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Posts Tagged ‘Lichens’

Some people think that once the leaves have fallen there is nothing left to see outside until spring, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Lichens for instance, are there year round and unless you live in a place with poor air quality they are everywhere; on trees, on stones, on the ground, and even on buildings, roofs, windows, and sidewalks. They are like small jewels that have been sprinkled throughout nature. Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) for instance, are uncommonly beautiful. Look for this bright yellow crustose lichen on stone. It’s a very artistic lichen and I like the patterns that it makes. I see it on gravestones quite often.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that, at high magnification, the body of the common goldspeck lichen looks like it’s made up of tiny golden specks. The book Lichens of North America describe the body of this lichen as “little cushions of flattened granules.” This lichen is sometimes sterile, with no fruiting bodies present, but this one appeared to have a few. The bluish color in the background is the slate that it grows on.

This is an odd lichen with large white fruiting bodies (apothecia) that look like they just erupt anywhere on the body (thallus) but also look like they are stalked, depending how you look at them. Some are convex and some concave and some have rims and some don’t. The white apothecia and green body with flattened strap like branches tell me that it’s probably the tufted ramalina lichen (Ramalina fastigiata.) A lichen guide from 1902 says this lichen is “very common in New England” but I know of only one place it grows. It is apparently very sensitive to air pollution as many lichens are. If you live in a place with a lot of lichens, breathe happily.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichens (Candelaria fibrosa) will often cover entire tree trunks. It must like a lot of water because I see it a lot on the lower parts of trees that grow near irrigation systems, with trunks that are almost always wet in warmer months. Seen up close this lichen always reminds me of scrambled eggs. I call this the “downtown” lichen because I see it a lot there.

It’s interesting how nature seems to use the same shapes over and over again in different ways. The round fruiting cups, called apothecia, of the Poplar Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria hasseana) remind me of the suckers on an octopus or squid. Instead of latching onto things however, this lichen uses its cups for spore production. To give you a sense of scale-the largest of those in the photo is about an eighth of an inch across. The entire lichen might have been an inch long.

This example was even smaller at about the size of a penny (.75”) and was more apothecia than thallus. Spore production is what it’s all about because that’s what ensures continuation of the species.

The apothecia on this star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris) are a good example of how colors can change, even on the same lichen. This lichen has dark brown apothecia that are often pruinose. Pruinose refers to the white, waxy, powdery coating. You’ve no doubt seen examples of this waxy “bloom” on blueberries and plums. I’ve noticed by watching lichens that have pruinose apothecia that the coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing gray and at other times more blue, and sometimes even black. The apothecia on this lichen often show a range of colors, from brown to light blue. The way the sunlight strikes it has a lot to do with its colors.

I think this is the smallest example of a Cumberland rock shield lichen (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia) that I’ve ever seen, but even at its tiny 1/2 inch size it was beginning to produce spores in its brown apothecia. This lichen likes to grow on boulders or other stone. The body (Thallus) is described as being “yellow-green to sometimes bluish green” and the fruiting discs (Apothecia) are “cinnamon to dark brown.” The body of this lichen always looks like someone dripped candle wax on the stone to me. This one was very symmetrical but they are usually asymmetrical.

Smokey eye boulder lichen apothecia (Porpidia albocaerulescens) are usually a smoky gray color, which is where their common name comes from, but they can also have a bluish tint because of the way their waxy (pruinose) coating reflects sunlight. In this case the body of the lichen is a grayish color but it can also be a brownish gold color. One of the things that can make lichen identification difficult is the ability of some lichens to change color in different light, and this is one that does that. It can look very different from just a few feet away. This is a crustose lichens and it forms a kind of crust on the substrate that it grows on. The bond between a crustose lichen and its substrate is so strong that it can’t be removed without damaging the substrate.  

British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) like to grow on damp wood like rotted stumps and logs, but I’ve found them on buildings, fence posts, and built up forest litter on boulders. At this time of year I don’t pass too many mossy old tree stumps without having a glance for British soldiers. Their bright red apothecia make them easy to see, even if you’re colorblind.

Shrubby little beard lichens are fruticose lichens, and fruticose lichens have upright or pendulous branches. I think this one is a bristly beard (Usnea hirta) but it might also be a young fishbone beard lichen. Though it grew on the shadier side of a tree it was caught in bright sunlight, and I’d guess that it must get an hour of sunlight a day. One way beard lichens reproduce is by fragmentation. Pieces break off and are carried by the wind or maybe animal fur to another spot to colonize. There are many of these high up in the trees and they come down, often still attached to the branch they grew on, during a good wind. I’ve found as many on the ground as I have on trees.

I’ve been trying to identify this beard lichen for years with no luck. Maybe it’s just a different colored example of the bristly beard seen previously?

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is indeed very common. It’s a large lichen and colonies of them often grow big enough to cover entire trees. They often wrinkle like the example seen here. Like many lichens they change color, and go from grayish when dry to yellow green when wet. This example was dry. This lichen also taught me that many lichens prefer growing on the shady side of trees, presumably so the sun doesn’t dry them out quite so fast.

