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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Woods’

Actually, it isn’t the rail trail that’s new; it has been here since about 1850, but it’s new to me. I’ve wanted to follow it because for years I’ve been hearing about a deep cut through ledges on this rail trail leading from Swanzey south to Massachusetts, so one day I finally decided to follow it.

There was plenty to see out here, including this box culvert. Box culverts are simple things, usually with two upright side walls and massive stone slabs on top, and then huge amounts of gravel on top of that. But this one was different;  it was built of granite blocks, probably cut right on sight out of boulders or ledge. It was still letting a small stream pass unimpeded under the railbed after nearly 170 years.

But there were problems. Some of the stones on the sidewalls had shifted and this let the cap stones overhead begin to sag a bit. This was most likely caused by the freezing and thawing of the soil and pressure from tree roots. In any event it should be repaired because if it goes so does the rail bed above it. The question is, now that there is no railroad, who is responsible for making repairs?

The stone for the culvert might have come from this big boulder. It still shows drill marks from when the rail line was put in. There was a lot of drilling and blasting of stone going on in these woods in those days.

There were signs of the railroad everywhere, including this old signal box. I’ve been told that these often had asbestos in them, so they’re best left alone.

There were some nice birches out here too.

But some had fallen. Birch polypores (Piptoporus  betulina) are parasitic on dead or weakened birch trees and cause brown rot. Both the fungus and the decayed wood have a sort of green apple smell. Birch polypores are annual fungi that grow only on birch trees and live for only one season.

Further down the trail a huge old oak had fallen and had taken several other trees with it. I don’t think four grown men could have linked hands around this monster when it was standing. What a shame to let all that firewood go to waste.

This was a day to see fallen things, apparently. A granite mile marker had fallen across a drainage ditch.

It’s hard to read but I think the message on the fallen mile marker said B (for Boston) 88. According to Google maps Boston is just about 88 miles from Swanzey if you follow route 119.

Cushions of what was probably a species of Dicranum moss glowed a beautiful bright green in what little sunlight there was. I was surprised to read that people are now buying this moss to create moss gardens. They call it “mood moss,” though I’m not sure why. I have to say that seeing it made me smile, so maybe that’s where the name comes from.

As I said in the last lichen post I did, pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) are squamulose lichens, and squamules are the small leafy, lobed growths that are at the base of the tiny golf tee like podetia in this photo. The podetia support the lichen’s fruiting bodies called apothecia, which is where the lichen’s spores are produced. It’s all about continuation of the species.

I was a little dismayed but not surprised to find invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) out here. There weren’t many; I only saw two or three, but all but a few of their berries were gone and that means the birds ate them. And that means more bushes in the future. Burning bushes don’t have a problem with making sure new generations will follow.

In some places the rail trail passed very close to private property. I thought I grew up close to the tracks at a few yards but this trail was just a few feet away from this building.

The closeness reminded me of this sign that I saw on another rail trail. It’s important to remember that you’re very near private property when on rail trails so you shouldn’t wander too far off the trail. Imagine what it would be like to find strangers wandering through your yard every now and then like they did when I was a boy growing up beside the tracks. It can be a little unnerving. The message is important enough for this sign to have been printed by the State of New Hampshire Bureau of Trails.

Something I’ve never seen on a rail trail before is a bent rail, but there it was. I don’t know if it was bent on purpose to follow a curve when it was originally installed or if it was bent after the rails were taken up. I can’t imagine anyone taking the time and effort it would have taken to bend it for a lark but it can be done. During General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to Atlanta during the Civil War he had his troops heat up sections of track until they were red hot and then bend them around trees. These bent rails came to be known as “Sherman’s bowties.” Since the south had limited supplies of iron this pretty well finished the southern railroads but soon the rebels followed suit and destroyed northern rails in the same way. These bent rails were known as “Mr. Lincoln’s hair pins.”

The bent rail had me scratching my head, because there were no curves to be seen on any nearby part of the rail bed. Would someone really take the time to heat a rail and bend it, I wondered as I walked along.

Here was another strange thing. A two inch galvanized steel conduit came up out of the ground and passed under the rail bed before continuing out the other side and into the forest.

The laying of the conduit looked to be well done and I was fairly certain that it had some electrical purpose but I couldn’t guess who would have the money or the inclination to lay it way out here.

Off it went, up the hill. It wasn’t until later when I was telling friends about it that I remembered how close I had been to the airport. This entire area sits in a bowl which is surrounded by hills and each hill has to have a tower with a flashing red light so planes flying at night don’t run into the hills. This conduit must have been put here to power one of those lights. What a lot of work and what a cost it must have been, but if it saves lives it’s worth it. We’ve had our share of plane crashes here.

By now you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t shown any ledges or “deep cuts” through hillsides. That’s because I didn’t find any, at least not on this section of trail. And that’s why there has to be a part two to this story. I walked too far and took far too many photos for them all to be squeezed into one post, so if you’re at all interested I hope you’ll stay tuned for part two, coming up next week.

Heaven on earth is a choice you must make, not a place you must find. ~ Wayne Dyer

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Though almost all the leaves have fallen from the trees the various brambles have hung on to theirs as the usually do. This blackberry plant’s leaves were a pleasing reddish bronze / brown. Some brambles like dewberry turn a beautiful deep purple color and hold onto their leaves all winter but blackberries and raspberries will lose theirs.

