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Posts Tagged ‘Bird’s Nest’

Last Sunday I needed to see something new, so I decided on the rail trail that heads south out of Keene to Swanzey, Troy, Fitzwilliam, and eventually the Massachusetts border. I’ve done the northern and southern legs of the trail but never this middle section. I started my hike on this amazing stone arch bridge. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of the stones. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it earned a little money for upkeep. Part of the upkeep involved upgrading the drainage and laying a new bed of pea stone where the trains would have run. It seems to be still as solid as the day it was built.

Here is a postcard view of the bridge, probably from the early 1900s. The view and landscape is very different today of course. These postcards were usually actual photos colored by hand but I think this one was a drawing.

The white building in the postcard view is no longer there. This view from the top of the bridge looks west towards Vermont. It was a partly cloudy, very windy day and the gusts felt like they might blow me right off the bridge so I didn’t hang around up here for very long. We’ve had at least some wind nearly every day for over a month now.

I saw some very symmetrical horsetails. This is one plant you do not want in your garden because once you have them you’ll never be rid of them. When I had my gardening business I tried just about everything I could think of including covering them with black plastic for a full year. They loved it and grew on as if nothing had happened.

I also saw some very red new leaves on the staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina.

The trail is wide and dry for the most part because the drainage channels that the railroad built 150 years ago are still working.

Skunk currants (Ribes glandulosum) grew in patches here and there along the trail. I’ve read that the plant gets its common name from the odor given off by its ripe dark red berries, which doesn’t sound too appealing but they are said to be very tasty. If you can get past the smell, I assume. This is a very hairy plant; even its fruit has hairs. The Native Ojibwa people used the root of skunk currant to ease back pain but it is not a favorite of foresters or timber harvesters because it carries white pine blister rust, which can kill pine trees.

Skunk currant flowers are quite small at about 1/4 inch across. They are saucer shaped with 5 petals and 5 purple stamens.

Unfortunately I also saw a lot of garlic mustard out here. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. It spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to what I’ve read, the young spring plants are delicious.

The sunshine seemed to always be just up around the next bend. Until I got to the next bend, that is. By then it had disappeared.

This is a typical New Hampshire mixed forest with mostly pine, hemlock, cherry, beech, oak, maple and white and gray birch. Also this single beautiful golden birch.

I saw a small bird’s nest in a cherry sapling. It was about 5-6 inches across so a small bird must have made it.

Violets bloomed all along the trail. I thought this might be an early blue violet but since my color finding software sees mostly purple, I’ll just call it a violet. It had long above ground rhizomes that I’ve never seen on a violet.

Sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia) grew along the drainage channels in groups. I’ve seen them carpet large areas of forest floor so I had the feeling that they must have just gotten started here. They’re in the lily of the valley family, which can also form large colonies.

This signal post looked new, and that’s because someone had painted it. I’m not sure why anyone would but there it was, looking like it had just been installed yesterday.

I was very surprised to see skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing on a wet hillside. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation but something had eaten many of the leaves. Often animals don’t have the same reaction to plants that we do. Birds even eat poison ivy berries.

This is a photo of the fruit of a skunk cabbage which is a rare sight, even for those of us who look for such things.

I saw just two red trilliums (Trillium erectum) out here. I also saw Jack in the pulpit, starflowers, and lots of fern fiddleheads. The trilliums and our other spring ephemerals will probably be done by the time this post is read. Leaves on the trees and warmer weather finish their short bloom periods quickly.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. One way to tell the two apart is by the stem. Poison ivy usually has an older, woody stem while sarsaparilla has a fresh, tender stem. The roots of this plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There were already flower buds on some sarsaparilla plants. They’ll bloom in late May, with ping pong ball size flowerheads made up of tiny individual flowers.

I thought these new oak leaves were beautiful, both in color and shape. They were soft like velvet, and there were flower buds as well.

A broken whistle post told me that a road was coming up. What looks like an M is really an upside down W. 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. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, 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.

There was indeed a road; route 12 south out of Keene parallels the rail trail and I had walked to the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. Only 2.2 miles by car from where I started, so I’d guess it was a two mile walk.

And that meant that it was two miles back, but on such a sweet spring day with birds singing in the trees two miles didn’t seem like anything, really. It was one of those days that gets inside you and lets you see how wonderful this life really is, and there was no hurry to get anywhere or to do anything. I felt doubly blessed.

