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Posts Tagged ‘Whistle Post’

I’m still taking vacation days from work to use them up before I retire and that’s a good thing, because the weather forecast was for dangerous wind chills of -30 F last Saturday. Flesh freezes in 15 minutes in that kind of cold, I believe the weather people said, so instead of testing their accuracy I opted for a Friday walk, when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees F. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would have packed snow from snowmobiles, but I was surprised to see the summer gate still up. It’s there to keep wheeled vehicles off the rail trails in warmer months but is lowered in winter for snowmobiles. Still, there it was. In any event the snow had still been well packed by snowmobiles.

I like this trail because it still has a lot of the old railroad artifacts still here, like this whistle post. The W on the post told the engineer to blow his whistle or horn to warn traffic on the road up ahead. Where I grew up it was two shorts and a long on a horn and I could hear it inside the house with all the windows and doors closed. I used to love seeing those trains, so much so that I spent years building an HO scale model train layout.

Something else left out here from the railroad days is the stiff wire stock fencing they used to keep animals off the tracks. Miles and miles of it were strung along each side of the right of way, usually on stout metal posts, but in this instance a wooden fence post was used, and it showed its age beautifully, I thought.

Slowly, it was becoming hollow. The railroad came through this area about 150 years ago, and I wondered if this post had stood here all of that time. It looked like it might have so maybe it was black locust, which is known to last 100 years or more in the ground.

I saw many wood aster seed heads here and I noticed that many had been eaten, so that made me happy. Cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, nuthatches, sparrows, towhees and other birds are said to enjoy aster seeds, so that’s a good reason to let them grow rather than treating them as weeds.

The birds had picked this flower clean except for one tiny seed, and that was perfect so I could show you what an aster seed looks like. It has a little tuft of filaments at the top which acts as a parachute. When a seed hits the ground the wind can catch in the filament parachute and blow the seed along the ground to a spot where it can grow.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve seen a bird’s nest in a shrub overrun with Oriental bittersweet. I can see how the invasive vine’s many leaves would provide good cover, but since the berries don’t appear until late fall, I doubt it has anything to do with the nesting bird eating them. It would be nice for the mama bird if she could just sit in the nest and eat the berries that surrounded her but nature doesn’t work that way. There is plenty to eat but they have to go and find it.

What does Oriental bittersweet do when there are no trees around to strangle? It strangles itself.

As I began paying closer attention when I was in the woods and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed things on trees in winter that didn’t seem to be there in the summer. At least that’s what I thought but no, they were there all the time. It was just that they became more visible in the winter, like the way frullania liverworts darken to a dark purple color in the winter. All of the sudden the trees were covered by these dark spots, so I began looking at them closely.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some of them are said to be very fragrant but I haven’t been able to smell them yet. There are over 800 species of this liverwort. I haven’t tried to identify them but I have noticed that the ones I see must like high humidity, because they never grow too far from water.

This drainage ditch looked to be frozen solid. The black spots on the snow are hemlock seeds and scales from the cones. Birds and squirrels had been busy.

Not all of the drainage ditches were solidly frozen, so I got to see some beautiful patterns in the ice.

Beech leaves are falling I’ve noticed, and while I’ll miss seeing them I know they’re letting go so new leaves can appear in the spring. Seeing buds breaking on a beech tree is one of the great gifts of spring in a northern forest. How very beautiful they are as they unfold from the bud like silvery angel’s wings.

I saw a pheasant feather in the snow; the first I’ve ever seen that was not on a bird. This bird had met an untimely end, judging from what I saw just out of camera range to the left. I’ve learned to be at peace with seeing death in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some fungi and trees I’ve seen, death can even be beautiful. As John Muir said “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”  

If you happened to be standing on top of a moving train, not knowing there was a bridge or tunnel up ahead, that probably wouldn’t have turned out well. To solve the problem the railroad came up with what they called “Tell tales.” They were lengths of soft, pencil thick wire that would hit you and “tell the tale” of a low obstruction up ahead. If you were smart you would drop to your knees immediately. These wires used to hang on either end of tunnels and trestles. I used to see them regularly when I was a boy but now this is the last one I know of.