When I first found this odd little thing I wasn’t even sure if it was a fungus or a lichen. It grew on soil (I thought) so I guessed right when I guessed fungus but I still had a hard time identifying it. It turned out to be the pinecone tooth (Auriscalpium vulgare,) which is a little mushroom that grows on pinecones. Since the pinecone this one grew on was buried in the soil, I thought it was growing in soil.

The underside of the cap on the pinecone tooth fungus is toothed, and that’s where that part of its common name comes from. The cap is about the size of an M&M candy (.53”) and is off center so in this view it looks heart shaped. On young examples the teeth are white. They darken to brown with age so this example was somewhere in between.

A good identifying feature of the pinecone tooth is its hairy cap and stem. I can’t think of another mushroom like it. This mushroom grows only on white pine (Pinus strobus) and Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cones.

Brittle cinder fungus (Kretzschmaria deusta) looks like a shiny lump of coal someone stuck to a tree. Though I’ve only seen this fungus on standing dead trees and logs it will attack live trees and is said to be aggressive. Once it gets into a wound on the tree’s roots or trunk it begins to break down the cellulose and lignin and causes soft rot. The tree is then doomed, though it may live on for a few to even several more years.

The shiny, hard outer coating on brittle cinder fungus is indeed brittle. I just touched this example with my finger and the hard outer shell fell off, exposing the spore mass within. These spores will ride the wind to other trees and if conditions are right, will infect them as well. It’s a silent unseen drama that goes on day after day, year after year.

It’s hard to believe that the brittle cinder fungus we saw in the two previous photos started life as a beautiful gray and white crust-like fungus in the spring, but that’s how they begin. You can see the lumpiness already starting in this example, which I found on a log on a rainy day in June of 2014.

I’m still seeing lots of colorful turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) These examples had a lot of orange in them.

For years I’ve tried to find an answer to why turkey tails have so many different colors. Is it the minerals in the soil? The type of wood they grow on? From what I’ve read, there is no answer to why this or any other mushroom displays the colors it does. It seems that they’re colorful simply to be beautiful, and that’s fine with me because I enjoy seeing them. They brighten a gray winter day.

The dry husks of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) have a cavern in them where the nut was and this makes a good winter home for spiders and other insects. It’s hard to see but the opening of this one had spider webs across it, as many do. I like to see the colors and movement in these empty husks.

There were still hazel nuts in these husks. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

A young maple was healing a long frost crack; at about 6 feet one of the longest I’ve seen.  On sunny winter days the sun warms the tree’s bark and the cells in the wood just under the bark expand. If the nighttime temperature falls into the bitterly cold range the bark can cool and contract rapidly, but when the wood beneath the bark doesn’t cool as quickly this stress on the bark can cause it to crack.  On cold winter nights you can often hear what sounds like rifle shots off in the woods, but the sounds are really those made by cracking trees. They can be quite loud and often echo through the forest.

One day I received an email from a man in Europe who asked me if I could look at a detail of a 15th century painting and tell him if I thought the mark on a tree trunk was a frost crack. He had seen frost crack examples on this blog and was curious to know if that was what the artist had painted. The first thing I had to know was if the temperature dropped below freezing in the region that the painting was supposed to represent and he said yes, it got cold there. I then looked at the detail of the painting closely and noticed that flowers grew on the side of the tree with the scar. This told me that since most flowers need sunshine the sun most likely shined on that side of the tree, so you had cold winter nights and sunshine on the tree’s bark during the day; the two things needed to produce a frost crack. I told the man that if I had to bet on it, I’d bet that the scar was indeed a healed frost crack. You can see it there just above the most vertical white flower. What you see here is just a very small detail of the painting, enlarged several times. It had roads and medieval peasant farmers and castles and all kinds of interesting things in it.

At this time of year when the sun is low in the sky it makes things glow, like it did to these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) one recent sunny day.

The seed head was in silhouette in the midst of shining, feathery sunshine.

Virgin’s bower seeds (achenes) are also hairy with a long hairy tail called a style. This native clematis has panicles of small white flowers in the fall. The foliage is toxic so it isn’t eaten by animals, but early settlers used parts of the vines as a pepper substitute. Native Americans used it to treat migraine headaches and nervous disorders, and herbalists still use it to treat those same illnesses today.

Staghorn sumac stems (Rhus typhina) also glowed in the sunshine, and so did the buds. These buds are naked with no bud scales, so it is up to the hairs to protect them from the cold. Grinding the berries of staghorn sumac produces a purple colored, lemon flavored spice that is very popular in some countries. Another name for this native shrub is not surprisingly, velvet tree.

I’m forever seeing things that make me wonder how I could have possibly walked through these woods for 50 years and not seen them, and this is one of those. It was cone shaped, about two feet in diameter, made of soft sand, and stood about shin high. At first I thought it was some kind of termite mound but a little research showed it was made by ants. Specifically, field ants, which I’ve never heard of.

