Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Creeper Berries’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common greenshield lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata) is very common and can be found on many of the trees here. It’s a large lichen and colonies of them often grow big enough to cover entire trees. They often wrinkle like the example seen here. Like many lichens they change color, and go from grayish when dry to yellow green when wet. They often have patches of granular soredia on them as this one did. A soredium is a tiny granular ball of fungal hyphae and algal cells. They can grow on the body of the lichen or on its margins and might eventually fall off to make new lichens. No matter what living thing you find in nature it’s always about the continuation of the species, and the will to survive is strong in all of the things I see.

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

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

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We’ve had some rough weather since I last did one of these “things I’ve seen” posts; large amounts of rain, record high temperatures and strong winds. Clouds like these have been commonly seen in the afternoon, just before a downpour.

One storm had strong straight line winds of 60+ mph and blew down many trees. These examples were sheared off rather than blown down but the trees were still done for no matter how it happened.

The wind blew bird’s nests right out of the trees.

The rain filled the rivers and gave me a chance to practice my wave shots at the Ashuelot River in Swanzey.  I like to see if I can tune myself into the rhythm of the river so I can tell ahead of time when a wave will form. Once you have tuned into its rhythm you can get photos of cresting waves again and again, with little effort.  As Joseph Campbell once said; The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.

Bailey Brook Falls up in Nelson, which is north of Keene, had plenty of water tumbling over the rocks. Last time I was there it was barely a trickle.

Since I was at Baily Brook Falls anyway I decided to walk the old dirt road and look for signs of bear. They were easy to find; marking this utility pole seems to be a favorite pastime of theirs. All the light colored tooth and claw marks seen here were all made by bears.

They also use the pole as a scratching post and rub up themselves against it. They often leave hairs behind when they do, and these were just slightly above eye level. I was glad I didn’t meet up with the donor. I wouldn’t have wanted him to think I was marking his territory.

I’ve seen a few great blue herons this summer but Lo and behold, this one was moving instead of pretending to be a statue. It was moving because moments before I had stepped around some brush and came almost nose to beak with it. We were both startled (in fact I might have said aa!) but the heron calmly walked away while I stood fumbling with my camera. This is the second time this has happened in as many years and I’m convinced that great blue herons don’t have very good hearing. I wish they’d find a way to let me know they were on the other side of the bush.

This heron was also moving but it was notable because it was moving through a field, and that’s something I’ve read about but have never seen. But since I took this photo I saw another one doing the same thing so it must be fairly common behavior. I’d say from the bulge in this one’s throat that it’s also a successful strategy. You don’t realize just how tall a great blue heron is until you see them with their neck fully outstretched. I wasn’t close enough to be able to tell for sure but it looked like this one could have pecked the top of my head.

I saw a beetle with a strange insignia on a shield like appendage and I immediately thought that it would be a nightmare to identify, but it was actually very easy.

It was the American carrion beetle (Necrophila americana) which is something I’ve never seen before. Not surprisingly, this beetle eats decaying flesh in both its adult and larval stages. Since there was no decaying flesh anywhere near where it was I thought it was odd that it was there but they do eat insect larvae as well so maybe that’s what it was hunting. I’ve read that adults prefer moist habitats and are active all summer. One generation is born each year.

There’s nothing odd about a bumblebee on a flower until I tell you that this bee was huge; at least as big as half my thumb. It also looked very different than the bumblebees that I’m used to.

That’s because it isn’t a bumblebee at all. It’s an eastern or Virginia carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) and that marking just between its eyes makes it very easy to identify. These bees nest in wood and eat pollen and nectar. They don’t eat wood but they will excavate tunnels through rotten wood. The adults nest through winter and emerge in spring. Though it is said to be common in the eastern part of the country I can’t remember ever seeing one. I’ve read that they can be up to an inch long and this one was all of that. Females can sting but they do so only when bothered. Males don’t have a stinger, thankfully.

Here was something strange that I can’t begin to explain. That butterfly flat on the ground was dead and the two standing butterflies were watching over it as if guarding it. As I got closer to take photos they would fly around me and then land near their dead compadre again, time after time. I think the standing ones were clouded yellow butterflies (Colias croceus.)

