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Posts Tagged ‘River Grapes’

Every day I drive by a wooded area that has had some changes come to it over the past year. About a year ago a huge machine came along and chewed its way through what was once a nearly impenetrable forest. Okay I thought, let’s see what they do next. But they did nothing, and what you see above is what is left. Why, I wondered, would they go to all that trouble to chew their way into the woods and then not do anything with the now empty space? I had an idea, so I decided to go exploring.

This particular piece of forest borders a large wetland and as the above stump shows, there is quite a lot of beaver activity here. I saw more stumps like this one than I could count. I wondered if the machine chewed through the forest to get at a beaver dam, so I kept going to see where it would lead.

They didn’t finish this one.

The ripples under the bark of the muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana) tree are what give it its common name. It is also called American hornbeam, blue beech, and ironwood. It’s in the hazelnut family and the name iron wood comes from its dense, hard and heavy wood that even beavers won’t usually touch. At least I’ve never seen them touch it until this day; virtually every tree they had cut was ironwood. How odd is that? I asked myself.

Female iron wood catkins form in pairs at the ends of the branches and are about a half inch long with a leaf-like bract. Last year’s bracts are  what is seen in the above photo. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges. They look like leafy butterflies.

The forest eating machine had come quite a way into the forest, I was surprised to see. It had to stop somewhere though, or it would sink into the swamp. I kept following the trail.

I noticed that all the evergreen ferns had magically lain themselves flat on the forest floor. Quite often snow will flatten them but we really haven’t had much snow. Maybe it was the three or four ice storms we had. In any case new fiddleheads will be along to replace them at any time now.

Well, here was the swamp and as I thought it marked the end of the forest chewer’s progress. But I didn’t see a beaver lodge or dam. Do they put on waders and walk in from here? I wondered.

I think the reason for all of this worry about beaver activity is because of this stream that flows into the swamp. It flows under a busy road and when we’ve had a lot of rain it can flood quickly. I’ve seen it washing over the road several times. If there is a beaver dam on it it’s even more likely to flood.

Since I was here I decided to explore along the stream. This entire area is a drainage for the surrounding hills and smaller streams join the larger one all along its length. Eventually all of the water finds its way to the Ashuelot River, then the Connecticut River, and then on to the Atlantic, so all the water that passed me on this day will join that great sea before long.

The water here is very clean and clear and the stream bed is gravel with very few aquatic plants growing in it.

There are so many river grapes (Vitis riparia) along this stream you often have to weave your way through the old, thick vines that grow into the treetops. I always like to see what I can see in their tendrils. I’ve seen Hindu dancers, fanciful animals and many other things. On this day I saw the beckoner, which held its arm out as if to beckon me close to it so it could give me a hug. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) grow along the stream but it’s getting harder to get to them all the time because what was once a streamside trail has become a brushy maze that I have to weave my way through. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light, so they’re worth the effort. By this stream is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common in this area, but I’m happy to see that they’ve spread quite well where they grow. They must not mind being under water for a time because this stream floods once or twice a year.

Rough horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) also grow along the stream, and like the tree moss this is the only place I’ve ever seen them. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan.

I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

Japanese honeysuckles (Lonicera japonica) are already leafing out but I wasn’t surprised. Many invasive plants get a jump on natives by leafing out and blooming earlier.

I saw more hazelnut catkins (Corylus americana) turned to gold but none of the male flowers were peeking out yet.

I’m seeing more and more female hazelnut blossoms though. I’m surprised that they don’t wait until the male flowers open before appearing. That’s the way alders do it.

I saw some willow catkins but they weren’t anywhere near as far along as others I’ve seen. It could be the shade here that’s holding them back or it could be the plants themselves. If every willow bloomed at the same time and we had a frost there would be no seed production, so willows and many other shrubs and trees stagger their bloom time so that can’t happen.

The biggest surprise for me on this day was finding what I believe is a marsh marigold plant growing in the sand beside the stream. I searched for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) for many years and never found a single one until I found one growing in a roadside ditch a couple of years ago. The ditch was reconstructed the following year and there went the plant so I lost hope of ever seeing another one. They are rare here in my experience and I was very happy to finally see another one. I’ll come back in early May to see if it’s old enough to bloom. I’d love to see those pretty yellow flowers again.

