Monday, October 31, 2016

BOO! It's Halloween, Time to Revisit Nature's Nastier Side

Ooh, it's Halloween!  What better time to visit a bit of Nature's nastier aspect?  I've been waxing a bit Hallmarky of late about Nature's beauty,  but lest we forget about her shadow side, I'm reposting my blog from a year ago to remind us that Nature can be just as creepy as she is wondrous and amazing.

found this Goldenrod Ball Gall yesterday.  The neat little hole in it indicates the larva inside was probably gobbled down by a downy woodpecker. (No, it's not the gall resident's exit  hole; that would be much tinier.)  Chickadees also rifle these galls, but make a real mess of them when they do.  And squirrels cut them off and carry them away.  I learned this from John Eastman's Book of Field and Roadside, which I turned to again to learn more about this gall. And its parasite. (Be warned!)

The gall is caused by a fruitfly, Eurosta solidaginis,  which lays a single egg on the stem of the goldenrod (almost exclusively tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima) just before the plant's leaves open. When the larva hatches, it eats its way inside the stem.  Nobody seems to know why the plant reacts the way it does, but a swelling ball of solid tissue forms around where the larva is feeding.  Come fall, the larva chews its way outward through this tissue, making an exit tunnel but leaving the door unopened.  It doesn't leave but retreats to the center, where it sleeps through winter, snug in its now-dead gall, pupating only a few weeks  before spring arrives.  Spring comes, the adult emerges inside the gall, crawls up the tunnel it bored last fall, and finds the door still closed.  Now, the adult fly doesn't have the chewing mouthparts its larva had, so how will it get outside?  Undaunted, it clamps itself to the door, pumps bodily fluids into a special part of its head, and this swelled head bursts the gall's external membrane.  The adult fly then pulls itself out.  Cool!

But that's only if all goes well.  And all will go terribly wrong if its parasite Eurytoma obtusiventris comes along.  This tiny wasp finds the fruitfly egg even before the fly hatches and starts forming its gall.  The wasp sticks its ovipositor into the fly egg and lays an even tinier wasp egg there.  The wasp larva bores into the fly larva and lurks there unnoticed until the latter is full grown.  It then proceeds to devour its host from the inside out.  Eewww! (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Actually, I think it's pretty neat how all god's chillun get fed.  In nature, that is.  I don't think our factory farms that knowingly torture livestock are fine at all.

While I'm at it, here are a few more creepy images from my archives:

Dead Man's Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha), a fungus (or is Mickey Mouse reaching up from his grave?)

Jelly Leaf fungus (Tremella foliacia), oozing a blood-red fluid all over my hand.  (Actually, this one is edible, and not just by Zombies!)

And how could I forget Witch's Brooms on Halloween?  These tangles of twigs are caused by some kind of irritant to the branches of woody trees and shrubs.  This was one I found in a Shadblow tree, a frequent host for Witch's Brooms.

Oh wait!  I thought of some MORE gory stuff!  Here's some Oozy Orange Slime that looks like some tree stumps have vomited.  It's caused by a yeast that feeds on the sugars in tree sap, and you can read all about it on the Cornell Mushroom Blog.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Searching for Beauty Around the Back Bay

What crazy weather!  A week ago I was paddling the river in shorts and a tee-shirt, but yesterday, when I went up to Moreau Lake State Park to walk around the back bay, I was wearing my longjohns, polar fleece, and raingarb, with gloves on my hands and a scarf wrapped tight around my ears to keep out the cold wind.  As I set off across the bridge that separates the back bay from the main lake, the clouds looks so threatening and the landscape appeared so drear, I wondered if I should just turn around and go home.

But then, as I entered the shelter of the woods, I felt the trail beckon me on with its muted beauty and calmer air.

As I rounded the end of the bay, the vista opened up to reveal some remnants of autumn color on the mountainside.  But I also noted how low the water was, too low to reflect the mountain's profile on its mirroring surface.

And along the shore, the mud flats reached many yards further off shore than I'd seen them just a couple of weeks before. We'd had so much rain the past few days, I'd hoped the water level would start to rise.  But not so.  I sure hope we get lots of snow this winter, enough to make up for the dearth we had last year and maybe start to refill this glacial kettle lake, which has no other significant source of water.

