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Posts Tagged ‘Lichens’

Last Sunday I woke with an urge to climb, so I headed 25 miles north to Stoddard where Pitcher Mountain lives. Since we have no snow in Keene I assumed there would be no snow there, but I was wrong. It was another one of those “what was I thinking?” moments.

But all in all the trail wasn’t bad because it was snow instead of ice. I stopped to get a photo of target canker on a red maple (Acer rubrum.) If I understand what I’ve read correctly red maples are the only trees that get this canker. It makes the tree’s bark form bullseye shaped raised plates that look like a target, but it doesn’t really hurt the tree. The circular plates are the tree’s response to a fungus that invades the healthy bark and kills it. During the next season the tree responds with a new layer of bark and cork (callus) to contain the fungus. In the next dormant season the fungus again attacks and kills more bark and on it goes, a seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response which creates concentric ridges of callus tissue; a target canker. Finally the fungus gives up or dies off and the tree grows on. Red maples have beautiful deep red flowers and the trees often grow in large colonies, so I was hoping to see huge swaths of red from the summit.

I also stopped to see a striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) that grew along the trail. The two large terminal bud scales had started pulling apart to reveal the bud within, just like they were doing 25 miles and over 1,600 feet lower in Keene. The pink and orange fuzzy buds are very beautiful and I’m getting anxious to see them. It won’t be long now.

I had to stop at one of my favorite places, which is the pasture about half way up the trail. I always imagine doors being thrown open and a great whooshing sound when I see this view because it’s so expansive compared to the close woods where I spend most of my time. It’s a peaceful, simple place with just the earth, sky, and you and you can step outside yourself for a while here.

The trail takes a turn after the pasture and gets steeper and rockier as it follows it uphill. On this day I had a choice; mud on one side or snow on the other. I chose the snowy side.

There is a fairly good view of Mount Monadnock from this leg of the trail but low haze often spoils it. It wasn’t too bad on this day.

There is a lot of black knot disease on the black cherry trees (Prunus serotina) here and I stopped to look at an example. Black knot is caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa which can also attack plums, peaches, and apricots. Spores from the fungus are spread by rain or wind and typically will infect trees from April through June on new growth. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots like those in the above photo. The disease can eventually kill the tree so infected limbs should be pruned off 2-4 inches below the knots and buried or burned before bud break the following spring.

This is what black knot can do to a fully grown black cherry. This is a wound that never heals and on a tree this age and size the disease is impossible to control and the trees should be destroyed so the fungus can’t release anymore spores. If this photo looks a little strange it’s because I had to use the flash because it was so shady here.

You can get a glimpse of the fire tower from a good distance away before the trees leaf out, but the glimpse signals the start of the steepest part of the climb. The trail had a little snow on it but the summit was snow free, bare granite as usual.

The old forest fire warden’s cabin still stands but each year it seems to lean into the mountainside just a little more. Staying up here must have been hard work no matter what time of year it was.

Pitcher Mountain is one of just a handful of places I know of where Mountain ash trees (Sorbus americana) grow naturally. These trees are easy to identify when they don’t have leaves by their big black buds. This example was just starting to turn green. Mountain ash is used ornamentally because of its white flowers in late spring and bright orange berries in the fall, but it is a native tree. Native Americans made a tea from the bark and berries of this tree to treat coughs, and as a pain killer. They also ate the died and ground berries for food, adding them to soups and stews. The berries are said to be very tart and have an unpleasant taste when unripe.

The fire tower was unmanned and so was the summit so I had the whole rock pile to myself, which is a very rare thing. You find people on most mountaintops in this area and popular ones like Mount Monadnock can at times seem as busy as a Manhattan sidewalk. I call the fire tower on Pitcher Mountain a monument to irony because the original wooden tower built in 1915 burned in April of 1940, in the most destructive forest fire to ever strike this part of the state. Twenty seven thousand acres burned, including the tower and all of the trees on the summit.

A couple of weeks ago we had strong winds with 60 mile per hour gusts and a lot of trees fell in certain areas, so it’s probably a good thing that the fire tower is fastened to the granite of the summit with several stout cables. The wind that day must have made it impossible to stand on the summit. I can imagine the cables vibrating like violin strings in weather like that.

The hill that I call the near hill might be the closest but it would still be quite a hike to reach it. I was surprised by the amount of snow still on it.

I love seeing the blue hills off in the distance and though I don’t climb for the view they do make it much more enjoyable. In case you’re wondering about my not climbing to see the view, if I did I’d be disappointed probably 80% of the time because you never know what haze, humidity, or weather in general will do to it. For instance on this day, though it looks like I could see clear to California, I couldn’t see the windmills over on Bean Mountain just a few miles away.