The railroad engineers often used what they had at hand, like splitting boulders and ledges to get useable stone for building. In the case of tell tales they simply stood a section of rail on end and sank it into the ground. Then they added a rod that stood 90 degrees to the rail and hung the wires from it.

And here was the old trestle, just like the one that was near my house when I was a boy. Back then there was no solid floor like the snowmobile clubs have installed these days. Instead there were wooden ties, spaced just as far apart as they were on the railbed, and between each pair, far below, you could see the water. This was a fence when I was young, and it prevented me exploring the land of mystery to the south. I was told that little boys who weren’t careful could fall between the railroad ties and end up in the river, and for a while that possibility was an insurmountable fear. At six, seven or eight years old I was probably thin enough to actually fit between the wooden ties but I kept trying, going further and further out on the trestle, all the while hoping that a train didn’t come. Then one day at maybe twelve years old I made it across and I was free to explore the far side of the river. It was like a great space had suddenly opened around me, and I’ll never forget how happy I was about being able to see more of the river and the woods along its banks.

I looked at the Ashuelot River through a silver maple, which seems to lean just a bit more each time I come here.

There was ice along the riverbanks and since we’ve had below zero cold since I was there, I’m guessing it has grown some. It will grow from each shore and meet somewhere near the middle if it stays cold enough.

The snowmobile club had put up a warning sign on a pine tree, but I was more interested in the burl behind it.

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

You know it has been cold when the sap of white pines turns blue.

I finally found a fresh blueberry stem gall and all signs pointed to the tiny wasps still living inside, because when the wasps have left the gall, the sides are shot full of small round holes. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on the tip of a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring.

But not so fast. There was one very large hole in the end of the gall and that told me a bird, possibly a woodpecker, had robbed the gall of all the wasp larvae. I’ve seen this happen to the round galls on goldenrod and have seen black capped chickadees pecking at those. This gall and its inhabitants appear to be done for but someday I hope to be able to show you a fresh inhabited one.

My favorite thing from this day was this stump. No bigger around than a tennis ball where it was cut but it looked as if it had been there for a thousand years. It’s a good thing I have never found a way to bring all of the beautiful wooden things that I find in the woods home with me because I wouldn’t be able to move.

I don’t mind going nowhere, as long as it’s an interesting path. ~Ronald Mabbitt

Thanks for coming by.

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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

Thanks for stopping in.

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Last Sunday I needed to see something new, so I decided on the rail trail that heads south out of Keene to Swanzey, Troy, Fitzwilliam, and eventually the Massachusetts border. I’ve done the northern and southern legs of the trail but never this middle section. I started my hike on this amazing stone arch bridge. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of the stones. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

The bridge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means it earned a little money for upkeep. Part of the upkeep involved upgrading the drainage and laying a new bed of pea stone where the trains would have run. It seems to be still as solid as the day it was built.

Here is a postcard view of the bridge, probably from the early 1900s. The view and landscape is very different today of course. These postcards were usually actual photos colored by hand but I think this one was a drawing.

The white building in the postcard view is no longer there. This view from the top of the bridge looks west towards Vermont. It was a partly cloudy, very windy day and the gusts felt like they might blow me right off the bridge so I didn’t hang around up here for very long. We’ve had at least some wind nearly every day for over a month now.

I saw some very symmetrical horsetails. This is one plant you do not want in your garden because once you have them you’ll never be rid of them. When I had my gardening business I tried just about everything I could think of including covering them with black plastic for a full year. They loved it and grew on as if nothing had happened.

I also saw some very red new leaves on the staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina.

The trail is wide and dry for the most part because the drainage channels that the railroad built 150 years ago are still working.

Skunk currants (Ribes glandulosum) grew in patches here and there along the trail. I’ve read that the plant gets its common name from the odor given off by its ripe dark red berries, which doesn’t sound too appealing but they are said to be very tasty. If you can get past the smell, I assume. This is a very hairy plant; even its fruit has hairs. The Native Ojibwa people used the root of skunk currant to ease back pain but it is not a favorite of foresters or timber harvesters because it carries white pine blister rust, which can kill pine trees.

