Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Curious Critters

Errands all day and rain off and on: no hikes or paddles for me today. But I did take a stroll through my "critter" files and found some images from about this time of year that are kind of interesting.

Even schoolchildren know a Woolly Bear caterpillar when they see one (Pyrrharctia isabella, larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth). And they probably also know the folklore about its predicting the weather. Let's see, how cold will our winter be, according to this one's orange band? Of course, the band doesn't really predict the winter, but it does say something about how many larval stages this caterpillar has passed through. According to David L. Wagner, author of Caterpillars of North America, "at each molt, a portion of the black setae [hairs] is replaced by orange, and hence the orange band is broadest in the last instar." I guess we'd need samples from each instar for comparison.

Here's another caterpillar you might find this time of year, since its favorite foods are goldenrods and asters. This is a Brown-hooded Owlet caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis), and it's about as brilliantly colored as its moth is dull and drab. Wagner says that they're not that uncommon, but I've seen only one in all my years of close plant-watching. And I think they'd be hard to miss, don't you?

Holy mackerel! Have you ever see a fly this big?! Well, I admit the photo doesn't provide any perspective, so how would you know? I'll tell you, that bug was enormous, almost two inches long. I guess it's some kind of horsefly? An "elephant-fly" would be a more appropriate name. It landed on my driver's side car window as I was rolling the window up. I really rolled that window up fast.

I wish I had a better photo of this altercation, but I didn't want to get in the middle of a bee fight. I was passing this clump of Heath Aster and noticed some kind of buzzy row going on amongst its blooms. The whole plant was thrashing around. There seemed to be one larger bee in the center of the melee, with a number of smaller bees attacking it relentlessly. Would they be biting rather than stinging? Can bees bite? I didn't get close enough to find out. I thought about coming to the big bee's aid by chasing the smaller ones away, but then they might have come after me. They sounded really mad!

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Moose at Moreau!

This marshy shore along Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park
looks like the kind of place a moose would love.

My friend Sue Pierce e-mailed to tell me she saw a moose track today near Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park. I had heard one was seen last Saturday on a road that surrounds the park, and park staff told Sue that a cow and calf were seen on the beach of the lake. That is such exciting news! But isn't it just my luck that I'm tied up this week and can't get over there until Saturday. Maybe they'll still be around, although it's a huge park -- more than 4,000 forested and mountainous acres spanning both sides of the Hudson River -- so it would be easy to miss them. But I'll be on the lookout, that's for sure. The bulls are in rut about now, and I hear they can be kind of surly, so maybe I don't want to meet up with one, at least not in close quarters. If I do see one, I'll certainly post a blog about it. If I live to tell the tale.

Here's a sandy shore along Moreau Lake. For sure,
we'll be searching the sand for moose tracks.

In the meantime, I'm heading over to New Salem, MA, on Wednesday to visit relatives the rest of the week. Their home is near the Quabbin Reservoir, a beautiful woodsy protected area in central Massachusetts. I often find plants over there that I don't find here, so maybe I can fit in a little botanizing while away. Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nap Cats

Rain all day. After church and grocery shopping and lunch and washing dishes and the Sunday puzzle, these cats on the couch looked pretty cozy. Move over, kitties, make room for your mama. ZZZZZ.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Out to the Islands, Off With the Weeds

One thing about my friend Evelyn, she sure gets me off my butt. But I'm lucky I didn't land on my butt today, picking and slipping my way through the river rapids, following Evelyn out to some Ice Meadows islands. The last warm and sunny day we'll have for a while, today was likely our last chance for wading across in any kind of comfort (?!), so we took it. There were alien aggressors out there among our native plants, and we were going to get them. Well, that was our plan.

The Purple Loosestrife was still pretty much confined to isolated clumps, which we'd planned on pulling and carrying off in bags. But it wouldn't budge. Its roots were well embedded among the rocks that make up these Hudson River islands north of Warrensburg. Since we didn't have dynamite or a backhoe to help us, we did the best we could: we cut off and bagged all the dead flower heads before they could spill their seeds and start a new generation of invasives. Sure, new growth will sprout next spring from the roots we left behind, but at least the seeds won't spread to new locations.