But I could see the shading on the hills and this is something I find very pleasing. I sat and admired them for a while.

I could also see ski areas on several distant mountains, none of which I know the name of. Skiers must be enjoying some fine spring skiing this year.

Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) grow profusely all over the bedrock up here. This crustose lichen is very granular and is often busy producing spores, but I didn’t see any of its fruiting bodies (apothecia) on this day. These lichens were once used to dye wool in Sweden but I can’t imagine how they got them off the rocks. Crustose lichens usually can’t be removed from the substrate they grow on without damaging it in some way.

I’m not sure what it was but the sun brought out golden highlights in this tiny insect’s wings. It was hanging on desperately trying not to be blown away in the strong wind, so I was able to get a shot of it. I’d guess that it was hardly more than a quarter inch long.

Tile lichens are areolate lichens, which are made up of many little lumps or islands. In the example above the black parts are its apothecia and the white parts are the body (Thallus.) The apothecia are even with or slightly below the surface of the thallus. Tile lichens grow on exposed rock in full sun and will even grow in winter if the temperature is slightly above freezing. I think this one might be Lecidea tessellata but with 136 species of tile lichens I could easily be wrong.

The natural depressions in the bedrock that I call birdbaths always have water in them, even when we had a drought two years ago, and that seems strange to me. What I think doesn’t matter though, because the birds do use them; last year I watched a dark eyed junco bathe in this small pool. I was a little disappointed at not seeing the large swaths of flowering red maples that I hoped to see from up here but even so I saw plenty of other beautiful things, and it was a great day for a climb.

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

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I was shooting photos of a wintery Mount Monadnock when spring hopped into the photo in the form of a robin. He’s there in the grass on the left.

Robins are very curious birds, I’ve found. They seem to like watching what I’m doing as much as I like watching them. I had one let me stand right next to it just the other day.

A raccoon has become a regular visitor to where I work. Somehow it has damaged its paw and doesn’t seem to be able to see very well. We think it must be quite old for a raccoon but it still gets around fairly well and can still climb trees.

Two mallards hid in the reeds in a small roadside pond. While he watched me she tipped up and ate. She ate quite a lot, ignoring me the whole time.

They finally got tired of me watching them and swam off. Ducks and other waterfowl are very wary of humans in this area. They don’t swim right up to you when they see you like they do in other places because nobody feeds them, so getting photos of them is usually tough. This pair put up with me longer than most do.

Activity seems to have increased among all creatures except bees, which I still haven’t seen yet. Squirrels are certainly in abundance; I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. This one was hopping across a lawn when I tried to get its photo.

I’ve never seen so many pinecones fall as they have this year either. They’ve made a squirrel’s life pretty easy, as this large stone covered with pinecone scales shows. For some reason squirrels usually like to sit up off the ground when they eat and one or more of them ate a lot of pine seeds on this stone.

There was a storm brewing on an ice covered Half Moon Pond in Hancock on March 29th when this was taken.

This is what the pond looked like 14 days later on April 12th. We’re getting just about one sunny day each week and this one was that week’s day. The ice on the pond wasn’t completely gone but there was very little left. It has snowed again once or twice since that photo was taken.

I found what I thought was a toothed crust fungus, but this fungus wasn’t acting like any other crust fungus that I’ve seen.

This crust fungus had developed fruiting bodies that looked like mushrooms with a hollow stem. On the smaller one on the left you can just see the teeth hanging from the underside of the cap. I don’t really know if the toothed crust developed from the mushroom like fruiting bodies or if the mushrooms arose from the toothed crust. Each “cap” was about as big as an aspirin.

On a nearby section of log the toothed crust, if that’s what it is, had completely enveloped the mushroom shaped fruiting bodies. I’ve never seen anything like this and haven’t found anything like it, either in my mushroom guides or online. If you know what it is I’d love to hear from you.

I know what this is; an orange jelly fungus behaving strangely. Orange jelly fungi (Dacrymyces palmatus) are common here and usually grow on fallen eastern hemlocks. They absorb many times their own size and weight in water and usually shrink when they dry out but this one looked like it was melting. These fungi are eaten in China and are said to improve circulation and breathing.

Plantain leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) is a large plant as sedges go, with wide, pleated, foot long leaves that wrinkle like crepe paper. It’s large leaves are for gathering light so it does well in the shade under trees, where the one pictured grows naturally. Sedges like cooler weather and cool soil, so they grow and flower best in spring in this area. Once it gets hot their growth slows but sometimes in a cool fall they’ll have a second growth spurt. This one is on the rare side here. I know of only a few plants, all growing in one spot.