Skunk currant flowers are quite small at about 1/4 inch across. They are saucer shaped with 5 petals and 5 purple stamens.

Unfortunately I also saw a lot of garlic mustard out here. Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an invasive plant once used as an edible pot herb. This plant forms large colonies and chokes out natives by poisoning the soil with compounds called glucosinolates that leach into the soil and kill off many soil fungi that native species depend on to survive. It grows from 1-4 feet tall and has a strong but pleasant garlic / onion odor when the leaves are crushed. It spreads quickly and prefers growing in shaded forests. It isn’t uncommon to find areas where no growing thing can be seen on the forest floor but this plant. It is considered one of the worst invasive species because of its ability to spread rapidly and is found in all but 14 U.S. states, including Alaska and large parts of Canada. Maybe if we all decided to eat it, it would prove to be less of a problem. According to what I’ve read, the young spring plants are delicious.

The sunshine seemed to always be just up around the next bend. Until I got to the next bend, that is. By then it had disappeared.

This is a typical New Hampshire mixed forest with mostly pine, hemlock, cherry, beech, oak, maple and white and gray birch. Also this single beautiful golden birch.

I saw a small bird’s nest in a cherry sapling. It was about 5-6 inches across so a small bird must have made it.

Violets bloomed all along the trail. I thought this might be an early blue violet but since my color finding software sees mostly purple, I’ll just call it a violet. It had long above ground rhizomes that I’ve never seen on a violet.

Sessile leaved bellworts (Uvularia sessilifolia) grew along the drainage channels in groups. I’ve seen them carpet large areas of forest floor so I had the feeling that they must have just gotten started here. They’re in the lily of the valley family, which can also form large colonies.

This signal post looked new, and that’s because someone had painted it. I’m not sure why anyone would but there it was, looking like it had just been installed yesterday.

I was very surprised to see skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) growing on a wet hillside. I’ve read that eating the leaves can cause burning and inflammation but something had eaten many of the leaves. Often animals don’t have the same reaction to plants that we do. Birds even eat poison ivy berries.

This is a photo of the fruit of a skunk cabbage which is a rare sight, even for those of us who look for such things.

I saw just two red trilliums (Trillium erectum) out here. I also saw Jack in the pulpit, starflowers, and lots of fern fiddleheads. The trilliums and our other spring ephemerals will probably be done by the time this post is read. Leaves on the trees and warmer weather finish their short bloom periods quickly.

I saw lots of wild sarsaparilla plants (Aralia nudicaulis) just unfurling their leaves. At this stage many people confuse wild sarsaparilla with poison ivy, which comes up at the same time and has glossy green leaves. One way to tell the two apart is by the stem. Poison ivy usually has an older, woody stem while sarsaparilla has a fresh, tender stem. The roots of this plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There were already flower buds on some sarsaparilla plants. They’ll bloom in late May, with ping pong ball size flowerheads made up of tiny individual flowers.

I thought these new oak leaves were beautiful, both in color and shape. They were soft like velvet, and there were flower buds as well.

A broken whistle post told me that a road was coming up. What looks like an M is really an upside down W. 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.

There was indeed a road; route 12 south out of Keene parallels the rail trail and I had walked to the Cheshire Fairgrounds in Swanzey. Only 2.2 miles by car from where I started, so I’d guess it was a two mile walk.

And that meant that it was two miles back, but on such a sweet spring day with birds singing in the trees two miles didn’t seem like anything, really. It was one of those days that gets inside you and lets you see how wonderful this life really is, and there was no hurry to get anywhere or to do anything. I felt doubly blessed.

Some journeys take you farther from where you come from, but closer to where you belong. ~Ron Franscell

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone is able to find some outdoor time.

