Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What's New on the Ice Meadows

Oh my gosh, August arrives tomorrow!  Summer is speeding by way, way too fast!   Already, the goldenrod has started to bloom along the roadsides, and crickets chirp outside my bedroom window at night.  It's time to pay careful attention, now, to each summer day as it comes -- and we couldn't have had a lovelier summer day than the one we had today.  The sun was warm but the air was light and dry, just the right kind of day to wander the Ice Meadows along the Hudson River just north of Warrensburg.

This stretch of river bank is one of the richest sites for wildflowers in all of New York State, a habitat supporting a number of rare and unusual plants that have evolved to tolerate the harsh conditions created by massive ice build-up along these shores each winter, followed by rushing floods each spring.  I hadn't visited here in several weeks, so I knew I'd find many treasures as I searched among the rocky pools and stony shores today.  Here are some I found newly blooming today, in alphabetical order.

 Bedstraw Bellflower (Campanula aparinoides) is a dainty little pale-blue flower that rests its blooms on the surrounding grass because its stems are too fine and weak to hold it upright.

Canadian Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis)  stands tall on long stems that wave in the slightest breeze.

Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus reptans)  is a tiny sprawling buttercup, so small it would go unnoticed if not for its shiny bright-yellow flowers lying flat on the damp mud.

Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata), one of our first asters to bloom, has large flat or slightly domed clusters of small white flowers on stalks that can reach 7 feet high.

Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) also has flat-topped clusters, as well as leaves that are indeed as narrow as grass.

Harebell (Campanula rotundafolia) has actually been blooming along these shores for many weeks.  I just happened to find a particularly photogenic cluster of its pretty blue bell-shaped flowers today.

Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba) has fine underwater structures that contain tiny sacs that can suck in even tinier underwater creatures and digest them for food.  My camera would not focus on these underwater parts, but I did manage to get a good image of the bright-yellow flower that protrudes above the water.

Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) was named for an Indian healer from New England who used this plant to cure fevers.  I don't know if it was efficacious or not, but it seems to have stirred up a mating fever in these Goldenrod Soldier Beetles.

Kalm's Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) is so dainty it seems it would be far too fragile to survive the harsh environment of the Ice Meadows, where it sprouts up between cracks in the rocks. But these seem to be exactly the conditions in which it thrives.

Mountain Mint, Narrow-leaved (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), has tiny flowers that at first sight appear plain white.  But if you find these flower clusters be sure to peer more closely  to see the purple polka-dots.  Also be sure to pinch a leaf and enjoy the invigoratingly strong mint odor of this plant.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) bloomed some weeks ago, but I was struck today by its pretty red and orange fruits.  I have read that the leaves of this plant served as a substitute  for imported tea during the American Revolution.  I dried some leaves once and tried to make tea of them, but they made a pretty tasteless brew.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) gets its common name from the pearl-shaped globular blooms, which can be dried and kept as floral decorations for a long, long time (if not exactly for "everlasting" time).

Purple-fringed Orchis, Small (Platanthera psycodes).   This particular specimen probably came into bloom some time ago, since it appeared to be fading somewhat.  But it still put on quite a showy appearance.

Purple-stemmed Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum) is the earliest of our large-flowered blue asters to bloom, but I'm still astonished to find it blooming as early as late July.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasifora fruticosa) grows more abundantly on the east bank of the Ice Meadows than it does on the west bank.  It was there among marble deposits that I found its cheerful yellow flowers blooming in beautiful juxtaposition to this bright-orange Butterflyweed.

Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) was growing happily among the seepy springs on the west bank of the Ice Meadows.

Tawny Cotton Grass (Eriophorum virginicum).  At least, I think that's what this is.  I'm not very good at grasses and sedges.  It's cottony and tawny, anyway, and was growing where other bog-loving plants like cranberries were growing.

Turkey-foot Grass (Andropogon gerardii) is also known as Big Bluestem Grass and is one of the prairie grasses that grow along the Hudson at the Ice Meadows.  Look closely and you can see both male (yellow) and female (white) flowers on this grass.

Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) was just beginning to open its dainty white flowers on vines that lean on surrounding bushes for support.

Whip Nutrush (Scleria triglomerata) is one of the rare graminoids that thrive on the Ice Meadows and very few other places in New York State.  It has a distinctive seedhead that holds shiny round seeds that turn chalk-white when ripe.  Today I found a seedhead containing seeds of three colors: black, green, and white.

Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris torta) appears to enjoy wet feet, since many of these small flowers were growing right at the wet edges of many of the pools that collect among the rocky shore of the Ice Meadows.

Besides finding all these interesting plants, I was delighted to finally capture a photo of this little Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly, with its wings wide open, no less.  This butterfly hardly ever lands and stays put long enough for me to focus my camera, or else it closes its wings and becomes the color of air.  Today was my lucky day.

It was not a lucky day, however,  for this tiny hoverfly, dangling from the clutches of a Jagged Ambush Bug, which had already drained the life from the fly along with its bodily fluids.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Sandpit as Animal Farm

I think of the sandpit area of Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa as a great place to hunt for wildflowers, and today was no exception.  A funny thing, though:  all the flowers I found today had some kind of animal -- horse, or pig, or rabbit -- in their name.

First, there was Horsemint (Monarda punctata), and lots of it -- more than I have ever seen here before.  The yellow purple-spotted flowers are rather inconspicuous, and the pale pink bracts that circle the stems are the showiest part of the plant.  Why it is called "horse" mint, I have no idea.  Maybe it grows best in pastures where horses have dropped their fertilizing deposits?

Then, there was Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium), with its odd little circular green flowers surrounded by a whitish ruffle.  Okay, I get the "winged" part of this plant's common name, but how does the "pig" part fit?  Perhaps because its slightly toothed leaves vaguely resemble the  leaves of various Amaranth species that are a favorite food of swine.

You won't find this odd-looking "waste-place" plant in many guide books for the northeastern U.S., since this plant is native to the central plains and has only in recent decades begun to be noticed this far east.  The USDA plant database indicates it has not been reported in Saratoga County, although I have found it (and reported it to the New York Flora Association) in several locations of this county. 

There's little mystery about how Rabbit-foot Clover (Trifolium arvense) got its name.  What I found curious today was the equally furry stalk of grass (species unknown to me) that was growing amidst a clump of the fluffy clover.  I can't recall ever seeing such a furry grass.

I can't think of an animal name -- except maybe elephantine -- to attach to this humongous patch of Trumpetweed (Eutrochium fistulosum) that was growing by the side of the road I took home.  It was just so magnificent, I had to pull over and take a picture of it.  It must have been at least eight feet tall, if not taller.  Another name for it is Giant Joe-Pye Weed.  Obviously.

Darters and Skippers

While drifting along in a quiet cove of the Hudson on Friday afternoon, I saw just hordes of  Bluet damselflies darting and dancing over the surface of the water, their shiny blue bodies and transparent wings flashing in the sunlight.

In my own backyard, I found this fat yellow green-striped caterpillar with false orange "eyes" on its big brown head.  My guide books indicate that this is the caterpillar of the Silver Spotted Skipper.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Berry Good Day at Lake Desolation

 The breeze you see riffling the surface of Lake Desolation was actually quite chilly yesterday, and  I wished I had worn a jacket as I waited onshore for my friends from the Thursday Naturalists to join me here at this small quiet lake that lies between Greenfield Center and the Sacandaga Reservoir.  We've had a pronounced change in the weather of late, from temperatures over 100 degrees last week to nighttime chills in the low 50s the past few nights.  I was certainly glad for the cooler weather,  though, especially since we had planned to explore a bog on the shore of the lake, the kind of habitat that can really be stifling in hot humid weather.

