Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Braving the Heat along the Power Line

Whoo, it was HOT yesterday!  Way up in the upper 90s.  So I thought I might go for a paddle instead of a walk, easing along the shaded banks of the Hudson in my little canoe, trailing my hands in the nice cool water, maybe even go for a swim.  Also, I could check on those Tubercled Orchids growing out on a little island just off the Sherman Island Boat Launch; they might be blooming now.
But when I reached the river, I had to think again.

The power company must be working on the upstream dam again, lowering the water level in the river and exposing wide mud flats along the shore.  What looks like a nice grassy lawn leading down to the water is really a shoe-sucking patch of mud into which I would sink to my shins if I tried to walk across it.  Same goes for what looked like a nice sandy beach surrounding the offshore island.

There was no way I could reach that green shrubby area out on the island, in order to check on those orchids.  I had to change my plans.

It's hard to imagine what would possess me to venture out onto this unshaded clearcut under the noonday sun on this sweltering day. Maybe it was my English ancestry: Remember that quip about mad dogs and Englishmen? Or maybe it was my knowledge that Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) and Green-flowered Pyrolas (Pyrolas chlorantha) might be blooming now in this very place, a powerline near the intersection of Spier Falls and Potter roads.

Well, almost blooming.  For the Wood Lilies, anyway, the ones growing in the midst of this patch of Hay-scented Fern.  What a spectacular sight this will be, when all those five buds open to reveal the lilies in all their brilliant-orange glory!

I did find the Green-flowered Pyrolas in full bloom, and quite a few of them, way under the pines that line the powerline.

I now am glad I braved this blistering-hot site, for it won't be long before these flowers are spent.  Green-flowered Pyrolas are not rare in the state, but I do see them far less frequently than their white-flowered relatives called Shinleaf Pyrola.

Encouraged by these floral finds, and already as drenched with sweat as I could get, I decided to cross the road to explore the powerline clearcut that runs along the top of Mud Pond.  I was rewarded right away by the sight of this gorgeous Wood Lily in full bloom.  I saw a few others still in tight bud, but only this solitary one in bloom.

I ventured on, hoping to find some Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) in bloom, but it looks like I will have to come back  another day to enjoy their fragrant, rosy-pink flowers.  At least I was reassured that this interesting milkweed species can still be found at this site.

The same can be said for the Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) that grows here, which was showing the promise of its brilliant-orange blooms even in its tight buds.

Aha!  Here was another flower worth braving the heat to find:  American Climbing Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens).  This native bittersweet is classified as Rare in New York State, a situation  becoming more so over time, as the invasive Oriental Bittersweet takes over its habitat.  I'm grateful that there remains a thriving population along this open area above Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park.

Here's another native plant that likes this hot sandy spot:  Whorled Loosestrife (Lysicmachia quadrifolia).

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a native shrub that is common in open sandy areas, too.  Although its flowers were not yet in bloom, I loved the star-shaped buds in this cluster that resembled the exploding stars of fireworks.

I momentarily stepped into the trees that line the powerline here, taking a shady break from the blistering sun.  And there I found this beautiful patch of hot-pink Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides). Although this plant is not native to North America, it certainly adds considerable beauty to our roadsides, sharing such inhospitable spaces with other common introduced "weeds."

Oh my gosh, what's happening here?  At first I thought it was one four-winged bug flopping about on the sandy path, or maybe a freshly molted insect emerging from its old skin.  It wasn't until I downloaded this photo and looked more carefully at it that I discovered there were TWO bugs here:  probably the male atop the female (Ahem).  Thanks to BugGuide.net, I now know the name of the creature: Nigronia serricornis or Dark Fishfly.  This was a new bug for me, even though I now know it is hardly rare.