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

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is healthy and doing the best they can in these unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. From what I’ve read most states and countries, even when they say you should self-quarantine, say that people can get out for some exercise. I can’t think of any better way to get some exercise and calm yourself down than taking a nice walk in the woods. There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom and though 21st century man may be clever he isn’t very wise, and that’s because he has lost touch with nature. In any event whatever you do and wherever you do it, please stay safe and try to be calm. This too shall pass.

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On Sunday, February 2nd Punxsutawney Phil, King of the weather predicting Groundhogs, didn’t see his shadow when he was removed from his burrow. Some might think that this simply meant that Phil woke under a cloudy sky, but it meant far more than that to The King; he immediately declared that we would see an early spring.  So, bolstered by Phil’s decree, I went off in search of spring. As you can see by the above photo, I didn’t find it; at least not right away. In fact all it has done is snow since Phil made his announcement.

This is what it looked like one morning on my way to work. Yes, it was cold too. Since Phil’s decree we reached 8 below zero F. one night; the coldest it’s been all winter. I’m voting we leave Phil in his burrow next year and let him sleep until he wants to wake up.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” the old saying goes, so this beautiful evening sky gave me hope that the weather would turn.

As of this writing we’re still getting a storm each week but they’ve carried little snow. What you see here amounts to maybe 4 inches at most. After every storm it warms up and melts a lot of the snow that fell. I read recently that scientists studying our dwindling snow cover have found that trees are suffering, because when the insulating qualities of snow are gone the soil can freeze deeper, and this can kill a tree’s feeder roots. Instead of expending energy of growing new leaves and branches trees have to divert their energy to re-growing their roots. Without the life giving energy from photosynthesis that more leaves provide a tree can weaken, and that increases the possibility of attacks from insects and fungi.

When you plow even 4 inches into a pile it looks like a lot more.

But it’s melting in the woods, as this patch of American wintergreen shows. All those plants and I couldn’t find a single berry. When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed by Native Americans to relieve pain.

Lilac buds showed no signs of opening but they did look like they might be swelling some. We dug a hole where I work and found that the frost is only 5 inches down in the ground. It’s usually much deeper and can reach nearly 4 feet in very cold winters. That’s why all of our water pipes have to be buried at least 4 feet deep, otherwise they could freeze and burst.  

I always start checking American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes early for signs of life. So far the male catkins aren’t doing much and I haven’t seen any of the tiny female flowers either, but it won’t be too long. I have a feeling they’ll be early this year. When the catkins open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under each of those diamond shaped bud scales. They grow and bloom in a spiral down the length of the catkin.

I’ve always assumed that migrating birds ate the staghorn sumac berries because nothing touches them until spring. There are thousand of berries in this one photo and not one of them has been eaten, even though I heard robins nearby. I also saw black capped chickadees and dark eyed juncos.

Nothing had been eating the wild grapes hanging from this pine tree either. I was surprised because grapes usually do get eaten quickly.

I wanted to just sit by the river and think one day-I was in that kind of mood-but every stone was covered with ice and snow so there was no dry place to sit. This is what the shoreline looked like; a half inch of ice covered everything.

But the river itself remains unfrozen. So far it hasn’t frozen over in any of the usual places this winter.

Sometimes in spring the river fills itself from bank to bank but so far this year it’s shallow enough to walk across. You’d think it was August by this photo but since we’ve had so little snow to fill it with snowmelt I wasn’t surprised.

The trees in this photo are tipped with gold and that’s a sure sign that things are changing. I think they were poplars but I couldn’t get close enough to find out for sure. Poplar buds swell early and some species have catkins that look like pussy willows.

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple like those seen here. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins and when they start to open a tomato red color can be seen between the scales. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

Crocus leaves poked up out of the ice.

And daffodils poked up out of the soil in a raised bed. They were a surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all came in the form of spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Until now the earliest I’ve ever seen them bloom was February 23rd but these bloomed a full week earlier. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten.

There was a large building between me and the witch hazels but I could still smell their wonderful, clean fragrance. It’s so good to see them again; I was ready for spring a month ago so I’m glad the groundhog got it right.  

