Monday, September 24, 2018

Highlights of a Shoreline Walk

Perfect weather for the first day of fall!  And a perfect day to preview some nature walks I'm due to lead along the shore of Moreau Lake this coming week.

I'll save the flower photos for when I report on the walks, except to post now these two photos of Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza).  This tiny native orchid is so small and so well-camouflaged against the forest floor, I may not find it again, even though I marked its location with some pink pipecleaner.  I doubt very much I would have seen this one, if a beam of sunlight had not lit it up against the dark shade of the woods.


Sometimes this orchid doesn't bother to put forth any petals, but one of the four specimens I found today had pod-like florets adorned with a single, ruffly, purple-dotted white petal.

Another notable find today was a Speckled Alder shrub with a few of its branches hosting colonies of Wooly Alder Aphids (Prociphilus tessellatus).  I hope they are still around when I lead my walks later this week (one on Tuesday and a second on Thursday), for this is a very interesting insect.

I noted that there were two distinct groups of aphids on each branch, the lower groups still wingless and covered with the white waxy filamentous stuff they exude to protect themselves against both weather and predators while they spend the summer feeding on alder sap.  This wingless group got started when a single winged female aphid landed here and produced a wingless clone of herself.  That clone produced clones who produced clones who produced clones, etc., etc, until a considerable colony formed on the branch, every one of them a wingless female clone of the first winged female individual that landed here.

Higher up on the branches, I found the latest generation of clones, only these were individuals with WINGS!  And chances are good that there might be a male or two among them.  (How can female aphids clone males?  That's a good question!  Can anyone answer it?)

As soon as they lose some of the sticky fluff that still clings to their wings, they will take to the air and fly off to find some male mates from another clonal colony.  Thus they will produce fertile eggs for a new generation, laying these eggs on the bark of Silver Maples, where winged female aphids will emerge next spring to start the cycle all over again.

It won't be long before we start seeing tiny puffs of pale-blue fuzz wafting around, one of the delights to be found in autumn.  Another name for the Wooly Alder Aphid, when it takes flight, is Fairy Fly.  Here are a few that look as if they might be almost ready to take to the air.

I had one more wonderful insect-related delight today, when I came upon a large group of Monarch Butterflies all vigorously feeding on a patch of goldenrods. I'm thinking they might be part of a migrating group.   I counted about 10 of them, but managed to fit only these four within the frame of my photo.  (A blurry photo, but hey, they were fluttering fast!)  How fortunate that the sunlight illuminated these lovely creatures from behind, the better to show off their glorious stained-glass wings!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Poet Sings of Autumn

Song for Autumn
by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
   don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
   the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
   freshets of wind?  And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy.
   warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come -- six, a dozen -- to sleep
   inside their bodies?  And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
   the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow?  The pond
   vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
   its blue shadows.  And the wind pumps its
bellows.  And at evening especially,
   the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sandplain and Creekbank, Fall Flowers and Fungi

Every season has its own wonders, and that's certainly true as summer eases into fall, when Nature saves some of her most spectacular flowers and fascinating fungi for last.  I didn't have to go far afield to find some of these this week, as photos from a quick trip to Woods Hollow Nature Preserve and Gray's Crossing on the Kayaderosseras Creek reveal.  Both sites are within a mile of each other on the northern outskirts of nearby Ballston Spa, but each offers a quite different habitat: sandy and sunny for Woods Hollow, shadier and with richer alluvial soil along the creek.


Fall Flowers at Woods Hollow

I entered the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve through an open meadow adorned with goldenrods and asters, the vividly purple New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) the most outstanding among them.

There's no mistaking the New England Aster, for none of our other fall asters have flowers quite this deeply purple.  This species of aster does come in other colors -- a deep rose and a paler pink -- but all varieties are known for their large showy blooms, as well as the presence of glandular hairs on the flowers' bracts.

It may take a magnifier to clearly espy those glandular hairs on the bracts, but even without one, you can see how they glisten in the sunlight.

