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Posts Tagged ‘Swanzey New Hampshire’

For this post I’m going to try to take you through February, starting with the photo of puddle ice above. February was a cold and icy month but beautiful too. The average February temperature usually runs between 16.5°F (-8.6°C) and 31.5°F (-0.3°C) so ice doesn’t come as a surprise.

February was also a snowy month with storm after storm coming through. According to state records in Concord, the state capital, on average snow falls for 10.2 days in February and typically adds up to about 7.36 inches. We’ve had all of that, as the waist high snowbanks on the side of the road I travel to work on show.

The snow and ice might have built up but the finger of open water in Half Moon Pond reached further out into the pond each day. In February days have the least amount sunshine with an average of only about 4 hours per day, so things like this take time. The clouds seen in this shot are typical on an average February day.

But the sun does shine and slowly, the days get longer.

I’ve read that the reflection of sunlight from snow can nearly double the intensity of the Sun’s UV radiation. This photo of a fertile sensitive fern frond was taken in natural light that was reflecting off the snow and it looks like I used a flash.  

Here is another sensitive fern fertile frond which has released its spores. This was another attempt at catching sunlight on snow. It isn’t easy to do because it’s so very bright. If you stare at it too long you can experience snow blindness, which thankfully is usually only temporary. Still, bright sunlight on snow isn’t good for the eyes especially if you have glaucoma, so I try to always wear sunglasses.

Animals like turkeys, deer and squirrels have been digging up the snow looking for acorns.

And then one day the sunshine was different; it felt like a warm breath, and the melting began in earnest. That’s how spring always begins, but it is something that can never be proven to those who don’t believe. It doesn’t matter if it is February, March or April, spring always begins with that sense; the knowing that something has changed. You feel it and you know it but you can’t explain it, even though you know that from this point on there will be other, more visible signs.

Anything dark colored like this white cedar branch absorbed warmth from the sun and melted down into the snow.

Here a basswood tree limb was doing the same.

At this time of year each tree in the forest may have a melt ring around it as the basswood in the above shot does. A study done by Emeritus Professor of Botany Lawrence J. Winship of Hampshire College, where he used an infrared thermometer to measure heat radiated by tree trunks, found that the sunny side of a red oak was 54 degrees F. while the shaded side was just 29 degrees F. And the ground temperature was also 29 degrees, which means it was frozen. This shows that trees really absorb a lot of heat from the sun and it must be that when the heat is radiated back into the surroundings it melts the snow. The professor found that the same was true on fence posts and stumps so the subject being alive had nothing to do with it, even though a living tree should have much more heat absorbing water in it.

As the snow melts things that fell on it months ago reappear, like these basswood berries (actually nutlets). That bract is a modified leaf, called a tongue by some, which helps the berries fly on the winds. These didn’t make it very far from the tree however. Native Americans used many parts of the basswood tree, including the berries, as food and also boiled its sweet sap. The fibers found in the tree’s bark were used to make twine and cordage used for everything from sewing to snowshoes. In fact the word “bass” is a mispronunciation of the Native word “bast”, which is their word for one of the types of fiber made from the tree.

No longer moistened by snow melt, this moss growing on a stone was looking quite dry. From here on out it will have to depend on rain.

As the sun warms stones many times you’ll see the frost coming out of them. That’s what the white was in this shot. It doesn’t usually last long so it’s one of those being in the right place at the right time things.

Maple syrup makers hung their sap buckets about the third week of February as usual. Nobody knows when or where sap gathering started but most agree that it was learned from Native Americans. They used to cut a V notch into the bark of a tree and then put a wedge at the bottom of the cut. The sap would drip from the wedge into buckets made of bark or woven reeds, or sometimes into wooden bowls. They would then boil it down until it thickened and became syrup. Since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup sap gathering was and still is a lot of work.

Winter dark fireflies (Ellychnia corrusca) have appeared on trees. According to Bugguide.net, these fireflies can be a pest in sap buckets in the spring because they like maple sap, and they will also drink from wounds in maple trees. They like to sun themselves on the sunny side of trees or buildings, and this one was happy to do so on an old oak. Most fireflies live as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter near water and stay in the area they were born in, even as adults. They like it warm and humid but they weren’t getting much of either on this February day. They don’t seem to be afraid of people at all; I’ve gotten quite close to them several times.

Buoyed by sap flow and insect activity I thought I’d visit the swamp where the skunk cabbages grow and see if they were up yet.

They were up and that tells me the hazelnuts will most likely be flowering before long. Inside the skunk cabbage’s mottled spathe is the spadix, which is a one inch round, often pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. I’d say it’ll be another week or so before I see them. The spathes seem extremely red this year. They’re usually a deep maroon color. Alder catkins, which are also a maroon / purple color, are also red this year, from here to Scotland. I can’t even guess why.

Of course I had to check the bulb beds, and there were indeed shoots up out of the soil. I’m not positive but I think these were crocus. Since I don’t own the bulb bed I can never be 100 percent sure.

Reticulated irises are usually the first bulb to bloom and they were up and looking good, but no buds yet.

In one bed daffodils seemed to be rushing up out of the ground.

These daffodils were about four inches tall, I’d guess. They looked a little blanched from coming up under the snow but they’ll be fine. They won’t bloom for a while though.

The willows are showing their silvery catkins so it won’t be long before the bushes are full of beautiful yellow flowers.

I hoped I’d be able to show you flowers at the end of this post and the spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) came through. I was beside myself with joy when I turned a corner and saw them blooming. We might see cold and we might see more snow but there is no turning back now. Spring, my favorite season, has begun in this part of the world. I might have to tie myself to a rock to keep from floating away.

It was such a spring day as breathes into a man an ineffable yearning, a painful sweetness, a longing that makes him stand motionless, looking at the leaves or grass, and fling out his arms to embrace he knows not what. ~ John Galsworthy

Thanks for coming by.

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You’ve seen a lot of buds on this blog but you haven’t seen many buds from a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). Massachusetts is the northern limit of their natural range but luckily I know a spot at the local college where two or three trees can grow thanks to the radiant heating they get from a massive wall of brick that they grow beside. As buds go these are big; this one was maybe the size of a blueberry, and may be green, red or orange, from what I’ve read. Buds with many scales that overlap like shingles are called imbricate buds. A gummy resin often fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof on northern trees, but I’m not sure how the sweetgum buds waterproof themselves. I can see tiny hairs at the edge of the scales, so maybe that has something to do with it.