Some journeys take you farther from where you come from, but closer to where you belong. ~Ron Franscell

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is able to find some outdoor time.

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A bee landed on my windshield recently and, since I can’t remember ever seeing a bee’s belly, I took a photo of it. It’s cold enough now so bees and other insects are moving sluggishly and acting as if they really don’t know what to do with themselves, because there are few flowers to keep them company.

There are some flowers still blooming though and what I think is a hoverfly found this false dandelion blossom. It was tiny but barely moving, so getting a photo was relatively easy.

Here was something I wasn’t happy about seeing; the wind had knocked a bald faced hornet’s nest out of a tree. The nest was as big as a football and was buzzing with angry bald faced hornets. Each nest can house as many as 400 of them and if you get within three feet of the nest they don’t have a problem letting you know how displeased they are. They were flying all around as I took these photos and I’m still surprised that I didn’t get stung.

Bald faced hornets aren’t really hornets at all; though they are black and white they’re classified as yellow jacket wasps because they’re more closely related to wasps than they are hornets. But it doesn’t matter what you call them. This is one insect you don’t want to get stung by because unlike bees they can sting multiple times and it is a painful sting. They rate a 2.0 on the Schmidt Pain Index and the pain is described as “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” In case you’re wondering the Schmidt Pain Index goes up to 4.0, which is described as “You don’t want to know.” There is one insect that rates a 4.0 on the index: a Tarantula Hawk, which is another wasp that I hope I never meet.

What I think was a dark eyed Junco landed on a deck where I work and let me walk right up to it. It sat there even as I opened a door and went inside and didn’t fly off until I came back out of the building. Even then it flew just a few feet away and landed in an apple tree. They seem like very tame birds but what I was struck by most when I saw this photo of it was its shadow; it reminded me of something.

This is what the Junco’s shadow reminded me of. There used to be a television show called “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and it always opened with this shadow. It was one of my favorite shows for quite a while and it can still be seen on You Tube today.

Here was another dead birch tree full of golden pholiota mushrooms (Pholiota limonella.) At least I thought that’s what they were but these example had no citrus scent, so I’d say they must be Pholiota aurivella which, except for its smaller spores and the lack of a lemon scent, appears identical.

The frustrating thing about mushroom identification is how for most of them you can never be sure without a microscope, and that’s why I never eat them. There are some that don’t have many lookalikes and though I’m usually fairly confident of a good identification for them I still don’t eat them. It’s just too risky.

I saw a tiny insect on the underside of this mushroom but it wasn’t until I saw the photo that I realized it had been looking up at me. I’m not sure what it was; an ant, maybe? It’s a cute little thing, whatever its name.

I saw what I thought was a strangely colored rock along the Ashuelot River, but when I walked around it and saw the other side I discovered that it wasn’t that strange after all, because that side looked like any other rock. What we see here is the part of the rock that was buried in the soil and that soil apparently contained a lot of iron. How it got out of that iron rich soil I don’t know, but it might have rolled down the river bed. Standing here after heavy rains when the river is raging you can hear the eerie booming sounds of stones rolling along the river bed. It’s a sound that’s hard to forget; you don’t just hear it, you feel it as well.

When the leaves begin to fall lots of things that were previously hidden are revealed, and among them are bird’s nests like this one I saw along the river. It wasn’t very big; a baseball would have fit right in it like it had been made for it, so it was probably about 3 or 4 inches across.

It was made of mud and straw; an ancient recipe for bricks. All its soft interior of lichens, feathers, and soft grasses had disappeared. Or maybe they were never there and the bird was happy to sit on sun baked, hard mud. I’ve seen quite a few eastern phoebes in this area but I don’t know if it was one of them that made the nest.

American mountain ash is a native tree but you’re more likely to find them growing naturally north of this part of the state. I do see them in the wild, but rarely. Their red orange fruit in fall and white flowers in spring have made them a gardener’s favorite and that’s where you’ll see most of them here though they prefer cool, humid air like that found in the 3000 foot elevation range. The berries are said to be low in fat and very acidic, so birds leave them for last. For some reason early settlers thought the tree would keep witches away so they called it witch wood. Native Americans used both the bark and berries medicinally. The Ojibwe tribe made both bows and arrows from its wood, which is unusual. Usually they used wood from different species, or wood from both shrubs and trees.

