Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stormy Day Wanderings

Pine needles swirl on a Woods Hollow pond, as the storm clouds swirled in the sky above.

When will we have a day without storms? Now, I don't mind a little rain, but every day, for ages it seems, the forecast has been for severe thunderstorms, with high winds and lightning and even the chance of hail. Not the kind of weather you want to overtake you while out in your solo canoe. Luckily, I know some wildflower sites to explore on foot, and not too far from a parking lot should the worst weather come upon me with little warning.

My first stop today was Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa, where I thought pretty Dewdrop (Dalibarda repens) might be in bloom. And so it was: pristine white flowers against dark-green heart-shaped leaves, carpeting the ground in damp shady places. Its blooming period has just begun. We should see this flower all summer long, even into September.

The next flower I found in bloom today is one I can hardly believe I ever discovered (especially with my bad eyes). Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana) also loves damp shady spots, and I'd seen its pretty, pale-green, broadly heart-shaped leaves with scalloped edges for years, wondering if it might ever come into bloom. Then one day I parted its densely clustered leaves to discover, voila! it was already in bloom! It's just that its flowers are not only tiny, and not only hidden down under the leaves, but also nearly invisible, being translucent as well as exactly the color of its stems.

I was delighted to find Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) blooming at Woods Hollow, especially since I saw it only in bud at Moreau yesterday. I guess 25 miles farther south might make a difference in blooming time. The shiny evergreen leaves of this plant are pretty all by themselves, but the nodding waxy white flowers with pinkish centers are something to behold.

Especially if you turn them over to see their undersides. Such odd little tubular structures surrounding the central style! I wonder, are those the real petals, and the waxy white parts are the sepals? Nope. My Peterson's guide refers to "its ring of reddish anthers." The pistillate part always looks wet and shiny. Is it sweet? The flies sure love it!

And here's someone who really loves flies. To eat, that is. Big fat Bullfrog sitting on a log. Or is he a giant-sized Green Frog? (He was bigger than a man's fist.) So nice of him to sit there so I could take his picture. Most of the frogs around the pond at Woods Hollow leap with a squeak when they sense me coming. Eeep! Eeep! Eeep! If they'd just lie low and shut up, I'd never see them. I'm glad I saw this guy.

Next stop was the public fishing pier at Ballston Lake, where the surrounding swamp is filled with Swamp Rose bushes. Their exquisite fragrance helped me overlook the trash the public left all around that site. Here were Water Lilies and Pickerel Weed and pretty yellow Fringed Loosestrife growing wild. They, too, helped me keep my eyes on the prize: the abundance of interesting plants that grow at this site. Branching Bur Reed and Water Plantain were blooming alongside the road in watery ditches, but what caught my eye today were these nasty invasive Canada Thistles (Cirsium arvense). So far, they seemed to be confined to a gravelly railroad right-of-way. Given half a chance, they'll drive every other plant from the land. At least the bees seem to like them. These were really big bees.

Another alien "weed" I always find at this site is Centaury (Centaurium umbellatum). I've never found this plant anywhere else, and it's some kind of miracle I ever saw it here. A native of Europe, it grows in the hard-packed gravel right next to the road, where the mowers cut it down to less than an inch, and its flowers are minute -- maybe 1/4 inch across, if that. It must be its color that caught my eye: a vivid raspberry red, with a yellow center.

I got some very strange looks today, lying down in the dirt to close-focus on these tiny plants, cars and trucks whizzing by so close they ruffled my hair. And then the wind blasted my hat from my head, as a raging storm raced upon me, raindrops spattering the gravel where I lay. Those little Centaury flowers quickly closed their petals up tight, and I figured I'd better seek some shelter, too. More storms are predicted for tomorrow and also for Thursday. When will I ever get out on the river again?

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Free Ride for a Walk in Moreau State Park

The sunlit shore of a quiet pond at Moreau Lake State Park
Oh what the heck! I'll pay the six bucks. Or whatever it costs to get into a state park these days. That's what I said to myself today as I drove to Moreau Lake State Park. I can access the park for free any day by parking along the Hudson River and hiking in. But I wanted to visit the trail I helped clear on Trails Day this year, and I didn't feel like climbing a mountain to get there. So I drove up to the gate prepared to pay the entry fee, but the gatekeeper took one look at me and guessed I would qualify for the "golden-ager pass" -- free entry for us oldies except on weekends and holidays. Well, that was a pleasant surprise! Our New York taxes at work, and on something I'm happy to pay them for, for a change.