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Back pain led me to look for an easy place to walk, so I chose a familiar rail trail that I knew wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Since I fell out of a tree and suffered a double fracture to my spine when I was a boy, back pain has been an old “friend” for most of my life. Usually it really isn’t that much of a problem but every now and then it becomes an issue, and I’ve found that the best cure for it is to simply walk it off.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with temperatures just above freezing, so walking was just what the doctor ordered. Actually in my experience the doctor will order you to go home and stay in bed for a week if you complain of back pain, but I’ve found that is the worst thing I can do. Keeping moving; that’s my cure.

I saw a log with some very strange looking branch collars on it. It was some type of evergreen, possibly spruce, but I’m not sure. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen here, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Private suburban land abuts this section of trail along parts of its length and over the years the homeowners have planted numerous nonnative trees and shrubs, trying to screen their yards from the trail that cuts through them. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive.

Evidence of the ice storm I wrote about in my last post was still seen over a week later, sparkling in the sun.

An Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) decided it would try to strangle a large white pine tree. If the tree lives another 50 years or so the bittersweet will most likely win and the tree will die, because these vines are like steel cables. They strangle many native trees by wrapping themselves around the tree’s trunk like a boa constrictor. I’ve seen vines as big as my arm wrapped tightly around trees so as the trees grew they had no room to expand and slowly died. 

Sometimes they even try to strangle each other.

The bittersweet berries are quite pretty but unfortunately they’re also quite tasty to birds, and of course that’s why they’re so successful at spreading throughout the countryside, and why they grow near trees and fences.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this blog is how windstorms are becoming more numerous and more severe, and I saw evidence of it everywhere out here. Though it’s hard to tell from a photo this pine tree was the diameter of a car tire and it snapped like a toothpick.

The pine tree wasn’t the only tree that had fallen. Downed trees were everywhere.

I saw a child’s footprint frozen into the ice.

Then I saw a lot more children’s footprints leading off the rail trail into the woods. It seemed I had stumbled onto the trail to a secret hideout off in the woods. It wouldn’t be secret for long though, with all those tracks coming and going. I was tempted to follow the prints but I thought about how I would have felt if an adult had appeared at my secret hideout, so I kept going down the main trail.  

They had marked their secret trail with a broken concrete base to an old birdbath. How in the world did they get that out here, I wondered. It must weigh 50 pounds.

The secret hideout was on Yale Forest land, which borders part of the trail. This sign marking the forest is slowly being eaten by a tree.

These oak leaves shining in the sunshine were beautiful, I thought.

This oak was full of galls. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of marble galls and they really are about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Iron sulfate mixed with tannic acid from oak galls made ink that was the standard writing and drawing ink from the 12th century until well into the 20th century. Some still use it today.

I’m not sure what happened here but this oak gall was seriously misshapen.

My back felt much better by the time I reached the trestle but it didn’t last so I’m still trying to walk it off as of this writing. It takes longer to straighten it out as I get older, but it will happen.

Every time I see the Ashuelot River from one of these old trestles I’m very happy that I didn’t have to bushwhack my way through the woods to see it. We’re very lucky to have these trails.

When I was a boy I walked the railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house but before I got there I had to cross a street. This was the same street crossing that, twice a day, the big diesel Boston and Maine locomotives would slow for. Before they crossed they would blow their horns to warn the cars on the street, and you could hear those horns from either my or my grandmother’s house, so I heard them twice a day everyday while I was growing up. Knowing all that you would think I would know what the W on this post stood for but it has taken me years to learn that it simply means “Whistle,” as in “blow your whistle because there’s a road crossing up ahead.” Two longs blasts followed by a short blast and a final long blast of the train’s whistle or horn is a Federal law and every train crossing a road has to abide by it to warn passing traffic. These days you’re more likely to see a flashing light or some type of barrier, but back then I could tell time by the horns on those trains.

These trains are just like the ones that rumbled by (and shook) my house for so many years. Once the trains stopped running it was very hard to see them tearing up all the tracks in this area, and it took several years before I could walk the rail trails left behind. Though I’m very thankful that we have the rail trails, seeing photos like this one is like seeing a photo of an old friend who has died. They roll by only in dreams now, hauling boxcars full of memories.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

Thanks for coming by.

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