Plantain leaved sedge usually blooms in mid spring and this plant seems to be right on schedule. It had several beautiful dark purple flower spikes showing. These flowers will open into wispy white female flowers on the lower part of the stalk (Culm) and the long, yellowish male flowers on the upper part. The flowers are called spikelets and the stems that bear them are triangular, and that leads to the old saying “sedges have edges.” I’m guessing that these flowers will appear in a week or two, depending on the weather.

Soil crunching underfoot in the spring and fall is a sure sign that you’re walking on ice needles. For them to form the temperature at the soil surface has to be below 32 degrees F while the soil and groundwater remain thawed. Hydrostatic pressure forces the groundwater, which is sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because more water is freezing at its base. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape and that needles 16 inches long have been found, but most of the ones I see are less than 5 inches long. They are often very dirty.

There is a plant called common cotton sedge (Eriophorum angustifolium) but I doubt this is it because another name for it is bog cotton due to its habit of growing in damp boggy ground, and this plant was growing in a spot that was high and dry. It grew at the edge of the woods under pine trees and I’ve never seen anything else like it. It had a single hairy stem about a foot tall with this bit of “cotton” at the top. It had no leaves because of the time of year. If you know what it is I’d love to know.

An eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) was healing a wound in a strange way, I thought. The wound cork had grown over a scar in a kind of lump rather than flat as it usually does. According to the book Bark, by Michael Wojtech eastern hemlock is the only tree in the northeast that grows wound cork in annual increments. Because it grows this way it can be counted just like a tree’s growth rings. From what I counted this scar took 10-12 years to heal. Native Americans used the inner bark (Cambium) of hemlock as a base for breads and soups or mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to use in pemmican. They also made tea from the tree’s needles, which have a high vitamin C content. This saved many an early settler from scurvy.

I recently went to see one of my favorite lichens, the poplar sunburst (Xanthoria hasseana.) One of the reasons it is one of my favorites is because it is almost always producing spores in its large, sucker like fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) This lichen grows on tree bark near a pond and has a mounded growth habit rather than flat. This example might have been a half inch across. It’s a pretty little thing.

I might have already shown these turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) but I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter anyway because seeing such beautiful things doesn’t have to happen just once. I certainly think they’re worth a second look. As beautiful as they are though turkey tails frustrate me a bit, because I’ve never been able to find out how they come by their color. They have a wide range of colors and something must influence what color they’ll be. I think it might be the minerals in the wood they feed on, but that’s just a guess. I hope you’ll be able to see at least one thing as beautiful this week.

The appearance of things changes according to the emotions; and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves. ~Kahlil Gibran

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Two of my great loves are history and botany and one of the best ways I know of to get a good dose of both is by following stone walls. This particular wall is in Swanzey, New Hampshire and surrounds what I believe is the oldest cemetery in town. Revolutionary war soldiers are buried here so it certainly has some age.

Right off I spotted some sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s very yellow and hides under overhangs so it doesn’t get rained on. At least I think that’s why I always find it tucked away like this, but this is odd behavior for a lichen because they usually like a lot of rain and sunshine.

Sulfur dust lichens are kind of granular in texture. If you’re lucky you can sometimes find them with fruiting bodies (apothecia) but more often than not I see them when they aren’t producing spores.

There are stone walls called “lace walls” which are built of a stack of stones just one stone wide, and which are full of holes that make them look like lace, but this is a tossed wall sometimes three or four stones wide and it was built to keep animals, probably sheep, out. There were no holes when it was built but there are now, as this photo shows. I can’t explain how it happened but I’ve built enough dry stone walls to know that building a hole like this one into a tossed wall would be close to impossible. In a tossed wall the stones are literally just tossed on top of one another. The object wasn’t to build a pretty wall; it was to get rid of the stones as quickly and efficiently as possible. I think a stone must have fallen or been taken out of the wall to create such a hole.

There are a lot of tree stumps along the wall and some of them, like the one above, are very old. Not only was this one covered with moss and lichens, it also had birch trees growing out of it. Stumps like this are always worth a second look.

The old stump had more British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) growing on it than I’ve ever seen in one place. Old rotted logs and stumps are the perfect spots to find them.

Even I can see this shade of red, and I’m colorblind.

A large pile of sand at the base of another hollow tree stump meant that something was living under it. Possibly a ground hog, but I didn’t see a single paw print.

This old maple tree was covered on its sunny side by whitewash lichen (Phlyctis argena.) This is a tough, crusty lichen that is fairly common on hardwood tree bark. They can cover quite a large area and make the tree look as if it has been painted, hence the common name. They can be greenish white, silvery, or bright white.