It starts with a gentle southerly breeze; a soft, warm breath. The sun grows stronger and its warmth penetrates the soil a little deeper each day, and as the soil warms the yearly miracle will begin. Once started it won’t be stopped; sap is starting to flow and soon buds will swell to bursting. An indescribable beauty will cover the earth and as usual I will be here, trying to describe the indescribable. I do hope you’ll be able to get out there and see it for yourself. It’s so much better than reading about it.

Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

Thanks for stopping in.

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I had an unusual thing happen last Saturday; I wanted to walk a favorite rail trail to see what I could find for fall color, but when I got there I found that I had forgotten to put the fully charged battery in the camera where it belonged. It was the “big camera” too, the one I use for landscape photos, so I was a bit perplexed for a moment or two.

But coincidentally a friend had given me one of his old Apple i phones just the day before and I had watched You tube videos the night before on how to use it. To make a long story shorter; many of the photos in this post were taken with that phone. I had never used an Apple product before this day but I was in a sink or swim position and I would have to learn quickly. In the end I found the hardest part of using it was keeping my finger from in front of the lens. They are very easy to use; at least as a camera.

The phone camera seemed to hold true to the color of this trailside maple.

As well as the color of this black birch.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is terribly invasive but it can be very beautiful in the fall.

A lily seedpod told me I should have been here in June. It might have been a red wood lily, which I rarely see.

Wild grapes grew thickly in spots along the trail.

It’s a good year for grapes. I think these were river grapes (Vitis riparia.)

Once you know both plants it would be hard to mistake the berries of the smooth carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) for wild grapes but they are the same color and sometimes grow side by side. Carrion flower gets its name from the strong odor of its flowers, which smell like rotting meat. The vine can reach 8 feet long, with golf ball size flower heads all along it. The female flower clusters when pollinated become globular clusters of dark blue fruit like those seen here. The berries are said to be a favorite of song and game birds so I was surprised to find several clusters of them. Raccoons and black bears also eat the fruit. Native Americans and early colonists ate the roots, spring shoots and berries of the vine but after smelling its flowers I think I’d have a hard time eating any part of it.

The i phone did a fine job on these New England Asters, even though they were partially shaded.

I took the photo of this plum colored New England aster with my “little camera.” It’s the Olympus Stylus camera that I use for macros and, though it still does a good job I think it’s on its way to being worn out after taking many thousands of photos.

Here is another i phone shot.

Seeing these turning elm leaves was like stepping into a time machine because I was immediately transported back to my boyhood, when Keene was called the Elm City because of all the beautiful 200 year old elms that grew along almost every street. I grew up on a street that had huge old elms on it; so big 4 or 5 of us boys couldn’t link hands around them. Elms are beautiful but messy trees and in the fall the streets were covered with bright yellow elm leaves and fallen twigs and branches.

Unfortunately Dutch elm disease wiped out most of the elms on every street in the city and they were replaced by others of various species. This elm tree died young; I doubt it was even 20 years old.

Eventually on this rail trail you come to a trestle, as you do on many of the rail trails in this area. The wooden parts were added by local snowmobile clubs and we who use these trails owe them a debt of gratitude.

I’m older than all of the trees in this photo and I know that because I used to walk here as a boy. They’re almost all red maple trees and they were one of the reasons I wanted to walk this trail. I thought they’d all have flaming red leaves but I was too early and they were all still green. I like the park like feel of this place; there are virtually no shrubs to make up an understory, and I think that is because the Ashuelot River floods badly through here in most years.

Sensitive ferns make up most of the green on the forest floor in that previous shot. Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) is a good wetland indicator and they grow all alongside streams and rivers in the almost always wet soil. Their shin high, spore bearing fronds full of round black spore cases make them very easy to see in winter. Early colonists noticed that this fern was very sensitive to frost and they gave it its common name. It has toxic properties and animals rarely eat it, but some Native American tribes used its root medicinally. I did see a beaver swimming down the river once with a huge bundle of these ferns in its mouth but I don’t know if they were for food or bedding.

I spent a lot of time under these old trestles when I was a boy so of course I had to see under this one again. I couldn’t get a good shot of it with camera or phone because of it being in deep shade but I saw one of the biggest hornet’s nest I’ve ever seen hanging from a tree branch under the trestle on this day. Luckily they left me alone.

