Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Diverse Floral Delights of Forest and Bog

Orchid Hunting in a Secret Bog
Storms were threatening yesterday, but a friend had told me that Grass Pink Orchids (Calopogon tuberosus) were burgeoning now in a secret bog I know about. So, heading north and dodging the deluge, I pushed through a thicket and stepped out onto the sphagnum.  What a beautiful sight I beheld!

Acres of Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) share this bog with the Black Spruce and Tamarack, and today the laurels were all abloom with their hot-pink flower clusters.


Not quite as numerous, but certainly equal in colorful beauty were the dozens and dozens of Grass Pinks decorating the sphagnum mat.

It seemed that each orchid I encountered was even lovelier than the one before.

Wow!  Just, WOW!!!

Later, in mid-July, I will have to come back to check on the White Fringed Orchids (Platanthera blephariglottis) that also used to abound in this bog.  From what I could see today, it seemed that the laurel and other shrubs had moved into the open areas where these big white orchids used to grow as thick as dandelions on a suburban lawn.  I found a couple, still in tight bud, but not the teeming numbers I had found in previous years.  I'm sure when they open their large clusters of bright-white blooms I'll be able to find more of them.

Although those two orchids are the most spectacular floral finds in this bog, other bog plants make their home here as well.  Surprisingly, though, I find hardly any Northern Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea), and the one I found today had produced no flower stalk.  But their distinctive vase-shaped  carnivorous leaves are interesting in their own right.

Even though the flowers of Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) have long since faded, their little fruits, looking like tiny pink pumpkins, are still a delightful find.

The Highbush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) were not only lovely to look at -- even now, in their various stages of ripeness -- but they will also be delightful to eat when they turn ripe.  They grow so thick on the shrubs in this bog that all you have to do is place your hand beneath a cluster, tap the branch, and a nice big handful will fill your palm.

Walking back to where I had parked my car, I passed this abundant patch of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) wafting their exquisite fragrance on the air.

Knowing how these flowers and their fragrance attract all kinds of insects to their nectar and pollen stores, I always search among the blooms to see if any unfortunate bugs have been trapped among the florets.  The milkweed's pollination strategy depends on insects' legs slipping into the slits in the florets, where the legs will ensnare the threads that connect the milkweeds' pollen bundles (pollinia), yank the pollen bundles free, and carry them off to other milkweed blooms.  But not every insect is strong enough to yank its legs free.   This poor Black Firefly was one of the unfortunate ones.  Even though I pulled the floret apart to free the beetle's legs, the beetle seemed too weary to fly away.

Stopping by Woods on a Rainy Day
A rumble of thunder warned me that more predicted storms were approaching, but since Coles Woods in the heart of Glens Falls was right on my way home from the bog, I decided to risk dashing into the woods to see what flowers were blooming now on the dark-shaded forest floor.

I quickly hoofed it down the trail to a densely wooded area my friend Sue and I call "Pyrolaville,"  where uncounted numbers of One-sided Pyrola (Orthilia secunda) thrive alongside the much more common Shinleaf Pyrolas.  When I found the Orthilia, I felt glad I stopped by today, for its little, greenish flowers were in perfect bloom.

A few of the Shinleaf Pyrola (Pyrola elliptica) were also blooming, but there were many more still in tight bud. The full Shinleaf show is yet to come.

The same is true for the Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) that shares this densely shaded patch with both Pyrolas.  I found a few of the waxy, pink-tinged white blooms dangling above their glossy green leaves, but most of the hundreds of plants that grow here were still in bud.  This will be a show worth returning to see!

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) also likes to grow in dense shade, and sure enough, I found lots of its tiny, white twin trumpets starring the forest floor.  Many of its flowers were starting to fade, however, so I felt lucky to find these snowy blooms in the same patch along with the bright-red berries that had survived from last year.  Each one of those berries (note the two blossom ends) requires that both of those twin flowers be fertilized to produce a single fruit.

Speaking of bright-red berries, no other berries can out-shine those that grow on the Red-berried Elder shrubs (Sambucus racemosa) that line the Coles Woods trails.  Even as the clouds darkened and the rain started pattering in the treetops overhead, these berries grabbed my attention and slowed my hurrying steps, so I could take a moment to admire them.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Changes, Changes

After a weekend marked by drenching downpours, today dawned bright and beautiful, a perfect day for a paddle on the Hudson River at Moreau.  Just off the boat launch below the Spier Falls Dam lies a trio of little islands, and those islands were my destination today.

