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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Hiking’

One of the strangest things I’ve found in nature is when a normally roaring brook is muffled by ice, so last weekend I went up to Beaver Brook to see if it had been muffled or if it was still singing. As this photo shows, it was singing. Loudly.

There were places though, where the ice had almost grown from bank to bank. The ice doesn’t quiet it absolutely but very close, and it’s an eerie thing to know a brook is there and not be able to hear it.

Icicles hung from the edges of ice shelves but they weren’t as impressive as in years past. This has been such a warm winter. It gets cool and snows but then it warms up and the snow melts, and then it happens again, so we have no real snow depth. The reason it has lasted here is because Beaver Brook flows through a shaded canyon between two hills.

I saw more ice on the ledges that line the old road than on the brook.

An evergreen fern waited patiently for spring.

What I call the color changing lichen had put on its lavender / blue coat. My color finding software sees more “steel blue” than any other color but in the warm months this lichen is ash gray. When I see it I always wonder how many other lichens change color. This one is granular and crustose and I’ve never been able to identify it.

I didn’t want to get too close to where the color changing lichen grew because the ledges here are unstable and large pieces have been falling recently. Cracks like this one are caused by water running into them and freezing. The expanding ice makes the crack bigger and bigger and eventually the stone falls, pried away from the ledge face by the ice.

On the hillsides above me there were many fallen trees. Since there are electric lines running through here they have to be cut when they fall on the wires.

I was sorry to see that one of the fallen trees was an old beech with hundreds of beechnut husks on it. These nuts are an important food source for many different animals but I hardly see them at all.

A maple leaf had such beautiful color it stopped me in my tracks and held me mesmerized for a time. I took far too many photos of it but colorful maple leaves are unexpected in February.

I think it has been over a year since I last saw the yellow jelly fungus (Tremella mesenterica) called witches butter, even though they’re fairly common. Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. An odd fact about jelly fungi is that they can be parasitic on other fungi.

There are lots of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) growing along Beaver Brook. They have colorful twigs and buds and are among the easiest trees to identify no matter what time of year because of the green and white vertical stripes on their bark. Their terminal buds have two scales and are valvate, meaning they have two bud scales. Striped maple is very fussy about where it grows and will not stand pollution, heat, or drought. It likes cool, shady places with sandy soil that stays moist. They bloom in June and have very pretty green bell shaped blossoms.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) also does well along the brook. Their buds are naked, meaning they have no scales to protect them, so they have wooly hair instead. This photo shows that the flower bud in the center and the two leaf buds on either side are clothed more in wool than hair, but they come through the coldest winters and still bloom beautifully each spring.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are some of my favorites, but I don’t see them often. Lucky they grow along the brook in places so I could admire them on this day. Red elderberry buds have imbricate scales, meaning they overlap like shingles. Soon the buds will swell and the purple scales will pull back to reveal the green scales underneath.

Here was something I’ve never seen; the normally round buds of red elderberry had elongated. There were several that had done this and I can’t figure out why they would have. Maybe they can gather more sunlight with this shape and are evolving right before the eyes that care enough to watch.

When light rain or drizzle falls on cold snow it can freeze into a crust and that’s what had happened during the last storm. The shiny crust can be very hard to capture on film but here it is, on the other side of the brook. Crusty snow can be awfully hard to walk on because it acts like it will support your weight, but at the last minute it breaks and your foot falls through it. Having it happen over and over makes for a jarring and tiring walk.

A tree fell perfectly and wrapped its arms around another.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) also line the banks of Beaver Brook. This is a shot of the recently opened seed pods, which explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never am. Seeing the ice on the one on the left, I’m wondering if the pods hold water.

I like to visit my old friend the stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) when I’m here. It’s a very beautiful moss that grows on stones as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading. When dry stair step moss has a slight satiny sheen to it, and that’s probably how it came by its other common name of glittering wood-moss. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

The liverwort called greater whipwort (Bazzania trilobata) was frozen absolutely solid. Even frozen it still reminds me of centipedes. It’s very easy to mistake this common liverwort for moss so you have to look closely. The root-like growths are new branches. They aren’t always present but sometimes there will be a lot of them as there were here. This was a happy liverwort, even though it was frozen.

This scene of green algae in a seep reminded me of spring. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer. This seep is a warm one; in all the years I’ve known it I’ve never seen it completely freeze. Seeps don’t have a single point of origin like a spring, instead they form a puddle that never dries up and doesn’t flow. They’re an important water source for many small animals and birds and unusual plants and fungi can often be found in and around them.