I had never visited the bog our group was to visit, and so I was quite surprised to find it was more of a forested tract than I had expected.  There was dampness and sphagnum underfoot, to be sure, but over our heads soared large White Pines and Red Maples.  The going was often impeded by understory thickets of Highbush Blueberry and Mountain Holly, but we managed to push our way through  -- although at a botanist's pace.  Which means, a very slow progress, since every few feet we were bending over to examine one botanical find after another.

Further slowing our pace was the abundance of ripe blueberries.  Of course, we had to stop to gather and eat large quantities of the sweet fruit, which easily dropped right into our hands, large clusters at a time.

There were other berries, too -- not palatable,  unfortunately, although they did offer a feast for the eyes.  Abundant bunches of Chokecherries dangled their ruby-red fruits.

Mountain Holly berries glowed like Christmas lights amid the thick branches right over our heads.

The botanical find of the day, my friend Ed Miller assured me,  was a fern that has not been recorded yet in Saratoga County.  This is the Virginia Chain Fern (Woodwardia virginica),  and we found quite a few of its graceful solitary fronds.  This fern is notable for growing not in multi-frond clumps but rather as single fronds that sprout in a line from a ropelike underground rhizome.

We also found some of the fronds displaying the pattern of sori (spore packets) distinctive for this particular fern.

We were delighted to find quite a few stems of Green Wood Orchis (Habenaria clavellata) in a part of the bog that was more open to sunlight,  where numerous Pitcher Plants and abundant shrubs of the wonderfully aromatic Labrador Tea were growing, as well.

As we climbed our way out of the bog and up an embankment to the road, we were met with the wonderful fragrance of a large patch of Common Milkweed.   As evidenced by the presence of this Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, we weren't the only ones to find this fragrance attractive.

I don't know if the Red Milkweed Beetles find the fragrance of Common Milkweed attractive.  They certainly find everything else about it to their liking, spending their entire life cycles on its plants, laying eggs at the base of its stems, where the larvae burrow into the roots and then emerge to consume the leaves and flowers, mate, and resume the cycle all over again.  They have no reason to develop cryptic coloration to hide from predators, but rather advertise their toxicity (gained by absorbing toxins from the milkweed leaves they eat) by their brilliant red color.

 On a wonderfully informative site put up by the University of Wisconsin, I learned that this beetle has learned how to control the flow of the milky latex by severing leaf veins upstream from their feeding site.  Although they want to absorb some of the milkweed's fluids, apparently, too much of the sticky stuff can actually  glue their mouthparts shut.  To learn more about this beautiful and fascinating creature, you can click here.

Happily, all our mouthparts were working fine as we sat to enjoy a picnic on the shore of Lake Desolation.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Testing the Waters With Evelyn

If not for my friend Evelyn Greene's invitation, I would never have been able to paddle the beautiful Adirondack Lake (which shall remain nameless) we visited together this past Monday.  Although surrounded by state land, the lake can only be accessed by auto through a private homeowner's association, which had applied to the Adirondack Lake Assessment Program (ALAP) to have the lake's water tested for quality.  As a member of the environmental advocacy group Protect the Adirondacks (a major sponsor of ALAP), Evelyn had volunteered to collect water samples to later be analyzed for acidity, alkalinity, mineral content, and a number of other factors.  She invited me along to help balance her canoe as she conducted several tests.  And I'm glad she did.  I always have fun with Evelyn.

Here Evelyn demonstrates the use of a Secchi disk, a weighted black-and-white disk that is used to determine water clarity.  After paddling out into deep water, Evelyn lowered the disk on a measured cord until she could no longer see it, then made note of the depth, determined by measuring the length of cord used.

Here she is using a long hollow tube to collect water from the depths of the lake, water that she then poured into collection bottles that would be sent to a laboratory for further analysis.

Her testing tasks accomplished and the collection bottles stored in a cooler, Evelyn then led me across the lake to where it entered an outlet flowing into a small shallow pond.  Since the outlet stream was too shallow for paddling, we pulled our canoes a short distance through the woods to launch again on the pond.