I’ve always wondered how these old steel trestles were built but I never have been able to find out. I don’t know if they were built in factories and shipped to the site to be assembled or if they were built right in place. Either way I’m sure there was an awful lot of rivet hammering going on. I do know that the stones for the granite abutments that these trestles rest on were taken from boulders and outcroppings in the immediate area, but I think they must have had to ship them from somewhere else in this case because there is little granite of any size to be found here.

I used to think these old trestles were indestructible until I saw this photo by Lisa Dahill DeBartolomao in Heritage Railway Magazine. It took a hurricane to do this to this bridge in Chester, Vermont, but Yikes! Were there really only 4 bolts holding that leg of the trestle to its abutment?

The brook that the trestle crosses was lower than I’ve ever seen it and it shows how dry we’ve been. Hurricane brook starts up in the northern part of Keene near a place called Stearns Hill. Then it becomes White Brook for a while before emptying into Black Brook. Black Brook in turn empties into Ash Swamp and the outflow from the swamp becomes Ash Swamp Brook. Finally it all meets the Ashuelot River right at this spot. It has taken me about 50 years to figure all of that out. Why so many name changes? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the settlers in the northern part of Keene and the settlers here in the southern part didn’t realize that they were both looking at the same brook. I always wonder if anyone has ever followed it from here to its source. It would be quite a hike.

The brook and river flood regularly here and the brush against the tree trunks shows the force and direction of the water flow. I’ve seen the water close to the underside of a few trestles and that’s a scary thing. I grew up on the Ashuelot River and seeing it at bank full each spring is something I doubt I’ll ever forget. Often one more good rainstorm would have probably meant a flood but I guess we were lucky because we never had one. I see by this photo that the i phone found high water marks on the trees, which I didn’t see when I was there.

I tried for a photo of a forget me not with the i phone and it did a fine job, I thought. It did take eight or ten tries to get one good photo of the tiny flower, but that was due to my not knowing the phone rather than the phone itself. If you took a hammer and pounded your thumb with it you wouldn’t blame the hammer, so I can’t blame the phone for my own inexperience and ineptitude. Before long it will most likely become second nature. That’s what happens with most cameras.

I saw some big orange mushrooms growing on a mossy log. Each was probably about 3 inches across. Due to the dryness I’m seeing very few fungi this year.

I saw a beautiful Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on my way back. It was wearing its bright red fall color. No blue berries on it though. Maybe the birds had already eaten them all.

Since I wasn’t paying attention on my walk I got to pick hundreds of sticky tick trefoil seeds from my clothes. They stick using tiny barbs and you can’t just brush them off. You have to pick them off and it can be a chore. But that was alright; I was happy with the i phone camera and I got to feel like a boy again for a while, so this day was darn near perfect.

Boyhood, like measles, is one of those complaints which a man should catch young and have done with, for when it comes in middle life it is apt to be serious. ~P.G. Wodehouse

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Fall has slowly been making its presence known here in this part of New Hampshire and Half Moon Pond in Hancock is one of the best places to see it happen, because it always comes here before anywhere else that I know of. I’m not sure what the trees on the other side of the pond are but they always turn very early. The trees on this side of the pond are mostly maples.

And maples are changing too. I found this one in Swanzey.

Not only are leaves changing, they’re dropping as well.

River grapes (Vitis riparia) have ripened and hang in great bunches from the vines. If they aren’t all eaten they will begin to over-ripen and on warm fall days they make the forest smell just like grape jelly. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

Virginia creeper vines (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) climb high in the trees to reach as much sunshine as they can. They aren’t noticed for most of the year but when their leaves start to turn they can’t be ignored. Virginia creeper berries are poisonous to humans but many birds and small animals eat them. My mother loved this vine enough to grow it on the side of the house I grew up in. It shaded the porch all summer long.

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is another vine that climbs to the top of trees for sunlight but unlike our native vines this one is highly invasive and damages the trees it climbs on. It is the yellow leaved vine in this photo and it is slowly strangling an ash tree.

Black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are trees that often change early. In June these trees are loaded with white, very fragrant blooms that hang down like wisteria blossoms. Black locusts were prized by colonial Americans for their tough, rot resistant wood. In 1610 colonists found black locust trees planted beside Native American dwellings and thought the Natives were using the tree as an ornamental, so they decided to use it that way as well .They also used the wood for ship building, forts and fence posts while the Natives used it to make bows and blow darts. It was once said to be the toughest wood in all the world and was one of the first North American trees exported to Europe.

The invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the Ashuelot River will go from green to red, and then will finally become a soft pastel pink to almost white. Right now they’re in their loud orange / red / yellow stage. It’s too bad they’re so invasive because they really are beautiful, but they dominate the understory and create so much shade nothing else can grow.

A few burning bush leaves had already changed to pastel pink. I’ve seen thousands of these shrubs along the river drop their leaves overnight when the weather is cold enough and I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this year so I can show them to you in their pastel pink stage. When hundreds of them are this color it really is a beautiful sight.

I chose a swamp in Swanzey to show you what happens to white pines (Pinus strobus) in the fall. Many evergreens change color in the fall and many lose their needles. The row of pines are the taller trees in the distance in this photo, looking somewhat yellow brown.

These examples of fall color grew right at the edge of the swamp.

Dogwoods also grow in the swamp, and along with blueberries they often make up most of the red you see.

Native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) catches the sunlight and glows in what are usually luminous pink ribbons but every now and then you see patches of deep purple, as this example was. This common grass grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington and is beautiful enough to be grown in many gardens. After a frost it often takes on a darker reddish purple hue, but we haven’t had a frost yet.

It’s the way its seed heads capture and reflect sunlight that makes little bluestem glow like it does.

Here is the same view from a different angle. I’ve learned that if you want to have blue river water in your photos you should photograph it with the sun behind you, and now I’m wondering if the same isn’t true with some grasses.

Virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) light up shady spots at this time of year and sometimes you can see hundreds of them together. Virgin’s bower is a native clematis that has small white flowers in late summer. An extract made from the plant is hallucinogenic (and dangerous) and was used by Native Americans to induce dreams. Mixed with other plants like milkweed, it was also used medicinally. It is a very toxic plant that can cause painful sores in the mouth if eaten.

Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana) are beautiful when they ripen to their deep purple-black. I love seeing the little purple “flowers” on the back of pokeweed berries. They are actually what’s left of the flowers’ five lobed calyx, but mimic the flower perfectly. People do eat its new shoots in the spring but all parts of this plant are considered toxic, so it’s wise to know exactly what you’re doing if you choose to try it. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

Why it is that in a field of thousands of goldenrod plants one or two will turn deep purple while the rest remain green is a question I can’t answer, but that’s often what happens. The plants somehow just decide to stop photosynthesizing earlier than all of their cousins.

We have several different varieties of sumac here and from what I’ve seen all are very colorful in the fall. This is smooth sumac (Rhus glabra.) At least I think so; I didn’t pay real close attention when I took the photo. It could also be shining sumac (Rhus copallinum.)

Most staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) are still green but this one had already gone to red. Sumacs are one of our most colorful shrubs in the fall. They can range from lemon yellow to pumpkin orange to tomato red, and anything in between. Once fall starts there is no stopping it and soon people from all over the world will come to enjoy it. I’ll do my best show you all of this incredible beauty that I can.

Why is it that so many of us persist in thinking that autumn is a sad season? Nature has merely fallen asleep, and her dreams must be beautiful if we are to judge by her countenance. ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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We’re having a very strange winter here, with roller coaster temperatures falling to -10 degrees F one day and soaring to 60 degrees the next. In between we’ve seen more rain than snow and all that rain has frozen into ice, because it can’t seep into the frozen ground. I took this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey in one of the colder stretches. Now, a week later there is no white to be seen in this view.

A week ago there were ice skirts around the stones and now there are none.

An icicle had formed in a tree, which is a sight you don’t often see.

I had to catch a wave while I was at the river. When the sun is right they have such beautiful colors in them.

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of any New Englander just tell them an ice storm is on the way. We’ve seen two so far this winter but they haven’t been bad enough to bring down trees and cause power outages. I’ve seen friends have to go for weeks with no power due to an ice storm in the past.

In an ice storm liquid rain falls on cold surfaces and ice coats everything. The added weight starts to damage trees like this birch and they begin to lose branches or fall over, bringing power lines down with them.

The more surface area exposed on the tree, the more weight the ice has. White pines (Pinus strobus) are particularly at risk of losing large limbs in an ice storm.

In spite of the crazy weather or maybe because of it, we’re having some beautiful sunrises.