The identification of the sweetgum trees came easily because of their strange seed pods. I’ve read that Native Americans used the hardened resin from these trees for chewing gum. The resin was also used in a tea to calm the nerves and, when powdered and mixed with shavings from the tree, was used as incense by the Maya. The resin is said to look like liquid amber, and that’s where the first part of the scientific name, Liquidambar, comes from. I’d love to see it but I doubt the local college would let me tap their trees.

Bud scales are modified leaves that cover and protect the bud through winter. Some buds can have several, some have two, some have just one scale called a cap, and some buds are naked, with none at all. The lilac bud (Syringa vulgaris) in the above photo is another good example of an imbricate bud. I was surprised by the lack of gummy resin on these buds. I hope the flower or leaf buds inside aren’t harmed because of it.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. Cornelian cherry is an ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring (usually March).

Magnolia flower buds in botanical terms are “densely pubescent, single-scaled, terminal flower buds.” The hairy single scale is called a cap and it will fall off only when the bud inside has swollen to the point of blossoming. Just as the plant flowers the ground under it will be littered with these hairy caps for a short time.

Many plants protect their buds with hairs, like the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) shown above. Plants that protect their buds in this way have naked buds, and the hairs take the place of bud scales.  

Red oak (Quercus rubra) buds usually appear in a cluster and are conical and reddish brown. I like the chevron like pattern that the bud scales make. Red oak is one of our most common trees in New England but in the past many thousands were lost to gypsy moth infestations. It is an important source of lumber, flooring and fire wood. The USDA says that red oaks can live to be 500 years old.

Do you think of buds when you see a catkin? A catkin is really just a long string of tiny flowers arranged in a spiral, surrounding a central stalk. Though the bud scales on many of the male alder catkins (Alnus incana) are usually a deep winter purple, this year they seem to be more red. That doesn’t matter because soon they will start to lengthen and become more pliable before turning shades of pink, orange, red and brown. Once that happens they will start to open.

There is no mistaking what you’re seeing when male alder catkins start to open. The bud scales are on short stalks, and when they open they reveal the tiny green yellow flowers they have protected all winter long. Bushes full of them are easily one of the most beautiful spring sights.

Each bud scale has three male flowers beneath, each with a lobed calyx cup and three to five stamens with anthers covered in yellow pollen. The flower parts are clearly visible in this photo but even though it is heavily cropped they are still tiny. The entire catkin is only about 2 1/2 inches long.

The male flowers of gray birch (Betula populifolia) also appear in catkin form but instead of hanging down they often point straight up, as this one was doing.

The female flowers of gray birch turn into big, drooping clusters of seeds, which are also called catkins. You can see the size, habit and shape difference between the male and female catkins if you compare the large female catkins to the much smaller male one seen in the upper right corner of this photo.

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) buds, like lilac and others, are imbricate buds with overlapping bud scales. It’s interesting that almost everything about the blueberry is red except for its berry. The new twigs are red, the bud scales are red, and the fall foliage is very red. Though small the buds are beautiful, and one of my favorites.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are also one of my favorites, but I don’t see them very often. Since they have more than two bud scales they are imbricate buds.

Some of the smallest buds I know belong to hawthorns (Crataegus) and the cherry red hawthorn bud in the above photo could easily hide behind a pea. There are over 220 species of hawthorn in North America, with at least one native to every state and Canadian province. In New Hampshire we have 17 species, so the chances of my identifying this example are slim to none. I know the tree in the photo well so I know that its blossoms will be white. Hawthorn berries are called haws and are said to have medicinal value. Native Americans mixed the dried haws and other fruits with dried venison and fat to make pemmican.  The dried flowers, leaves, and haws can be used to make a tea to soothe sore throats, and hawthorn also shows promise for treating heart disease.

Big, black and pointed mountain ash buds (Sorbus americana) often look like they have a single cap like bud scale but they actually have several overlapping scales which are quite sticky. You have to look closely at buds to see what is really going on, so it helps to have a loupe or a macro lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is supposed to be a very invasive species but they’ve been used for years as landscape trees so the genie has been let out of the bottle and now there is no stopping them. The Norway maple’s terminal bud and stem are larger than the sugar maple’s, and its bud scales are fewer and colored a pleasing maroon. Sugar maples have twice as many bud scales and they are brown. Norway maple terminal buds are also rounded while those of sugar maple are sharply pointed. Norway maple is native to eastern and central Europe and western Asia, from France east to Russia, north to southern Scandinavia and southeast to northern Iran.

Box elder (Acer negundo) is another member of the maple family and its buds and young twigs are often a beautiful blue or purple color due to their being pruinose. Pruinose means a surface is covered in white, powdery, waxy granules that reflect light in ways that often make the surface they are on appear blue. Certain grapes, plums, and blueberries are pruinose fruits. Certain lichens like the beautiful smoky eye boulder lichen have fruiting bodies (Apothecia) that are pruinose.

Terminal buds appear on the end or terminus of a branch and nothing illustrates that better than the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). The larger, pointed, very scaly bud is flanked by smaller lateral buds on either side. The lateral buds are usually smaller than the terminal bud. Sugar maple twigs and buds are brown rather than red like silver or red maples. I know that the sap is running so these buds will be swelling up and getting bigger before too long. In 2019 New Hampshire produced a below average 148,000 gallons of maple syrup but the season was 5 days shorter shorter due to cold weather. The average price per gallon in 2019 was $31.00. The record price per gallon was $40.70 in 2008.

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 and / or tomato red and they have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins. They are one of the first to open in spring so I watch them closely beginning in March.

I realize that these bud posts probably don’t excite everyone like they do me but I hope people will look beyond all the imbricate, valvate and other fancy scientific labels and simply see the beauty. If the beauty that you see leads you to wonder and mystery, then you can start trying to find out more about what you’ve seen. Some think that beauty comes in the form of snow capped peaks or far off landscapes and indeed it does, but beauty also comes in the form of tiny tree buds. In fact beauty is all around you and the more you look for it the more of it you’ll see. Here’s hoping you’ll see plenty.

If you are open to being taught by nature, go listen to the trees. ~Kenneth Meadows

Thanks for coming by.