According to Wikipedia, Dark Fishflies have aquatic larvae that are common inhabitants of woodland streams in North America, and the larvae are the only one of its life stages that feeds, consuming such smaller invertebrates as Black Flies and Caddisflies.  After emerging from the pupal stage, the adults live only about a week, during which time they find mates and the female lays her eggs on structures overhanging the water.  After hatching, the larvae fall into the water to begin the cycle again.  I guess I was lucky to make this insect's acquaintance today, considering how short is its term on land.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Flowers and Pods of the Mid-June Woods

Mid-June is not really the time to go looking for flowers in the middle of the woods.  The tree canopy has fully closed over by now, the spring ephemerals have disappeared, and the late forest-bloomers have yet to produce their flowers.  But I did manage to entice my friends in the Thursday Naturalists to tour the Skidmore woods with me today, offering the promise of finding some unusual flowers in bloom.

The most beautiful of these forest bloomers is the diminutive Four-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), with its dangling clusters of fragrant white flowers.  Some years, this plant is abundant in the limestone-enriched Skidmore woods, while other years it is difficult to find.  This is a scarce year, but we did manage to find a few, although we had to take a detour off the main trail to find them.

Another shade-bloomer, but one that likes a wet habitat, is the Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora).  We found quite a few plants growing in the wet mud at the edge of a woodland pond.

Near the same pond we found several clusters of Squaw Root (Conopholis americana) blooming beneath the towering trunk of a Red Oak.  Without any green parts for photosynthesis, these flowering plants were obtaining their nutrients by being parasitic on the roots of that oak.

When I previewed this walk earlier in the week, I found a very few tiny red flowers still blooming on the sturdy plants of Orange-fruited Horse Gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum), but by today all the flowers had fallen off, leaving only a wreath of purple bracts surrounding the stems in the leaf axils. Later in the summer, small orange fruits will grow from those bracts.

The flowers had also fallen off the White Baneberry plants we found, leaving the developing "doll's-eye" berries growing from stout pedicels.

One of the rarest plants growing in the lime-rich soil of the Skidmore woods is a plant called Green Violet (Hybanthus concolor).  Although this plant is reported from no other location in Saratoga County, it thrives here by the hundreds.  Its flowers, little green nubbins that grow in the leaf axils, look nothing like the flowers we usually call violets, but its seed pods do resemble those of others in the Violet Family.  We found few flowers on the Green Violets today, but we did find lots of seed pods.

This is the typical form of a seed pod for plants in the Violet Family: a three-parted pod filled with little orb-shaped seeds.

We also found lots of seed pods produced by the many Bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) that line the trail through the woods.

Some of those pods were bulging with ripe seeds. I opened one pod to demonstrate how each seed possesses a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome. These elaiosomes are rich in both fats and proteins, making them a favorite food of ants,  who carry the ripe seeds to their nests, where they consume the elaiosomes and discard the rest of the seeds in their waste pits, all prepared for sprouting new plants.  Many of our other forest flowers produce similar seeds that are also distributed by ants.

Two different species of Bellworts grow close to each other in the Skidmore woods, and it was interesting to compare the leaves and seedpods of the two, both of which have leaves that appear to be perforated by the stem. This photo shows the Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora), with leaves that are longer than wide. A plump three-parted seed pod rests on a leaf.

This photo below shows the Perfoliate Bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), which also bears a three-parted seed pod, but its leaves are much rounder and shorter than those of the Large-flowered species.  Also, their leaves tend to curl up at the edges, creating almost a cup shape to the leaves.

Here is another of the plants that thrive in the Skidmore woods but which have been reported from nowhere else in the county:  a beautiful patch of Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) sharing a rocky area with other lime-loving plants like Bulblet Fern and Wild Ginger.  An early bloomer, its flowers have long-ago faded, but some of the plants display the green fruits that will later turn bright red.  Luckily, this patch is hidden well off the trail in this more-than-200-acre woods, so poachers are not likely to locate it.  I know where this threatened species grows, but even I have to search and search to find it again.

 Finally, here was a puzzle.  We were passing this small oak sapling and noted its distinctive shallowly orbed leaves.  Was this a Chestnut Oak, we pondered, since the terrain seemed too dry to support Swamp White Oak, a species with similar leaves?  Luckily, we had Ed Miller among our members today, for he is an expert in woody plants, and he was able to suggest a possibility for us.  It was neither the Chestnut nor the Swamp White, he posited, but it could be  the Yellow Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), sometimes call the Chinkapin Oak.

Ed told us he had seen this oak before, in just such a lime-enriched rocky habitat, and he showed us what could be the clinching detail by handing us a leaf to examine closely with our magnifiers.  Note the tiny nipple at the point of each lobe, he said.  And sure enough, there it was.  I regret that my photo is not quite in focus, but I think you can see the nipples.  Now I need to return and collect a specimen of these leaves to determine whether it really is a Yellow Oak and not the similar Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides).  If it turns out to be Yellow Oak, I will submit a specimen to the New York Flora Association, in order to document this tree's presence in Saratoga County, since to date it has not been reported here.  And I'll also try to take a better photo.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Floodplain Finds at Canal Park

My friends in the Thursday Naturalists know where all the good stuff grows, and last Thursday our good friend Ed Miller led us to one of our favorite spots:  Canal Park at Lock 4 on the Hudson River.  I forget what Ed, bending over here in this photo, was trying to show us, but I bet it was something interesting.  This trail, which follows the Hudson to where it meets the Hoosic River, is lined with many plants we don't often see in many other places.

 One of those plants is the shrub called Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum), which thrives in the thin rocky soil atop the steep banks of the Hoosic.  Its white bell-shaped flowers are more open than those of its blueberry relatives, and its fruit is a pretty, pale blue-green instead of dark blue.  As its name suggests, this fruit is a favorite of deer, but its tart flavor makes it less palatable to humans.

These thin sandy soils also provide a perfect habitat for Frostweed (Crocanthemum canadense), and we were early enough to find its single yellow flower in bloom before it dropped off in the afternoon. Note how its orange-tipped anthers all lie to one side, a feature I have often noticed about this particular species.

We almost walked right by a very low-growing patch of Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia).  Vividly pink its flowers may be, but they were nearly hidden beneath their terminal leaf clusters.

We also nearly walked right by a solitary Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), even though we remembered we had seen this flower here before.  But the population here is sparse, compared to some other sandy-soiled places we sometimes visit to see this native orchid blooming abundantly.

As we neared a bend of the Hoosic where springtime floods deposit both woody flotsam and rich river silt in an alluvial floodplain, we could hear the rushing water of the river and look out at Rensselaer County farmland and mountains on the horizon.

This stretch of alluvial shore is our destination each year, for it's here we find the magnificent Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium).  A few years ago, we found just a single specimen of this giant-sized Arum Family plant, while lately they have begun to grow here in uncountable numbers.

Our friend Sue is a relatively tall woman, and most of the Green Dragon plants reach well above her knees.

The Green Dragons were all in bloom, but I was lucky to find one that allowed me to capture both the leaves and the long slender spathe in a single photograph.

Also growing to gigantic size in this open area that provides both abundant water and nutrients were some magnificent Sycamore trees.  They were so tall I could not fit their entire height in a single photograph, but Ruth standing next to their massive trunks provides evidence of their great girth.

Another native plant that thrives in these alluvial soils is Wild Garlic (Allium canadense), and we found many of its tall thin stalks topped by tissue-covered clusters of bulblets.  Usually, we find one or two tiny pink flowers sprouting from these pods, but we had come a bit too early to see them.  I took a couple of stems home to see if I might be able to force them to bloom in a vase of water.

Success! After a couple of days, the thin tissue peeled back from the bulblet cluster and a couple of pretty pink flowers rose on fine stems.  This is a plant that takes no chances on achieving reproduction, producing both flowers and bulblets that allow the plant to reproduce both sexually through pollinated flowers, and clonally by dropping its bulblets in the soil.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Working My Way to Valcour Island

Well, it happened again.  I'd planned for an amazing botanical adventure -- a boat trip to Valcour Island in Lake Champlain to witness some of New York's rarest flowers -- and once again, the trip got canceled due to bad weather, just as it had last year.  I was too embarrassed to cancel my nearby motel reservations, since I'd already canceled them twice before, so I drove the 130 miles up to Peru, NY, anyway. I'd contacted some local folks who told me about other nature preserves nearby that were also worthy of exploring.   But when I got there, I couldn't help standing on the shore, sadly gazing out at Valcour Island across the wave-tossed water.  So near, but yet so far!  Even if I'd had my own canoe, those waves would swamp me before I could reach the island.