The waters of the stream played the part of the orchestra, and the sunlight provided the dancers. Every now and then a crescendo of wind highlighted the symphony in the clearing by the creek.
~Edward Mooney Jr.

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Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, Just like this one. That day a side of nature that  I never knew existed was revealed and from then on I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two year old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the every day one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have  expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature study. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.

  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.

  3. Walk at a toddlers pace. Cross and crisscross your path.

  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.

  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.

  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.

  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.

  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.

  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.

  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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There is a rail trail in Keene that is probably the best one to walk if you like railroad history, and since history and botany are my favorite subjects it’s a must see for me. I think it has been about a year since I was out here last but I remembered what a pleasure it was to walk on the wide rail bed. It was icy in spots but since it is level it wasn’t bad.

There is a nice old box culvert that I’ve seen before but I didn’t know that I could see right through it to the far end. It spans the entire width of the rail bed to let a stream pass under it, so it’s quite long. It’s amazing how much weight these culverts once carried and how long they have lasted un-maintained. A train hasn’t rolled through here since the early 1970s.

Old signal boxes litter the sides of the rail trails in this area and a blogging friend who does asbestos remediation warned me that many of these boxes contained asbestos. I just take photos of them though, so they don’t bother me.

I can’t explain what is going on with the end of this log but I thought it was interesting.

Blue sap lines were run in the woods parallel to the trail in places.

The way these plastic lines save time and effort is by eliminating the need to empty hundreds of sap buckets into large tanks. These tanks were pulled through the woods by horses or tractors and it was a labor intensive operation, especially when we had feet of snow. What the lines haven’t eliminated is the need to still drill and tap the trees each spring. I’ve also heard that a moose or deer can wreak havoc if they get caught in the lines. All it takes is a pin hole to stop sap flow, and then you have to walk all the lines until you find and fix it, so there’s still a certain amount of labor involved each year.

You don’t realize how high up you are until you see a road below you.

The road passes through this tunnel built by the railroad. The previous photo was taken way up there where the ground is flat. The tunnel was probably 2 wagons wide when it was built but now only one car can pass through at a time. I’d guess the tunnel was built first and then all the soil you see was put over it, which would have been a huge amount of work.

There are at least two culverts out here in the woods that are built in the same way the tunnel in the previous photo was built, but on a smaller scale. It’s pretty amazing to find something like this out in the middle of nowhere. The railroad masons were true craftsman who took pride in their work and it still shows 150 years later. I’ve heard that many were from Scotland but I don’t know how true that is. I do know that I would have loved to have worked with them.

You don’t realize what wilderness the city of Keene encompasses until you come out here. This view is just a few miles from major roads but I wouldn’t be surprised to meet a bear, bobcat or moose out here.

Anyone who knows anything about railroads knows they don’t take sharp turns or go steeply uphill like that trail on the left, so what’s going on? The original trail keeps going straight, right through that fallen tree on the right. If followed it’s an education, but you’d better be prepared to climb over and under a few fallen trees.

Once you climb over a few trees this is what you see; more fallen trees in a deep cut through ledge.

A mountain of stone off in the woods shows how much was taken out of the deep cut.

Though it’s hard to see because of the snow it’s very wet here. The drainage ditches have failed and water has filled the rail bed, so if you come here you’d better wear good waterproof hiking boots.

There isn’t much groundwater here and I know that because there wasn’t much ice.

In the deep cut rail trail I visit up in Westmoreland the walls are fairly straight, having been drilled and blasted. Here the walls look quite natural, so I wonder how it was done. Since there is a mountain of stone in nearby the woods it was obviously taken from here. There are tool marks here and there that I have seen, so they did have to drill in places, but not many. In any event it would have been a huge amount of work but that’s what the railroads were known for; doing the impossible.

I saw some lush examples of delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum).  

What this place reminds me of is what all of our rail trails would look like if they were no longer maintained. In this area many of them are maintained by snowmobile clubs and the deserve or thanks, as well as any time and / or money we could donate.

