Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Nature Stop Close to Home

On Tuesdays, I work all morning at a Hospice home (starting at 6:45am) and then need a nap after lunch.  Since that doesn't leave much time for extended nature adventures, Tuesdays become good days for short hops to nature sites close to home.  Today I went out to the Skidmore Woods on the north side of Daniels Road, where I'd hoped to find a large group of Wild Bergamot in bloom.  Maybe I'd catch a Hummingbird Moth or a Monarch Butterfly feeding on the pale lavender flowers.

Well, I should have gone looking for Wild Bergamot last week.  They looked pretty spent today, even though they still held onto a few of the raggedy flowers.

The Round-leaved Dogwood berries, however, were at their peak of beauty: pale blue, green, and white orbs held atop hot-pink pedicels.  I think white is the color of the ripest berries, but I rarely see a cluster of all whites, since the birds devour them well before all ripen.

I know many people think of Pokeweed as a big coarse plant, but I find the curving berry stalks very  attractive.  I also like to see the progression of ripening as the berries form. When fully ripe, the berries will be a deep purple-black and the stalks a vivid knock-your-eye-out pink.

I kept searching the tops of Queen Anne's Lace, hoping to catch some Jagged Ambush Bugs in predatory action.  No Ambush Bugs today, but I did find this Goldenrod Crab Spider poised for battle.

I was struck by how this spent flower head of Queen Anne's Lace formed a marvelously intricate basketwork.  So lovely!

Every time I pass a patch of Common Milkweed, I search among its leaves, hoping to find an exquisite Monarch Butterfly chrysalis.  No chrysalis today, but I did find an early instar of the caterpillar that will eventually turn into one.

This dragonfly with the big opalescent eyes kept returning to the same perch again and again, allowing me to inch closer each time and finally capture the color of those marvelous blue-green-purple eyes.  I also was able to note that the stigmas on the fore and rear wings were of different colors.   I haven't yet figured out which species of dragonfly this is.  Maybe some of my readers will know.

Update: As one of my readers named Annie suggests in her comment, this is probably a Blue Dasher.   I know of no other dragonfly with such huge blue eyes and white face that has a brown and yellow striped thorax.  My confusion remains, however, because if this were a male, his abdomen would be blue, and it it were a female (which does have parallel yellow stripes along her abdomen), her eyes would be brown.  But then, I did see some internet photos of what were labeled as Blue Dasher females with blue eyes.  Perhaps this is an immature male, before his abdomen turns blue.  I didn't find any photos of ANY species of dragonfly that had different colored stigmas on the front and rear wings.  By the way, I do have a photo of a Blue Dasher among the column of small photos on the right side of this blog.  The face sure looks the same as this one's.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Another Day, Another New Orchid

Ten new flowers on Saturday, another new flower on Sunday -- and an orchid, at that!  Yes, I would say I had a good weekend.  When my friend Evelyn Greene alerted me that Hooded Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) were blooming up near Thirteenth Lake, I just couldn't wait another day to zoom on up there to see them.  I had never seen this species of Ladies' Tresses before, and I was eager to see how they differed from the much more common Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).  Well, God bless dear Evelyn, who's always willing to lead a fellow nature nut off to a new location.  And she knows them all!

Here she is, standing in an open wet meadow called Putty Pond.  As you can see, it's no longer the pond it used to be when the stream that fed it was dammed to provide a water supply for a nearby (now defunct) garnet mine called Hooper's Mine.

If you click on this photo, you just might be able to make out the many white spikes of Ladies' Tresses blooming abundantly among the grasses and sedges at the edge of Putty Pond.

At first glance, this Hooded Ladies' Tresses looks quite a bit like the more familiar Nodding Ladies' Tresses, except that the florets are somewhat more uplifted.

The key difference is how the lower lip is somewhat fiddle shaped, narrowing in the middle before flaring out at the end.

Other factors in identifying this little orchid are its location in a wetland that is more alkaline than acidic (S. cernua prefers more acidic soils) and also its blooming time in the middle of summer.  I wouldn't normally start looking for Nodding Ladies' Tresses until late in August.

Another interesting plant that was new to me was this Three-square Rush (Schoenoplectus americanus) (Oops!  See note below), which absolutely filled the area that once was a water-filled pond.  True to its name, this plant has stems that are triangular in cross-section.  I wonder why it's not called "Three-angled Rush" instead, since a square would have to have four angles.

Update:  A very helpful and knowledgeable reader named Diana has corrected me on the ID of this rush, as readers of the comments section will discover.  This is Schoenoplectus pungens, NOT S. americanus, although its common name of Three-square Rush remains correct.  Evelyn had given me its (correct) Latin name as Scirpus americanus, and when I looked up information about it on the internet, I saw that the genus name Scirpus had been changed to Schoenoplectus, but I failed to note that the species name had changed as well, to pungens.  Thanks, Diana, for setting me straight.

