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Posts Tagged ‘Nature’s Mysteries’

Sometimes when you walk a trail you come back with more questions than answers, and that’s what last Saturday was like.

I chose a rail trail in Swanzey because the snowmobile traffic had packed the snow down, and that made for easy walking. I saw a few riding the trail that day. There goes one now.

The snow in the woods wasn’t all that deep but if you strayed too far off the trail you’d get a shoe full.

The old stock fencing along the trail still looked as good as the day the railroad put it up.

An animal had come out of the woods on the other side of the trail. I couldn’t tell what it was but it wasn’t a deer. The prints looked more like a fox or coyote, but they weren’t clear.

A window had opened up into the drainage channel that ran along the trail.

A quarter size beard lichen floated in the channel. These interesting lichens fall from the trees regularly.

An evergreen fern had stood against the weight of the snow. These delicate looking ferns are anything but delicate.  

I was going to tell you that these lichens were common greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia caperata) but something about them tells me they may not be that lichen. The branching and the lobes don’t seem quite right but it could be just because they were dry. I wish I had walked over to them instead of taking this photo from the trail but for now I’ll just say they are large round, green foliose lichens. Close to 20,00 species of lichens are said to cover 6% of the earth’s surface but few pay any attention to them, and that’s too bad.

The lichens will most likely be there when I get back; this land is protected.

I’ve taken photos of both alder and hazelnut catkins this winter and both have had a reddish cast to them that I’ve never seen. These American hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) were a pinky-brown according to my color finding software, so it isn’t my imagination. They’re usually green and this was just one of a few mysteries that I came away from this particular trail with.

And here was another mystery. I found this strange growth on the same hazelnut that I showed in the previous photo. I believe that it must be some type of gall but I’ve never seen anything like it before on a hazelnut and I’ve looked at a lot of them.

It seemed to be a bunch of deformed leaves, which some galls are, but it was small; about the size of a grape. It was also quite furry.

This was not a mystery. Even in silhouette shagbark hickory trees (Carya ovata) are easy to identify because of their peeling, shaggy looking bark. These trees produce good crops of nuts each year and help feed many different birds and animals.

I looked at a hickory bud but I didn’t see any signs of swelling yet. It has still been quite cold but it won’t be long now before the sap starts to flow.

If you find what looks like a big clearing in the woods in winter you had better walk around it until you are sure, because this clearing is a river. When you can’t tell where the land stops and the water starts it’s easy to find yourself walking on ice. I’ll never forget walking down the middle of this very river as a boy and hearing the ice start cracking under me. I don’t think I have ever moved that fast since.

This would be a good indication that what you might think is a clearing isn’t a clearing.

It’s funny how in spots the river is clear of ice and in others it is frozen over. Another mystery. I’m guessing that the speed of the current has something to do with it.

The leg of rail trail crosses a road several times. The tire tracks of one of the monster machines that plowed the road were fun to look at but not so much fur to walk in.

I expect to see beech and oak leaves falling at this time of year but not maple. We do have a couple of sugar maples where I work though that are still clinging to a few of their leaves.

I saw a single white pine seed scale, which is odd. I usually see piles of many hundreds of them, left by squirrels. White pine seeds grow two to a scale. It takes them around two years to mature, and they usually ripen in August and September. They are light brown, oval in shape and winged so the wind can disperse them. I’ve tried to get the seeds, with their thin wings intact, from a scale and I can tell you that it is all firmly attached together. Squirrels can do it all day but I have yet to get one in good enough condition to show you here.

At first this was a mystery but after I looked at it for a while I thought it might be the seed head of a white flowered turtlehead plant (Chelone glabra linifolia). When I got home and looked it up there was no doubt and I was happy that I finally found the seedpods for this plant after so many years of finding the flowers. They look a little like the flowers and that makes them relatively easy to identify.

In the end I went home with a pocket full of mysteries but that was fine because it was a beautiful day, with the sky that shade of blue that only happens in winter and puffy white clouds to keep it interesting. I hope everyone is still able to get outside and enjoy. There is such a lot of beauty out there to see.

Outdoors is where the great mystery lies, so going into nature should be a searching and humbling experience, like going to church. ~Skip Whitcomb

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I don’t have any snow to show you this time but we’ve had cold, as the frosty branches of all these dogwoods show. They looked like they had been painted into the landscape on this cold morning.

Long shards of ice appeared on still waters. It always happens in stillness first; rushing water takes a little longer to freeze.

Puddle ice has fascinated me since I was just a young boy. Ripples frozen in time. I know now that the whiter it is the more oxygen it has in it, but back then all I knew was white ice was higher pitched when you broke it. And I broke it as often as I could by riding my bike through it in early spring. All the snow had gone but there was still puddle ice in the morning.

