Friday, December 8, 2017

My Naturalist Pals Come North

My friends in the Thursday Naturalists gather each week to explore some regional nature preserve, and I love to tag along, learning all I can from these veritable walking encyclopedias of nature lore. But I hadn't joined them for several weeks, mostly because they'd elected to explore preserves further south from my home than I wanted to drive.  But this week my friends came north to the Schuylerville area, just a few miles away, so I was delighted to join them.

We actually explored two preserves in one outing, electing to stop first at the geologic anomaly called Stark's Knob, located just north of Schuylerville on our way to the Denton Wildlife Preserve across the Hudson River in Washington County.

I had visited Stark's Knob recently and then posted a blog about it, which my readers can revisit to learn about its remarkable geology.  My friends and I were here on this day to see what unusual plants we might find that had made a home in these calcareous (lime-rich) rocks, composed of  "pillow basalt," formed when volcanic lava erupted beneath the sea, during the early ages of our continent's formation.

The monumental cliff of black rock loomed so steeply above us, few of our members wished to clamber up and across it to find the most interesting plant that grows upon it.  So we sent one of our most agile members up to collect a single frond of the Purple Cliffbrake (Pellaea atropurpurea) that generously populates the pillow basalt's nooks and crannies.  That way, we could all examine this fern's distinctive under-curled leaflets (pinnae) and see the powdery spore packets (sori) that edged each one.

Purple Cliff Brake is known to prefer a lime-rich substrate like this pillow basalt, and we had hoped to find other lime-loving plants in the area.  I believe we may do so if we return in the spring, but for now the only other distinctly calciphile plant we found was a beautiful patch of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense), which looks like a mass of tiny green flowers.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, most of the other plants at this frequently disturbed site were non-native species, although we did find quite a few of our native anemones called Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana), with its fluffy tufts of flocked seeds.

We next followed Rte. 4 across the Hudson River until we arrived at the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary, only a little more than a mile from Stark's Knob, with a small parking area along the highway.

This many-acred Nature Conservancy site offers miles of trails through a mixed-hardwood/conifer forest that also contains large wetland areas.  But we hardly ventured into those woods today, drawn instead to the many attractions offered by a large opening at the start of the trails, the former site of extensive shale mining.

Aside from a few stunted shrubs of Bear Oak and some tufts of Little Bluestem Grass, this extensive shale outcropping was mostly populated by many different species of mosses and lichens, offering a beautiful crazy-quilt of different textures and colors.

Sharing that shale with the mosses and lichens were abundant numbers of the cute little puffball fungus called Earth Star.

I found a second interesting fungus growing on a fallen limb in the bordering woods near by.  Called Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune), you only have to examine its undersides to see how it got its name.  This is not only one of the most widespread fungi in the world, but also one of the most interesting, with its ability to dry out and then rehydrate again and again. And also because of its astounding reproduction strategies involving 28,000 distinct sexes!  (Don't believe me? Visit THIS SITE to learn where I got this fascinating information.)

It may be hard to believe, but this runty little scraggly pine was the rarest plant we encountered today.  This is a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), a common-enough denizen of Canada and parts further north in the United States, but considered a rare species in New York State.  It's quite a puzzle how this solitary specimen arrived here, since there are no others near here that I have found.

The Jack Pine can be distinguished from our more common local pines -- White, Red, Pitch, and Scotch -- by its bundles of two slightly twisted needles that promptly spread into Vs as they leave the sheathes that surround them at the base.  Their small curving cones are also distinctive, but we couldn't find any on or near this stunted specimen.

I had visited the Denton Preserve last Sunday to preview the trails and also to determine exact mileage to include when directing my friends to these Schuylerville area sites.  As I headed home to Saratoga late that afternoon, I was struck by the noble stature of this solitary oak, profiled against a coloring sky, with rows of apple trees in the near distance, the Saratoga Battle Monument's obelisk rising just beyond the orchard, and mountains paling into misty gray on the far horizon.  There was something ineffable about these juxtapositions that struck me as profoundly beautiful, and I had to pull over to the side of the road to gaze at them.

When I turned to re-enter my car, I was struck again by the sight of this perfect orb of a brilliant orange sun caught among the branches of trees on the rolling hills across this meadow. I never know when scenes of such quiet beauty will stun me with absolute joy.


The Furry Gnome said...

Very interesting. Purple-stemmed Cliffbrake is very rare in Ontario but we have lots of Smooth Cliffbrake on the dolostone cliffs of the escarpment. That Rose Moss looks like one I photographed last week, maybe I've learned my first moss! That shale barrens looks very similar in form to some of the limestone alvars we have here. Lots of Jack Pine here, in the right habitats of course

washwild said...

Two of my favorite places. Geologist Ed Landing has posited that the limestone between the basalt pillows precipitated out of seawater non-biologically as the molten rock was extruded. Amygdules filled with calcite may also factor in making the site attractive to cliffbrake. My observation is that the ferns seem to be increasing in numbers. I often find fungi in the level base area - Indigo milky's and others. Looking forward to what you and your friends find in warm weather.
It would make Mrs. Denton so happy to see a group of naturalist enjoying her land. When it was transferred to The Conservancy the shale pit was a mess. It had been used as a dump by a local mill. Back then (maybe the '80's?) you could drive in over the old canal where the entrance path is now. I hauled out load after load of debris and other volunteers subsequently laid out trails. Jerry Jenkins did a botanical survey of the newly acquired preserve - I'm sure The Conservancy's Eastern NY Chapter office has a copy. The sharp ridges and vernal pools have always intrigued me...such unique topography.