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Posts Tagged ‘Keene State College’

I’ve been wondering about this mowed trail under the powerlines in south Keene for many years now. Since the land is near the local college I was sure they must have made the trail, but why? I decided to finally find out more about it last Saturday.

Since I grew up in this area I thought the trail might lead to the Ashuelot River, which is right behind those trees on the other side of the powerline cut.

But before I did anything I made sure all the power lines were still in place as they should be. A few years ago a terrible accident happened here when a college maintenance worker came out here to see what birds he might find. He didn’t notice that one of the lines had fallen and he was electrocuted. The electric company had neglected to inspect and repair their towers, so one of the tower cross members that the big insulators hang from had simply broken off due to rot and the wire fell to the ground. And I used to play under these things when I was a boy.

There were huge numbers of goldenrod here.

And quite a few of the deep purple New England asters that I like so much.

The dogwood leaves had already turned to their beautiful maroon fall color.

As I thought it would the trail turned into the woods.

I was happy to see that my boyhood playground was now a wildlife management area. That means this land will be protected.

A game trail led into the woods so I followed it.

The trail became what looked like an otter slide, and I found myself standing about ten feet above what was left of the river. It is definitely lower than I’ve ever seen it and I’m not sure what will happen if we don’t get some rain soon. Wells are going dry all over the state.

A marker told me that I was 1.56 miles from somewhere. Or maybe I had 1.56 miles to go. Either way it didn’t matter.

Sumacs are changing into their beautiful fall red.

Ferns stood as tall as I did.

A woodland sunflower was curling into itself, I’m guessing from lack of moisture. I’ve never seen the woods look so dry.

A backwater had nearly dried up, and that was hard to see. What struck me as most odd about the scene was the lack of animal tracks. There are large animals like deer out here and they need to drink but they hadn’t been here, so I wondered if this was more of that river mud that it is so easy to sink in to. I wasn’t going to try. I learned a lot out here when I was a boy and one of the most important lessons was not to do foolish things like play in wet river mud when I was alone.

And then I came to the college soccer fields. I can remember when they were built and a couple of college students walking the trail looked like they wanted to call me Methuselah when I told them that.

A silver maple showed me how it got its name. Normally, as the old tale says, when you see the silvery undersides of these leaves it is going to rain. On this day though, all we saw was a 20 MPH wind.

It really is amazing what the college has carved out of what was essentially wilderness.

There were lots of flowers to see; mostly asters and goldenrods.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana,) our native clematis, often has deep purple leaves at this time of year.

Virgin’s bower also has fluffy seed heads and I think the seed heads are as interesting as the flowers. This is our most common native clematis and can be seen on roadsides draped over shrubs or climbing high up in the trees. Many bird species eat the seeds and goldfinches line their nests with the soft, feathery seed coverings. They also give the plant another common name: Old Man’s Beard. 

It was nice to see so many of these dark colored asters. This color isn’t common here but they’re my favorite.

It was amazing to think that, when I was a boy living barely a 5 minute walk from here, none of this existed. The power lines were there and what grew under them was cut fairly regularly, but the rest of the area; the college fields, the paths, the wildlife management area, none of it was here. What was here is what you see above; a forest, and it was a wonderful, magical place to grow up in. I spent most of my free time in these woods and on the railroad track that ran through them, and being here again was like going home. I was thankful for the mowed trails that made it so easy to get out here and I hope the college students will have as much fun here as I had. It’s a very special place.

Nature, even in the act of satisfying anticipation, often provides a surprise. ~Alfred North Whitehead

Thanks for stopping in.

 

 

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1-trail-closed-sign

When I was a boy growing up in Keene, New Hampshire I spent a lot of time following the railroad tracks that ran just a few yards behind my house. These tracks crossed a lot of roads if you followed them long enough but the hardest one to get across was always route 101, a main artery which runs the width of the state, east to west from Keene to the seacoast. A lot has changed since then; the railroad tracks are now a rail trail and the highway has become so busy that you can hardly get across it.

