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Posts Tagged ‘Native Plants’

I’ve met people who thought that buds appeared in spring just before the leaves came out but no, buds actually form in late summer, when trees begin storing reserves to help them get through winter. The period is called lignification and it happens when trees stop their active growth cycle. One of the ways to identify trees and shrubs in winter is by their buds. The size and placement of buds as well as the number of bud scales (cataphylls) can all help with identification. Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some just one scale called a cap, and some buds have none at all. Buds that have several scales are called imbricate and have scales that overlap like shingles. I’m starting this post with some unusual trees that aren’t often seen in this area, and the bud shown above is a sweet gum bud. It is a good example of an imbricate bud. It is also a good example of a rarity here.

Sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) are easily identified by their unusual seed pods, above, and by the large size of their buds, which can be green, red or orange. I’ve read that Native Americans used the hardened resin from these trees for chewing gum. The resin was also used in a tea to calm the nerves and, when powdered and mixed with shavings from the tree, was used as incense by the Maya. The resin is said to look like liquid amber, and that’s where the first part of the scientific name, Liquidambar comes from.

Another tree you’ll have a hard time finding in this area is the European copper beech (Fagus sylvatica purpurea.) I’ve looked at its buds before in March and maybe they were swelling up to prepare for bud break, but they seemed bigger than those on our native trees. This year in January they really don’t look much different than our native beech buds. Long and pointed, they are a different shape than the sweet gum bud we saw but are still imbricate buds because of their shingle like, overlapping bud scales. They’ll open with maroon foliage, which over time will become a beautiful bronze / purple.

I love the bark on this old beech tree. It reminded me of an elephant’s skin. This tree lives on the grounds of the local college and there is another in Dublin, but otherwise I don’t know of any other European beeches in this area.

Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula Tibetica) is another tree you might have a hard time finding but if you had studied your buds, you would recognize these big, shiny red buds as more imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills any spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If water ever reached the bud and froze it could kill or damage it, so nature found a way to prevent that from happening. The shape of many imbricate buds also ensures that water will run off, rather than stay on the bud. Bud scales also help prevent moisture loss. These buds are very pretty, in my opinion.

The bark of a Tibetan cherry is very interesting. It is also called the paper bark cherry because of the way its bark peels as it ages, much like a birch. It is used as an ornamental tree as much for its bark as for its flowers, which are similar in shape and size to other ornamental cherries. The mahogany bark has very long, closely spaced lenticels that give it an unusual appearance. Lenticels are corky pores that allow gases like oxygen to reach the living cells of the bark. Without enough oxygen bark can die, so it “breathes.”

The most unusual tree bud to appear in this post is that of the ginkgo, which I find at the local grocery store, of all places. The short shoots bear terminal buds that are small at less than an eighth of an inch, with room for just two overlapping scales. A bud with only two overlapping scales is called two ranked. You can see how the terminal bud and many leaf scars are crowded together. Ginkgo is considered a “fossil tree” that has been on earth for millions of years. It is also considered the oldest living seed plant. It is said to be capable of living several hundred years, and there are trees in China that are thought to be at least 400 years old.

Buds with two scales that meet but do not overlap are called valvate buds, and a good example of a valvate bud can be found on nannyberry shrubs (Viburnum lentago). Though the scales in the photo do happen to overlap somewhat normally they would not, so they are still considered valvate. Nannyberry is one of our few native viburnums with edible fruit. They can get quite tall, almost the size of a small tree. According to the book The Origins of English Words “nannyberry” is also called sheep berry and that name comes from its fruit, which is said to resemble sheep droppings. The nanny part of the name comes from the nanny goat. Squirrels and birds are said to eat the fruit but I see huge numbers of them still on the bushes well into winter.

Cornelian cherry buds (Cornus mas) are also good examples of valvate buds. In the spring when the plant begins to take up water through its roots the buds swell and the two scales part to let the bud grow. What confuses me about this shrub is how the two outer scales never seem to be completely closed. It doesn’t seem to matter though because they always flower beautifully. Some bud scales like these are hairy and some are covered with sticky resin that further protects the bud. Cornelian cherry is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (in March) with clusters of blossoms that have small, bright yellow bracts.

One bud scale covering a bud is called a cap, and magnolia bud scales are good examples of that. Magnolia flower buds are described as “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds” and that’s what we see here. The hairy single scale will fall off when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming. Once the plant flowers the ground under it will be littered with these hairy caps for a short time, so if you’d like to see one up close that’s the time to look.

I was lucky to find a seed pod on the magnolia that I looked at but unfortunately it was quite dry. I’d like to find a fresh one because I’ve read that they’re full of bright red seeds. I’ll look for one this spring to show you.

Big, black and pointed mountain ash buds (Sorbus americana) fooled me into thinking they had a single cap like bud scale at first, but they actually have several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. I finally got a photo that shows this. You have to look closely at buds to see what is really going on, so it helps to have a loupe or a macro lens.

The terminal buds on a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) are oval shaped and imbricate with many bud scales. Sometimes the scales pull back from the bud (reflex) as these did, creating what look like tiny green flowers. In a way they remind me of the male flowers on a haircap moss, but of course they’re much bigger.

Here is a look at the side of the bud in the previous photo. Evergreen buds can be very sticky, but I’ve noticed that much more sap or resin flow occurs on warm days. On a cold day in January these buds were hardly sticky at all. You can also see the rows of whiteish breathing pores (stomata) on some of the needles in this shot. Carbon dioxide, oxygen, and water vapor enter and exit the tree through these tiny openings. There are many millions of them on a single tree.

If you see that some of the branches on your Colorado blue spruce are a bit deformed like those seen in the above photo your tree has the Eastern spruce gall adelgid living on it. They cause crab claw like galls but don’t do any real harm to the tree. I’ve had them on a tree in my yard for years now and it is still as healthy as the day I planted it. By the way, a blue spruce can be green.

If I had to choose a favorite tree bud the flower buds of the red maple (Acer rubrum) would have to be at the top of the list. They’re very beautiful but more than that, they are one of my first signals that spring has finally come. It doesn’t matter what the calendar says, when I see red maple flowers, I know winter is over. Of course sometimes they get a little over anxious and will get frost bitten, but more often than not they’re a reliable indicator. Each small flower bud has four pairs of bud scales.

Sugar maple terminal buds (Acer saccharum) appear on the end or terminus of a branch. The larger, pointed, very scaly bud is flanked by lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud and the twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples. These buds have imbricate bud scales and they show the whitish, sticky resin that “glues” one scale to another.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides) buds are also imbricate but instead of sticky resin on the edges of its bud scales they have a fringe of fine hairs which help shed water. These buds are relatively large and easy to study using a hand lens, so they’re perfect for children in the field.

Buds that have no bud scales but are very hairy like those seen on witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana,) are called naked buds. The hairs take the place of bud scales when it comes to protecting the bud and it works well. Other naked buds are found on staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and the native viburnum called hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides).

