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Posts Tagged ‘Half Moon Pond’

I see this view of Halfmoon Pond in Hancock almost every morning on the way to work. Sometimes there are ducks, geese or great blue herons here so I always at least slow down and look. The view from here reminds me of total wilderness, where all you really have is you. At the very edge of a pond the growth is thick and hard to get through because that’s where all the sunlight is. Back away from where the water meets the land, back where the forest is dark and there is less undergrowth, there is usually a way around. I think, long before Europeans showed up, Native Americans most likely had trails around every pond and lake in this area.

Ponds are great places to see waterfowl of all kinds and I’ve seen plenty of Canada geese this year. This family swam quite close and I think it’s because they’ve been fed by humans sometime in the past.

These goslings on the other hand swam away as fast as they could, with mom and dad just out of view, bobbing their heads up and down frantically. Personally I don’t feed wild animals because I’d rather have them rely on nature. Nature will provide all they need, just as it has since the time began.

But nature doesn’t discriminate and it also provides all that snapping turtles need, and some of what they need are small birds like goslings that swim on the surface of their ponds. If you watch a family of geese over time they might start out with 6 or 7 goslings, but then often end up with only one or two that reach adulthood. Foxes, bobcats, snapping turtles and other animals all thin the flock.

The big turtles have been on the move until recently and I’ve seen quite a few females out looking for suitable places to dig their nests and lay their eggs. Once they do many of the nests are almost immediately dug up and the eggs eaten, but there are thousands of eggs around every pond. Nature allows for the losses, so there will always be turtles and there will always be goslings. I should say that you don’t want to get too close to a snapping turtle because though it doesn’t look it they have long necks that can stretch out quickly. They also have very strong jaws.

Rosy maple moths appear at about this time each year and are easy to identify because there apparently aren’t too many others that look like them. This is a cute little thing with its wooly yellow body and pink and creamy yellow wing stripes. These moths lay their tiny eggs on the undersides of maple leaves and that’s how they come by their common name. Adult moths do not eat but the caterpillars are able to eat a few leaves each. They are called green striped maple worms.

Virgin tiger moths are large, butterfly sized moths and I’ve read that its hindwing color can vary from yellow to scarlet. Unfortunately they can’t be seen in this photo. The larvae feed on various low growing plants. Though there are countless photos of this moth online there is very little information on it. It is certainly one of the prettiest moths I’ve seen.

I saw a wolf spider crawling on one of the buildings where I work. Wolf spiders carry their egg sacs by attaching them to their spinnerets. They have eight eyes and two of them are large, which helps them see their prey. They will sometimes chase prey but usually just wait for it to happen by.

Here is a closer view of the wolf spiders egg sac. According to Wikipedia “the egg sac, a round, silken globe, is attached to the spinnerets at the end of the abdomen, allowing the spider to carry her unborn young with her. The abdomen must be held in a raised position to keep the egg case from dragging on the ground. However, despite this handicap, they are still capable of hunting. Another aspect unique to wolf spiders is their method of care of young. Immediately after the spiderlings emerge from their protective silken case, they clamber up their mother’s legs and crowd onto the dorsal side of her abdomen. The mother carries the spiderlings for several weeks before they are large enough to disperse and fend for themselves. No other spiders are currently known to carry their young on their backs for any period of time.”

A cedar waxwing sat on a lawn and let me walk right up to it and takes as many photos as I wanted before finally hopping away into the undergrowth. This is odd behavior for a bird but it must have either been a juvenile that couldn’t fly yet or maybe an adult that was stunned. I saw a Baltimore oriole fly into a window once and knock itself out. I thought it had died but an hour later it woke up and flew away. I love the beautiful sleek look of cedar waxwings, and the little bandit masks they wear. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology the name waxwing comes from the brilliant red wax drops you can see at the tips of its wing feathers. Cornell also says because they eat so much fruit, cedar waxwings occasionally become intoxicated or even die when they run across overripe berries that have started to ferment and produce alcohol, so maybe this one was simply drunk.

Our white pines have been growing pollen cones, which are the tree’s male flowers. Pine trees are wind pollinated and great clouds of smoke like yellow-green pollen can be seen coming from them on windy days. The trees look like they’re on fire and virtually everything gets dusted with pollen; cars, houses, and even entire lakes and ponds. If you live near pine trees it’s impossible not to breathe some of it in, but pine pollen is a strong antioxidant that has been used medicinally around the world for thousands of years. Its numerous health benefits were first written of in China nearly 5000 years ago.