Our woods are full of ripe Concord and river grapes at this time of year and on a warm, sunny fall day the forest smells like grape jelly. Not for long though because birds and animals snap them up quickly. North America has about 20 native species of wild grape and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so the grapes were used for juice and jelly or cooked and used in various recipes. Grapes were also used to dye baskets with a gray violet dye.

All parts of the yew tree (Taxus) are poisonous except (it is said) the red, fleshy part of the berry. The seed inside the berry, which can be seen in this photo, is the most toxic part of the plant and eating as few as three of them can cause death in just a few hours. In February of 2014 Ben Hines died in Brockdish, Norfolk, England after ingesting parts of yew trees. Nobody has ever figured out why he would do such a thing but the incident illustrated just how toxic the plant is.

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are said to be one of only three fruits native to North America, along with the concord grape and blueberry, that are commercially grown but I’m not sure of that. Because they float commercial growers flood their fields to harvest them. This has many people thinking that they grow in water but no, they grow near water on dry, peaty, sandy soil. Cultivation began in 1816 and growers discovered that a well-tended cranberry plant can live 150 years. The cranberry was highly important to Native Americans and they used them for everything from food and medicine to dyes. The most important use was in pemmican, which was a highly nutritious mixture of dried fruit, dried meat and fat. The name cranberry comes from crane berry, which the early settlers named them because they thought the flowers looked like sand hill cranes. Once the English brought honeybees over in 1622 honey was used as a sweetener for the tart berries and their use skyrocketed among the settlers. This was very bad news for the Natives and many tribes died out within 100 years of European contact.

I’ve seen lots of galls but I’ve never seen these pea size furry ones before. They grew on an oak leaf and some of them simply rolled off it when I tilted the leaf. They are wooly oak leaf galls I believe, and like most galls do no harm to the host plant. A wasp lays an egg on a leaf and the tree responds by encasing it in a gall. When the egg hatches the wasp larva eats its way out of the gall. Inside the fuzzy wool is a hard brownish kernel that looks like a seed.

Everlastings get their name from the way they can dry and often last for years once they’ve been cut. Sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) gets its name from the way that it smells like maple syrup. It’s another of those plants like pineapple weed which will light up a child’s face when they smell it. They know instantly just what it smells like.

Well, here it is Halloween and the only spooky thing I have to show you is this witches hat that I found growing on a witch hazel leaf. It’s actually a gall which the plant created in response to the witch hazel gall aphid (Hormaphis hamamelidis.) It’s also called nipple gall and cone head gall. I think it looks like a Hershey’s kiss chocolate candy.

Here’s something that might be much more scary than the witches hat; puddle ice.

And yes that’s snow, and that scares me. We saw a dusting one morning a week or so ago but thankfully none since. Though we average zero inches of snow in October we’ve had over a foot on Halloween in recent memory. Chances are you’ll see more of it here soon. We average about 2 inches in November and just over 11 inches in December.

Nature is what you see plus what you think about it. ~John Sloan

Thanks for coming by. Have a safe and happy Halloween!

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We had another couple of warm days last weekend with temps in the high 40s F, so I decided to go and check on the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) to see how they were doing. They are our earliest flowers, often flowering in March, and they grow around the swamp in the above photo, which is one of only two places I’ve seen them.

I doubted I’d see any since it’s only January but there was a single green shoot, probably still there from last fall. This is not a flower bud though, it is a leaf bud. Skunk cabbage is an arum and the actual flowers are hard to see because they blossom inside a spathe. A spathe is a modified leaf which in skunk cabbages usually is colored a splotchy, mottled yellow and maroon. True leaves appear around mid-April when the plant is done flowering.

Do cattails (Typha latifolia) produce new shoots in the fall or in spring? I wondered when I saw these. When I looked them up I read that new shoots appear in spring, but this is January. I have a feeling they appeared last fall and are just biding their time until it warms up. Native Americans wove cattail leaves into waterproof mats and used them on their lodges.

The approach to the swamp is through the woods shown here and then down the steep embankment in the distance, so I was glad there wasn’t much snow to slip and slide in.