Witch hazel flower buds are also very hairy, but rounder than its leaf buds. It won’t be long before the yellow or orange strap like flower petals appear on the spring witch hazels. It’s something I’m impatiently looking forward to.

I know that not everyone gets as excited over buds as I do but I also know that there are children who read these posts so I often have them in mind when I do a post like this one. I hope something like a post on buds might help jump start a child’s interest in nature. They aren’t that complicated and hopefully bud scale terminology won’t seem too intimidating.

If you are interested in learning about tree and shrub buds, start with one in your own yard that you are sure of, like a maple tree or even your rhododendron, and then branch out to those you don’t know well. The following information might help to get you started:

A bud scale is made up of modified leaves or stipules that cover and protect the bud in winter. Usually the number of bud scales surrounding a bud will help identify a tree or shrub.

Imbricate bud: A bud with numerous scales that overlap each other like shingles.

Valvate bud: A bud with two or three scales that do not overlap.

Two Ranked Bud: A bud with two scales that do overlap.

Caplike bud: A bud with a single scale that comes off in the spring.

Naked bud: A bud with no scales.

If you find that you have the itch to learn even more about buds and trees, this little book is for you. I’ve had my copy since I was a teen but it’s still in print. It is very helpful and easy to understand.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.  ~David Polis

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I’m still taking vacation days from work to use them up before I retire and that’s a good thing, because the weather forecast was for dangerous wind chills of -30 F last Saturday. Flesh freezes in 15 minutes in that kind of cold, I believe the weather people said, so instead of testing their accuracy I opted for a Friday walk, when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees F. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would have packed snow from snowmobiles, but I was surprised to see the summer gate still up. It’s there to keep wheeled vehicles off the rail trails in warmer months but is lowered in winter for snowmobiles. Still, there it was. In any event the snow had still been well packed by snowmobiles.

I like this trail because it still has a lot of the old railroad artifacts still here, like this whistle post. The W on the post told the engineer to blow his whistle or horn to warn traffic on the road up ahead. Where I grew up it was two shorts and a long on a horn and I could hear it inside the house with all the windows and doors closed. I used to love seeing those trains, so much so that I spent years building an HO scale model train layout.

Something else left out here from the railroad days is the stiff wire stock fencing they used to keep animals off the tracks. Miles and miles of it were strung along each side of the right of way, usually on stout metal posts, but in this instance a wooden fence post was used, and it showed its age beautifully, I thought.

Slowly, it was becoming hollow. The railroad came through this area about 150 years ago, and I wondered if this post had stood here all of that time. It looked like it might have so maybe it was black locust, which is known to last 100 years or more in the ground.

I saw many wood aster seed heads here and I noticed that many had been eaten, so that made me happy. Cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, nuthatches, sparrows, towhees and other birds are said to enjoy aster seeds, so that’s a good reason to let them grow rather than treating them as weeds.

The birds had picked this flower clean except for one tiny seed, and that was perfect so I could show you what an aster seed looks like. It has a little tuft of filaments at the top which acts as a parachute. When a seed hits the ground the wind can catch in the filament parachute and blow the seed along the ground to a spot where it can grow.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve seen a bird’s nest in a shrub overrun with Oriental bittersweet. I can see how the invasive vine’s many leaves would provide good cover, but since the berries don’t appear until late fall, I doubt it has anything to do with the nesting bird eating them. It would be nice for the mama bird if she could just sit in the nest and eat the berries that surrounded her but nature doesn’t work that way. There is plenty to eat but they have to go and find it.

What does Oriental bittersweet do when there are no trees around to strangle? It strangles itself.

As I began paying closer attention when I was in the woods and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed things on trees in winter that didn’t seem to be there in the summer. At least that’s what I thought but no, they were there all the time. It was just that they became more visible in the winter, like the way frullania liverworts darken to a dark purple color in the winter. All of the sudden the trees were covered by these dark spots, so I began looking at them closely.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some of them are said to be very fragrant but I haven’t been able to smell them yet. There are over 800 species of this liverwort. I haven’t tried to identify them but I have noticed that the ones I see must like high humidity, because they never grow too far from water.

This drainage ditch looked to be frozen solid. The black spots on the snow are hemlock seeds and scales from the cones. Birds and squirrels had been busy.

Not all of the drainage ditches were solidly frozen, so I got to see some beautiful patterns in the ice.

Beech leaves are falling I’ve noticed, and while I’ll miss seeing them I know they’re letting go so new leaves can appear in the spring. Seeing buds breaking on a beech tree is one of the great gifts of spring in a northern forest. How very beautiful they are as they unfold from the bud like silvery angel’s wings.

I saw a pheasant feather in the snow; the first I’ve ever seen that was not on a bird. This bird had met an untimely end, judging from what I saw just out of camera range to the left. I’ve learned to be at peace with seeing death in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some fungi and trees I’ve seen, death can even be beautiful. As John Muir said “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”  

If you happened to be standing on top of a moving train, not knowing there was a bridge or tunnel up ahead, that probably wouldn’t have turned out well. To solve the problem the railroad came up with what they called “Tell tales.” They were lengths of soft, pencil thick wire that would hit you and “tell the tale” of a low obstruction up ahead. If you were smart you would drop to your knees immediately. These wires used to hang on either end of tunnels and trestles. I used to see them regularly when I was a boy but now this is the last one I know of.

The railroad engineers often used what they had at hand, like splitting boulders and ledges to get useable stone for building. In the case of tell tales they simply stood a section of rail on end and sank it into the ground. Then they added a rod that stood 90 degrees to the rail and hung the wires from it.

And here was the old trestle, just like the one that was near my house when I was a boy. Back then there was no solid floor like the snowmobile clubs have installed these days. Instead there were wooden ties, spaced just as far apart as they were on the railbed, and between each pair, far below, you could see the water. This was a fence when I was young, and it prevented me exploring the land of mystery to the south. I was told that little boys who weren’t careful could fall between the railroad ties and end up in the river, and for a while that possibility was an insurmountable fear. At six, seven or eight years old I was probably thin enough to actually fit between the wooden ties but I kept trying, going further and further out on the trestle, all the while hoping that a train didn’t come. Then one day at maybe twelve years old I made it across and I was free to explore the far side of the river. It was like a great space had suddenly opened around me, and I’ll never forget how happy I was about being able to see more of the river and the woods along its banks.

I looked at the Ashuelot River through a silver maple, which seems to lean just a bit more each time I come here.

There was ice along the riverbanks and since we’ve had below zero cold since I was there, I’m guessing it has grown some. It will grow from each shore and meet somewhere near the middle if it stays cold enough.

The snowmobile club had put up a warning sign on a pine tree, but I was more interested in the burl behind it.

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

You know it has been cold when the sap of white pines turns blue.

I finally found a fresh blueberry stem gall and all signs pointed to the tiny wasps still living inside, because when the wasps have left the gall, the sides are shot full of small round holes. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on the tip of a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring.