Hammered shield lichens (Parmelia sulcata) are on the rare side here but I see them occasionally, always on trees. There didn’t seem to be anything special about the deciduous tree they were on, this time but it was in a sheltered spot like the last tree I found them on. Hammered shield lichen is said to have a large variety of named varieties and forms, so it can be tough to pin down.

Hammered shield lichens are silvery gray and their many sharp ridges and depressions makes them look like they’ve been hammered out of a piece of steel. Fruiting bodies are said to be rare and I’ve never seen them. It is said to have powdery, whitish soredia but I’ve never seen them either. Soredia are tiny packages of both fungus and alga that break off the lichen. They are simply another means of reproduction.

I find pebbled pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) growing on soil or rotting stumps and logs, and occasionally on stone. Pixie cups look like tiny golf tees or trumpets. They are squamulose lichens, and the golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus,) and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes like those at the base of this example. The cup is so small even a pea would seem huge in comparison.

Though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are its podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. This example has some almost microscopic dots around the rim, which are its apothecia. Finally, frucitose means a lichen has a bushy, vertical growth. Since this example has squamules even growing inside the tiny cups it must be a pebbled pixie cup lichen.

If you spend time walking along old stone walls eventually you’ll see a stone with a splash of bright orange on it and it will probably be the sidewalk firedot lichen (Caloplaca feracissima,) so called because it is a lime lover and grows on concrete sidewalks, which have lime in them. When you see it in a stone wall it’s a fair bet that the stone it grows on has limestone in it too. This stone is almost completely covered by it.

A closer look at this example of the sidewalk firedot lichen showed it was very dry. Lichens are at their best when they are wet because that’s when they’ll show their true colors and size, so that’s when serious lichen hunters look for them. A misty or drizzly day is perfect but we haven’t had one in a while.

Some lichens might look like they have little spiders on them, or maybe as if they had been carved with a pocket knife but no, the squiggly lines are the apothecia of the script lichen (Graphis scripta.) This lichen usually prefers trees with smooth bark so I was surprised to see it on this rough barked tree. From what I’ve seen they only produce spores in winter. You can walk right by a tree full of script lichens in summer and see only grayish spots with no apothecia at all. In fact many lichens seem to prefer winter for spore production and I’ve never been able to find out why.

Next time you find yourself walking outside after a rain I hope you’ll take the time to look a little closer at all those colored spots you’ll see on the trees, stones, soil, and even sidewalks. If you do a whole new world of nature study will open for you.

There is a low mist in the woods. It is a good day to study lichens. ~Henry David Thoreau

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Last weekend I decided to visit Yale forest in Swanzey, and I chose the part of the forest with the old paved road running through it. Yale University has owned this parcel of land since the 1930s and allows public use. The road was once called Dartmouth Road because that’s where it led, but the state abandoned it when the new Route 10 was built and it has been all but forgotten ever since.

There were a lot of leaves down so you couldn’t see the pavement that still exists here. Yale founded a school of forestry and environmental studies in 1900 and owns parcels of land all over New England. Alumni donated the land in some cases and in others the University bought or traded other land for it, and in time good sized pieces of forest were put together. This particular parcel is 1,930 acres in size. Since logging vehicles occasionally come through here the pavement is slowly being broken up and nature is taking it back.

Beech trees were beautiful along the old road but even they are starting to change.

Even so it was a beautiful time to walk through here.

Even deer tongue grass wore its fall colors. Deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) gets its common name from the way its leaves resemble a deer’s tongue. It’s one of the earliest denizens of the forest floor to start showing its fall colors. Purples, yellows, oranges, and other colors can often be found in its leaves.

I also saw a beautifully colored puffball far beyond “puffing.” It had split wide open and was full of grayish spores. When raindrops hit these spores they are splashed out, and I’m guessing there will be a fine crop of puffballs here next year.

A lot of maple leaves had fallen but a few trees held on, and they were beautiful.

I saw a few maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora.) Plain and undressed without the fussiness of other lichens, it is beautiful in its simplicity. But how does it reproduce? I’ve never seen any reproductive structures of any kind on it so I had to look it up. The answer is that it does have apothecia, but very rarely. It also has “a thin patchy layer of soredia,” though I’ve never noticed it. The white fringe around the outside is called the prothallus and using it is a great way to identify this lichen, because from what I’ve read there isn’t another that has it.

Yale University did some logging in this part of the forest a few years ago so it’s thin in places but there are plenty of young tree coming along.

A large pile of logs was left behind from the logging. I’m not sure why.

One of the most noticeable things about this walk were all of the fallen trees. I must have seen at least a dozen of them, including this maple.

In two places huge old pine trees had fallen. We had strong winds just a while ago and it looked like these trees had been blown over. Trees like these are bad news when they fall across a trail because you can’t go over or under them due to all the branches.

