Sunday, July 5, 2020

Foiled Forays For a Rare Fleabane

Most folks know what Common Fleabane is, right?  Little daisy-like flowers with petals as fine as eyelashes, usually white but sometimes a little bit pink.  It grows in vacant lots and open meadows and along roadsides everywhere.  Erigeron philadelphicus is the scientific name for this very common native wildflower.  Well, I learned very recently that there is a super-rare variety of E. philadelphicus called Provancher's Fleabane (E. philadelphicus var. provancheri). It is shorter than the standard variety of Common Fleabane, and its rosette of basal leaves persists throughout the blooming time and it is not as hairy as the standard variety is.  Its typical habitat is rocky riverside shorelines or cliffs. I frequently paddle a section of the Hudson River that has sections that fit that description.  Might we find it there?

That was the question I received from Rich Ring, rare-plants monitor for the New York Natural Heritage Program. Rich's particular responsibility regards the rare plants of New York's state parks, and this section of river is part of Moreau Lake State Park.  Rich and I arranged to meet this past Wednesday (July 1) to search the Hudson River below the Spier Falls Dam at Moreau.  We certainly had a beautifully calm river when we set out to conduct our search. Here's the Hudson looking downstream from our launch site.

And here's the river looking upstream, where some little islands with rocky shorelines might provide  the habitat required by this small, endangered fleabane. We headed both upstream and down to explore these islands and other rocky sections of riverbank within the catchment between the Spier Falls Dam and the Sherman Island Dam a couple of miles downstream.

And here's the river about 10 minutes later, when the sky opened up and dumped more rain than I had ever considered possible.  My canoe filled up with water so fast I feared it would sink, so I beached my boat, turned it over, stood under a tree, and waited for the deluge to lighten up.  It took a long time -- well over half an hour without the slightest abatement of the downpour. But eventually the rain did stop, and we continued our explorations.

Well, we never did find that Provancher's Fleabane.  This plant prefers calcareous rock like marble or limestone, and most of the bedrock along this stretch of the Hudson is granitic, an acidic rock. Sure, we felt a bit disappointed.  But the sun had come out, the sky had turned blue, and we were on a beautiful stretch of river lined with forested banks and lots of other interesting plants. We even chanced upon an American Chestnut grown mature enough to produce its graceful spikes of fragrant white blossoms.  That's not a sight we can see very often!

This was one of the more colorful patches of bloom along the banks: an abundant growth of feathery-flowered Tall MeadowRue entwined with the rain-battered pink blooms of Hedge Bindweed, both native wildflowers.

Our paddle completed, we had a second disappointment this day, when we decided to check a nearby roadside location where we once had found a very large population of another endangered species called Large-leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum).  Would you believe, at the very same site where we had counted over a hundred specimens of this plant just two years ago, this time we found not a ONE?  Oh well! At least this search had placed us within the proximity of hundreds and hundreds of Red Raspberry bushes, with many berries perfectly ripe and ready for the feasting.  Thank heaven for small favors!

On Saturday, July 4, I continued the search for Provancher's Fleabane along another stretch of the Hudson River, paddling alone.  This section, which lies above the Spier Falls Dam, is known to have a calcareous talus slope along the east bank, so the habitat might be more hospitable to this rare wildflower, which prefers a lime-rich substrate. The day was glorious, although quite hot.  I was glad to be on the water, which I shared with this family of ducks.

Well, if there's calcium in the rocks that tumbled down the eastern banks, I never found much  evidence of it in the riverside flora.  No definite calciphiles like Maidenhair Ferns or Spikenard did I see. I did, however, find a nice big clump of Large Sundrops (Oenothera sp.) with big showy yellow flowers.  It had quite a hairy stem, so it could have been O. pilosella, which is known to prefer calcareous wetlands.

But then, only a few paddle strokes along the shore from those Sundrops, I came upon this cluster of Rose Pogonia plants (Pogonia ophioglossoides), a plant I usually associate with acidic bogs. I have heard, though, that this pretty little orchid does tolerate soils with a higher pH than those typically found in bogs.  I would have described this habitat as a wet shore.

One of New York's most common native orchids, Rose Pogonia is also one of its prettiest.

As the afternoon wore on, even the cool water beneath my canoe could not overcome the sweltering heat of the sun bearing down on the eastern shore of the river, where I had been paddling for a mile or so.  So I scooted across to the west bank, shaded now by the high hills that rose from the banks as well as by the overhanging trees.  Among those overhanging trees were several American Hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) dangling seedpods that resembled stacks of angel wings.

It was much cooler here, and the shoreline was much swampier, too, than the rockier eastern shore. This large patch of Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) protruded out into the river, inviting me to search among its single-veined spiky leaves to see if I could find its distinctive spadices.

Indeed, I did find many of the Sweet Flag's sausage-shaped spadices, but what also drew my attention here was this dragonfly, having only just emerged from its exuvia,  the cast-off skin that had covered it during its nymph stage. I cannot determine the species of a dragonfly at this stage, since it has yet to develop the colors of its fully mature existence.

