Sunday, September 30, 2012

No Fungi Today

I had thought, what with all the rain we've had this week, that the Skidmore Woods would be teeming with mushrooms today.  I went out there, dreaming of a big fat King Bolete to slice and fry up in butter, or maybe a giant heap of Hen of the Woods to stew up in a soup and fill my kitchen with the fragrance of the forest.  But no such luck.  I walked and walked the woodsy trails, getting drenched in a pouring rain, but not a single mushroom did I find, of any kind, either edible or deadly poisonous.

Ah, but I did find a slime mold!  How could anyone miss this blaze of bright orange, a mass of tiny shiny balls covering the underside of a well-rotted log?

Of course, I didn't know for sure that this was a slime mold, so I broke off a little piece to bring home, where I found its look-alike in both my Audubon's mushroom guide and George Barron's Mushrooms of Northeast North America.  There I learned that these are the young fruitbodies of some member of the Hemitrichia genus that can't be positively identified as to species until it matures.

Although slime molds are usually included in guide books for fungi, they aren't fungi at all, but rather a kind of organism that doesn't fit easily into our biological classification system.  At an early stage of their lives they move freely about, eating and digesting and eliminating as animals do.  Then, at a later stage, they behave more like fungi, producing fruitbodies that contain spores, which are then dispersed by the wind.

I learned about slime molds mostly from Barron's book, which has a very informative chapter on this fascinating organism.  I'm planning to take that book with me tomorrow, along with my Newcomb's and my Beachcomber's Botany guide, when my husband and I head out to Montauk, on the furthest end of Long Island, for a little holiday at the seashore.  I won't be able to blog from out there, nor from up in the no-wi-fi regions of the Adirondacks, where I'll be spending Columbus Day weekend at Pyramid Lake.  So I'll be gone from my blog for over a week.   But I hope to have lots of wonders to report when I return.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Drizzly Day, Dazzling Colors

It wasn't the nicest day today to hike the Ice Meadows north of Warrensburg:  dark and damp and chilly,  with a drizzle that stopped and started but never completely let up.  But it promised to be with the nicest of people, a group of Adirondack Mountain Club members, led by my friend Evelyn Greene.  Evelyn, who lives nearby in North Creek, probably understands better than anyone else the natural forces that combine to make this stretch of Hudson River banks the remarkable habitat that it is.  I know that I never miss a chance to visit this place of amazing botanical diversity if Evelyn's going to be there.

I arrived a bit late, having forgotten about the massive traffic jam that stalls passage through Warrensburg during their annual town-wide garage sale this weekend.  But I knew I'd be sure to catch up with the group, who were moving at a typical botanizer's pace as they explored every nook and cranny of the rocks that line the Hudson shore.

 We had to pick our way rather carefully among the rain-slicked rocks.  It was really more of a gentle mist than a pouring rain, and I stopped to admire how the pinky-purple leaves of Marsh St. Johnswort held the water in beaded-up droplets.

Except for a few asters and goldenrods, most of the flowers that thrive here during the summer had long gone to seed, but there was still plenty of beauty supplied by vividly colored leaves and such bright berries as those on this tiny Winterberry shrub, set among Low Blueberries.  Because of immense heaps of ice that pile up on these banks during winter, all of the shrubs out here remain dwarfed and never attain typical height.  These Winterberries, as well as nearby Shadblows, Dogwoods, and Alders, were hardly more than 18 inches high.

Many different kinds of berries could be found today, including these dark blue fruits of the Carrion Flower, set off so prettily by the various colored leaves that surrounded them.

Bright-red Large Cranberries were just about ripe for the picking.

Here was a striking little White Puffball (Lycoperdon candidum), with a spiky white coating that will later slough off to reveal a chocolate-brown interior.  My mushroom guides tell me that this is an edible fungus, but I've never found enough of them to gather for a meal.

There were little green splotches clinging tightly to the sand -- this one was maybe an inch across -- that Evelyn identified as a liverwort called Blasia pussila.  It has a rather frilly appearance, with turned-up edges that are dotted with fruiting bodies. 

A closer look reveals tiny dark spots within the leaves that are little balls of cyanobacteria, a chlorophyll-containing organism that feeds the liverwort via its nitrogen-fixing capability.

After our hiking group dispersed, I decided to return to Saratoga via Stony Creek and Lake Luzerne, in order to avoid the street-clogging traffic in Warrensburg.  It took me quite a bit longer to get home, but what a beautiful drive it was, with the trees just beginning to glow with their autumn colors.  Here's the creek that gives the village of Stony Creek its name.

Coming into Hadley, I pulled over to admire this splendid patch of Jerusalem Artichokes, a native sunflower that's one of the very last flowers to bloom up here in northern New York.

Here's a closer look at the flower, where a little Hoverfly was taking a rest.

