Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Thursday Naturalists Visit Victory Wood

Ever since I fell and shattered my kneecap a year and a half ago, I find myself seeking excuses to not get out for hikes or climbs, because, yeah, my knee still hurts.  But then I think of my pals in the Thursday Naturalists, who get out there week after week, despite advancing age and various ailments. For instance, how could I let my friend Ed Miller, now 92, be more active than I, at the relatively young age of 74? So here I am following him onto the trail called Victory Wood in Schuylerville this past Thursday.

Actually, I had previewed this trail the week before, on a much sunnier day, when I took this photo of the Saratoga Battle Monument, honoring the victory of American troops against the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, a turning point in the Revolutionary War.  This monument marks the entry point for the Victory Wood Trail, and both the monument and the trail are part of the Saratoga National Historical Park, which includes the Saratoga Battlefield some eight miles to the south of this location.

Access to the Victory Wood Trail begins in the Prospect Hill Cemetery, which is adjacent to the monument.  A large sign here reminds us of the history of this special place.

Here, on a cloudy wind-chilled day this past week, our friends in the Thursday Naturalists gathered in the cemetery before entering the woods.

Of course, being naturalists, we had to halt in our progress toward the woods to examine the lichens thriving on this gravestone.

We also paused at this grave, hoping its inhabitant had found happier times in the afterlife. (And also hoping no one would ever mark our graves like this!)

The trail through the woods is remarkably accessible to people of all abilities, with long stretches of boardwalk and stone paths hard enough for rolling a wheelchair.  There is even a separate handicapped-designated parking lot offering direct wheelchair access to the trail, as well as several benches situated along the way.  Also situated along the trail are a number of large signs explaining the historical importance of this location, the first of which our friends are examining here.

The trail proceeds through a mixed hardwood forest and past a small pond, its water afloat with bright-green duckweed and its shoreline thick with the red-fruited shrubs of Winterberry.

Another sign describes the importance of this location to native peoples long before the Europeans arrived on this continent.

A procession of signs describes the sufferings of the defeated British soldiers and their Loyalist supporters, who retreated to this location following their defeat in the Battle of Saratoga.

This series of signs certainly helped us understand and honor the history that had happened here.  But naturalists being naturalists, we were often lured from the trail to examine some natural phenomena.  Ed was particularly interested in the fungus growing on this Hop Hornbeam tree, an accumulation of small pinkish disks that he told us will usually be found only on Hop Hornbeam trees (Ostrya virginiana), although it can sometimes occur on oak or elm as well.

Almost the entire trunk was peppered with the fungus called Hophornbeam Disc (Aleurodiscus oakesii), a more massive accumulation, Ed told us, than he had ever seen before.

Ed also found more fungi thriving on this enormous stump, the size of which indicates it could well have stood here at the very time this location served as a camp for the defeated British forces.

The colorful caps of Turkey Tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) decorated many of the fallen logs throughout the woods.

Another fascinating fungus we found was the Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune), a fungus with several amazing attributes. One remarkable thing about it is that it can dry up and shrivel again and again, then spring back into fully reproductive life as soon as a rainfall revives it again.  Another astounding property is that it has not just two, but at least 28,000 different sexes. (I'm not exactly clear how that works, but you can click HERE to read how mushroom expert Tom Volk describes this complex process.)

Here's a closer photo, revealing the split gills that give this fungus its name.

Another amazement was finding some Witch Hazel shrubs still in bloom, their yellow ribbons of petals unfurled despite the damp chill of the day and the past occurrence of several hard frosts.

Here was one more surprise find: the evergreen leaves of a little Botrychium fern.

Monday, November 28, 2016

It's Getting Frosty Out There!

After holiday hosting duties had kept me indoors most of last week, I was really eager to get outdoors today, especially since the weather was clear and sunny. It seemed a great day to walk along the gracefully curving Spier Falls Road, with the nearby Hudson River reflecting that beautiful blue sky.

At one point I left the road to climb up the course of a waterfall that tumbles down the mountains that rise along the road.

With our lack of rainfall this year, I expected the course of the waterfall to be merely a trickle, but no, there was still enough water in the stream to tumble and splash among the mossy boulders.

I was surprised to find the forest floor here thick with frost on the north-facing slopes, and the frost's starry crystals outlined all the leafy vegetation.  The bright-green of this Marginal Wood Fern's frond looked so pretty rimmed with white.

This mound of Delicate Fern Moss was also spangled with frost.

As were these gold-and-brown fans of Stereum fungus.

One branch of a native Yew shrub hung over the splashing water, and it was completely encased in crystalline ice.

With all this frost and ice persisting well into the afternoon, I wondered if I might find some Frostweed curls in the open areas under a powerline that runs along the top of Mud Pond.  This area is not far away along Spier Falls Road, so I set off in that direction, stopping for just a moment to take in the serene beauty of late-afternoon light on the quiet river.

Since the curls of frozen sap that form at the base of Frostweed stems are so delicate and fine, I hardly dared hope I would find them today.  It was already past three in the afternoon, and the day had been sunny.  Wouldn't they have melted away by now?  But lo and behold, I found many Frostweed plants with these frothy curls still intact!  This action of sap escaping from splits in the stems to form curls of frozen vapor is the very feature that gives this native plant (Crocanthemum canadense) its common name. As far as I know, it is the only plant we have in this part of the country that can do this.