UPDATE: Steven Daniel, a friend with much greater knowledge about dragonflies than I have, has sent the following information to me:  

"Your dragonfly is a female Stylurus (hanging clubtails).  All clubtails (Gomphidae) are easily told by the eyes that are separated by a bar, easily seen in your pic.  Stylurus are mid-late summer dragonflies, typically in rivers, and the only genus expected to be emerging now in our area.  I’m pretty sure it is S. spiniceps (arrow Clubtail) which I had emerging in a river near here on Friday.  Note that the last segment easily visible (there is a tiny one behind it - is notably longer than the one before (in dragonfly aficionado talk we say S9 is longer than S8), which is one distinguishing feature of S. spiniceps, even as a teneral that hasn’t developed its colors as yours.   Some years I see huge emergences of them.  Here is a pic I took the other day"

Here was a second exuvia, this one remaining where it had attached to a Pickerelweed leaf.

And like the dragonflies, the Pickerelweed flowers (Pontederia cordata) were only just emerging in the shallows.

I delighted in the various colors and textures of the plants that crowd this marshy shoreline. Here, Tussock Sedge with its gracefully arching stems and Sweet Gale with its marvelously fragrant leaves vie for space on a hummock at the base of a tree.

Again, no Provancher's Fleabane could I find along this stretch of riverbank above the Spier Falls Dam.  But any disappointment I may have felt was certainly assuaged by the gloriousness of the day and the beautifully varied flora I did find along the banks.  And to top it all off, this Belted Kingfisher actually stayed put long enough for me to grab its image, however blurry.  In all my previous experience, this exceedingly elusive bird has always swept far ahead of me as my boat approached its perch. Today was my lucky day!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Plants and Pollinators at Woods Hollow

Cool and cloudy yesterday, with forecasts for heavy rain. Not a good day to venture far afield, but Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in nearby Ballston Spa seemed like a good place for a quick walk around the pond.  No wind at all, so the pond lay glassy and still as a mirror.

On my way to the pond through the woods, I was delighted to see many Pipsissewa plants (Chimaphila umbellata) in full and beautiful bloom.

The small white flowers and glossy green leaves of Swamp Dewberry (Rubus hispidus) sprawled across the pine-needle-carpeted forest floor.

I saw many of the heart-shaped leaves of Dalibarda (Dalibarda repens) lying flat to the forest floor, but among all those leaves, only one flower could be seen.  It's early yet, to see this pretty woodland flower in full bloom.

Low shrubs of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) had exploded into bloom, just in time for the Fourth of July. Their tiny white star-shaped flowers and flower buds remind me of the exploding starry spangles of fireworks.

Emerging from the shaded woods, I walked to an open area at the edge of the pond and was enchanted by the wonderful clove-scented fragrance emitted by a huge patch of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

I spent a good long time standing in the middle of that milkweed patch, just breathing in that sweet scent.  And I wasn't the only ones attracted to these beautiful fragrant blooms. This Bumble Bee and Silver-spotted Skimmer were busily feeding on what this native wildflower had to offer, pollen for the bee and nectar for the butterfly.

I was surprised to see so many dragonflies patrolling this patch, since I didn't think they consumed either pollen or nectar, being predators of smaller insects. So I imagine this powder-blue, green-faced male Eastern Pondhawk was lurking here in the hope of snagging some of the flying insects drawn to the milkweed's color and fragrance.

Another dragonfly was resting here, a female Widow Skimmer.

Dozens of pollen-eating wasps were whizzing around the rosy orbs of milkweed blooms, including many coal-black wasps with cobalt-blue wings . This is the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus), and yes, it is a large one.  But we have nothing to fear from these placid wasps, since they are solitary ground-nesters with no colony to defend.  They save their stinging venom for the insects that constitute their prey, which they paralyze with a sting or two before carrying the still-living insect back to their nests for their newly hatched offspring to feast on.

To see these wasps in Katydid-killing action, come visit my post from last summer:

Here is another pollen-eater found dining on milkweed today, the gorgeous golden-haired creature with red legs and red-banded abdomen called the Great Golden Digger Wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus). This wasp is also a nonaggressive solitary nester that saves her venom for the live-but-paralyzed prey she brings home to the nest she has dug in the earth (the males do not assist her, neither in digging the nest nor capturing and conveying the prey).  She places the prey in the nest, lays her eggs on the living captive, then closes the entrance for good.  The eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the captive, then pupate and emerge as adults from the ground.

But the most abundant insect found among the milkweed was the aptly named Red Milkweed Beetle. Nearly every plant had these bright-scarlet, black-dotted beetles either scrambling over the milkweed's green leaves or pausing to do what comes naturally to a beetle in mating season.

Was this lone Red Milkweed Beetle just a voyeur, or was he hoping to join the party over on the next milkweed leaf?

Looks like this one is moving in, either for a closer view or to challenge his rival.

I did see a number of these beetles engaged in what looked to be battles for dominance. Here, the winner of this battle has flipped his rival onto his back. As soon as the defeated one could, he got to his feet and scurried away.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Pity the Lilies!

