Monday, July 25, 2016

Sunday on the River With Sue

I used to have many days a week to play with Sue, my equally besotted nature-nut pal.  But then her work schedule changed to daytimes, so now we have only weekends for nature adventures together. So this Sunday, we planned a day-long paddle exploring the banks and islands of the Hudson River at Moreau.  Here we are, setting off in the morning to paddle upstream toward Spier Falls Dam.

We actually didn't get far upstream, since the first island we came to held so much enchantment for us, we dallied there most of the morning.

This island is surrounded by a low saturated area just exploding with a myriad flowers that thrive in this kind of wetland.  Carpeting most of the muddy verge were thousands and thousands of these colorful St. Johnsworts.  The rosy-leaved ones dotted with pink flower buds are Marsh St. Johnsworts, and the spring-green ones capped with ruby-red seedpods are Pale St. Johnsworts.

Popping up amid the St. Johnswort carpet were a number of Grass-leaved Arrowheads, their dazzling-white petals touched with pink and speckled with tiny flies, who had come to dine on the nectar and pollen.

Here was another St. Johnswort thriving all over this saturated shore, its tiny flowers and foliage suggesting its common name of Dwarf St. Johnswort.

Here is a closer look at the ruby-red achenes of Pale St. Johnswort.  This is a species that certainly belies its common name by being extremely colorful, whether in vivid-orange bud, in bright-yellow bloom, or bearing seedpods as vibrant as any flower.

Edging this wet area were a number of shrubs, including Common Elder, Red Osier and Silky Dogwood, and this Buttonbush shrub, almost unrecognizable due to its being overwhelmed by the clasping orange strings of Dodder.

Dodder prickles can pierce the stems of the plants it parasitizes, sucking its nutrients from the plants it clambers over.  A close look reveals the tiny white flowers of Dodder in bloom.

Exploring the higher and dryer areas of the island, we found many other flowers, including a large patch of Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, its tiny white flowers dotted with purple and its leaves emitting a refreshing scent of mint.

We were surprised to see Sneezeweed already, since this common riverside flower rarely blooms before August, but a closer look revealed that this is a different species of Sneezeweed than we usually find along this stretch of the Hudson.  This is Purple-headed Sneezeweed (Helenium flexuosum), native to more southern parts of the U.S. but considered to be an introduced species in northern New York.  I have seen it in other years along this part of the river, but it never seems to persist in the places I first find it.

Unfortunately, we also found the very invasive Purple Loosestrife gaining a foothold out on this island.  For the more than 20 years I've been paddling this catchment between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams, I've been pulling Purple Loosestrife whenever I found it.  I hardly ever see it along these banks anymore, and after what Sue and I did to it this day, I hope we will never see it again on this river island.  Yes, it's pretty, but still, it's gotta go!

We did continue upstream a while, looking for a small stand of Wild Senna we'd found in other years. Yes, we found it, but still in tight bud, so we didn't linger there, but turned back downstream. We were drawing too close to the dam by then, and the stronger current there was impeding our progress.  We then pulled into a tiny tree-shaded cove to relax and eat our lunches, observing the constant swirling dance of hundreds of Whirligig Beetles that inhabited the quiet waters of the cove.

After our picnic, we continued downstream, finding relief from the midday sun by paddling under the overhanging trees and feeling cool air tumble down the banks from the depths of the dark green forest.


Where sunlight reached the banks, we were delighted by the beauty of such riverside flowers as these Blue Vervains, rosy-pink Swamp Milkweeds, and brilliant-scarlet Cardinal Flowers.  Unfortunately, we also found patches of the pale-lavender Canada Thistle, an invasive species not so easily extirpated by hand, since it comes armed with sharp thorns.

I don't know of many other places, aside from this section of the Hudson, where I could find American Chestnut trees grown mature enough to bear fruit.  But a few do grow here, although not close enough for cross-pollination, so the prickly burs do not contain viable seed.  But still, it's quite a rare opportunity, finding these nearly extirpated trees bearing flowers and fruit.

Our destination downstream was an island where the rare and beautiful Great St. Johnswort is known to grow.  I'm happy to report we did find it, but I'm also sorry to report that we found many fewer plants than in years past. It certainly is a spectacular native wildflower, and I would surely grieve if it died out from this place I know where to find it.

Growing a bit weary after five hours of paddling, and knowing we'd have to push against both wind and current to return to our launch site, we headed for home upstream.  My shoulders and rear were aching by now, but still I delighted in such a glorious vista of mountains, river, and sky.  The sunlight sparkled on dancing wavelets, and high in the sky, a glowing rainbow-like iridescence appeared in the clouds.

