Friday, September 30, 2016

Beautiful River, Fine Companions

What could be better than having a perfect day to paddle the Hudson River?  How about having four terrific friends to paddle with you?  That was my delight this past Wednesday, when four of my friends from the Thursday Naturalists -- Sue, Kathy, Nancy, and Kathie -- met me at the Sherman Island Boat Launch off of Spier Falls Road in Moreau.  The weather gods had certainly smiled on us, presenting us with a sun-warmed, blue-sky day with little wind, so the water lay mirror-still before us as we pushed off to paddle downstream, following the bends of the river as it flowed among forested mountains.

Yes, I admit we were just a bit disappointed that the leaves had hardly begun to turn their gorgeous autumn colors, although we did find a bough or two of vivid leaves leaning over the banks.

And the Winterberry bushes offered much compensation with their branches studded with beautiful fruit.

Back in a swampy area, the Buttonbush shrubs were adorned with rosy-red orbs, the seed-heads that once held their perfect spheres of white blooms.

As we eased our way slowly along the banks, we came upon a patch of Swamp Candles that were studded with little red pods in every leaf axil.

A closer look revealed that these little red pods were the plants' clonal organs, called bulbils.  Although Swamp Candles do reproduce sexually via their flowers and the resultant seeds, these little bulbils will also promote the spread of this flower, eventually falling off into the mud or carried away by the river's current to produce new plants where they land.

Here was another discovery we found as we passed under the overhanging boughs of Speckled Alders: clonal clusters of Wooly Alder Aphids, their waxy white "fur" covering their tiny bodies as they dined on alder sap.  As I have described several times before on my blog, this cluster of aphids consists of all female wingless clones that will later produce a winged generation (which will also include some males) that will fly away to mate and lay eggs on their host tree, the Silver Maple.

After about a half-hour's paddle  during which we started to feel a bit of buffeting wind, we entered a quiet backwater surrounding this pretty little island crowned by three tall White Pines.

Behind this Three-Pine Island (my personal name for it!) lies a swamp densely populated by Black Tupelo trees that had started to turn their typical brilliant scarlet.  I find it amazing how half of a Black Tupelo's leaves will remain glossy green while the other half turn ruby red.

Continuing along the convoluted and rocky banks that distinguish this stretch of the river above the Sherman Island Dam, we next paddled behind a larger island to enter a part of the river I call Shelter Cove.  A gale may be blowing out on the open river, but back here the water often quiets and the gusty winds grow still.

Paddling close to the steep and moss-covered banks, I was charmed by this patch of Partridgeberries decorated by a single ruby-red tupelo leaf.

The banks surrounding Shelter Cove are composed of many huge boulders, offering us our pick of pleasant places to perch while we stretched our legs and enjoyed our picnic lunches.

A glorious day, indeed!  And one I hope we may soon repeat.  As a final blessing, the wind that had buffeted us on our paddle downstream, now pushed on our backs as we made our way home, alternately gliding on satin-smooth water or moving through patches of glittering wavelets dancing in the sun.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Just a Few Pretty Things

All around me, nature grants me delight in every season.  But as the summer draws to a close, nature saves some of her most colorful flowers for last.  Here are just a few of the delights I came upon this week.

The Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is not quite the last flower of summer (Witch Hazel and Monkshood are still to bloom), but I know that when this sunflower opens its brilliant yellow flowers atop gigantic stalks, the wildflower season is drawing to a close.   These were standing tall along the Kayaderosseras Creek.  (The little Candystripe Leafhopper lent a lovely touch!)

The New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are also in their glory along the creek, and this one looked extra glorious when a ray of sun lit up its vivid disk flowers against the shadows of a neighboring tree.

Since I've seen so few Monarch Butterflies this year and last, I was truly delighted to see this pretty thing feeding among the asters.

I explored the Louden Road Nature Preserve behind the Saratoga Mall in Wilton this week, not expecting to find much color in what is a deeply shaded oak/pine woods.  But in this same woods Sassafras trees were also remarkably abundant.  And some of them still held their beautiful blue-black fruits perched atop cherry-red pedicels.

My friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I twice visited the Woodlawn Preserve in Schenectady, a pine-bush habitat remarkable for the hundreds of gorgeous Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) that fill an open damp meadow. Is there any flower to match its radiant blueness?

Well, the tiny Blue Curls flowers (Trichostema dichotomum) are also radiantly blue, but you have to look really close to enjoy their remarkable beauty and intriguing structure,  with their distinctive arching anthers curling over spotted lower lips.

