I hope one day to be able to see them doing so. They must come when I’m at work because I never see them.

I saw a young, beautifully colored hemlock varnish shelf bracket fungus (Ganoderma tsugae) growing at the base of a young hemlock tree. This mushroom has been used medicinally in China for centuries and is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese herbal medicine, including even ginseng. In China it is called the Reishi mushroom and scientists around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential. The number of beneficial things growing in the world’s forests that we know nothing about must be mind boggling.

Honey mushrooms (Armillarea mellea) once grew on this tree and I know that because their long black root like structures called rhizomorphs still clung to the dead tree. Honey mushrooms are parasitic on live wood and grow long cream colored rhizomorphs between the wood and its bark. They darken to brown or black as they age, but by the time we see them the tree has died and its bark is falling off. The fungus is also called armillarea root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees. Fallen logs will often still have the black rhizomorphs attached to them.

A couple of posts ago I talked about poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and how it can grow as a shrub, creep along the ground, or climb like a vine. When the plant climbs as a vine it holds onto what it climbs with masses of roots all along the stem, but the example I showed in that post had only a few roots showing. The example above is more typical of what I see, with matted roots all along the stem. I can’t think of another vine that does this so I think it’s a good way to identify poison ivy.

It’s a good idea to leave any vine that looks like this one alone.

I saw this yellow something on the bark of a dying black cherry tree and at first thought it might be a large lichen colony, but it didn’t look quite right for lichen. I knew it wasn’t moss either, so that left one possibility: algae. A few posts ago I showed a hemlock trunk that was all red and another helpful reader helped identify it as a red algae growth, so after some research I found that there is also yellow-green algae, and this example is possibly one called Desmococcus olivaceous, which is also called Pleurococcus vulgaris.

Pleurococcus algae grow on the shaded sides of tree trunks, and on rocks and soil and sometimes even on walls if they’re damp enough. Their closest relatives grow in lakes and rivers but they can withstand dryness. There is fossil evidence of algae colonies existing even 540 million years ago so they’ve been here much longer than we have, and they haven’t changed much in all that time.

Raccoons, so I’ve always thought, are nocturnal animals rarely seen during the day, so my first thought when I saw this one was that it might be sick. Unfortunately they can and do get rabies and it isn’t all that uncommon in this area to hear of people or pets being attacked by rabid raccoons. But this one was eating and after I thought about it I didn’t think if it were sick it would be eating with such gusto. After a little research I found that raccoons often go out in search of food and water during the daytime, especially nursing mother raccoons, usually in the spring.

From what I’ve read you can tell that a raccoon is sick because it will look sick. They’ll be lethargic and stagger when they walk and sometimes will even fall over. If they look alert and bright eyed and run and walk normally then you can be almost certain that they don’t have rabies. I saw this one walking around and it looked fine so I doubt that it was sick. I couldn’t tell if it was a mother raccoon or not but it sure was cute with its little hands looking as if it were begging for more food. For those who’ve never seen one raccoons are slightly bigger than an average house cat. Maybe a chubby house cat; males can weigh 20 pounds. I’m sorry about the quality of the photos of it. All I had for a camera when I saw it was the small point and shoot I use for macros so they aren’t great, but since they’re the only shots I’ve ever gotten of a raccoon they’ll have to do.

If you reconnect with nature and the wilderness you will not only find the meaning of life, but you will experience what it means to be truly alive. ~Sylvia Dolson

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It was a beautiful sunny, spring like 40 degree day last Saturday when I set off down a favorite leg of the Ashuelot Rail Trail in Swanzey. Every time I come here I discover something I haven’t seen here before and today was no different. In fact I saw many things that I’ve walked right by on previous trips. That’s why John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday,” and that’s why I follow the same trails again and again. Though I’ve traveled them many times I know that I haven’t seen half what is on them.

There were lots of beech trees along this section of trail and their dry leaves shivered and whispered softly in the light breeze. Soon they will begin to fall and make room for new leaves.

These berries had me scratching my head for a minute until I realized that the large shrub they grew on was privet. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive. This is one of those things that I’ve walked by fifty times but haven’t seen.

One of my reasons to come here was to see the old trestle that crosses the Ashuelot River. There has been a lot of talk about ice jams and I wanted to see what the ice looked like out here in a place you can’t drive to.

Dark purple-brown frullania liverworts decorated a young oak tree. This liverwort is an epiphytic plant, which means it takes nothing from the trees that it grows on. I think of them being like a bird; they simply perch on trees in spots where they get the moisture and light that they need. They are easiest to see in winter when the cold darkens them.

There are about 800 species of this liverwort so identification can be difficult but this is the one that I most often see, with tiny leaves that are strung together like beads. Some frullania liverworts are said to be very fragrant but I keep forgetting to smell them.

A heavily fruiting lichen grew right next to the liverwort on the oak tree. I see this lichen quite often but I’ve never been satisfied with any identification I’ve come up with so far. I thought it might be rosy saucer lichen until my color finding software told me that its many apothecia were brown instead of rosy. For those who don’t know lichens, the apothecia are the round, rimmed fruiting bodies where this lichen’s spores are produced.