I turned around here but I have been all the way to the end before and the end of the line is nothing but a huge pile of dirt. But that is a problem, because railroad tracks don’t just stop at a dirt pile; this line ran north to Westmoreland and then cut over into Vermont at one time, so I know it came through here. Hurricane Road was laid out in 1761 and ran to the Westmoreland town line and the railroad came to this area in 1848, so the tracks would have had to run under the road at this spot. Does that mean that there is a beautiful granite tunnel under that huge pile of dirt? Did they take the tunnel apart and fill in the hole when the railroad stopped running? In any event this rail trail is a dead end. Sort of anyway; you can still cross Hurricane Road and pick it up again on the other side. But what happened to the tunnel? It would have been great fun to walk through.

I didn’t meet any horses on the way back down the trail but I did meet Tucker, a very happy and friendly golden retriever. He was taking his humans for a walk.

The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for. ~Louis L’Amour

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One last photo from the recent January thaw when the temperature reached 67 degrees in Concord, our State Capital. It isn’t unheard of but it is quite rare for it to be that warm in January. This photo is from when the thaw had ended and it had started getting colder again. A mist rose from the warm soil and flowed over the landscape like water.

In places what little snow fell after the thaw had been sculpted by the wind. Wind can do strange things to snow. I’ve seen drifts up over my head and curls like ocean waves.

The wind also made ripples on a puddle and then they froze into ice. I’ve seen some amazing things in puddle ice.

I don’t know what it is about grass and snow but the combination pleases me, and I always enjoy seeing them together.

It hasn’t been truly cold this winter but it has gotten down into the single digits at night, and that’s cold enough to turn pine sap blue. I see it in varying shades of blue just about everywhere I go.

When the snow starts to melt it often melts in layers and as the top layers melt away what were mice and vole runs under the snow are exposed. These small animals are active all winter long but are rarely seen. It didn’t look like this one knew exactly where it wanted to go.

Wild turkey tracks are very easy to identify because of their large size. I happened upon a spot where many of them had gathered but since I didn’t see a trail of tracks either into or away from the place I have to assume that they flew in and out of it. Maybe they wanted to catch up on what was happening in the forest, I don’t know.

Sunshine transformed an icicle into a prism for a few moments as I watched.

Snow melts in strange ways. This photo shows how it has melted into a round mound. I’m not sure how or why it would do this. Was it colder in that small, 10 inch spot than the surrounding soil?

I saw a tiny speck move in a cobweb in a building at work so I took my macro camera off my belt and inched it closer and closer until I got the shot of the American house spider you see here. Not surprisingly this tiny, quarter inch spider is called a cobweb spider. The reason it let my camera get so close is because they have poor vision, I’ve read. They can bite but this one didn’t move. I think it was busy eating. They are said to be the most often encountered spider by humans in North America so the next time you see a cobweb this is probably what made it. They can live for a year or more.

Rim lichens are very common in this area but that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to identify. I think this one is a bumpy rim lichen (Lecanora hybocarpa) because of the bumpy rims around the reddish brown fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) They aren’t smooth and round as I’d expect so at first I thought they had simply shriveled from dryness but no, they always look like this. This lichen likes to grow on the bark of hardwood trees in well lighted forests, and that’s exactly where I found this one.

I see lots of drilled holes in stone and many are out in the middle of nowhere, where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Who, I always wonder, would go to all the trouble of drilling a hole in a boulder and then just leave it? An inch and a half diameter hole is not an easy thing to drill in stone.

The smooth sides of this hole tell me it isn’t that old. It might have once been drilled for blasting ledges along the side of a road, but right now it’s filled with pine needles.

If the hole in the stone in the previous photos were from the 1800s it would have a shape like this one, which was made by a star drill. One person would hold the drill bit and another would hit the end of it with a sledge hammer. After each hammer blow the bit was rotated a quarter turn and then struck again. It was a slow process but eventually a hole that could be filled with black powder had been drilled. You filled it with black powder, stuck a fuse in and lit it, and ran as fast as you could go.

Speaking of powder, when I touched this puffball it puffed out a stream of spores that were like talcum. I was careful not to breath any in; there are people out there who seem to think that inhaling certain puffball spores will get them high, but it is never a good thing to do. People who inhale the spores can end up in the hospital due to developing a respiratory disease called Lycoperdonosis. In one severe instance a teenager spent 18 days in a coma, had portions of his lung removed, and suffered severe liver damage.

A thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa) wore a cap of snow. This photo doesn’t show much of the maze-like underside of it, but it was there. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

I saw quite a few beautiful blue and purple turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) earlier in the year but now I’m seeing a lot of brown. One of the things I’d like to learn most about nature is what determines this mushroom’s color. It’s like a rainbow, but why? Minerals in the wood would be my first guess but apparently nobody knows for sure.