To counteract this disturbing vision, I looked around for whatever beauties I could find, delighting in these puffs of bright yellow that floated in the air at the end of Witch Hazel twigs.

The Maple-leaved Viburnum never disappoints!  Its distinctive rosy-coral leaves filled the darkening woods with vivid color.

And what a powerful punctuation of RED! this Highbush Blueberry added to the shoreline shrubbery!

And down on the ground, the multicolored leaves were like vivid jewels cast at my feet.

And what a splendid hedge of Black Huckleberry bushes lines the sandy banks of the lake's north shore!

The huckleberry leaves are such a deep ruby red, they almost seem to give off heat, as if from glowing embers.

On my way home, as I rounded the south shore of Moreau Lake the sky brightened a bit and illuminated the still-vivid foliage up on the mountainside.

I stopped for a moment just to absorb this glowing beauty, expecting that it will soon grow dim.  More rain and wind and cold -- and even SNOW! -- are forecast for tomorrow.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Autumn Walk at Saratoga Battlefield

Our weather changed overnight, from sunny and summery-warm to chilly and dark today, with threatened rain.  But lucky for me and my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, that rain held off until we had almost completed our walk among the expansive meadows of the Saratoga Battlefield.  I knew we were in for some spectacular vistas as I approached the entrance to this national historic site along Rte. 32 and was awed by the sight of thick morning fog filling the Hudson River valley between Schuylerville and Stillwater.

The view from the visitor's center at the battlefield  -- now called the Saratoga National Historical Park -- was just as spectacular.  This view shows the trail we would walk portions of today, a 4.2 -mile historic footpath called the Wilkinson Trail, which retraces the same route where Revolutionary War soldiers marched to and from the Battle of Saratoga.  It was here back in 1777 that American forces overwhelmed those of the British in a battle historians now consider the turning point of the American Revolution.

War cannons situated on the heights remind us of the blood that once was shed on these now peaceful lands.

While this park is a wonderful destination for those interested in military history (and we chanced to meet an amazingly informed military historian on our walk today), the site is also a fine place for naturalists to hike.   And here we are, just starting out.

What incredible vistas this trail provides!  From here, we can see  across the river valley to the far-away Green Mountains of Vermont and their foothills in Washington County just across the Hudson.

Although very few flowers remained in bloom, we still enjoyed examining the seedheads and other remains of the plants that thrive in these expansive meadows. As Ed is doing here.

Mostly, though, we simply let our eyes gaze across these rolling meadows, awed by the amazing variations of splendid color.

Among the plants we DID stop to identify were patches of Panicled Dogwood, clad now in the rosiest red we had ever seen this shrub assume.  None of the dogwood shrubs were more than knee high, since the park mows and burns these fields to maintain the appearance of the farm fields that existed at the time of the Revolution.

I recognized these puffy gray seedheads as those of Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, set off so beautifully by the pinks and purples and yellows and greens of the surrounding plants.

Although the rain held off until we had started our return to the visitors' center,  it did start to come down hard before we reached that destination.  But that rain could not dampen our enjoyment of this gorgeous landscape.  We simply donned our raingear and enjoyed the rest of the hike.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Summery Day for an Autumn Paddle

Eighty degrees in October?!  Well, I'm surely distressed by more evidence of our warming climate, but I did take advantage of this summery day to go enjoy the glorious spectacle of autumn along the Hudson.  Here was the view that greeted me as I launched my canoe behind a large island, with forested mountains rising beyond.

Although a brisk breeze was riffling the water out on the open river, back here behind the island the water was calm, reflecting in shimmering beauty the gorgeous colors of the trees that lined the sheltered coves.

I remembered a Flowering Dogwood shrub grew here on the shore of a cove, and it certainly wasn't hard to spot its beautiful red boughs.

Again, the shimmering reflections amplified the beauty of all the autumn colors.

I love the view of West Mountain from the back of this cove, so I sat for a while just to take in its splendor against a radiant blue sky.

Here, I am heading out toward the open river, delighting in the crazy-quilt colors that adorn the forested mountainsides.

Looking up as I pass beneath a large Sassafras tree, I am dazzled by its vivid leaves glowing against a sapphire sky.

Looking down as I pass along tree-shaded banks, I am delighted by the multicolored plants that decorate the shore. Dewberry leaves, in shades of both pink and green, and a lime-green mound of sphagnum moss crowd in on a glossy green patch of Partridgeberry, dotted with scarlet fruits.

Rounding a rocky point that juts out into the river, I next enter a quiet swamp that lies behind this island that is crowned by three tall White Pines.

The star of the shoreline here is a cluster of Black Tupelo trees, displaying their signature scarlet.

Those vivid-red Tupelo boughs were thick today with pendulous blue-black fruits.

The rounded, rolling profiles of the mountains here create a dramatic shoreline along this stretch of the Hudson, especially when those mountainsides are dotted with autumn's colors.

It was time to head for home, but the beauty of the woods along the river kept urging me to linger. As you look at these final photos, can you understand why I was loathe to leave?

As I climbed from my boat and scrambled up the riverbank, I spied this single oak leaf resting on a bed of emerald-green Haircap Moss.  Here was a fine souvenir of this beautiful day:  all of the gorgeous colors of autumn displayed on a single leaf!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Sunday in the Woods With Sue

 I hardly ever get to walk with my fellow nature-loving pal Sue, since she started working days instead of evenings.  We try to get together on weekends, though, and we were lucky this past Sunday when the rain stopped by early afternoon, giving us time for a pleasant walk in Cole's Woods in downtown Glens Falls.

It's amazing to find such an extensive woodland in the middle of a city, and even though we can still hear traffic sounds as we wander the complex network of trails within this many-acred woods, it feels like we're deeply immersed in nature back here.  Especially when we keep to the trails that follow the pretty brook at the center of the woods.

Sue and I visit Cole's Woods several times during the wildflower season, so we have become familiar with where certain flowers grow.  Even now, with most of the flowers long spent, we enjoy revisiting their locations, seeking out the flowers' remnants and always hoping to discover new patches of favorite finds.  We did find a new patch of Pyrolas on Sunday, both the common Shinleaf Pyrola (Pyrola elliptica) with its larger rounded leaves, and also the One-sided Pyrola (Orthilia secunda) with its smaller, more pointed leaves.  This photo shows the two different species side-by-side amid the small evergreen leaves of Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens).

Our identifications of the different species were confirmed when we found many flower stalks, now containing their seeds.  Here I am holding a stalk of One-sided Pyrola with its dangling seed pods.

Along with the Pyrolas, many other of our favorite summer flowers bear evergreen leaves, making them easy to find any time of the year.  This photo shows the glossy green leaves of Pipsissiwa (Chimaphila umbellata) next to a berry-bearing sprig of Partridgeberry.

An unexpected find was this lovely Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) with its gorgeously patterned evergreen leaves.  We had never found this little native orchid in Cole's Woods before.

In the damp soil along the brook we found many patches of different mosses, which will also stay green all winter. We also found many shoots of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), which will overwinter with its pale bluish-green spathes tightly furled until early spring.  This Skunk Cabbage shoot has pushed up between mounds of Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum) and Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense).

I hope visitors to Cole's Woods are not tempted to pick a bough of these beautifully colored leaves, since these are the leaves of Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  They were among the most vividly colored leaves we found this day, and although they were growing in swampy spots few hikers would venture into, some of the shrubs did grow within arm's reach of the nearby trails.

When I first noticed this plump and colorful Marbled Orb Weaver spider on the ground, I thought it was a yellow gall that had fallen from a tree, and I picked it up to examine it more closely.  Oops!  Sorry, little lady!  I didn't mean to frighten you.  (Or me!)

I'm not really afraid of spiders, but I was quite surprised when the "gall" started to wriggle and tickle my hand with those tiger-striped legs.  I was also impressed by the size and plumpness of this spider's abdomen. I have seen this species of spider many times before, but their abdomens were always more slender and with black markings, instead of these reddish traceries.  Those must have been males.  The large size and round shape of this abdomen indicate that this is a female.  Perhaps that bulbous abdomen is full of eggs.

Here's another photo of this spider, and I placed my finger next to her to show how big and fat she was: