Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Walking the Wilton Preserve

 Oh, but it was grand to swing my legs under a wide open sky today, feel the sandy path under my feet, smell the scent of oaks and pines, and enjoy a nice long walk through the Wilton Wildlife Preserve with my good buddy Sue.  After a solid week of feasting and family togetherness -- all of it grand, but most of it indoors -- I was eager to get back to my nature haunts and the quiet companionship of a fellow nature nut enthusiast.

 I suggested we visit the Gick Farm parcel of the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, a sandy-soiled oak/pine savanna kept open by periodic burns and mowing, as a change of habitat from our usual forested mountain trails at Moreau.  Here, the walking was easy on soft sandy paths among tall native grasses moving in waves with the wind. 

White Pines and Pitch Pines share this habitat with oaks of several species, including the shrubby Bear Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), just about every one of which was laden with these knobby galls.

Mats of  Pussytoes carpeted the sand in places, colored a lovely pink and green.  A closer look at the leaves revealed their remarkable hairiness. Update:  A helpful reader has corrected me on this.  These leaves are more likely those of Mouse-ear Hawkweed than of Pussytoes.  Thanks, Ethan Dropkin!

In addition to fields of grasses and tracts of open woodlands, this section of the Wilton Preserve also contains several denser forests and a number of wetlands.  An abundance of emerald-green watercress marks the course of the little stream that winds through this wetland patch.

Almost every tree in the low-lying woodlands was a veritable garden of mosses and lichens, fungi and liverworts, all commingling in a complex community of many different shapes and sizes and colors.

This very dark, almost black lichen was splotched with a startling patch of bright red.  Could it be a natural aspect of this organism, or is this a paint splotch, marking the red-blazed trail we were following?

This little green clump of moss is one of the very few mosses I know the name of:  Ulota crispa, here centered on a lacy doily of Frullania liverwort, one of the very few liverworts whose names I know.

Now, what's this white disk?  Is this a lichen or some kind of mold?  What an amazing array!

I recognize the little Christmas trees as one of the Polytrichum (Haircap) mosses, but I can't remember the name of the dainty fern-like stuff clasping the base of this little tree.   I just thought the combination of colors and textures was delightful.

Here's another patch of a Polytrichum moss, containing slender immature spore stalks as well as the spent ones from last year.  The most arresting inhabitant of this patch, though, is that amazing fruticose lichen, one of the Cladonias that looks like stacks of trumpets or something drawn by Dr. Seuss.  I have heard it called Pagoda, but I do not know its scientific name.

With the light shining through the walls of this Tree Ear fungus, they look like little cups of Cranberry Glass.  How pretty they look, especially accompanied by those tiny yellow jelly fungi.

More little yellow jellies, maybe Dacryopinax spathularia, or Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus.  A mighty big name for such a minute organism.  Compare them to the pine needles next to them, to get an idea of how tiny they are.

Ooh, what a slimy thing this is!  I guess it must be a fungus, but I'm afraid it's too far gone to determine its identity.  Fascinating!  What an interesting color.

I admire my friend Sue for many reasons, and one of them is that she can SEE things that ordinary mortals cannot.  Even knowing exactly where this tiny Spring Peeper was sitting, it would disappear as I stared at it.  How on earth did she ever see it in the first place? 

And isn't it odd to find a Spring Peeper on the very last day of November?  Shouldn't they all be tucked away for the winter?  Another blog friend at "You Hike the Giant, too!" found a Spotted Salamander today.  I think this spell of balmy weather has the woodland critters thinking it must be spring.

Thanksgiving Day in Vermont

Oh my, I've been away from my blog a whole week!  Yes, it was a busy week, going off to West Dover, Vermont, to spend Thanksgiving Day with my daughter's in-laws, who own this beautiful place overlooking Mt. Snow.  Then home Thursday night to entertain my son and his family (a wife and four children) for the rest of the weekend, celebrating my husband's birthday with a big dinner and birthday cake on Sunday.  Then I rested for two days.  (There's a reason we have our babies when we're young!) Today I returned to the woods for a walk with my friend Sue.  But before I post an entry about that, I wanted to post these photos taken in Vermont, where the ground was covered with several inches of snow, despite temperatures climbing into the high 50s. 