An old railroad marker had slowly tilted until it had fallen almost all the way over but its “W” was still visible, highlighted in snow. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post, because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. There is a crossing very nearby where the railbed crosses a road, and the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle. I was surprised that I couldn’t remember seeing the post here before, but I’m sure it had to have been.

I scuffed my boot in the snow to find that there were only about two inches over very firm ice. The ice remains even though it rained more than a week ago, but maybe a day or two of this warmth will have melted it.

When the sap (called pitch) of white pines turns blue and / or purple you know it has been cold. The only time I see it do this is in the winter. In summer it is either a matte finish, tannish color or a very clear honey / amber color, depending on when it oozed from the tree. Sometimes in winter it can be a very beautiful deep blue.

The biggest surprise on this hike was how many balsam fir trees (Abies balsamea) I saw. This is thought of as a more northern tree so I don’t expect to them here in the southern part of the state but I must have easily seen 20 of them that I hadn’t seen the last time I came this way. It’s hard to believe but maybe it is cold enough here these days to keep them happy. A lot of Christmases came rushing back when I smelled a few of its crushed needles.

The red buds of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) were a welcome sight but I was surprised again because I’ve never seen them growing here. Toward the end of April the fuzzy buds will be showing pink and orange hues. They’re one of the most beautiful things in the spring forest and well worth the effort to see.

The chubby, thumb size buds of shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) were no surprise because these trees grow quite abundantly in the river bottom section of Swanzey. This is another bud which, when it breaks in early June, will easily be one of the most beautiful things in the forest. The insides of the bud scales are orange, pink and yellow and make these tress look like they are full of beautiful flowers.

Shagbark hickory gets its name, not surprisingly, from its shaggy bark. The wood is very hard and tough but flexible and shock resistant, so it is prized for use in tool handles. It was also once used to make wheels and spokes for wagons and early autos. Northeastern Native American tribes used the wood to make bows and stone axe handles. Hickory is also one of the hottest burning woods.

Native Americans used the nuts of shagbark hickory for food and the word “hickory” comes from the Native Algonquin “pawchiccora,” which was their word for the oily nutmeat. If a mother’s milk wasn’t available infants were fed hickory milk, which was made by boiling crushed hickory nuts. Today the nuts are eaten mostly by squirrels, chipmunks, foxes and turkeys.

As if often the case what should have been a short walk turned into a long one because there was so much to see along the way, but I finally made it to the trestle. Wooden decks and railings were added to most of the old, unused trestles in this area by snowmobile clubs, and all who use these trails really owe them a debt of gratitude for maintaining them. When I was a boy you had to step from railroad tie to tie, with a gap between that it was easy to catch a leg or an ankle in if you weren’t careful. I was so used to crossing trestles by the time I was ten I could cross them in the dark but I know people who got their leg down between the ties and one who even fell from a trestle into the river below.

I wouldn’t recommend falling into this river in January. There was something going on up river but I couldn’t tell if it was an ice jam or just ice that had formed around a submerged tree. There are a lot of submerged trees in this river and that’s why you only see kayaks or canoes when the water is high, usually in spring. You can see in this photo how the trees lean out over the water as they grow, trying to gather up as much sunlight as possible.

Slabs of ice in the trees told me how high the water had been a while ago. I’m guessing that the water level had dropped 4 or 5 feet since that ice formed.

Another reason I come here is to see the only “tell tales” left to see in this area. Tell tales are thin, pencil size pieces of wire suspended from a cross brace that hangs out over the railroad tracks. They were put in place to warn anyone walking on top of a boxcar that a tunnel or bridge was ahead so they could duck down and avoid a nasty collision with an immoveable object. Being hit in the face by these hanging wires couldn’t have been pleasant but it was certainly better than the alternative. They used to hang on either end of every trestle but now these ones are the only ones I see.

Of all the times I’ve come here I’ve never noticed that the upright that holds the tell tales out over the rail bed is actually a piece of track stood vertically and buried in the soil. It tells me that these tell tales might have been fashioned in place rather than made ahead of time and shipped to the site.

Where I grew up the Boston and Maine Railroad crossed the Ashuelot River just a few yards from my house and there was a trestle there just like this one, so I wouldn’t be lying if I said I grew up on this river and on these railroad tracks, and I guess that each are as much a part of me as anything can be. I think that’s why I come back to them again and again; to check on their health and to see that they’re doing well, and I’m happy to say that both the river and the rail trails are doing much better now than they were then. The Ashuelot was very polluted back then and the trains kept many people off the tracks, but now you can come and sit on a trestle like this all day and admire a near pristine river where bald eagles once again fish for trout. It makes me want to say just look what we can do when we really want to.

