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Posts Tagged ‘Signs of Fall’

Last weekend I thought I’d visit a few places along the Ashuelot River in Keene and Swanzey to see if there were any fall colors showing yet. I saw a few, though I really hoped it was still too early for fall.

I even saw signs of fall up in the trees already. As I’ve said here many times, spring and fall start on the forest floor and work their way through the shrubby understory to the trees. To see it already in some of the trees was a bit disconcerting.

Here was a beautiful wild sarsaparilla plant (Aralia nudicaulis) on the forest floor that was sticking to the plan. This is where I expect to see fall first, and sarsaparilla is always one of the first forest floor plants to change. Most turn yellow but this one felt like purple would do best.

Native dogwoods of the shrubby understory are also starting to change. They’re often one of the first shrubs to turn and will often turn purple.

Another shrub that’s beginning to change is the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus.) These understory shrubs can take a lot of shade and can form monocultures in the forest. They in turn cast enough shade so natives can’t get a start.  Burning bushes often turn unbelievable shades of pink and a forest full of them is truly an amazing sight. Their sale and cultivation is banned in New Hampshire but there are so many of them in the wild they’ll always be with us now.

Last time I saw this butterfly I had a very hard time identifying it and finally settled on silvery checkerspot, but several of you knew it as a pearly crescent. Then someone wrote in and said they were fairly sure it was indeed a silvery checkerspot, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide. To be honest I just enjoy seeing butterflies and don’t really need to know their names to love them.

This one I did know; a cabbage white butterfly rested on a Virginia creeper leaf. This species is originally from Europe along with quite a few of the cabbage family of plants that their caterpillars feed on.

Of course there were turtles. There are almost always turtles to be seen along the Ashuelot. In the fall this turtle would be looking out upon a blaze of flaming red maples in this spot but on this day all we saw was green.

I saw plenty of flowers along the river, including this aster that I’ve been too lazy to try to identify.

I hate to say it but when I was a boy this river was so polluted you could hardly stand the smell in high summer. I’ve seen it run orange and purple and green, and any other color the woolen mills happened to be dyeing with on any particular day. I’ve seen people dump their trash on its banks and I’ve seen it close to dead, with only frogs, turtles and muskrats daring to get near it. But after years of effort it is clean once again and eagles fish for trout and other freshwater fish along its length. It no longer smells and though you can still find an occasional rusty can or broken bottle it is far cleaner than it was when I was growing up. Or so I thought; when I was a boy you could step in the mud at the river’s edge and see oil accumulating in your footstep, just like it did in the photo above. How long will it take to clean that up, I wonder? It’s a hard thing to see, after all these years.

But the plants don’t seem to mind. Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) is just about done this year but I still loved seeing the few pretty little flowers that were left. This plant can get quite tall under the right conditions but it’s fussy about where it grows. It likes wet soil and full sun, which means I almost always find it near water. Its bitter roots were used by Native Americans to treat gastric irritation and some tribes roasted them and ground them into flour. Others dried the flowers and used them as snuff to stop nosebleeds. This is one of the plants they introduced to the Europeans and they used it in much the same way.

Ducks and many other birds feed on the seeds of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and the ones on this plant were almost gone. This native shrub grows all along the river and I see it fairly often. Each puffy bit that looks like a bladder is what a fertilized flower turns into and each should hold two black seeds.

Hairy galls on buttonbush leaves are caused by the buttonbush mite (Aceria cephalanthi.) There are over 900 species of the nearly microscopic Aceria insects that are identified by the host plants they feed on.

Nodding bur marigolds (Bidens tripartita) grew along the shore with smartweeds like tearthumb. I just featured this plant in my last post so I won’t go on about it, other than to say that the way to tell how old the flowers are is by their position. As they age they nod and point toward the ground, so it’s safe to assume that these flowers were relatively freshly opened.

