Friday, November 16, 2018


No, it's not winter yet.  Officially, not for more than a month. But these snow-mounded shrubs in my yard sure had a Christmassy look to them today, revealing how Ilex verticillata came to acquire the common name of Winterberry.

A Cold Morning Walk at the Hundred-Acre Woods

Brrr!  It was still in the teens on Thursday morning, when my friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I set out to walk a nature preserve in Malta called the Hundred-acre Woods. Because it was so bitterly cold, we kept up a brisker pace than we irrepressible botanizers usually prefer to walk.  Of course, when a hard freeze has killed all the flowers and shriveled most fungi to unrecognizable blobs, there weren't a lot of riveting finds along the way to bring us to a halt.

We did stop to ponder these scuffed-up leaves, however.  Who's been kicking around in here? We decided it must have been deer, pawing the leaves to get at the acorns that littered the forest floor.

There were definitely lots of acorns underfoot, because there were definitely lots of oaks in this woods. And here was one little oak, looking not too healthy because it was covered with some kind of crusty brown stuff.

One friend wondered if this was a lichen, but I said I thought it was a fungus, with all those flattened, squared-off teeth dangling down.  When I got home, I searched both my mushroom guides and Google, and finally came up with the name:  Brown-toothed Crust (Hydnochaete olivacea).  But that was about all the information I could find about it. Only one of my guides (Audubon's) even listed it, and it didn't appear in any of the more interesting mushroom sites I like to visit on the internet. But I thought it looked really cool, like the dangling fringe on a Hippie's leather jacket.

Here was one more of our fungal finds:  a rotting log covered with what looked like pieces of cracked ceramic tile.  In fact, the name of this stuff is actually Ceramic Fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus).  It is said to grow only on oak logs and stumps, and while it is known to be widespread in distribution, it is also described as uncommon.

We did have fun pondering over twigs and bark and buds and ferns, as well as lichens and liverworts and other (now frozen) fungi.  There's always lots of stuff in the woods to fascinate us, whatever the weather or season.  But I didn't stop to take many photos because my hand got too cold when I pulled off my glove to operate my camera.  At the end of our walk, we then decided not to picnic outdoors as we usually do, and we all headed off to the Malta Diner to warm up with hot food and happy conversation.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Beneath the Helderberg Escarpment

It was cold, but otherwise not an unpleasant day last Thursday when we Thursday Naturalists met at a nature preserve called the Heldeberg Workshop.  Located on over 240 acres at the foot of a limestone ridge called the Helderberg Escarpment southwest of Albany, the Heldeberg [sic] Workshop, a not-for-profit educational organization, provides courses in science and nature, as well as theater and art, to young people during the warmer months. But this time of year, the place lies quiet under an autumn sky, with the escarpment massively looming against the horizon, the trails through the forest now hidden beneath fallen leaves.

Lucky for us in the Thursday Naturalists, one of our members, Al Breisch, sits on the board of directors of the Heldeberg Workshop and was happy to lead us in exploring this wonderful place full of natural beauty and interest.  That's Al in the light-colored ball cap, below, as we gathered at the start of our explorations.

And off we go!

We hadn't gone far along this rocky stream before Al, an expert herpetologist, turned over a log on the stream bank to show us a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) hiding there.

Al informed us that the Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant vertebrate in the northeast, in terms of both numbers and weight.  In New York State alone, he told us, there are around 14 billion of them, a major source of food for many other animals, from centipedes and spiders to robins and turkeys.  It wasn't hard to believe those numbers, since we found many more of the little salamanders under almost every log we overturned.  (Along with plenty of other creatures, too!)

And here was a beautiful fungus we found when we rolled back this log.  This was quite a massive fruiting of the sac fungus called Green Stain (Chlorociboria sp.).  We often come upon rotting and debarked logs that are stained a dark teal-green with this fungus, but only rarely do we find it in fruit, especially fruiting bodies in such spectacular numbers.

Here's a closer view of the tiny disc-shaped fruits.  What a gorgeous and unusual color for a fungus!

Fall seems to be the best time to find some of these sac fungi.  It's certainly hard to miss the tiny bright-yellow sac fungus called Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina), especially when they grow in extensive patches like this one, spreading across the damp dark wood of a rotting log.

Here's one more sac fungus we found in this woods, the little coin-shaped fruits of Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides).