This is the dead butterfly that the mourners were tending to. I thought it would be easy to identify but it hasn’t been and I’ve run out of time. If you happen to know I’d love for you to tell me and I’d also love to know what this behavior is all about. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I saw another strange insect that I haven’t been able to identify on a milkweed plant. A “wheel bug” is the closest I could come, but that isn’t it.

I wondered if the strange insect did this to the milkweed seed pod. I’ve never seen one grow in a spiral.

Wooly alder aphids (Paraprociphilus tessellatus) grow a white, filamentous waxy covering that looks like it’s made up of tiny white ribbons. When grouped together in a colony the insects look like white fuzz on the alder’s branches and this white fuzz helps protect them from the eyes of predators. You can see aphids without their covering at about twelve and nine o’clock in this photo. They have a kind of checkerboard pattern on their backs. They are sap sucking insects which secrete a sweet honeydew on the leaves and branches of plants. This honeydew attracts a fungus called black sooty mold, but since the mold grows only on the honeydew and not the plant, it doesn’t harm plants. The aphids themselves will do far more harm because they can literally suck the life out of a plant.

Wooly alder aphids are quite small; smaller than a pencil eraser and can be hard to see, even with the white waxy covering. I look on the undersides of alder branches at about this time of year. Something I’ve never seen before are the reddish blobs that appear in this photo. I’m not sure but it looks as if some of the aphids on this branch were crushed somehow and I think that is their “blood.” If you are lucky enough to catch these insects in flight, they look like tiny white fairies. In fact another name for them is “fairy flies.”

I was driving slowly, looking for fall color, down an old road one recent evening and saw a young cottontail ahead. I stopped and turned my camera on. It was cloudy and already nearly dark at 6:00 pm but I thought I’d at least try. But the camera wouldn’t have it; I was too far away. So, instead of getting out of the car and scaring the rabbit away I simply took my foot off the brake and let the car creep toward the bunny. It couldn’t have cared less and kept munching grasses while the car crept ahead. This poor photo was taken from about 10 feet away through the windshield. The rabbit never moved until another car came along from the opposite direction.

I haven’t seen the beautiful autumn scarlet leaves of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) yet but the berries are ripe. The blue berries on their pink stems (pedicels) is a sight that goes far back into my memory because my mother loved Virginia creeper and grew it on wire on the side of our house. Many birds (35 species) love these berries, including thrushes, woodpeckers, warblers, vireos, mockingbirds, chickadees, and turkeys. So do mice, red fox, skunks, chipmunks, squirrels, and deer. I’ve read that birds are attracted more to red fruits than the blue-black ones found on Virginia creeper, so the vine compensates by having flaming red leaves in the fall. When birds land amidst all the attractive shades of red they find and eat the berries.

The berries of silky dogwood are ripe now but when I took this photo they were in their turning from green to white to blue phase. In the middle of that turning some of the berries are white and blue at the same time and I’ve always wondered if that’s where the ancient Chinese got the idea for their beautiful blue and white porcelain. That’s a question that will most likely never be answered but I’d say that it is a fair bet that most if not all ancient innovations came from studying nature. One need only to look at the spiral as an example; it is found in everything from the center of a sunflower to a hurricane to the Archimedes screw; they have fascinated mathematicians, scientists, and artists for thousands of years.

Fall starts tonight at about 10:00 pm so I thought I’d show the only good display of fall colors that I’ve seen so far. There should be plenty more coming but for now this view of Half Moon Pond in Hancock is a good preview. For some reason the trees around this pond change before most of the others I see.

I’d like to end this post with a thank you to all the readers who wrote in to say that what I thought was pollution on the banks of the Ashuelot River in my post of last Saturday might easily have come from natural sources. Iron rich ferrous hydroxide that occurs naturally in soil can cause the oil like sheen on water, as can bacteria generated hydrocarbons in oxygen depleted soil. The example shown here was found on the very wet soil of a seep. It did my heart good to think that the Ashuelot River might really be completely clean once again, so thanks again for the enlightening information.

Since we cannot know all there is to be known about anything, we ought to know a little about everything. ~Blaise Pascal

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