2-trail

This view of the rail trail looks north toward the house I grew up in, but also toward Keene State College. Off to the right, unseen in this photo, is the college athletic complex. The students use the rail trail as a convenient way to reach the athletic fields without having to drive to them, so this trail can get very busy in warmer months. Of course all those students have to cross the very busy route 101 to get here and that can be dangerous, so the town came up with a solution: build a bridge over the highway, and this section of rail trail has been closed while that project is completed.

3-side-trail

A side trail leads from the rail trail to the athletic complex, but most enter by way of a gate a little further down the trail.

4-wires

Long before the college built their athletic complex the electric utility ran their high voltage wires through here. I used to spend hours playing under and around these power lines when I was a boy and never gave them a thought, but in April of 2014 one of the wires fell to the ground and tragically, a college employee was electrocuted. For me, who once spent so much time here, the news was a real blow and woke me up to the dangers I faced as a boy without even realizing they existed. I told myself then that I’d never walk under these power lines again and I haven’t but many, especially dog walkers, still do.

5-hazel-catkins

Hazel catkins danced in the sunlight. They are the male flowers of the hazelnut shrub, in this case American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) The tiny crimson threads of the female flowers won’t appear until late March and by then the male catkins will be showing signs of shedding pollen.

6-hazel-catkin

One of the catkins was deformed and looked like a cartoon animal paw.

7-virgins-bower

The seed heads of the native clematis that we call virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) decorated a fallen tree. Chances are it once grew to the top of the tree and fell with it. This vine is toxic enough to cause internal bleeding but it was used it as a pepper substitute and called was called “pepper vine” by early pioneers. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and for skin infections. Herbalists still use it to treat the same illnesses today.

8-bittersweet-in-dead-elms

There are many elms along this trail that have died of Dutch elm disease and invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) vines grow into their tops and slowly pull them down. The bittersweet wants full sunshine and it climbs to the tops of trees to get it; it doesn’t care if the tree is living or not. There are several broken limbs hanging from vines in this view and many downed trees buried in vines along the trail.

9-bridge

In what would have been a short while if I hadn’t kept stopping to look at things I reached the bridge, which is still closed while the freshly poured concrete deck cures. The deck is wrapped in plastic and gets heat pumped up to it from truck sized heaters on the ground below.

10-bridge

I had to wait a while before I could get a shot of the bridge without cars under it. I drive this way each morning on the way to work and I can vouch for the busy-ness of this road. Traffic is almost nonstop at any time of day and I can imagine it being very hard to walk across. It was hard enough when I was ten. I didn’t know it until I saw this photo but the center of the bridge is far to right of the center of the road from this vantage point. It was built in I think 4 pieces and lifted into place by crane.

11-burning-bush-fruit

An invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) still had plenty of fruit on it. I was happy to see that the birds weren’t eating it and helping it spread. Studies have shown that 170- 700 seedlings per acre can grow from a single fruiting shrub. If you have hundreds of them fruiting then you have a real problem, and we do. The shrubs get large and shade out native plants and since deer won’t eat them they have virtually no competition or control, so they’re free to form large monocultures where nothing else grows. That’s why planting and / or selling them is banned in New Hampshire.

12-mealy-firedot-lichen-caloplaca-citrina-on-cherry

The bark of this black cherry tree had large areas covered with mealy firedot lichen (Caloplaca citrina.) This yellow to yellow-orange crustose lichen grows on wood or stone and the book Lichens of North America says it is very common lichen that rarely produces spores. The mealy part of its common name comes from the numerous granular soralia, which are used as a vegetative means of reproduction. They are meant to break off and start new lichens.

13-mealy-firedot-lichen-caloplaca-citrina-on-cherry

As you can probably imagine if you brushed against this lichen tiny pieces of it would easily fall from the tree and might even stick to your clothing for a while so you could transport them to another place. Many lichens use this method of reproduction and it appears to be very successful.

14-hillside

This view across a cornfield faces west toward Brattleboro, Vermont and I had forgotten how the wind comes howling over that hill. I used to walk south from my house to a friend’s house on the road that is in front of the hill but can’t be seen, and my right ear would feel just about frozen by the time I got there. When I went back home it was my left ear. Of course it wasn’t cool to wear a hat in those days, but I was wearing one when this photo was taken.