I saw a bird’s nest and wondered, because of the way it hung from branches, if it was a Baltimore oriole’s nest. It was about as big around as a coffee mug and hung in a shrub at about waist high, which seems much too low for an oriole’s nest. The ones that I’ve seen have always been quite high up in the trees. Maybe there are other birds that weave nests that hang.

This photo shows how the bird hung the nest in the V shaped crotch of a branch. It is hung from 3 points for stability. Grasses, cattail leaves and birch bark is what the nest was mostly woven from. I wonder if Native Americans first learned to weave baskets by studying bird nests.

The shiny evergreen leaves of goldthread appeared by the place where skunk cabbages grow and surprised me, because I’ve never seen them here. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its name from its bright yellow, thread like root. Tiny but beautiful white flowers will appear in late April. Native Americans chewed the roots of goldthread to treat canker sores, which is why the plant is also called Canker root. The natives shared the plant with the English settlers and it became such a popular medicine that by 1785 shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for it dried, which meant people dug up all they could find. At one time there was more goldthread sold in Boston than any other native plant. Luckily after a couple of centuries the plant has recovered enough to be relatively common once again.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a native plant that makes a good garden groundcover. Small, heart shaped leaves on creeping stems grow at ground level and you can mow right over it. In spring it has white trumpet shaped flowers that grow in pairs and in the fall it has bright red berries which are edible but close to tasteless. I leave them for the turkeys, which seem to love them. My favorite parts of this plant are the greenish yellow leaf veins on leaves that look as if they were cut from hammered metal. I have several large patches of it growing in my yard.

The small blackish bead-like sori that make up the fertile fronds of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) will open to release the spores soon. Sensitive fern is another good indicator of moist places, so I wasn’t surprised to see it here. Its common name comes from its sensitivity to frost, which was first noticed by the early colonials. I just read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

These oak leaves were pretty amazing for January, warm day or not. I’m not sure how they did this; most other oak leaves I’ve seen this winter have been brown, or sometimes pinkish brown. Maybe these were flash frozen in November, I don’t know, but it was a pleasure to see them.

We saw more pine cones fall from the white pines (Pinus strobus) this year than most of us have ever seen and the squirrels are reaping the harvest. They pull the cones apart scale by scale and eat the seeds, and big piles of scales are a common sight in the woods. Squirrels like to sit up higher than the surrounding landscape when they eat and often sit on stones or logs.

This is what’s left of a white pine cone when a squirrel is finished with it. Not much.

There are plenty of goldenrod and other seeds to keep the birds happy this year as well.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) catkins are a common enough sight in the winter but I’m not sure what these examples were doing. They usually hang straight down but a couple of these decided to be different. These are the male flowers of the hazel shrub and before long, usually in mid-April, they will begin to show pollen and turn golden yellow.

Turkeys, squirrels and many other birds and animals usually eat hazelnuts up quickly so I was surprised to see quite a few nut clusters still hanging from the branches. It could be that the bumper crop of acorns is keeping the animals busy.

Blackberry seed gall is caused by the blackberry seed gall wasp (Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.) These very small, round hollow galls look like seeds and form in clusters around blackberry stems. Each tiny gall has a stiff, hair like spine and together they form a hairy mass like that in the photo. They start out bright yellow-green and mature to brownish red. This one was about as long as your index finger.

I hoped the vine I saw up in a tree was American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but it turned out to be just another invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus,) which is quickly outpacing the natives. That’s mainly because its berries are more enticing to birds and its seeds germinate much faster. The easiest way to tell American bittersweet from Oriental is by the location of the berries on the vine; American bittersweet berries grow on the ends of the vines and Oriental bittersweet berries grow all along them. While both vines climb trees and shrubs, American bittersweet is less likely to strangle its host like Oriental bittersweet will.

I keep seeing this red inner bark on some dead staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and each time I see it I try to find out why it would be red, but so far I’ve never found an answer. It’s always surprising that such a beautiful color would be hidden from sight. Or maybe it turns red as it peels away.

There are often ducks here in this part of the swamp but they probably heard me long before I could have seen them and swam off. Soon this will be a very busy, growing place full of nesting red winged blackbirds, snapping turtles, herons, ducks, and frogs but for now it is simply open water and quiet and for me, that was enough.  I hope you have a nearby swamp or wetland that you can visit, because they’re fascinating places that are full of life.

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

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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