But not so fast. There was one very large hole in the end of the gall and that told me a bird, possibly a woodpecker, had robbed the gall of all the wasp larvae. I’ve seen this happen to the round galls on goldenrod and have seen black capped chickadees pecking at those. This gall and its inhabitants appear to be done for but someday I hope to be able to show you a fresh inhabited one.

My favorite thing from this day was this stump. No bigger around than a tennis ball where it was cut but it looked as if it had been there for a thousand years. It’s a good thing I have never found a way to bring all of the beautiful wooden things that I find in the woods home with me because I wouldn’t be able to move.

I don’t mind going nowhere, as long as it’s an interesting path. ~Ronald Mabbitt

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I had plans for last Friday; I took the day off from work to use up vacation time before I retire, and I was going to spend the whole day in the woods taking photos of interesting things for you to see, but nature had other plans. It started snowing at about 5 that morning and the roads were treacherous. I went out once (above) but quickly came home again, glad I didn’t have to drive for an hour. On Saturday I went to Beaver Brook and on Sunday we had pouring down freezing rain almost all day. So since I wasn’t able to get enough time outside, for the first time in almost 11 years I’m going to repost something I did a couple of years ago. It was quite a popular post then and I hope new readers will enjoy it. I also hope that regular readers won’t be bored by the repeat. I called it Nature Study 101.

Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest, I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, just like this one. That day a side of nature that I never knew existed was revealed and from then on, I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two-year-old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the everyday one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet, I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently, it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.
  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.
  3. Walk at a toddler’s pace. Cross and crisscross your path.
  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.
  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.
  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.
  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.  
  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.
  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.
  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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Last Saturday I woke up to not only the snow that fell on Friday but a temperature of 9 degrees F. That told me we wouldn’t be seeing any melting going on. By 11 am it was 22 degrees, but with the wind the feel-like temperature was more like 18 degrees, so I opted for a place where I knew I could be out of the wind. Beaver Brook and the abandoned road that follows it lie at the bottom of a natural canyon sheltered by hills on 3 sides, so there usually isn’t much wind there.

It was still cold though.

I have a friend in California who grew up here and is very fond of this place, so I like to come here at least once in each of the four seasons so he can see what it’s looking like. The place itself doesn’t change much but the weather sure does. I’ve seen waist deep snow on the old road.

There is a small cave here that I’ve always thought looked like a perfect spot for an animal den and sure enough I could see tracks in the snow that looked like they might have been bobcat tracks, but since we’d had a little more snow overnight it was hard to tell. The cave goes much further back into the hillside than what it looks like here.

Stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) is a pretty moss that I only find in this place. It’s very delicate looking but it can take a lot of winter ice and snow and grows as far north as the arctic tundra. It is also called glittering wood moss because it sparkles when the light is right. It grows on the stone that caps the cave and seems to like places where it can hang over an edge.

The seep hadn’t frozen, but it rarely does. When you see this frozen over you know it is extremely cold. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer, and this one stays just like this winter and summer. I saw it freeze one winter but I’ve never seen it dry up. It’s a good place for birds and animals to come and drink.

Near the seep is a boulder fall, and on some of the stones in the boulder fall dog lichens grow. I hoped to see them on this day but they were covered by snow. The sky was a beautiful blue though, and that more than made up for their lack.

Also near the seep is a tree that I’ve been watching. It died at some point and has been sloughing off its bark for at least two years now. When you find a tree in the woods that is completely without bark, this is why. Sometimes you can even find a bunched-up pile of shed bark at a tree’s base. It is normal for live, healthy trees to lose some bark, but not like this.

A goldenrod held out its seeds for birds that didn’t seem interested. There seems to be a lot of that going on here. Many fruits and seeds are not being eaten like they were a few years ago.

I love to see the sunlight falling on golden birches. It shows how they come by their name. They are also called yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) but to me they’re golden. Swamp birch is another name for this tree that is the largest and most valuable birch. They can live to 100 years regularly but at least one was found that was over 200 years old.

I was lucky to find a fallen golden birch branch that had the female seed heads (strobili) attached. They are quite big on this birch; about the size of bush clover seed heads, or the tip of your thumb.

And here was a single fallen golden birch seed, which is about twice the size of the gray birch seed I showed in a recent post. I’ve read that redpolls, pine siskins, chickadees, and other songbirds eat these seeds. Ruffed grouse eat the seeds, catkins, and buds, and red squirrels like the seeds and sap.

Golden and paper birches both have bark that peels like this. As any camper knows, it’s great for starting a campfire. That’s because it contains betulin, which is highly flammable. It is also water repelling, and that’s probably why Native Americans used birch bark for their canoes.

There was lots of ice on the ledges. These ledges don’t see a lot of sunshine; I’d guess maybe two or three hours per day, so the ice grows slowly. It is clear and hard.

The sunshine that falls here in winter comes over the hillside to the right, out of this view. In winter it takes its time reaching the other hillside on the left, so much of the road is shaded. It can be a cold walk. The overhead electric wires just follow this handy corridor. There are no houses here.

I met and old timer up here once who told me that rock climbers used to practice on that erratic over on the other side of the brook. It is big; maybe twice the size of the 40-ton Tippin Rock in Swanzey.

I loved the way the reflected light fell on the water in this spot. So much beauty, everywhere you look.

In the place where the brook becomes wide and calm it had iced over. I’ve seen Beaver Brook with ice three or four feet thick on it, so thick that the brook lost its singing voice.  I’m hoping I don’t see that this year.

The icicles hanging from the stones in the brook have large “feet” and I think that is because they grew in length as far as the water surface and then, once they couldn’t grow any longer, they grew wider instead. I’ve watched the ice in the Westmoreland deep cut and when it reaches the surface of the drainage channels it widens, just like this. If that is what is happening here then the water level has dropped about a foot since the icicles grew.

Ice hung from every stone. Anywhere water splashes is a good place to look for ice formations.

The seed pods of Indian pipe plants (Monotropa uniflora) look like small, carved wooden melons. This one had split to release the tiny, winged seeds. They split into five parts and each segment will eventually fall off, leaving the hard, dried central style behind. I had to take my gloves off to get this shot so it is a bit rushed. I wanted to show more of the top so we could see the funnel shaped hole in the stigma, but it was cold. The wiry looking bits are what is left of its ten dried stamens which, when the plant is flowering are inside the petals. You can see one of the dried petals behind the seed pod there in the lower right. It really is fascinating how much of the flower’s structure is still there in the dead plants. I always like to stop and take a closer look when I see them.

I stopped to look at the chubby purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). Buds with many bud scales that overlap like shingles are called imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If ice should form inside the bud scales it could kill the bud. I’ve seen these buds in the past with purple and green stipes and they were beautiful. The colors reminded me of drawings of court jesters that I’ve seen. I can’t say why some buds are striped and others are not but I have a feeling that temperature might have something to do with it. Many plants like American wintergreen, turn purple in winter and I’ve noticed that the color is darker when it is cold.

As is often the case these days I didn’t dare to climb down the embankment to get a good view of the falls, but this shot from 2015 is a good representation of what I saw by peeking through the brush on this day. There was a good roar but I’ve seen even the falls covered by ice in the past, quieted by the cold.