When I came here I had nothing but a camera and curiosity but I left satisfied with a smile on my face and a bounce in my step. It struck me on this walk that if people could find happiness in simple things like a walk outside on a warm January day, or seeing sunshine falling on last year’s grasses, they might find that they were happy most of the time. I find that I’m pretty happy most days, and that has happened quite by accident, just by spending most of my free time in nature. It really is amazing what an abundance of joy simply being outside can bring to you. I hope you’ll try it and see.

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

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While a real January thaw doesn’t traditionally happen until the month is nearly over we did have a “mini thaw,” when the temperature rose to 48 ° one day and 59 ° the next. Unfortunately we also saw over 2 inches of rain on the warmest day and all that rain combined with a lot of ice melt made rivers and streams swell up to bank full. This view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey shows that it couldn’t have handled much more water.

In case you missed the last post, this is what the river looked like in the same spot last week. That’s a lot of ice that had to go somewhere when the river rose so fast.

Huge plates of ice were washed downstream, and on some rivers these large pieces of ice piled into one another and created ice jams that blocked at least 4 of the largest rivers in the state. When all that water is dammed up behind ice the river floods, and that’s what happened in several towns. It used to be that a well-placed stick or two of dynamite would clear an ice dam but I don’t know if they do that anymore.

When the height of the water is just right you can see some beautiful waves on this part of the river but on this day the water was brown and angry, and too high to make good waves. The river seemed to want to rid itself of all its excess water as quickly as possible. The current was strong and fast and that eerie, far off booming sound of boulders rolling along its stony bed ended up in my stomach. It goes through you and once you’ve heard it, it’s a sound you never forget.

The strong current tore the ice from the river’s banks and sent big pieces of it sailing off down its length.

Though I couldn’t catch it with the camera one large piece of ice tore all the shrubs and small trees it had formed around out of the ground and went floating off with all the twigs and branches sticking up out of it.

The river placed a perfectly clear piece of ice on top of a stone for me to admire, so I did. It looked like a prism or a jewel with all of the river’s colors shining through it. Its beauty drew me closer and closer to the river’s edge to get a photo of it, and I was almost out on an ice shelf before I realized it. You’ve got to keep your wits about you when you’re near water in winter, I reminded myself once again.

I certainly kept my wits about me in this spot, because this was downright scary. The Ashuelot River has many smaller brooks and streams that empty into it and I decided to visit Beaver Brook in Keene to see how much water it was bringing to the river. It raged with a fury even greater than what I saw at the river and there wasn’t a calm bit of water to be seen. If something was ever terrible and awe inspiring at the same time, this was it. I wondered if the bridge that I stood on to take this photo could stand up to it.

Large and small blocks of ice littered the brook’s banks, pushed and shoved by the force of the water until they began to stack up one on top of another. This is just how an ice jam forms; all the pieces of ice interlock and form a wall of ice that water can’t get through. It acts just like a dam and the water backs up behind it, but luckily this one didn’t stretch all the way across the brook. If it had this would have been a very dangerous place to be.

When the water is brown that means a lot of soil has been washed into it, and every stream and river I saw on this day was brown.

A curious thing that can happen in winter is a flash freeze, when the temperature drops so low so fast that water freezes in a very short time. That’s what came after the 59 ° day with all the rain, and everything, including car doors, quickly froze. Manchester, which is our largest city, went from 61 ° to 30° in just 4 hours.

The rain slowed to drizzle as the temperature dropped, and the drizzle formed into long icicles on this fallen branch. Before the storm ended the drizzle turned to sleet and then finally to a dusting of snow, so this storm threw just about all it had at us.

Mosses were completely encased in ice, but it doesn’t bother them in the least.

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) on a fallen oak branch froze solid before they had a chance to dry out. Normally they would slowly dry and shrink down to less than half the size seen here. One year I did an experiment and soaked dry, hard little chips of jelly fungi in water in the kitchen sink. In just an hour or so they had absorbed enough water to swell up to about three times the size they were when they were dry, and this is exactly what happens in nature when it rains. They absorb more than 60 times their weight in water, so they are more water than anything else.

This is the time of year when you find out that all of what you thought was so delicate and fragile in nature is actually tough as nails. I can’t think of a moss that appears more delicate than stair step moss (Hylocomium splendens) but here it is, looking almost as fresh as it will in May.

Hydrologically speaking, a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer, and there is one here at Beaver Brook. It must come from a warm source because no matter how cold it has gotten I’ve rarely seen this one freeze.  Seeps don’t usually have a single point of origin like a spring. 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 or around them. I’ve found interesting fungi like swamp beacons and eyelash fungi in seeps, so I always look them over when I find one. The wind made ripples on this one.

You don’t realize how much “stuff” falls from trees until you walk through a forest in winter and see it all on the snow. And it happens year round. If it wasn’t for the fungi and other decomposers I wonder if it would even be possible to walk under trees at all, so deep would be the piles of forest litter.

The snow isn’t usually as deep in an evergreen forest because much of it is caught by the tree branches and in this bit of woods the rain and warm temperatures had taken all but a dusting of it away. I’m sure more will fall to replace it.