Another of our showier autumn asters is the Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), displaying dense clusters of flowers that can range in color from white to tinged with violet.  Those that I found at Woods Hollow did have a slight violet hue.

This Panicled Aster can be distinguished from other tall whitish asters by the way its stalkless, slightly-toothed, lance-shaped leaves meet but do not clasp around the stem.

Just a short distance from the aster-studded meadow lies a dry, sandy area that supports those plants that can tolerate just such an arid habitat as this.  Oaks, pines, and poplars surround this space, while Little Bluestem Grass makes its home in the open areas between the trees.

Fall is the best time of year to find those flowers that prefer dry sand, such as this delicate-looking Sand Jointweed (Polygonella articulata).  It truly abounds at Woods Hollow, but it's quite possible to walk past it without noticing it, for its spindly stems and tiny pale florets can disappear against the sandy background.

But you sure won't walk past Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium) without seeing it!  Especially this time of year, when its yellow-green stems, leaves, and flowers turn a quite startling color of reddish purple.

This bushy vegetable hedgehog -- the whole orb of its floral parts held on a single stalk -- will soon break off and go rolling across the landscape, spilling its seed as it rolls.  Native to the central plains of North America, this plant must have rolled all the way out here to the Northeast, for we are finding it more and more frequently in such barren sandy areas as this.  Here's a closer look at its floral parts, revealing the "wings" that surround the seedpods and doubtless suggested this plant's common name.

I was surprised to find Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) still blooming this late in the day, for it usually drops its florets by early afternoon.  Perhaps as the days grow shorter, its flowers last longer!

But even after its flowers have dropped, Blue Curls is fun to examine.  Look at these  little scoop-shaped bracts, each holding a pair of tiny green seedpods -- like twin babies bundled into their cradles!

Fungi at Woods Hollow

I usually associate fungi with the damp shady woods, usually following rain, but a number of fungus species do prefer just this arid environment, and this is the time of year to see some of the more fascinating species.  The one pictured here below is called the Dyemaker's False Puffball (Pisolithus tinctorius), and the orange-brown powdery stuff on its top indicates it is shedding its spores.

This fungus is known to grow in poor soils under pines and oaks, drawing its nutrients from the roots of those trees.  It can also absorb pollutants such as heavy metals from the soil, making it useful in reclamation and reforestation of polluted and denuded habitats, like those around strip mines.

When this fungus is fresh and before the spores are ripe, it can be used to dye wool a reddish brown color, hence the common name Dyemaker's False Puffball.  Its scientific name, Pisolithus, literally means "pea stone" and refers to the pea-shaped peridioles (the spore-producing parts) seen in the interior of the fungus when it's broken open.  The "tinctorius" part of its name refers to its ability to produce a dye.  I sliced this specimen open to reveal its interior "pea stones" at ascending stages of maturity.

Here's another mushroom that prefers a sandy habitat, that preference reflected in its common name, Sandy Laccaria (Laccaria trullisata).  And it can easily disappear against the sand, due to its dull, sandy-tan coloration.  Dull, that is, until it's cut open, revealing flesh and gills of a startling purple hue.

I was quite surprised to find this Black Tooth fungus (Phellodon niger) here, for I have found it before only in the damp shade of the woods along a creek.  But despite the amount of white adorning its top,  the "black" part of its name was still evident.

Also diagnostic were the teeth that covered the Black Tooth's underside:

Here's a little mushroom I had never seen before.  After pondering my mushroom guides and Google Images, I'm going to venture that this is the fungus called Telephora terrestris, which is called by a number of different common names, Earth Fan and Fiber Vase among them. According to various sites I visited, this fungus is nearly always found on dry sandy soils, where it forms mycorrhizal associations with conifers.  That's a pretty good description of this habitat, that's for sure.

I'm guessing EVERYbody knows the name of this fungus:  the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea), a common edible mushroom that can be cut into steaks and fried in butter.  But when I first saw it here beneath some pines, I didn't even grasp that it was a mushroom, thinking it was a big white ball some child had left behind.  I left this fungus behind for someone else to collect and enjoy.

