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Posts Tagged ‘Gray Squirrel Nests’

A few years ago I found a beautiful lichen on one of the trees you see in this photo and then I went back later on and found it again, but since then I’ve never been able to find it, and that’s what this post is about. The lichen post I did a while back reminded me that the fruiting (spore producing) bodies of some lichens only appear in the winter. I had been looking for it in the summer and hadn’t seen a thing, so on this coldish day I had high hopes of finding it.

I walked here two days before Christmas so the rain hadn’t yet washed away the 16 inch snowfall. Thankfully snowmobiles had packed it down. My days of breaking trails through knee deep snow are over so I wait for them to do it for me. They make winter walking much easier.

The weather people said partly cloudy and I had to let them get away with it, even though it was more cloudy than not.

I didn’t see any change in the American hazelnut catkins but it’s early. In February they’ll start to lengthen and soften and then will finally turn yellow with pollen and flower when the female blossoms appear at the end of the month. It’s an event I look forward to each year.

I saw a branch covered with milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus). This fungus is common and easily seen in winter. It is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do.

The “teeth” of a milk white toothed polypore are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

Last year when the corn in the nearby cornfields was ripe I came out here and saw 15-20 squirrel’s nests in the trees. This year the corn didn’t grow due to the drought, and I saw just one dilapidated squirrel nest that looked like it had been abandoned.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), covered with fine velvet like hairs, glowed in the dim sunshine.

The velvet on a staghorn sumac is much like that found on a summer deer antler and I wondered if a male whitetail had tangled with this sumac stem. “Buck rubs” happen when a male deer rubs its antlers on a tree to get the dry, shedding velvet off its antlers. This velvet covering is soft and blood filled through summer but once the antlers mature and start to harden the velvet dries and begins to peel in strips.

But a deer didn’t do this; this sumac looked like it had been through a sickle bar mower.

The inner bark of dead staghorn sumacs is often bright red for a time but it does fade as this example was. I’ve heard that a rich brown dye can be made from sumac bark.

There was the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes and I wasn’t surprised. These old rail trails are a great place to pick berries in the summer, just as they were when the trains were running. I used to eat my way down the tracks when I was a boy.

I saw a bird’s nest so small you couldn’t have fit a robin’s egg in it. I don’t know which bird made it but it was very well made. It would have fit in the palm of my hand with plenty of room to spare.

Virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) glowed in the sunlight. This shows how this native clematis vine grows up and over shrubs, trying to reach as much sunlight as it can.

Virgins bower seed heads remind me of feeding furry tadpoles. It is said that the plant is toxic but early settlers used parts of the vines as a pepper substitute. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and herbalists still use it to treat those same illnesses today.

Someone marked a gray birch tree with a bow. Trees are often marked for cutting, especially those that are in danger of falling, but not usually with a bow.

My favorite view of Mount Monadnock can be seen from here, and it’s my favorite because it’s the one I grew up with.

A plane droned by overhead and it reminded me of those lazy summer days as a boy when I would lay on my back in the grass and watch the clouds. Summer seemed like it would never end back then.

Finally I was at the spot where I thought the lichens grew. Luckily I had taken a photo of the group of trees that I had originally found the lichen on so I was able to find the group of trees, but I had no pointer to which tree in the group I had to look at, so the first trip was fruitless and I didn’t find the lichen. I tried again the next day and finally found it, slightly bigger than a pea growing on the smooth bark of a young red maple it was unmistakable with its yellowish body (Thallus) and blue apothecia. The first one I found years ago was dime size but this smaller one tells me there is more than one here. If I have identified it correctly it is the frosted comma lichen (Chrysothrix caesia) and this is the only spot I’ve ever found it in.

Also known as Arthonia caesia, this photo shows its granular thallus and blue gray apothecia (actually  called ascomata on this lichen) which get their color from the same waxy “bloom” that colors the black raspberry cane we saw earlier. They make this lichen easy to identify, but don’t make it any easier to find. Though it might seem a lot of work for little reward I now know that this lichen only fruits in winter and I’ve also read that some of them can be sterile. I also know that it’s a waste of time to look for them in summer, so I learned a lot about another being that I share this planet with.

Live this life in wonder, in wonder of the beauty, the magic, the true magnificence that surrounds you. It is all so beautiful, so wonderful. Let yourself wonder. ~Avina Celeste

Thanks for coming by.

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For a few years now I’ve thought that if anyone came to my door wanting to see a plant that I’ve shown on this blog I’d be able to lead them right to it. I don’t think my memory is any better than anyone else’s but I do believe that I remember where most of the special or unusual things I feature here grow because I visit them as often as I can. But I don’t know that for sure, and I sometimes wonder if I really could lead you to a sweet gum tree, (which isn’t even supposed to grow here) so last Sunday I decided to test myself. Somewhere along this rail trail is a red maple tree with a beautiful lichen on it. It’s grayish white and has blue fruiting bodies (Ascomata) and after my last post about lichens I wanted to see it again, so off I went.

This was a blue day because everywhere I looked I saw blue, like the beautiful blue of the sky’s reflection in the flooded area beside the trail.