When it warmed up again mists rolled from the hills to the valleys below, and hilltops looked like islands floating on the clouds. How beautiful it was, but fleeting; only minutes later the scene had evaporated and the hills were just hills once again.

And how beautiful the sunrises have been. I had to stop on my way to work on this day and watch as a bright red finger of light pointed to the sky.

More warmth came and it was welcome. This little stream in the woods has been frozen solid in November not that long ago.

Rains came and went and though this stream looks like it has about all it can take they say we’re still about nine inches shy of average rainfall. Since one inch of rain equals about one foot of snow we’re hoping that nature doesn’t seek to balance it all out this winter.  

Many plants turn their leaves purple in cold weather and American wintergreen  (Gaultheria procumbens) is often one of the first to do so. These leaves also shine like mirrors in the sun and when you drive along on a sunny day then light up the roadsides when they’re in large colonies. Some may know this plant as checkerberry or teaberry.

Some poplars also turn a beautiful, deep purple before they fall.

For about ten years now I’ve wondered what plant the long white seeds with teardrop shaped ends were from and now, thanks to birds pecking them out of this cattail (Typha latifolia), I know. I’ve found those seeds draped over everything from lichens to rosebushes, so the wind must really move them around. If there is one thing nature teaches it is patience, and if you’re patient enough the answers will come.

I still see a few oak leaves with color, especially on young trees.

But most look like this; a very pretty brown. They always look like they’re hugging each other for warmth when it gets colder.

I never knew the leaves of Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) were so colorful until I saw these. Robin’s plantain is the earliest of the fleabanes to bloom in this area and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again in spring.

I think everyone knows that ginkgoes are “fossil trees”, having been around for over 200 million years. But what never clicked for me is the fact that all of the dinosaurs and birds that dispersed the tree’s seeds died off millions of years ago. Before a few thousand years ago nobody knows how the seeds were dispersed but it is believed that only man (and maybe squirrels) have been the sole dispersers of its seeds since. These are tough trees; they were the first trees to begin growing again after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. They have been cultivated in China for both food and medicine for at least 1000 years and more recently they have been proven to be about as effective as the leading Alzheimer’s medication at slowing memory deterioration, with fewer side effects.

Is nature is perfect? That simple question could generate a lot of philosophical discussion. I think that people are entitled to believe what they will and I would not argue for or against, but I might take this wasp nest out of my pocket and put it on the table and ask that people look at that one chamber just barely to the left of, and slightly lower than center. Nature simply is, and whether or not we accept it as it is makes no difference.

Pileated woodpeckers are our biggest woodpeckers and they are great at finding trees full of insects. They are determined to get at them too; often determined enough to cut a tree right in half, in fact.

Here is one they cut in half that hasn’t fallen yet.

I often see beautiful grain patterns like this on tree roots that have been worn smooth by years of foot traffic but this beautiful grain was on a fallen tree. The only way I can think of for it to have happened is by it rubbing against another tree in the wind and wearing its bark away. I have a collection of oddities I’ve found in nature, many of them beautiful, and I was wishing I could have added this to it.

I see this very rarely but when I do it always appears on saturated logs right after a heavy rain. I’ve never been able to find out what it is, so if you know I’d love to hear from you.

Lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) always have stems of a sort, but they’re usually so short that they appear stemless. That’s what is so unusual about these examples; they clearly wanted to be tall. Lemon drops are sac fungi with stalked fruit bodies. The term “sac fungi” comes from microscopic sexual structures which resemble wineskins. There are over 64,000 different sac fungi, including cup and “ear” fungi, jelly babies, and morel mushrooms. Lemon drops start life as a tiny yellow disc and look as if they lie flat on the log, but each disc hovers just above the surface on a short stalk. As they age each disc will become cup shaped. The “citrina” part of the scientific name comes from the Latin citrin, and means “lemon yellow.” The smaller ones in the above photo are barely as large as a period made by a pencil on paper. They always look to me like tiny beads of sunshine that have been sprinkled over logs and stumps.

I found that someone (or something) had kicked over a small purple mushroom beside a trail. It was about the size of the button mushrooms you find at grocery stores and it was the first light purple mushroom I’ve ever seen; a very different shade than the darker purple corts that are so common.

It was a very pretty thing. Slightly darker on its underside and sticky enough to have leaves stuck to it. I think it might be one called the amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) though with that odd color I’m not sure how it would deceive anyone. I’m colorblind but even I can tell it’s very different. It might also be a wood blewit (Clitocybe nuda). But only a spore print would tell for sure because the amethyst deceiver, which tastes like an old cork, has white spores and the wood blewit, a choice edible, has brown spores. This is why you don’t go eating mushrooms when you don’t know for sure what they are. There are purple mushrooms that are deadly.