15-milkweed

The wind had torn the seeds out of this milkweed pod. It’s not too late; milkweed seeds need at least 3-6 weeks of cold to grow to their best.

16-corn

There were a few cobs left on the corn plants and they were at just the right height for Canada geese, which land here in quite large numbers in the fall.

17-drainage-ditches

Keene sits in a bowl with hills as the rim on land that was once swampy ground, so farmers dug drainage ditches to dry out the fields. They were a ten year old boy’s dream come true and I still walk along them occasionally even today. There are some beautiful wildflowers that grow on their banks, including some of the darkest purple New England asters I’ve seen.

18-nest

I saw one of the tiniest bird nests I’ve ever seen. It could have just about hidden behind a hen’s egg and I have no idea what bird might have built it. A hummingbird maybe?

19-frosted-comma-lichen-arthonia-caesia

A dime size (.70 in) spot of white on a tree caught my eye and when I moved closer I saw that it was covered with blue dots. It was a beautiful sight and I didn’t know it at the time but its name is (I think) the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia.) The unusual spherical blue dots are its Ascomata.

20-frosted-comma-lichen-arthonia-caesia-close

Ascomata are the fruit bodies of lichens and contain the spores, which can number in the millions.They are most commonly bowl-shaped (apothecia) but may take a spherical (cleistothecia) or flask-like (perithecia) form. This lichen has spherical ascocarps so they must be cleistothecia. They’re also very beautiful, and are the only truly blue fruit bodies I’ve seen on a lichen. Some, like those on the smoky eye boulder lichen, can be blue due to the slant of the light falling on them and I found a completely blue lichen recently but it had turned blue because of the cold. This one is naturally blue and I loved seeing it.

I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road. ~Stephen Hawking

Thanks for stopping in.

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 1. Keene State Plaque

Recently a little birdie told me that some of the students in a certain biology class at a certain college were saying that it was “too cold” and that they “couldn’t walk in the snow.” And how were they supposed to find anything anyway when there’s “snow everywhere?”

Just for fun I decided to return to college myself just to see how valid these complaints were.

 2. Keene State Parker Hall

This was my chosen starting point on the campus of Keene State College. The great thing about nature study is it doesn’t matter which path you take. Nature will have something interesting to show you no matter where you go. With a willingness to participate and a little extra attentiveness you will learn things that you’ve never even imagined.

Oh-you will notice that the snow isn’t “everywhere.”

 3. Boston Ivy Berries

My first stop was the ivy covered walls of Parker Hall shown in the above photo. This photo is of Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), which lends its name to the “ivy league” schools. The odd thing about Boston ivy is its name, because it isn’t from Boston and it isn’t an ivy; it’s a member of the grape family and comes from China and Japan. This vine attaches to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight.

4. Crabapples

If you are a biology student reading this blog then this photo should have you asking questions like why haven’t the birds eaten these crabapples?  You can see the hundreds of them in the background on the snow even though many birds, including robins and cedar waxwings, love crabapples. In a winter as harsh as this one you would think they would be gobbling them as fast as they could, so why aren’t they? Science has shown that birds will leave fruits that are lower in fat for last but are crabapples low in fat? The answers are simple; many crab apples are ornamental cultivars that birds just don’t like. Some other cultivars have fruit that birds will eat only after it has frozen and thawed several times.  If you want to attract fruit eating birds with crab apples (Malus) the choice of cultivar requires some research.

 5. Lilac Buds 

One of the ways to identify trees and shrubs in winter is by their buds. The size and placement of buds as well as the number of bud scales can all help with identification. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some just one scale called a cap, and some buds have none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate and have scales that overlap like shingles. The lilac buds in the above photo are good examples of imbricate buds.