Among the many things Ötzi the 5000 year old iceman, whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991carried were birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus.) I assumed that he used them to sharpen tools (They are also called razor strops and their ability to hone a steel edge is well known.) but apparently Ötzi carried them for other purposes; scientists have found that Ötzi had several heath issues, among them whipworm, which is an intestinal parasite (Trichuris trichura,) and birch polypores are poisonous to them. The fungus also has antiseptic properties and can be used to heal small wounds, which I’m sure were common 5000 years ago. By the way, polypores always want their spore bearing surface pointed towards the ground, so you can see that these examples grew after this birch had fallen.

I went to visit the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) in their swamp and saw many of the mottled spathes I hoped to see. They weren’t open yet but inside the spathes is the spadix, which carries the flowers. The spadix is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. It carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that it uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. 

The skunk cabbages grow in a hummocky swamp. When I was a boy I used to jump from hummock to hummock but my hummock jumping days are over, so now I just wear waterproof hiking boots.

How beautiful this life is, and how many wonderful things there are to see. I do hope you’re seeing more than your share of it. It doesn’t take much; the colors in a sunrise, a sculpted patch of snow, the ice on a puddle. All will speak to you if you’re willing to just stop for a moment and look, and listen.

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep. ~Rumi

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I wanted to see how the ice columns had grown at the deep cut up in Westmoreland so off I went last week with low expectations. With the unusual warmth we’ve had I wasn’t sure I’d see any and when I saw the parking lot empty I was pretty sure I had wasted my time. No ice climbers on a January weekend is unheard of but I found out why; though there were ice columns most were rotten and crumbling.

An opaque finish on ice it does not bode well for an ice climber, because ice that looks like this is rotten and unsafe. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Ice grows very clear and  shiny when it’s cold and it doesn’t usually get rotten until March. Since January’s average temperature has been a full 8 degrees above normal I wasn’t that surprised to find it rotten.

The slush underfoot showed how warm it was, even in here where the temperature is usually a good 10 degrees cooler.

This is where I’d expect to see climbers. There were signs that they had been here but nothing recent.

Just so you can get an idea of the scale of the place here’s a shot of some ice climbers I took previously in about the same spot as the previous photo. It was a lot colder that year.

Leaving the northern canyon in the previous photos, I made my way into the southern canyon. It was here that disappointment hit me, because you could see as much stone as you could ice.

This photo from 2015, taken from about the same spot as the previous one, shows what the southern end of the trail looks like in a cold winter. You don’t see a lot of stone.

I did see some colored ice though. All of this ice is caused by groundwater constantly seeping through the fractured stone of the canyons and I think the color comes from various minerals in the water. This photo also shows another example of rotten ice; there is no shine to it at all when normally it would shine like glass. It’s dull and completely opaque.

The mineral laden water also stains the snow.

Here were some stains on the stone; caused by iron, I’m guessing.

There was some hard shiny ice here, but very little.

The railroad engineers knew about all the groundwater and they built drainage diches along the sides of the rail bed to carry it all away, but to see the ditches open and flowing in January was odd. Usually the ice covering them is strong enough by this time to walk on them.

The mosses seemed to be loving the weather and I loved seeing the mosses.

I’m guessing that I’ve been through here a hundred times or more but I had never seen this big vein of quartz until this day. That’s why naturalist John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.”

Here was an ice column just getting started. It was about as big around as your thigh and, though it’s hard to tell from the photo, it only touches the stone at its top and bottom. If it grows it will become as big as a tree trunk in diameter and attach itself to the stone all along its length. Clearly though, the mosses were winning on this day.

Here were some chunks of fallen ice along the side of the trail. When an ice column detaches from the wall it can fall across the entire trail, and when that happens this can be a very dangerous place to be. Once or twice I’ve seen small pieces fall; I didn’t hear a thing until they hit the ground so I doubt you would have any warning.

Here was more fallen ice. Any one of these pieces was big enough to kill someone and that probably explains why I didn’t see any snowmobilers here. I saw one lady on cross country skis and she looked like she was trying to get out of here as quickly as she could.

If a piece of ice or stone falls on you from way up there, you’re all done.