I know that tussock moth cocoons are very hairy but they’re usually pouch like and lighter colored than the one pictured here that I found on a tree. They are also much smaller than this one, which was as big around as my finger and about two inches long.

I have no idea what insect made this or even if it was alive. It was on an oak tree.

After that last word heavy lichen post I’ve tried to keep this one simple, for all our sakes. I hope you’ve enjoyed just seeing a few beautiful and interesting things without having to think too much about them. I know I’ve enjoyed the lightness of not having to have my nose in a book for hours on end. Like nature itself, it’s all about finding balance.

The serenity produced by the contemplation and philosophy of nature is the only remedy for prejudice, superstition, and inordinate self-importance, teaching us that we are all a part of Nature herself, strengthening the bond of sympathy which should exist between ourselves and our brother man. ~Luther Burbank

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Back when I started this blog I found a little peninsula of land jutting out into the Ashuelot River. It can’t be more than a few yards wide but the variety of nature found there is really astonishing. There are deer, woodpeckers and other birds, a wide variety of plants, and even beavers. It’s amazing what can live on such a small piece of land. I’ve had what I thought was a fair understanding of nature since I was a boy but this is where nature really took me by the hand and said “Come with me, I’ve got something to show you.” So, going there last Sunday was like going home again, even though the place had been rearranged by nature somewhat.

One of the first thing I noticed was this delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) changing into its bright green fall color. Many mosses will grow on wood, stone or soil and delicate fern moss is one of them. It’s is a beautiful little thing that isn’t as delicate as its name implies, but it certainly is fern like. The leaves of this moss are often dull rather than shiny. It is fairly common and easy to find because it often forms very large mats. Orchid growers use this moss in orchid cultivation.

I saw a couple of frost rimmed little brown mushrooms on a log. It was cold this morning.

This one growing nearby showed what the previous mushrooms looked like when they were younger. Though the shape isn’t quite right I thought they might be deadly galerina mushrooms (Galerina autumnalis) which are, according to mushroom expert Tom Volk, so poisonous that eating even a little bit can be deadly. They are common on rotting logs in almost all months of the year and can fruit in the same spot several times. If you collect and eat wild mushrooms deadly galerina is one that you should get to know very well.

An old red maple tree had fallen, and I knew it was a red maple by the target canker still showing on the small piece of bark still left on it. Target canker doesn’t harm the tree but causes its bark to grow in circular patterns of narrow plates which helps protect it from the canker. According to Cornell university: “A fungus invades healthy bark, killing it. During the following growing season, the tree responds with a new layer of bark and undifferentiated wood (callus) to contain the pathogen. However, in the next dormant season the pathogen breaches that barrier and kills additional bark. Over the years, this seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response leads to development of a ‘canker’ with concentric ridges of callus tissue—a ‘target canker.’” Apparently the fungal attacker gives up after a while, because as the tree ages the patterns disappear and the tree seems fine. I doubt it had anything to do with this tree’s death.

By the way, speaking of red maples, I hope everyone knows that buds are set in the fall and don’t magically appear in spring. All the plants you see out there have already made their plans for spring, as these beautiful red maple buds show. All they need now is a little rest first.

This little spit of land is where I found witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) blooming in January one year. This day was cold enough to feel like January but it didn’t stop them.

I love the deep browns of witch hazel leaves. So warm on a cold day.

The underside of a witch haze leaf tells a different story. There is something that eats all of the tissue between the leaf veins and before long it will be a skeleton.

There was a good size burl on this witch hazel. Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tissue. Scientists don’t fully understand why it happens but burls are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. Woodworkers make some very beautiful things from burl and prize burls highly. Bowls and other objects made from it can sometimes sell for thousands of dollars.

The dark spots of frullania liverworts could be seen on many trees  It’s a leafy liverwort but each leaf is smaller than a house fly. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on; instead they simply perch there like birds. Mosses and lichens are also epiphytes. A frullania liverwort’s tiny leaves are strung together like beads, and change from green to deep purple in cold weather. Frullania liverworts can cause a rash called woodcutter’s eczema in some people. It’s an annoying, itchy rash but doesn’t cause any real harm, and it disappears in a week or two if you stop handling logs with liverworts on them.

Sometimes when the river floods parts of this little bit of land can be almost completely underwater, and it’s slowly washing the soil from the roots of this big maple. You can see the whitish, very fine silt it has deposited at the tree’s base. It’s a bit scary out here when the water is that high.

Here is a gravel bar complete with grasses that wasn’t here the last time I came out here. This river has changed a lot over just the last 10 years.