What a pleasure it was after the bitter cold we’ve had to stand in warm spring-like sunshine smelling the wild thyme that grows in my yard. Though these January thaws are often far too brief they give us that taste of spring which reminds us that the cold can’t last forever. They are like a spring tonic that boosts your energy reserves and reminds you that you’ve been through tough winters before, and you’ll surely get through this one too. But first, a little more cold and snow.

You never like it to happen, for something as hopeful and sudden as a January thaw to come to an end, but end it does, and then you want to have some quilts around. ~Leif Enger

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Well, we survived the coldest stretch of weather I’ve ever seen and now we’re in the midst of a January thaw, but I didn’t think I’d ever thaw out after going out on January 7 th to take many of these photos. It was a brisk 14°F but the sun was shining and I didn’t think it would be too bad, but it still felt frigid because of a breeze. Anyhow, anyone who lives here would know how cold it must have been just by seeing this photo of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey frozen from bank to bank. I think this is the first time in two or three years that this has happened.

Downstream from the previous photo ice shelves were forming but the river was open.

You could see how much ice had formed since the last snow. But the last snow was just 3 days before this photo was taken.

Close to a foot of snow fell and plowing it made mountain ranges.

After the snow storm dragged down more arctic air it got even colder; too cold to be outside for more than just a few minutes.

On New Hampshire’s tallest peak Mount Washington, a tie score for the second coldest place on the planet was recently recorded. At -36 ° F. with a wind chill of -94 °F. it was just two degrees warmer than Yakutsk Russia. What an honor.

Birches bent under the weight of the snow, which fell on top of the ice from the December ice storm. It has been so cold that the ice from that storm weeks ago has never melted.

The birches were giving up their seeds to the wind and to the birds too, probably.

Birds are definitely eating the seeds from eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) cones. Chickadees, pine siskins and other small birds eat them, and several species of warblers nest in the dense foliage. Larger birds like turkeys, owls, and grouse will often roost in the branches, possibly because hemlocks are excellent at shedding water. You can stand under large hemlocks in a pouring rain and barely feel a drop. Deer will eat the foliage.

By September the small cones and seeds of eastern hemlock are ripe but are still green, wet and oily. Once the cones begin to turn brown the seeds will be dry and birds can get at them as soon as the cone opens like the one pictured. Hemlock seeds are often lacking in viability, with less than 20% of them viable. Hemlock trees can live to 800 years old and reach a height of 175 feet. Native Americans used the inner bark, roots, and needles of hemlocks medicinally. They contain antiseptic properties and were used to treat wounds and in sweat lodges to treat colds and rheumatism. When food supplies were low the inner bark was often eaten.

Bird tracks under the hemlocks reveal their value to wildlife.

The birds have eaten all the coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds. Since these coneflowers were mostly planted by the birds the seeds belong to them and I don’t cut them or other plants back until spring. The more seeds they eat and spread around the yard, the more plants I’ll / we’ll have.

A motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) stem poked up from the snow and I thought it was interesting how I could see where all the little tufts of tiny flowers had been much easier without its leaves in the way. Of course the flowers are now seed pods. Though I’ve searched to find out which birds eat the seeds of motherwort I didn’t have any luck at all. It could be because the plant isn’t native, coming originally from Asia. It was brought here because of its long history of medicinal use in Europe and Asia. It is said to be useful as a heart medicine, hence the cardiaca part of its scientific name. It has a sedative effect and is also said to be useful to treat anxiety and muscle spasms.

The ice on most lakes and ponds is safe now, probably thicker than it’s been in years, and fishermen have begun setting up their bob houses. Some of these small, garden shed size buildings are quite elaborate, with all the comforts of home included. This fisherman built his out of clear corrugated plastic, probably hoping for some solar gain. I’d have to want to catch a fish pretty badly to stand on the ice all day, even if it was in a bob house.

When you approach a frozen over pond with snow covered ice you often can’t tell where the land ends and the water begins, so I look for cattails (Typha latifolia.) They always tell me right where the water starts.

Japanese knotweed stems (Fallopia japonica) looked red in the bright sunshine. It’s too bad this plant is so invasive, because it is pretty through much of its life cycle.

Milk white toothed polypores are resupinate fungi, which means they look like they grow upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi seem to do. This is a common winter fungus with “teeth” that are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and break apart and turn brown as they age. This fungus can be found on the undersides of hardwood tree branches. They don’t seem to mind the bitter cold temperatures we’ve had.

When I was in high school I had an art teacher who knew how to paint winter scenes. She taught me how to paint snow on tree branches and have it look realistic, and how to paint snowy landscapes. She was a professional artist as well as a teacher so she knew her way around an easel, but I still questioned her when she said that my gray winter shadows should be blue. I told her I painted them as I saw them, and I saw gray. I don’t know if it was colorblindness or some other reason that I saw gray but whatever it was has corrected itself and now I see blue winter shadows, just as Miss Safford said they should be. What makes them blue? The ice crystals that make up the snow reflect the ambient blue light from the sky. The color of a shadow is determined by the amount of light reaching the area that is in shade and light from the blue sky will even illuminate shaded areas. If the sky is gray, the shadows will appear gray.