The pond was very shallow, and it was almost completely filled with the underwater structures of Purple Bladderwort  (Utricularia purpurea),  the brown frothy stuff in this photo.  (In all the pond, we found but a single bloom of the bladderwort  protruding above the water.)  Emergent plants included Water Lobelia, Water Bulrush, and most unusual, the flowering stalks of Slender Milfoil (Myriophyllum tenellum), one of our native milfoils that is only rarely found in bloom, although its tiny pinkish flowers were very much in evidence on this little pond. 

Plants that floated on the surface of the pond included Fragrant Water Lilies, Yellow Pond Lilies, and the super-abundant Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi), its spiky pink flowers protruding above its oval pads.

 Slithering around beneath all this vegetation were myriad leeches, big greenish-brown ones at least four inches long that would quickly approach my hand whenever I reached into the water to examine a plant.  Yikes!  I soon discovered I could attract them just by dangling my fingers in the water.  I wonder how they detect the availability of fresh blood to suck:  by motion, odor, or temperature?  I didn't let them suck any of mine.

The vegetation along the shoreline of this pond consisted mostly of Leatherleaf shrubs gone to seed,  but here and there we found a few flowers in bloom, including this patch of bright-yellow Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) sharing its sphagnumy spot with Marsh St. Johnswort (Hypericum virginicum) and White Beak Sedge (Rhynchospora alba).  I think there were a few cranberries in there, too.

Here's a closer view of that White Beak Sedge, a familiar sight in northern marshes and bogs.

Evelyn had studied the maps and hoped to find a navigable outlet to this pond, but when we found it, we discovered its access was impeded by a beaver dam, and the water beyond was much too shallow for paddling.   There were huge heaps of beaver sticks on either end of this shallow dam, indicating that there might have been a much higher dam at this site in the past.

We decided this was a nice shady spot to perch on rocks and eat our lunches, so we got out of our boats and explored the shore.  Masses of Creeping Snowberry (Gaultheria hispidula) carpeted the area, but in all those leaves I could find but a single tiny white waxy berry.

The bright red fruits of Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) presented a lovely complement to the snowy blooms of Dalibarda (Dalibarda repens).  There were bushes laden with blueberries, too, which provided us with a sweet snack.

What a pretty still life, the vivid yellow of the mushroom set off by the little green hearts of the Wood Sorrel leaf.

Oh dear, yet ANOTHER creature snared by a spider's web!  That seems to be my calling of late, releasing trapped damselflies and dragonflies from sticky webs.   I didn't know if I could completely remove all the filaments from this Ebony Jewelwing, but I freed enough of it anyway, that it promptly flew away with its distinctive fluttery flight.

Leeches are really hard to love.  But I try.  All God's Creatures, and all that.  When I saw one resting on a rock just under the water from where I was eating my corned beef sandwich, I even tossed it a morsel of the salty pink meat, which landed an inch away from its front end.  Oh my, you should have seen it lunge for it and take it into its suckers with seeming great eagerness.  And then the most awful thing happened.

With the glob of meat stuck in its "mouth," the leech began to writhe and twist, writhe and twist, as if in agony, but it never dislodged the piece of meat.  Could the salt in the corned beef be causing it terrible indigestion?  Why couldn't it spit it out?

Well, it seems it was worse than indigestion.  The creature eventually stopped writhing and went completely limp.  I picked it up on a stick and it just drooped without any tension.  I do believe it had died.  How awful!  I confess I do hate the thought of a leech attached to me, but I never meant to harm it.  Could the salt in the meat have killed it?  But our blood is rather salty, too.  Who would have thought?  Gosh, I'm sorry, leech.

Paddling back across the lake, I saw many Water Shield pads just covered with the spiky skins of Water Striders.  At least I knew that these creatures had not died, but rather had shed their skins as they transitioned to another instar.  (Thanks, BugGuide.net, for this information.) I wonder if the insects climb aboard these pads to perform the molt, or do the shed skins just happen to collect on the slimy surface of the pads?  Another mystery to ponder.