This is the biggest piece of ice I’ve ever seen and I know that don’t want to be anywhere near it if it lets go and slides into the trail. It’s like a small glacier.

Behind this ice was a hidden waterfall of groundwater and it made the ice crackle and sizzle like bacon frying in a pan. It was one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard in nature.

Here was another smaller waterfall that had washed away most of the ice that covered it. It shows how water streams off theses walls in places. When you understand that all this water is groundwater, running under the ground we walk on, it seems incredible.

Board by board the old lineman’s shack slowly disappears, yet still it stands, a testament to the quality of the railroad worker’s craftsmanship . Each year I tell myself it can’t possibly stand through another winter but here it is. How will I feel I wonder, when it finally comes down?

How much water can the weight of ice carry?
~Dianna Hardy

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If you’ve spent much time in the woods you know that there is an incredible amount of stuff falling from the trees. What is it? It is made up of everything from the lichens and mosses that perch on the trunks and branches to the trunks and branches themselves. Where does it all go? Thankfully the decomposers clean all of it up. If it weren’t for them we’d be up to our noses in forest litter. Bears, woodpeckers and other animals shred larger logs into smaller pieces and then the termites and ants make the pieces even smaller. Bacteria, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, microbes and many insects all have their shot at cleaning up the forest and then there are the fungi and slime molds. Between them all they can clean up a forest floor in a surprisingly short time, but since there is always more falling, their work is never done and their menu never exhausted.

This is a common sight in this region. These little scales are what’s left of a white pine (Pinus strobus) cone after a squirrel has eaten all the seeds from it. Each scale has two reddish-brown winged seeds and they’re a favorite of gray squirrels. Pine cones can close their scales to protect the seeds from the cold and animals but squirrels have figured that out. Native Americans also ate these seeds, which are said to be sweet and nutritious.

The amount of cones a tree will produce varies from year to year but every now and then we’ll have a mast year and what seems like billions of cones will fall. That happened a couple of years ago and the squirrel population seemed to explode. I’ve read that cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years but it seems longer than that. In any event, thanks to the squirrels pine cones disappear quickly.

White pine needles are 3 to 5 inches long, bluish green on top and whitish underneath and grow in bundles of 5. They are pointed, soft and flexible and the tree sheds them every 2 years. In the fall they’ll turn brown and fall off but this doesn’t hurt the tree like some people fear. A mature white pine can be 250 or more years old and each one drops an incredible amount of material each year. There is nothing better to build a camp fire with than fallen white pine limbs. A fire built with them will be hot and will burn down quickly. They are also the tallest trees in eastern North America; the tallest trees living are just under 200 feet tall.

I’m guessing that this piece of wood was hacked out of a tree by a pileated woodpecker. I’ve seen these birds cut standing, rotten trees right in half and have seen large piles of wood chips many times at the base of various trees.

This wood was soft and rotted, and I think fungi had been having their way with the tree it came from. Of course if woodpeckers were after it the tree was also full of insects. I’ve cut down trees and found them full of carpenter ants, which make tunnels all through the tree like termites.

I must see hundreds of fallen branches each week but I don’t see many from the poplar family like this one. Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their opening buds remind me of giant spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. These weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year.

The flat seed pods of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are a common sight in winter. These dark brown pods stay attached to the tree and their color lightens during the winter. Finally as spring nears they begin to fall and, though they are light and can be blown long distances, many can be found under the tree on top of the snow, as this photo shows.

The tiny brown seeds of a black locust look like miniature beans and that’s because they are in the same family. Their coating is very tough and they can remain viable for many years. They’re also very toxic and should never be eaten.

Eastern or Canada hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are messy trees that shed their smaller branches, needles, and cones all winter long but they provide plenty of seeds for the smaller birds like black capped chickadees. The 1/2 inch long eastern hemlock 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 in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments, so the next time an ointment helps your sore muscles, thank a hemlock.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify. They look like racing stripes.

Arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is another messy evergreen that sheds small branches by the cartload some years but they provide great cover for birds and I usually have at least one family of robins living in the ones in my yard.

The tiny leaves of arborvitae are flat and scale like. Arborvitaes are in the cedar family and are used extensively in commercial landscaping. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses, and maybe they were. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and bark, and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

The stiff, woody seed pods of arborvitae look like tiny carved wooden flowers. robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in.

Sometimes what falls out of the trees onto the snow is more snow, and sometimes it falls by the bucket load. All of the holes you see here were made by falling snow.

Of course leaves fall from trees but some trees like oak, hang onto many of theirs throughout winter. 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. Once the sap stops flowing to the leaves they lose chlorophyll and the reds, yellows and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding finally become visible.

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.

Beech is another hanger on. What oak and beech leaves tell me is when spring is near. When I see them falling in large numbers in March I know that the new buds are taking up sap and swelling. Nobody really seems to know for certain why trees retain dead leaves but some believe that one reason might be to ward off foraging moose, deer and other animals. Animals will eat the bud bearing twigs from the lower parts of older trees and from nearly all parts of younger trees. One theory says that they don’t like the taste or texture of the dead leaves so they stay away from the trees, which means the buds stay safe and can grow on.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, but I can’t pin down the species.  They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches. This family of lichens is probably the one I see having fallen from trees more than any other.

The second most common lichen I see falling from trees is the beard lichen. Though this example was small they can get quite large. Bristly beard lichen (Usnea hirta) like this one is often found on the ground after a wind or rain storm. Many lichens like sunlight and grow in the tops of trees where there is less shade from the leaves. Native Americans used lichens medicinally for thousands of years and lichens in the Usnea group were described in the first Chinese herbal, written about 500 AD. Today scientists estimate that about 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properties.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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Well the January thaw ended with a wake up slap; two snowstorms within a week and temperatures a good 40 degrees below the 62 degree high we saw during the thaw. It looks like it’s back to normal for now. This photo was taken before dawn on the morning of the first snowstorm. Because it was still dark when I took it, it’s very grainy but it shows how the snow stuck to everything in the forest.

Once it got lighter it was still a black and white world. Sometimes the sun will come out after it snows but it usually stays pretty gray for a day or so.

The snow was wet and the wind made sure it stuck to even the tree trunks.

Though there really wasn’t much snow, maybe three inches, it looked like a lot more.

This shot taken under trees shows how thin it was in places.

I like what the light does in winter and though this is another shot that it was really too dark to take, the sky was amazing.

This shot of Half Moon Pond reminds me of a 1930s post card.

The previous photos were from the first storm. This shot, taken from my back doorway, shows a fresh coating of another 4 inches of snow later in the week.

Though this time the snow was very light and powdery it still covered everything. As William Sharp once said: 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. If you click on this photo you’ll see what he meant.

Two posts ago this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked like it had been taken in March. Now here it is back in January dress again. Once this storm had blown itself out the sun came out quickly, and this made for a prettier day.

The snow covering a local pond looks pristine with hardly a mark on it but just off to the left out of the frame a man was shoveling the ice for skating on. This despite at least 5 signs warning that the ice was too thin.

No matter how many of these are put up people think they know better, but shoveling off the ice so your children can skate on it even after seeing the signs seems a bit reckless to me. It’s hard to understand the thought processes of some people.

But it was a beautiful sunny day and I decided to follow the trail around the pond.

Some thoughtful soul had made a path down the middle of the trail and I was thankful because that made walking easier. At first I thought the path had been made with a shovel but after I walked it I was fairly sure that it was made by a child’s plastic sled being pulled through here. There is a great sliding hill nearby and it’s usually crowded after a storm.

The light was beautiful. It kept stopping me so I could watch it before it passed.

It was easy to see which way the wind had blown during the storm.

Every beech leaf wore a mantle of snow, but they still stayed dry and papery. Leaves that weren’t weighted by snow still whispered as I passed by.

Anyone who knows rhododendrons and winter weather knows that they only do this when it’s very cold. There are several theories about why rhododendron leaves do this, but the most plausible (to me) is that the leaf curls to prevent moisture loss. Another theory that sounds likely is that the leaf is protecting its soft underside by curling it up inside the tougher, waxy outer surface. In any event this behavior doesn’t harm the plant, and once it warms up the leaves will perk up and flatten right out again.

More light through the trees. It was a beautiful scene, I thought, with the sunlight on the snowy branches.

Every twig on this tree was highlighted. Winter is my least favorite season because of all the added work but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the beauty that is unique to the season and for me the beauty of this scene is how easily you can see how this tree grew into in two trees. Though they had the same root ball the two trunks didn’t seem to get along and grew apart from each other over the years. It isn’t hard to imagine them wishing they could simply walk away from each other. That’s something we humans have to be thankful for, I suppose.

The splendor of silence, -of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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