In 2010 a 250 year old timber crib dam was removed just upstream from here and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services “landscaped” this section of river bank by planting native trees and shrubs. One of them, an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) showed off its fall color. It is said that this plant’s common name comes from Native Americans using the straight stems for arrow shafts. They also used the shrub medicinally and its fruit for food.

I walked down to the river’s edge and saw a stone with so much iron in it, it seemed to be rusting. Iron rich stones are common here but I think they were brought in from elsewhere by the state.

And then I saw this; almost every oak and ash tree that the state planted 10 years ago had been cut down and dragged off by beavers. There had to have been 12-15 trees gone, and at anywhere from $150-$500 per tree depending on size when planted and species, these beavers had an expensive meal.

Most of what they took were oaks. They had reached probably 4-6 inches in diameter since they were planted. To be honest when I first saw these trees had been planted here I wondered what the state was thinking. They are an open invitation to beavers, which swim right by here all the time. It took them a while but they’ve answered the invitation and they’ll most likely be back night after night now until every tree is gone. You can trap and re-locate them yes, but that’s like closing the barn door after you’ve see the horse running down the road. And they’ll just come back anyway.

You could see the drag marks in the sand where they had dragged branches.

They left an oak top at the water’s edge, but they’ll be back for it.

They didn’t just cut trees and drag them off though; they sat here and had a fine meal. You can tell by how every last bit of bark has been stripped from these branches.

And weren’t the oak leaves beautiful?

A beaver is a rodent that has to continually gnaw to keep its teeth from growing too long, and this is what their gnawing sometimes looks like. Their teeth are extremely sharp.

Now that they’ve taken most of the oaks and ash tees they’re going for the maples, which are native trees that weren’t planted. Beavers will often chew through a tree half way like this and leave it. It’s very dangerous to be walking among trees that look like this in a high wind, so I wish they’d simply drop the tree. I have a feeling that something scared them off when they do this.  

Well, this post wasn’t supposed to be about beavers; there was no part two planned for the original “Leave it to Beavers” post that I did a week ago but as you can see, the beavers made me do it. When I left off with that post I told about all the marvelous things beavers do for the ecosystem (true) and only hinted at the damage they can do. Now you’ve seen it, but don’t blame the beavers. You can’t expect a beaver to leave your trees alone. They’re just doing what comes naturally; what they’ve been doing for millennia, and they don’t know or care if it’s a “weed tree” or a rare specimen tree that costs thousands of dollars. They get hungry and they’ll eat, and in this spot it was like someone had set the table for them. Planting a tree near fresh water in New Hampshire is like having dinner invitations printed up.

It wouldn’t be right to end a two part beaver post without a photo of a beaver, so here is one I got a few years ago of a beaver swimming down the river with a mouthful of what look to be sensitive ferns. Sensitive ferns are toxic to humans but it might be that beavers can eat them, or maybe this beaver cut the ferns to use as bedding in its lodge. Beaver lodges can be quite big, with the floor a couple of inches above the water level. On the floor they scatter a 2 or 3 inch deep bed of dry leaves, grass, shredded wood and other materials to keep the floor dry, so using ferns would make sense.

Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from. ~Terry Tempest Williams

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 The water in the streams here in New Hampshire is so clear you can easily see the bottom. I wonder if it is like that in other places too. This is the stream I found one of the deadliest plants known-water hemlock- growing in.  I wonder-if you were downstream from such a toxic plant and drank the water, would you be poisoned?

 I understand what lenticels are and what they do and that all trees have them, but I wonder why only some trees, like this speckled alder, have large lenticels and some have only tiny dots almost too small to see. I suppose I might as well wonder why some of us have blue eyes and some brown.

 

It’s easy to see why the sensitive fern is also called the bead fern-the modified leaflets that hold the fern’s spores look like black beads in winter, but I wonder what happens to them later in the year. I’m always so busy gardening in the spring that I’ve never taken the time to find out.

 Years ago I earned part of my living building dry stone walls and for pleasure I used to hunt minerals. In both cases I had to break large stones with sledge hammers. I know that most stones are very hard, and that leads me to wonder who went to all the trouble of drilling this hole into this granite stone, which is out in the middle of nowhere. If it was done by hand with a 10 lb sledge and a star drill, it took someone many hours. I wonder who, how, and most of all, why?

 This-what would you call it-a crypt? A root cellar? Whatever it is it is built to last, with cinder block walls and concrete slab roof. The dwarfish door–too small to stand and walk through-looks as if it has been painted recently and is locked, even though the debris built up in front of it would probably make it impossible to open. Someone has even put sheet metal over it to keep the rain off. What really has me wondering is that it is far enough from any houses so as not to belong to any house in the area. Who built it? Why? What is inside it?

If I find the answers to any of these mysteries, I’ll let you know.

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