There were many of these mounds along the sunny side of a road, some quite big. I’ve read that the most likely builder is an ant named Formica exsectoides, also called wood ant, mound ant, thatching ant, and Allegheny field ant. These ants secrete formic acid and can squirt the acid several feet when alarmed. They use the acid to kill tree seedlings and any other plants that would grow around the mound and shade it from the sun. They do this because the mound acts as a solar collector for incubating eggs and larvae. In winter workers and queens move deep into the mounds to hibernate.

A deer walked through this ant mound, showing how soft the course sand and thatch material is. Thousands of ants can live in a single mound, so there were many hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of them in what was quite a large area. The mounds take many years and many ants to build, so the larger ones can apparently be quite old. It’s amazing what nature will teach you if you’re open to learning.

One recent day during the fall leaf cleanup I was blowing leaves and something caught my eye. I thought it was an earth worm at first but it turned out to be a small salamander, stuck to a leaf and frozen solid. Or so I thought; salamanders have a kind of sugar syrup antifreeze in them that keep their tissues and organs safe in the cold. It also keeps their cells from dehydrating as they stop breathing and their heart stops beating. They survive in this suspended animation state all winter long until the warm spring rains revive them. I put this one back where it had come from to sleep on until spring.

Seeing, in the finest and broadest sense, means using your senses, your intellect, and your emotions. It means encountering your subject matter with your whole being. It means looking beyond the labels of things and discovering the remarkable world around you. ~Freeman Patterson

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After putting together a post like the last one I did on lichens I needed to free up my mind a bit so I headed into the woods of Walpole to climb the High Blue trail. I had just been here in October but it wasn’t that cold then. My mission on this day was to see if the ski areas had started making snow.

It was definitely cold enough here to make snow. This shot is of some of the many bubbles I saw in the ice of a mud puddle.

Intermediate wood ferns (Dryopteris intermedia) were still nice and green but that was no surprise because it is one of our native evergreen ferns. It is thought that evergreen ferns get a jump on the competition in spring by starting photosynthesis earlier than their cousins.

A large tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius) grew on a trail side tree. These bracket fungi produce spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that they can produce as many as 800 million spores in a single hour. Its common name comes from its usefulness as tinder for starting fires. The 5000 year old “iceman” found preserved in ice and snow in the Italian Alps carried pieces of this fungus with him. It is also useful medicinally and is known to stop bleeding, so he might have used it both ways.

The small reflectors put on the trees by hunters reminded me that I probably wasn’t the only one in these woods. I was glad that I remembered to wear my bright orange hat and vest.

There are people who think that plants grow their buds when it warms up in the spring but most plants actually plan ahead and grow their spring buds in the fall. This hobblebush bud (Viburnum lantanoides) already has all it needs to produce a pair of new leaves and a beautiful head of white flowers next spring. Hobblebush buds are naked, meaning they have no bud scales to protect them from the cold, and that’s why they are furry. Hobblebushes are one of our most beautiful native viburnums and there are many of them in these woods.

Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) also have their spring buds at the ready. They’re small now but they’ll grow bigger when it starts to warm up. When they break in spring beech buds are one of the most beautiful things you’ll find in a New England forest.

The farmer has cut all his corn for silage. This was a meadow for many years and it’s always a bit surprising for me to find a cornfield here now. The corn attracts bears and last year I saw several piles of their dung, but this year I didn’t see any. I’m hoping they found a different corn field.

There are game trails that lead from the meadow / cornfield into the woods. Do you see this one? It’s just a narrow trail but it is used regularly, especially by deer. When I come here in winter there are deer tracks everywhere up here.

I followed the game trail into the forest to see what I’d see and found a huge quartz boulder sitting on top of an old stone wall. How anyone ever lifted it up there is beyond me. It was at least 4 feet long and must have been very heavy.

There were also a lot of ears of corn along the game trail and even entire corn stalks pulled up by the roots. This is obviously where the animals come to eat it after they take it from the cornfield. I don’t know if a deer could pull up a cornstalk but a bear certainly could. I was hoping it was cold enough for them to be sleeping by now.

Back on the main trail the sun was shining brightly but not providing much warmth. It was probably about 40 degrees F. and that isn’t bad for the end of November but it still felt cold. November is said to be the cloudiest month but we’ve been lucky this year and have had quite a few sunny days.

One of the things I like about this time of year is how you can see so deeply into the forest now that there is no foliage to block the view. One of the things that is much easier to see now is the old stone wall that snakes through the woods. It’s a “tossed wall,” meaning that the stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. Stones were not nice to plows and farmers wanted to get them out of their fields as quickly and efficiently as possible, and ringing the fields with them was the easiest way. In 1872 there were an estimated 270,000 miles of stone walls in New England. It’s hard to hike through a piece of forest these days without seeing at least one wall.

Walpole is famous among stone wall builders for its ledges which, with little effort, break into nice, flat slabs. The fractures happen naturally, as can be seen on this outcrop. This is very easy stone to build with and it makes a great looking wall.

This stone was taken from the ledge in the previous photo at some point in the past. It hasn’t been cut; this is how it comes right out of the ledge, and that’s what makes it so special. Building a wall with stone like this is a real pleasure but it doesn’t happen often. Usually the stones are rounded, so it takes much more time and effort to build with them.

The small pond on the summit was frozen over as I thought it would be. I used to think that the animals would suffer when the pond froze but there are many small streams nearby that run year round so they always have a place to get a drink.