We were intrigued by this large brown dragonfly that hung vertically on a tree in the shade of an adjoining thicket.  I believe it's one of the Darners,  but I couldn't match it exactly to any pictures in my dragonfly guides.  I sent an ID request to BugGuide.net and I'm still awaiting a response.

Evelyn next wanted to visit nearby Hooper's Mine, where garnets were once mined from the mountain's bedrock, but first we stopped off for cold drinks in the pub of Garnet Hill Lodge, an all-seasons resort overlooking Thirteenth Lake.  The view from the porch of the pub was spectacular!

A ten-minute hike up into the mountains brought us to this abandoned quarry with impressive walls of chiseled rock.  My photo certainly doesn't do justice to the monumental impact these high walls have when you first come into the clearing.

Many garnets remain embedded in the granite here, and it was obvious that people still visit this area with rock hammers and picks to extract the stones.

On our way back to North Creek to return Evelyn to her home, she guided us along some back roads that gave us some truly spectacular views of the mountains to the north, the highest peaks of the Adirondacks.  Oh, it was quite the day and place for a perfect Sunday drive!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mountaintop Marvels

Even though I was nearly a half-hour late meeting my botanists friends atop Whiteface Mountain on Saturday,  I knew they wouldn't have gone very far.  Not at the pace that botanists move.  And especially at a site so rich in botanical rarities as the summit of one of the highest mountains in the Adirondacks.  Sure enough, I had barely started up the trail when I found our excursion leader, Steve Young, and two other members of the Adirondack Botanical Society, Carol (kneeling) and Emily (peering), fully engaged in exploring what this remarkable habitat has to offer.

Steve is chief botanist of the New York Natural Heritage Program and as such is the go-to guy for knowledge about any of our state's native plants.  He's been monitoring this particular site for years and had prepared a checklist of over a hundred plants (natives and not) that had been found on Whiteface Mountain.   I checked off 55 on my list, but I know that there were some grasses and sedges I failed to take note of, since I tend to go blank when the talk turns to graminoids.  But all in all, it was a very good day for our little group of serious plant nerds, especially since we added five new discoveries to the list: a native species of Red Currant (Ribes triste), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella), Flat-top Aster (Doellingeria umbellata), Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-foemina), and Bog Yellowcress (Rorippa palustris ssp. fernaldiana).  While all of these plants occur quite commonly at lower elevations, they had never before been recorded for the summit of Whiteface Mountain.

One of the marvelous things about Whiteface Mountain is that you can drive almost all the way to the top on a toll highway, saving your time and energy for botanizing the distinctive alpine habitat, rather than huffing and puffing for hours to reach the open areas above the treeline.   And then, of course, the view from the top is another marvelous thing.  That's Lake Placid way down there below.

We did have to huff and puff a little, climbing a rocky pathway the last few hundred yards to the summit.  But then, we didn't exactly hurry up it, either, with so many fascinating plants to stop and examine along the way.

Covering the exposed rocks almost everywhere were extensive mats of Northern Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), shown here intermixed with spikes of Northern Bristly Clubmoss (Spinulum canadense) and the bright red berries of Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Here's a closer look at those vividly red Bunchberries.

Although we frequently find Bunchberry at lower elevations, there were many plants we found today that can thrive only in the harsh environment of exposed mountaintops, such as this Alpine Goldenrod (Solidago leiocarpa).

Another species of goldenrod that was happy up here was this Largeleaf Goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla).

This little Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) has evergreen leaves with three leaflets, the leaflets three-toothed at the tip.   Unlike most other plants that have "cinquefoil" in their common name, this plant has white flowers, rather than yellow, and its leaflets number three, not five.  In fact, it has recently been removed from the cinquefoil genus (Potentilla) and assigned a new genus name, Sibbaldiopsis.

 I was glad when Steve pointed out these two blueberry plants growing side-by-side, to show the difference in their sizes.  Near my fingertips on the left are the leaves of our standard Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), which can also be found at lower elevations.  In the center are the fruits of Northern or High-mountain Blueberry (Vaccinium boreale), a much smaller blueberry found only in alpine habitats.

I mistakenly thought this was the plant I know as Rock Sandwort until Steve informed me that this is an alpine species of that same genus called Mountain Sandwort (Minuartia groenlandica).  We found quite a lot of these dainty white flowers with their fine spiky leaves tucked into hollows of the rocks.

Steve also identified many species of grasses and sedges that are uniquely suited to alpine habitats, including some that are exceedingly rare.  This Northern Singlespike Sedge (Carex scirpoidea) is an example of one of the rare ones, with this Whiteface site one of only six known places that it grows in all of New York.

Another plant that's exceedingly rare in New York is Lesser Pyrola (Pyrola minor), and it very nearly got wiped out in this, its only known site in the state, when a ditch was cleared to improve water run-off.   We felt very privileged to see it at all, even though its flowers had long gone to seed.

We found other rarities as well, including Boott's Rattlesnake Root, but I could not get a good photograph of it without leaving the path and trampling on the fragile vegetation. So I didn't try. 

One flower that certainly was NOT rare was Eyebright (Euphrasia stricta), an introduced species that was literally growing like a weed along the trail.  Well, a weed it may be, but I still think it is very pretty, and it's also a flower I rarely get to see, since it prefers more northerly climes than the region around my home in Saratoga.

Another flower that was growing like a weed along every roadside was this beautiful Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), and thankfully, this is a native wildflower.  Once again, this is a plant I rarely see in Saratoga County, although it is exceedingly abundant in the Adirondacks.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Botanical Errand-running

Two days of rain in a row.  You won't hear me complain, since we really need the water.  Also, with the soggy weather discouraging me from outdoor adventures, it gave me a chance to run a number of little botanical errands, most of which could be accomplished just a few yards from my car. 

I've been collecting and pressing botanical specimens for a couple of years now, and I finally have the GPS device that can pinpoint each plant's location.  So yesterday and today I drove around to various sites to take the GPS readings, then came home to prepare the documentation to accompany each specimen.  Tomorrow I'll be meeting with folks from the Adirondack Botanical Society for a meeting at Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid, so at last I can hand these specimens off to botanical professionals who can then document the plants' existence in their respective counties.  And I won't have to worry any more that my cats will rip them apart.

The first stop on my GPS run was the Wilton Wildlife Preserve, where last year I found a single plant of Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) growing right by the road.  And sure enough, there it was again as big and bright as ever.

This is a plant that is not supposed to grow in Saratoga County, nor has it been found in any county nearby, so it was quite a surprise to find it in Wilton last year.  This is a plant that is really hard to miss, since it surely lives up to its name, being taller than any other plants surrounding it.

We are surmising that this plant's seed may have slipped into Saratoga County along with grass seed
imported by the state for its grasslands restoration project here at Wilton Wildlife Preserve.   There certainly are a lot of really interesting native grasses to be found now at this site.

My next stop was the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, also in Wilton, to get a GPS reading for specimens of Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) I collected last September when they were in bloom.   When I reached the site, I was dismayed to see that the poplars and pines we cut down a couple of years ago were once again encroaching on the open space where dozens of these radiant-blue flowers can usually be found each late summer.  I think next time we cut these trees down, we should paint their stumps with an herbicide to prevent their regrowth.  Or else brush-hog the site each late autumn after frost.  If we don't clear this site, I'm afraid the gentians will disappear from this, the only place where they are known to grow in Saratoga County.

While still at Orra Phelps Preserve, I also took a GPS reading on a huge shrub of Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododenron maximum) that grows by a stream.  State floral records do not show this plant as growing in Saratoga County, but it's certainly thriving happily here at Orra Phelps.  It's possible that it was planted by Orra, but I also find this shrub growing in a woods near the Yaddo Estate in Saratoga Springs.  I haven't yet collected a specimen, because I always seem to miss its blooming season.  I can see by spent flower heads on this shrub that it did indeed bloom this summer.

Next stop was Bog Meadow Nature Preserve just outside Saratoga Springs, but on my over there from Wilton, I pulled off into a vacant lot along Ingersol Road.  This dry, open, sandy "waste place" of disturbed soil was the first place I ever saw the bushy tumbleweed-like plants of Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium), a plant that's native to more central states of the U.S., but which can now be found in more eastern parts of the country.  I gathered a specimen and took its GPS coordinates so that it can now be recorded as present in Saratoga County.

My purpose in visiting Bog Meadow Nature Trail was to obtain coordinates for Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata), which grows there in a swampy area along the trail.  Of course, there's not a sign of the plant this late in the year, but I know exactly where it grows so I was able to take a reading to accompany the pressed specimen I obtained a year ago last May.

Mission accomplished, I hurried back to my car before the next rainstorm, but stopped in my tracks when I saw these lovely buds of Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum).  I think these buds are as intricate and beautiful as Ukrainian Easter eggs, and if you look close, you can already see the web of fine threads that encase the buds, a feature that is diagnostic for this, one of our few native thistles.

Just in case there was no record of their presence in Saratoga County, I did take a GPS reading of their location, and sure enough, when I checked the records at home, they were not in the atlas for this county.  I'll have to return in a couple of weeks when they are in bloom to obtain a specimen.  Wearing thick gloves.  Those prickers are sharp!

My progress back to my car was also slowed by the sight of this beautifully red Red Trillium fruit . . .