Just a year ago, on the shore of one of those islands, I had found a thriving patch of the native orchid called Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava), and I wanted to see if they were blooming yet this year.  I had promised a friend we would find this orchid here, and we had arranged to visit them tomorrow.  Here's what they looked like last year on this date, more than 30 robust specimens in a thriving patch.

But THIS year?  I found only ONE in bloom!  I could see there were lots of these orchids' leaves in a patch close to shore, but this was the only plant that had produced a flower stalk.  That's orchids for you!  If they bloom abundantly one year, they may not produce any flowers the next year, or even for years to come.

When I first started paddling out to these little islands about 20 years ago, they were thickly forested with oaks and ashes and birches, and shade-loving plants grew beneath those trees.  But now most of those trees are dead.  What trees have not been felled by beavers have drowned because of water levels kept high all summer, either to serve the recreational-rafting industry upstream or to serve the power-production of several hydroelectric dams.  Whatever the reason, the trees are dead or dying, and the ecology of the islands is changing now from forested to open meadow. So of course, the herbaceous layer is changing as well.  I could find very few flowers blooming today.  Perhaps it is just too early.

I was glad to see a few of my old favorite plants still hanging on, including this patch of various species of St. Johnswort (Hypericum sp.) that don't mind at all the rising water levels.  The red-leaved ones are Marsh St. Johnswort (H. virginicum), and the green-leaved ones are Pale St. Johnswort (H. ellipticum).  I also believe that Northern St. Johnswort (H. boreale) is somewhere in this mass, most of it underwater.  All should start blooming soon, the Marsh St. Johnswort with pink flowers and the other two with yellow ones.

As a strong wind began to increase on the river,  I decided to leave the water and check on what might be blooming today under the powerline clearcut that runs along the top of Mud Pond.  This, too, is a changing environment, as the power company unnecessarily cuts down the small Scrub Oaks (Quercus ilicifolia) that would never grow tall enough to interfere with the lines, and then applies herbicides to all other plants that grow under the lines.  It amazes me that anything grows in this clearcut, but some of the plants have powers of regeneration that are truly astounding.

For example, these Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphium) soldier on despite these assaults, although not in numbers anywhere close to how they used to thrive here. Before the power company started using herbicides here back in 2012, we used to find nearly a hundred along the trail pictured above.  Today, I counted 17.

At least, the ones that do manage to bloom are spectacularly beautiful!

Some uncommon milkweeds grow here, too, including this Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) with its deep-rose, exquisitely fragrant blooms.  But their numbers, too, are declining.  Where we used to find five or six I now found only two.

Here is the second one I found today, with slightly paler florets than the first, but equally as fragrant.   Another thing I noticed about it was this small brown Skipper butterfly fluttering and fluttering but not getting anywhere.  A closer look revealed the problem.  The poor thing's tongue was trapped within one of the florets!  And oh gosh, one of its legs had been trapped in a second floret, and it appears that the butterfly had pulled it off in the course of its struggle.  How sad!

Looks like it might have lost one antenna, too.  Well, I managed to pull this floret apart and the butterfly flew away, but I doubt it will live much longer, with so many injuries.  I often find other insects trapped like this in milkweed florets, for the milkweed's pollination strategy depends on insects' leg slipping into the slits in the florets, where the legs entangle the pollen bundles, which are carried off to other milkweeds when the insect pulls its legs free.  Not every insect, however, is strong enough to do this.  And this one got trapped by its tongue, as well as its leg!  Yikes!

I had a more pleasant insect encounter yesterday, when I went to check on the progress of the trailwork going on at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just east of Saratoga Springs.  Although the trail still remains closed, I could see that the path had been raised and its surface covered with finely crushed stone.  I'm sure bikers and folks pushing baby strollers will love these "improvements," and maybe I will come to appreciate them in time, especially in spring when this section often flooded. But frankly, I preferred the old trail, with wildflowers sprouting up between the crumbling railroad ties.

Even though I didn't proceed along the closed-for-the-present trail, I was able to observe several Ebony Jewelwing damselflies fluttering about the rain-dampened shrubs by the trailhead.  What a spectacular creature this is, with its gleaming green-blue iridescent body and coal-black wings!  And I couldn't believe my luck, when this fellow (I know he's a male by the lack of a white spot on his wings) sat perfectly still while I managed to focus my camera.