The sign at the granite overlook tells you that you’ve arrived. High means the spot is higher than the surrounding terrain and blue means the view is very blue, and it always is.

It was a bit humid on this day and as it did the last time I was up here a haze blanketed the landscape, so even though the view across the Connecticut River Valley into Vermont was blue it wasn’t that good. Still, you could see Stratton Mountain so I couldn’t complain. The question was, would my camera be able to cut through the haze so I could see the ski area?

So far so good. Sometimes the camera really goes bonkers up here and I’m shocked by what I see when I get home, so I was hoping this wouldn’t be one of those days. I put it on “auto” for a few shots just to give it a chance to do what it wanted. It seems to have a mind of its own sometimes when capturing landscapes.

Though it is a blotchy photo it showed me that there was indeed snow on the ski trails, so after sitting and admiring the view for a bit, down I went. Before long this entire landscape will be snow covered and there won’t be any snowmaking required, so I was happy that I was still walking in crunchy leaves rather than squeaky snow. You know it’s cold when the snow squeaks underfoot.

Snow provokes responses that reach right back to childhood. Andy Goldsworthy

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Unfortunately there are people who think that once the leaves have fallen there is nothing left to see outside until spring, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Lichens for instance, are there year round and unless you live in a place with poor air quality they are everywhere; on trees, on stones, on the ground, and even on buildings, roofs, windows, and sidewalks. They are like small jewels that have been sprinkled throughout nature and one of my favorites is the smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens) shown above. The blue dots are called apothecia and are where its spores are produced. They are blue because of the way the light reflects off the thin wax coating that they are covered by. In this case the body of the lichen, called the thallus, is a brownish gold color. The thallus can also be gray and the apothecia gray to black. One of the things that can make lichen identification difficult is the ability of some lichens to change color in different light, and this is one that does. It can look very different just a few feet away.

The apothecia on this star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris), is a good example of how colors can change, even on the same lichen. This lichen has dark brown apothecia that are often pruinose. Pruinose refers to the white, waxy, powdery coating like that found on the smoky eye boulder lichen in the previous photo. You’ve no doubt seen examples of this waxy “bloom” on blueberries and plums. I’ve noticed by watching lichens that have pruinose apothecia that the coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing gray and at other times more blue, and sometimes even black. The apothecia on this lichen show a range of colors, from brown to light blue. The way the sunlight strikes it has a lot to do with its colors.

I used my magic gravity defying penny so we could get an even better idea of the scale of some of these lichens. For those of you not familiar with the size of a penny, they are 3/4 of an inch (19.05mm) in diameter. The powdery sunburst lichen just above it is almost the same size. The lichens below, right and left of the penny are star rosette lichens like the one we just saw in the previous photo. That penny could use a good cleaning.

This is the powdery sunburst lichen (Xanthomendoza ulophyllodes) we saw above the dirty penny in the previous photo. This foliose lichen is easy to see even when it’s small, because of its bright orange yellow color. This lichen really likes moisture and is often found growing near channels that carry water on stone or bark. A foliose lichen has a lobed, leafy look.

British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) like to grow on damp wood like rotted stumps and logs, but I’ve found them on buildings, fence posts, and built up forest litter on boulders. At this time of year I don’t pass too many mossy old tree stumps without having a glance for British soldiers. Their bright red apothecia make them easy to see, even if you’re colorblind.

Pink earth lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) closely resembles bubblegum lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum.) One of the differences between the two is the length of the stalks that the plump pink apothecia sit on. They are longer on bubblegum lichens than they are on pink earth lichens. Both are very beautiful things that are rarely seen in this area. The whitish thallus, or body of the lichen, grows on soil; usually on dry acidic soil near blueberry and sweet fern plants. It can sometimes have a bluish cast as well.

I find pebbled pixie cup lichens ((Cladonia pyxidata)) growing on soil or rotting stumps and logs, and occasionally on stone. Pixie cups look like tiny golf tees or trumpets. They are squamulose lichens, and the golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus,) and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes.

Though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are called podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. This example shows some almost microscopic dots around the rim, which are its apothecia. Finally, frucitose means a lichen has a bushy, vertical growth. Since this example has squamules even growing inside the tiny cups it must be a pebbled pixie cup lichen.

A single raindrop was caught in the cup of this pixie cup and it illustrates how the cups are meant to do exactly this; they are splash cups and when a raindrop lands in them the water splashes the spores out and away from the lichen to hopefully colonize new ground. Pixie Cups and other Cladonia species like reindeer lichen contain didymic acid, and they were once used by herbalists to treat tuberculosis.

Dog lichens will grow on soil, rotting wood, or stone as this one was. The example pictured is I believe, a membranous dog lichen (Peltigera membranacea.) Dog lichens are associated with mossy areas because the mosses provide the moisture that they need. It is known as membranous lichen because it is thin and pliable. It is also a foliose lichen because it is lobed, or leaf like. The upper part of the body (Thallus) is undulating or veined. This lichen is large and easy to see. It is also probably quite old.

One theory behind the name “dog lichen” says that the name refers to the large, lobed body of the lichen looking like dog ears. It sounds plausible, but so do the other three theories I’ve heard. One says the fang like rhizines look like dog’s teeth, another says the entire lichen body looks like a dog, and yet another says that the apothecia, or fruiting bodies, look like dog ears. I’ve never seen this one produce fruiting bodies so I can’t verify that last one and it doesn’t really look like a dog to me, so I can’t verify the second one either.