The rootball on this fallen pine was taller than I was and it left quite a crater in the forest floor when it was torn up. There were many fallen trees right in this area and I was forced to go quite far into the forest to get around them.

I noticed a lot of pine bark beetle activity on the branches of these trees. Not only do the beetles transmit disease from tree to tree, if they chew one of their channels completely around a branch it will die from being girdled. These beetles are small and range in size from about 1/10 to 1/4 of an inch in length, but they can do a lot of damage when enough of them are in a forest. Dead branches mean no photosynthesizing which will weaken the tree and eventually it will die. For those who have never head the term; girdling of a branch or tree happens when the phloem and bark has been cut around its diameter in a complete circle. Native Americans and then early settlers used girdling to remove trees from fields and pastures and it is still used by some today.

Fungi of any type on a standing tree is a sign that something is wrong, and these branches had a lot of jelly fungi on them.

But in spite of the blowdowns the forest is recovering well from the logging. There are lots of new hardwood shoots coming along and they will make excellent browse for deer and moose.

When you’re close to where the old road meets the new Route 10 a stream cuts its way through the forest.

On this day I was once again able to step / hop across the stream but I’ve seen it when I couldn’t.

Once you’ve hopped the stream the road becomes a closed in trail. I could hear cars going by on the nearby highway.

Moments after crossing the stream you come to what was once a beaver pond on the left side of the road, but it was abandoned quite a while ago by the looks. This place is unusual because when the beavers were active there were ponds on both sides of the road, or one large pond with a road running through it. It seems kind of an odd place for them to have built in.

Beavers, from what I’ve read, will work an area in what averages thirty year cycles. The first stage is damming a stream and creating a pond. The flooding kills the trees that now stand in water and the beavers will eat these and the other trees that surround the pond. Eventually the pond fills with silt or the beavers move away and the dam fails. Once the land drains it will eventually revert back to forest with a stream running through it and the long cycle will repeat itself. Many other animals, birds, fish, amphibians, waterfowl and even we humans benefit from beaver ponds. I’ve seen mallards here in the past but there were none on this day.

Until this walk I knew of only one place to find field milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) so I was shocked (and happy) to see them blooming here so late. On field milkwort flowers what look like petals arranged on a central stem are actually individual flowers packed into a raceme no bigger than the end of an average index finger. Each tiny overlapping flower has two large sepals, three small sepals, and three small petals that form a narrow tube. Its flowers can be white, purple, pink, or green and I’ve noticed that the color can vary considerably from plant to plant. They were a perfect ending to a beautiful forest walk.

He who does not expect the unexpected will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored. ~Heraclitus of Ephesus

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I like to see what the fall colors look like from above so each year I climb a hill or mountain to have a look. I’ve been climbing at Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard for a few years now because it’s a relatively easy climb and because it has a 360 degree view from the summit.

Beech trees are changing into their bright yellows down in the lower towns so I thought they’d be well along here. They were indeed, and if I went by the colors along the trail I guessed that I was going to see plenty of color at the summit.

A few months ago when I was here I noticed that someone had placed what they must have considered a special stone on to of a boulder. I was happy to see that people had thought enough of the person who put it there to leave it alone. When I first saw it I picked it up to look at it and almost tossed it into the woods but thankfully I realized it meant something to someone, so I put it back where I found it.

In May I saw a big black bear right here in the meadow, but on this day I saw Scottish highland cattle. These pastures are for them but I don’t see them here very often. I’m guessing that the scent of the bear was long gone, because they seemed to be at peace and didn’t even look my way.  

With views like this who wouldn’t be at peace?

Up we go along the trail that parallels the pasture. I should say that good, sturdy hiking boots would be a good idea here. The trail gets very rocky and there are many tree roots.

An old apple tree along the trail bore a considerable crop of fruit. Pitcher Mountain gets its name from the Pitcher family, who settled this land in the 1700s, but I doubt this was anything they planted. It was an old tree but not that old.  

I noticed that nobody had boarded up the open window on the ranger cabin yet, and that got me wondering how often forestry officials actually come up here.

I took another look at the 1940s interior. I don’t know if a bear got in here or not but something or someone had been foraging, by the looks of things.

In all the years I’ve been coming here I’ve seen someone in the fire tower just once, and that day they were letting people in. There was such a line waiting though, that I passed it up. This is considered a manned fire tower but I wonder when. It is possible that it’s only manned during times of high fire danger, I suppose.

There was plenty of fall color on the summit. The red of blueberry bushes and yellow of ferns made a beautiful scene, I thought.

There was a haze in the distance but you couldn’t beat the color nearby.

This shot shows the meadows where the highland cattle were from above.

There were lots of people up here on this day and most were either simply staring or taking photos. I did quite a lot of both because it was so beautiful.

There were lots of blueberry bushes that had lost their leaves but there were still lots of berries on them.  

I took far too many photos but I think you can probably see why. It was just breathtaking up there.

