Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Search for Limestone Lovers

It was way too hot for a long hike today, and the river was writhing with weekenders' wakes, so I went for an easy walk. The trail I chose is in the Warren County part of Moreau Lake State Park, across the Hudson, along an old service road that provides access to Spier Falls Dam. By early afternoon the woods to the west shaded the trail quite nicely, and a gentle breeze made the walking very pleasant. Goldenrod and White Snakeroot bloomed alongside, and I recognized the foliage of the New England Aster to come. There was Common Mullein, too, and Spotted Knapweed, typical introduced inhabitants of the disturbed soils that line old roads.

But I had a goal to get off the road and explore the limestone outcroppings that distinguish this part of the park. These outcroppings create calcareous soils that support plant species seldom found in the rest of the park. My specific quest was for American Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides), which I had found here several years ago and hadn't visited since. How someone with my poor eyesight ever saw this tiny flower, I do not know. But somehow I did, and returning to the original site, I found it again today. (Photo above) Remarkably aromatic, the leaves of this plant have had numerous folk-medicine uses, including as insect repellent. If I didn't have such a strong aversion to picking any wildflower, I would have crushed some leaves and rubbed them on my skin today, the mosquitoes were so bad.

My next discovery was Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea), and this was a new one for me. I almost ignored it, assuming it was just Red Clover, but something told me to take a closer look. This flower has quite a different shape than the two other milkworts I know, Fringed Polygala and Racemed Milkwort. None of them have milky sap, despite their family name. Farmers once believed that feeding on them was supposed to increase a cow's milk production.

Exploring the flat rocky areas where the milkwort and pennyroyal grew, I kept seeing this snowy white aster-like flower on short (8-12 inch) stems with stiff spiky leaves. Hmmm, I thought, is this some kind of abbreviated Heath Aster? Or what? The closest match I could find in my Newcomb's was Upland White Aster (Aster ptarmacoides), but when later I went on the web to find more information about this plant, I discovered it may not be an aster at all, but a goldenrod. A goldenrod!? Who knew? And the USDA plant info web site gave it another scientific name: Oligoneuron ptarmacoides. So much for scientific names as a way to end confusion. USDA also listed a bunch of states where this plant (if that's what this is) is endangered or even extirpated. New York doesn't list it as rare, but I bet it's not all that common. It likes dry open areas with limey soil. Like where I walked today.

Let's see, what else did I find among those rocks? These knobby too-red-to-be-real little lichens -- (Cladonia cristatella) -- were studding the rocks where mosses and strawberries also grew. This is one of the few lichens to have a common name and it's a good one: British Soldiers. Although I think of British soldiers as having red coats, not red hats.

And here was a nice red fungus: Suillus spraguei or Painted Bolete. I've heard this mushroom is edible, but it wasn't worth picking just one.

A sweet treat to end my adventures today, this tiny baby bird was scurrying along the path, its mom (or its dad?) attempting to herd it into the shrubbery and away from my sight, while the other (invisible) parent squawked very loud in the bushes. The adult I saw briefly was colored much like this infant, light grey-brown above, soft yellow below, with white wing bars. Of course, it wouldn't sit still for a photo. Maybe a vireo? Or a female warbler? I'll bet some of my birding buddies will know.

Update, August 19: I received a note from New York State Chief Botanist Steve Young about that aster/goldenrod mentioned above. He writes: "That could definitely be Oligoneuron ptarmicoides since it likes limey soils along rivers. There is a large population in limey shale along the Hoosic River near Schaghticoke. It is on our watch list and used to be considered rare, but there is a ton of it in the limestone barrens near Watertown."


Ellen Rathbone said...

That purple milkwort is wonderful!!! And the aster that's a goldenrod? Hm...stranger things have happened, eh?

As for your baby bird, I'm no bird expert, but could it be a type of sparrow? It looks a lot like the babies I found in my yard a couple weeks ago, which our local rehabber believes were chipping sparrows. (I'll be posting their photos soon.)

Woodswalker said...

Hi Ellen, thanks for your comment. As for the baby bird, I did see one of its parents, briefly, and it was not a chipping sparrow (little brown-striped bird with a chestnut crown). This bird's parent was light greyish brown above, with a pale yellow underside and white wingbars, same colors as the baby. The parent I saw could have been the mom, so the plumage of the father could have been quite different. Unfortunately, my glimpse of the adult trying to protect the baby was very brief, the other parent shrieking in the bushes I could not see at all.

Bird said...

The astonished look on that baby birds face is priceless!

It's interesting that we both have common mullein (I've seen it pictured on a couple of US nature blogs today), and again I wonder where it is native - I've always assumed that it is native to the UK, but I've learned to take nothing for granted. The milkwort is really striking - I'm glad you saw enough beauty to make up for the mosquitos!

Ellen Rathbone said...

My rehabber friend is leaning toward vireo, too, for your fledgling.

Lindsey said...

How did I ever gloss over the baby bird photo?! I'm not too experienced with baby birds and they make me wish I had a copy of the Pyle guide (aka Bird Bander Bible). But anyway!

What stands out to me is that hooked, wide bill, I think warblers have much smaller, thinner ones, vireos and flycatchers have that hook.

Of the vireos, possibly a yellow-throated, although it sounds like the adult bird you saw had duller yellow over more of it's body than the yellow-throated vireo does (that vireo's yellow is almost lemon or primary yellow) - plus the yellow-throated vireo has a distinct large amount of white on the underside as well. I just keep thinking "yellow throat" because the baby bird looks like it already has yellowish feathers there, rather than a vireo with a white throat, though it depends on if the adult you saw had a white or yellow throat too.

I'm also thinking an Empid flycatcher, some have soft yellow all down their undersides and two white wingbars. Most of the flycatchers are that olive color above in varying darkness and are just softer colored in general compared to that vireo I mentioned above. I also recall from banding, they have that broad bill the baby has.