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!


threecollie said...

Awesome photos of the damselfly! It seems to me that this has been a weird year. Some birds were very early nesting and fledging young, while others very late. Same with flowers blooming. Interesting.

Woody Meristem said...

Orchids certainly are unpredictable, some go dormant for years and then reappear.

John Collins said...

Who else would have a picture of a butterfly with it's "tongue" stuck in a flower!!! Rock on Jackie, Rock on.