As I was leaving, I noticed that the sun was higher in the sky and its light had reached the brook. There wasn’t much warmth but there was light. This shot also shows how treacherous climbing down to the water would be, and this spot would be much easier than at the falls. You’ve got to be careful up here because you’d wait quite a little while for any help to come and in this cold that wouldn’t be good.

The sunshine had also reached the icicles on the ledges but I’d be surprised if it had enough time to do any real melting. It won’t be long though. There is a little more daylight each day and it will be March before we know it.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

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On a recent murky day I went to the Ashuelot River. It wasn’t raining but there was an unseen mistiness in the air that the cameras didn’t like. It was relatively warm and the river was just as smooth as glass, so the plusses outweighed the minuses.

There were a single pair of mallards in the shallows. She watched while he ate.

Then when he was full, he sped off upriver without her. A fine how do you do for having watched out for danger for him.

The reason I wanted to come here was because all of the snow had melted again and I knew the trail would be an easy walk. Snowmobiles aren’t allowed here so in snowy winters you find snow packed down by the many people who walk this trail. Once it gets packed down it turns to ice and makes walking very difficult. This might be the last time I get out here until March.

This is a good example of what happens when snow is packed down, but it wasn’t too bad on this day because it was so warm. It was more slush than ice and wasn’t very slippery. If it had been 20 degrees I would have been walking off trail in the woods.

With no ice on the river the beavers are able to cut trees just as they would in warmer weather, and they had been hungry. I watched a nature show that said they will eat part way through a tree like this and let the wind do the rest. The trouble with that is, there are lots of people using this trail.

The wind blew that large tree in the foreground over some months ago, but the smaller one further on is new.

Here is the smaller tree we saw in the previous photo, felled by hungry beavers. They’re really going to town out here this year.

They cut the top off the tree they had felled and dragged it into the river, and then stripped and ate the bark. They seem to strip trees like this more in the colder months, I’ve noticed. I’d guess the bark must be the tastiest and most nutritious part.

They bit off all the smaller branches and stripped them of bark and then a human came along and put them all into small piles according to size. It looks neat and tidy I suppose, but I doubt the beavers care.

The river was fairly high and I’d guess that would make dragging trees a bit easier when branches didn’t snag on the bottom.

Here was another tree felled and stripped of bark. I’ve never seen so much beaver activity in one area. Easy pickings for them though, so why go anywhere else? With the cleared trail there they don’t even have to drag the trees through brush to get them to the river.

Everything out here was dripping wet. I thought we would probably have a snowless winter because nature always tries to find a balance, and we had feet of rain last summer. To offset all that rain it would make sense that we’d have no snow in winter and we don’t. But it still rains.

A six-foot-tall pokeweed plant had collapsed into a tangle of beautiful blue caned black raspberries.

The pokeweed plant had a lot of berries on it that the birds had missed. They were looking a bit past their prime now.

The pretty color of these royal fern leaves (Osmunda spectabilis) caught my eye. I like seeing warm colors in winter, I’ve recently realized. Royal ferns are thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years.

I admired the healing that this tree had gone through before it died. It hadn’t completely covered the wound but it had obviously tried. Actually no, there was no trying involved. I’d guess it was as natural as breathing is to us. Either way it didn’t matter how or why it happened. It was as if the tree had pulled back its outer skin just a bit to show me its heart, and I thought it was beautiful. It was one of those forest artworks that I always enjoy seeing.

Someone had scratched a skull into a shield lichen. I’ve never thought of doing that.

Bat boxes are fairly common out here but spotting one is not. They’re eight feet or so off the ground and I think most people walk right by them without even knowing they are there. I thank the bats for keeping this walk relatively mosquito free in summer.

This small tree had the strangest bark I’ve even seen. It was soft and spongy like cork and I don’t know what could have caused such a thing. I do know it can’t be good. I think this little tree’s time with us is over.

I saw many Japanese knot weed seeds (Fallopia japonica) but I’ve read that, because the seeds have a very hard time germinating, seed dispersal is not the way this plant usually spreads. Instead it spreads by its roots and stem pieces, so when it is dug, cut or weed whacked and pieces of it get strewn around, more plants will grow. If I understand what I’ve read correctly, the practice of mowing it down on roadsides is often what helps it spread. This is what has been tried here on parts of the riverbank and over the years I’ve seen it spread.

In its native habitat the knotweed’s winged seeds help it get around, but in its native habitat there are natural defenses that keep it in check. There are none of those here; none of the insects or diseases that help control it came with it when it was brought here, and that’s why importing plants from other areas needs to be controlled. I would guess that this country must spend billions each year fighting just this one plant, but the list of invasive species is a long one.

This sums up winter here so far. Little snow but plenty of ice.

Slowly, the river widens and undercuts the roots of trees. They will eventually succumb to gravity and fall in, to be washed away to some unknown place or to sink and lie on the bottom. This maple was halfway there and may not be here at all next year at this time. If you want to be able to see the slow pace of a river widening watch the trees along its banks. I’ve seen many that have fallen into the water over the years and I’ve seen huge old trees stuck on rocks or sandbars out in the middle. It’s all part of the river’s natural cycle, and it is one I’ve watched since I was a very small boy. The river drew me to it like a magnet not too long after I was born, and it has kept me fascinated ever since. Maybe I too am part of its natural cycle.

There is no rushing a river. When you go there, you go at the pace of the water and that pace ties you into a flow that is older than life on this planet. Acceptance of that pace, even for a day, changes us, reminds us of other rhythms beyond the sound of our own heartbeats. ~ Jeff Rennicke

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We’ve had more ice than snow here so far this winter and if there is one thing that will strike fear into the most winter hardened New Englander, it is an ice storm. Trees, weighed down by ice, fall and take wires down with them, and there have been times here when the power has been out for weeks. No power when it’s cold means you move, unless you happen to have a non electric heat source or a generator. In any event I wanted to take a walk after a recent ice storm because though terrible, on a sunny day ice can also be beautiful.

The trouble was, there wasn’t much sunshine to make the ice sparkle like prisms, and instead of clear and beautiful some of the ice was kind of slushy, as the ice on this beaver cut tree shows.

This clear, hard ice covered every exposed twig and branch but luckily, I saw only a few that had fallen. There was no sunlight to make it sparkle.

Even the beech leaves had a coating of ice, and that made them even more beautiful. Simple, everyday natural beauty is available to everyone at any time but we can’t just look. We need to see.

That’s ice, not a water droplet. Sometimes it seemed like every living thing must be coated in ice on this day.

This puddle ice was unusual. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a puddle do that.

The sun and clouds just couldn’t decide who would win out and I found that trying to time my shutter clicks to when the sun did shine was fighting a losing battle so I just enjoyed the day, sun or clouds.

Pretty little goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) leaves grew in a crook made by pine roots. You wouldn’t think such a tender looking plant would be evergreen but they are. In spring the leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will often be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and small white flowers will appear. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots.