Soon enough, he darted away, but he shortly returned to the very same rain-drop-adorned leaf blade.  Somehow, in that very brief absence, this damselfly had managed to snare some prey.  And there he sat, calmly chewing his meal!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Backwater Browsing

Boy, is it pouring today!  Kind of chilly, too.  And I am glad of it.  We have not had enough rainfall these past weeks, and our greenery is looking limp and thirsty.  But I'm glad this rainy weather held off so my pal Sue and I could have a lovely paddle yesterday, the last day of my friend's vacation.  My favorite stretch of the Hudson, between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams, is inaccessible this week while the water is lowered for dam repairs, but downstream, some beautiful backwaters beckoned us, with access off Big Boom Road in Glens Falls.

The name Big Boom refers not to some mythic explosion, but rather to the cables (booms) that during the 19th Century stretched across the Hudson to corral the logs that once floated down the river from logging operations in the Adirondacks.  To sort out which logs belonged to which logging operators, backwater ponds were carved from the river banks at various sites along this stretch of the river.  The logs no longer roar down the river, but the backwater ponds are still here, shallow pools filled with aquatic and riparian plants, and alive with the songs of birds and the signs of beaver and muskrat.

Not a lot of flowers are blooming yet along the banks, except for the blooms on rampant stands of Silky Dogwood, Black Elderberry, and Maleberry shrubs.  The Maleberry branches (Lyonia ligustrina) hung low over the water, allowing us a close look at their thick clusters of globular flowers.

We could also see many Winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) leaning over the banks, although most of their tiny, waxy-white flowers had shed, to float prettily among the Yellow Pond Lily pads close to shore.

We saw lots of underwater aquatic plants as well, swaying gently with the almost imperceptible current.  This narrow-leaved brownish one, called Robbins Pondweed (Potamogeton robbinsii) was holding flower stalks stiffly above the water, the buds not yet quite open.

I saw no flower buds on this Large-leaved Pondweed (Potamogeton amplifolius), but its curvaceous brown leaves had an elegant beauty all their own.

Late in the summer, Wild Celery (Vallisneria americana) will hold tiny white flowers exactly at the water's surface on coiling retractable stems, but as yet we could see only the long slender leaves suspended in the shallow, tannin-tinted water.  Their sinuous waving in the gentle current made it evident how this plant earned its other common name of Eelgrass.   We also saw floating among the Eelgrass leaves a fine webwork of the underwater structures of some species of bladderwort.

Here's a closer view of that bladderwort, revealing the tiny sacs that this carnivorous plant uses to suck in and digest other, even tinier organisms.  It's possible this underwater structure belongs to the species Small Floating Bladderwort (Utricularia radiata), a state-ranked Threatened species that actually abounds in these Hudson River waters.  Later in the summer, it will bloom with yellow flowers held afloat on inflated radiating "pontoons."

We also saw a second species of bladderwort, a very large and sturdy underwater structure containing black sacs.  Since this bladderwort had not yet produced any flowers, we can only guess, judging from its size, that it belongs to the Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris), another bladderwort species we have found before in these same waters.

This next water plant is one that almost mesmerizes me with its flowing beauty, its generous mats of almost hair-fine leaves gently swaying just below the water's surface.  Before I knew its official name of Water Bulrush (Schoenoplectus subterminalis), I gave it my personal name of Mermaid Hair.  One of its other common names, Swaying Bulrush, is also quite descriptive.

As to forms of life aside from the botanical, we did see this regal Great Blue Heron perched on a fallen log.  We also saw several Painted Turtles scurrying away underwater from our canoes' shadows and one magnificent Osprey winging its way over the pond.  We were constantly serenaded by a Warbling Vireo and accused of trespassing by very indignant Red-winged Blackbirds guarding their nests. There were moths and dragonflies and damselflies as well, but none would come to rest on our knees so that we could make their acquaintance.

As the photo above reveals, many Yellow Pond Lilies (Nuphar variegata) dotted the surface of the water, and many bugs dotted the surface of the lilies' pads.  I could recognize the larger Water Lily Leaf Beetle (Galerucella nymphaeae), but I haven't discovered the name of the tiny black flies that, despite their wings, appeared to be hopping, rather than flying across the surface of the leaf. I know they are not the Water Lily Planthopper (Megamelus davisi) because that insect has no wings and these do.  I'm afraid my photo is not clear enough to request an ID from  So this mystery must remain for the time being.  Maybe one of my readers can inform us of the species.