I found this lovely creature on the ground, loosely clasping the stem of an oak seedling and flopping weakly.  When I reached my finger beneath it, it seemed unable to fly and just sat there quietly. I guess this is one Monarch Butterfly that will not be heading south on migration.  Perhaps it is one that has already headed south from a much more northern location and has now reached the end of its life after breeding.  One thing about butterflies:  they don't look any less beautiful as they grow old and get ready to die.


Just a short drive from Woods Hollow along Northline Road lies a very different kind of nature preserve called Gray's Crossing, which is actually a non-contiguous part of the Saratoga Spa State Park.  This preserve offers a trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek, a trail that is shaded by giant Silver Maples.  This site's rich alluvial soil is home to some of our most vigorous wildflowers, a few of which grow to gigantic size.  The native sunflower called Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is one of those outsize species, and a large patch of it has just this week come into bloom along the creek.

With the first day of fall arriving this weekend, we now say hello to the last flower of summer, a plant that I could imagine has stored up a whole summer's worth of energy to burst into prodigious bloom as summer wanes. Everything about Jerusalem Artichoke is big and beautiful.

To photograph this flower I had to reach up and bend its stalk down to my eye level.  The stalks pictured below must have been at least 8 feet tall, for they towered well over my head, and I am not a short person.

I next set off down the creekside trail (it's called the Burl Trail) in search of a second species of sunflower, but on the way I had to stop to take in the gorgeousness of the New England Asters that also thrive here.  Although I found a few of the deep-purple variety of this aster, I more often encountered the variety that had blooms of pink or rose.

Did I mention how gorgeous they were?

Gorgeous, too, is a species of sunflower that was introduced to this site just a few years ago, following extensive denuding and restoring of plants along the creekbanks.  This is Maximilian's Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), a marvelously showy sunflower with large blooms all along the tall stalks and not simply clustered at the top.  The species is also distinguished by its narrow lance-shaped leaves that curl scythe-like from the stalks.

Three years ago I was concerned that the Maximilian Sunflowers  -- native to the central states but not to the northeast -- were becoming invasive along this trail, for their numbers had exploded from a single specimen I found one year to overwhelming numbers the next. But then their numbers diminished considerably over the past two years. I found only four plants along the creekside trail this year, and I wondered if this sunflower was well on its way out of here.

Ah, but I shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion!  Yes, there are very few remaining on the trail that closely follows the creek, but how about elsewhere in this preserve?  I glimpsed this scene through the thick vegetation along the creek and wondered:  could those all be Maximilians out there?  I braved the nettles and tearthumb to push through that vegetation, and this is what I saw when I emerged onto a large open meadow.  Maximilian Sunflowers flourishing here as never before!

Is there cause for concern that this species could become invasive here?  Maybe so.  But considering how the population flourished and then declined along the creek, it's probably too soon to predict. And in the meantime, oh gosh, they are beautiful!  And judging by the numbers of Monarchs I saw fluttering among them, other creatures are enjoying them, too!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Dwarf Bulrush Hunt Continues!

So what's the big deal about this wee little non-showy plant shown above, the Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush?  Well, New York State has listed Cyperus subsquarrosus (that's its scientific name) as one of the state's rarest plants, placing it in the category of Endangered.  But as I recounted a few posts back, a state rare-plant monitor and I discovered uncountable numbers of it growing along Moreau Lake, and that was just on one small portion of the lake's shoreline.  On another day, I returned to Moreau Lake State Park and explored the whole eastern shore of the lake, finding comparable numbers there.  Then once again, on a day  pouring rain, I walked the rest of the way around the lake, and I found so much of the Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush that I feel confident in declaring it grows all around the lake on every shore that is sandy or pebbly, its numbers declining to few or none wherever the shore becomes mucky or where tall vegetation grows out into the water.  This blog post documents my walk around the lake on that rainy day, September 9, 2018.