As time passed barbed wire was often added to stone walls to keep animals in or out. Stone walls were usually too low to be effective and cows and other farm animals often jumped right over them, so their height was increased by adding wire or other materials. You had to pay a fine if your animals escaped and were caught roaming free. They were brought to the town pound and the owner had to pay to get them back. This wire grew out of the very center of a pine tree, so it has been here for quite a while. Running their saw into steel wire is one of a wood cutter’s worst nightmares come true but many things have been found inside trees, from axe heads to gravestones to even bicycles.

Every time I see rusty old barbed wire stapled to a tree I think about a book I read by a man who lived in a cabin in the Massachusetts woods. He said that one of his favorite things to do was run through the woods at night. He wouldn’t want to do that here. I wouldn’t even run through these woods in broad daylight because much of what is now forest was once pasture, and there is a lot of barbed wire out there.

Peppered rock shield lichen (Xanthoparmelia conspersa) likes to grow on stone in full sun and I find a lot of them on stone walls. They’re a good introduction to lichen study because their brown apothecia, where their spores are produced, are large and easy to see without aid.

Scattered rock posy lichens (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) on the other hand, are quite small and difficult to see without magnification, but it’s worth looking for them because they almost always have their bright orange apothecia showing. They like to grow on stone, especially granite, in full sun. They don’t seem to change their color when they dry out like many other lichens do.

Sometimes it isn’t what is on the stone that interests me, it’s the stone itself. I’m not sure if this pattern was on the stone or part of it but it was very interesting. Also interesting was how it had absolutely nothing growing on it when all of the stones around it had mosses and lichens growing on them.

I never knew my grandfather but I do know that he made his living as the town blacksmith in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, and this old horse hitching ring brought thoughts of him to mind. If he was lucky a blacksmith might make a dollar a day but very little cash changed hands in colonial America so he most likely would have been paid in food, charcoal for the forge, lumber, or something else he needed. In the early 1800s blacksmiths charged anywhere from 2 cents for an axe wedge to $5.50 for all of the ironwork on a new wagon. That would include springs, axles, brakes, and rims for the wheels. I have a photo of my grandfather working on a wagon wheel in his blacksmith shop. The wheel sits on top of a big wooden keg that he probably made the iron hoops for. I hope he was paid more than they were in colonial times.

Some of the stones in this old wall are not natural, meaning they were cut or quarried. There is a large granite outcrop just up the hill from this spot and stone was taken from it using star drills and sledge hammers, I would imagine. The marks of the old hand drills are still easily seen on some of the stones. It’s unusual to see both natural and cut stones together in a wall; usually they’re made of one or the other but the farmer could have been trying to increase the height of his walls.

Some of the quarried granite was used for fence posts. Four posts were put in around certain family plots in the cemetery and chain hooks were added by drilling a hole into the top of each post and hammering a hook into the hole.  I’m not sure if friction alone held the hooks in the holes or if cement was added to hold them, but after over 200 years they are still solid and immovable.

Once chain was added the family plot was enclosed but still visible to anyone trying to find it. This chain looks like it was hand wrought.

Blacksmiths don’t cast iron; they soften it by heating it in a forge and then shaping it with a hammer, and I love how you can see all the hammer blows on this chain hook. I also love how the smith fashioned something as simple as a chain hook into what looks like a dragon’s tail. He didn’t have to do this; it was extra work that he probably wasn’t paid for, but he was good and would have wanted people to know his work. If I needed ironwork done and I saw this hook and the ones in the previous photos I would have chosen the smith who made this one. It’s a beautiful thing which, if I owned it, would be considered a work of art.

Sometimes these posts wander in unplanned directions and almost write themselves, and this is one of those; l felt as if I were just along for the ride instead of the one doing the writing. It began in the old cemetery and I just tagged along with the camera while the story wrote itself in my mind, so I hope you won’t mind that there is a little more history than botany in this one. Though I expected the post to be full of mosses and lichens for me the history I found was a refreshing diversion while I wait for spring flowers to appear, and thoughts of my hammer wielding grandfather ran all through the day. I wonder if he ever imagined that one of his grandsons would grow up to be a stone wall builder.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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It was a nice warm sunny Saturday when I set out for the Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene and the weather people said it would be sunny all day, but as soon as I got there clouds moved in and decided to stay for a while. Actually the clouds stayed the entire time I was there and the sun didn’t show itself again until I left.

This was the only blue sky I saw the entire time I was there.

But the trail was well packed down and not really as icy as it looks here.

Beaver Brook was roaring. In the summer it giggles and chuckles along beside you but in the winter it roars, and that’s all you hear. Unless it’s covered by ice; when it’s iced over it whispers and is quieter than at any other time.