Much of the area under the powerline was still spangled with frost, adding interest and beauty to all the variety of mosses and lichens that flourish there.  I was especially enchanted by this frosted pale violet-gray mushroom rising from amid a patch of Haircap moss.

The bright-red tops of Cladonia lichens are always a delight to find, and today they were made even prettier by the presence of frosty crystals.

I know that it's hard to say good-bye to this late-autumn's lingering warmth.   But finding all these sparkling treasures today reminded me once more that every season has its delights. Even if you have to search a little harder to find them.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Turkey Tail Tales

I was way too busy cooking yesterday (and too pooped at night), to post a Happy Thanksgiving blog. But I hope all my readers had a wonderful day of feasting and family love, without too much friction among folks either happy or mad about our recent election. (Lucky for me and my dear family, our extended members who might want to fight are as far apart geographically as along the political spectrum.) I was hoping to get outdoors today, but the rainy grayness out there is not beckoning me, so I took a walk through my photo files instead.  Since we're finishing off the tail-end of our turkey leftovers today,  how about we look at a few variations of that beautiful fungus called Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor)? This is the ruffly fungus shown in the photo above, sharing its fallen log with the vivid orange mushroom called Mycena leailana.  I always thought this particular combination of fungi would make a beautiful centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table.

As the following sequence of photos shows, this is a very aptly named fungus, whether we call it by its common name or its scientific one.  With its fan-shaped fruiting bodies displaying bands of alternating colors, it does rather resemble the spread-out tail of a courting or challenging tom turkey. And as its specific name, versicolor, suggests, it comes in a whole variety of colors.

Probably the most common colors we find are varying shades of tan and brown, from the softest ecrus and ivories and cafe-au-laits to the deepest chocolates.

Then once in a while, we come upon a mass of Turkey Tails with bands of vivid blue and vibrant orange.

Here's one I found with bands of bright orange set off by a wash of avocado green, thanks to a green-algae coating.

Just recently, I stopped in amazement before this gorgeous mass of Turkey Tails with bands of school-bus yellow alternating with bands of blue. This is a combination I had never seen before.

All of these examples display the strikingly zonate bands of contrasting colors that are typical for this fungus, and a closer look would reveal that these zones are often different in texture as well as color, with fuzzy zones alternating with smoother ones.  This fuzzy or velvety texture of the cap, as well as the starkly contrasting color zones are among the features that distinguish this species of Trametes from other similar members of its genus.  Another distinguishing feature of Turkey Tail is that the fresh caps are thin and flexible, not rigid and hard.

The Turkey Tail  is one of the polypore fungi, meaning that its fertile surface consists of many pores instead of gills.  We have many other species of polypores, but in the case of Turkey Tail, these pores, while visible, are very tiny, presenting as many as 8 pores per millimeter.

This fungus grows on the deadwood of hardwoods and only rarely on conifer logs. And to the delight of hikers in every season, it can be found year-round.  I'm hoping the weather clears a bit soon and my flagging energies revive so that I can get back out to the woods. Perhaps I will come upon a beautiful arrangement like this:  vividly striped Turkey Tails sharing a mossy log with gray-green lichens.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

One Last Lovely Day

I'm told it might snow tomorrow.  I found that hard to believe today, as I strode the sun-warmed sandy shore of Moreau Lake, basking in what might be the last of our summer-like days this late fall.

That broad cerulean sky and surrounding forested mountains were perfectly reflected in the lake's still water, unruffled except for the occasional duck skidding in for a landing or a happy dog splashing in after a stick that was tossed by one of the many other folks enjoying this balmy day and this beautiful lake.

Most of the lake is edged with broad sandy beaches these days, but in some of the coves the shoreline consists of deep mud.  To avoid the treacherous depths of this mud, I moved up close to the tree-shaded banks, which is where I spotted this rotting log.  The log's damp and punky wood was paved with green algae and whiskered with the tiny white fungus called Multiclavula mucida.

Multiclavula mucida has the common name of Green-algae Coral, an appropriately descriptive name, since this miniature fungus is always associated with green algae.

Out on the mudflats close to the water I found abundant masses of green leafy plants.  Some were the basal rosettes of some species of bittercress that will bloom next spring, but others had flower stalks that still held a few of this year's tiny blooms.

Very tiny blooms, indeed!  And some were pink, not the typical blue I usually see on Small-flowered Forget-me-nots (Myosotis laxa),  our native Forget-me-not.

There were a few small groups of waterfowl out on the lake, too far away for my poor eyes to discern as to species.  But evidence of the birds' presence here on the lake could be seen in the occasional feathers scattered across the mud.  I was entranced by the tiny water droplets that clung to this downy plume without actually wetting it.

The day's summery warmth lulled me into forgetting how early the sun slips behind the mountains these days.  I was barely half way around the lake when I noticed the darkening shadows, and I picked up my pace as a chill began to creep out from the depth of the woods.  But I did slow my steps to take in this view of white birches and the mountain's profile reflected in the dark still water.