I started my walk on the southern end of Moreau Lake, just past the boat launching site, proceeding clockwise.  I could see lines of vegetation marking how low the water in the lake has fallen these past 3 or 4 years, possibly exposing a seedbank of our plants that had been waiting underwater all that time, ready to grow when exposed once more to sunlight and air.

Sure enough, as soon as I passed the area that groomers keep clear of vegetation,  I began to see our little Dwarf Bulrush (which, by the way, is a flatsedge and not a bulrush).  I included the toe of my shoe in this photo to show how truly tiny it is, which may account for why it may have been overlooked for many years.  It was last reported from Moreau Lake in 1961.  That's 57 years ago!

As I continued, I soon discovered how very happy Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush was to inhabit this shore.

But it liked this shore only so long as the habitat remained sandy or pebbly.  I soon reached a muddy area where cattails crowded into the lake,  and the plant promptly disappeared.

I continued my walk along the western shore of the lake, passing through a flat area just teeming with shoreline plants, including vast numbers of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) dangling their bright-orange flowers.

There were many other colorful flowers here, including this Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) with just a few of its bright-blue flowers remaining on the stalks.

Despite the rain that started falling more heavily now, masses of Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) were still attracting lots of bumblebees and wafting the delightful smell of maple syrup on the humid air.

The deep-pink flowers of Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula) added points of bright color to the tangle of vegetation.

I was truly surprised to find these vivid blooms of New York Ironweed (Vernonia novaeboracensis) sharing its space with bright-yellow plumes of goldenrod (species un-determined).  This species of Ironweed, although not really native to Saratoga County,  has been planted in a nearby rain garden near the park's nature center, so I imagine that seeds from that garden could have made their way out here to the shore.

The flattened scarlet stems of this plant created carpets of brilliant color out here on the shore, and at first I couldn't imagine what species they might be.

But a closer look revealed the narrow leaves and ruby-red seed pods of what could only be Canada St. John's Wort.  But these plants were so much larger than the Canada St. John's Wort I usually find (Hypericum canadense), I wondered if they could instead be the Greater Canada St. John's Wort (H. majus)? I will have to consult some of my botanist friends to find out.

Update: I recently showed this Hypericum to noted botanist Jerry Jenkins, and he had no doubt at all that this was indeed Hypericum canadense and NOT H. majus. So that settles that!

Nodding Bur Marigold (Bidens cernua) is one of the prettiest plants that Nature saves for the last days of summer, and I was delighted to find it thriving here among all these other native wildflowers that crowd the muddy flats along the lake's western shore.

Down near the water where a tiny stream entered the lake, an area of bright-green reeds was starred with the brilliant white flowers of arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.).

I spied one arrowhead plant growing out in the rain-dimpled water, and now I could discern the distinctive narrow leaves of Grass-leaved Arrowhead (S. graminea).

Approaching the park's swimming beach, I knew I would find no plants of interest there on the bare-raked sand, so I hurried along to cross a bridge and reach the lake's northern shore.  Here again, I could see lines of vegetation lining the damp sand.  Would our little flatsedge resume its place here?

Oh yes, it sure did!  And oddly enough, it thrived here the most abundantly among the stems of a sparse patch of Phragmites, one of the most invasive species found on the lake.  I'm sure as the Phragmites patch grows denser, the Dwarf Bulrush will like this spot less.

But not to worry!  Even if the Phragmites should drive our Cyperus subsquarrosus completely off the north shore, there would still be uncountable numbers of this Endangered species thriving along the eastern shore.  The stretch of eastern shore pictured here is more stony than sandy, but that did not discourage our little flatsedge one bit.  It seems just as happy to grow in pebbles as it does in sand.

By this point, both the flatsedge and I were getting soaked by the rain.  I'm sure the plant didn't mind the rain, but I was getting cold and tired.  Happily, I had reached the point where I had completed my circuit of the lake. Now I could call it a day and return to my car, knowing that Cyperus subsquarrosus (perhaps better known by its previous name Lipocarpha micrantha) was not endangered at all along the shores of Moreau Lake.