I thought I saw some yellow on these male speckled alder catkins (Alnus incana) but that might be wishful thinking. Yellow or green would be pollen and pollen would mean they were flowering, and it’s too early for that. They’ll open in late March or early April after the maple sap has all been gathered, and then for a short time the bushes will look like someone has strung gold and purple jewels from the alder branches.

A bird’s nest fell off an outdoor building light where I work. It wasn’t very big but it was soft like a cushion, made mostly of mosses and grasses. It also had lichens and a few twigs in it. I think it was the nest of an eastern phoebe, which is a small gray bird about half the size of our robin. They nest all over the buildings where I work, but they don’t seem to be very smart because they will often fly into buildings when a door is opened. Chasing them out again can be a chore and it has taken two of us over an hour in the past. If you leave a door or window open and walk away they still can’t seem to find their way out again.

There was a lot of moss in the nest and it was easily the softest bird’s nest I’ve ever felt. I’ve read that eastern phoebes will take over the nests of swallows or robins but I don’t think this nest was built by either of those birds. They also re-use nests year after year, but this bird will have to re-build.

I think a lot of the moss used in the phoebe nest was white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata.) This is a very common moss that I find mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It would be a very easy moss for birds to harvest.

I’ve seen lots of galls picked open by woodpeckers and other birds but I don’t see too many oak marble galls opened. I was surprised at the thickness of the walls on this one. There would be plenty to eat all winter long for the gall wasp (Andricus kollari) larva had it survived the bird.

I saw a milkweed pod where I didn’t know they grew and of course I immediately thought of coming back in summer to hopefully see some monarch butterflies. I’ve seen more each year for the last three or so, but that doesn’t mean whole flocks of them. I think I saw 6 or 7 last year.

The birds and animals didn’t get to eat all the river grapes (Vitis riparia) this year and now the ones that are left look more like raisins than anything else. I was surprised to see them because they usually go as fast as they ripen. It could be that the birds simply had enough to go around; we do have a lot of wild fruits. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

An oak leaf skittered across the snow as if it had feet. More and more oak and beech leaves are falling, signaling spring isn’t far off. I hope.

You could almost believe you were feeling the warm breath of spring when two days of 60 degree weather turned the top layer of ice on Half Moon pond in Hancock to water. Ice fishermen are having a hard time of it this year because we haven’t had a lengthy spell of really cold weather to thicken the ice.

Since we’ve had some warm days and since the groundhog said we’d have an early spring, I went looking for signs. The ice was melting around the skunk cabbage shoots but I didn’t see any of the splotchy, yellow and maroon flower spathes. They are our earliest flowers so it shouldn’t be too long before they appear. Shortly after they flower the spring blooming vernal witch hazels will start in.

You might think that seeing daffodil shoots would be a sure sign of spring but these bulbs grow in a raised bed and raised beds warm and thaw earlier, so these bulbs start growing earlier. But I’ve never seen them this early and I’m sure they are being fooled by the few days of unusual warmth. They often come up too early and get bitten by the cold, which turns their leaves to mush. I’m guessing the same will happen this year but I hope not.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.
~Earnest Hemmingway

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Last Saturday the plan was for a quick visit the Ashuelot River to see if the burning bushes had all turned pink. I thought it would take no more than a half hour but nature had other plans, and I was there all morning. We’ve had close to ten inches of rain recently so as this photo shows, the river was quite high.

High water means good waves and since I Iove trying to get a good curling wave photo they drew me like a magnet.

Taking wave photos takes a while because the first step for me is watching and letting myself find the rhythm. Rivers have a rhythm which, without trying too hard, you can tune into. Once you’ve found the rhythm you can often just click the shutter button again and again and catch a wave almost every time. But they won’t all be perfect or blog worthy. This one was my favorite for this day.

This is what they look like when they’re building themselves up, getting ready to curl and break. My trigger finger was a little early in this case but you can’t win them all, even when you’re in tune with the river.

I finally remembered why I came and pulled myself away from the waves to see the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus.) They were very pink but not the soft, almost white pastel pink that I expected. They still had some orange in them, I think.

Though some leaves had gone white and had fallen from the bushes most looked like these. You have to watch them very closely at this time of year because hundreds of bushes can lose their leaves overnight. With it dark now when I get home from work it could be that I won’t have another chance.