It was so cold on this day that even the window frost seemed contracted, like each crystal had been held back by an icy grip, so instead of large, elaborate and beautiful frost feathers what formed were blocky, clunky crystals.

Here is an extreme close up of some window frost crystals. They didn’t have the beauty of frost feathers but this example reminded me of Aztec and Inca carvings I’ve seen photos of. It looks like a figure with a headdress, a long nose or beak, and wings. Or maybe it just looks like ice. I’ll let you decide.

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

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For the first time in almost eight years the weather has brought this blog to a screeching halt. Since Christmas we’ve had dangerously cold temperatures, with the lowest reading at my house -20°F below zero (-29 C.)  Add to that howling winds and the temperature can easily be in the -30s below zero range. Flesh can freeze in about 15 minutes in those conditions so I haven’t been outside to take photos in nearly 2 weeks now. In my lifetime I’ve never seen such extreme cold last for so long without letup. It is for these reasons that I offer up a post I did on the “blizzard” of 2015 on January 31st of that year. They say we’ll see a real January thaw this week with temperatures above freezing almost all week, so things should return to normal soon.  I hope.

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the blizzard of 2015. While it’s true that a small piece of New Hampshire coastline did see blizzard conditions, in my yard I had trouble finding snow that was 6 inches deep. That might not be entirely accurate though because the real story was the gale force wind that blew the powdery snow every which way and made you feel as if you were in a snow globe.

So how do you tell the story of wind on a blog? Showing wind sculpted snow is one way.

The wind can do some fantastic things with snow, including sculpting snow waves.

Here is the snow wave in the previous photo, shot from a different angle. It seemed odd that a 4 foot deep snow drift would form in the middle of an open field, but that’s what happened here.

Another part of the story is the cold. For the last two winters January has seemed a very cold month indeed, but at least this year the Ashuelot River hasn’t frozen over at my favorite viewing spot in Swanzey. The only remarkable thing about this photo is what it doesn’t show; there have always been Canada geese in this spot but last year when the river froze from bank to bank they left and haven’t come back.

The rocks in the river show a layer cake like history of winter’s ice and snow storms.

Ice shelves are forming along the river banks. I saw that people had been walking on them in a couple of places, which is a very dangerous thing to do. I know there are many young people who read this blog so I’ll speak directly to them for a moment: Please stay off the ice on rivers and streams! I was walking down the middle of the frozen Ashuelot River one winter when I was about ten years old and all of the sudden the ice started cracking all around me. I’ll never forget the rifle shot sounds of the cracking ice echoing in my ears as I ran for my life to the river bank. As I clung to a tree I saw the dark cold water come bubbling up through the cracks where I had been walking just a moment before. I was more scared then than I’ve ever been and it took a while before I could stop shaking long enough to peel myself off that tree trunk and scramble up the river bank. You never know how thick the ice that has formed over moving water will be so it’s best to be safe and just stay off it.

Up in the mountains snow cornices can be dangerous but here they don’t seem to do any real harm. A snow cornice is “an overhanging edge of snow on a ridge or the crest of a mountain and along the sides of gullies. They form by wind blowing snow over sharp terrain breaks.”  People walk out on them, not realizing that there is just a thin layer of snow beneath them, and when the cornice suddenly crumbles away they find themselves trapped in an avalanche. A rabbit or squirrel might have trouble with the one in the photo but otherwise I think it’s pretty safe.

The New Hampshire Department of Transportation says that it cost 2 million dollars to clear the snow from this one storm, and that doesn’t include what the individual towns spent. The snowbanks along Pudding Hill Road in Winchester were about waist high. I’d say that was average for this time of year.

So what do you do when the night temperatures fall to ten below zero (F) and only rise to twenty above zero during the day with a gale force wind thrown in for good measure? You stay inside and take photos of the frost feathers growing on your windows, of course. They’re beautiful things to behold.

All in all the blizzard of 2015 was a non-event here. Yes it was windy and cold but it could have been much worse and I’m thankful that it wasn’t an ice storm. Speaking of ice, the woods are full of it. A couple of weeks ago 2 inches of rain fell and puddled up in the low spots. It froze almost immediately and will be there until the ground thaws. Seeing these puddles slowly seep into the soil will be a good sign that spring is happening.

Though there have been photos of blue skies and sunny days in this post most days throughout December and January have looked more like the above photo. Despite the cold, cloudy, snowy weather spring really is right around the corner. Maple sap usually starts flowing in February and the skunk cabbages will be poking up through the snow soon. Male black capped chickadees are already singing their sad fee bee mating calls, the sun is rising higher in the sky, and daylight lasts a little longer each day. Before we know it the Boston Red Sox will start spring training, tree buds will begin to swell, alder catkins will be heavy with golden pollen and winter will be fading into memory. Any time now that itch called spring fever is sure to come upon us.