We'd planned to do the same with a growth of Japanese Knotweed out there, but too late, the seeds were long gone, scattered to the winds. Evelyn, a volunteer steward of this stretch of remarkable habitat, has been observing this clump of knotweed for some time, and seemed reassured that it had not seemed to be spreading. Very few alien plants are found out here on these islands or along these banks, and her hope is to keep it that way.

The harsh conditions created by huge deposits of ice on these shores each winter keep most invasive plants at bay, and also keep even the native trees and shrubs from growing tall and shading the shores. Native plants that have evolved to endure these conditions do thrive out here, but even they are dwarfed and stunted in appearance. Here's a field of Royal Fern, for example, that normally grows head high. Out here, it barely reaches our knees.

Very few flowers are still in bloom this late in the year, but we can still recognize some by their ripening seed heads. We found several patches of Rose Pogonia, a pretty pink orchid that blooms in June but reveals its location now by its plump yellow-green pods.

For years I have wondered what these little red wormy things could be, and today Evelyn told me that they are bulbils of Yellow Loosestrife, also called Swamp Candles because of the terminal spikes of yellow flowers they bear in summer. The flowers are long gone, but the plant can be recognized now by these reddish pointed and jointed bulbils in the leaf axils.

Here's a closer look. They are really quite distinctive. You can pluck these bulbils off and push them down into the sand and new plants will grow from them. I notice there's no sign at all of this plant's flowering spikes. Does that mean the flowers do not go to seed in the normal way, but reproduce only by means of these bulbils? Hmmmm. . . . I wonder, who would know?

Our weed-whacking mission accomplished, we struggled back to shore with our laden bags, hoisting our heavy loads up a steep sandy bank to our waiting cars. I was surprised to find along the road the purple tumbleweed clusters of Winged Pigweed (see "Very Weird Wingy Things," my post for 9/6). These plants are native to the central U.S., but have made their way east in recent years, seeming to prefer the sandy poor soils along the sides of roads. They turn this gorgeous shade of purple before the whole plant breaks off from a central stem and goes rolling away on the wind, spilling its seed as it rolls. Here's a close-up of its winged little seed.

I made the mistake of picking up one of the tumbleweeds that had broken off and placing it on my passenger seat. I discovered they don't need to roll along to dispel their seeds. What a mess in my car! Hmmmm . . . I know they like sandy poor soil. Maybe they'll sprout in the dirt on the floor of my car.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Up,Up,Up to Harrisburg Lake

The New York Times crossword was extra hard today, so when Evelyn called about 11 this morning, she caught me on my third cup of coffee and still in my pajamas. "What are you doing home on such a beautiful day?" she exclaimed, wondering if I'd come join her and another friend named Bonnie for a cranberry-picking paddle on Harrisburg Lake. She sure didn't have to ask twice.

I met Evelyn and Bonnie in Stony Creek, a tiny village 10 miles north of Hadley, and we proceeded another 10 miles or so north and east. I knew we were climbing up and up, for my ears were popping and the stream that our road criss-crossed several times was tearing white-watered downhill. Church-steeple spires of Black Spruce lined the road, and after what seemed a long, long drive through ever remoter boondocks, the paved road turned to dirt and ended right there at the lake. Sun-warmed and still, the water reflected a blue, blue sky and the brilliant autumn colors climbing the mountains surrounding the lake.

Canoes unloaded, we soon were off to circumnavigate the lake.

Harrisburg Lake is very shallow, and at times we had to pole our boats through tight spots among floating mats of water-lily roots and and boggy sphagnum islands strewn with ripe cranberries.

Bonnie spied these tiny Humped Bladderworts (Utricularia gibba) studding a black muddy mat with minute yellow blooms. When I climbed out onto the mat to try to get a photo, the mat promptly sank beneath the water, so I scrambled back into my boat and settled for this not-so-perfect shot.

I found one slightly battered bladderwort bloom close enough to the edge of the mat to take its close-up.

On another, more sphagnumy mat, we found this Arrow Arum seedhead burrowing its way down into the moss, where it will start a new clump next year.

On another mat, this Bog Lycopodium sprawled across the mud, sharing its turf with Spatulate Sundew and Marsh St. Johnswort.