. . .  as well as by these bright-orange tines of Spindle Coral poking up from the path.

Okay, last stop was Yaddo, an artists' colony on the outskirts of Saratoga Springs that has extensive wild woodlands as well as manicured gardens that are open to the public.  Luckily, I had gathered specimens of both the flowers and the fruit of American Bladdernut (Staphlea trifolia) in May and June of 2011, because by the spring of 2012, groundskeepers at Yaddo had cut all the shrubs to the ground.  However, I could still obtain a GPS mark for where they used to be, and when I reached the site, I was glad to see that the shrubs were regrowing vigorously.  Let's hope they're allowed to prosper again, since Saratoga is probably the northernmost site they are likely to be found.  I know that they grow along the Mohawk River on the county's southern border, but as yet there is no official record of their existence anywhere in Saratoga County.  I hope my specimen will remedy that.

Close by those American Bladdernut bushes was a thicket of Northern Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), and the female trees were laden with bunches of bright red fruits.  When the fruits split open, they spill out seeds that are very shiny and black.   This small tree is also called "Toothache Tree" because of the numbing sensation achieved by chewing on its twigs.  I tried it once, and sure enough, my lips and tongue went numb for half an hour or so, but I don't think it would have helped a toothache.

I wonder how the plant affects this Stink Bug nymph that was crawling on one of its leaves.  Stink Bugs are known to pierce fruits of many kinds, but I'll bet this nymph will get a surprise if it tries to feed on Prickly Ash berries.  Or maybe not.  Bugs can eat mushrooms that would be deadly to humans, after all.   This is one colorful bug, is it not?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quiet Waters, Unexpected Pleasures

Ah, what a perfect summer day today:  blue sky, bright sun, a cool morning that warmed as the sun rose higher, the grass and trees and flowers freshly washed by yesterday's drenching rains.  It was, perhaps, a bit too windy for easy paddling on open waters, but my friend Sue and I did not intend to venture out onto open waters, since our destination was the quiet backwaters of the Hudson near the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls.

Sue had paddled this shallow, sheltered area a few days ago, and she had found colonies of strange "moss animals," gelatinous masses called Pectinatella magnifica that form on underwater branches.  So we were here to look for them, and thanks to Sue's sharp vision, we found them lurking down under the murky water.

I was able to grasp the end of a branch one colony had formed on, and lifting it out of the water, was able to get a closer look at its complicated structure.  To learn more about the fascinating life forms -- called "bryozoans" -- that make up these colonies, you can visit a University of Massachusetts site that tells all about them by clicking here.

A second goal of our paddle today was to see the pretty pink flowers of Water Shield, now in bloom by the hundreds in one of the quiet bays.

Most of the Water Shield flowers were tipped with the whitish anthers of the male flowers, but occasionally we could find one that had what we assumed were the rosy pink pistillate structures of female flowers.  Or at least the female phase of the flower.  I'm not well-versed in this flower's reproductive strategies.  This Hudson backwater is the only place I have ever seen Water Shield in bloom.

Update:  My friend and fellow plant enthusiast Ed Miller has written to explain the Water Shield's fertilization strategy.  Each flower contains both staminate (male) and pistillate (female) parts, with the male parts ripening first.  After the stamens have shed their pollen, the flower retracts underwater until the female parts ripen, at which time the flower re-emerges to accept pollen from other plants, a process that impedes self-pollination.  After the flower is fertilized, the stem retracts it under water, where its seeds will develop and be "planted" again in the mud.

We were very pleased that we'd found the two things we had come here to see, but then we came upon some plants that were highly unexpected.  There's a narrow island that runs through the middle of this quiet backwater, and there we found Wild Senna growing in abundant numbers.  This is only the second location of all my nature wanderings where I have found this native pea-family plant.  Sue saw it first, and the sighting rendered her nearly speechless, as she pointed excitedly to the bright yellow blooms.

Wild Senna has some of the oddest looking flowers I have ever seen.  They sure don't look like the flowers of most other pea-family plants.

So far, we were having a very lucky day, and we also counted ourselves quite lucky to get a nice long look at this large Painted Turtle sunning itself on a log.  Neither one of us could recall ever getting this close to a sunning turtle before it tumbled off into the water.  It just sat there and sat there and let us each take lots and lots of close-up photos.

To top off our day of lucky finds, this gorgeous Giant Swallowtail Butterfly landed right at our feet, where it stayed and stayed, fluttering about a little, but always remaining within camera range, with its beautiful wings outspread.

There was obviously something that butterfly craved in that mud, since it refused to leave the site, plunging its proboscis into the mud again and again.

Even I was able to take a nice clear photo of this beautiful creature, its perfection only slightly marred by a tear in one of its wings.