Here was a richly colored bracket fungus none of us could put a name to.  I thought that, because of its velvety tops and deep colors, it might be the Dyemaker's Polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii), but after posting photos of it on a Facebook site I belong to dedicated to lichens, mosses, ferns, and fungi, a person more knowledgeable than I stated that he believed it was instead the Late Fall Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum).  I'm not yet quite convinced, so I'm hoping my query will inspire more input.  Whichever it is, it was big and beautiful.

This is the underside of the fungus pictured above, showing the many pores of its fertile surface.  This lovely and delicate Cranefly was resting there when I broke off this chunk and seemed quite reluctant to leave.

Usually, when we come upon gigantic isolated boulders like this in the middle of the woods, we assume they are glacial erratics, dropped here by the receding ice sheet that once covered this part of the continent. But a more likely explanation of this one is that it tumbled down from the soaring limestone cliffs that loom above this woods.  A closer look at the surface of similar boulders revealed the presence of lime-loving mosses and herbaceous plants, further evidence that the boulders are of local origin.

Further evidence of a soil here enriched by lime was the presence of numerous American Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia), which only thrive in calcareous soils.  And boy, were they thriving here!  I have never seen so many bladdernut shrubs in one place as there were in these woods.

We Thursday friends enjoy quizzing each other about the identity of trees and shrubs, especially now that most woody plants have dropped their leaves and we have to puzzle over bark texture and leaf scars and other signs. It would be hard, though, to mistake Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) for any other shrub, for no other one has these bright-red pedicels that remain long after both leaves and berries are gone.

Not all the herbaceous plants have dropped their leaves by now.  The leaves of this Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) will winter over under the snow and not fade until after its flowers bloom next spring.

I wasn't aware that Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) had evergreen leaves.  Perhaps they will shrivel when we get a hard killing frost, but as yet they looked as fresh and green as ever, thriving among the fallen tree leaves.

Both the heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) and the seersucker-crinkled leaves of Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea) remain green this time of year, and both are also signs that the soil they grow in is rich in lime.

And look at this --  a beautiful pink Herb Robert flower (Geranium robertianum) still blooming away, long after other flowering plants have gone to seed.  For all the delicacy of this plant's appearance, its leaves and flowers sure can tough it out against frosts that would kill most other herbaceous plants.  (We had a few inches of snow last night, and I bet this pretty little geranium just kept right on blooming under the snow.)  We found many things to delight us here in the Heldeberg Workshop woods, and this rosy little bloom was certainly one of them.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Along a Waterfall and Other Waterways

Rain, rain, and more rain!  If we're lucky, lately, we might get one day each week when it doesn't pour.  Yesterday (Sunday) was one of them, so I headed over to Spier Falls Road where the road runs close to the Hudson River, hoping to see if all this recent rainfall had re-charged the stream that falls down the mountain across from the Spier Falls Dam. Oh yes, it sure had!

In a normal November, this stream would have dried to a trickle by now, but today it was roaring and leaping and splashing and bounding from boulder to boulder in a beautiful frothy display.

I fetched my hiking pole from the trunk and made my way up the mountainside, scrambling over boulders, teetering on rocks, and clinging to trees in the slippery spots, following the course of the waterfall up to where it gushed from a culvert that runs beneath a powerline service road.

The water-splashed rocky banks of the stream are covered with an amazing variety of beautiful mosses, including this dark-green aptly-named Fountain Moss (Philonotus fontana), which can only thrive on rocks that are wet.

This pretty patch of Haircap Moss (Polytrichum sp.) was sharing its streamside site with some lacy fronds of Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum).

There was quite a bit of Sphagnum moss along the waterfall's course, much of it with larger, looser leaves than those on this compact clump, with its smaller, more tightly curled leaves.

Here's that Delicate Fern Moss again, a few sprouts of it poking up from a nearly spherical clump of Broom Moss (Dicranum sp.).

The mosses here definitely intermingle. Here's a pretty mix of starry Haircap (top) sharing its space with an ample growth of a second, more touseled-looking moss called Big Red (Pleurozium schreberi).

After carefully making my way back down the waterfall's course, I continued along the riverside road, pulling over at one spot to admire how lovely the Hudson looked, even as the mountainside foliage fades to rust and amber.

My next stop was Moreau Lake State Park, where the northern shore of the lake seemed to glow in the late-afternoon sun.