Coming down over Mt. McGregor in Wilton, I turned onto Parkhurst Road, where I passed this meadow aglow with a patch of golden plants.   Stunned by the beauty of the scene and overcome with curiosity about what kind of plant could be that remarkably YELLOW, I parked by the road and walked out past lavender asters and rusty ferns to see if I could put a name to this golden glow.

Well, that sure looks like some kind of Dogbane, although I'm not sure of the species.  Isn't it beautiful, with those golden leaves and deep-red stems?

Standing out in the meadow, I could see into a woods that was out of sight from the road, and it looked so lovely over there I strode through the waist-high, rain-dampened plants -- saturating my pants and my shoes as I went -- to get a better look.

Oh my, what a lovely little pond!  I could enjoy sitting here for quite a long time.  In fact, there was a chair set up under a willow tree by the shore, which, rather than inviting me to sit a spell, reminded me that I was actually trespassing on somebody's land so I should probably turn around and leave.

So I did leave.  Just not too quickly.  Striding through this patch of Panicled Dogwood and Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint I slowed my steps to delight in the riot of colors and breathe in the exquisite fragrance of the mint.  And then breathe out a prayer of thankfulness for this world so stunning in its loveliness.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

An Autumn Morning Around Mud Pond

Today dawned bright and clear and cool,  freshly washed by yesterday's rain.  I was so glad my friend Sue was back from her seashore vacation and available to meet for a walk around Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park.  The first thing we noticed -- aside from the squawking and squabbling of dozens of Canada Geese on the pond -- was how low the water level was, so low that one normally underwater entry of the beaver lodge was exposed to the air.  It was also low enough that we could walk on the mudflats along the water's edge.

By walking out here on the mud, we could avoid the shin-clawing, pants-ripping stems of the Arrow-leaved Tearthumb that thickly covered the banks.  The flower clusters, usually a pink-tinged white,  had changed with the season to become a stunningly vibrant pink, so lovely against a lush green background of beggar-ticks and ferns.

Higher up the banks, where Pitch Pines and White Oaks grow in a sandy woods, we found numerous newly sprouted rosettes of one of New York's native orchids, the Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain.   They may or may not put forth stalks of small white blossoms next summer, but no matter.  Their beautifully patterned evergreen leaves are actually more showy than their flowers.

Sweet White Violets had also put forth new leaves that will winter under the snow, and several plants still held stalks of open three-parted seed pods.  A couple of tiny black seeds still rested within this pod.

Sue was the one who first spied these clusters of bubblegum-pink squishy balls that had sprouted along a fallen log.   Although they look like some kind of puffball, they are actually not a fungus at all, but a slime mold called Wolf's Milk (Lycogala epidendrum).

Another name for them is Toothpaste Slime.  For reasons that are obvious, if you squish one.

After exploring the pond's edge, we moved through the woods to come out on the power-line right-of-way that runs along the northern edge of the pond.   Close to the edge of the woods is a shady area  where many kinds of mosses and lichens grow.

The clubmoss called Dendrolycopodium was spectacularly in fruit, holding golden stroboli (spore stalks) straight up from plants that resemble tiny evergreen trees.

This furry black-and-white Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar was making its wriggly way across a patch of Haircap Moss.  Although it looks all soft and fuzzy, some of its hairs can inject a painful irritant into your skin, so don't try to pick it up.

We found several kinds of mushrooms sprouting out of this damp mossy area, the prettiest of which was this apricot-colored one, which resembled the choice edible,  Chanterelle (Cantharellus spp.).  So I picked a bunch to take home, where I would check my mushroom manuals to see if this one was good to eat.

Alas, what I'd picked were False Chanterelles (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca), distinguished by its deep-orange forking gills and its cap with an inrolled paler margin.  Some of my books state that this is a poisonous mushroom, others that it is edible with caution, although not particularly tasty.  Some people can eat it without consequence, others might get digestive upset. 

I decided it wasn't worth the risk, and I tossed them in my backyard.  Maybe they'll shed their spores out there and establish a population.  They may not be edible and choice, but they sure are pretty to look at.

Stalking the Zig-zag Aster

Yes, I know, I've been neglecting this blog of late.  I go out to the woods nearly every day, but to tell the truth, the woods are kind of boring to blog about right now.  Most of the flowers have finished blooming, and those that still hold flowers on top have lower leaves that are shriveled and blackened, due to this past summer's drought.   The birds are silent, the butterflies scarce, and despite a few days of rain the past week, the fungi are few and far between.  There's not much new to report.  So that's why I felt a bit of excitement when the folks at the New York Flora Association asked me to obtain herbarium specimens for two particular asters -- the Zig-zag and the New England Asters -- that haven't been recorded for Saratoga County.  Now when I head to the woods and the roadsides, I feel like I'm on a mission.