I saw a single small jelly crep growing on a log. Jelly creps (Crepidotus mollis) are small, quarter sized “winter mushrooms” that like to grow on hardwood logs. They are also called soft slipper mushrooms and feel kind of spongy and flabby, much like your ear lobe. When they grow in groups, they grow with an overlapping shelving habit like shingles.

Here are the jelly crep’s gills. This mushroom was only about half an inch across so this was a tough shot to get.

A small bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) somehow remained ice free. Determination, I thought.

There was sunlight at the end of this tree tunnel.

If you follow the trail long enough you find the closeness of the forest opens up into quite a large expanse of wetland, which is home to fish, frogs, beavers, herons and other critters. I’ve seen some beautiful sunsets right here in this spot as well. I’m glad there are laws that prevent the filling in of wetlands now. When I was a boy, I saw load after load of concrete rubble and just about anything else you can think of dumped into wetlands to fill them so they could be built on.

The stream in the previous photo goes under a road and though it looked like spring on that side of the road I found winter on this side. It seemed odd to have such a change happen over such a short distance.

This is the only gray birch I’ve ever seen with inner bark that color. It is beautiful and so bright, the first time I saw it I thought it was a plastic marker. I was glad that it wasn’t.

There was quite a large clear spot under some pine trees and I knew what that meant.

The pine’s branches had taken on the weight of the ice. This is why limbs break off and take down power lines. Ice can be very destructive.

I looked at the gray birches (Betula alba var. populifolia) in a small grove to see if all the seeds had been eaten yet.

There were quite a few left but they were being eaten. Ripe female catkin-like strobiles like the one seen here resemble small cones. Fruit (seeds) are blown about by the wind in late fall and winter. Unless that is, birds get to them. Many songbirds love them. You can often find the snow under a gray birch littered with hundreds of tiny winged seeds. Seeds can persist for years in the soil and will grow if the soil is disturbed.

I wanted to show you a gray birch seed so I brought home a strobile and put a single seed on a white background. They are very small and I couldn’t think of anything to compare them to, so I put a period on the paper with a blue pen. Each tree must produce hundreds of thousands of these seeds, which are technically called nutlets.

This is a gray birch catkin. A true catkin is really just a long string of small flowers spiraling around a central stem, and these will open in May.

I saw what looked like a stream through the woods but it was actually a giant puddle. Quite a beautiful reflecting pool, I thought.

Their deep warm color, the shine of their icy coating, and the the way that the soft light falling on them seemed to caress them made these oak leaves a thing of great beauty. As I’ve said before; if you can find joy in the simple things in life, joy will follow you wherever you go. These beautiful leaves certainly put a smile on my face on such an icy day.

By walking in a snowy forest you can really forget about this world, and every time you forget about this world you leave this world, and every time you leave this world you gain a very special wisdom that does not exist in this world. ~Mehmet Murat ildan

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It seems that these “looking back” posts get harder every year. Choosing a handful of photos is never easy but this year it seemed daunting at first. But then I sat down and remembered what this blog was all about, which is showing you the beauty of nature. I dangle a carrot and entice you into going out and seeing nature for yourself, and when you do you fall in love with what you see, just as I did. That’s the plan, anyway. So as you look at what I’ve chosen remember that these photos are about the beauty of this world and nothing else. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and you might not think the stream ice in the above shot is beautiful at all. Hopefully though, as you wade through this post, you’ll find something that catches your eye. And remember, if I saw it, you can too.

This is more stream ice, this time with leaves trapped in it. This reminded me of putting a leaf between 2 sheets of waxed paper and then ironing the paper so it sealed around the leaf. It’s always slightly fuzzy, never clear like glass.

The first two photos were taken last January. In February I was at the North Pole, or so it seemed when I was looking at this wind sculpted snow. I love to see the designs the wind can make in snow, but it has to be the right kind of snow with the right consistency or it doesn’t seem to work.

This shot, taken later in February, makes me want to say “whew,” because it shows the first sign of warm colors and melting ice after a long white winter. I’ve always believed that once we’ve made it through February winter’s back is broken. Sure, we can get more snow and even cold, but it doesn’t usually last for weeks like it can in January and February.

In early March there was still snow on the ground but the willows burned brightly and this scene reminded me of an impressionist painting. Vincent van Gogh, maybe?

March is when the first flowers appear but I doubt many people notice the beautiful male alder catkins dangling from the bushes like strings of jewels. A catkin is really just a string of flowers and there are probably hundreds of tiny male blossoms in this shot.

April is when things really get going and large willow shrubs full of bright yellow flowers appear at wood edges and out in the fields. They’re a breath of spring that I look forward to each year and their blossoming usually signals the return of red winged blackbirds.

Bloodroot is one of our most beautiful wildflowers which don’t often appear until early May, but last spring they came along in April. I’m not sure how a flower could be more perfect than this. Its simplicity is what makes it so beautiful, I think. It isn’t busy and there’s nothing to deduce or discover; it’s all right there so all you need to do is just admire its beauty. If you happen to find bloodroot growing in the wild you should remember the spot because this plant will come up in the same spot for many years if undisturbed.

May is when I start looking at buds and though there were many to choose from, I chose this velvety soft, pink and orange, striped maple bud. They seem to glow, and seeing a tree full of them is a sight not soon forgotten. This is a smallish tree and common in this region, so the next time you’re walking along a trail in early May, look out for it.

By mid to late May some of our most beautiful wildflowers are just coming into bloom, like the wild columbine seen here. The columbines grow on stone ledges off in the woods where few people ever see them, but some like me consider them very special and make it a point to go to see them each year. They’re quite a rare find; this spot in Westmoreland is the only place I’ve ever found them. It’s a bit of a hike but it isn’t any work at all to go and see them on a beautiful spring day in May when the leaves are just coming out on the trees and the air is full of sunshine and birdsong. In five short months it will be time to take that walk again, and I’m already looking forward to it.

In this area nothing says June like our native blue flag irises. I watch the roadside ditches because that’s where I find a lot of them blooming beautifully in large clumps. I also see them on pond and river edges. They like a lot of water and can sometimes even be found in standing water. They’re a beautiful flower that always says summer to me and you don’t have to hunt for them, because they’re everywhere.

Flowers come fast and furious in June and you can find many newly opened species each day. For this post though, I chose Robin’s plantain, a fleabane that’s considered a lowly weed. It comes up in lawns everywhere but even though it’s a weed, nobody mows it until it’s done blooming. I think this photo shows why. It’s such a beautiful weed.

There are times in the woods when I see something I can hardly believe I’m seeing, and that’s how it was the first time I saw this fringed bog orchid. I know I’ve found something special when all thoughts leave my mind and I just want to be quiet. I know I’m in the presence of something rare and very special, and I imagine that I feel as I would if I were walking into one of the world’s great cathedrals. It’s hard to explain, but you just know that this is a special moment and it deserves all of your attention, and your gratitude as well. You are humbled, I suppose is the best way to explain it, and it happens the same way each July when I go into the swamp where this magnificent orchid grows.