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Last week I had some back pain that was uncomfortable enough to keep me home from work one day. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over 50 years of back pain it is that sitting around is the worst thing you can do, so as soon as it was warm enough I decided to try walking off the pain. Walking, I’ve discovered, is the best thing for my kind of back pain. The above photo is of the woods in part of my neighborhood that I walked past. Black bear, deer, rabbits, turkeys, hawks and blue herons are some of the larger birds and animals I’ve seen in the area.

I didn’t walk through the woods though; I stuck to the road. Back pain calls for easy walking, not breaking trails. This shot of beech leaves in the sunshine and every other photo in this post is from the road.

There are some old black cherry trees out here and most have some type of noticeable changes caused by black knot disease. This one looked like a burl but no, it is a swelling caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots which will eventually become serious wounds, and eventually the tree will die.

Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) grew right at the edge of the road so I was able to get a shot of the little cup shaped bracts that the petals come out of. This is a fall blooming witch hazel but the spring blooming Hamamelis vernalis witch hazels will be blooming soon.

I’m seeing what seems like an awful lot of fallen trees everywhere I go.  

I saw plenty of signs that it had been snowing. I haven’t kept close track but we’ve gotten at least some snow almost every day for the past two weeks.

There is quite a large wet area along the road where red maples grow. Some people call them swamp maples but if you look up “swamp maple” you find Acer rubrum, the red maple. They are also called water or soft maple. They don’t mind occasional wet feet.

Overhead I could see red maple buds that seemed to be swelling up, preparing to blossom in March. It’ll still be a while before the flowers unfurl, but they’re on the way and they’re beautiful to see in spring. 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.

I looked at a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and saw that it had a broken branch. And where the broken branch met another there was a single drop of pure maple sap, so the sap is flowing and that means buds are indeed swelling.

Cattails (Typha latifolia) decorated the edge of a small pond. I have a feeling that muskrats or other critters are eating the roots of this particular patch of cattails because it has actually been getting smaller over the years. That’s unusual for cattails because they can grow faster than fertilized corn. Scientists have recorded cattail marshes travel up to 17 feet in a year in prime conditions just by sending out new shoots. They are very beneficial to many animals and birds and even help the ponds and lakes they grow in by filtering runoff water and helping reduce the amount of silt and nutrients that flow into them.

The fluffy cattail seed heads are all ready for the return of red winged blackbirds, which will use them in their nests. I’ve also watched female red winged blackbirds pick grubs out of the previous year’s stems. Cattails were an important food for Native Americans. Their roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice, and native peoples made flour from them.  They also ate the new shoots in spring, which must have been especially welcome after a long winter of eating dried foods. They had uses for every part of this plant; even the pollen was harvested and used in bread.

I got lost for a bit in the beautiful bark of an old white pine. We have some very old, very big white pines in this area but many of the tallest, straightest trees were taken by England in colonial days to be used as ship masts. In 1722, a pine tree law decreed settlers couldn’t cut any white pines bigger than a foot in diameter and then later on the colonists had to pay for a royal license to cut white pine trees on their own land. In 1736, one of the king’s surveyors seized white pine logs in Exeter, New Hampshire. This act so enraged residents they disguised themselves as Indians, beat up the surveying party, sank their boat and chased them into the woods, where they hid all night. All of this led eventually to what is known as the Pine Tree Riot. In an open act of rebellion New Hampshire colonists cut down and hauled off many marked mast pines in what was just a taste of what would come later in the American Revolution.

An oak that stood next to the pine in the previous photo had Trentepohlia algae growing on it. Trees have vertical grooves in their bark that help channel water away in a rain and many mosses, lichens and even algae grow on the “banks” of these vertical streams. You can see that happening in this photo. Apparently these are the places that stay wettest longest after a rain.

Even in silhouette I knew I was under a northern catalpa tree (Catalpa speciosa) because of the string bean like seed pods that can be two feet long. In fact when I was a boy we called them string bean trees. Catalpa wood is very rot resistant and railroads once grew great plantations of them to be used as railroad ties. They are still used for utility poles today. Midwestern Native American tribes hollowed out the trunks of catalpa trees and used them as canoes, and the name Catalpa comes from the Cherokee tribe’s word for the tree. Natives made tea from the bark and used it as an antiseptic and sedative. Parts of the tree are said to be mildly narcotic.

I’m guessing that this hole in a maple is an animal’s home. There are scratch and / or bite marks all around it. It was big enough for a squirrel and they will live in hollow trees given the chance.

It’s hard to go anywhere in New Hampshire without seeing a stone wall so I wasn’t surprised by this one. You can tell by the smaller stones supporting larger stones that some thought and care went into this wall, and that means it is a laid wall. Most of our walls are “tossed” or “dumped” walls, built only to get rid of the stones in the pasture with no thought taken for looks. Laid walls took longer and were usually built along road frontage where they could be seen by passers by, just as this one was.  New Hampshire has an estimated 50,000 miles of stone walls but I doubt anyone will ever know for sure. The woods are full of them.

More expensive walls were built of cut stone like the piece of granite seen here. illustrates perfectly how feathers and wedges were used to split stone. The finger size half holes seen at the top are about 3-4 inches deep holes and were drilled (by hand) in a line where the split was to take place. Then curved pieces called feathers were put into each hole and wedges were driven in between them. As happens in splitting wood, the force from the wedges being driven ever deeper splits the stone. I have a feeling this piece of granite was found and placed here because most of this wall was simple field stone. Building stone walls is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done but unfortunately it’s very hard on the body.

After walking for a while I came to the Thompson covered bridge, named after playwright Denmon Thompson who was a native son, and built in 1832. This bridge is a truss style bridge with two spans that meet on a center support. One span covers 64 feet and the other 63.5 feet, making the total length 136 feet 10 inches long. It once had two covered walkways, but now has only one on the upriver side. It can be seen on the left in the photo. Town records indicate that there has been a bridge in this spot since at least 1789.

This view shows the stone center support for the two spans. The bridge design is known as “Town lattice,” patented by Connecticut architect Ithiel Town in the early 1800s. The open lattice work lets a lot of light into the bridge and this is unusual because many covered bridges were and are dark and cave like. In the 1800s being able to see daylight inside a covered bridge would have been the talk of the town. The Thompson Bridge is considered by many to be the most beautiful covered bridge in New England.