An even closer looks reveals the charming little seed cups that form after the Blue Curls flowers fall.

If you want to see the beautiful little orchid called Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua), that Woodlawn Preserve is where you should visit, since we found them by the dozen there.

The Woodlawn Preserve is also the only place I have ever found the interesting plant called Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia).  I have never seen it in bloom with its four-parted yellow flowers, but its seeds are the most remarkable feature of this member of the Evening Primrose Family.  They form these perfect little squared-off boxes, the inspiration for the plant's common name.

The driest, sandiest, most barren soils of the Woodlawn Preserve are where we found a number of these odd, tumbleweed-like plants called Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium).  These bushy masses of branches bearing tiny, winged, disk-shaped flowers all sprout from a single stem, which eventually breaks off to allow the plant to roll away with the wind, spreading its seeds as it tumbles.

Of course, when I go looking for flowers, I always encounter some interesting critters as well.  This green-eyed clubtail dragonfly was perched along the muddy banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek. I would not venture a guess as to its species, since clubtails are especially difficult to distinguish.

Close by along the creekbed, I startled this Leopard Frog, whose emerald-green color caused it to stand out against the background of dark mud.

These tiny yellow Oleander Aphids seem to like milkweed as much as oleanders, since that's where I often find them. (I don't think that oleanders grow wild in this part of the country, anyway.) This cluster occupied a seedpod of Swamp Milkweed.  I'm thinking this must be a relatively new population, due to the varied sizes.  This cluster of aphids began when a single winged female aphid landed on the pod and produced a clone of herself without mating with a male.  Then the clone produced a second clone, and that clone did the same, and on and on.  The little ones are the newly cloned, and they will continue the process of cloning themselves. I do not know what forces limit the size of a single plant's population of aphids.  I can't believe how cute these little critters are!

The same cloning system creates clumps of Wooly Alder Aphids, which I found feeding on alder twigs as I paddled along the banks of the Hudson River this week.  This species of aphids exudes a white waxy "fur" to protect itself from the wet and cold, as well as to dissuade predators. As the season winds down, these female clones will produce a generation of aphids with wings, including some males, which will then fly away to find mates and lay eggs on their primary host trees, Silver Maples.

Watch for the winged form of the Wooly Alder Aphid this month and next, as these wee little baby-blue bugs with their fluffy "skirts" fly about seeking mates.  Sometimes called Fairy Flies, they look like tiny bits of blue fluff wafting in the air.

Monday, September 19, 2016

It's Aster Time Along the Creek!

Autumn begins officially this week, and rather than dread the end of summer, I truly look forward to this season of cooler days and colorful foliage.  But we don't have to wait for fall to bring us gorgeous color.  Just take a walk this week on the Burl Trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa for some knock-your-eye-out splendor.  The New England Asters are all in bloom there, in the deepest purple, the rosiest rose, and the prettiest pink, all complimented by the spectacular yellow of big sunflowers and masses of goldenrod.  If you can't manage to get there, though, here are some photos to show you what you're missing.

This is the typical deep-purple shade we associate with New England Asters (complimented here by the brilliant yellow of a Goldenrod Crab Spider).

But this species of aster also blooms in a radiant rose.

Sometimes, too, in a paler shade of pink.

Nothing sets off the beauty of these asters better than the spectacular blooms of Maximilian Sunflowers.

This sunflower species is known for its generous number of blooms per stalk.

The Twelve-spotted Lady Beetle, one of our native American ladybugs, is a predator of many plant pests. But it also likes to dine on pollen, a food abundantly supplied by this sunflower.

What a treat, to see one of our ever-rarer Monarch Butterflies feeding on this pretty aster.

Goldenrod is also in its glory now along the Kayaderosseras, attracting many insects to its pollen by its brilliant color.  But sometimes the insects, like these tiger-striped Locust Borer Beetles, have other things beside eating on their mind.

As do these Goldenrod Soldier Beetles.  Looks like it's fall, rather than spring, when a young bug's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sharing a Favorite Shoreline

This is the perfect time of year to enjoy the open-field wildflowers that thrive on late-summer sunshine.  And there's no better place to find such flowers than the wide sandy shore that circles the back bay of Moreau Lake.  That was the promise I made to a group of nature enthusiasts from the Ecological Clearing House of Schenectady (ECOS) that I led on a walk this past Tuesday.  And we were not disappointed.

The group of walkers was large and enthusiastic, and I was especially pleased to have both Ed Miller and Nancy Slack along, since both are extremely informed about plants and could add their insights to every plant we found.  We couldn't have asked for better weather, either: sun-warmed but cool,  just perfect for a mid-morning stroll along a quiet bay.