What sounds most plausible to me about the origin of the name “dog lichen” are the white “roots” on the white underside of the lichen body. They are fang like and called rhizines. On some lichens they can be quite bushy, but on Peltigera membranacea they are narrow and thin. They are one of the identifying characteristics of this lichen along with its thin, flexible, undulating thallus.

Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) are uncommonly beautiful. Look for this bright yellow crustose lichen on stone. It’s a very artistic lichen and I like the patterns that it makes. I see it on gravestones quite often.

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise that, at high magnification, the body of the common goldspeck lichen looks like it’s made up of tiny golden specks. The book Lichens of North America describe the body of this lichen as “little cushions of flattened granules.” This lichen is sometimes sterile, with no fruiting bodies present, as this one appeared to be.

Scattered rock posy lichen (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) is both beautiful and unusual with its brain like body and orange fruiting bodies. This one was growing on stone in full sun. There was a time when I knew of only one example but now I see them everywhere, even on mountain tops. This example was about as big as a penny.

If you spend time walking along old stone walls eventually you’ll see a stone with a splash of bright orange on it and it will probably be the sidewalk firedot lichen (Caloplaca feracissima,) so called because it is a lime lover and grows on concrete sidewalks, which have lime in them. When you see it in a stone wall it’s a fair bet that the stone it grows on has limestone in it too. This stone is almost completely covered by it.

A closer look at this example of the sidewalk firedot lichen showed it was made up of mostly irregularly shaped fruiting bodies, so it was making plenty of spores. It was raining at the time so it was also very wet. Lichens are at their best when they are wet because that’s when they’ll show their true colors and size, so that’s when serious lichen hunters look for them. A misty or drizzly day is perfect.

One thing you learn quickly when you decide to study lichens is that your pockets will be as full of unknowns as they are knowns, and this lichen shows why. You’ll see why in the next photo, so try to remember how it looks here.

Not only do lichens change color but shape as well. It’s hard to believe that this is the same kind of lichen that we saw in the previous photo but it is, and it is the apothecia in full “bloom” that makes it look so different from photo to photo. This is why it has taken me as long as three years to identify some lichens. I’m not completely comfortable with my identification of this one but I think it might be the brown eyed rim lichen (Lecanora epibyron.) Brown eyed rim lichen is described as a “white to very pale brown crustose lichen with many red-brown apothecia with a white margin.” It seems to fit, but if you know this lichen and know that my identification is wrong I hope you’ll let me know.  I found it growing on ash tree bark.

As its name implies maple dust lichen (Lecanora thysanophora) grows on the bark of maple trees, but I’ve also seen it on beech, oak, and basswood. One of the easiest ways to identify this lichen is to look for the white fringe around its perimeter. This is one of those lichens that I never saw until I stumbled across it one day, and now I see it everywhere. This beautiful example was about 3/4 of an inch in diameter, or about the size of a penny.

Some lichens are very easy to identify because there aren’t many others that look like them, and the toadskin lichen is one of those. Toadskin lichens are another one that shows color changes. When wet it is pliable and pea green and when dry it becomes crisp and ash gray. This example hadn’t completely dried out but it was well on its way. Toadskin lichens get their common name from their many “warts.” They attach themselves to stone at a single point that looks like a belly button, and that makes them an umbilicate lichen. This toadskin is very special, because it is the only one I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on a hill or mountain top. It grows on a boulder at the very water’s edge of a lake and now I know, if the day comes when I can no longer climb, I’ll still be able to see these beautiful little things.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing a few of the lichens I know and I hope you’ll look for them in your area. Just look closely anywhere you happen to be; they’ll be there too.

Oh what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on a rock. ~Mary Shelly

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I had some time off for the Thanksgiving holiday so I thought I’d go and see 40 foot falls in Surry. It’s relatively quick and easy to get to and I like to visit it when the leaves are off the trees. The falls are in a heavily wooded area and before the leaves fall it’s dark enough in the forest that photography with my camera just doesn’t work there. Even at this time the pines and hemlocks cast a lot of shade but it was a bright sunny day so I thought I’d give it a try. The above photo shows what you can see of the falls from the road.

Before you get to the falls on Merriam Brook you have to cross a small stream that flows into it. You have to walk the banks to find a good place to cross. In some places it was narrow enough to step across on this day, but more often than not you have to cross on slippery stones.

Many of the stones along the stream are moss covered but not this one; I believe that’s a liverwort called greater featherwort (Plagiochila asplenioides) on that stone.

Greater featherwort likes lots of water and grows on rocks in streams and rivers, and on wet soil in the open or in shade. This was the first time I had seen this pretty little liverwort which, as liverworts go, is considered one of the largest. I think that’s because it forms large colonies, not because each plant is large. The plants themselves seem quite small to me compared to other liverworts I know.

A two inch hole through a boulder told the story of the blasting that must have gone on here, probably when the road was built.  Holes were drilled into the offending ledge, filled with black powder or dynamite, and away went the ledge. I can tell that the drilling was done by machine because if the holes had been made by hand with star drills and sledge hammers they’d be five sided, not round. They might have been made with a compressed air powered drill, which was also what railroads used after the invention of the wind hammer in 1844.