Mad dog skullcaps (Scutellaria laterifolia) are still blooming, I was surprised to see. This plant was unusual because of its one flower. They always bloom in pairs and I must have gotten there just after one of this pair had fallen. They love to grow on grassy hummocks near rivers and ponds and that’s where I always find them. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the mad dog part of the common name comes from. This plant contains powerful medicine so it should never be eaten. When Native Americans wanted to go on a vision quest or a spirit walk, this was one of the plants they chose to get them there.

Giant foxtail grass (Setaria faberi) is a large annual grass that can form large colonies. Its nodding, bristly, spike like flower heads and wide leaves make it easy to identify. The flower heads go from light green to straw colored as they age.

I think pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) goes from flower to fruit quicker than any plant I know of. These berries were overripe and stained my fingers purple when I touched them. The birds usually eat them right up and I was surprised to find so many on this plant. Science says that humans should never eat the berries or any other part of the plant because it’s considered toxic, but people do eat the new shoots in spring. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the juice from the berries to decorate their horses.

My favorite part of the pokeweed plant is the tiny purple “flower” on the back of each berry. The flower is actually what’s left of the flower’s five lobed calyx, but it mimics the flower perfectly. I just noticed that this calyx has six lobes rather than five. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen more than five.

A hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) found its way to the top of a pokeweed plant to get more sunlight. Pokeweeds can get 5 or 6 feet tall so the bindweed got a lot closer to the sun than it would have normally been able to.

And here was something new; at least, it was new to me. I can’t believe I’ve walked the banks of this river for over 50 years and have never seen native swamp smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides.) This plant is also called false water pepper or mild water pepper and is the only smartweed I’ve ever seen that had most of its flowers open at once. You’re usually lucky to find one or two open on a smartweed.

From what I’ve read even botanists have a hard time with this one because the plant is so variable, probably because of cross breeding. The pretty pinkish white flowers are quite small; less than an eighth of an inch across.  They remind me of the sand jointweed flowers that I featured in the last post, right down to the plum colored anthers.

No, I haven’t put the same shot of the Ashuelot River in this post twice. This one looks upriver from a bridge and the one at the start of the post looks downriver. I couldn’t decide which one I liked best so you get to see both of them. I hope you like one or the other. They show how the green is starting to lighten and fade from a lot of the leaves.

This was one of those perfect New England days in late summer where the spirit of autumn takes a first stealing flight, like a spy, through the ripening country-side, and, with feigned sympathy for those who droop with August heat, puts her cool cloak of bracing air about leaf and flower and human shoulders. ~Sarah Orne Jewett

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Last Sunday dawned cool and free of the oppressive humidity that we’ve seen so much of this summer, so I thought I’d go for a climb up to the High Blue Trail lookout in Walpole. As I mentioned in last Saturday’s post, I’ve been having some breathing issues so I chose this trail because the climb is easy and gentle. I also chose it because there is usually much to see here and on this day I wasn’t disappointed.

The first things that caught my eye were the map like patterns in this coltsfoot leaf left by leaf miners. How remarkable that anything could be small enough to eat the tissue between the top and bottom surfaces of a leaf.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) leaves whispered that fall was on the way but I didn’t want to listen.

But listen I had to, because everywhere I looked nature was whispering fall. Soon the whisper will become a shout.

I saw a young fly agaric (Amanita muscaria v. formosa) just up out of the soil and looking like it had been scrubbed clean even though it hadn’t rained in a week. This mushroom is common where pine trees grow. The name fly agaric comes from the practice of putting pieces of the mushroom in a dish of milk. The story says that when flies drank the milk they died, but it’s something I’ve never tried. Fly agaric is said to have the ability to “turn off” fear in humans and is considered toxic. Vikings are said to have used it for that very reason.

I’ve seen plenty of club coral fungi but I’ve never seen one that was hairy like this one. I think they might be examples of cotton base coral fungi (Lentaria byssieda,) which has “stalks that rise out of a creamy white, felt-like, hairy mycelial patch.” From what I’ve seen online and in guide books this fungi’s appearance can vary greatly as far as shape, with some having branch tips that are sharply pointed and others with blunt branch tips.