Even before we moved to the shore, I had an opportunity to point out some interesting nature sights right next to the parking lot at Moreau Lake State Park's beach.  There in the woods just beyond our parked cars was a patch of both Solomon's Seal and Solomon's Plume, two woodland plants that are often confused, because their leaves are similar.  But today, both plants were bearing fruit, making their differences quite evident. The first one we looked at was Solomon's Seal, which dangled blue-black berries from each leaf axil beneath the leaves.

And just a few feet away we found the Solomon's Plume, also in fruit, but instead bearing its red berries in a cluster at the end of the leafy stalk.

As we walked toward the beach, we halted at a patch of milkweed plants, so I could show our group the flies that had been glued to the milkweed leaves by a fatal fungus.  These are the same fungus-attacked flies I wrote about in a recent blog post, and I related the same tale again to the folks who gathered around to examine the many dead-fly-dotted leaves.

When we reached the beach, we were greeted by an abundance of late-summer flowers, chief among them the bright-yellow flowers of Grass-leaved Goldenrod and the creamy tufts of Boneset blooms.

Here and there in the damp sand, we found other clusters of shoreline plants, including the yellow Nodding Bur Marigold and the green leafy stalks of Northern Bugleweed, its axils wreathed with tiny white flowers.

We had the unusual opportunity to examine two species of Gerardia (Agalinis spp.) with look-alike flowers,  growing right next to each other in abundant numbers along the shore.  One of these plants was Small-flowered Gerardia (A. paupercula var. paupercula), which bears its small bright-purple flowers close to its stems, with very short flower stalks.

Bearing very similar flowers was Slender Gerardia (A. tenuifolia), but as this photo shows, these flowers are borne on long slender stalks that hold the flowers some distance from the stem.  Although both these Gerardias were growing mixed together and side-by-side, they did not appear to hybridize at all, which is why they are considered to be two distinct species.

Before we began our circuit of the bay, Nancy Slack presented a short tutorial on various asters that we were likely to encounter this time of year.  And yet even she could not decide which aster this small-flowered white one was.  Nor could our other aster-expert friend Ed Miller, although he later informed me (after considerable study of his manuals at home) that he thought this might be the species Symphyotrichum racemosum (Small White Aster), which was previously called Aster vimeneus.   Although this is an aster that is not widely reported from around New York State, it is not considered a rare plant by state botanists.  Whatever species of aster this was that we found,  it was certainly abundant here, being the most common flower along many stretches of the shore.

Although many of our group had encountered Sweet Everlasting before, some were quite surprised to discover its interesting fragrance, which I would describe as smelling like maple syrup.

I would have walked right by this itsy bitsy yellow flower if Ed had not called it to my attention.  At first I thought it might be the Dwarf St. Johnswort, due to its minuscule size.  But then I noticed its long, fine leaves, quite different from the oval ones of Dwarf St. Johnswort, and I realized this was a very small specimen of Canada St. Johnswort instead.


Here's another photo of it to demonstrate its small size.

Small as it was, though, there were even smaller flowers on the Dwarf Forget-me-nots that were scattered along the shore.

And smallest of all were the miniature blooms of Humped Bladderwort that sprouted from the black mud at the water's edge.

Although plants were our focus as we strolled the sandy beach, we were also thrilled to see this Little Green Heron perched on a fallen tree close to shore.  It allowed us to get quite close to it, so that many were able to get a good view of it, even without binoculars.

We also were able to study this little Red Eft up close, as Nancy pointed out how its bright orange color was trending toward the green it will become when it enters its watery stage of life as a Spotted Newt.  We find Red Efts in the woods, but the Spotted Newts live in the water, where they breed.

Our group left the lakeshore and entered the woods, where we took a trail to return to our cars.  On the way, we noted the White Wood Aster,  which has much broader leaves than open-area asters do, the better to thrive in the low-light conditions in the shaded forest.

We also admired the blue-black berries that dangled from the tops of the Maple-leaved Viburnum, another woodland plant.

Most goldenrods bloom under sunny skies, but the Blue-stem Goldenrod is a forest denizen, blooming even in the darkest shade of the woods.

I had hoped to show folks this little woodland orchid called Autumn Coralroot, but there wasn't much of it to see by now, since the minute little spotted petals were already shriveled.  This orchid is never what you would call "showy," even in its prime.  In other years, I used to find about a dozen of them growing around this tree, but this year, only two. Ah well, an orchid is an orchid, and I'm glad we found at least one, fading though it may have been.