The brook hasn’t been completely iced over this winter that I’ve seen, but huge ice shelves had formed here and there. You can see how there is nothing under the shelf but air, so it walking out on it would be a foolish thing to do.

The ice shelves had teeth.

I have a lot of old friends living here along the brook, like this smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens.) I see this lichen just about everywhere I go but nowhere else are its fruiting bodies (apothecia) so blue or its body (thallus) so golden. The gold color comes from the minerals in the stone I think, and the blue color comes from the way the light falls on the waxy coating that covers the apothecia. Whatever it is that causes the colors in this particular place, this lichen is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it look like this.

I also stopped to visit the only example I’ve ever seen of stair step moss (Hylocomium splendens.) This is a boreal moss that grows quite far north into the arctic and I’ve seen it here covered with ice, but it isn’t as delicate as it looks and it always comes through winter unscathed. When it’s dry it has a shiny sheen and that’s most likely why another common name for it is glittering wood moss. New growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s growth and that’s where the “stair step” name comes from. It’s a beautiful moss and I wish I’d see more of it.

The rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum) came through winter looking fine and I was glad of that because this is the only example of it I know of. I did find another small patch on a stone in Swanzey once, but I can’t remember where. It’s nice to know there are more of them out there but I’d still have to call this moss rare. I love its little aspirin size rosettes of leaves that someone thought looked like roses. They look more like dahlias or chrysanthemums to me, but they’re beautiful no matter what we choose to call them.

There were some impressive ice formations on the ledges and I was surprised, because they don’t usually grow so big here. With the up and down weather we’ve had this year though, I probably shouldn’t be surprised by anything weather related.

Last time I came here the brook was flooding in places and it was a downright scary thing to see. The water mark on the far embankment showed just how high the water had been, and I’d guess that it was a good 6 feet higher than it was on this day. I met an old timer up here one day who told me that he had once seen the water over the old road. That’s something I hope I never see.

In places the snow had melted and revealed that there really wasn’t that much covering the road. Since we’re supposed to have warm days all week there’s a good chance that the road will be snow free this weekend.

Where the snow had melted you could see part of the old double yellow no passing lines.

Off on the side of the road a branch had fallen, and it was covered by what I thought at first was milk white, toothed polypores.

But the spore bearing surface of this fungus was more maze like than toothed, so that had me confused until I got home and was able to see the photos. After some searching I came up with what I think is a crust fungus called the common mazegill polypore (Datronia mollis.) It may be common in some places but I think this is only the second time I’ve seen it.

A little further up the road I found another fallen branch that was covered with inch in diameter, colorful crust fungi which I think were young wrinkled crust fungi (Phlebia radiata.)  These are winter mushrooms and that’s the only time I ever see them. They aren’t common; I’ve only found them three or four times. As they age the center of the fungus becomes very wrinkled, and that’s where their common name comes from.

There isn’t anything odd or rare about tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius,) but a closer look at this one revealed something that was both odd and rare, at least in my experience.

There were squirrel teeth marks ( I think) all over one of the colored bands on it. Recently I’ve seen the same thing on a few lichens and have found that squirrels do indeed eat lichens, and I’ve seen them eating mushrooms but I’ve never seen them do this. It made me wonder if it was algae they were after, because algae grow on both lichens and fungi. I can’t imagine what else they’d get out of scraping their teeth over this fungus unless it was to keep their ever growing teeth in check. Tinder fungi are very tough and woody, so maybe the animal was simply trying to wear down its teeth.

Another fallen branch displayed what I thought from a distance were shield lichens but once I got closer I realized they weren’t anything I had ever seen.

They were obviously not lichens at all, but instead some type of hairy fungi.

They grew like bracket fungi and their spore bearing surfaces were maze like and faced outward. Each flower like cluster like the one shown above couldn’t have been more than three inches across, so they weren’t very big. They were pliable and rubbery to the touch, and felt much like an ear lobe. They look very pink to me but my color finding software tells me they’re mostly tan with some peach puff and dark salmon here and there.

They didn’t have to be big to be beautiful and I thought they were very beautiful things, but after looking through 4 mushroom books and spending several hours online I can’t find anything that even looks close to them, so they’ll have to remain a mystery for now. Maybe one of you knows their name. If so I’d love to hear from you.

A path well-traveled may still yield secrets that only one person may discover. ~Anthony T. Hincks

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Recently we saw nearly 2 inches of rain fall in one day and the placid stream, which is actually called Bailey Brook, that you see in the above photo flooded to cover all of the land seen in the photo and much more. Now that it had returned to normal I decided to follow it for a time and see what kind of damage the flooding had done.

I saw some delicate ice formations.

And stream ice made up of long crystals.