Also in July, this past July at least, because of all the rain, fungi and slime molds began to appear. I learned a lot by paying attention and watching closely this past summer. I saw a huge variety of fungi and slime molds appear that I had never seen before and as far as I can tell it was all on account of the steady rains we had. After two years of drought it was an amazing show of what nature can do under the right conditions.

In August I found the tiny flowers of the field forget-me-not growing in a lawn and that seemed appropriate, because August was the month that I lost a sister to lung cancer. Though nature has shown me that there is a deep well of peace within us all we have to find it before we can drink from it, and it isn’t something that one of us can give to another; each of us has to find it for ourselves. This was the unfortunate truth that I realized there alongside the forget-me-nots in August.

The concentric circles in tiger’s eye fungi also seemed appropriate for August. To me life is like a song, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When one song ends a new one begins to take its place, and on and on it goes in a never-ending circle, through all of eternity.

In September I saw one of the prettiest displays of mushrooms I’ve seen when I found these Jack O’ lanterns growing on and around this old red maple. There were hundreds of them and they grew in a ring on all sides of the old tree. A day or two later and I would have missed this beautiful display, and that’s a good reason to get into the woods each day if you can.

This shot is a bit ironic with a monarch butterfly on a purple loosestrife because we wish we’d see more of the butterflies and less of the very invasive purple loosestrife. I didn’t count but I saw a fair number of monarchs, mostly in August and September of last year. I wish I knew why there were so many more, and I wonder if the weather had anything to do with it. I wouldn’t think a butterfly would want to be rained on but there were so many flowers blooming because of it.

This shot from October shows what I mean about having so many flowers blooming. This is just a roadside meadow of sorts that I pass each day on my way to and from work. It’s there every year but this past summer was the best I’ve seen it look. Because of this spot I discovered that New England asters like an awful lot of water. Seeing them in such a wet spot made me take note of soil conditions in other places they grew and each one was quite wet, or at least more than just moist.

You certainly receive plenty of hints in September and even in August of summer’s passing but October is when it really hits you. At least, that’s when it hit me one October morning when I stood on the shore of Half Moon Pond and saw how all the trees had colored. It was a beautiful way to end our summer and it went on and on, and again I think that was because of all the rain we had.

Very late October and early November is the time to visit Willard Pond in Hancock if you want to experience all the majesty of a New England hardwood forest in the fall. The oaks and beeches put on what is easily the most beautiful autumn spectacle that I’ve seen. It’s a quiet, peaceful place with well placed benches where you can sit and listen to the calls of loons and enjoy the beauty of the pond and surrounding forest.

I took a hike down a rail trail in November and just before I left, I snapped this shot of a distant hillside. I could see color on the hillside from where I was but it was like a smudge, with no real detail. I was surprised when I looked at the photo and saw that it was a hillside full of oaks. Everyone seemed to like this one so I’ll show it again.

We had our fist snowfall in December, barely an inch here, so I went out and got some photos of it. It was a nuisance storm and we’ve had two or three since, but no real snowstorms. People who have to shovel it are counting their blessings, but people who make money plowing it don’t feel quite so lucky. I think we all need to face the fact that winter has changed. Just over the course of this blog’s 11 years I’ve watched it go from cold and snowy to rather mild on average in comparison. Spring starts earlier and fall lasts longer now.  

It did get cold enough in December for me to get a shot of this frost crystal on my car windshield one morning. Everyone seemed to like seeing it, so here it is again.

And that’s 2021 in New Hampshire in a nutshell. I hope yours was even more beautiful, and I hope everyone has a safe, healthy and happy 2022!

The only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come. ~Mick Kremling

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Half Moon Pond in Hancock iced over but then it warmed up and the ice melted quickly. All that was left early one morning was the mist that was left from the melting. I wanted to get a shot of it but all I had was my cell phone. I decided to try it anyway, and this is what the phone’s camera saw. What I saw was not quite so much bright sunlight up in the clouds, though dawn was just breaking over the hills behind me. I liked what the phone camera saw though, and I hope you will too.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked quite far into the woods after seeing what I thought was a beautiful flower, only to find instead that it was a feather. But I’m never disappointed because feathers can often be as beautiful as flowers. These “blossomed” on a hazelnut twig and changed shape contantly in the wind. They were very fine and soft, like goose down.

I know these are bird tracks and I know the middle longer toe points in the direction the bird was facing but I don’t know why they were so long or what the lines behind them were about. It looked to me like the bird went into a skid when it tried to land. Their feet weren’t very big but there were many prints around the area and I’m guessing dark eyed juncos made them. You can often see flocks of sometimes twenty or more juncos along roadsides in winter, presumably looking for small seeds.

At work one morning I spotted a dark colored animal a little bigger than a house cat running from one of the buildings. It ran with a kind of loping gait like a mink but quite fast. One of the paw prints we found afterwards is in the above photo but we can’t know if it belongs to the animal we saw. There are lots of animals in these woods. But judging by the animal’s size and the way it ran like a big mink, we think it must have been a fisher cat. Fisher cats aren’t cats, they are members of the weasel family, and they don’t eat fish. They were hunted for their fur almost to extinction in times past and though they are making a comeback they’re very wary of man and aren’t often seen. They’re usually active at night so seeing this one in daylight was a rare thing.

I believe these turkey feathers tell the story of the fisher cat and why it was near one of the buildings. They were found near the spot it ran from. Fishers eat small to medium sized animals and birds, and will also eat beechnuts, acorns, apples and berries. They will also eat porcupines, leaving nothing but the hide and a few bones behind. In fact they’ll eat just about anything and I’ve heard they have a blood curdling scream when they’re on the hunt. Just for fun (?) I went to You Tube and listened to a fisher cat scream, and now I understand how some people have been scared half to death by them at night in the woods. It’s an eerie sound, and that’s putting it mildly.

A huge old oak tree died where I work and when it was cut down the butt end showed purple staining, meaning it has steel or iron objects like screws or nails in it. Sawmills look for this kind of thing when logging trucks bring in a load of logs and they’ll reject the whole load if they see it. This log was easily four feet across but it will never be sawed into boards.

I used to feel comfortable in the knowledge that any time I saw this platy bark in the shape of a target on a tree, I was looking at a red maple. But then last fall I saw a very old yellow birch with target canker that looked just like the example in the above photo. Now, I thought, I can’t be quite so sure of what I’m seeing, so I returned to the book Bark; a Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech. In it he does indeed say that red maple is the only tree in the northeast that develops target canker, so what of that birch? I don’t know every tree in the forest but if I can’t tell the difference between a red maple and a yellow birch, I’d better give up nature blogging. The answer I think, is to go back and find that birch and better document its bark.

Here is the only photo I took of the yellow birch I saw with target canker, which can be clearly seen on the tree. I can remember how surprised I was and thought that I must be mistaken but no, I’ve never seen maple bark peel and curl like that. The trick will be to find this tree again in a forest full of trees.

I had to go to the local car dealership to have my car serviced and while I was waiting, I noticed this piece of tree bark sitting on a counter. I was happy to find it there, not so much because of the bark itself, but because someone thought it was beautiful enough to show in the waiting room like an art object. It grabbed someone’s attention, as it did mine.