According to a site called EarthSky, when we see a cloud with colors like this, we should know that there are especially tiny ice crystals or water droplets in the clouds, causing the light to be diffracted and creating this rainbow effect. The phenomenon is called cloud iridescence or irisation.  Here's a blow-up of this irisation from my photo, with color enhanced.  Whatever this phenomenon is called, to us it just seemed like a cherry on top of our wonderful day on the river.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Powerline Pursuit

Oy!  It was way too hot Friday afternoon to climb up a steep, rocky, mountainous powerline, exposed to an unrelenting sun, voracious deer flies, and very little in the way of a breeze.  Ah well.  I guess that's why I'm called a wildflower nut.  I was on the hunt for a number of unusual flower species I find only along this clearcut, and I'm never sure when I'm going to find them in bloom.  So I climbed and climbed until I could not risk going any higher (not without someone who could call for help if I slipped and broke a leg).  It does get pretty precipitous up here.

Well, I failed in my quest to find 6 of the 7 wildflowers I was seeking in bloom.  Three Desmodium species, two Lespedeza species, and one Hypericum were still in tight bud or lacking any sign of flowers to come.  Oh well,  at least I found the plants with their distinctive leaves, and I can come back later for the flowers.  Sure, I was a bit disappointed, but hey, just look at the view from way up here!  There was even a little breeze, enough to dry off some of my sweat when I took off my shirt and hung it over this pylon, hoping to get it dry enough to stop sticking to my back.  Did I mention it was really HOT?

The quest was not completely without reward, since there were a number of gorgeous wildflowers blooming along the way.  This large patch of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) was quite the butterfly magnet, too, with many Great Spangled Fritillaries flitting from flower to flower.

There was also a small Skipper butterfly exploring the florets of this Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare), probably the most common flower in bloom on these heights this day.  It was wonderful to brush through hip-high thickets of this introduced Mint-family plant and delight in the herbal fragrance its leaves released.

And here's the one sought-after flower that was actually in bloom!  This is Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum ssp. pumilum), one of our few native thistles and with a bloom as big and fragrant as it is beautiful.  Another little Skipper was also enjoying its flower.  There were lots of buds, so when I return to find the Desmodium and Lespedeza flowers I bet I will see even more of their blooms on these sun-baked heights.

Considering how hot and dry it was on this mountain-side clearcut, I was surprised to see many spikes of Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) blooming so far from the waterside habitat in which I usually find them.  There are a few tiny rills that cross this clearcut, though, so perhaps the Steeplebush's roots had found a source of water beneath the dry rocks.

Here's the Hypericum I was looking for, called Orange Grass St. Johnswort (Hypericum gentianoides), and it turned out I needn't have climbed nearly as high as I did, looking for it.  Somehow I missed it while struggling up and up and up, only to come across it quite by accident on the way down.  It certainly has a distinctive growth habit, with all those tiny spiky green stems poking straight up.  So I can understand how it might get the name "grass."  But its tiny flowers will be yellow, not orange.  I can even now see a bit of yellow peeking through the buds.  I'll be back, I told it.  (Maybe on a somewhat cooler day!)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Wetlands in Bloom

This late in summer, you have to look long and hard for blooming flowers in the deep shady woods. This is the season for the sun-lovers instead: the roadside weeds, the meadow bloomers, the riverside flowers that like wet feet, and the bog denizens that bloom amid soggy masses of sphagnum moss.  I visited those last two wetland habitats this past Tuesday: first, a large bog at an undisclosed location near Lake George, and later that day, a wide shallow stretch of the Hudson River above Rockwell Falls at Lake Luzerne.

When I first slipped through the thick hedge that surrounds the bog near Lake George, I was immediately disappointed.   In past years when I've visited here, this expanse of multi-shades of green has been punctuated with bright splashes of pink from the hundreds of Grass Pink Orchids I always find here.  I'm sure they're still here, but past their blooming already.  Darn!

Oh, but wait!  There's one!  And yes, there's another!  I did have to peer around a bit, but I did find just a few of these gorgeous Grass Pinks (Calopogon tuberosus) still in beautiful bloom.

Thankfully, the other orchid I came here to find -- the White Fringed Orchis (Platanthera blephariglottis) -- was very much in evidence. In some sections of the bog, these spikes of pure white flowers with the fringed lower lips were as abundant as dandelions on a suburban lawn.  They also had many unopened buds, so I'm hoping they'll still be in presentable bloom when my friend Andrew Gibson comes visiting again in a couple of weeks.  He's a passionate orchid aficionado, and this is a species of wild orchid he is not likely to find in his home state of Ohio.

Unlike most other bogs I visit, the Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) is barely in evidence here, and I really have to search to find its vase-shaped leaves hidden among the Bog Rosemary shrubs and the Leatherleaf.  It helps when it holds its huge red flowers high above the surrounding vegetation.

Sure enough, when I peered down at the base of the flower stalk, I did find the Pitcher Plant's red-veined green "pitchers" nestled within mounds of sphagnum moss.  A few delicate wisps of Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) leaves sprawled across the moss, bearing the pale-green fruits that will later turn deep red.

Here are a couple more of the small unripe cranberries, lying on a vivid patch of Red Bog Sphagnum.

A real treat for me on this hot sunny day was finding the Highbush Blueberry shrubs (Vaccinium corymbosum) thickly laden with huge, sweet ripe fruit.  All I had to do to obtain a large handful of them was place my hand within the bush, and the berries tumbled right into my palm.  And oh, were they delicious!

Sustained by many handfuls of those blueberries, I decided to take a wide detour on my way home from the bog, and headed to the village of Lake Luzerne.  Here is where the Hudson River falls through a gorge at Rockwell Falls, and just above the falls the river widens into some stony mudflats. These mudflats would normally be under water, but lack of normal amounts of rainfall this summer has exposed much of the river bottom, now colonized by many wildflowers.

The ribbon of vivid green and gold along the shore is a Golden Pert (Gratiola aurea), a plant that can thrive for years under water, only to burst into bloom as soon as it is exposed to light and air.

The tiny dots of bright yellow starring the mud are the flowers of Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus reptans), a minute buttercup, no bigger around than a pencil eraser, that also will lie in wait under water until diminishing water levels expose it to air, after which it blooms profusely.

I just adore this tiny buttercup with its miniature flowers and its sprawling tendril-like stems and leaves.

Thronging the banks of Mill Creek where it enters the Hudson are hundreds of plants of Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata).

Oh, what a treat!  Is there any flower more gloriously red than Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardenalis)? These are the first I've seen this year, displaying their brilliant scarlet blooms along the banks of the Hudson at Lake Luzerne.

In contrast, these pale-lavender blooms of Bouncing Bet massed high on the banks prove that a flower doesn't have to be brilliantly colored to be beautiful.

A closer look at the Bouncing Bet blooms revealed this pale moth dangling among the florets.  How odd, I thought.  How could a moth get an antenna stuck on a flower's anther?  Oho!  See that little spider on the petal just above the moth? I'll bet that spider paralyzed that moth with venom and then, using its silk, attached it on the bloom for later eating.  Sound likely?

Wading out into the shallow pools, I noticed these brushy little plants under the water.  They sure looked like the leaves of Narrow-leaved Bladderwort (Utricularia intermedia), but I also thought they might be some other aquatic species, like a miniature Coontail.  So I plucked one for closer examination.

Bladderwort it is!  See the tiny brown sacs?  All bladderworts bear this kind of sacs on their underwater structures, using the sacs to suck in the tiny organisms that provide these plants with nutrients.

Walking back to my car from the river, I passed a large stand of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) bearing their fuzzy red fruits, and I stopped in my tracks.  How beautiful they are, I thought, while also admitting I often overlook the beauty of such a common shrub as this.  Certainly not as rare as bog orchids, but just as lovely in their own right.  (And probably far more beneficial to wildlife, too!)

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Many Moods of Mud Pond

Last Thursday wasn't the nicest day for a long walk, being one of the hottest and muggiest yet this hot, muggy summer.  So I was grateful that at least three of my friends in the Thursday Naturalists (Nancy, Elizabeth, and Ed, seen resting on a fallen log, below) joined me to explore the varied habitats that surround Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park.  We didn't make it completely around the pond, but we did have a chance to investigate the marvelously varied and abundant flora that inhabit each kind of terrain.

We began our walk at the open sandy habitat under the power lines at the north end of the pond.  Here, the Early Goldenrod was just beginning to open its blooms, the earliest of the goldenrods to do so. No need to panic that summer is almost over when you see its bright-yellow plumes, as we do when the later species of goldenrods begin to bloom in mid-August.

Our friend Ed, a connoisseur of woody plants, was most impressed by the gorgeous stand of Shining Sumac that thrives here in this sunny open area.  I have some concern that a blight attacks its shiny leaves each summer, causing them to crumple and wither, but so far this year they appear healthy enough for the shrubs to set buds and get ready to bloom.

I was excited to show my friends this patch of Susquehanna Sand Cherry even though it was not in bloom and its cherry-red fruits had already been devoured by wildlife.  My friends are all experienced botanizers with wide acquaintance of most of our native plants, but this was a new plant for everyone today.

Another shrub that prefers this hot, dry, sandy habitat is New Jersey Tea, and we were surprised to see this miniature shrub still in bloom.  Most of the others in the area had long ago dropped their star-shaped florets.

American Hazelnut is a shrub that simply abounds along this power line, and we enjoyed seeing its ruffle-bracted nut clusters, as pretty as green carnations.