Large chunks of ice had found a place to rest when the flood receded and there they sat scattered here and there, reminding me of glacial erratics.

In some places I thought I was walking on land until my foot went through the ice and found water. From the ice surface down to the soil surface was about 6-8 inches with nothing but air in between, so the stream rose at least that much in flood.

There is a lot of drainage going on in this area and smaller streams meet the main stream in several places. Generally it’s a happy place and a great place to walk with the stream chuckling and giggling beside you, but it can also be a place of great danger when enough rain falls. I’ve seen it flood and go up and over roads in just a matter of a few hours, so you don’t walk here until you’re sure the stream has calmed down after storms makes it rage. First it happened once in ten years, then a couple of more times over the next five years or so, and now it seems to happen each year.

There are still plenty of beech leaves around and I’m glad of that because they add color to the landscape.

A single beech leaf fell and became frozen in the ice. It was a beautiful thing, and it looked like someone had painted it there. It would have been one of the impressionists like Monet or Renoir who would have painted it, I think. It was more light than leaf.

There was something I wanted to see but I had to climb a small hill to get to it. The hill ends right at the stream so there is no level land to walk on. I got up the hill without too much trouble by hugging trees and pulling myself up, but under those leaves was nothing but slippery, solid ice and the only way back down the hill was sitting down and sliding in what I’d guess was a very undignified manner.

But it was worth it because I got to see the horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) that grow along that section of stream. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan. I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

There are lots of river grapes growing here along the stream and they are very easy to identify because of their peeling bark. Exfoliating bark is very common on the older wood of many types of grapevines and happens naturally. Older bark cracks from the growth expansion of the newer bark beneath it and eventually the older, cracked bark peels off in strips.

On warm days in the fall this entire area smells like grape jelly because of all the overripe grapes. Birds and animals get most of them but they missed a few, as this photo of a freeze dried grape shows.

I read an article recently that spoke of how we as a people are losing our connection to nature. As of 2008, according to the United Nations, half of all human beings lived in cities and in the U.K. a typical 8 year old child is better at recognizing video game characters than common wildlife. The article mentioned how, not that long ago, people knew trees as well as they knew themselves because they relied on them for heat, shelter, food, and many other things. The article suggested that getting to know trees would be a simple way for people to reconnect with nature, because there are very few people who don’t see trees every day. I suggest starting with easy ones or ones you already know, like the muscle wood tree in the above photo. It’s easy to see why it’s called muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana.) See how its “tendons” ripple beneath its “skin”? Muscle wood is also called American hornbeam, and its wood is very dense and hard, but learning to identify trees by their bark isn’t hard, and it’s fun. Books like Bark by Michael Wojtech are a great help. You’d be surprised how quickly you would be able to name all of the trees in your neighborhood after a short time.

Here’s another easy one. Yellow or golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has peeling bark like a white birch but its bark is kind of reddish brown, which in the right light looks golden. They like cool, moist soil and are usually found near streams and ponds. They can also stand quite a lot of shade so growing here beside this stream in a cool, shaded forest is just about the perfect place for one.

There are a lot of insects after these trees along the stream, including bark beetles. These beetles excavate channels in the wood and when these channels completely encircle the wood the branch or tree has been girdled. Once girdled moisture and nutrients can no longer move freely through the cambium layer. When moisture and nutrients can’t move from the roots to the crown of the tree and back again the tree will die. I see a lot of fallen white pine (Pinus strobus) limbs with bark beetle damage.

Woodpeckers tell me that this standing dead hemlock tree is also full of insects. In large numbers, apparently.

Bittersweet vines twine around tree trunks; they don’t grow straight like this. There is no exfoliating bark, tendrils, or branching like a grape vine would have, so they can’t be that. Since there are no tendrils it isn’t Virginia creeper either. Those are the “big three” native vines that I would expect to find here but if the examples growing up this pine tree aren’t one of them what are they? Poison ivy, that’s what, and it’s a good idea to leave vines you don’t recognize alone until you’re sure of their identity. Poison ivy isn’t poison and it isn’t an ivy. Way back in the early 1600s Captain John Smith thought it looked like the English ivy he had left behind in England and, since it made him itch, thanks to him it became known as poison ivy. The urushiol the vine contains is considered an allergen and there is nothing poisonous about it, but is sure can make you itch and it will give you a rash that might last for weeks. You can get the rash from any part of the plant, including the naked stems seen here.