This handsome old barn has been converted into a guest house and family gathering place, where we sat down to a Thanksgiving feast for about 30 people.

The old farmhouse porch overlooks this exquisite mountain view.

Despite the wintry scene, these apples (Yellow Delicious?) still hung on the trees in the old orchard.

Although our skies were mostly blue, thick clouds rested atop Mt. Snow across the valley.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

For the Beauty of the Earth . . .

Crescent moon at dawn, November 22, 2011

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love that from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the wonder of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to Thee we raise
This, our hymn of grateful praise.

Traditional hymn by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1864

To all my friends, I wish you the very happiest of Thanksgiving Days.
Jackie Donnelly

Testing My Bryophyte Lessons

What with holiday preparations and readying my house for weekend guests, I haven't had much time to get outdoors this week.  But I was eager to test the lessons I learned from bryologist Nancy Slack last Friday, so I did manage to slip out for an hour on Monday to visit the Bog Meadow Nature Trail just east of Saratoga Springs, a wooded wetland trail that's full of fascination in every season.

 The hundreds of decomposing logs lying about in the woods offer many opportunities to study lots of different species of mosses and other bryophytes -- plants that reproduce by spores, rather than by flowers and seeds.

This beautiful Tree Moss (Climacium americanum), though, was growing not on a rotting log, but directly on the ground, probably where a log had completely decomposed in the past. It does look quite a bit like a little tree.

This next moss (Ulota crispa) always grows ON trees, usually birches, marching up and down the trunk like a group of tiny hedgehogs.

I'm not completely sure, but this mat of lacy-leaved moss growing on a downed log could be Thuidium delicatum, or Fern Moss.  It certainly resembles little ferns.  And those tiny mushrooms resemble little brown ears, so perhaps they are the fungus called Tree Ear.  On second thought, they also resemble in color and size copper pennies, so I think they might be Pachyella clypeata, or Copper Penny.

I was pondering what this "moss" might be, when I remembered being stumped by it before up at Pyramid Lake, when botanist Ruth Schottman informed me that it wasn't a moss at all, but rather a leafy liverwort called Lophocolea bidentata.

A closer look reveals the two-toothed leaves that suggest this liverwort's specific name of bidentata, meaning two-toothed.

 Not all my finds were botanical.  I found this very hairy pod lying on a moss mat, and I wondered if it could be the cocoon of one of our very hairy moths, like a Tussock Moth, which is known to use its hairs to create its cocoon.

When I turned it over, I found that some predator had torn the cocoon open and devoured the contents of that shiny dark carapace.  It was hollow inside.  I suppose a bird could do that.  Bog Meadow Trail is very rich in bird life.

Before I saw this tiny spider on the surface of a cut stump, I saw the bright yellow dots of Lemon Drop Fungus, the largest hardly bigger than the head of a pin.  If the spider had not moved, I probably never would have seen it.  Really cute!

Trail steward Geoff Bornemann was hard at work rebuilding a section of washed-out trail.  Geoff is very diligent about maintaining this wetland trail, which is always threatened with flooding.  In some places the flooding is due to beaver dams, but in this section of the trail, the flooding is caused by the uphill homeowner's removal of too many trees from the edge of his property, causing sand and silt to wash down the banks and fill the drainage ditches that Geoff has so carefully dug along the trail.   Geoff, I hope you know that lots of happy hikers are very grateful to you for all the work you do to make this trail walkable in every season.

 I'll bet that tomorrow some happy eaters will be grateful for all my hard work making pies today.  Two cherry, one cherry-apricot, one apple, one pumpkin, and a blueberry coffeecake to have for company over the weekend.  The pies I will take to a Thanksgiving feast at in-laws' place in the mountains of Vermont.  I surely have many blessings to be thankful for.  I wish a very happy holiday feast to all my readers.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mosses (and More) on the Mountain

Just because all the flowers are gone by now, that doesn't mean there's nothing for botanizers to seek out in the woods.  There's still lots of wonderful stuff to be found, since many mosses, lichens, liverworts, and even some ferns are unaffected by the freezing weather and can be sought all winter long.  Of course, it helps to know what you're looking for, and I can't imagine a better teacher than Nancy Slack, shown here examining  a clump of Tetraphis pellucida, one of the mosses to be found on nearly every rotting tree stump and fallen log.