 6. Cornelian Cherry  Bud  aka Cornus mas

Buds with just two (sometimes three) scales are called valvate. The scales meet but do not overlap. This Cornelian cherry bud is a great example of a valvate bud. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the scales part to let the bud grow. Some bud scales are hairy and some covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

 7.  Powdery Goldspeck Lichen aka Candelariella efflorescens 

Powdery goldspeck lichens ( Candelariella efflorescens) grow on tree bark of all kinds. The round, flattened, yellow patches are very small but grow in large colonies that make them easier to see.  Winter is the perfect time to look for lichens because they aren’t hidden by foliage. I saw plenty on this campus.

Lichens are great indicators of air quality because they refuse to grow where the air is polluted. There was a famous study done by schoolchildren in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. They produced a “mucky air map” that showed the absence of lichens from areas polluted by coal burning. Such a study (on a much smaller scale) done on a college campus might be a real eye opener. The lichens wouldn’t even have to be identified; simply recording their presence is enough. The absence of lichens is not a good thing.

 8. Lenticels in Bark

The Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula Tibetica) is also called the paper bark cherry because of the way its bark peels as it ages, much like a birch. It is used as an ornamental tree as much for its bark as for its flowers. The mahogany bark has very long, closely spaced lenticels that give it an unusual appearance. Lenticels are corky pores that allow gases like oxygen to reach the living cells of the bark. Without enough oxygen, bark can die.

9. Sweet Gum Pod

I was surprised when I finally realized that these were sweet gum seed pods, because Massachusetts is the northernmost point that sweet gum grows naturally in the U.S. and, though it is native to the east coast, it is considered a “southern tree.” But, there is an old (often risky) trick that landscape designers will sometimes use if a client is determined to have a certain plant that isn’t hardy-they use masonry. If a plant that isn’t reliably hardy is planted near masonry it will often survive lower temperatures than it would otherwise because the masonry absorbs heat from the sun during the day and releases it slowly at night, keeping the plant warm enough to survive. There were several of these sweet gum trees near a massive wall of brick, and they were protected from wind by other buildings.

10. Sycamore Fruit

I’ve never heard of a dwarf sycamore tree but this is an empty sycamore seed head that I plucked from a tree with very mottled sycamore bark that stood no more than 7 feet tall. There are a large number of ornamental trees on this campus and I’m not sure how I would identify them all without occasionally asking the head gardener.

 11. White Rot Fungus aka Fomitiporia punctata

White rot fungus (Fomitiporia punctata) covered this fallen oak limb. There are many species of white rot fungi and they play a major part in wood decomposition. Scientists have discovered that they will also biodegrade environmental pollutants and certain chemical wastes. Researching that might be very interesting.

 12. Amber jelly Fungus

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) were on the same fallen oak limb, but frozen solid by the looks. This is the first time I’ve seen these growing on oak. I usually find them on alder. Some jelly fungi are also good at helping wood rot. This one fruits in late fall and winter and is a true winter fungus. I’ve always wondered why certain fungi only fruit in winter.

13. Barberry Berries

I was surprised to see this very invasive Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii ) growing as a hedge but as I think about it I shouldn’t have been. I’ve planted barberry hedges myself back when we didn’t realize how invasive it was.  I also saw burning bushes used in a hedge. Also called winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus), they are also very invasive and until recently were widely used. The final invasive that I found was oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). These were growing near a chain like fence-right where a bird might sit for a while after eating its berries.

Exploring their campus for invasive species would be a good project for a biology class and could be done at any time of year. The results might be surprising for those in charge of such things since, in this instance, this is a state college and the state has banned selling or importing these invasives.

 14. Daffodils 

The most satisfying thing I found on this campus was the little taste of spring provided by these inch high daffodil shoots. I was surprised since we had just seen a temperature of 7 below zero the night before.

So, if anyone reading this happens to be a student attending a certain biology class in a certain college, this post is for you. All of these photos and at least twice as many more were taken in less than an hour while meandering around the Keene State College campus and I didn’t once have to step in snow deeper than the soles of my hiking boots. It was cold but I dressed for it. That’s what we have to do to keep warm in a New England winter.  I hope this post has shown how easy it is to find things in nature with very little effort.

The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.  ~Henri Poincaré

Thanks for coming by.

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