They are very beautiful and it’s too bad that they are so invasive. As these photos show you can see hundreds of burning bushes and not much else. That’s because they grow thickly enough to shade out other plants and form a monoculture. Rabbits hide in them and birds eat the berries but few native plants can grow in a thicket like this. Their sale is banned in New Hampshire for that very reason.

The burning bushes grow all along this backwater that parallels the river. I don’t know how true it is but I’ve heard that this is a manmade channel that was dug so boats could reach a mill that once stood at the head of it, which is where I was standing when I took this photo. There is a lot of old iron and concrete rubble here, so it could be what’s left of the old mill. I had quite a time getting through the rubble and the brush to get to this spot but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, so I was determined.

On the way out a beautiful young beech lit by a sunbeam caught my eye.

It was a cool morning and several large mullein plants (Verbascum thapsus) looked to be an even lighter gray than usual with a light coating of frost.

Despite the cold, the mullein bloomed.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) grow along a path that follows the river and though I followed it I didn’t see a single witch hazel blossom, but I did see these beautiful witch hazel leaves. Witch hazels don’t seem to be having a good year in this area. I’ve only seen three or four blossoms.

This was surprising. The bit of land I had been walking on has always been a long, narrow peninsula; a sharp finger of land pointing into the river and surrounded on three sides by water, but now the river has made the peninsula’s tip an island. When I was a boy I knew of a secret island in the Ashuelot which I could get to by crossing a fallen oak tree. The last time I visited that spot I found that the river had washed the island away without a trace, and I’m sure that the same thing will happen to this one eventually. I was a little disappointed; there was a large colony of violets that grew right at the base of that big tree on the right, and I used to visit them in the spring when they bloomed.

I saw the startling but beautiful blue of a black raspberry cane (Rubus occidentalis) at the edge of the woods. It’s a color you don’t expect to see unless there are blue jays nearby. On this day there did just happen to be a blue jay there and he called loudly the entire time I was looking at the black raspberry. I wondered if he was jealous.

The river grapes (Vitis riparia) looked like they were becoming raisins, but this is normal. The birds don’t seem to eat them until they’ve been freeze dried for a while. River grapes are also called frost grapes because of the extreme cold they can withstand. Many cultivated grape varieties have been grafted onto the rootstock of this native grape and it’s doubtful that cold will ever kill them. River grapes have been known to survive -57 degrees F. On a warm fall day they can make the forest smell like grape jelly, and often my nose finds them before my eyes do. Native Americans used grape plants for food, juice, jellies, dyes and basketry. Even the young leaves were boiled and eaten, so the grape vine was very important to them.

I missed a blooming dandelion but I was able to enjoy its sparkling seeds.

Red clover (Trifolium pretense) bloomed everywhere near the river, even though slightly frost covered. The rabbits that live here come out in the evening to feed on these clover plants and their constant pruning makes for healthy, bushy clover plants.

The goldenrods (Solidago) were still blooming here and there but they’re looking a little tattered and tired.

A few Queen Anne’s lace plants (Daucus carota) were also still blossoming and looked good and healthy but the flower heads were small. I didn’t see any bigger than a golf ball, but they still provide for the few insects that are still flying.

Most Queen Anne’s lace flower heads looked like this. Nearly stripped of seeds already, even though I’ve read that the seeds are saturated with a volatile oil which smells faintly of turpentine and which discourages birds and mice from eating the seeds. The seeds are carried by the wind and snow.

I thought I saw a feather on a twig but it turned out to be a milkweed seed blowing in the wind. The wind was quite strong but the seed refused to release its hold.

So much for a quick trip to the river. Instead I got another lesson in letting life happen instead of making it happen. It’s always good to let nature lead because when you do you are often drawn from one interesting something to another, and time spent in this way is never wasted.

There is always another layer of awareness, understanding, and delight to be discovered through synchronistic and serendipitous events. ~Hannelie Venucia

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Or at least this post is. As this early morning view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows, our trees are starting to change into their fall colors. The trees on the far side of the pond start very early and that’s my signal to start watching for color wherever I go. Our foliage colors usually peak around the first week of October, but warm weather can slow down the process and cool weather can speed it up.

Right now the colors are spotty and seen just here and there but changes can happen fast so I usually keep a camera close at this time of year. I thought this red maple was worth a photo or two.

Another maple was yellow. Maples are usually our most colorful trees in the fall and come in reds, yellows and various shades of orange.

I could see the sky and the clouds and the earth and the shining sun in this mussel shell. Raccoons regularly fish in the Ashuelot River and one of them probably ate the mussel and left the shell for anyone who happened along to admire. Its colors were beautiful.

Also beautiful are pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana) when they ripen to their deep purple-black. I love seeing the little purple “flowers” on the back of pokeweed berries. They are actually what’s left of the flowers’ five lobed calyx, but mimic the flower perfectly. People do eat its new shoots in the spring but all parts of this plant are considered toxic, so it’s wise to know exactly what you’re doing if you choose to try it. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

Heavy with ripe red fruit is false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa.) I see large bunches of these berries everywhere I go, so it’s going to be a good year for birds, mice, grouse, and other forest critters. These berries are bright red when fully ripe and speckled green and red as they ripen. You can still see 3 or 4 unripe berries in this bunch. Soil pH can affect fruit color and not all berries will be the same shade of red. Native American’s used all parts of this plant.

Most staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) are still green but this one had already gone to red. Sumacs are one of our most colorful shrubs in the fall. They can range from lemon yellow to pumpkin orange to tomato red, and anything in between.

The reason invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) have been so successful at spreading throughout the countryside is because people have planted them extensively for fall color, making it easy for birds to find the berries for food. Most burning bushes start out red like this example.

As fall progresses burning bushes in the wild will turn from red to a pinkish magenta…

..and will finally turn the palest pastel pinkish lavender just before the leaves fall. These three photos of burning bush foliage were taken at the same time and place but the 3 branches were on different plants.

Our native highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) are a good alternative to invasive burning bushes. They also often turn bright scarlet in the fall, but will also show shades of orange, yellow and plum purple. Purple is a common color in the fall. A Washington Post article last year said that “Studies have suggested that the earliest photosynthetic organisms were plum-colored, because they relied on photosynthetic chemicals that absorbed different wavelengths of light.”

Even poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) turns purple occasionally but it is more common to see it wearing red in the fall.

Silky dogwood berries (Cornus amomum) go from green to white and then from white to blue. Once they are blue and fully ripe birds eat them up quickly, so I was surprised to see them.

Bright red bittersweet nightshade berries (Solanum dulcamara) look like tiny Roma tomatoes, but they’re very toxic and shouldn’t be eaten. Red has the longest wavelength of all the colors and it is the easiest color to distinguish, unless you happen to be colorblind.

Blue is my favorite color and I was able to see plenty of it in this view from a cornfield in Keene. I read recently that 40 percent of people choose blue as their favorite color. Purple is next with only 14 percent.

There are other places to see the color blue as well; many plants like the black raspberry cane (Rubus occidentalis) pictured here use the same powdery, waxy white bloom as a form of protection against moisture loss and sunburn. On plants like black raspberries, blue stemmed goldenrod, smoky eye boulder lichens, grapes and plums, the bloom can appear to be very blue in the right kind of light. Finding such a beautiful color in nature is always an unexpected pleasure.

The bloom on grapes and plums can mean they’re ripe, and these grapes were. Soon the woods will smell like grape jelly from all the fermenting grapes.

Maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) isn’t offered by nurseries but I’ve always though it should be. It’s a very low growing shrub; I think the tallest one I’ve seen might have reached 3 feet. It has white flowers at the branch ends in the spring but I’ve always thought that fall was when it was most beautiful because of the amazing range of colors in its leaves.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) has started its long, slow change from green to red. Though some trees and bushes seem to change color overnight, Virginia creeper won’t be rushed. This example was just entering its bronze stage.

This beautiful shade of red is what most Virginia creeper vines will look like before their leaves fall.

This pale tussock moth caterpillar was very hairy, and very beautiful. I don’t see as many of these as I do the hickory tussock moth caterpillar. That one is everywhere this year and I see several whenever I go out for a walk.

I’m happy to say that, over the past 3 or 4 weeks, I’ve seen many monarch butterflies. I can’t say if they’re making a comeback but I’ve seen more this year than I have in the past 5 years combined. I’ve seen at least one each day for the past couple of weeks.

I think that to one in sympathy with nature, each season, in turn, seems the loveliest. ~Mark Twain

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