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant. ~ Anne Bradstreet

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I’d like to take you for a little walk through December in New Hampshire so those who’ve never been here might know what it’s like. I’m going to start on December 9th, when I was taking photos of Johnny jump ups (Viola tricolor.) As any gardener knows these pretty little flowers don’t mind a little cold but still, seeing them blooming in December is rare here.

Even rarer than Johnny jump ups blooming in December is forsythia blooming at any time beyond June, but I found one shrub blooming happily in the warm sunshine on the same day I saw the Johnny jump ups. And it wasn’t just a single blossom; this bush probably had 30-40 flowers on it. Whether or not it will bloom again in the spring like it should is anyone’s guess.

Flowers weren’t the only thing happily carrying on in the warmth; bright yellow lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) decorated the end of a log. They look like tiny drops of sunshine sprinkled over logs and stumps, and are fairly common. Lemon drops are in the sac fungus family, which refers to their microscopic reproductive structures that resemble wineskins. There are over 64,000 different sac fungi, including ear and cup fungi, jelly babies, and the morel and false morel mushrooms.

Lemon drops start life as a tiny 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 will become cup shaped. The citrina part of the scientific name comes from the Latin citrin, and means “lemon yellow.” They are very small; the smallest in this photo would be barely the size of a period made by a pencil on paper, so a hand or macro lens comes in handy.

Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is a tease and always reminds me of spring, but it just lies under the snow all winter staying almost as green as it is here. Greater celandine was purposely introduced from Europe and is now considered an invasive plant but nobody really seems to mind it. When I was a boy we called it mustard because of the yellow sap that stained your hands, but it is in the poppy family and has nothing to do with mustard. The sap was once used to remove warts but science has found that it is toxic and can be extremely irritating, especially to the eyes and skin, so its use isn’t recommended.

Sweet little bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is the smallest member of the dogwood family that I know of here in New Hampshire. It gets its name from the bunches of red berries that appear after the flowers are pollinated, and I hoped to get some photos of them for you this year but they are apparently popular with the critters because they disappeared quickly. Instead all I can show is its pretty fall leaves. Bunchberry was an important plant to Native Americans. They made tea from it to treat colds and also dried the leaves for smoking. Ashes from the burned plants were used to treat sores and insect bites and the roots were ground and used to treat colic in infants. The plant has strong antiseptic, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory properties but I love it for its beautiful pure white, dogwood like blossoms.

I wish I could tell you what this is but I don’t know myself. I found several of them growing in damp, sandy soil in full sun and it says liverwort to me, but I can’t be sure. It is a low growing, flat on the ground plant. When I went back to look a little closer they had all curled up and died from the cold. At least I think so.  If you’ve seen them and know what they are I’d love to hear from you.

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is our latest blooming shrub, even blooming as late as January in a warm winter, so I wasn’t that surprised to see these blossoms in December. What the real surprise concerning witch hazels was this year was their lack of blossoms. Most of the shrubs that I know of didn’t bloom at all this year, and that’s very strange. In fact I only saw two or three shrubs out of hundreds blooming and I can’t guess what is holding them back, unless it was the unusually cool weather in August. Some Native American tribes steamed witch hazel twigs over hot stones in their sweat lodges to soothe aching muscles and others made tea from it to treat coughs. As is often the case Natives had a use for virtually every part of the plant and witch hazel is still in use today. It can be found as a lotion in almost any drugstore.

Since I was in the neighborhood I had to stop in to see the only plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) that I know of. It grows in an old stone wall and I like to see its crinkly, foot long evergreen leaves. Each leaf has a prominent midrib and a vein running on either side of it, and this makes identification very easy. I often come to see it in mid spring when it blooms. I wish I’d see more of them but so far in my experience this plant is quite rare here.

Heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) blooms in May and seems like a delicate little thing, but in reality it’s a very tough plant that stays green under the snow all winter. Some foamflower plants have leaves that turn pink and maroon but these examples stayed green. Like many plants that hold their leaves through winter, this year’s foliage will only brown and die back in spring, when new ones will appear. It is thought that some plants stay green in winter so they can get a jump on their competitors by photosynthesizing just a short time earlier. Foamflowers form dense mats of foliage and there is usually nothing else seen growing among them.

American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens,) another of our native evergreens, goes by many other names but to me it will always be the checkerberry. Thanks to my grandmother, who had trouble getting up after keeling and so had me crawl around through the forest looking for its bright red berries, it was the first plant I learned to identify. We loved the minty, spicy flavor of the berries but coming up with only a handful was often difficult. The name checkerberry comes from the chequer tree, which is a mountain ash tree native to Europe and which is thought to have similar berries. From what I’ve seen though the only similarity is the color of the fruit. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from the leaves of American wintergreen, and they also make a pleasant, minty tea. Native Americans would take a handful of the leaves with them on a hunt and nibble on them to help them breathe easier while running or carrying heavy game.