It appears as just a speck in this photo but there was a dark eyed junco bathing in the water that collects in the natural depressions in this bedrock. That’s why I call them the birdbaths.

A tiger moth must have flown up here at some point because I saw a couple of wooly bear caterpillars on the summit.

The rocks of the summit are covered with many different lichens and I always try to stop and take a look at one or two of them.

On this day I chose common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) for a close up photo. Look for this bright yellow crustose lichen on stone, especially slate. I see it on older gravestones quite often and it grows by the thousands on some hill and mountain summits. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that, at high magnification, the body of the common goldspeck lichen looks like it’s made up of tiny golden specks. The book Lichens of North America describes the body of this lichen as “little cushions of flattened granules.” This lichen is sometimes sterile, with no fruiting bodies present, but these had a few. Crustose lichens form crusts that tightly adhere to the substrate that they grow on and usually can’t be removed without damaging it.

One last look at the colors on the summit.

I’ve often said here that I don’t climb for the view because if I did I’d be disappointed about 9 out of 10 times, but on this day I did climb for the view and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact I could have stayed up there all day but what goes up must come down and so I started back down the trail. Though I’m still 18 in my mind my body keeps interrupting that dream and one of my knees has been acting up lately, but I told myself that if a 5 year old, her grandparents and their dog could do it then so could I. Despite a little discomfort I made it down without a hitch, so I was happy. What a wonderful day it turned out to be.

The events of the past day have proven to me that I am wholly alive, and that no matter what transpires from here on in, I have truly lived. ~Anonymous mountain climber.

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Fall came early this year I think, but for what must be the first time I’m noticing how dependent on temperature and weather the foliage colors are. We had some quite cool nights a week or two ago and that started things off but then it got hot again; it was 80 degrees and humid on the day of this writing, and the foliage changes seem to have slowed. This view of the Ashuelot River north of Keene in Gilsum is bright enough but other than a spot of yellow or orange I think it’s mostly made up of varying shades of green. But since I’m colorblind I’m the last person you should choose to believe when it comes to color. I’ll let you make your own decisions.

One thing I’m sure of by these photos is how little water is actually in the river bed. Normally I would have been very foolish to try to stand where I was when I took this one but it’s been so dry there was nothing to worry about on this day. They say we’ve had the 18th driest September since records have been kept over the last 150 years.

Something that struck me as odd and interesting was this dog lichen, which was growing on a stone that is submerged for at least a few months in spring. I’ve seen mosses stand it but this is the first lichen I’ve seen put up with being underwater. But they do love water; evidenced by their color changes and their increased pliability after a rain.

This is another scene along the Ashuelot River in the northern part of Keene. There wasn’t really more water in this part of the river, just fewer rocks.

Sometimes highbush blueberries will take on a plum color in the fall as this one has and sometimes they’re bright red.

An ash tree burned brightly at the edge of the woods. Ash trees are among the first to turn and you can often see green hillsides with spots of bright yellow here and there.

And this young ash turned a beautiful deep purple. This is a white ash (Fraxinus americana,) I believe.

One of the scenes I look forward to each fall is this one, where birches grow out of the bedrock.

Many ferns are putting on their fall colors and one of the prettiest is the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum.

And a forest full of them is even prettier.

Another plum colored blueberry with a yellow maple caught my eye on the way to work one morning.

I actually learned the secret of photographing purple grasses from taking photos of purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis.) As a nature photographer you never stop learning, and nature itself is often the best teacher. You try and try and then try again, and eventually you hit on the right light, or the right background, or the right perspective and then finally you have it, and then you can show the plant or any other bit of nature at its best. In my line of thought, this is how you get people interested enough to want to get out there and see nature for themselves; by showing it at its most beautiful. This beautiful little shin-high grass grows on sandy roadsides and flowers in late summer and early fall. Its purple flower heads will eventually turn a tannish color and break off. They are often seen rolling and floating along the roadsides like tumbleweeds in the fall.

Here is a closer look at purple love grass. It’s very pretty and I’m lucky enough to see quite a lot of it along roadsides.

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) also chose to wear purple for fall. Pretty, but it contains solanine, which is the same toxic substance found in many members of the nightshade family including deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna.)

Virginia creeper vines (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are beautiful this year.

Red leaves and blue berries on pink stems make Virginia creeper really stand out in the fall, and sometimes whole trees are draped in it.

Winterberries, one of our native hollies, also ripen in the fall and if the birds don’t eat them they’ll persist well into winter. Photos of winterberries with snow on them have become so common they have become almost a cliché, like raindrops on roses. Still snow on these berries is a relatively difficult shot, only because you have to be in the right place at the right time. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is toxic, but birds snap up the berries fairly quickly after they’ve been in the cold for a while. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

There must be many millions of acorns falling this year; I would guess enough to call it a mast year. In a mast year the trees grow a bumper crop and produce much more fruit than in a non-mast year. Scientists believe that by sometimes producing huge amounts of seed that at least some will survive being eaten by birds and animals and grow into trees. Having been outside most of my life I can say that many acorns survive intact until spring in a mast year. I’ve spent a good deal of time raking them up.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) often lose their chlorophyll in an odd way. Sometimes in winter you see these leaves wearing a warm, rosy brown which is very beautiful against the snow. 