When I saw this I knew that it didn’t matter what else I saw on this day, because my day was complete. Violet coral fungus (Clavaria zollingeri) is a very rare thing in these parts and this is only the second time I’ve seen one. Both times I’ve seen it on a hillside, growing out of the soil on the side of the trail. Such a rare and beautiful thing can take you outside yourself for a time and I knelt there in the dirt taking photos and admiring it for I don’t know how long. I wish I’d see more of them but who knows what makes them only show themselves so rarely, and who knows why they wear that color?

The old road isn’t long but it is winding.

Before you know it you’re at the sign on the side road that leads to the lookout.

A birch tree had fallen across the old road. Many trees have fallen this summer and in a way it’s a good thing. Weak trees standing in a forest could fall without warning at any time so it’s good when the wind removes them. It’s dangerous to have them standing near trails, as this one illustrates.

I saw quite a few examples of the old man of the woods mushroom (Strobilomyces floccopus.) This grayish mushroom has black scales on its cap and stem and was very hard to get a good shot of. Both cameras that I carried had trouble focusing on it. Nobody seems to know how this mushroom came by its common name.

The old man’s pore surface starts off white, then turns gray before finally becoming black, so this one had some age. The flesh turns pinkish red when bruised and finally turns black. You can see the shaggy stem in this photo and that helps with identification.

Powdery mildew on an oak showed how very humid and still the air has been lately. Molds and mildews have a hard time developing when there is good air circulation.

Soon I was at the cornfield which was once a meadow. All my senses go on high alert here because I know that bears come here regularly to feed on the corn. I carried bear spray but if a bear suddenly burst out of the cornfield I doubt I would have had time to use it, so I stopped and listened for a minute or two. Hearing nothing but the rustling of the corn leaves I moved on.

The corn was just about ready to pick but since this is cattle corn the whole plant gets chewed up and becomes silage. It attracts almost every animal in the forest, including deer and raccoons but I was surprised to find very little animal damage among the stalks. Quite often you’ll find broken stalks lying on the ground with the husks torn from the ears, and all the kernels eaten. Maybe the animals are waiting for it to become dead ripe, I don’t know.

I saw two or three of these odd insects on ears of corn. Some kind of shield bug, I think.

Asters bloomed along the edge of the cornfield.

A black eyed Susan bloomed among hundreds of blooming lobelias. These were the pretty little lobelias called Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata.) I was surprised to see them because they’re just about finished blooming down in the low country.

I was especially glad the lobelias were blooming because there were two monarch butterflies visiting the small flowers. I scared this one away but luckily it landed close enough to get a photo of. I’ve been seeing lots of monarchs this year I’m happy to say, but this is the only one I’ve been able to get a photo of.

Though it was cool, sunny and dry when I left Keene by the time I reached the overlook clouds had rolled in and the air was so thick with humidity you could have cut it with a knife. This didn’t make breathing any easier and I was just about puffed out, as my blogging friend Mr. Tootlepedal says, so all I could think of was getting back to the car and into some air conditioning.  After a couple of quick shots of the thick haze I headed back down the hill.

The view wasn’t very good; you couldn’t even see Stratton Mountain over in Vermont. The blue was a little darker where it should have been but I think I see it in this shot only because I know where it is. As I’ve said many time before, if I climbed for the view I’d end up disappointed most of the time, so though I enjoy seeing across the Connecticut River Valley into Vermont I could hardly be disappointed after seeing all of the beautiful things I saw on the way up here. It isn’t about the end of the trail or how fast you can climb a hill; it really is about what you see along the way.

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

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1. Fly Agaric

Certain mushrooms seem to appear at the same time each year, and yellow fly agarics (Amanita muscaria var, guessowii) are right on schedule. This one was about as big as my index finger, but was strong enough to push up through a mat of wet leaves.

2. Indian Pipes

I’ve never seen as many Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) as I have this year.  Not only have their numbers increased but they appeared earlier than usual. Since they don’t make their own food and live as parasites, stealing nutrients from the mycelia of certain fungi, they don’t need chlorophyll. The lack of chlorophyll leads to another common name: ghost plant.