The Ashuelot River, which the Thompson Bridge crosses, was partially frozen over in this spot. I thought I might see some Canada geese but they don’t seem to winter over here anymore. This photo does show what a beautiful day it was, geese or not.

I hope this post shows that you can find a lot of interesting and beautiful things right in your own neighborhood without even leaving the road. My favorite photo from this walk is of an ice covered stone in the river. It was like alabaster on silk and I thought the colors and textures of the water were beautiful.

Though my back hadn’t returned to 100 percent the two hour walk did it a world of good and I returned to work the following day. Not only does walking exercise muscles; what you see in nature takes your mind off the pain and lets tense muscles relax.

My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature. ~Claude Monet

Thanks for coming by.

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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

Thanks for stopping in.

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Punxsutawney Phil the weather predicting Groundhog saw his shadow when he was removed from his burrow last Tuesday, the second of February. That means, as the tale goes, that there will be six more weeks of winter. This isn’t a photo of Phil, but it is an excellent shot of a groundhog taken by Peter Chen and found on Wikimedia Commons. Here in this part of the country we call them woodchucks and they’re all sleeping peacefully through winter. If you’ve never seen one, a groundhog is about as big as a big house cat or maybe a little bigger, with lots of fur. We have a big one where I work but I’ve never been able to get a shot of it.

Anyhow, while Phil was predicting six more weeks of winter we were having a good old fashioned nor’easter, as the road on my way to work showed.

One of my favorite winter quotes by William Sharp says that There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance. That is just how it was on this day.

And for every day thereafter for a while, because a fine misty rain fell after the snowfall and froze all of the snow to the branches. A lot of forest still looks like this over a week later in fact, and that is unusual. Usually the wind comes up and blows all the snow off the branches in short order.

We had a meager 6 inches where I live but in Hancock where I work they had closer to 11 inches. Either way, I had to do some snow removal.

But while I was removing the snow I was able to admire its beauty up close. I love the color of beech leaves in winter.

Snow pasted on the tree trunks told me the wind had been out of the south east, blowing to the north at a pretty good clip.

The wind had sculpted the snow around some trees…

…and had tried to bury others.

I’m always surprised by how much snow eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) can take. This one must have had who knows how many pounds of snow on its branches, but they just flexed down and bore the weight. Once the snow falls away they’ll return to their more normal positions. Younger birch trees will bend almost double under the weight of snow but quite often they don’t spring back and they die bent like a bow.

If you walk through a forest that looks like this you’d better have a hat on and your collar up, because  the slightest breeze will send all that snow cascading down upon you. It has happened to me many times.

Spruce trees can also take a lot of snow weight. Actually most evergreens can.

This is a view across part of the 13 acre field where I work. I mow it in summer but in winter the snow stays where it falls. It’s like a huge white blanket.

The black, mirror finish of water against the white snow is very beautiful and I often stop here on my drive to work to see it.

Everything was still and silent on this morning. It was just me and the beauty all around me.

The sun was in the trees but it had no real warmth.

What the sun lacked in warmth it made up for in beauty. I hope these snowy, icy posts haven’t made all of you shiver. If there is one thing a nature blogger knows it is that you take what nature gives, and when everything is covered in snow you take photos of the snow. It won’t last; it’s February already and before long the sap will start to flow and the smell maple syrup will be in the air. The syrup makers are already tapping the trees.

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

~Mehmet Murat ildan

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I didn’t realize, until I started cleaning it up, how much stuff falls from trees. There must be tons of it raining down; it falls 24 hours per day seven days per week. Eastern forest broadleaf trees alone, it is estimated, can drop 2 to 3 tons of leaves per acre in the fall. And then there are the branches, seed cones, acorns and everything else that falls. If it wasn’t for the animals, bacteria and fungi that process it we would surely be buried under it all.

The tiny black specks you see here are seeds of the gray birch (Betula populifolia). Tiny yes, but there must have been millions of them in this small birch grove. Pine siskins, chickadees, and other songbirds eat them. Deer, moose and rabbits eat gray birch twigs.

I thought the brown on the snow in this shot must be dust like seeds but I suspect it was just dust.

Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) drop an incredible amount of material each year; large branches, needles, cones and bark all end up on the forest floor.

Whenever I see a fallen pine branch I check it for lichens and probably 8 out of 10 times there are lichens on it. I believe this foliose example is in the Tuckermanopsis family, possibly Tuckermanopsis americana. It was quite dry even though it was on the snow, so I’d guess that its color had lightened.

After branches pine cones are probably the things that fall out of pine trees the most. They are everywhere, but they don’t always fall end first into the snow like this one had. The heavy end falls first sometimes like this one did but I’ve also seen them turned 180 degrees with the lighter end in the snow.

Usually when you see a fallen pine cone they look like this, but this one has done something special; the sun had heated it enough for it to melt its way into the snow. I’ve seen oak leaves melt into the snow in the same way.

When I see good size fallen pine limbs I always look for bark beetle damage. Bark beetles usually attack weak or dying trees but they can also kill healthy trees by girdling them.  Adults bore small holes in the bark and lay eggs in a cavity. Once the larvae emerge from the eggs they make tunnels in the inner bark, like those seen here. Once they stop feeding they will pupate at the end of these tunnels. The pupae then become young adults and fly off to find another tree. These beetles carry spores of various fungi which can grow on the outer sapwood and stop the upward flow of water to the crown. Bark Beetles include over 100 species and it is said that their work is like a fingerprint for the species. They can create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen.

Mosses of course, are also common on fallen branches. These were very dry but the shield lichen next to them didn’t look too bad. I think it was a common greenshield (Flavoparmelia caperata) , which is indeed very common. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did in its center.

If white pine branches are the most common on the forest floor then eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) branches are the second most common. The difference about hemlock branches though, is how they are almost always small enough to decompose quickly.

Both pines and hemlocks catch much of the snow on their branches, and underneath them the ground is often bare or nearly so in all but the snowiest winters. These bare spots are often full of small birds like juncos scratching around for seeds.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) seed pods are pretty things. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Honey locust seed pods look a lot like giant flat string beans about 9-12 inches long and often curled. Some of them look like polished mahogany and others can be purple. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family. Deer love the seed pods, which often fall in such abundance they cover the ground under the trees.