I like lake sedge (Carex lacustris) because I like the way it seems to flow like the waves of the pond and lake shores it grows on. It is really the wind and its own weak stems that make it bend so, but I think it makes a pretty display. Lake sedge is native to Canada and the northern U.S. and can at times be found growing in water. Waterfowl and songbirds eat its seeds. Even when it isn’t blowing in the wind it seems to have movement.

English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) blooms in rings around the flower stalk, starting at the bottom and working towards the top. Though an invasive from Europe and Asia English plantain prefers growing in soil that has been disturbed, so it isn’t often seen in natural areas where there is little activity. But it is taking hold and it has gone from a plant I rarely saw just a few years ago to one I see just about everywhere now. I see it in lawns more than anywhere else. It is wind pollinated so it hangs its stamens out where the wind can blow the pollen off the anthers. Each stamen is made up of a white bag like anther sitting at the end of a thin filament. If pollinated each flower will bear two tiny seeds in a small seed capsule.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum,) is as rare as hen’s teeth but I know of one or two. Some confuse it with royal fern but maidenhair fern really bears little resemblance to royal ferns. The name maidenhair comes from the fine, shiny black stalks, which are called stipes. This fern is very rarely seen in a natural setting in this area.

Grasses like this orchard grass have started flowering and I hope everyone will take a little time to give them a look, because they can be very beautiful as well as interesting. They are also one of the easiest plants there are to find. According to the book Grasses: An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown, George Washington loved orchard grass so much so that he wrote “Orchard grass of all others is in my opinion the best mixture with clover; it blooms precisely at the same time, rises quick again after cutting, stands thick, yields well, and both cattle and horses are fond of it green or in hay.”

Orchard grass seed heads are composed of spikelets that bear two to eight flowers which dangle from thin filaments (pedicels) and shimmer in the breeze, which of course blows the pollen to other plants.

Someone carved a heart into a birch tree. I did the same once but mine was carved into a maple and wasn’t as elaborate. Still, I’d guess the reasons for doing the carving were the same.

It might look like the hills were on fire in this shot but this was mist that the warmth of the sun was wringing out of the forest one morning after a rainstorm the night before. Marty Rubin once said “Mist around a mountain: all reality is there.” And for me, on that morning, it was. I thought it made a beautiful scene, and losing myself in it almost made me late for work.

Mists like the one in the previous photo usually mean high humidity in the forest, and if there’s one bit of nature that loves high humidity it’s a slime mold, and I’ve been seeing a few. I think this one is the scrambled egg slime mold (Fuligo septica.) It gets quite big and will grow in full sun on wood mulch or chips, so it is easily seen and is often people’s first introduction to slime molds. It also produces the largest spore-producing structure of any known slime mold. Slime molds move using a process called cytoplasmic streaming, which is basically a contracting of “muscles” by all of the separate cells until they come together in a single mass,  and I was fortunate enough to find this one on the move. Though its movement is imperceptible you can tell it has moved if you watch it over time. In fact it can climb onto stumps, logs, and living plants.

Scrambled egg slime mold is the perfect name for this one. According to mycologist Tom Volk of the University of Wisconsin, a plasmodium is essentially a blob of protoplasm without cell walls and only a cell membrane to keep everything in. It is really nothing but a large amoeba and feeds much the same way, by engulfing its food, which are mostly bacteria, spores of fungi and plants, protozoa, and particles of nonliving organic matter. Slime molds are a very important part of the ecosystem; it isn’t hard to imagine what this world would be like without decomposers like fungi and slime molds doing their work.

Scrambled egg slime in the plasmodium stage will eventually come together into a sponge-like mass called an aethalium, which is pictured forming here. An aethalium  is a “large, plump, pillow-shaped fruiting body.” Over time this slime mold forms a smooth, brittle crust which breaks easily to reveal a black spore mass.

My fungal offering for this post is a tiny bird’s nest fungus, which few people ever get to see. I think they were fluted bird’s nest fungi (Cyathus striatus) and this is a view of them from the side. They grow in a funnel or vase shape and have flutes around the rim of the body, which is hollow like a cup. They are so small not even a pea would fit inside them.

The “bird’s nest” is actually a splash cup called a peridium and when a drop of rain falls into it with enough force the “eggs” are splashed out. These eggs, which really can’t be seen here, are really disc shaped spore cases called peridioles. Once ejected from the splash cup the peridioles degrade over time to release the spores.

Here is a shot of a fluted bird’s nest cup with two disc shaped “eggs” in the bottom that I took earlier in 2015. It’s another of those miracles of nature that tend to boggle the mind.

Go out, go out I beg of you
And taste the beauty of the wild.
Behold the miracle of the earth
With all the wonder of a child.
~Edna Jaques

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone has a safe and happy 4th of July tomorrow.

 

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We’re still on the weather roller coaster but it is slowly warming up and the snow is melting, as the melt ring around this pinecone shows. I was happy when I found this because it answered a question that I’ve had for a long time: why do melt rings form around tree trunks? As the pinecone shows it has to be the sun warming it up, and as the pinecone releases that warmth the snow around it melts. Or maybe it’s simply heat radiating from the pinecone during the day when the sun is shining. The dark cone would absorb more sunlight than the white snow would.

Here is a melt ring just getting started around this tree. A study done by Emeritus Professor of Botany Lawrence J. Winship of Hampshire College, where he used an infrared thermometer to measure heat radiated by tree trunks, found that the sunny side of a red oak was 54 degrees F. while the shaded side was just 29 degrees F. And the ground temperature was also 29 degrees, which means it was frozen. This shows that trees really absorb a lot of heat from the sun and it must be that when the heat is radiated back into the surroundings it melts the snow. The professor found that the same was true on fence posts and stumps so the subject being alive had nothing to do with it, even though a living tree should have much more heat absorbing water in it. In my mind, the pinecone in the previous photo answers the question of melt rings.

But I didn’t have long to wonder about melt rings on trees because on Monday March 4th we got about 6 inches of new snow. This shows part of my drive to work that day.

I pass this scene almost every day so I can see if the ice is melting. It was and then it wasn’t. Winter can be very beautiful but the pull of spring fever can be terribly strong. By this time of year almost everybody but is ready for spring and waiting impatiently.

It’s hard these days to follow a trail that hasn’t been broken. It never used to be but things change. I’ve never been a real fan of snowshoes so I used to just trudge through it, even if it was up to my knees, but going any real distance through snow much deeper than your knees is a struggle at any age and in any condition, and these days I avoid it.

But as I said it can be beautiful enough to stop you in your tracks. Every season has its own beauty, as this early morning view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows.

No matter what the sun always appears again and it was very beautiful on this eastern hemlock tree, I thought. I think algae colored its trunk and the sun came along and lit it up. You can walk just about anywhere in nature and find beauty like this any day of the week, and if that isn’t a gift I don’t know what is.

It’s amazing how a little sunlight can transform the simple into something beautiful, as it did with these deer tongue grass leaves.

I don’t think I’ve ever shown icicles hanging from the eaves on this blog before, but that might be because they are so common. You see them on just about every structure in winter.

I love the way icicles sparkle with color in the sun like prisms. This shot doesn’t quite catch it but there was a lot more color in them.

One cold morning frost flowers bloomed on the ice of mud puddles. They form when the frost point in the air is reached and water vapor condenses into ice. They are a form of hoarfrost, so delicate that a touch of a finger or a warm breath will destroy them. In my experience it has to be very cold for them to form, but there also has to be plenty of water vapor in the air. That’s why hoarfrost is often found near streams and ponds.

Mount Monadnock is an old friend, there in my earliest memories, and it is always at its most beautiful when snow frosts its peak. I would guess the snow must be at least 5 feet deep near the summit. I was up there with a friend of mine on April 19th one year and it was about chest deep in places. We had to climb over it and kind of swim through it rather than trying to break a trail through it. The air was warm and the snow was melting, and the fog generated by the cold snow and warm air mixing together was so dense you could barely see your hand at the end of an outstretched arm. I don’t think I’ve ever been as wet as I was that day.

Tramp art was done by chipping and whittling a piece of wood with a pocket knife. Often pieces of wood from cigar boxes and orange crates were turned into picture frames and other household items which were sold for meager amounts of money. That’s what this piece of branch reminded me of when I saw it but the hand of man played no part in this art; it was made entirely by engraver beetles and was very beautiful, I thought. I wish I had kept it and brought it home but then if I had the next hiker to come along couldn’t have marveled at its insect carved hieroglyphics as I did.

I’ve taken many photos of frullania liverworts throughout the winter but never posted any of them because it’s a tough plant to get a good shot of. It’s a leafy liverwort but each leaf is smaller than a house fly so it isn’t an easy subject. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on; instead they simply perch there like birds. Mosses and lichens are also epiphytes.

The liverwort’s tiny leaves are strung together like beads, and change from green to deep purple in cold weather. Frullania liverworts can cause a rash called woodcutter’s eczema in some people. It’s an annoying, itchy rash but doesn’t cause any real harm, and it disappears in a week or two if you stop handling logs with liverworts on them.

This post started with winter but it will end with spring, and that illustrates how quickly one season can change into another here in the northeast. Sometimes it’s as if someone flipped a switch, and it’s what inspired Mark Twain’s “If you don’t like the weather in New England just wait a few minutes” quote. Here our earliest flowering plant, the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus,) has finally shown its mottled yellow and maroon flower spathes.

Some are yellow with maroon spots and some are maroon with yellow spots. It’s good to finally see them no matter what colors they choose to wear. The spathes shown here appear first and multiple flowers grow inside the spathe on a spadix. Soon the spathes will begin to open so insects can enter and pollinate the tiny flowers, and so a photographer or two might get some photos of them.

Sap collecting has begun but you’d hardly know it these days. When I was a boy it seemed like every yard had trees with sap buckets hanging from them in spring but I had to search long and hard to find just a few this year, and I fear family sap gathering a dying art. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup.

This Library of Congress photo from the early 1900s shows a Native American woman tapping trees and gathering the sap in what appears to be bark buckets, which it looks like she is making. Birch bark buckets are entirely plausible since they made canoes from the same bark. Sticky pine or spruce sap on the seams made their canoes leak proof. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was a lot of work, and it was almost always done by the women of the tribe. There are many legends about how Natives discovered the process but nobody really knows for sure. Red and silver maples as well as sugar maples were tapped. So were hickory, box elder and birch, though in those trees the sap was less sweet.

I’ve read about mallards migrating and some articles say they do and others say they don’t, so I’m not sure if this photo is a true sign of spring but I saw these two dancing on the ice at a local swamp, most likely hoping for it to hurry up and melt like the rest of us. I thought it was a pretty, spring like scene.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~Rumi

Thanks for coming by.

 

 

 

 

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Both the groundhog and the National Weather Service predicted an early spring, but how early? As I write this there are only 22 days until the calendar says spring, so I thought I’d go looking for it. It’s hard to describe how or when spring happens but sometimes it starts with a hint of warmth on a breeze. You can tell that it’s different than other breezes but you don’t know why; you just know that it’s that first warm breath of spring. But that’s just one sign. There are others, like the ice starting to melt off ponds. Even though we still have cold days the ice melts slowly, and it might freeze and refreeze but the sunshine and warmth will win out and before long there will be open water where the ice was. It’s happening now; that spot of open water in this photo has slowly been getting bigger.

More and more trees, and especially willows like the one seen here, are changing into their spring golden colors. It’s something I’ve watched happen for years now, one of those first subtle hints of spring. One lady said her ponies shedding their hair was a sign of spring for her, and skunks coming out of hibernation is another. Seed displays are also popping up in stores.

Willow catkins, called “pussies,” are a sign of spring for many but this year I saw them in January.

The purple bud scales on these red maple buds (Acer rubrum) have definitely been pulling back to reveal the tomato red buds within since the last time I looked at them. The bud scales protect the bud from freezing weather, so I hope the tree knows what it is doing. I’ve seen red maples bloom too early and lose most of their flowers to frost.

I get to see this sugar maple (Acer saccharum) every day so I’m sure the bud scales have been slowly opening on it as well. But, since I haven’t seen any sap buckets yet, buds getting bigger doesn’t make much sense because it’s the sap that drives the growth.  Maybe the sap is flowing in some trees and not others. That sounds like a plausible answer, anyhow.

When I was a boy I used to get highly excited when spring came because that meant I could ride my bike to school again, and when I did I made sure to ride through as many ice covered puddles as I could. That’s why, whenever I see that thin, white, crinkly ice on a puddle it makes me think of spring. This ice wasn’t quite what I mean but it was on a puddle and it had some fantastic, feathery patterns in it.

Mud is also part of spring in these parts; so much so that we even have a “mud season.” That’s when dirt roads turn to something similar to quicksand for a week or two as things start to thaw and the frost comes out of the ground.

For me checking lilac buds is a rite of spring. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember, always starting about now, looking at them twice or three times a week for signs of swelling. It’s always exciting to see the bud scales finally fully open to reveal the deep purple, grape like cluster of flower buds within.

Some plants seem like they would do anything to be the first to bloom in spring, and these cress seedlings (I think) are one of those. These seedlings grew next to a building foundation where it’s a little warmer and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them blooming next week. Each plant would fit in a thimble and a whole bouquet of the white, four petaled flowers could easily hide behind a pea.

I saw some tulips up and out of the ground, standing about 3 inches high. There are bulb beds up against a building foundation and this must be why they’re up so early.

I hope those are more leaves coming along and not flower buds.

Reticulated iris grow in the same bed as the tulips. These are very early flowering plants and you can often find the tiny iris blossoms covered by snow.

Daffodils are also still up and growing in a raised bed at the local college. Raised beds drain and thaw earlier than the ground does but anything green in them can still be harmed by the cold, and those daffodils often get frost bitten. When that happens the leaves turn to mush.

I was surprised to see this beech bud curling, because curling like this is often a sign of bud break and it’s far too early for that. The curl is caused by the sun warming the cells on one side of the bud and making them grow faster than the cells on the other side. This causes a tension in the bud which will eventually cause it to open. For beech this usually means mid-May.

Here is a photo of a beech bud breaking from May 19th of last year. There are several leaves in each bud, all edged in downy, silvery angel hair. This is one of the most beautiful sights in a New England forest in spring and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again.

I checked the skunk cabbages again and still didn’t see any of the blotchy maroon and yellow flower spathes but it shouldn’t be much longer. Since I’ve been keeping track the earliest I’ve seen them was in 2014. They were just coming up on Feb 2 that year and it looks like they might be a month later this year.

The spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) have bloomed earlier as well, but they’re waiting this year. The weather has been very strange so I’m not surprised. I’m guessing that once we get a week of above freezing temperatures all the early blooming plants will bloom at once.

Though they’re early bloomers I didn’t think there would be any sign of movement in magnolia buds. I just wanted to see their furry bud scales.

45 years ago I was doing some work for a man who suddenly said “Look at the bluebird on the fence.” I got a look at a beautiful blue blur and until just the other day I hadn’t ever seen another eastern bluebird. On this day there were 3 or 4 of them in a birch tree and I saw the beautiful color as I drove by. I stopped, grabbed my camera, and they actually sat still for more than a second or two; just long enough to jump out of the car and get these photos.

The bluebirds were eating the fruit (hips) of the invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and of course that just helps it spread. Blue birds, from what I’ve read, are migratory and usually return to New Hampshire to nest in March, so these birds are a true sign of spring even if they are a little early. Oddly enough that beautiful blue color doesn’t come from any blue pigment in their feathers because there isn’t any. Instead it comes from a thin layer of cells on each feather that absorbs all wavelengths of color except blue. Only the blue wavelength is reflected so when we see the beautiful blue of this bird we are actually seeing a reflection. But no matter where it comes from it certainly is a beautiful shade of blue, as this male shows.

Bluebirds are called “bluebirds of happiness” and seeing them again after so long certainly made me happy. They could have stayed a little longer but I’m very thankful that I got to see them, however brief that visit was.

But no blue, not even the brightest summer sky, seems as blue as the bluebirds of spring.
~Ron Hirschi

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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

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

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

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

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I hope everyone had a nice Christmas. Our presents from nature were temperatures in the mid-30s F. and plenty of sunshine but we’ve also had some cold, as this frozen view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows. We have no snow in my corner of the state though, because it seems to warm up ahead of every storm and we see rain instead of snow. That’s a good thing because just one storm last week would have dropped over two feet of snow.

Pressure cracks in ice are caused by stress, which is caused by fluctuating temperatures in the ice, wind, or waves. Some are contraction cracks, caused by the top surface of the ice sheet shrinking quickly. I think that’s what this crack on the pond ice in the previous photo might be. There are also wet and dry cracks. Dry cracks obviously have no water in them like this one. Ice can make some very strange, eerie sounds as it changes and sometimes this pond sounds like a Star Wars movie. This crack went all the way across the pond.

There seems to be plenty of seeds and other food for the smaller birds this year, especially since the asters seen here along with goldenrods and so many other late blooming plants grow many millions of seeds each year. All of these seeds are what help small birds and small animals through winter.

And they do get eaten, as this aster seed head shows.

Though the smaller birds seem to have plenty to eat things might be a bit difficult for larger birds like turkeys. Last year was a mast year and millions of acorns and white pine cones fell; easily more than I’ve ever seen, and turkeys, deer, squirrels and other animals had a bountiful year. But as is often the case when trees grow so much fruit, they need time to recover. In the following few years the harvest can be meager, and that’s what has happened this year. Last year I saw more acorns fall than I ever have and this year I’ve seen fewer fall than I ever have, and turkeys and larger animals are now paying the price.  Add to that a layer of snow like that seen here in Hancock, and there could be a serious thinning of the flocks and herds.

Technically a group of turkeys is called a “rafter” rather than a flock but I doubt they care. This one had to come over and see what I was up to. Here in New Hampshire we see turkeys chasing people on the news fairly regularly. They also have a habit of standing in roads. Why, I don’t know.

The way some of these photos show a snow pack and others show none you might think they were taken in different seasons but no, it’s just a matter of a few miles between snow and none at all. In fact looking at this colony of heartleaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) one might be fooled into thinking it was spring, but they’re an evergreen plant and look like this even under snow. Come mid-May they’ll be covered in small white flowers with long stamens, and it is these “foamy” flower stamens that give the plant its common name. It’s so nice to see green plants in December.

Mosses like this delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) are non-vascular plants and most if not all are evergreen. I love seeing them at all times of year but especially in winter when there is so little green showing. This moss changes color from deep green to bright lime green when it starts getting cold and it always looks orange to me in the fall, but I’m colorblind so I’m sure it’s just me.

Last year I found this odd, sprawling little plant that I had never seen before. I showed it on a blog post and helpful readers told me it was a spikemoss, which I hadn’t heard of. I went back to see it this year and it really hadn’t changed but I tried to look it over a little more carefully and I did some reading about it. I believe this example is meadow spikemoss (Selaginella apoda.) Spikemosses are considered “primitive” seedless (spore bearing) vascular plants and therefore aren’t mosses at all. This pretty little plant is more closely related to the clubmosses, which are also spore bearing vascular plants known as lycopods. It doesn’t appear to be evergreen like the clubmosses however.

I didn’t look closely at this fern but I think it might be an eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) which is also called marginal wood fern because of how its spore bearing clusters are placed in relation to its pinnule (leaf division) margins. We have a few evergreen ferns and like the mosses they add much to the winter landscape. They might look delicate but I’ve seen them grow on even after being encased in ice.

Polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) is another of our evergreen ferns but it doesn’t look delicate at all. In fact if you run your hand over its fronds you’ll find that it feels tough and leathery. This fern is also called rock polypody or rock cap fern  because it is almost always found growing on stones. They are one of just a few vascular plants that can rehydrate after drying out, much like mosses do.

The sori of the polypody fern are considered naked because they don’t have the thin tissue covering, called an insidium, which many other ferns have. I think the little clusters of sporangium look like baskets of flowers. Though small they can be seen with the naked eye. The druids thought this fern had special powers because they found it growing near oak trees. Its roots and leaves have been used medicinally for many centuries and its name appears in some of the earliest herbals and botanical texts.

Milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do. This is a very common winter fungus that grows on the undersides of limbs. The “teeth” 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. This example was very young and  shows what look more like pores than teeth at this stage. If you pick up a fallen limb and touch something that feels cold and rubbery, it might be one of these. They are very tough and can stand all the snow and cold that winter can throw at them.

Another tough fungus is the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor,) but this one feels leathery rather than rubbery. This is a common fungus that can be found just about anywhere but the beautiful blue, purple, and orange ones are rare in this area. It seems to depend on the year I’ve noticed; sometimes most of them are shades of brown but in some years many will lean towards blues, purples and oranges. I have no idea what determines their color and apparently science doesn’t either, because I’ve never been able to find a single word about what colors them in print.

I’ve seen several trees with these markings on them and I think it might be the start of a bright yellow crust fungus called conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum.) This fungus is also called bleeding parchment because of the blood red liquid it exudes when it is damaged. It causes heart rot in conifers and is a death sentence for the tree. It seems to be very widespread because I’ve seen it in almost every bit of woodland I’ve been in.

A single terminal bud and two lateral buds in red or sometimes pink help identify striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum.) In late April or early May the bud scales on these buds will open to reveal the beautiful pink and orange buds, which are some of the most beautiful the things one can see in the spring forest.

Many things in nature will turn blue when it gets cold enough. Ice can be blue and so can the sap of the white pine tree. I’ve also seen the white striations that give striped maple its name turn blue. This is the only maple tree in New England that has bark that is striped like this. Other names for the tree are snake bark maple, moosewood maple, goosefoot maple, Pennsylvania maple, and whistle wood, because the soft pith makes the wood easy to hollow out and make whistles from. Native Americans used the bark of the tree to treat many ailments including coughs and colds.

A burl is an abnormal growth on a tree that grows faster than the surrounding tissue. Scientists don’t fully understand why it happens but burls are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage. Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and/or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. Woodworkers prize burls very highly and make some beautiful bowls and other things from them which can sometimes sell for thousands of dollars. This one grew on a maple and was quite large.

Bunch gall is another plant deformity that appears on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) at the very tip of the stem. A gall midge (Rhopalomyla solidaginis) lays its egg in a leaf bud and when the larva hatches the plant stops growing taller but continues to produce leaves in a “bunch” like that seen here. Since the midge only lays its eggs on Canada goldenrod it makes this plant easy to identify.

I was working one day and this spider crawled up to me and watched for a while. After letting me take a couple of photos it walked off to wherever it was going. It was about as big as a quarter (3/4”) from leg tip to leg tip. I don’t know its name but it could move very fast when it wanted to.

This is how the sky often looks as I drive to work at 7:00 am at this time of year. It’s a great gift that costs nothing but my being there to see it. I hope all of you received similar gifts this year.

A wonderful gift may not be wrapped as you expect. ~Johnathan Lockwood Huie

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We’ve had our first snow and, from the time between when I took some of these photos and started putting together this post, we had our second and third snows. To have this much snow in November with leaves still on many of the trees and shrubs is rare, so I had to go out and see it.

But snow isn’t all we’ve seen. The frost on the windows speaks of full blown winter, even though winter is still weeks away.

These snows have been of the sticky kind and snow covered every branch and leaf.

Beech leaves will stay on the tree through winter and they do collect snow, but though the extra weight seems to bend their branches down I’ve seen very few very few actually fall off.

Oak leaves form the waxy, corky cells called the abscission layer at their base later than many other trees so seeing leaves on oak trees in the winter is no great surprise, but I know this tree well and it has usually shed all of its leaves before it snows.  In fact most oak trees still have most of their leaves and this can be problematic, because the snow load on those leaves can lead to power outages from all the falling branches. Unlike beech trees oak trees lose branches regularly year round, and I’ve seen limbs as big as my leg fall on calm summer days, so it doesn’t take much snow to bring them down.

An odd thing that I noticed was how many oak leaves fell after the storm. Everywhere you looked the snow was covered with oak leaves.

The dark color of oak leaves means they absorb sunshine, which warms them and lets them melt their way through the snow. Oak leaves also repel water and you and see it in the many water droplets on the surface of this leaf.

There were many oak leaves that were still in the process of changing into their fall colors when the snow fell, like the beautiful leaves on this small red oak.

The hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) in my back yard were heavy with snow but like most evergreens they have a lot of flex in their branches so they can take quite a snow load. In fact they keep much of the snow from falling on the ground under them, so there is often several inches less snow on the ground in a hemlock grove. In a snowy winter deer will go there and so will I, because the walking is much easier.

When the sun fell through the forest in such a way that the still colorful shrubs were highlighted it was a very beautiful scene and I had to stop and just absorb it. It is things like this that truly are good for the soul I think. I’ve discovered that being able to find joy in the simplest things means that joy is never far away.

The small pond in my neighborhood has already frozen over but on this day it was really more slush than solid ice. After -2 degrees F on Thanksgiving night though, I’m sure it must be solid now.

There is a muskrat in this pond that eats an incredible amount of cattail roots (Typha latifolia,) and I know that from seeing not only the muskrat but all of the cutoff cattail stems floating on the surface of the pond. Native Americans used to roast these roots and make flour from them. They contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice. In fact Natives used all parts of the plant, eating the new shoots in spring, weaving mats and baskets from the leaves, and even using the pollen in bread.

I thought I’d get an old cliché shot of white snow on red winterberries but by the time I got there the wind had blown all the snow off them. They’re still pretty though, nevertheless. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native holly that likes a lot of water. Birds love the bright red berries and it is an excellent choice for a landscape plant to attract them, especially if your yard has wet spots.

Here is another view of colorful understory shrubs in a snowy forest. It’s so very beautiful and it doesn’t happen often, so I was thankful that I could see such scenes on this day.

Mount Monadnock is always at its most beautiful when it is snow covered, in my opinion.  Scenes like this remind me of the shoulder deep snow I found up there when I climbed it one April day; snow so deep I had to crawl over it to reach the summit. Henry David Thoreau wrote that felt the presence of “a vast, titanic power” when he saw Mount Monadnock. He climbed Monadnock many times but finally realized “Those who climb Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit.” I agree, and that’s one reason I don’t climb it.

And then it snowed again, and again…

…until it seemed that every living thing must be coated with it, and it reminded me of one of my favorite winter quotes by William Sharp: 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.

This grove of witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) was certainly clad with radiance.

And they also had hundreds of flowers blossoming in the snow. I’ve known for a long time that these flowers were tough, but this is the first time I’ve seen this. I think they were taken by surprise because it had been in the low 40s F before it snowed, and that’s plenty warm enough for witch hazel blossoms.

It is in the deep quiet of a winter morning just before sunup when I really feel the beauty of this season. The birds are silent at that time of day and if I’m lucky so are my thoughts, and it is at those times when a great sense of peace can come over me. It’s the same peace that comes on the top of a mountain, or when I sit beside a river, or when I’m in a forest and sit with my back against a tree. It’s a peace that is always there but one that you can’t just order up like a meal at a diner. You can search for it as long as you like but it is only when you stop searching and are still that it will find you. It is restorative; healing even, and I do hope it will find all of you as well.

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? ~ J. B. Priestley

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We’re seeing some fall color now but it’s still spotty and you have to look for it, rather than it being everywhere like it will be soon. The colors weren’t too bad at Perkin’s Pond over in Troy where this photo was taken, though there wasn’t any color to be seen on the flanks of Mount Monadnock. I suspect those are mostly all white pines on the mountain itself.

I always like to zoom in on the summit of Monadnock to see how many climbers are up there and I was surprised on this beautiful day to see none at all. Mount Monadnock is the second most climbed mountain in the world after Mount Fuji in Japan and it can get quite crowded, especially in the fall. I expected it to look like a Manhattan sidewalk at lunchtime up there on this day, but maybe everyone is waiting for more tree color.

You can see blazes of golden yellow here and there on the hillsides; signs that ash trees have put on their fall colors. Ash is one of the earliest to change and a good sign that autumn has begun.

Not every ash tree turns yellow. Some like white ash become yellow, orange, red and purple.

Our ferns are starting to change and among the most colorful are cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum.) The common name for this fern comes from its upright reddish brown fertile fronds which someone thought looked like cinnamon sticks. It often turns bright pumpkin orange in the fall.

Royal ferns (Osmunda spectabilis) turn yellow in the fall, but many people don’t realize that they are ferns. In fact they are thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records dating back dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over a century and they live on every continent on earth except Australia.

Wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) usually turns yellow in the fall but every now and then you’ll see one that is purple / bronze like this one.

This is more what we expect wild sarsaparilla to look like at this time of year. Yellow spots form on the leaves and slowly grow larger until the entire leaf is yellow. This is one of the earliest plants to start turning color in the fall.

More often than not poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) turns yellow in the fall but it can also be bright scarlet and sometimes bronze / purple as it is here. I like the scarlet color but I haven’t seen any plants wearing it yet. No matter what color it is or even if it has no leaves at all poison ivy will give most people an itchy rash they won’t soon forget, so it’s best to know it well and stay away from it.

The burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the Ashuelot River are changing slowly this year and most still look like this one. Though the shrub is extremely invasive there’s nothing quite like seeing huge swaths of the forest understory awash in soft, pastel pink.

Here and there you can find burning bush foliage that has turned white. This is usually what the leaves look like just before they fall.

The wind kept blowing these maple leaves in my face when I was mowing one day, apparently trying to wake me up to the fact that they had put their fall colors on. I finally did wake up to their beauty and took this photo. Maples can be red, yellow or orange.

Trees along the river in Keene are just starting to turn so the colors weren’t spectacular yet.

In late afternoon the sun is behind these trees and at times it looks like the forest is ablaze with colors. On this day it was all more muted and soft.

This tree couldn’t seem to make up its mind what color it wanted to be. You don’t often see yellow, orange and red on a single tree.

Our native maple leaf viburnum shrubs (Viburnum acerifolium) can change to any of many different colors including the maroon / burnt orange seen here. The foliage will continue to lighten over time until it wears just a hint of pale pastel pink just before the leaves fall.

Native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) catches the sunlight and glows in luminous pink ribbons along our roadsides in the fall. This common grass grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington and is beautiful enough to be grown in many gardens. After a frost it takes on a darker reddish purple hue, which makes it even more beautiful.

It’s the way its seed heads capture and reflect sunlight that makes little bluestem glow like it does.

This photo isn’t really about fall colors on the trees. It’s more about how the water in streams and small ponds darkens at this time of year until it appears almost black. When leaves of different colors fall and float on such dark water it can be a very beautiful scene.

Just in the short time since I started taking photos and writing this post things have changed dramatically, and there is now color along just about any road you care to follow. That’s how quickly it can happen sometimes. This view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock is one of my fall favorites.

This shot is of more color along the shoreline of Half Moon Pond. Most of the colorful trees are maples I think, and the colorful shrubs along the water’s edge are blueberry bushes.

This is another view of Half Moon Pond; it was so beautiful I couldn’t stop taking photos. The tourism bureau here in New Hampshire expects that millions of people from over 70 countries will come to see the foliage this year. Though the change is coming a bit later than usual so far the colors look to be breathtaking. If you come chances are you’ll find many of us standing and staring, awestruck by the incredible beauty. That’s what it does to you, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

Over everything connected with autumn there lingers some golden spell–some unseen influence that penetrates the soul with its mysterious power. ~Northern Advocate

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