There are lots of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) growing along this trail and their catkins had me longing for spring, when the tiny scarlet threads of the female flowers will appear. They’re a sure sign that spring is upon us, but I won’t be seeing them for a while.

Here was more blue; the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis.) When I was a boy I used to pick and eat handfuls of them along the tracks that used to be here.

The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color in this instance was much like that of a blue jay.

There are also wild grapes growing along the trail and most of them were fermenting up in the trees, so the smell of grape jelly was heavy in the wind.

I saw a squirrel up ahead working furiously at something and as I got closer it ran off with a corn cob in its mouth. When I looked at the place it had been I found a pile of corn. It had been stripping the kernels from the cob, and I wondered why it didn’t do it in its nest.

In fact this trail is overrun with squirrels and I’ve never seen so many squirrel nests in one place. The trees were full of them and I’d bet that I must have seen 30 or 40 on this walk. Nests start with a woven twig floor and then damp leaves and moss are packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the floor and leaves, moss and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6-8 inches across has been formed. Gray squirrels can have nests that are up to two feet wide and though they look like they’re open to the sky from below, they aren’t.

Some of the trail sides were covered by newly fallen maple leaves and I’m sure the squirrels are using them for nest building. I’ve watched them build nests before and have seen them gather up a bunch of leaves, tuck them up under their chin and hold them there with one front paw, and then run up the tree with the other three paws. They will also carry leaves in their mouth but they can’t seem to carry as many that way.

In spite of the drought last spring the corn grew well this year. I lived very near here when I was a boy and back then the Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here twice each day. There were extensive corn fields all along the railroad tracks in those days, and not much else. These days there are shopping malls nearby and the college has grown more than anyone thought it would. I used to sit out here all day and not see a soul but these days the trail is like a city sidewalk. College students, joggers, walkers, bicyclists and snowmobilers all use it regularly.

The farmer was harvesting his corn while I was there. This is silage for cows, what we used to call “cow corn,” so the entire plant except for the roots is chopped up and blown into 10 wheel dump trucks to be taken off to the farm. The stubble that is left will get tilled under in the spring and then the field will be planted again. These fields aren’t watered so it all depends on weather.

The farmer wasn’t the only one harvesting the corn. His crop must support hundreds of squirrels, and that explains why there are countless squirrel nests here even though there are no oak trees for acorns and very few pine trees for pine seeds.

There is a good view of Mount Monadnock from here, and on this day it was very blue. Since it was easy to see all over town this is the view I grew up with and it comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the mountain. It was from right here when I was probably 14 or so that I hatched a plan to identify and catalog all the wildflowers on the mountain. Henry David Thoreau started doing just that in the 1800s but never finished. I thought I will finish what Henry started, but when I finally got to the mountain I saw how foolish the plan was because this mountain is huge, and it might take ten lifetimes to do what I thought would be a lark. It’s no wonder that Henry never finished.

We’re almost there. That big thing in the center of the photo is a bridge.

And the bridge goes over a very busy highway, built so Keene State College students and others could cross safely. If you’re interested I wrote about it in a post I did last year called “Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.” When I was a boy the highway was just a road so I don’t think it was quite so busy as it is now, but over the past few years you often had to stand and wait for a while before being able to cross.

When I see the bridge I know I’m very close to the maple tree with the beautiful lichen on it, but on this day I got distracted by these married maples. A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see it happening more all the time.

I knew when I was near the bridge that the tree with the lichen on it would be on the left side of the trail, just a few yards from the bridge. It was a maple but they were all maples and all about the same size, so I had to look at each tree. Actually I had to inspect each tree with my camera because the lichen I was looking for is only about as big as a dime. If you look at all the white spots on the married trees in the previous photo you’ll see what I was up against; those are all lichens.

But after about half an hour of searching I found the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) I was looking for, so my memory hadn’t completely failed me. Why did I want to find a dime size white spot on a tree? Because it’s a beautiful thing and this is the only example of it I’ve ever seen. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

As I walked back down the trail I wondered how and when all the grass grew along the sides of this rail bed. It wasn’t here when I used to come here as a boy. Back then all you saw here were sharp black clinkers, which were basically boiler slag and ash. They were the ballast that the tracks were laid in and it must have been an awful lot of work to get rid of them, but I do like the result. Those clinkers were hard things to take a fall on, which I seem to remember doing quite regularly as a boy.

As I was walking back this birch tree caught my eye. I like to look at the inner bark of trees because sometimes it can be quite beautiful. The inner bark of staghorn sumac can be bright red for instance, after it has peeled and been exposed to light and air. This birch had a deep wound, right down to the wood, and the peeling bark was thick. I thought I saw color there so I had to have a look.

I never expected to see anything like this on the inner bark of a gray birch. The only thing I could think of is the tree’s sap might have turned blue in the cold, because the blue bits weren’t lichens. I can’t think of anything else that could explain so much color. White pine tree sap turns a beautiful blue when it gets cold and on this day it was in the 30s F. with a biting wind. Whatever caused it, it was beautiful and I was happy to see it. As I said it was a blue day and, since blue is my favorite color, I wasn’t at all blue.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

Thanks for stopping in.

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