And under the water, these streaming green water plants waved gracefully in the current. I don't know the Latin name, but I'd give this plant the common name of Mermaid's Hair.

A few Fragrant Water Lily blossoms still floated on the surface, but by this time of year, the lily pads surely rival the flowers for beauty.

By the end of the afternoon, Bonnie and Evelyn had picked bags full of ripe red cranberries. (I didn't bother to pick them since my family doesn't like them and I don't want to eat the amount of sugar it takes to sweeten them up.) The payoff for me -- aside from a gorgeous paddle on a spectacular Adirondack lake with two smart and amusing companions -- was a mind cleared to tackle the rest of that crossword puzzle. One glance, and the answers just fell into place. See what a day outdoors can do for increasing brainpower?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Green Ball Mystery Solved

Well, I finally found out what these gelatinous green balls are, the ones my friend Ellen found floating by the thousands in Pyramid Lake a week or so ago (See blog post for 9/14). Here's another photo of one I picked out of the water, just to give some sense of scale.

I went out to Skidmore College today to call on Professor of Biology David Domozych, taking along a small jar of the stuff I'd lifted out of the lake. And he knew at a glance what it was. "Those sure look like Nostoc balls," he said, and he whisked me down the hall to his lab, where we looked at one under the microscope. "No doubt about it," he said as he explained that each gelatinous ball was composed of a colony of numerous filaments of cyanobacteria, contained within a thin membrane. He seemed a good deal interested in our find, explaining that these balls are not all that common, occurring in only about 2% of ponds and other wetlands.

To get a better look, Professor Domozych sliced one of the balls with a razor and smeared some of the contents onto a slide, which he carried off to another microscope that displayed an image on a computer screen. Now I could see the strands of cells, strung like beads on a necklace, the semi-opaque green ones interrupted here and there with clear colorless ones. The green cells contain the chlorophyll that allows this cyanobacteria to photosynthesize, creating nutrients from sunlight. The clear cells, he explained, are "heterocysts," the sites of nitrogen fixation, where atmospheric nitrogen is converted into ammonia. The straight streaks you can see in this photo are the remains of the razor-sliced membrane that enclosed all these filaments.

He then illuminated the slide with ultraviolet light, causing the chlorophyll-laden cells to fluoresce an eerie red. He pointed out that the heterocysts did not react to the light like that. No chlorophyll, no fluorescence. I'm very grateful to Professor Domozych for giving me a copy of these photos to show on my blog. I told him he could keep the samples I fished out of the lake, and he seemed pleased to have them, explaining that his students could cultivate some more. Cyanobacteria is fascinating stuff.

Professor Domozych told me that these Nostoc balls can sometimes grow to the size of baseballs; he had heard about some pond in California, where these large balls sink at night and lie on the bottom, but when the sun rises, they pop up to the surface, causing the water to look like it's full of big bubbles. Another thing I learned about them (I found this out browsing the web) is that some species are good to eat. Apparently, you can buy dried Nostoc balls in Asian markets and use them in stir-fries or soups or as thickeners for other foods.

I have certainly learned some new things today about cyanobacteria. Now I'll have to find out how it tastes. But, oh darn! I gave my Nostoc balls away. Too bad.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The "Ancient Scouts" Troop Down to the River

Cloudy and warm today, with the threat of a little rain. But that didn't stop the group of folks called the "Ancient Scouts" from climbing down the rocky banks to explore the Ice Meadows on the Hudson River just north of Warrensburg. Former Girl Scouts and Explorers who'd adventured together many years ago in Atlanta, Georgia, this group of about a dozen had gathered in Schroon Lake for a reunion this week, and a visit to the Ice Meadows was only one of the excursions on their agenda today. It's too long a story to tell right now, but somehow I ended up being their guide to this remarkable habitat along the river.

Now in their 70s or 80s (I'm guessing), they had also invited their former scout leader along for the reunion -- a woman named Jean who was still so agile we "youngsters" struggled to keep up with her, even though she was in her 90s. How I wish I had taken some photos of the group, but they kept me mighty busy answering questions and searching for stuff to show them, and then all of a sudden they had to go -- some off to climb a mountain, others to visit the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. I'm glad I at least had a chance to chat with Jean about my own adventures as a Girl Scout long ago. Long before anyone heard of Women's Lib, the scouts taught me confidence in my own strength and judgment. We didn't have to wait around for the boys to come help, and we learned lots of cool woodsy stuff and campcraft skills. I still know how to light a campfire in the rain.