A longtime biology professor at Russel Sage College who still teaches botany courses there,  Nancy joined me on Friday morning for a hike up the Red Oak Ridge Trail in Moreau Lake State Park.  Our destination was a group of limestone caves on the top of the ridge, but we took our time to get there, stopping to take a closer look at many of the fascinating mosses along the way.  Here's a closer view of that Tetraphis pellucida, revealing the pellucid leaves that suggest its specific name.

This trio of ferns also caught our attention, since it's unusual to find all three of our common evergreen ferns together in one location.  Top left is Intermediate Wood Fern, its leaflets (pinnae) more intricately cut than those of the Marginal Wood Fern on the right.  The fern on the bottom is Christmas Fern, distinctive for the Christmas-stocking shape of its individual pinnae.

The Intermediate Wood Fern is named for the way its spore cases (sori) are arranged on the back of the pinnae, midway between the spine and the margin.

The Marginal Wood Fern bears its sori right at the outer edges (margins) of its pinnae.  (We have a third wood fern, the Spinulose Wood Fern, but that fern won't be found this time of year, since it's not evergreen.)

When we reached the caves near the top of the ridge, I was eager to show Nancy the boulders where Walking Fern grows.  This is a rather uncommon fern that is usually found only on limestone or marble.  When I first found this rather unfern-like fern several years ago, there was just a small clump near the cave entrance, but it has since "walked" the whole width of the moss-covered boulder to where Nancy is standing to take its photo.

This photo shows the long thin fronds that produce new plants wherever the tips touch the moss.

On a nearby boulder we found this beautiful moss that looks like tiny palm trees.  Its name, Atrichum undulatum, refers to the rippled (undulating) texture of its leaves.

Another particularly beautiful moss is Rhodobryum roseum, which looks like tiny green flowers.

A sure sign that we were among limey rocks was this large patch of Anomodon attenuata, which is found only on limestone or marble.

How odd, then, that on the other side of the very same boulder where we found that Anomodon, we found this wooly-textured Dicranum fulvum, a moss that can grow only on acidic rock, such as quartzite.  We surmised, then, that our boulder was made up of at least two different kinds of rocks.

This brown bedraggled-looking stuff is Hedwigia, a moss that is not particular about the acidity of the rocks it grows on.

An interesting aspect of Hedwigia is that, no matter how shriveled and brown it appears, it will  plump up and turn green as soon as it is dampened.  Nancy picked a sprig and wet it in a nearby stream.  A few minutes later it looked like this.

We found a rotting log nearly covered by this shiny reddish-brown liverwort called Nowellia curvifolia.   Sorry, but my camera proved too stubborn and would not focus close enough to show the curving leaves that give this pretty liverwort its specific name.

I love how this moss, Hypnum pellescens, has sent out tendrils that trace the cracks in the rock it grows on, creating a very spidery appearance.

I hadn't known that this fern, a Botrychium or Grape Fern, was evergreen, but there it was, lifting its pretty bi-colored frond above the dead leaves of the forest.  Nancy has suggested that this is Botrychium lanceolatum, a species that I have never seen before.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Perfect Frostweed Morning

I'd been waiting for a morning just like this: clear and still and cold enough for a good hard frost.  We had a dusting of snow in Saratoga Springs, but when I arrived at Mud Pond in Moreau, I was pleased to see that no snow had fallen to obscure the frothy curls of frozen sap exuded from the stems of the Frostweed (Helianthemum canadense) that grows prolifically there along a sandy path.

In June, and once again in August, Frostweed bears yellow flowers that are pretty enough but easily overlooked or undiscovered, since they're small and bloom for only a day or so.  What really sets this native plant apart are the icy curls that form at the base of its wiry stems during the first few days of freezing temperatures in late fall.  These curls are formed when the stems split lengthwise as they freeze, allowing the plant's sap to ooze out, freezing hard in the frigid air.  This phenomenon occurs for only a few days, until the plant's sap is spent and the roots freeze.  I missed this event last year, so I was really happy to find the process in full swing this morning.  I was able to take lots of photos.

I was sure to arrive at this site before the sun rose high enough to warm the plants and melt the frothy ice.  Ten minutes after I took this photo, the Frostweed curls had disappeared.