Valcour Island is remarkable for its limestone substrate, which provides the nutrients to support a notable variety of rare native plants.  But it's also known for some human artifacts, including this picturesque old lighthouse.

Resigned that I wasn't going to get out to Valcour, I drove over to the nearby Ausable Marsh Wildlife Management Area to explore the wetlands and enjoy some views of distant cloud-shrouded mountains.  I couldn't help thinking that the weather didn't look bad enough to have canceled our boat trip, but who knew what the weather would be the following day?

As it turned out, the weather was calm the following day, pleasantly cool with only a sprinkling of rain now and then.  And also, as it turned out, I got out to Valcour after all, thanks to the crew pictured here. I'm especially grateful to Emily Tyner  (hidden here) for inviting me to join her and two folks from the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (Zach Simek in red and his assistant Jim) on a trip to assess and address a growing infestation of Garlic Mustard that is threatening the island's rare plants.  We were carried out to the island by Haley, who works for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation to monitor campsites on Lake Champlain's islands. She returned to ferry us back to shore later in the afternoon.

While I was most grateful to Emily (who works for the Adirondack Park Agency) for finding a way to get me out to the island, I think that she was grateful to me for helping her tackle an extensive patch of Garlic Mustard that had sprung up close to the shore.  No other volunteers had answered her plea for help with this project today, so the two of us had a lot of work to do, pulling this nasty invasive plant up by the roots and carefully bagging the plants so they could not drop any seeds.  Zach and Jim were working on other patches, as well as touring the island to map other areas of infestation.

After several hours of manicure-destroying stoop labor, Emily and I walked the perimeter of the island, stopping by shoreline campsites to note the presence or absence of Garlic Mustard.  Occasionally, toppled trees obliterated our trail, so we had to stop now and then to check our map to ascertain our location.  We needed to reach Campsite #18 by a certain time to meet Haley and the boat that would carry us back to shore.

Valcour is certainly a beautiful island to camp on, at some locations offering broad sandy beaches in quiet coves.

I was delighted to find a new "life plant" for me, out on those sandy shores.  This plant with the pretty yellow flowers and lacy silver-backed leaves is called Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. anserina).  According to state records, this plant is far from rare in New York, but I had never seen it before. I guess I need to visit more sandy, shoal-y beaches to see it again.

Other parts of Valcour's shoreline were steep and rocky, with conifers clinging to those rocks right down to the water.

It was on one of those rocky shores that I found these bright beautiful flowers of Glaucous Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica), one of our few native honeysuckle species.  Although this is not a rare plant in New York, I don't see it that often, and I was delighted to see it here.

Of course, I was most delighted to also find some of the rare plants this island is noted for, such as this modest-looking Pea-family plant called Pale Vetchling (Lathyrus ochroleucus). 

An even rarer plant we found was Northern Wild Comfrey (Andersonglossum boreale), classified as an Endangered species, with only two other known populations in the state.  When I last visited Valcour Island four years ago, I remember finding only a few of these plants with their bright-blue flowers glowing through the murk of the dark woods.  I'm happy to report that we found dozens of them, widely spread across the higher, densely wooded areas of the island.  I'm also happy to report that we found no Garlic Mustard in these higher, densely wooded areas, at least not along the trail we hiked as we made our way to where we would meet  Zach and Jim and Haley and our boat ride home.

By the way, if your overnight travels should take you close to the area near Valcour Island, I can recommend the Shamrock Motel on U.S. Route 9 near Peru.  It was clean and comfortable and very reasonably priced, with a delightfully helpful and friendly owner named Janis.  I truly enjoyed my stay here, and I do thank Janis for her hospitality.  She let me pet her adorable cats and she even tried to pull a tick out of my back.  Be warned, though, that Deer Ticks have found their way north to the Adirondacks now.