Speaking of which, it began to rain just a little as the Ancient Scouts drove off, but I didn't feel like leaving the river quite yet. Even under a solid grey sky, the fall colors were lovely, and hey, I'd driven 40 miles to get here, might as well get my money's worth. Except for the asters, very few flowers were still in bloom, but I did see this scrufty little Shrubby Cinquefoil showing its sunny yellow blooms against the warm rusty gold of a dwarfed Royal Fern.

Sheltering among the clefts in the rocks, these stunted Winterberry shrubs were laden with full-size red berries. If you look really close, there's one tiny Harebell off to the left. Such a dainty appearing flower, it's hard to believe it can thrive in such a harsh habitat, where plants are crushed under 10 or more feet of "frazil" ice each winter.

The rose petals long gone, these rose hips have their own kind of beauty.

As the river rounded a curve in the bank, the foam swirled around in fascinating patterns.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Blue-sky Day on a Transformed River

The scarlet leaves of a Highbush Blueberry, set off by a blue, blue sky

What a spectacular blue-sky day! Warm, no wind, a sky so clear you could see all the way to heaven. I'd meant to spend the day on the couch, trying to sleep off this cold that came back with a vengeance, but man, I could not stop myself, I had to get out on that river! A nice quiet paddle, sun on my face, fresh air in my lungs, no effort at all to move across glassy water -- how could that not be healing?

So off to Potter Road I drove, carrying my boat through the woods to put in near Bear's Bathtub. Here's the view that met my eyes: just the sight of that peaceful river was as restful as a good nap.

Even out on the open river the water lay still as glass, unruffled by any boaters of any kind.

But someone had pulled the plug since I was here two day ago. The water level has dropped to where it always used to be this time of year, but hasn't been in at least four years. This photo shows an area I once called Stony Brook Marsh, but which has looked more like a lake for years. Today it resumed its old stony brookish appearance, but without the accompanying rushes and wildflowers that used to line the stream. Today there was only mud -- stinky mud that sucked the shoes right off my feet when I tried to walk on it. But give it a week, I bet the grasses and flowers will spring back to life.

I saw hundreds of snails marooned on mud flats. Others were bobbing about on the water, clearly dead. Can't these snails move themselves into water by skooshing along on slime like land snails do? Along the banks I saw piles of cracked snail shell fragments. Some river critters are feasting on easy-access escargot.

I hadn't seen this stump above water for several years. I used to find Creeping Spearwort sprawling across its surface. I wonder if it might come back, if the river stays this low.

Well, bless my stars, it's still here, that Creeping Spearwort! No flowers as yet, but those are surely its arching runners, now turning green, still alive after several years of inundation.

What survivors, what patient creatures these wildflowers are, to lie in wait in the murky depths on the chance the day may come when they can breathe the air again. And here I am, complaining about a cold that has lasted only a little over a week.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Amazing and Acrobatic Dragonfly Sex

Photo by Sue Pierce

Okay. Sue Pierce sent me this photo to answer the question raised in my last post about how the male's sperm reaches the female's eggs while he's clasping her by the back of the head. As this photo shows, the female (while her head is still clasped by the male's terminal abdominal appendages and she clasps the male's lower abdomen with her feet) bends her abdomen down and forward so the male can deposit his sperm into her reproductive opening on the underside of her abdomen. This is a great photo, Sue. We can actually see this penetration in process.

According to Sidney W. Dunkle's Dragonflies Through Binoculars, "Just one mating probably provides a female with a lifetime sperm supply, but dragonflies provide one of the best examples of the phenomenon of sperm competition. The penis of male dragonflies is highly modified and can scoop out or push to the side any sperm already present in a female. Most of the time spent in 'copulation' usually involves removal of sperm, with injection only at the end of the process." Sneaky. And amazing.

But none of the dragonfly couples I saw yesterday in their frenzied dipping and darting ever assumed this copulatory position. Were they still involved in foreplay, or had the deed already been done? Again, I turn to Dunkle. He writes that some male dragonflies "retain the female in tandem after mating, and travel with her while she lays her eggs." He calls this "contact guarding," by which the male "prevents other males access to his mate and acts like an aerial towtruck, doing most of the work of flying." Just leave the driving to us, say the guys. They even choose where the female will lay her eggs. And I bet if they ever watched TV, those guys would also hog the remote.

Addendum: One more fascinating fact about the male dragonfly's sexual equipment. Apparently, his semen is produced way down at the end of his abdomen and not at the site of his penis. Before he can mate, he has to bend the tip of his abdomen down and forward to deposit his semen into his penis. Only then can he insert the semen into the female's receptacle. Nature is just so full of fancy tricks, is she not?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Clean-up Day on the River

Sure, there are landscapes more majestic, more awe-inspiring -- but I can't imagine a prettier spot than the Hudson River at Moreau. Here, forested mountains plunge straight down to an unspoiled shore, and the water runs wide and deep between the Spier Falls and the Sherman Island dams, capturing a vast expanse of reflected sky and receding hills.

As the river approaches the Sherman Island Dam, it branches off to run behind wooded islands, coursing around rocky outcrops and promontories, settling into quiet coves of perfect stillness.
Surrounded by such scenes of exquisite beauty, how could anyone dream of despoiling this place?

But despoil it some folks certainly do, to judge from the bags and bags of trash our crew picked up on a clean-up paddle along the river today. Beer cans and soda bottles, bait boxes and candy wrappers, chunks of styrofoam, propane containers, cigarette lighters, torn tarps and sheets of plastic -- all the typical trash left behind by slovenly campers -- plus one collapsed backyard swimming pool complete with liner (we left it behind for a truck to pick up) and one pair of women's flower-print bikini panties (woo hoo, if this trash could talk!).

If you paddle that stretch of the Hudson this week, you can thank this hard-working crew for the pristine conditions (left to right): Gary, Dave, and Ben (Moreau State Park staffers), plus Laurie and me (I'm down on the water, my huge bags of trash still unloaded).

The park rewarded our efforts with a free wienie roast back at Moreau Lake beach, and when lunch was over I took a quick hike around the lake to check on the lone Black Tupelo tree that grows on those shores. I was gratified to find its trunk wrapped with wire mesh to protect it from the voracious beavers who have girdled just about every other tupelo that grows in the park. (Thanks, Gary!) While strolling along the sandy shore, I came upon a wild party of dozens of coupled dragonflies, dipping and darting in a frenzied dance, the brownish females dunking their tails in the water. I'm guessing they're laying eggs each time. But what a curious copulatory posture! I'll have to read up on how dragonfly sperm finds its way to the female's eggs through the back of her neck.

If you click on this photo, you can see the tip of the female's tail (foreground couple) still holds a drop of water.

One pair lit on a log for a little breather. Sorry to invade your privacy, you guys, but hey, what a curious love life! I just had to look.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Stalking the Purple Loosestrife

Behold the mighty loosestrife hunters, triumphing over their haul!

My friend Laurie called this morning, asking me to join her paddling the shores of Moreau Lake. Our task was to pull as much Purple Loosestrife as we could find. So far, this aggressive alien invader occupies only isolated stands of just a few individuals, so it's still within the realm of possibility to eliminate it from these shores. But the plant can be mighty hard to uproot, which is why Laurie, a geologist by training, brought along her rock pick to work those stubborn roots loose.

We paddled together in her tandem canoe, stashing the plants in these barrels. If we left them in place on the shore, they might reroot or their seeds sprout and make new plants.

It wasn't always easy to approach the plants, sometimes sinking into muck up to our shins.

Sometimes the plants pulled free of the sand without much effort.

The reason we pull this admittedly beautiful flower is to prevent it from overwhelming its habitat and crowding out the native plants that grow there. Such as this pretty Stiff Aster.

And this pristine white Grass-leaved Arrowhead.

Tomorrow we head to the Hudson, to join a volunteer clean-up crew. We'll be paddling the shore and visiting campsites to remove, not alien plants, but the trash left behind by a summer's worth of litterers. Grrrr!