Because of all the rain we had this summer fruits, seeds and nuts are everywhere, including the poison ivy berries (Toxicodendron radicans) seen here. I’ve never seen so many of the small fruits on poison ivy vines. Though I like to get photos of them when they’ve turned white and are fully ripe, the birds eat them so fast I usually can’t find any. All parts of this plant can give you quite a rash if touched, so I try not to get too close. Even inhaling the smoke from a fire where it is being burned can cause severe throat issues.

I finally found some ice needles that really looked like needles. Usually they have been stepped on and look stubby, with squared off ends. A lot has to happen for them to form but they’re fairy common once you know what to look for. And what to listen for; the soil they grow in will crunch when it’s walked on. 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. These might have been closer to 6 inches long.

I saw this feature in some puddle ice. It looked like the disc or lens shape froze and the water moving around it created waves. But how could this be? Wouldn’t all of the puddle surface have frozen at the same time? I don’t expect anyone to answer this; I’m just thinking out loud. Puddle ice is an endless source of fascination for me because it’s amazing what you can see in it.

I think weevils must have killed the terminal leader of this hemlock tree (Tsuga canadensis) and then two of its branches became new leaders, giving it a U-shaped appearance. I usually see this on white pine, not hemlock. White pine weevils do attack lots of other evergreen species like spruce and fir but I haven’t heard of them attacking hemlocks, so I can’t say what might have caused it.

Speaking of eastern hemlocks, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to look out a window at work to see gray squirrels trying to get at the seed cones. They’ll hang from the branch by their back feet and tail and grab the small cones with their front paws. I’ve seen four or five squirrels working a single tree, and one day I saw an eagle flying over the tree they were in. The squirrels disappeared in a hurry that day. When I look at this photo of a cone I wonder if man thought up roof shingles by looking at something like this.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify.

I found these squirrel tracks in my yard and I wasn’t surprised because there are also lots of hemlock trees here. I’ve seen chickadees eating the seeds but until this year I’ve never seen squirrels eating them.

Northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) also grows in my yard. There are many seed pods on the cedars and robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in and robins nest in them each spring. The open seed pods always look like beautiful carved wooden flowers to me. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many medicinal uses, and maybe they were. They cured scurvy for many a European.

A few years ago I started noticing what I thought looked like teeth marks on lichens and wrote and showed photos of it here. Now I’m seeing those same marks on certain fungi, like this tinder fungus. The squiggly lines in the top bluish portion are what I’m talking about.

I finally found out when a knowledgeable reader wrote in, that these lines and squiggles are not chipmunk or mouse teeth marks. He measured the marks and found that no American mammal had teeth that small. Instead they’re caused by algae eating land snails. Accoding to what I’ve read “squiggly lines or tiny fan patterns on rock or tree bark show where a snail has scraped off algae or fungi, leaving a paler spot. Smooth-barked red maple or American beech are good trees to check for snail or slug feeding tracks. You can look closely at mushrooms to see if a chewed area is found along with a slime trail.” The top of this mushroom did indeed look chewed. Snail mouths (radula) are raspy and are said to feel like a licking cat’s toungue if you hold one in your hand. That’s another mystery solved.

Just before dawn one morning the full moon hung over Half Moon Pond and reflected in the new ice. This was after the ice I mentioned in that first photo had melted. I think the pond has frozen over and melted three times now, which shows what roller coaster temperatures we’re seeing so far this winter. It’s beautiful but a little unusual as well.

As children, we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love. ~ Ansel Adams

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Two days before I went on a walk down a rail trail in Keene temps were in the 50s F and the sun was shining. Then we had a storm and though some parts of the state saw eight inches of snow we saw about an inch and a half of glop. Glop, for those who don’t have to deal with it, is snow, rain and sleet all falling in the same storm. It freezes into white concrete and about all you can do with it is wait for some sunshine to come and melt it away.

As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was getting mixed messages. While someone wore Yak Tracks….

…. someone else rode a bike. I supposed I’d have to find out for myself if it was icy or not. It was certainly cold enough for ice at 30 degrees, and with the strong breeze coming over the hills to the west, it felt more like 20. You have to give weather like this a chance if you are going to be a nature nut, and you give it a chance by being smart about it and dressing for it. I was dressed for it and I knew that, once I started seeing things that grabbed my interest, I wouldn’t feel cold at all.

Sure enough though it was a gray, bleak looking day there were plenty of warm colors to be seen and all thoughts of cold left me when I saw a tree full of bright orange-red crap apples. Not a single one had been touched by birds and that may have been because they were quite large for a crabapple. I doubted any bird I know could swallow one. Also, though it grew here “wild” it might not have been a native crabapple. Many crab apples are ornamental cultivars that birds just don’t like. Some other cultivars have fruit that birds will eat only after it has frozen and thawed several times. For whatever reason they didn’t like these, even though there are usually birds everywhere out here.

These hazelnut catkins were encased in ice and that told me that it must have rained and then gotten cold fast. I can’t explain the hair. Maybe it’s not a hair at all. It could be a bit of silk left by a spider. Whatever it is I see things just like it everywhere I go, on all types of plants.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. But how can the wind carry them away when they’re always wet, as they have been this year? Now they aren’t just wet, they’re frozen together. Maybe they’ll just wait for spring. Meteorological spring, which starts on March first, is only 69 days away. Astronomical spring will take a bit longer and that’s why I prefer meteorological spring. Meteorological spring is based on temperature cycles for a three-month period when temperatures are similar, as in March, April and May. Summer is June, July and August and fall is September, October and November. Winter of course, is what is left.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) grows all along this trail and though its berries add a bright spot of color in winter it is terribly invasive.

Almost all of this mass of vines seen here is Oriental bittersweet. They twine around trees with the strength of steel cables to get to the tree’s crown where there is more sunlight. Once there they compete with the tree for light while strangling it from below. Eventually the tree dies and falls over, and I’ll never understand how that benefits the bittersweet, which wants all the sunshine it can get.

This hole was probably six to eight inches across, and I thought it looked like a woodchuck’s hole. I didn’t see any tracks around it though so it might just be an escape tunnel, but someone falling into it could break an ankle.

A birch polypore lived up to the name of “shelf fungus.” There was a group of them at the base of this tree which had all had bites taken out of them. I’d guess by squirrels, but specific information about which animals eat this fungus is very hard to come by.

A tree had fallen and I was surprised to see that its upper branches had fomed a witch’s broom. The only other tree this big that I’ve seen with a witches’ broom was an old white pine that has since fallen. Witches’ broom is a deformity described as a “dense mass of shoots growing from a single point, with the resulting structure resembling a broom or a bird’s nest.” Witches’ broom can cause desirable dwarfism and increased branching in some plants. In fact, many well known dwarf evergreen shrubs are the result of witches’ broom.  For example, Montgomery Dwarf Blue Spruce is one of the best dwarf blue spruces, and it is from a witches’ broom. Though this tree had lost almost all its bark I think it was a black birch (Betula lenta).