3. Leaf Spot on Aster

If you’re a gardener a fungal disease like leaf spot is the last thing you want to see in the garden but if you can get past the feelings of disappointment and frustration and see it for what it is, it can be quite pretty. Many fungal infections of plants are caused by high humidity, poor air circulation, and / or lack of direct sunlight. Increasing air circulation and the amount of sunlight reaching the plant by cutting back surrounding growth or moving the plant will often solve the problem.

4. Starflower Fruit

I visited a web site that said the seed pod of a starflower (Trientalis borealis) was 6 to 8 millimeters in diameter, but I think they forgot a decimal point. .6 to .8 millimeters (.024-.031 in) would be more like it, and even that is stretching it. If the seed pods are that small, just think how small the seeds must be. Seeds of starflowers don’t germinate until the fall of their second year, which gives birds and insects plenty of time to move them around.

 5. Wood Frog

The dark eye mask makes this wood frog easy to identify. Wood frogs are the only frogs to live north of the Arctic Circle and they manage that by being able to freeze in winter. They produce a kind of antifreeze that prevents their cells from freezing. When it gets cold they just crawl under the leaf litter. Their heart stops beating and they stop breathing until the weather warms again in spring, when they mate and lay their eggs in vernal pools. This one was 2-3 inches long, which is big compared to a thumbnail sized spring peeper.

6. Hanging Caterpillar

This caterpillar was just hanging around one day on a silken thread so fine that I couldn’t even see it. Much to my surprise the camera couldn’t either, so it looks like he is defying gravity. I think he’s an inchworm. I wonder what they get out of doing this.

 7. Blue Black Wasp

I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye and turned to find that this large, blue-black wasp (Ichneumon centrator) had landed next to me. He didn’t stay long though, and only gave me time for a couple of shots. This wasp is about 3/4 of an inch long and adult females hibernate under the loose bark of fallen trees in winter. This one pictured is an adult male. Thanks to the good folks at Bugguide.net for the help with identification.

8. Orange Mushrooms

Over the years I’ve noticed that the first mushrooms to appear are mostly white or brown, then come the red, yellow, and orange ones and after them the purples. Right now we’re in our red, yellow, orange phase. I think these might be one of the wax cap mushrooms, possibly the butter wax cap (Hygrocybe ceracea).

9. Pinwheel Mushrooms

These small pinwheel mushrooms, (Marasmius rotula) none bigger than a pea, grew on a piece of tree bark. These mushrooms are fairly easy to see after a rain but when they dry out the whitish cap shrivels down to a dot at the end of a hair-like stalk and they become almost invisible-at least to my eyes.

 10. Daddy Longlegs

I thought that this black and white spider on a hazelnut leaf had the longest legs of any spider that I’ve seen, and a tiny body that seemed out of proportion to its legs. Thanks to the folks at Buggide.net I learned that this is not a spider but a harvestman (Opiliones). The difference is that spiders have a two part body and harvestmen have a one part body. And this is indeed a daddy longlegs. What I thought were daddy longlegs all these years are actually spiders called cellar spiders (Pholcus phalangioides). Who knew?

11. False Solomon's Seal Foliage

As I’ve said before on this blog, fall starts on the forest floor and, even though none of us want to hear it, this false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) is a perfect example of how it begins.

12. Wild Sarsaparilla Fall Color 2

Other signs that fall is on the way include the turning leaves on wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis). Almost as soon as its berries ripen the leaves start to change to yellow, the deep rosy brown seen here, or a mixture of both colors.

13. Fly Honeysuckle Fruit

Another sign of fall is of course, ripening berries. These are the unusual twin berries of American fly honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis).

 14. Reindeer Lichen

With all this talk of fall you might think that this is a dusting of snow in the woods but no, it’s just a drift of reindeer lichens (Cladonia arbuscula). I’m hoping that they don’t get covered by a snow blanket for a good long time.

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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