We’ve probably all heard the old “Leaves of three, let them be” saying about poison ivy, but the plant has no leaves in winter so “Hairy vine, no friend of mine” has to do when there is snow on the ground.  “Hairy rope, don’t be a dope” might work too. The roots seen in this photo are how the poison ivy vine clings to what it climbs, and there will often be a thick mat of roots all along the stem. But not always; poison ivy can grow as a vine, a shrub, or it can creep along the forest floor. It’s wise, if you plan on spending time in a New England forest, to study the plant and know it well. I usually get a small rash on my knees each spring from kneeling on unseen vines growing under the forest litter when I’m taking photos of early spring wildflowers, and I know it well. I’m lucky enough to be little bothered by it but I’ve known people who were hospitalized because of it.

Everywhere I go I see lichens that look like they’ve been chewed on and I’ve tried to find out why with limited success. Reindeer eat lichens but we don’t have reindeer in these woods, just white tails. I’ve seen squirrels eat mushrooms and since fungi are an important part of a lichen I thought that they might be the culprit, but I’ve never found anything in print about it until researching this post. According to a website called “What Do Squirrels Eat” http://www.whatdosquirrelseat.org squirrels have expanded their palates and will eat just about anything, including what we and our pets eat. It also says that they do indeed eat lichens, so I can finally put the chewed lichen mystery to bed.

But it’s rare day when you hike through a forest and do not come away with a mystery, and this was today’s mystery. From the opposite side this looked like a hard gray lump, smaller than the first joint on my little finger, on a poplar limb. When I looked at the underside I saw what appears in this photo. Though I’ve searched for a few days for an identification so far I have no idea what insect made and hatched from it. I’m guessing that it was some type of gall wasp. It might take a few years but one day I’ll find out more about it. In the end I went home happy, because I saw all kinds of interesting and beautiful things and surprisingly, saw no real flood damage at all.

Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher. ~Morihei Ueshiba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This post was supposed to be part 2 of a lichen post I did back on November 29 but I’ve dilly dallied so long it would probably be hard for all of us to remember what was in that one, so I’ll just start anew. I do these lichen posts because people seem to be mystified by lichens and afraid they won’t be able to identify them. I’ll be the first to admit that identifying lichens isn’t easy, but I try to show lichens that are easier to identify than other species in the hope that you’ll give them a try. Often times when I go hunting lichens I start with a smooth barked tree like that in the above photo. As you can see it’s absolutely peppered with them and I can tell without even zooming in that there are at least 3 different lichens in that photo.

One of the lichens on that tree was this script lichen. Script lichens are easy to identify as such but breaking them down into species can be difficult. I think this one is the common script lichen (Graphis scripta.) Script lichens seem to be fussy about what kind of trees they grow on and the common script lichen prefers trees with smooth bark, like maple or beech.

The script lichen’s common name comes from its apothecia, which are its fruiting bodies where its spores are produced. They look like ancient runes that someone has scratched into the body of the lichen (Thallus.) Some appear as horizontal lines, some can be vertical or angular but most appear random like those in the photo. Some, like the asterisk lichen can be very beautiful but even though I’ve searched for an example for many years I’ve never seen one.

This script lichen had a very dark thallus and isn’t like any other that I’ve seen. I’m not sure what would make it so dark, but it might have been the cold. I’ve seen cold change the color of other lichens from gray to blue. From what I’ve seen of script lichens the body of the lichen is there year round, but only when it starts to get cold in the fall do the fruiting bodies appear. Many lichens choose to produce their spores in the winter and I’ve never been able to find out why.

One of the most common lichens seen on trees in this region is the common green shield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata.)  They are large, leafy, round or oval lichens that are kind of a yellow green color, and colonies of them can cover nearly the entire trunk of a tree. They are usually very wrinkled and in fact the caperata part of the scientific name means wrinkled.

Seeing fruiting bodies (Apothecia) on green shield lichens is rare in my experience but they always seem to have abundant soredia, which are tiny, powdery vegetative reproductive bodies that can be carried off by the wind or rain to form new lichens. The soredia form on the body (Thallus) of the lichen in pustule like areas called soralia. They are very similar to other vegetative reproductive growths called isidia, which are stalked growths on the thallus. Some Native American tribes dried and crushed this lichen into a powder and used it to treat burns.

Bottlebrush shield lichen (Parmelia squarrosa) is very common but is also easily passed by because it often grows quite small and I find that its pale gray color blends well with the color of the bark of the trees that it grows on, like smooth barked maples. You can just see small shiny spherical dots on a few of its lobes in this photo. These are granular vegetative reproductive structures called isidia. When a squirrel runs up a tree and breaks these granular parts of it off, the broken parts will start new lichens. Lichens books say that fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are common on this lichen but I’ve never seen them.

The bottlebrush part of this lichen’s common name comes from its dense, dark mat of rhizines on its undersides. These rhizines can be thought of as tiny rootlets which help anchor the lichen to the bark of trees. When they are branched like a bottle brush they are said to be squarrose. This lichen will also grow on mossy rocks and likes shaded, humid places.

Yet another shield lichen usually found on trees is the hammered shield lichen (Parmelia sulcata.) Its common name comes from the way its network of sharp ridges and depressions makes it look like it has been hammered out of a sheet of steel. Fruiting bodies are said to be rare on this lichen, which explains why I’ve never seen them. Instead it relies on powdery, whitish soredia to reproduce. It also has rhizines like the bottlebrush shield, but they don’t seem as bushy and noticeable. Hammered shield lichens are relatively small and though the book Lichens of North America says they can even be weedy, I don’t see them very often.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. Though this one appears on the gray side its normal color when wet would be a deep, olive brown. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, probably the fringed wrinkle lichen (Tuckermannopsis ciliaris.) Lichens in this group often have “wrinkled” in their common name because that’s the way they look. They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches.

Fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are common on the fringed wrinkle lichen. They are also quite large and easily seen; shiny and brownish green. Tiny bead like structures called pycnidia line the margins of the apothecia. They are yet another type of vegetative reproductive structure that will form new lichens if they break off. This lichen or family of lichens is very common and I see them almost every time I go into the woods.

There are many beard lichens and many are abundant in this region, but one that I don’t see quite as often as others is the fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula.) It grows high in the treetops and when I find it it’s almost always on a fallen branch, as this one was.

The fishbone beard lichen gets its common name not surprisingly, from its resemblance to the skeleton of a fish. Lichens in this genus contain usnic acid and have strong antiseptic and antibiotic properties. They’ve been used medicinally since ancient times throughout the world to stop bleeding and heal wounds, and also against lung and fungal infections. Native Americans moistened the lichens and used them as a poultice for boils and wounds.  Beard lichens are still used today in antiseptic skin creams, deodorants, and mouth washes. It is said that about 50% of lichen species have antibiotic properties and research to develop medicines from them is ongoing worldwide.

Man isn’t the only one who uses lichens. This bird’s nest had many beard lichens woven into it. One study that I read about said that 5 different species of lichen were found in just a tiny hummingbird’s nest.

Concentric boulder lichen (Porpidia crustulata) gets its name from the way its black apothecia grow in concentric (or nearly so) rings around their center. The gray body of the lichen forms a crust on stone and that makes it a crustose lichen. This lichen is relatively rare here and I only see them once in a blue moon. They grow in sun or shade and don’t ever seem to change color.

Another shield lichen that’s very common in this area is the peppered rock shield (Xanthoparmelia conspersa.) It grows on stone in full sun and I usually find it on old stone walls. It’s a big lichen, often 10 inches or more across, that seems to be almost always fruiting, with crinkly brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) Though it must produce an abundance of spores this lichen also reproduces vegetatively, again by the granular vegetative reproductive structures called isidia, like the bottlebrush shield lichen we saw earlier. When bits of the lichen are broken off the isidia increase its chances of starting a new colony. Isidia also increase photosynthetic efficiency.

Here is a closer look at the peppered rock shield’s apothecia. They are big enough to see without any magnification and are an orangey brown color.  You can also see bits of the insidia. It’s clear that this lichen is all about continuation of the species and it does well at it. One stone wall I know of has them on almost every stone in the wall.

The golden moonglow lichens (Dimelaena oreina) that I see are usually about an inch across but they can get much bigger. They grow in full sun on granite and don’t seem to change color when they dry out like many other lichens do. The one in the photo was producing spores and that’s something I don’t see this lichen do very often. If you spend much time in cemeteries you have probably seen this pretty lichen, because it seems to like growing on smooth, polished stone. It is a crustose lichen, so removing it from any kind of stone would be a challenge. When lichens grow on glass the acids in them can actually etch the glass and this is a problem in the big European cathedrals, especially.

Rock foam lichens (Stereocaulon saxatile) grow directly on stone in full sun. When dry this lichen is very stiff and brushy and almost seems as if it would cut you but caribou will eat it when they can’t find reindeer lichens. This lichen is often used by prospectors because a simple lab test on it will show what type of stone it was growing on and what minerals, like copper for instance, are in the stone.

Lichens, as I hope these lichen posts have shown, can be very beautiful, and one of the prettiest I’ve seen lately is the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia.) Its blue gray apothecia against a yellowish gray body make it easy to identify but you have to look closely to see these features. This one was no more than a half inch across and the blue apothecia were about the size of a period made by a pencil on paper.  I hope you’ll take the time to look for it and other lichens on your next nature walk. They can be found virtually anywhere at any season, and are always interesting and often beautiful.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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