With a name like evergreen Christmas fern you probably wouldn’t be surprised to see this fern’s green leaves in winter, but these leaves did surprise me because they weren’t the deep green color that they usually have. They were a much paler, blanched green and this is something I’ve never seen before. I can’t even guess what would have caused this nearly indestructible fern to lose its color. Early colonials used to bring the fronds of this fern indoors in the winter, presumably to brighten what must have been a long, cold, dark period for them. If you look closely you can see that each leaf has a tiny “toe,” which makes it look like a Christmas stocking.

You would expect it to get cold in December and we weren’t too deep into the month when I started finding mushrooms like these brown ones frozen absolutely solid, but the cold that froze them was nothing compared to what was to come.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of even the crustiest New Englander just say the words “Ice storm.”  An ice storm coats absolutely everything in ice and as the ice builds up layer after layer on tree branches the branches and sometimes the whole tree will fall, and when they fall they usually take the already weighed down power lines with them. This leaves entire regions; sometimes millions of people, without electricity. Of course it is cold outside as well, and when you don’t have electricity to power your furnace, unless you have a woodstove or fireplace you have only two choices: move or freeze. I have no backup heat source, and all of these thoughts crossed my mind as I walked through the landscape on the morning of Christmas Eve day, right after an ice storm.

An ice storm can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time, but thankfully only a few thousand people lost their power this time and it was restored rather quickly. I’ve known people who have lost their power for close to a month after an ice storm and returned home only to find their house nearly destroyed by frozen and burst water pipes. I don’t think there is any weather event that we fear more.

The ice looked thick on all the trees but in reality was probably only about a quarter inch thick, which isn’t usually enough to cause much damage, thankfully.  Anything above that can mean trouble.

After the ice came about 5 inches of snow on Christmas morning, and this weighed the branches down even more because most of the ice was still on them. Still, though the Christmas tree lights blinked once or twice our power stayed on and I was able to cook our Christmas ham.

After the snow of Christmas day came the cold, and I do mean cold. Record breaking, dangerous cold settled in and hasn’t left yet, nearly a week later. As I write this I’m hoping I don’t wake to -16 °F again tomorrow as I did this morning, because you don’t go outside in that kind of cold, and it’s hard to chronicle what is happening in nature if you can’t get outside. In nearly eight years of writing this blog the weather has never stopped it, but this year could be different. I waited until it warmed to +14 ° and went out to take some photos, but an hour of that was all I could take. I must be getting old or maybe just tired of the cold; when I started this blog I could stay out most of the day if it was above 10 degrees but on this day it was more like work than fun.

But the cold can’t last forever; the earth will continue tilting toward the sun and spring will come once again. Meanwhile I’ll get outside when I can and if I can’t I might have to do a re-blog, which is something I’ve never done and don’t have the slightest idea how to do. It can’t be that hard.

If you’re wondering why I’m showing a photo of an old rock, it isn’t the rock I’m trying to show; it’s the skirt of ice it’s wearing. This stone is in the Ashuelot River and the river has frozen over from bank to bank in places. All I need to see is the river frozen over like that and I don’t need a thermometer to know it has been cold.

I see feathers all the time, but this is the first partridge feather I’ve ever seen. The partridge is an old world game bird that was introduced into the U.S. sometime around 1790. From what I’ve read it hasn’t been very successful here but it can do well on northern prairies and open farmland.  They forage in tall grass and whole flocks of them can often be very close but remain unseen, so that might help explain why I’ve never seen one. I hope they and all the other birds and animals survive this terrible cold. How they do so, I don’t know.

So that’s our look at December in New Hampshire. Maybe January will be warmer so we can all go outside once again.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt

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One of the things I’ve seen (or felt) this time around is cold, and lots of it. The record cold of the second week of November came as quite a shock after the record warmth of the first week of the month. I was surprised when I found these frost crystals on my windshield one morning.

Ice needles by the thousands thrust up out of the saturated soil near a stream. An awful lot of things have to come together perfectly for ice needles to form. First, there has to be groundwater present and the temperature right at the soil surface has to be below 32 degrees F. The groundwater remains thawed until hydrostatic pressure forces it out of the soil, where it then becomes super cooled and freezes instantly into a needle shape. As more water is forced out of the soil it freezes at the base of the needle and it becomes longer and longer. As this photo shows there are often so many needles that they freeze together and form ribbons. Each needle is hexagonal in shape and the longest one ever found was over 16 inches long. These examples were probably 3-4 inches long.

This is what soil with ice needles growing in it often looks like from above, but more important is the crunching sound the needles make when you walk on them. More often than not I find them by sound rather than by sight. They are very fragile and break easily, and if just the merest hint of sunlight falls on them they melt, so look for them in the shade.

Ground water seeping out of stone ledges formed icicles and that reminded me that it’s almost time to visit the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland, where the icicles grow into ice columns as big as tree trunks.

Ice isn’t the only thing we’ve seen here lately. The first real snowfall measured an inch or two in some places. This is what my ride to work looked like early one morning. When snow falls on thawed ground it melts rather quickly. The soil doesn’t usually freeze here until December, but it can vary. In a cold winter with little snow it can freeze down to nearly four feet deep.