Canada Lily (Lilium canadense), photo taken along Bog Meadow Brook Trail on July 4, 2015.
Well, it's almost the Fourth of July, and you know what THAT means!  Fireworks! But not the kind that send our pets into hiding.  I mean the kind that send me off to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail in search of Canada Lilies exploding into brilliant bloom, as spectacular as any "rockets' red glare!" (See how beautiful they can be, in the photo above.) Hoping to locate a few of these gorgeous native wildflowers at least in bud, I hurried over there today. But I did not find any gorgeous blossoms.  Nor any buds starting to bloom.  The Scarlet Lily Beetle larvae got there first. These disgusting poop-covered larvae had already eaten all the leaves of this lily and were starting to destroy the bud.  Looks like once again, we will have no Canada Lilies this year. Alas! I have read that a tiny wasp that predates on these larvae has been released in parts of the northeast, but it sure looks like they haven't yet found their way to the larvae chowing down on this Bog Meadow lily.

Ah well, at least we can expect a spectacular display of another beautiful flower, to judge from the massive numbers of Showy Tick Trefoil plants that are lining the trail this year. In all the years I've  been walking this trail, I have never seen so many of these plants, which later in July will bear thick spikes of pretty purple flowers.  This species isn't called "showy" for no reason!

Peering closely at the Showy Tick Trefoil plants, I could not detect any flower buds as yet. But I did see that a brief shower had decorated each leaf with crystal drops of rainwater. Very pretty!

At least I did find some flowers this trip, including several blooming shrubs.  The flat clusters of Elderberry blooms appeared a startling white against the deep-green of their leaves.

Even more lovely than in the flower clusters, the Elderberry florets were dropping off and spangling the Sensitive Ferns that thrive in the marshy soil beneath the shrub.

Other flowering shrubs along the trail included this Silky Dogwood, holding dense clusters of four-petaled, creamy-white flowers.

I had to peer close to appreciate the tiny flowers that clung tight to the twigs of a Winterberry shrub.  All of the wee little flowers on this shrub were staminate, holding pollen-tipped anthers above the waxy white blooms. The pistillate flowers bloomed on a separate shrub, open to the pollen that will waft on the wind from these yellow anthers, or be carried there by pollinating insects.

The warm humid air helped to carry the marvelous fragrance of this Common Milkweed blooming nearby.

Unfortunately, many of the flowers and shrubs that line this trail are not native species.  That is true for this showy Daisy poking up through the Tick Trefoil leaves, but that non-native designation did nothing to detract from the perky charm of the flower.

Deptford Pink is another non-native flower that likes it here, and again, its vividly colorful beauty helps to quell any disdain regarding its lack of native status.

The dainty flowers of Marsh Bedstraw are so tiny they might be overlooked, if not for how brilliantly white they are against the dark-green surrounding foliage.

More itty-bitty flowers, the tiny blue blooms of our native Small Forget-me-not.

A few weeks ago, this trail was lined with the showy purple flowers of our native Spotted Geranium.  The plants have long shed their blooms, but these geranium seeds are every bit as interesting as the flowers.  The "cranesbill" has split, releasing the "spring-loaded catapults" that have flung the ripe seeds all around.

Despite the preponderance of many invasive species along this trail that once was a railroad bed, many native species manage to thrive  Yes, there are way too many shrubs of Tartarian Honeysuckle, Autumn Olive, and Glossy Buckthorn, but native shrubs like American Hazelnut, Choke Cherry, Red Osier Dogwood, Gray Dogwood, Sweet Virburnum, Swamp Rose and others still manage to hold their own.  And a glance at the grassy verge beside the trail reveals many more native plants.  How many of these can you name?  (I'll be back in a couple of days to reveal the ones I could find.)

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense); Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense); Mouse-ear Chickweed seedpods (Cerastium fontanum); Rattlesnake Root sp. (Nabalus sp.); Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana); Yellow Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta);Grove Sandwort (Moehringia lateriflora); Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis).
Long slender leaves, possibly Aster?
Low plant with shiny green opposite leaves, Prunella?
Small whorled leaves, Bedstraw?
Oval leaves with slender tips, No idea!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Some Floral Finds, Redux!

I was just about to post a new blog about this week's visit to the secret bog pictured above, when a Facebook Memory presented me with a link to a blog I posted 2 years ago on this very same date, containing photos of the very same plants I encountered this year in the very same places.  Somehow, in the midst of so many crises occurring in our world right now, I found this quite reassuring. Whew!

I realize that climate change will in time affect this phenology, but at least just for today, all's right with the world in my neck of the woods. Thank God for small blessings! And I'm also grateful my blog has preserved such a record of so many wonders that surround me here in northeastern New York.  Here are two photos (Grass Pink and Sheep Laurel) from that old post, plus a link to that entry posted on this same date 2 years ago, with photos and an account I would have repeated almost exactly word for word if I had composed a new one today:

Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)

Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)