You want to watch where you walk under a honey locust because fallen branches can be very thorny. Honey locust thorns grow singly and can be 3 to 6 inches long. They will sometimes branch like the example in the photo. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and can cause a nasty wound. In the past the hard thorns of the younger trees were used as nails. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps. Native Americans used the wood to make bows, and medicines were made from various parts of the plant.

The orangey color of these leaves caught my eye. I think they may have been American hornbeam leaves (Carpinus caroliniana). This tree is also know n as muscle wood, ironwood, hornbeam and blue beech, and younger trees will often hang onto their leaves quite late into the year.

In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus), this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence. When I start seeing lots of beech leaves blowing around in late winter I get excited, because that means spring isn’t far off.

I think this pile of beech leaves, blown by the wind, was fairly recent.

I see a lot of woodchips around dead and dying trees, almost always left there by woodpeckers. These small bits of wood disappear quickly.

Trees losing their bark isn’t anything strange but there were a lot of animal tracks around this tree and it looked like an animal might have pulled this piece of bark off. Porcupine maybe?

This white pine had lost some of its bark but it wasn’t lying on the ground anywhere near the tree that I could see. Wounds like this are how fungi can get into a tree and start things like heart rot.

I was surprised to see a virgin’s bower vine (Clematis virginiana) on the ground. This vine can climb high enough to make it into the trees occasionally but usually it just drapes itself over shrubs and hangs on tight. It’s more likely to decompose right there on the shrub than to fall on the forest floor. Those long feathery filaments called styles are on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them, but that can’t happen if they’re on the ground.

This switch grass did most certainly not fall from a tree but its delicate beauty caught my eye so I’ve put it here. I hope you enjoy seeing it as much as I did.

Anyone who thinks fallen leaves are dead has never watched them dancing on a windy day. ~Shira Tamir

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Last Sunday the weather people said it would be windy and cold with possibilities of snow squalls but I wanted to be in the woods, so I headed for a rail trail in Swanzey that I hadn’t been on since last year sometime. When I left the house it wasn’t bad; 36 degrees F. and cloudy, with a slight breeze. I was hoping the snow squalls wouldn’t happen because they can take you into white out conditions in an instant. When they happen you can’t see very well so I made a plan to just stand under a pine or hemlock tree until it passed. Luckily, I didn’t need a plan.

The trail was icy because we’d had rain all day the day before and then it froze up at night, but someone still had their bike out. You wouldn’t catch me doing that.

Though the trail was iced over the forest along the trail was mostly clear. Pines and hemlocks keep a lot of snow from hitting the ground.

The old whistle post wasn’t covered by forest debris yet. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle. I grew up hearing these whistles (actually horns) daily as the old Boston and Maine diesel freights went by our house.

There are houses not too far from this rail trail and years ago someone planted a privet hedge and let it go. Now it has fruit.

I saw lots of big red stem moss (Pleurozium schreberi) out here. This is a common moss that I often see growing in very large mats, sometimes even overrunning and choking out other mosses. In fact I’ve never seen a moss grow as fast as this one. A few years ago I hardly saw it and now I see it just about everywhere I go. I’ve read that it is native but it seems bent on taking over the earth.

There are lots of small oak trees out here that have been cut again and again by the people who maintain these trails, and this is one of them. It stopped me when I noticed all the various colors in its leaves. Beautiful warm browns, orange, and even pink.

Many of the oak leaves were covered with small spots, which I think were some type of fungus.

One of the oaks had galls on it and a bird had pecked them open to get at the galls inside. Years ago I thought at first it was woodpeckers that did this but I’ve seen blue jays and even chickadees pecking at them.

High up in the branches of many oaks jelly fungi grow on the limbs, and when these limbs fall we get a good chance to see them. I think that the most common of all jelly fungi is this one; the amber jelly (Exidia recisa,) because I see it all the time, especially after a rain. This one always reminds me of jellied cranberry sauce. Jelly fungi dry out when it’s dry and appear as tiny colored flakes that you’d hardly believe could grow as much as they do, but they absorb water like a sponge and can grow to 60 times bigger than they were when dry. Jelly fungi have a shiny side and a kind of matte finish side and their spores are produced on their shiny sides. After a good rain look closely at those fallen limbs, big or small, and you’re sure to find jelly fungi.

One side of this trail is bordered by Yale forest and there is plenty to see there. Yale University has a hands on forestry school in this forest so you can occasionally see it being selectively logged.

It’s easy to see how white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) got its common name. This is a fairly common moss that seems to like to hang from the sides of boulders and ledges. Another name for it is Medusa moss, because when dry its leaves press close to the stem and it takes on a very wiry, string like appearance. Its ball shaped orange spore capsules (sporophytes) are hidden among the leaves on very short stalks, so they’re hard to see. This moss will even grow on asphalt roofs, so it is a perfect choice for green roof projects.

Due to the rain of the day before this particular moss looked happy and beautiful.

Before I knew it I was at the trestle.

There are good views of the river from these old trestles so I’m glad they’re still here.

Many trees topple into the river each year and that’s why you usually only see kayaks or canoes on it when the water is high in spring. I have a feeling that leaning maple will be in the water before too long.

I’ve been out here when the leaves were on the trees so I know they’re silver and red maples, but even if I hadn’t seen the leaves, those buds would tell the story.

I walked on past the trestle and saw a few stones with drill marks but I didn’t see any ledges or boulders that they might have come from. Usually you can tell right where they are from.

It was nice to see green leaves in January. I think the overhanging evergreens must have helped protect these blackberry leaves from the cold.

I saw a few partridgeberry plants with the berries still on them. Usually turkeys and other birds snap them up quickly so they can be hard to find. Partridgeberry is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The berries will remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can sometimes still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers come in pairs that are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were, and these can be seen in the photo above.  Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. The berries are edible, but mostly tasteless.

I saw a stone that was shot full of mica. I’ve had a hard time getting a good shot of mica in the past but this one came out reasonably well.

After a time I saw the river again and I knew it was time to turn around, because from here it is just a short walk to the other end of this leg of the trail where several roads meet. I was glad the snow squalls held off until later in the day.

Forests, lakes, and rivers, clouds and winds, stars and flowers, stupendous glaciers and crystal snowflakes – every form of animate or inanimate existence, leaves its impress upon the soul of man. ~Orison Swett Marden

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New year’s day dawned sunny but cool, with a promise of warmer temperature later in the day. Since rain had washed all the snow away I though it might be a good opportunity for a winter climb, so I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey. At about 11:00 am the trail across the field was still white with frost and hard to miss.