I mentioned at the start of my post that our rainfall has been scant.  The river is also being held back upstream above the Spier Falls Dam, so consequently, the water in these backwaters was low as well. The water in this particular pond would probably be even lower, if not for this beaver dam holding some of it back.  It also held Sue and me back as well, for we could no longer proceed this way to another pond.  Probably just as well, though.  Because of shin-deep mud along every bank, for several hours we never had an opportunity to climb out of our canoes, and my backside was starting to grow numb. I'm very glad we had this chance to explore these fascinating ponds, but now it was time to call it a day.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Braving the Heat along the Power Line

Whoo, it was HOT yesterday!  Way up in the upper 90s.  So I thought I might go for a paddle instead of a walk, easing along the shaded banks of the Hudson in my little canoe, trailing my hands in the nice cool water, maybe even go for a swim.  Also, I could check on those Tubercled Orchids growing out on a little island just off the Sherman Island Boat Launch; they might be blooming now.
But when I reached the river, I had to think again.

The power company must be working on the upstream dam again, lowering the water level in the river and exposing wide mud flats along the shore.  What looks like a nice grassy lawn leading down to the water is really a shoe-sucking patch of mud into which I would sink to my shins if I tried to walk across it.  Same goes for what looked like a nice sandy beach surrounding the offshore island.

There was no way I could reach that green shrubby area out on the island, in order to check on those orchids.  I had to change my plans.

It's hard to imagine what would possess me to venture out onto this unshaded clearcut under the noonday sun on this sweltering day. Maybe it was my English ancestry: Remember that quip about mad dogs and Englishmen? Or maybe it was my knowledge that Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) and Green-flowered Pyrolas (Pyrolas chlorantha) might be blooming now in this very place, a powerline near the intersection of Spier Falls and Potter roads.

Well, almost blooming.  For the Wood Lilies, anyway, the ones growing in the midst of this patch of Hay-scented Fern.  What a spectacular sight this will be, when all those five buds open to reveal the lilies in all their brilliant-orange glory!

I did find the Green-flowered Pyrolas in full bloom, and quite a few of them, way under the pines that line the powerline.

I now am glad I braved this blistering-hot site, for it won't be long before these flowers are spent.  Green-flowered Pyrolas are not rare in the state, but I do see them far less frequently than their white-flowered relatives called Shinleaf Pyrola.

Encouraged by these floral finds, and already as drenched with sweat as I could get, I decided to cross the road to explore the powerline clearcut that runs along the top of Mud Pond.  I was rewarded right away by the sight of this gorgeous Wood Lily in full bloom.  I saw a few others still in tight bud, but only this solitary one in bloom.

I ventured on, hoping to find some Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) in bloom, but it looks like I will have to come back  another day to enjoy their fragrant, rosy-pink flowers.  At least I was reassured that this interesting milkweed species can still be found at this site.

The same can be said for the Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) that grows here, which was showing the promise of its brilliant-orange blooms even in its tight buds.

Aha!  Here was another flower worth braving the heat to find:  American Climbing Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens).  This native bittersweet is classified as Rare in New York State, a situation  becoming more so over time, as the invasive Oriental Bittersweet takes over its habitat.  I'm grateful that there remains a thriving population along this open area above Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park.

Here's another native plant that likes this hot sandy spot:  Whorled Loosestrife (Lysicmachia quadrifolia).

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a native shrub that is common in open sandy areas, too.  Although its flowers were not yet in bloom, I loved the star-shaped buds in this cluster that resembled the exploding stars of fireworks.

I momentarily stepped into the trees that line the powerline here, taking a shady break from the blistering sun.  And there I found this beautiful patch of hot-pink Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides). Although this plant is not native to North America, it certainly adds considerable beauty to our roadsides, sharing such inhospitable spaces with other common introduced "weeds."

Oh my gosh, what's happening here?  At first I thought it was one four-winged bug flopping about on the sandy path, or maybe a freshly molted insect emerging from its old skin.  It wasn't until I downloaded this photo and looked more carefully at it that I discovered there were TWO bugs here:  probably the male atop the female (Ahem).  Thanks to, I now know the name of the creature: Nigronia serricornis or Dark Fishfly.  This was a new bug for me, even though I now know it is hardly rare.

According to Wikipedia, Dark Fishflies have aquatic larvae that are common inhabitants of woodland streams in North America, and the larvae are the only one of its life stages that feeds, consuming such smaller invertebrates as Black Flies and Caddisflies.  After emerging from the pupal stage, the adults live only about a week, during which time they find mates and the female lays her eggs on structures overhanging the water.  After hatching, the larvae fall into the water to begin the cycle again.  I guess I was lucky to make this insect's acquaintance today, considering how short is its term on land.