Red maples (Acer rubrum) aren’t always red in the fall, but they’re almost always unbelievably beautiful and we have many millions of them here in our 4.8 million acres of forest. Over the years I’ve heard  different people say that these tree colors “can’t be real,” and that there must be some kind of camera trick involved, but I’m here to tell you that they are indeed very real and there is no trickery involved. This photo is exactly how it came out of the camera, so if you feel that what you see here is some kind of trick I would suggest that before determining the reality of a thing you might want to experience it for yourself. Many millions of people from every country on earth come here to see the autumn foliage each year. Maybe you should too.

This view of the Ashuelot River in Keene was another that held more varying shades of green than anything else but I thought it was so beautiful and peaceful I had to include it. I hope you think so too, and I really do wish you could experience it for yourselves. At this time of year you can find people who have lived here their entire lives just standing and staring, and I think that’s because when you see something like this for a time you’re taken away to a higher place. I stood and stared for a while myself, forgetting that I was supposed to be taking photos for you.

The first act of awe, when man was struck with the beauty or wonder of nature, was the first spiritual experience. ~Henryk Skolimowski

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I’m happy to say that I’ve seen more monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) this year than I have in the last few years combined. In fact one day there must have been a dozen on and around a patch of milkweed I saw recently. I hope this means that they’re making a comeback.

I should say for the newcomers to this blog; these “things I’ve seen posts” contain photos of things I’ve seen which, for one reason or another, didn’t fit into other posts. They are usually recent photos but sometimes they might have been taken a few weeks ago, like the butterflies in this post. In any event they, like any other post seen here, are simply a record of what nature has been up to in this part of the world. I often do a post like this one when I can’t go on a hike or climb due to rain or in this case, heat and humidity.

This isn’t a very good photo but it does show that this butterfly is indeed a monarch and not a viceroy. Viceroys have a black line drawn across their hind wings and they aren’t seen here.

This is the first photo of a monarch butterfly caterpillar to ever appear on this blog and that’s because I never see them, but on this day I saw two of them on some badly chewed milkweed plants. Monarch females usually lay a single egg on a milkweed plant, often on the bottom of a leaf near the top of the plant. Eggs are only about the size of a pinhead or pencil tip and are off-white or yellow, characterized by longitudinal ridges that run from the tip to the base. The eggs hatch about four days after they are laid and the caterpillars appear. It takes monarchs about a month to go through the stages from egg to adult.

I haven’t seen many pearl crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) this year but this one landed on a nearby coreopsis blossom and let me get quite close. I’ve read that males have black antenna knobs, so I’m guessing that this is a male.

This white admiral butterfly (Limenitis arthemis) landed on a dry gravel road in the very hot sun. It seemed like odd behavior for a butterfly but you could fit what I know about them in a thimble and have room to spare.

Where I work there is a large roof overhang and an outdoor light that attracts many different moth species. The roof overhang protects them from rain and probably bats too, and they are often there on the wall when I get to work in the morning, like this false crocus geometer moth (Xanthotype urticaria) was. The true crocus geometer moth (Xanthotype sospeta) is larger, pale yellow, and has few or no brown spots. Because of its striking markings this moth was relatively easy to identify.

I saw a bumblebee on a thistle blossom and in fact I’m seeing many bumblebees this year, sometimes 2 or 3 on a single blossom.

I saw a wasp like creature on a goldenrod but I haven’t been able to identify it.

I went into bear country in Nelson to see if I could find a club spur orchid that I found there last year. I didn’t find the orchid but I did find bear hair on one of their favorite phone poles. I was very happy that I got out of there without meeting up with the donor because these hairs were quite high up on the pole and that means a tall bear.

There were also fresh bite / claw marks on the pole. I wonder what the bear thought when it came back to its favorite scratching pole and found my scent on it.

A garter snake stuck its tongue out at me.

And another one, hiding under a kayak, smiled at me. These two snakes were young and small and probably couldn’t have eaten anything bigger than a cricket.

I’ve seen egg sacs of spiders before but they’ve always been white, until now. I read on Bugguide.net that pirate spider egg sacs (Mimetus) are roughly spherical with an irregular covering of loose, brownish or orange silk, and hang by an inch-long thread, so I’m guessing this is a pirate spider’s egg sac. I’ve also read that pirate spiders get their name from the way they hunt by picking at the strands of another spider’s web to simulate the movements of either a trapped insect or a potential mate. When the other spider comes to investigate, they are captured and eaten. 