In the shade the previous night’s frost still clung to the plants.

And there was ice. I had my micro spikes with me but I hadn’t yet put them on because I had a feeling things might be different in the forest.

Some kind soul had built a boardwalk of halved logs over a wet spot. This wet area wasn’t here when I first came here but it seems to have grown over the years. I wonder if foot traffic had something to do with that.

Pretty brocade moss (Hypnum imponens) decorated many logs near the wet area. I often have trouble finding this moss when I do a moss post but apparently that’s only because I’ve been looking in the wrong places.

As I suspected the forest was clear of ice and snow. The snow on the trail had been washed away by rain before people could walk on it and pack it into ice, so we were back to bare ground.

I’ve always thought that the weight of snow was what flattened evergreen Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides) down to the ground but according to an interesting article in Northern Woodlands Magazine science has found that  some cells in their lower stems die, forming a ‘hinge’ which allows the fern fronds to sprawl on the ground. What they gain by doing so is the warmer ground surface, which may keep them up to 18 degrees warmer than if they remained standing upright.

If you look at the leaflets on a Christmas fern you’ll see that each one looks like a Christmas stocking, each with a “toe.” This and their leathery look and feel make them very easy to identify. The name “Christmas fern” is thought to come from the early settler’s habit of using its fronds as Christmas decorations. Native Americans used them to treat chest ailments like pneumonia and to relieve flu symptoms.

Concentric boulder lichen (Porpidia crustulata) gets its name from the way its black apothecia grow in concentric (or nearly so) rings around their center. The gray body of the lichen forms a crust on stone and that makes it a crustose lichen. They grow in sun or shade and don’t ever seem to change color. This lichen is relatively rare here and I only see them once in a blue moon but here they were; four or five of them grew on a boulder I’ve walked by a hundred times.  As I’ve said before; I’m as amazed by what I miss as what I see.

There are lots of bent trees in this forest and I’d guess they got that way by having other trees fall on them when they were young.

The soil was crunching when I walked on it in places and I knew what that meant…

…Ice needles. Ice needles form when hydrostatic pressure forces groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. I’ve read that each hair thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in these photos, frozen together into ribbons, were about 3-4 inches long I’d guess. 

There were lots of ice needles along the trail but many had been stepped on, probably by people who heard the crunching but never saw them.

A young tree root grew over a stone and lashed it down.

I stopped to admire the grain patterns on a hollow log. Wood like this is very beautiful in my opinion and I’m seeing more of it everywhere I go.

I saw several stilted trees on this day. Stilted trees grow from seeds that fall on a rotted log or stump and grow their roots around the stump or log. Once whatever it grew on rots away what is left is a tree that looks like it’s standing on stilts. Or about to run away.

And before I knew it there was Tippin Rock, the 40 ton glacial erratic that rocks like a baby cradle if you push in the right spot. Every time I think about all the things that had to happen for this boulder to be here on the summit my mind gets boggled. How thick can a glacier be, I always wonder.

Tippin Rock has a crack but I don’t think it goes all the way through. If it is rocked much more it might though. I’ve seen photos from the early 1900s of people standing by it so I’m guessing it has been rocked for quite a long time.

This was not a day for views, and that was okay. I had forgotten that the sun points right at you up here at this time of day. What looks like brush in the foreground in this shot is actually the uppermost branches of a mature oak tree.

Instead of looking out into the sun I looked down. As always I was fascinated at being so high above the tree tops, and I wasn’t surprised to find that my fear of heights was still healthy and strong.

Of course I had to say hello to my friends the toadskin lichens. Water dripped down the stones and fell on some of them and that meant they were their “normal” pea green color. They will not die without moisture but what you see here is what I think of as their happy state.

Many of them were dry and ash gray. Lichens are very patient beings and they will stay in this state waiting for rain for as long as it takes.

This one was drying out and was partly gray, and if you compare it to the one we saw two photos ago you can see how the shine has gone out of it. The tiny black dots are this lichen’s spore producing apothecia. Toadskin lichens attach to the rock at a single point that looks sort of like a belly button, and this makes them umbilicate lichens. It was once thought that they were a combination of fungus and algae, but science has learned that they are actually composite beings made up of several different organisms.

I hiked over to the ledges and marveled at the silence of the day. Not a bird call, not a breeze, not a chipmunk, no falling ice or water, nothing. But then while I was taking this photo I heard behind me and down below in the forest the loud crash of a tree falling. This was only the second time I’ve heard a tree fall without seeing it, but it’s a sound you can’t mistake for anything else. It always reminds me of the question “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody there to hear it, will it still make a sound?”

I looked down again thinking I might see that fallen tree, and wished I hadn’t. That’s quite a drop.

After the butterflies had flown from my stomach I headed back down the hill and found a lady and her dog who were lost. She walked a lot faster than I do and had passed me a couple times at different spots, and was now coming back up the main trail looking for the side trail that would lead her out of the woods. I pointed her in the right direction and told her which tree and stumps to watch for. I didn’t see her again so I assume she made it home safely. I’ve been lost in the woods just once and I can say  that I’d rather have just about anything else happen, so I think I know how she felt.

If you wish your children to think deep thoughts, to know the holiest emotions, take them to the woods and hills, and give them the freedom of the meadows; the hills purify those who walk upon them.  ~Richard Jefferies

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When I thought about the title of this post I wondered if anyone would really want to look back at the last year, but then I thought that these “looking back” posts are as much about looking forward as they are looking back, because in nature it’s a pretty fair bet that what happened last year will happen this year. To a point anyway; I hope the drought will ease this year so I can see mushrooms and slime molds again. The above shot is from last January, when I was stunned by the beauty of fresh snow.

I was also stunned by pussy willows. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in January before.

In February the first skunk cabbages appeared from under the snow. A welcome sign of spring in February, which can sometimes be the coldest and snowiest month of all.

It was in February that I also saw the vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Very small but beautiful, and with a fragrance that you can smell from two blocks away.

In March I saw the first of the American hazelnut blossoms; truly the first wildflowers of the year.

Things start happening in gardens in March as well. That’s usually when reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) appear. They are one of the earliest bulbs to show growth. They’re very cheery after a long winter without flowers.