Once you cross the stream it’s easy to get to the base of the falls because the Merriam brook takes a hard 90 degree left turn at this spot. 40 foot falls has a lower, middle and upper falls along this stretch of stream. Here we see the lower falls and a hint of the middle. The climb to the upper falls is steep in places but doesn’t take long.

Two things make the climb to the upper falls a little hazardous; slippery oak leaves and old bridge cables like this one that a hemlock tree has grown around. I’ve tripped over that cable and slipped on the oak leaves and have taken a couple of spills up here, but luckily nothing serious has come of it. I watched my step and picked my way up the hill this time and had no problems, but those oak leaves sure were slippery.

I’ve read that a snowmobile bridge made out of steel cables and wooden planks  was washed away in severe flooding in August of 2003.  Apparently this cable and a plank or two that I’ve seen is all that’s left of it. Merriam brook raged and also washed away large parts of the road and flooded houses. Several other towns had similar problems at the time.

A look back downstream reveals how strong the forces at play are, with grown trees torn up and tossed around like first year saplings. I can say for sure that I don’t want to be here when this brook floods.

Many of the scattered boulders had lichens on them so of course I had to have a look. This one was covered with rock disk lichens (Lecidella stigmatea.) These common lichens like sunshine so they’ll point you to the sunniest spots in a forest like this. They are tan or dirty gray crustose lichens that form a crust like body (thallus) that clings to the stone substrate so strongly that it becomes impossible to remove them without damaging what they grow on.

Rock disk lichens look a lot like tile lichens (Lecidea tessellate,) but tile lichens have black fruiting bodies (apothecia) that are sunken or concave and rock disk lichens have black fruiting bodies that are raised or flat. This extreme close-up of the rock disk apothecia shows how they stand proud of the body of the lichen. This is an important identifying feature so it’s a good idea to carry a loupe or a macro lens when looking at lichens.

I was surprised to see a moth fly by and hang from a twig on such a cold day; it must have been at or below freezing. I thought it must be an owlet moth, which is a winter moth that creates its own heat by shivering. Owlet moths are what pollinate late flowering witch hazel shrubs.

I was right about one thing;  it is a winter moth but not an owlet moth. It is called the “winter moth” (Operophtera brumata) because it doesn’t mind the cold. The fringes on its wing edges help identify it. It was imported from Europe and is considered an invasive pest that can defoliate trees and shrubs. Adults emerge from the ground in November and December to mate, and the flightless female lays about 150 eggs under tree bark. The eggs hatch in March or April and the larvae begin to feed.

Before you know it you’ve reached the middle falls. You don’t have to work too hard photographically to blur the water here because the light is often dim enough to blur it anyway. I had to boost the light gathering ability of my camera to ISO 1600 for a few of these shots, and that’s something I rarely have to do.  I was glad I had a monopod.

The deep gorge that the brook has cut through the hillside above the middle falls is a very rugged and beautiful place. I think it would be a great place to visit on a hot summer day because it’s probably always a good 10 degrees cooler here. It was certainly cool on this day.

Icicles formed wherever the water splashed.

This is where you get your first glimpse of the upper falls, tucked way back into the gorge. I don’t know if the falls actually fall 40 feet, but that wall over on the left would crush a house if it fell on one. It is easily  more than 40 feet high.

I doubt you could get to the upper falls this way without getting your feet wet but even if you could you would have to climb through things like this to get there. The falls is over on the right, unseen in this photo. It looks like that tree will be one of the next to fall and be washed downstream.

You can get an okay shot of the upper falls without getting your feet wet or crawling over boulders, so that’s what I settle for. What I’d really like to do someday is get up above the falls to see what’s up there. It would be a steep slippery climb but worthwhile, I think.

A look back at some of what we came through to get here. Raging waters have stripped the stream bed right down to bedrock in places and tossed car size boulders around in others, bowling over trees. It’s amazing what water can do.

This unlucky tree had its bark stripped completely off and will most likely be carried downstream in a future flood.

Fall oyster mushrooms grew on a fallen oak. Scientists have discovered that oyster mushrooms exude “extracellular toxins” that stun fungi eating nematodes. Once the nematode has been stunned mycelium invades its body through its orifices. The mushrooms also consume bacteria in order to get nitrogen and protein, and all of this means that oyster mushrooms are a truly carnivorous mushroom.

I love it when I find things like this. This painted stone sat on top of a boulder near the upper falls. Seeing that a child loved a place enough to leave a gift behind is good for the soul, and gives me hope for the future.

There’s no better place to find yourself than sitting by a waterfall and listening to its music.
~Roland R. Kemler

Thanks for stopping in.

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One of the things I’ve seen (or felt) this time around is cold, and lots of it. The record cold of the second week of November came as quite a shock after the record warmth of the first week of the month. I was surprised when I found these frost crystals on my windshield one morning.

Ice needles by the thousands thrust up out of the saturated soil near a stream. An awful lot of things have to come together perfectly for ice needles to form. First, there has to be groundwater present and the temperature right at the soil surface has to be below 32 degrees F. The groundwater remains thawed until hydrostatic pressure forces it out of the soil, where it then becomes super cooled and freezes instantly into a needle shape. As more water is forced out of the soil it freezes at the base of the needle and it becomes longer and longer. As this photo shows there are often so many needles that they freeze together and form ribbons. Each needle is hexagonal in shape and the longest one ever found was over 16 inches long. These examples were probably 3-4 inches long.

This is what soil with ice needles growing in it often looks like from above, but more important is the crunching sound the needles make when you walk on them. More often than not I find them by sound rather than by sight. They are very fragile and break easily, and if just the merest hint of sunlight falls on them they melt, so look for them in the shade.

Ground water seeping out of stone ledges formed icicles and that reminded me that it’s almost time to visit the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland, where the icicles grow into ice columns as big as tree trunks.

Ice isn’t the only thing we’ve seen here lately. The first real snowfall measured an inch or two in some places. This is what my ride to work looked like early one morning. When snow falls on thawed ground it melts rather quickly. The soil doesn’t usually freeze here until December, but it can vary. In a cold winter with little snow it can freeze down to nearly four feet deep.

The snow was on the wet side rather than dry and powdery so it stuck to every single twig and stalk in the forest. One of my favorite quotes by Scottish author William Sharp says “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.” I agree, and that’s what this day was like. You don’t just see beauty like this. You feel it—you give yourself to it, and it becomes part of you.

At the Ashuelot River ice baubles formed on overhanging shrub branches. They are very colorful in the sun and it looks like someone has hung prisms from the branches the way they flash different colors.

As the river water splashes up onto a twig, drop by drop a teardrop shape (usually) forms. The ice they’re made of is as clear as polished crystal, and very reflective.

There was pancake ice in the river below the falls. It forms from the foam that the falls create. The foam becomes slushy and breaks into small pieces and freezes, and the current spins the irregularly shaped pieces into more circular shapes.

The constantly moving circles of river foam bump into each other and form rims, and they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it here (and only here) every winter. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. Here though, they simply float off down the river.

White ice, so I’ve read, has a lot of oxygen in it. It is paper thin and tinkles when it breaks and I usually find it on mud puddles, but only at the start and end of winter. I love it because it always reminds me of spring, and that’s when I used to ride my bike through puddles of it when I was a boy.  You can see some amazing things in this ice. I’ve seen everything from eagle silhouettes to solar systems in it.

This is something I’ve never seen. The foam in a stream froze into formations at the base of a tree and they looked remarkably like turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) My thoughts on what kind of currents it took to make them would be a guess but maybe the stream water splashed against the roots and created ripples of foam, and then the foam froze as the ripples left the shore.

Speaking of turkey tail fungi, I’ve seen some beautifully colored examples this year. Turkey tails are among the most colorful fungi and also one of the easiest to find, and they grow in nearly every state in this country and throughout Europe, Asia, and Russia.

Their colors are described as buff, brown, cinnamon, and reddish brown in mushroom books but they come in many more colors than just those. Blue and purple are two of my favorite colors, but turkey tales wearing those colors are rare in my experience. I probably see one blue one for every five hundred brown ones.

Their concentric bands of color are what make turkey tails so beautiful but beauty isn’t all they have going for them. They’ve been used medicinally in China for thousands of years and in this country the food and drug administration has approved them for cancer treatment trials.

I saw some strangely colored but beautiful trumpet shaped mushrooms on a dead elm tree. I think they were frozen solid. Maybe that’s what made them so beautifully colored.

We’ve had a year with more cones on the evergreen trees than anyone has ever seen before. Great bunches of them weighted down the uppermost branches of the white pines (Pinus strobus) until they finally opened, dropped their seeds, and fell to the ground by the thousands. I decided to check into why there were so many and it turns out that the drought of 2016 has a lot to do with it, because that’s when the cones actually formed. Often, when a plant is stressed out enough to “think” that it’s dying it will produce larger than normal amounts of seed to ensure the continuation of the species, and it looks like that is just what our evergreen trees have done. Every single person I’ve talked to says that they have never seen so many cones.

Unfortunately something else that has been very noticeable to everyone is the sticky sap, called pitch, which has been falling from the white pines. It has gotten all over everything and is very tough to clean off. You can’t sit at a picnic table without sticking to the benches and you can’t drive your car down the road without finding large gobs of sticky pitch all over it. I’ve had to clean it off my car twice now and I can say that it doesn’t come off easily. The above photo is of a log with gobs of pitch all over it. As it dries the pitch turns white and as the weather cools and the pitch ages it often turns a bluish purple color. Turpentine is made from the resin of pine trees, and turpentine is just about what it takes to get it off.

The inner bark of this fallen Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris) was so intricate and beautiful all I could do was stand and stare. And when I came back to my senses I remembered to take a photo.

As I hope this post has shown, even after the flowers have gone and the leaves have fallen there are still plenty of beautiful things to see out there. All of the beauty we don’t see in the warm months seems to be amplified or magnified in the cold months. The crisp blue of the sky, the golden light of the rising and setting sun, the greens of the mosses; all seem more vibrant. Even stones can be beautiful, as this one was. I don’t know what was in the geologic soup that it came from but it’s very different than most other stones in this area and very beautiful, and I found myself wishing it could come home with me.

Last year I must have driven to my favorite mountain viewing spot to see if there was snow on Mount Monadnock at least four times before I finally saw it snowcapped but this year there it was, and I took this photo on my way to work one morning with no extra effort at all. As a bonus a bald eagle flew by but it was far too fast for a photo. Though it looks like Dublin Lake in the foreground was frozen over it wasn’t. The sun hadn’t come up yet and I think it was just the low light that made it look that way.

By the time I had driven to Hancock the morning sun was just kissing Monadnock and turning the scattered patches of snow to gold. Mist gathered in the valley below and the scene was so beautiful I almost forgot I was on my way to work. When the sun rises or sets change happens quickly and it’s hard to pull yourself away.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone here in the U.S. has a safe and happy Thanksgiving Day tomorrow and don’t forget; a walk in the woods is a great way to burn off all those extra calories.

 

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Well, the last of fall foliage colors have just about faded. With the initial colorful burst of all the different maples over it is up to the oaks and beeches to end the show and they’ve been doing so in spectacular fashion, as the huge oak in the above photo shows.

Oak trees come in many colors; reds, yellows and oranges mostly but also occasionally deep purple and even pink. This photo of one of our hillsides shows most of their colors fairly well but I think the brightest yellows might belong to beeches.

It’s funny but at the start of the foliage season you either don’t see or don’t pay attention to the oaks because they’re still green. It’s only when they start to turn color that you begin to notice them and I was surprised that there were so many around this local pond. I’ve visited this place literally thousands of times since I was a boy but apparently I’ve never been here when the oaks were at their most colorful. I’ve obviously short changed myself because they were very beautiful.

I think there were a few maples that still had leaves and there is a beech or two in this photo as well. I thought it was a beautiful scene.

Beeches go from green to yellow and then to an orangey brown. By spring they’ll be white and papery, and finally ready to fall.

There are some really big old trees around the pond.

This young oak wore some beautiful colors, I thought.

These oaks were as beautiful from behind as they were from the other side of the pond. This pond has a trail that goes all the way around it, so it’s a great place for fall foliage hikes.

We have many oak trees where I work and they’ve shown me just how much “stuff” falls from an oak. It isn’t just leaves that fall from oaks and other trees but branches too; some quite big, and everything living on the branches like lichens and fungi fall with them. There is an incredible amount of material falling to the forest floor each day, and the forest simply absorbs all of it.

This scene along the Branch River in Marlborough was of mostly bare maples so the oaks stole the show. I’m going to have to remember to come back here next year to see all those maples. They must be beautiful when they’re wearing their fall colors.

Lake sedge (Carex lacustris) grows in large colonies near lakes, ponds and wetlands and is pretty in the fall. It is native to Canada and the northern United States and can often be found growing in water. At times it can be the dominant plant in swamps and wetlands. Waterfowl and songbirds eat the seeds.

Virginia creepers (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) have lost all their leaves now but the deep purple berries remain on their bright pink stalks. The berries are poisonous to humans but many birds and small animals eat them.

I never knew that the leaves of the broad leaved helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine) turned such a pretty shade of deep purple until I saw this one. This orchid is originally from Europe and Asia and was first seen in 1879 in New York. Since then it has spread to all but 19 of the lower 48 states. It is actually considered an invasive weed, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about its being here. The nectar of broad leaved helleborine contains the strongest narcotic compound found in nature, and insects line up to sip it.

The bare stalks of Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) glowed red in the setting sun. It’s a terribly invasive plant but it does have its moments. The new shoots are also beautiful in the spring just as they start to unfurl their new leaves. They’re supposed to be very tasty at that stage too, but I’ve never tried them.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) is a common sight in the fall. It grows high up on tree limbs of deciduous trees and comes to earth when the branches do. The complicatum part of the scientific name means “folded back on itself” because that is often what it does, as the above photo shows.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native holly that grows in wet, swampy areas and gets its name from the way its bright red berries persist through most of the winter. They persist because birds don’t eat them right away and the reason they don’t is thought to be because the levels of toxicity or unpalatable chemicals in the berries decline with time. Many birds will eat them eventually, including robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, eastern bluebirds and cedar waxwings. Native Americans used the berries medicinally to treat fevers, so another name for it is fever bush.

The maple leaf viburnums (Viburnum acerifolium) have grown closer to the light, pastel pink shade they become just before the leaves fall, but they aren’t quite there yet. Some still have their plum purple leaves. This is one of our most beautiful native shrubs in the fall, in my opinion.

Birches are usually among the first trees to change color in the fall but this year they seem quite late. A grove of hundreds of them grows near a local highway and even on this cloudy day they were brilliant enough to be seen from quite far away.

I had a hard time not taking photos of the oaks because they’ve been very beautiful this fall. They really brought the season to a close with a bang this year.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and right now I’m spending more time raking leaves than admiring their colors. It’s gotten cold and the cold combined with strong winds have stripped all but the most stubborn trees. It is all to be expected of course, seasons change and now it is winter’s turn. The above photo is just a hint of the changes to come; just the tip of the iceberg.

Autumn asks that we prepare for the future—that we be wise in the ways of garnering and keeping. But it also asks that we learn to let go—to acknowledge the beauty of sparseness. ~Bonaro W. Overstreet

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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