The trail in question is in a less-trafficked part of the park, away from the summer crowds of swimmers and campers. It runs through the woods and down to the edge of a quiet pond, with stretches of easy walking along the pond's sandy shore. And oh! it was dragonfly heaven there today! But kind of hell for someone who wanted to photograph these perpetual-motion zoomers. They'd taunt me by landing on blades of grass, and I'd just get the shot all framed and focused and zip! off they'd go. So, boy, was I delighted to get these two: almost a matching set, with similar dark spots and splashes on their wings, wings veined and paned in the same color as their body stripes. But one is bright yellow, the other bright red. Are they different sexes of the same species? Or two different dragonflies altogether? I'll bet somebody out there knows.

Note that this dragonfly's wings are mullioned and paned
with the same bright yellow as its body.

And this one's wings are made of the same bright red.

Lots of other insects were buzzing about today, too. My hands got covered with deerfly bites as I held real still to focus on these amorous long-horned flower beetles enjoying their rose-scented lovers' nest. I wonder if they ever get their antennae tangled up?

A rose-scented bower for these two love bugs

The sunlit edge of the pond was abloom with lots of flowers, including one I've been searching for for years: Racemed Milkwort (Polygala polygama). If you look real close, you can see that its small (1/4 inch) flowers, clustered at the top of its leafy stem, are like miniature versions of its much larger milkwort cousin, Fringed Polygala (P. paucifolia), also known as Gaywings. These pretty magenta flowers, which I last found in Massachusetts at least six years ago and never in New York State, were blooming all over the sandy shore.

Racemed Milkwort, with flowers like tiny Gaywings mounting the stem

The trail also passes through deep dark woods, where very few flowers manage to bloom this time of year. I did find some Striped Wintergreen and Pipsissewa just setting buds, but it will still be a week or more before they bloom. And then I found this splendid patch of Indian Pipe (Monitropa uniflora), pale and translucent, a ghostly presence in the forest. Also called Corpse Plant, this plant does not produce its own food with green leaves, but feeds indirectly off the roots of surrounding green plants, with the aid of fungi that live in the soil. John Eastman, author of The Book of Forest and Thicket, writes that "Botanists of an earlier generation, convinced that nature had made a bad mistake, deplored this strange little perennial for its 'degenerate morals.' How dare a seed plant give up being green and become a parasite!"

A sunbeam pierced the dark of the woods to light up this Indian Pipe.

Gosh, I hope no one feels that way about us freeloading old ladies who get into state parks for nothing. But only on weekdays.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bog Meadow Midsummer Beauties

No rain today (amazing!) but threatening skies kept my wanderings close to home once more. Hmm, I thought, maybe the Canada Lilies are blooming along Bog Meadow Trail. Well, they weren't, but I found lots of swelling lily buds, so maybe later this week. I still enjoyed a four-mile walk and found a few pretty things.

The shaded parts of the path were bordered with Swamp Dewberry (Rubus hispidus), smaller than its earlier-blooming cousin R. flagellaris and with shinier leaves.

Standing tall on either side where the trail passed through wet meadows was Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum polygamum), its fluffy white flowerheads seeming to float at the top of its slender stems.

Some things were so tiny I almost missed them, like the minute white blossoms of Enchanter's Nightshade (Circaea quadrisulcata), hardly a showy plant, but worth peering at closely. This plant does not belong to the Nightshade Family, despite its name (it belongs to the Evening Primrose Family). But the shade it grows in is almost as dark as night. It was some kind of enchanter's trick my photo is in focus. (Parts of it, anyway.)

The fluffy little burrs of Yellow Avens (Geum aleppicum) are also worth a close look. Subtly colored but really beautiful.

What looked like a plain brown beetle grazing the flower head of Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) turned out to have striped and curving antennae worth a second look. (All parts of this plant are deadly poisonous for us humans to taste; I wonder if the pollen and nectar of its flowers are exempt.)

When I reached the boardwalk over the open marsh, it wasn't hard to spot the showy beauties that flourish there. Including this just-coming-into-bloom Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

And this Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia terrestris), also known as Swamp Candles for the way its bright yellow blossoms cluster together in a terminal raceme. This is one of our native loosestrifes, not closely related at all to the alien aggressor Purple Loosestrife.

Not all the beauties I found today were flowers. These bright red berries of Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra) are far more eye-catching now than were its greenish-white flowers back in May.

The same goes for Dwarf Raspberry (Rubus pubescens), whose greenish-white flower has barely visible petals, but whose bright red berry was glowing like a ruby in the sun.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Revenge of the Forbs

Rain storms off and on all day. Not conducive for setting out on far-flung adventures. So off to the Skidmore Woods I went, just for an hour or so. The woods are very dark, now, with the canopy fully closed over. But still, a few flowers are about to bloom in that deep, deep shade: Helleborine (an alien but non-invasive green orchid), Pointed-leaf Tick Trefoil, and Lopseed were three I saw in bud today. Out in the clearings, the meadow flowers were in their glory: Milkweed, Bedstraw, Black-eyed Susan, Wild Basil, Deptford Pink, Whorled Loosestrife, Thimbleweed Anemone. Just to name a few.

Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) will later bloom in the sun as well. That is, if there's anything left of the plants, after these beetles have had their fill.

What is this beetle with a big appetite for Showy Tick-trefoil?

I have never seen any pests bother tick-trefoils of any kind before. But these plants were being shredded by mobs of these beetles. What's going on this year? Our native viburnums are decimated by beetle larvae, and now I see some kind of disease is attacking various shadblows. The leaves on my backyard shadblow are yellowed and curling, and here's a photo of the distorted fruit I found on all the shadblows growing up on a mountainside in Moreau Lake State Park this week. No viburnum berries, no shadblow fruits. What will the birds eat this year?
In Moreau State Park, the shadblow fruits were distorted and hard,
not fit for man nor bird to eat.
And look at those tiny prongs on top: have aliens landed?

So wishing bad cess on destructive pests, I felt a little twinge of satisfaction when I found Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris) poking its bright yellow heads above the water of a Skidmore pond.

Common Bladderwort, a floating rootless plant of ponds, feasts on underwater creatures.

For this is a plant that turns the tables: this is a plant that eats bugs. Very tiny ones, anyway: ones that are small enough to be sucked up into this plants utricles, the pinhead-size bladders that grow by the hundreds all over the feathery underwater structures of this unrooted floating plant. When "prey" comes near, these bladders suddenly inflate with water, sucking the creature in. Then enzymes and bacteria digest the victim, and special cells then channel the nutrients into the stem, deflating the bladder, resetting it to trap again. (For more information about this amazing plant, pick up a copy of John Eastman's Book of Swamp and Bog. It's chock full of fascinating information about plants and animals, including all I know about bladderworts.)

And here's another plant that traps bugs (although it doesn't eat them): Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

No matter how they jerk and dance, some flies can't get free of milkweed plants.

The drooping pink ball-like floral cluster is made up of individual flowers . Each of these flowers is circled by five little slits at its base, and each of these slits contains a set of two pollen sacs connected together by threads. The feet of this visiting fly slipped into the slits and got tangled up in those threads. So far, so good. That's what's supposed to happen. The fly jerked some of its legs free (you can see the yellow pollen sacs attached to its free legs), but at least one got permanently wedged. That fly jerked and pulled and jerked and pulled, but just could not get free. I didn't see how I could help. Too bad. (Yes, I actually did feel sorry for that fly.) And sometimes this happens to bees and butterflies as well. Really too bad.

Nature's systems don't always work perfectly. Guess she has a few "bugs" to work out.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hot Day, Cool Stuff on the River

Hot days like today will bring these Marsh St. Johnswort into bloom.  
But their leaves are pretty already.

Our first HOT summer day (over 80 degrees).  What else to do on a hot summer day but go jump in the river?  Oooh, did that feel good!  There are places along my stretch of the Hudson where one can enter the water without wading through muck, where hard clean rocks descend gradually into the sweet cool depths.  A-a-a-a-h!  Then I haul out dripping and bask in the sun until hot enough to do it all over again.  No lifeguards blowing whistles, no hollering kids, no chlorine smell, just cool green water, blue blue sky, sweet birdsong all around.

Of course, I have to paddle some to get to these swimming spots.  Today I headed for Juniper Point, just above the Sherman Island Dam, exploring every bay and cove along the way.  The sunlit waters of the quiet coves were glowing with Water Starwort (Callitriche palustris). (Thanks go to naturalists Ellen Rathbone and Hilary Smith for IDing this plant for me.)   Clouds of its golden feathery foliage stirred beneath the water; a few tiny rosettes of darker green leaves were floating on the surface. This native water plant provides food for waterfowl and shelter for baby fish. Hundreds of little minnows darted and flowed among the plants as I paddled over. 