April is when our spring ephemerals start to appear, and one of the largest and showiest is the purple trillium (Trillium erectum).These flowers are often an inch and a half or more across and very visible because of their color. Trilliums are all about the number three, with three red petals and three green sepals. In fact the name trillium comes from the Latin tres, which means three. The three leaves are actually bracts which the flowers nod under for a short time before finally facing outward. Inside the flowers are six stamens and three stigmas, and if pollinated they will become a red, three chambered berry. 

With so many flowers appearing in spring it’s very hard to choose the ones to put into these posts but one I felt I had to choose for April is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and I chose it because most people never see it. They aren’t with us long but luckily colonies in different places bloom at different times, and in that way their bloom time can be extended. They will for the most part bloom only when the sun shines on them but you can occasionally find them on a cloudy day. Their common name comes from the bright red or orange sap in their roots.

One of my personal favorites among the spring ephemerals is the spring beauty (Claytonia carolinana.) Though they sometimes appear in April, May seems to be the month I can really count on seeing them. I know where a colony of many thousands of plants grow and I have happily knelt in last year’s leaf litter taking photos of them for years now. I love their aspirin size, pink striped blossoms.  

Around the end of May is when I start seeing the beautiful little fringed polygalas (Polygala paucifolia). Their color and the fact that they sometimes grow beside violets make them easy to miss so you have to pay attention. The small 3 inch tall by inch and a half wide plants usually bloom in quite large colonies but not always. They are in the milkwort family and are also sometimes called flowering wintergreen and / or gaywings. Once you’ve found some you can go back to see them year after year. They seem quite long lived.

June is when our most well known orchid, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) blooms. Once collected into near oblivion by people who thought they could just dig them up and plant them in their gardens, they have made a strong comeback and I see quite a few now. They’re beautiful and unusual, and should be left alone so we can all admire them. If transplanted they will not live long.

June was also when I found some larch flowers (Larix laricina). These tiny but beautiful things are so small all I can see is their color. I have to point the camera at the color and “shoot blind” until I get a shot. They can appear in mid May but I usually expect them in late May to early June. If you know a larch tree you might want to have a look. These tiny things will become the cones that hold the tree’s seeds, so if you look for the cones first that will give you an idea of which branches the flowers are most likely to appear on.  

Around the end of June and the first week of July I start looking for one of the most beautiful wildflowers I’ve seen; the purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora). The big, two foot tall plant looks like a bush full of purple butterflies. They are quite rare in this area and that’s most likely because they grow in swamps. I can usually expect to have wet ankles after taking photos of this one.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) blossoms right at the same time every year; just in time for the 4th of July, and its flowerheads just happen to look like fireworks. Flowers on both male and female plants lack petals and have only anthers (male) or pistils (female). These are male flowers in this photo.

One of our prettiest and smallest wildflowers bloom in early August. Forked blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) get barely ankle tall and like to grow in sandy soil in full sun. One unusual thing about the flower, other than its unique beauty, is its four long, arching stamens that dust bees with pollen when they land on its lower lip. You can see the tiny white pollen grains at the end of the anthers on this example.

In my last post I described how colorblindness prevented my ever seeing a cardinal. It works the same way for cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) unfortunately, so I was elated last August when a coworker and I stumbled upon a group of them. I knew what they looked like, and once I was right on top of them I could see their color, which was beautiful. Note how this much larger flower with its arching stamens uses the same strategy as the tiny forked blue curl we saw previously. The chief difference is, these stamens dust hummingbirds with pollen instead of bees.

It wouldn’t be September without New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and this one just happens to be my favorite color aster. Unfortunately it’s also the hardest color to find so each year I have to go hunting for them. I can’t complain though; hunting for flowers is a pleasure, not a chore.

I could have shown a fragrant white waterlily (Nymphaea odorata) in any month following May but this is the only photo from last year that showed the center of the flower, where a golden flame burns. I remember standing on the shore of a pond full of hundreds of these beautiful flowers last summer and being able to smell their glorious scent on the breeze. It was one the most amazing things, and I suspect that it wall last in my memory until I no longer have one.

I did see things other than flowers last year; things like this beautiful cedar waxwing I saw eating the berries of silky dogwoods at the river one September evening.

In October I went to see if the old stone staircase was still standing; all that’s left of Madame Sherri’s “castle” in Chesterfield. The castle was actually more of a chalet but it had quite a lot of elaborate stonework. It also had trees growing through the roof. How they kept the rain out is a mystery. Though I didn’t mention it in the original post I walked to the spot I had chosen and promptly tripped over a tree root and fell flat on my face in front of about 15 people who were all jostling to get a shot of the stairway. The camera was unscathed and I got my shot. The fall foliage was beautiful that day and the weather was perfect but the stairway was in need of some immediate help from a mason.

I also went to Willard Pond in October and walked through one of the most beautiful hardwood forests I’ve ever seen.

In November witch hazels bloomed. Also in December, but I doubt I’ll see any in January.

Also in November I was looking at lichens, including the smoky eye boulder lichen seen here. It’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion and I’ve put it here as an answer to the question “What is there to see in winter?” There is as much beauty to be seen in winter as there is at any other time of year. You just have to look a little closer, that’s all.

What could be more beautiful that this mossy hillside? It was like a green carpet covering the earth. What I like most about the colder months is how you can see the bones of the forest. There is no foliage to block your view in December.

One thing I’ll remember about the past year is how it was too dry for fungi. I saw very few until December, when I saw these mock oyster mushrooms (Phyllotopsis nidulans). They were big and beautiful, and looked as if they had been covered in orange velvet. They were well worth the wait but I hope to see more in 2021.

I hope this look back at 2020 wasn’t as bad as what you might have imagined. I’d rather have this blog be an island of calm in a sea of chaos than a running commentary on current events. Current events come and go like the tides and have no permanence, so about all you’re ever going to find here is nature, which is timeless. I do hope that’s why you come.

You live life looking forward, you understand life looking backward. ~Soren Kierkegaard

Thanks for stopping in. I hope you’ll all have a happy, heathy new year.

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A cute little red squirrel ran up the backside of a pine tree and peeked around it to see what I was doing. I probably see one red squirrel for every hundred gray squirrels so they aren’t that common in this immediate area. They’re cute but if they get into your house they can and will cause a lot of damage. I worked for a lady once who had them in her attic and I spent all summer trapping and relocating them. They had chewed all the wiring, got into stored items, and made a mess in general. A big mess.