Mount Monadnock off to the east had its head in the clouds. I had my head in the clouds too whaen I was a teenager and one of my major dreams as was to pick up where Henry David Thoreau left off and finish cataloging the wildflowers that grew on the mountain. Then one day I helped the ladies of the Keene Garden Club plant wildflowers on the mountain’s flanks to reestablish some species which were thought to have once grown there and that’s when I saw that, even if you lived three lifetimes you wouldn’t have time to find and catalog every flower that grew there. That’s a big mountain.

The wide ditch that runs alongside the railbed has been full of water all year long. We’ve had more rain than I can ever remember.

Often in the fall deer tongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum) will turn many colors, with maroon, purple and orange or yellow sometimes on the same leaf. It’s quite pretty and I’ve searched high and low to find some so I could show it to you but every plant I’ve seen has been uniformly tan, just as these were. It seems kind of odd after seeing them so colorful all of my life.

There are lots of staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) out here that the birds haven’t eaten but they’ll probably be gone by spring. I’ve read that they’re low in fat so they aren’t a bird’s first choice.

Sumac means red in many of the old languages and that makes perfect sense because everything about it is red. Even these long dead staghorn sumac leaves still held their red color. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from it.

Sumacs fall over regularly and whenever I see one, I look at the inner bark to see the rich red color but the color only lasts for a short time and I found none of it on this tree. I did some reading about sumac wood when I got home and found that wooden flutes can be made of it.

I can’t remember ever seeing invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) out here when I was younger but there are a few here now. Usually the bracts that cover the berries are black but on this plant they were bright red. I’ve never seen this on a wild (escaped) plant.

These Virginia creeper berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) made me shiver but I wondered why they hadn’t been eaten. They and the Oriental bittersweet and burning bush berries we’ve seen are usually among the first to go. I’ve seen hawks flying around in this area and I wonder if they’ve scared all the birds away.

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is very common and can be found on many of the trees here. 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. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did. A soredium is a tiny granular ball of fungal hyphae and algal cells. They can grow on the body of the lichen or on its margins and might eventually fall off to make new lichens. No matter what living thing you find in nature it’s always about the continuation of the species, and the will to survive is strong in all of the things I see.

Leaves shivered and rattled in the strong breeze. Though they were maple they spoke beech. A man came walking down the trail as I was taking this photo and said good morning. I retuned his greeting and remarked on the cold. “Yes” he said, “it’s cold, but it’s white.” Must be a winter lover, I thought. I’m not a winter hater but at that point I’d had enough to last for a while, so I turned for home.

The splendor of Silence—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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Last Sunday was supposed to be a nice day so I thought I’d go for a climb up Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey. When I left the house it was 40 degrees and two hours later it was 50 degrees, so for December in New Hampshire it was a beautiful and unusually spring like day.

I’d guess, from all the woodpecker holes, that this hemlock is full of carpenter ants. The rectangular holes were made by a pileated woodpecker, which is our biggest.

We’d had quite a rainstorm the day before and the weather people said we’d had 60 mph wind gusts overnight, so I wondered if that was why this old tree was leaning so badly. I don’t remember seeing it when I came here last fall.

An old hemlock had a leaf shaped scar on it. Fully healed, I’ve heard that you can count the rings to know how long it took for the scar to heal. If I’ve counted accurately, I think this one took about 20 years.

Though sunshine breaks through here and there this forest is generally quite dark due to all the conifers.

I said in the last post that the yellow crust fungus I showed I had only seen on conifers, but here it was on a dying birch. As I said then, though I once believed it was the conifer parchment fungus (Stereum sanguinolentum,) now I’m not so sure. The examples I see are always very dry and thin, almost as if they were part of the bark. This example almost looks like a lichen but I would doubt that.

Growing right beside the birch was an eastern hemlock and here was the crust fungus on it as well. I wonder now if it will grow on any tree.

The trail just before you reach the summit is the steepest part. It seems to usually be that way on our hills.

I was finally able to get a shot of Tippin Rock and the sign pointing to it. I always have to laugh at the sign because it seems to me that nothing could be more obvious.

The people who climb this hill almost always do so to see Tippin Rock, and I’m sure they know what they’re seeing. It’s like having a sign saying “The Sky.”

Since I found this crack in the stone a few years ago, I haven’t been able to stop inspecting it every time I come here. It goes almost all the way around the boulder, so it’s probably a good thing that most people don’t know how to get the huge stone moving. Until I saw it rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle, I thought the legend was probably just a story but no, it really does move.

The top of this hill is solid granite where the glacier dropped Tippin Rock. I’m always stunned when I think of all that had to happen, not only for a 40-ton boulder to be up here at all, but for it also to be perfectly balanced enough to rock back and forth on a bed of flat, level granite. The bedrock is exposed right at the surface so nothing but mosses and reindeer lichen can get a foothold, and that’s why the big stone sits in a clearing all by itself, almost as if man placed it there. Maybe in a few thousand years there will be enough soil for trees to grow.

Usually in December I would expect to see icicles on the ledges up here, but not this year. Not yet. You can see how the stone is wet from groundwater though so as soon as it gets cold enough, they’ll be there.

My camera wanted to focus on the tiny hemlock needles it saw rather than the comparatively huge barred owl that sat behind them so this isn’t a very good shot of the bird, but it does show that they are up here. I watched it fly silently through the forest and land on that tree but when I bent to fiddle with my camera settings, off it went.

I tried to do the Limbo under this hemlock that had fallen across the trail but I failed miserably so I just went around it on the way back.

I couldn’t shoot the view to the left because that was where the bright sunshine was, and the view to the right is blocked by trees, so this is it.

I went to see how the toadskin lichens were doing. Some were pea green and happy but most were not.

Considering all the rain we’d had the day before I thought all the lichens would be at their best but many had already gone from green to brown and even more were already ash gray. This told me that these lichens don’t even stay moist for 24 hours after a rain, and that’s amazing.

There are blueberry bushes up here, and also wasps. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring. This example was a highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) but this wasp isn’t choosy and will also use lowbush plants (Vaccinium angustifolium.) The galls do no real harm to the plants. I think this one was empty, because of all the exit holes.

I was kneeling down getting a shot of a face on a log when a father and his little boy came along. The boy asked me if I was chopping the log and I told him no, I was looking at the face on it. He couldn’t have been more than four or five and when I said “see the face?” his eyes got wide and his mouth dropped open, and I’m afraid that it might have scared him. He didn’t say anything about the face but he told me he and his dad were going to Tippin Rock. I said I had just come from there and told him to have fun, and we went our separate ways. I hope the little guy doesn’t have bad dreams about the face on the log. It reminded me of the painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. An interesting though disturbing side note about that painting was how Edvard Munch said he had sensed an “infinite scream passing through nature,” and that’s why he painted it.

Anyhow, I wished I had been kneeling by Mister Smiley Face when the boy came along. He couldn’t scare anybody.

Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things. ~Edward Steichen

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