Water Starwort glows beneath the surface in a quiet cove.

Also inhabiting quiet waters were clumps of Arrow Arum (Peltranda virginica).  Its large pointed leaves form a kind of thicket around the "flower" hidden inside, a strange-looking corn-cobby sort of thing, its cream-colored spadix encased in the envelope of its slender spathe.  Emergent plants like this provide jumping-off spots for insect nymphs, which climb the stems for their final molting.  How many shed skins can you see in this photo? 

Arrow Arum.  And friends

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is blooming now on the shadowed banks, its waxy white trumpets scattered among its dark green leaves.  This is one of the very few mid-summer flowers that bloom in the deepest shade.  Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica) is another one,  blooming away in such dark shade I have never been able to get a clear photo of it.  I tried and tried today. No luck. 

Partridgeberry.  And lots of it.

Out on Juniper Point the Low Blueberries were starting to ripen, a few on each bush.  I love the color variations on a ripening  blueberry branch, such pretty soft greens and pinks and lavenders and yes, at last,  deep BLUE!  Mmmmm.  And they taste good, too.

Look good enough to eat?  They were.

A little more something blue.  And I mean really little.  These Smaller Forget-me-nots (Myosotis laxa) are a native version of their larger garden-variety cousin.  Aren't they adorable?  They would make a nice bouquet for a little girl's dollhouse.

A tiny bouquet of Smaller Forget-me-nots

Was that thunder I  heard?  Yes, indeed, it was, and I looked up to see these looming storm clouds headed my way from across the river.  I love thunder clouds and thunder storms, but not when I'm out on the river.  Time to head home.  In a hurry.  (Yes, I made it.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June on the Hudson. Chestnuts in Blossom.

A rare sight:  American Chestnut mature enough to burst into bloom

Such a beautiful day for a paddle.  But not so great for taking good photos.  It was sunny and warm, but a brisk wind set the branches to thrashing, and waves rocked our boats away from whatever we tried to focus on.  My friend Sue and I  hit the river today to hunt for chestnuts in blossom.  And sure enough, we found them.  A number of them.  Hanging right over the water in plain view.  But that blurry photo up there was the best I could do, trying to shoot from a boat that felt like a bucking bronco.

Nevertheless, I'm glad to have any kind of photo of American Chestnut.  This is a tree that a blight has wiped out of America's forests, but scions still shoot from old stumps, and  once in a while they survive long enough to actually bloom and set fruit.  Unfortunately, the fruit is usually sterile, since cross-pollination can't occur if no mature mate is growing nearby.  Genetic finagling might one day create a blight-resistant chestnut, but for now this is all we have left of what was once the most predominant tree of our local forests. 

Silky Dogwood is just coming into bloom, its flower quite similar to other clustered dogwoods. I have a hard time telling these dogwoods apart, except Silky blooms later than Red Osier and Round-leaved dogwoods, and its berries are the most beautiful blue in the fall.  Also in bloom today and growing out of the same rocky bank were shrubs of Bush Honeysuckle and Maleberry.  My dogwood and honeysuckle photos were blurred, but the Maleberry came out pretty clear, its tiny waxy blossoms densely clustered and perfectly round.

Maleberry blossoms

Wild roses glowed pink against dark mossy banks.  Because of tossing waves that threatened to crash my canoe on the rocks, I couldn't get close enough to examine its thorns and stipules and thus determine the species.  Swamp Rose?  Virginia Rose?  Smooth Rose?  Let's just say this: Lovely Rose.  And deliciously fragrant rose.

A rose by any name is a lovely rose.

There were other treasures along the banks, especially once we made our way downstream to a sheltered bay.  There the water smoothed and wandered way back into a marsh and around rocky coves where the banks were spangled with Sundrops and tiny Bluets and Blue-eyed Grass.  Arrow Arum and Pickerel Weed thrust their large arrow-shaped leaves from the standing water, and other water plants were thriving, too.  

Sundrops and Bluets spangled the mossy banks.

Is this the dreaded Eurasion or benign Northern Milfoil?

 At least, I'm hoping so.  The foliage looks more like the alien kind, but none of the images of that plant showed these pretty pink flowers.  Can any of my readers weigh in on this?

Postscript:  After further searching the web for information,  I'm afraid that this is the dreaded Eurasian Milfoil.  Apparently, the number of leaflets is diagnostic:  natives have 9 or fewer, aliens have more than 10.   This has, what, 12 or 13?  Now the question is, how do we get rid of it?  At present, the patch is not too large.  Can we somehow confine it?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Trail Pals at Play

What a joy it is to have a pal who likes to walk through the woods the same way I do.  One who doesn't chafe if it takes five minutes to get the right angle on a dragonfly photo.  Or who doesn't fret if we wander off trail to see what's over a rise.  My friend Sue Pierce is that kind of pal, and what's even better, we complement one another.  I may know the names of a few more plants than she does, but she knows lots more bird songs than I, and she can see much better, too.  All the snakes and frogs and dragonflies we found today were ones that she saw first.

Sue took me to a place in Moreau Lake State Park where she had found Wood Lily in bloom. I'm sorry, but I won't say exactly where she found it.  This native wild lily (Lilium philadelphicum) is so lovely it's now become hard to find in the wild.  Too many folks have dug it up to transplant to their gardens.  We found a number of widely separated plants, the brilliant orange of their showy blooms set off by the green of lacy ferns that surround them.

As I said before, Sue spotted lots of woodland critters, and a couple of them held real still for the longest time so we could take their photos.

Like this large dragonfly with black-mullioned wings, its bright yellow embellishments color-matched to the hawkweeds and daisies around where it landed.  Be sure to click on this photo to better see those spectacular wings.

I don't know how Sue spotted this Wood Frog,  perfectly camouflaged among the dead leaves on the forest floor.  And it sat stone still, so both of us could poke our cameras at it.  Now, that is one beautiful frog!  Its eye seems fashioned of brilliant gold leaf, encircled by jet, with a ring of soft jade green.

Here's a close-up of that eye:

Tomorrow, Sue and I plan to paddle a stretch of the Hudson.  She thinks we may find some American Chestnut in bloom.  And I bet, with those eagle eyes of hers, she'll spot other good stuff, too.  So tune in tomorrow to see what we find.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

National "Take a Walk" Day

This snail and I share similar views about how to enjoy a walk.

My Google home page told me today was National "Take a Walk" Day (or something like that).  They even gave instructions on exactly how to take a leisurely walk.  Imagine!  But yeah, I've been with folks who didn't know how to take a walk without hurrying toward some goal, folks who scurried right past cool stuff and never even saw it.  Nor smelled it.  Nor heard it.  Nor stopped a while to watch it do its thing.  Like that spider nabbing that wasp a few posts back.  Or this snail I saw today making its leisurely way around a tree trunk.

As you can imagine, I don't need the urging of a national "day" to send me out on a walk.  Today I went back to Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, since my adventures there yesterday got me no further than 50 yards or so along the shore.  TWO HOURS to go 50 yards!  That snail could almost outrace me at that rate.  I picked up the pace a bit today and managed to get all around the pond in about an hour,  yet still saw some pretty cool stuff.

I did find one Frostweed flower in bloom.  My friend Sue told me they'd bloomed profusely three weeks ago, so I missed the full flush and felt lucky to happen upon this one.

And here's a photo of Frostweed I took last November, following a hard frost.  See how the frozen sap has seeped from the stem in curling sheets and plumes?  That's how this flower got its common name.  One of them.  It's also called Rockrose.  Its scientific name is Helianthemum canadense.

Once again, the critters took center stage today, including this pretty Spring Azure butterfly (Celastrina argiolus) feeding on blooms of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).  Those blossoms look a bit like miniature fireworks, the kind that explode with shooting stars.

I thought I was photographing Raspberry Slime Mold (Tubifera ferruginosa) when this Narceus americanus millipede showed up to steal the spotlight.  They both like to work at decomposing rotten logs.  And they're both kind of beautiful.  They kind of color-coordinate.

Now, I hope some computer watchdog agency doesn't come after me for posting all these photos of insect sex.  It's just that everywhere I look these days, they're doin' it, doin' it, doin' it.  Like this Lady Bug and her Gentleman Bug pairing up in their hazelnut boudoir.

This pair of back-to-back white butterflies really knew how to get it on together.  Totally!  Several times they flew away as I moved in to take their photo (well, jeez, Jackie!), and they flew away together, still attached.  How did they do that?  You'd think some kind of push me/pull you thing would happen, but no, they fluttered about in tandem as easily as if each was solo.  I'll call them Fred and Ginger.  Anybody know which is which?  Anybody know their Latin name?