One of the most toxic plants known is the castor bean, so I was a little surprised when I found this one growing in a local garden. I think it is Ricinus communis “red giant”, which has red leaves and bright red, bur like seed heads. Though the seed pods have a beautiful color, according to Colorado State University “several toxic compounds are found in the leaves and seeds. Ricinoleic acid is the primary component of castor oil and ricin (glycoprotein) is found in highest concentration in the seeds. Toxic effects appear within a few hours and are generally fatal.”  They also said that castor bean plants (Ricinus communis) have become a weed in most southern U.S. states, which I didn’t know. Beautiful but deadly.

The berries of the white baneberry plant (Actaea pachypoda) are called doll’s eyes, for obvious reasons. The remains of the flower’s black stigma against the porcelain white fruit is striking, and I can’t think of another plant with fruit quite like these except maybe when red baneberry (Actaea rubra) decides to have white fruit instead of red. It doesn’t matter though, because both plants are extremely toxic and no part of them should ever be eaten. Finding baneberry in the woods tells the story of rich, well drained loamy soil and a reliable source of moisture, because those are the things that it needs to grow. I often find it at or near the base of embankments that see a lot of runoff.

Actually white baneberry berries remind me of Kermit the frog’s eyes.

Long time readers of this blog probably know that I’m colorblind and that red is one of the hardest colors to see for me. That being said I can’t explain why the bright red seedpods of some St. John’s wort plants (Hypericum) are so easy for me to see. I saw this plant growing in the wet mud at a pond edge. St John’s wort berries may ripen to green, white, yellow, peach, orange, scarlet or purplish colors, with some finally becoming almost black at maturity. The fruits and seeds of all hypericum-family plants are considered toxic and will cause digestive upset if eaten.

By far the biggest mushroom that I’ve ever seen is Berkeley’s polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi.) These monsters often measure feet across and this one must have been 2 feet across at its widest point. This mushroom grows at the base of hardwoods in the east and in the west a similar example, Bondarzewia montana, grows at the base of conifers.

A couple of years ago 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 spike moss, which I hadn’t heard of. I went back to see it this year and it really hadn’t changed much but I tried to look it over a little more carefully and I did some reading about it. I believe this example is meadow spike moss (Selaginella apoda.)

Spike mosses 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. It’s a pretty little thing.

In 2015 someone from the Smithsonian Institution read another post where I spoke about sumac pouch gall and contacted me to ask if I knew where they grew. They are researching the coevolution of rhus gall aphids and its host plants the sumacs. A female aphid lays eggs on the underside of a leaf and plant tissue swells around them to form a gall like those seen here. When mature they will be tomato red. The eggs overwinter and mature inside the hollow gall until spring, when the aphids leave the gall and begin feeding on the plant. Scientists have paleobotanical evidence that this aphid has had a relationship with its sumac hosts for at least 48 million years. They are studying this relationship at the Smithsonian and I told them that I could show them or tell them where many of these galls grew. They collected galls from here and also collected them from Georgia, Arkansas, Michigan and Ohio.

One of my favorite things to see is this river of reindeer lichen, like snow in summer. Since there are no reindeer or other animals to eat the lichens they thrive here. But they are fragile and should never be walked on.  Reindeer lichen is very slow growing at about an eighth to three eighths of an inch per year and if overgrazed or dug up, it can take decades for drifts like the one pictured to reappear.

This reindeer lichen was very dry and crisp like a potato chip due to lack of rain. Once it rains it will become soft and pliable, much like your ear lobe. The Native American Ojibwa tribe was known to bathe newborns in water in which reindeer lichens had been boiled.

I hope everyone has the time to just go outside and soak in those parts of nature, however great or small,  that are available to you. Though I’ve shown two or three photos of pickerel weed already I can’t resist showing another. I just stand and gaze at scenes like this and I hope you have places of your own where you can do the same. You’ll know you’ve found such a place when you find a smile on your face you didn’t know was there.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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John Muir once said “The mountains are calling and I must go.” To be honest I never paid much attention to that statement until the mountains started calling me. And as anyone who has climbed them knows, they do call; they kind of get under your skin and won’t stop calling until you answer them, so last Saturday I drove north to Stoddard to climb Pitcher Mountain. Pitcher Mountain gets its name from the Pitcher family, who settled this land in the 1700s. As mountains go it’s a relatively easy climb, even for someone who uses inhalers as I do. The last time I climbed here was in January. On this day the weather was considerably better and the spring greens and singing birds reminded me what a wonderful thing this life is.

Pitcher Mountain is known for its blueberry bushes; thousand of them grow here and people come from all over to pick them. On this day the buds hadn’t even opened yet, showing what a difference elevation makes. Down in Keene they’re in full bloom.

Hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides) grew beside the trail and how very beautiful they were. Though like blueberries they’re also in full bloom in Keene, up here the fertile center flowers hadn’t shown yet. Only the much larger infertile outer flowers had opened.

One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to become more familiar with my new camera. Anyone who knows their way around a camera should be able to use just about any camera handed to them, but they all have their little quirks that take time to learn and iron out. This one doesn’t have image stabilization but the lenses do and that’s something I’ve never encountered. On this day the sun was bright and the contrast high, and that’s a challenge for any camera but I thought this one performed reasonably well as this shot of a wild sarsaparilla plant (Aralia nudicaulis) and its shadow shows. The light green oval leaves belong to Canada mayflower, which will be blooming soon.

My first stop along the trail is always the meadow, where if you look behind you, you can often find a good view of Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey. It was fairly good on this day, I thought.

The meadow is also where you get your first inkling of how high up you are. The views seem to go on forever.

The meadow is large and sometimes you can find it filled with beautiful Scottish highland cattle. I’ve often thought that they must have the best views of anybody who comes here.

The trail is in a U shape and you take 2 left turns to reach the summit. After the meadow the trail, which is actually a road used by the forest rangers, gets very rocky. There are also lots of exposed roots so if you come here you would do well to wear good hiking boots with plenty of ankle support.

I was stunned to see spring beauties blooming (Claytonia virginica) up here because I’ve climbed this mountain more times than I can remember and I’ve never seen them before. My timing was off, that’s all, and I might have missed them by a day or a week. There was a nice little colony of them in this spot just below the summit. Tucked in snug they were protected from the worst of the wind.

Violets and strawberries grew along the trail and even down the center of it, where many had been stepped on.

The fire tower, manned on occasion, loomed at the summit. This is the second tower on this spot; the first burned in one of the largest forest fires this region has ever seen. That’s why I call it a monument to irony.

The old fire warden’s cabin still stood solidly but there was something different about it.

The difference was a gaping black hole where the last time I was here a board covered the window. It looked like vandals had been here but with so many people climbing this mountain I can’t imagine them getting away with it.

I don’t condone vandalism but realistically bears have been known to break into cabins countless times in this area so it’s anyone’s guess as to how this happened. I wasn’t about to pass up what was probably an only chance to see inside a ranger’s cabin though, so I turned on the flash and took a couple of photos. It looked like it had been furnished in the 1940s, and that was no surprise. I’m assuming there was no running water here because there is a privy in the back, but there was electricity.

If when you reach the tower you turn almost 180 degrees you’ll see another decent view of Mount Monadnock. You can also see the meadow in this view. On this day it was so gusty up here I could hardly stand still. I wanted to crouch on the ground so the wind couldn’t catch me.

But in a way the wind was welcome because it blew away all the black flies that had plagued me all the way up the trail. For those unfamiliar with them black flies are very small biting insects that appear for a few weeks in spring, hatching out of clean running water unlike the mosquito, which hatches out of still, stagnant water. Black flies feed on the blood of mammals for nourishment and they usually come in swarms. Bug spray helps keep them away.

What I call the birdbaths are natural depressions in the stone. With all the rain we’ve had I doubt they’ve been dry a day in the past two months. I once sat and watched a dark eyed junco take a bath here, and I was able to get a few shots of it splashing around. The blue of the sky deepens as it is reflected in these pools and it makes a simple puddle as beautiful as any jewel.

There are lots of lichens growing on the rocks of the summit and one of my favorites is the scattered rock posy (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans.) They can be 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.

I always tell myself that I’m going to come up here with a compass and a topographical map so I can name all of the surrounding mountains but I never do. I don’t suppose it’s that important anyway. I’d rather just sit and look around, especially when I have the whole mountain to myself as I did on this day. I expected it to be crowded up here but there wasn’t a soul in sight. I wondered if the flies kept people away.

It’s hard to tell from these photos but there is still snow on the ski slopes over there in Vermont.

I stayed on the summit for awhile trying different things with the new camera until my legs felt less rubbery and then I hit the trail again. I don’t know why going down always seems harder than going up, but my legs usually let me know that they aren’t thrilled by it.

The meadow is just to the left of the trail in that previous shot and as I looked out into it I thought a highland cattle calf had somehow gotten loose and was in the meadow eating grass but then wait a minute; that wasn’t a calf. As soon as it looked at me and sniffed the air with its snout I knew it was a black bear. And it was another big one. Though it might look far away in this photo it could have reached me in seconds. Black bears can move incredibly fast; 50 feet per second in fact, so running from one is pointless.

I’ll be the first to say that this is one of the worst photos I’ve ever shown on this blog but you can clearly see the roundish ears and long tan snout of a bear. You don’t have much time to fiddle around with a camera when a bear is staring at you like this and I didn’t have the zoom lens with me anyway, so I just took a couple of quick shots. I just went through this with another bear in Westmoreland and that one didn’t scare any more than this one did. It stood and stared and sniffed, just like this one. And just like that time once again I was the only human around, carrying no bear spray and with only one way out. Luckily this one turned into the forest while I wondered what I was going do if it started toward me, so I hoofed it back down the mountain somewhat faster than I usually do, slipping on loose stones and tripping over roots the whole way. It’s hard to walk downhill when you’re looking back over your shoulder I’ve discovered, and I don’t recommend it.

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

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Last Sunday it was a warm but cloudy day when I went to the Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene. I haven’t been there to do a blog post since last fall so it was time for another visit. Posts from there usually write themselves as this one did. In fact I often feel like I’m being led from one thing to another; as if there is a director off in the woods saying okay, bring him over here next, and there I find another fascinating bit of nature to show all of you. It really is amazing the way it works but I know I’m not the only one it happens to. Stories write themselves in many minds but whether or not they all include lichens, mosses, and liverworts I don’t know.

This old road was abandoned sometime around 1970 when the new highway was built but strangely, nobody I’ve talked to has been able to remember exactly when. I’m sure there must be records somewhere. As this photo shows, even though the old road is snow covered you can still see that you’re on a road by the old guard posts. Most have rotted away or been broken but in this stretch they look as if they might still keep a car out of the brook.

This post had moss capping it.

The moss on the post was one of my favorites, delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum,) which isn’t really delicate at all but it is very pretty with its fern like foliage.

If you picture a steep sided, V shaped canyon with a stream running through it you’ll have a good idea of what this place looks like. In the 1700s a road was cut through beside the stream and at one time this road carried quite a lot of traffic north out of Keene.

Beaver brook was frozen over for the most part and its normally happy giggles had been hushed down to almost a whisper.

The ice on the brook looked to be about 4-5 feet thick, and that’s because of the water rising and falling so often. Sometimes you come here and the water roars through the canyon, filling the stream banks, and at other times it’s tame, with low water flowing lazily along. If we get the warm temperatures predicted for next week it will be roaring again soon.

If you’ve ever wondered how trees get damaged in the woods, this is one way.

The tree with ice against it is in the previous photo is a golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis.) There are many of them here and they’re easily identified by their color and by the way their bark peels in shreds. These trees like it cool and moist and are often found near streams and ponds. They can also stand a lot of shade so a cool, shaded forest is perfect for them. Golden birch is also called yellow birch, and Native Americans tapped this and other birch trees for their sap, which they boiled down into syrup. They also made a medicinal tea from the bark.

Many of the golden birches here have healed frost cracks, which is that vertical bulge running up the center of this tree. Frost cracks happen when the sun warms the tree and its cells just under the bark expand. If nighttime temperatures are cold enough the bark will cool and contract rapidly, quicker than the wood underneath, and this stress on the bark can cause it to crack.  It’s fairly common to hear trees cracking with a sound like a rifle shot on cold nights.

Stair step moss (Hylocomium splendens) is rare in my experience; this is the only place I’ve ever seen it and I’ve never seen it with new shoots growing, like this example had. The shoots are the tiny white pointed bits seen here and there. This moss was very dry; as dry as paper, so it looks a bit ragged. Normally it is a beautiful healthy green color that sparkles in the right light, and that might be what gives it the name glittering wood moss. It is said to be more common in northern forests and grows even into the Arctic.

Here is a closer look at the tip of one of those shoots.

This is one of thousands of common script lichens (Graphis scripta) that grow on the trees here. The black squiggles that sometimes resemble a long forgotten ancient text are its apothecia where its spores are produced. This family of lichens, like many others, seems to prefer winter to produce spores. Its long, narrow apothecia are called lirellae, and they’ll fade and all but disappear in warm weather. Script lichen is also called secret writing lichen.

An elderly lady passed me on snow shoes and remarked about how beautiful the place and the day were. I agreed, and I wondered if I’d be anywhere near as able as she when I reached her age. She must have been close to 80 but she was cruising right along.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) buds are naked, meaning they have no bud scales to protect the bud from the winter cold. Instead they have hair and this one looked very hairy. This native shrub will bloom in mid-May and will be covered with large, hand size clusters of pure white blossoms. The name hobblebush comes from the way it can “hobble” a horse (or a man) with its low, ground hugging tangle of branches. The Native American Algonquin tribe rubbed the mashed leaves of this shrub on their foreheads to treat migraines. They also ate its deep purple berries that appear in fall.

I got to see the chubby purple and green buds of the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) that I enjoy seeing so much. They looked a bit dry but they’re on their way to opening I think. It looks as if the outer bud scales have pulled away from the buds. This is another native shrub that has clusters of bright red berries in summer that Native Americans used as food.

There are many ledges here along the old road and last year one of them collapsed into quite a large rockslide, with stones big enough to crush a car falling into the old road.

This shows the big hole in the ledge that the stones left when they fell. Someone small could sit in there behind the ice but I wouldn’t advise it because this area looks very unstable.

Most of the stone in these ledges is feldspar but there is some granite schist mixed in, as can be seen here. There are lots of garnets mixed into the stone as well and though some can be large none are of gem quality, from what I saw in my mineral collecting days.

With a last look at the beautiful blue ice on the ledges I walked back down the old road, in truth wishing I was seeing blue flowers instead. It looks like the end of the really cold air is finally in sight; we’re supposed to see temperatures in the 40s F. next week. That should finally get spring started in earnest.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. ~Willa Cather

Thanks for stopping in.

 

 

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