I didn't have to search long or far to find New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), since its deep purple flowers announce its presence along nearly every roadside in Saratoga County.  No other aster native to these parts has flowers this vividly colored.  I found this big fluffy bunch along a path in the Skidmore Woods.

 This large patch of lavender asters was growing in a drainage ditch along a local highway, where I stomped on my brakes, swerved to a stop, and leapt from my car to check their identity.  The size and color of the flowers, their branching habit of growth, and their moist thicket location indicated they just might be the sought-after Zig-zag Goldenrod (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides).

Long narrow leaves that clasp the stem were another feature that fit the description of Zig-zag Aster,  but a closer inspection revealed that the shape of the leaves was not quite right, nor was the obvious hairiness the entire length of the purplish stalk.  These must be Purple-stemmed Asters, I concluded.  So my hunt for Zig-zag Asters will continue.

The bit of rain we've had lately has not produced the abundance of fungi we usually find in the fall, but it did cause a few of these tiny Marasmius capillaris mushrooms to open their little pleated caps on wiry black stalks.  This species of woodland mushroom will fruit only after periods of wet and will shrivel and disappear during dry spells, only to promptly reappear after the next rainfall.

This group of large white mushrooms was easy to spot in the green lawn surrounding the entrance to Skidmore College.

There wasn't much to distinguish these mushrooms until I picked one and turned it over.  Then I could see the veil remnants on the stem and the pink unattached gills that led me to believe that this was a clump of Meadow Mushrooms (Agaricus campestris).   I understand that they are good to eat, but I did not learn their identity until I had returned home without them, so I missed my chance to taste them.

I should know better than to ever say that the woods are boring.  There's always something interesting going on.  Here was a whole fallen tree trunk, well rotted and absolutely writhing with thousands and thousands of ants, some winged and some wingless.  They were pouring out of holes in the wood and scurrying across the surface, stopping from time to time to bump heads with each other, the winged ones accumulating in dense layers at certain high points along the trunk.   I later learned that the sexually mature winged ants (both males and females) were being pushed out of the original colony by the wingless workers, that they would now mate, the females would fly off to attempt to establish new colonies, and the males would then die.  Wow!  High drama on a fallen log!

High color now in the Sassafras leaves.  I think no other tree has leaves that turn so many glorious shades at once.  Predictions are that most of our autumn foliage will be muted this year, so go find a Sassafras tree and indulge your senses.

The hunt for asters took me right into a patch of Tick Trefoil, which tried to use me as its seed-distribution vehicle.  I discovered a flea comb  was quite efficient at stripping the stick-tights from my pants.

Friday, September 21, 2012

On the Road for Spiranthes ochroleuca

How far would I travel for the chance to find a new flower?  Well, I'm not sure, but on Thursday I sped 50 miles up the Northway to meet my friend Bob Duncan, who told me he could show me some Yellow Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca).  And this is not even a rare plant.  Just one I'd never seen before.  Or maybe I had but simply assumed it was common old ordinary Nodding Ladies' Tresses (S. cernua).  They sure look a lot alike.

But Bob (whose judgement I trust) assured me that this was a separate species, one that grows in drier habitats than does S. cernua, and usually blooms just a little bit later.   Here he examines one we found growing along a woodsy back road near Brant Lake.

Bob pointed out the salient characteristics:  the pale yellow cast to the flower's throat, the abruptly curling lower petal, and the sharply upturned curled-back white bracts at the side of the flower.  I would say that it has a very frilly appearance.

Here's a photo of S. cernua for comparison, noting that they are perhaps a little less curly and that their flowers are a purer white, with little or no yellow coloration.   But I would say these two species look very much alike,  and without Bob's guidance I would never have identified S. ochroleuca by myself.

There were other attractions in that Brant Lake woods, among them a number of interesting fungi that had sprung up following Tuesday's heavy rains.  Here, a nice little clump of Yellow Spindle Coral glows in a beam of sunlight.

I couldn't identify these tiny white mushrooms, but I thought they were awfully cute.

It's too bad I didn't find these Black Trumpets when they were fresh, since I've heard they are quite good to eat.  These were too far gone to pick, close to melting into the earth, some of them being consumed by other, smaller fungi.

These big brown-gilled mushrooms were also past their prime, but they still displayed a bulbous stalk circled by red rings that made them readily identifiable as Braceleted Cort (Cortinarius armillatus).

Oops!   Sorry, little fella.  The morning was chilly and this little Red Eft was trying to stay warm beneath the large cap of one of the Braceleted Corts.  We put it back down in the leaf litter and covered it up with the mushroom once again.  I know these juvenile Spotted Newts are so cute that it's hard not to want to hold them,  but the normal acid of our skin can injure their delicate skin, so it's important not to touch them with bare hands.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sunny-day Sojourns

Finally!  A whole day of rainy weather!  Sure, the parched earth needed the rain, but I also needed a day to stay home and catch up on this blog.  We've had such a string of gorgeous blue-sky days, I didn't want to waste a minute of them sitting at my computer, and I spent them all outdoors.  Here's a quick recap of some of the wonderful places I've been this week.