The snow was on the wet side rather than dry and powdery so it stuck to every single twig and stalk in the forest. One of my favorite quotes by Scottish author William Sharp says “There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.” I agree, and that’s what this day was like. You don’t just see beauty like this. You feel it—you give yourself to it, and it becomes part of you.

At the Ashuelot River ice baubles formed on overhanging shrub branches. They are very colorful in the sun and it looks like someone has hung prisms from the branches the way they flash different colors.

As the river water splashes up onto a twig, drop by drop a teardrop shape (usually) forms. The ice they’re made of is as clear as polished crystal, and very reflective.

There was pancake ice in the river below the falls. It forms from the foam that the falls create. The foam becomes slushy and breaks into small pieces and freezes, and the current spins the irregularly shaped pieces into more circular shapes.

The constantly moving circles of river foam bump into each other and form rims, and they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it here (and only here) every winter. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. Here though, they simply float off down the river.

White ice, so I’ve read, has a lot of oxygen in it. It is paper thin and tinkles when it breaks and I usually find it on mud puddles, but only at the start and end of winter. I love it because it always reminds me of spring, and that’s when I used to ride my bike through puddles of it when I was a boy.  You can see some amazing things in this ice. I’ve seen everything from eagle silhouettes to solar systems in it.

This is something I’ve never seen. The foam in a stream froze into formations at the base of a tree and they looked remarkably like turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) My thoughts on what kind of currents it took to make them would be a guess but maybe the stream water splashed against the roots and created ripples of foam, and then the foam froze as the ripples left the shore.

Speaking of turkey tail fungi, I’ve seen some beautifully colored examples this year. Turkey tails are among the most colorful fungi and also one of the easiest to find, and they grow in nearly every state in this country and throughout Europe, Asia, and Russia.

Their colors are described as buff, brown, cinnamon, and reddish brown in mushroom books but they come in many more colors than just those. Blue and purple are two of my favorite colors, but turkey tales wearing those colors are rare in my experience. I probably see one blue one for every five hundred brown ones.

Their concentric bands of color are what make turkey tails so beautiful but beauty isn’t all they have going for them. They’ve been used medicinally in China for thousands of years and in this country the food and drug administration has approved them for cancer treatment trials.

I saw some strangely colored but beautiful trumpet shaped mushrooms on a dead elm tree. I think they were frozen solid. Maybe that’s what made them so beautifully colored.

We’ve had a year with more cones on the evergreen trees than anyone has ever seen before. Great bunches of them weighted down the uppermost branches of the white pines (Pinus strobus) until they finally opened, dropped their seeds, and fell to the ground by the thousands. I decided to check into why there were so many and it turns out that the drought of 2016 has a lot to do with it, because that’s when the cones actually formed. Often, when a plant is stressed out enough to “think” that it’s dying it will produce larger than normal amounts of seed to ensure the continuation of the species, and it looks like that is just what our evergreen trees have done. Every single person I’ve talked to says that they have never seen so many cones.

Unfortunately something else that has been very noticeable to everyone is the sticky sap, called pitch, which has been falling from the white pines. It has gotten all over everything and is very tough to clean off. You can’t sit at a picnic table without sticking to the benches and you can’t drive your car down the road without finding large gobs of sticky pitch all over it. I’ve had to clean it off my car twice now and I can say that it doesn’t come off easily. The above photo is of a log with gobs of pitch all over it. As it dries the pitch turns white and as the weather cools and the pitch ages it often turns a bluish purple color. Turpentine is made from the resin of pine trees, and turpentine is just about what it takes to get it off.

The inner bark of this fallen Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) was so intricate and beautiful all I could do was stand and stare. And when I came back to my senses I remembered to take a photo.

As I hope this post has shown, even after the flowers have gone and the leaves have fallen there are still plenty of beautiful things to see out there. All of the beauty we don’t see in the warm months seems to be amplified or magnified in the cold months. The crisp blue of the sky, the golden light of the rising and setting sun, the greens of the mosses; all seem more vibrant. Even stones can be beautiful, as this one was. I don’t know what was in the geologic soup that it came from but it’s very different than most other stones in this area and very beautiful, and I found myself wishing it could come home with me.

Last year I must have driven to my favorite mountain viewing spot to see if there was snow on Mount Monadnock at least four times before I finally saw it snowcapped but this year there it was, and I took this photo on my way to work one morning with no extra effort at all. As a bonus a bald eagle flew by but it was far too fast for a photo. Though it looks like Dublin Lake in the foreground was frozen over it wasn’t. The sun hadn’t come up yet and I think it was just the low light that made it look that way.

By the time I had driven to Hancock the morning sun was just kissing Monadnock and turning the scattered patches of snow to gold. Mist gathered in the valley below and the scene was so beautiful I almost forgot I was on my way to work. When the sun rises or sets change happens quickly and it’s hard to pull yourself away.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone here in the U.S. has a safe and happy Thanksgiving Day tomorrow and don’t forget; a walk in the woods is a great way to burn off all those extra calories.

 

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