I’ve mentioned the storm that dropped 16 inches of snow in other posts but what I haven’t mentioned is the below zero cold that came after. Ponds and streams froze quickly, but as I write this it’s near 60 degrees F. and raining like it was June, so I’d guess tomorrow all the snow will be gone and all the rivers and streams will be at bank-full.

I saw ice doing strange things. I’m sure the wind had a lot to do with this teardrop shape on a standing shrub but I couldn’t quite figure out where the water had come from. Maybe it had simply trickled down the branch but if so why didn’t the wind blow it while it trickled? It seemed to have all collected in this one spot.

Though it’s hard to tell from this photo this is ice, frozen onto deck boards in very strange patterns. I can’t even guess why water would have pooled and frozen in this way, but it was pretty.

Just as I got to work one morning the sun was just kissing the clouds, and I had to stop and watch. I try not to let such things go unappreciated. If you let yourself pay attention to the beauty in this world more and more you’ll find yourself saying a silent thank you. Serenity, gratitude, joy; these are just some of the things that nature will fill you with.

Just to the right of that last shot the sun was also kissing the moon.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I’ve doubted for years that that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and they don’t always melt into the soil. As I walked in this area around the stone the soil sank about two inches with every step, so now I’m certain that frost had heaved up and lifted all the soil and smaller stones that surrounded the bigger one. Frozen soil is a lot more plastic than we realize.

I was happy to see some tiny bird’s nest fungi, which few people ever get to see. I think they were fluted bird’s nest fungi (Cyathus striatus) and this is a view of them from the side. They grow in a funnel or vase shape and have flutes around the rim of the body, which is hollow like a cup. They are so small not even a pea would fit inside them.

The “bird’s nest” is actually a splash cup called a peridium and when a drop of rain falls into it with enough force the “eggs” are splashed out. These eggs, which can be seen here, are really spore cases called peridioles. Once ejected from the splash cup the peridioles degrade over time to release the spores.

There is a much studied phenomenon called the Red Bark Phenomenon, and scientists have devoted much time studying trees with colored bark all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange and yellow as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. I’ve seen it here and there on tree bark and after a lot of research a few years ago I found that it was caused by the algae Trentepohlia, which is a genus of filamentous chlorophyte green algae in the family Trentepohliaceae. It appears on tree trunks, stones and is even present in many lichens. So if you see a tree with red bark there isn’t anything wrong. It’s just algae looking for a place to perch. This example was on an eastern hemlock.

Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are numerous here and black capped chickadees flock here to eat the seeds from the hemlock cones like the one pictured above. The 1/2 inch long cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered by them in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans also showed Europeans how to prevent scurvy by making tea from the tree’s needles.

Gray birch (Betula alba var. populifolia) flowers grow in long clusters known as catkins. They flower, which means the male flowers release pollen and the female flowers accept it, in April and May and then the female flowers ripen into seeds throughout the summer. Ripe female catkins like the one seen here are called strobiles and resemble small cones. Fruit (seeds) are blown about by the wind in late fall and winter. Unless that is, birds get to them. Many songbirds love them.

You can often find the snow under a gray birch littered with hundreds of tiny winged seeds, which are called nutlets. Seeds can persist for years in the soil and will grow if the soil is disturbed.

Other plentiful winter seeds for birds include those of asters, which I’m still seeing a lot of.

A beech leaf was caught by the sun and was beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. Beech is a tree that lends great beauty to the forest all year long. Its orangey brown leaves will slowly lighten to a yellow so pale it is almost white, and then they will finally fall to make room for new leaves in spring.

The deep blue shadows on snow always remind me of a special high school art teacher who taught me to see rather than just look. To me, probably due to colorblindness, winter shadows looked gray but she convinced me that they were and should be blue. The odd thing about all of that is how, once I began painting them blue I began seeing them in blue and I have ever since, so she gave me a great gift. Colorblindness is a very strange thing and it doesn’t behave as many people think it does. I can see red and green separately for instance but when a red cardinal lands in a green tree it completely disappears. In fact I have never been able to see a cardinal, even when someone pointed at one and said “It’s right there, can’t you see it?”

But blue still isn’t always blue to these colorblind eyes. I know that cold will turn the normally amber sap of the white pine tree blue but this looks kind of pinky / lavender to me. My color finding software tells me it is steel blue though, and it always wins the argument. Colors come in shades or hues and telling them apart can be quite confusing to the colorblind.

Here is something I’ve never seen before; pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) growing on a tree. I know lichens can and will grow on just about anything but until now I’ve only seen this particular one on soil and very rotten wood; never on a live, growing tree. Lichens surprise me continuously. Pixie cups are squamulose lichens, and the tiny golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus), and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes, which is the green growth seen here. But though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are its podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. 

This is the first time I’ve shown the seed pods of the beautiful native shrub known as rhodora (Rhododendron canadense). I’m going to have to watch and see when they open. Quite late, apparently.

I thought I’d show the beautiful flowers of the rhodora because I don’t think most people ever see them. Even in this area it’s a shrub that many don’t know. The flowers appear just when the irises start to bloom and I often have to search for them because they aren’t common. Rhodora is a small, knee high, native rhododendron (actually an azalea) that loves swampy places. It is native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada and both its western and southern limits are reached in Pennsylvania. The flowers appear before the leaves, but only for a short time in spring. By mid-June they will have all vanished.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams just like the rhodora we saw previously. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Is it too early to think of spring? It’s never too early in my opinion and it’s usually in the depths of winter that I start checking buds. These lilac buds were quite pretty, I thought. They are great examples of imbricate buds, which have scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If water got in and froze it would destroy the future flower or leaf embryo within, so buds go to great lengths to prevent that.

While I’ve been working on this post we’ve had just about every kind of weather imaginable. We had snow but of course since it’s so dark before and after work I really couldn’t show it to you. Then on Christmas eve through Christmas day we had temperatures near 60 degrees and 2 inches of rain fell. The shot above shows what the Ashuelot River looks like after 2 inches of rain and a 16 inch snow melt find their way into it. It will boil like this for a few days and then return to its placid self, but meanwhile it will have the wild, rugged beauty we see here. I love watching the waves.

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself. ~L. Wolfe Gilbert

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone will have a happy and healthy 2021.

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