There are a number of mosses that thrive even in such hot, dry locations, and our bryologist-companion Nancy was eager to show us this particular Dicranum moss that was spreading a carpet beneath our feet.

Of course, Nancy told us the name of this particular Dicranum, but I did not write it down and so I will have to ask her again.  I do remember she told us that this is the only Dicranum that bears these branching spore capsules.

Various species of blueberry bushes were offering ripe fruit as we passed, and we were happy to accept their offering.  Yum!

I was disappointed that the bright-orange Wood Lilies that thrive along this power-line clearcut had already faded and dropped their petals.  But the brilliant orange of Butterflyweed made up for that disappointment.

After browsing the plants of that sun-baked clear-cut, we next entered the cooler, sweet-scented shade of the pine woods, and the first flower we encountered there was a Blunt-leaved Milkweed, still blooming when all the others of its species that bloomed along the power line had long gone to seed.

Not very many plants will flower in the deep shade of a mid-summer woods, but the little orchid called Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain is one of them.  And we were lucky to find them.

We also found the ghostly-pale Indian Pipe, a plant with absolutely no chlorophyll for photo-synthesizing nutrients, and so it must live as a parasite on the roots of other plants.

The minuscule flowers of Cow Wheat were blooming in some of the brighter areas of the woods.

We found many blooming plants of Striped Wintergreen, although the closely related Pipsissewa  we also found was already past its bloom-time.

Thanks to several recent downpours, the slime molds were abundant on rain-soaked logs.  This white thready one was sharing its log with the liverwort called Noellia curvifolia.

Here was a second slime mold that had produced fruiting bodies following recent rains, this one the brilliant-red one called Raspberry Slime-mold.

With the water-level so low in Mud Pond, we could next move down onto flat areas along the shore that in other years would be under water.  Here we found many interesting plants that thrive in just such damp muddy soils exposed to bright sunlight.

Button bush is one of the shrubs that thrives in these conditions, and it was gloriously in bloom on this day.

So were the dainty pink flowers of Meadowsweet.

And the more tightly compact blooms of Steeplebush, a deeper pink than the related Meadowsweet.

As we moved through the hip-high grasses, we knew even before we saw them that we were passing through a patch of Wild Mint by the strong scent these lavender-flowered plants exuded.

Broad bands of Marsh Fern thrived at the junction of mud flats with wooded banks.

My friends confessed they had never seen a Bedstraw flower with only three petals, but that may be because the three-petaled Clayton's Bedstraw, not a rare plant, is so small as to be almost invisible.

Since I was wearing shorts on this hot muggy day, we avoided the patches of Arrow-leaved Tearthumb (which I call tear-SHIN!), but I convinced my friends we had no stings to fear from the hip-high patches of False Nettle and could safely wade through them, even in shorts. (My companions were more sensibly clad in long pants, always a safer garb for botanizing.)

When we reached the far end of Mud Pond and realized we had a very long trail to go to complete a circuit, we decided to turn back and return the way we had come.  But first we rested in the shade a while, enjoying the antics of this gaggle of geese as they waddled across the muddy remains of what used to be a pond.

On our return to our starting point, Nancy and I made a short side trip to a muddy area where the tiny Humped Bladderwort was abundantly blooming.  We gathered up a little clump of the plant, mud and all, to take to show Ed, who was resting in his car.  This photo shows the hump on the lower petal that suggested this carnivorous plant's common name. (Its scientific name is Utricularia gibba.)

We next drove over to the beach area of Moreau Lake to enjoy a picnic lunch together.  Since I had scouted the trail around Mud Pond the day before, I could tell my friends some of the flowers we had missed seeing today, including this beautiful stand of Swamp Milkweed that I photographed on Wednesday. I remembered being astounded that this Great Spangled Fritillary could still fly, with wings so tattered!

Here was another critter visiting the Swamp Milkweed blooms, this one ready to make a meal of the others.

I had been struck by the vivid blue of this damselfly resting on a bulrush, and when I moved in close for a photo, I was struck again by the fact that it did not fly away.  Can you see the reason why?

I myself did not see the spider with the damselfly caught in its jaws until I twisted the bulrush around. Ah well, as I've said before:  All God's chillen gotta eat!

Could I have eaten these mushrooms I found along the wooded trail?  Yes, I probably could have, since I believe they are Honey Mushrooms, a tasty fungus indeed.  But since I wasn't absolutely positive about my ID at the time, I left them for others to admire their golden beauty.

And talk about beautiful mushrooms!  Wow, how lovely are these shiny red Frost's Boletes?  I'm sorry my Thursday Naturalist friends missed seeing them on the side of Mud Pond that we did not visit on Thursday.  But now that I have posted their photo here on my blog, my friends can see them now.