Last Friday, heartsick from the news of terrible violence in the Middle East and feeling hopeless about any politician's ability to competently deal with this longstanding, horribly complicated situation, I fled to my favorite stretch of the Hudson River with my canoe.  Here I found silence and solitude, not another soul to be seen and the only sounds the drip, drip, drip of cool water from the tip of my paddle and the cheerful cree! cree! cree! of crickets along the sunwarmed banks.

 When I let my canoe just drift with the current that carries me close to these pine-scented woods,  I'm reminded that there is a great goodness that lies at the core of creation.  Hopelessness starts to lift.

On Saturday, a newspaper article announcing the opening of a new nature preserve on the outskirts of Saratoga tempted me to go check it out.   Called Rowland Hollow,  this 45-acre wooded preserve resulted from the joint efforts of Saratoga P.L.A.N. and the builders of an adjacent housing subdivision.  The city Rotary Club provided funds for signage and improvements to the trails, which Saratoga P.L.A.N. will manage.

Although this preserve is adjacent to a housing development,  I hadn't gone far along the 3/4 mile trail before I was completely surrounded by a mixed conifer/hardwood forest that included some very old Shagbark Hickories and towering White Pines.  An additional trail loop led into a wetland with access to the banks of Rowland Hollow Creek.  What a great playground for the kids growing up in the nearby houses.  Or for any of us who like to play at getting lost in the woods, without leaving home far behind.

Sunday was another perfect early-autumn day, and it worked its magic also on my husband, who agreed we should spend it together out under that sapphire sky.   While mulling over our options, we remembered fondly a time almost 40 years ago when we stayed in a quaint New England inn in Grafton, Vermont, less than a two-hour drive away.  So off we set on a Sunday drive through the lovely rolling Washington County countryside on our way to Vermont.

 Just beyond the New York/Vermont border, we found a pull-off providing access to the Battenkill, a legendary trout stream and meandering rural waterway that's also a favorite paddling destination.

Not far beyond the Vermont town of Manchester, our paved highway became a narrow dirt road shaded by overarching Sugar Maples.  We had forgotten about this route and began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn when we suddenly entered this calendar-picture-quaint New England village, complete with an 18th-century tavern, a cheese-works, and a tall-steepled church.  It seemed that not one thing had changed since we last visited here in 1975.

 The village also contains a remarkable little historical museum, where we talked with some very friendly local folks who told us about the terrible floods that tore through the village just one year ago during Hurricane Irene.   We learned that several creekside homes had been completely washed away, but wonder of wonders, this 19th-century covered bridge stood fast while the torrents raged around it.

Monday dawned cool and clear and calm,  perfect for the paddling trip to Pyramid Lake I had planned with my friend Ruth Schottman.  Yes, the wind had come up a bit by the time we arrived at this Essex-County wilderness lake, but only enough to add diamond sparkles to the crystalline water and not enough to deter us from setting out by canoe and kayak.

Although Ruth is a well-known botanist, author, and longtime nature-studies teacher who knows just about everything there is to know about things botanical, she herself admits to having little first-hand experience exploring water sites.  So I was eager to lead her into the sheltered swampy end of Pyramid Lake where a number of rather uncommon water-dwelling species are known to thrive.  One of these is Nostoc, a cyanobacterium that collects in colonies that form little jelly-like green balls.  Thousands upon thousands of these Nostoc balls were suspended in the dark shallow waters at the eastern end of the lake.  Although many had sunk to the bottom during the chill of the night, we could easily stir up masses of them to float on the sun-warmed surface.

Small Bur Reed (Sparganium natans) is listed among New York's threatened species, but it thrives by the hundreds in this quiet corner of Pyramid Lake.  I knew that I wouldn't be able to show Ruth the fluffy white blooms that star these dark waters in July, but I was glad to find some still-emergent flower heads now gone to seed.

After eating our picnic lunches while seated in Adirondack chairs on a sun-warmed deck overlooking the lake, we next set off on foot to follow a wooded trail.

The forest we walked through was dark and still, the birds now silent or absent and very few flowers in bloom.  But Hobblebush leaves were getting a jump on brilliant autumn foliage.

Despite the dryness of the season so far, we did find a few fungi, including these odd little wrinkly brown discs firmly stuck to a rotting log.  They were stuck so tight, we couldn't remove one without breaking it into rather brittle shards, revealing a white interior flesh and a smooth underside devoid of gills or pores or teeth.  I guess that would indicate this is one of the sac fungi, but so far I haven't been able to determine which species.