That glow intensified as I approached the thickets of Black Huckleberry shrubs (Gaylussacia baccata) that grow along this shore.  Just as the rest of our splendid fall foliage fades, the leaves of these shrubs come into their glory, turning this almost unbelievable shade of scarlet.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Best Laid Plans of Beavers and Man!

I recently learned that the land-trust organization Saratoga PLAN will be celebrating the re-opening of the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail tomorrow, November 3.  A re-opening celebration will take place at 10:30 AM at the newly constructed trailhead parking area on Meadowbrook Road, near the intersection with Stafford's Bridge Road.  This new trailhead will eliminate the need to walk quite a distance along a busy road from the parking area to the previous trailhead, and it follows an old railroad bed through an open marsh, offering scenic vistas as well as great new opportunities to observe birds and other wildlife.

I've been previewing this new trail section on my own for several weeks, so I can personally attest that this is a wonderful addition to an already great trail.  Here are a few of the photos I took of it during the month of October.

It took heaps and heaps of material, many hours of hard labor, and the use of much heavy equipment to construct this section of the trail, especially considering that the resident beaver population made every effort to foil the humans' plans to cross their territory.  Beavers like to increase the depth of their ponds, so they persistently dam off the streams that drain the water from their marsh.  I noticed that the trail workers' efforts to screen culverts off from the beavers would sometimes be foiled overnight.

In several places along the new trail, rising water would flow right across the path, creating the necessity to place drain pipes across these low spots.  I suspect the trail managers will continue to have their work cut out for them, as the best-laid plans of beaver and man come into conflict over this wetland territory.

Here's a photo of where the new part of the trail joins the pre-existing one.  I looked forward to continuing my walk along the old trail, still underlaid with old railroad ties where the wild grasses and wildflowers happily still make their  home.  The crushed-stone paving will be welcomed by bikers, speed-walkers, and baby strollers, but we ambling nature lovers still prefer the lumpy green-grassy trail, even if the uneven old railroad ties tend to trip us from time to time.

Even now, with almost all the blooming wildflowers gone to seed, there are lovely things to see along this part of the trail.  The Panicled Dogwood shrubs have lost all their white berries to the birds by now, but the vibrant red pedicels that held those berries continue to put forth a colorful display.

I was happy to see that some little orchids I found along this stretch of the trail had managed to escape the mowers.  The seed pods of Loessel's Twayblade Orchid are more evident now than were the tiny green flowers that bloomed in June.

As I moved further along this part of the trail, I soon arrived at a place that had been virtually impassable just a week or so before.  At this spot, the rising waters of the marsh had overflowed the trail to a depth that reached up to my shins as I went ahead and sloshed through the muddy water.

But when I revisited the trail a week later,  I discovered that trail workers had laid a boardwalk across the flooded area.

Water still poured over the trail, but the boardwalk made it possible to continue without wading through mud.   Thank you, trail workers, for all your hard work!

This new plank walk led all the way to the existing boardwalk that crosses an open marsh.  Thankfully, the rising water has not flooded this boardwalk, a great place to rest on some benches and watch for birds in the shrubs and waterfowl on the water.

The newly laid planks continued for some  distance beyond the old boardwalk.

I soon reached a part of the trail where the ground was firm beneath my feet, and beautiful mushroom-studded, moss-covered logs decorated the trailside.

These tiny mushrooms have the common name of Fuzzy Foot (suggested by hairs that grow at their base), but their scientific name, Xeromphalina campanella, translates to something like "dry-naveled little bells." They are often found sprouting by the hundreds on rotting logs. This moss, by the way, is a species of Dicranum, also called Broom Moss for its swept-to-one-side appearance.

Many of our mature trees this fall did not display the vibrantly colored foliage we long to see, but the  brilliantly colored sapling oaks along Bog Meadow Trail did not disappoint.

Nor did the bright-red seedling Red Maples that had sprouted up among the pine needles.

Here's a beauty you could look at but not touch!  All sumacs are know for their vivid fall color, and the swamp-dwelling Poison Sumac is certainly no exception.

Especially now that American Beeches are threatened by a widespread disease,  we should bless them while we still have them, if only for the golden glow they reliably produce each fall.

Walking back the way I had come, I was impressed once more by the length of this plank walk, imagining all the effort it took to lay it.  Many thanks again to all the trail workers who have eased my way along one of my favorite trails.

Thanks belong, too, to all the donors who generously contributed to these trail renovations. Here's a link to a Saratoga PLAN site that lists them by name: