Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Orchid Adventures!

 Plant lovers are some of the nicest people I know.  When they make an exciting new discovery, they can't wait to share their excitement with other plant-loving friends, and in many cases they'll take you right there to see their treasures for yourself.  That was what Dan Wall (pictured above) did for me on Monday, when he ushered me into a secret bog to lay my own eyes on what may be one of the rarest plants in the state: the Two-colored Fringed Orchid (Platanthera x bicolor), a hybrid of the White Fringed Orchid (P. blephariglottis) and the Orange Fringed Orchid (P. ciliaris).  That's the flower Dan is holding in the photo above.

Here's a closer view of the Two-colored Fringed Orchid, with its florets colored a distinctive yellow-orange but with snowy-white lower lips exhibiting the delicate fringe that suggested the common name of all these orchids.

And here is the White Fringed Orchid, with florets obviously similar in shape but colored a snowy white.

Here was an area of the bog where the two orchids grew side-by-side, displaying their obvious color difference at a glance.  I can't believe I failed to notice this difference on my other trips to this bog, where I come every year to admire the beauty of dozens and dozens of the White Fringed Orchids that thrive at this site.  The white ones certainly predominate, with many, many more whites than bi-colors throughout the bog. (But nobody seems to know how the Orange Fringed Orchid genes got into this bog to hybridize with the White Fringed Orchids, since nobody recalls ever seeing them here.  A botanical mystery!)

Two orchids down, one more to go!  Our next destination was the Pack Demonstration Forest a few miles north of Warrensburg, where Dan was eager to photograph the tiny little orchid called Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens). Dan is putting together a book about New York's native orchids, using photographs of as many of the 60 species he can find,  as well as some of his beautiful watercolor paintings.  He had found this species of Goodyera here last week, but it was not yet completely in bloom, so the hunt was on today to find at least one with its flowers open.

Aha!  Mission accomplished!  What?  You mean you can't see the flower that Dan is aiming his camera at?

That would be understandable.  Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain is a very small plant!

But what this species of Goodyera lacks in size, it sure made up for in numbers today!  We found dozens and dozens of them, all quite close to the Nature Trail that leads through this wondrous old-growth forest, with ancient White Pines towering nearly 150 feet over our heads.  When Dan was here earlier, he found very few of these orchids, but they would be very easy to miss when not in bloom.  Today, their white florets made the plants quite visible against the dark forest floor.

Goodyera repens's leaves are quite showy, too, with vivid patterns marking the dark green basal leaves.  But the leaves tend to lie nearly hidden among the fallen pine needles.

Our orchid goals accomplished, we continued along the trail, enjoying the many forest-floor plants we could see from the path, including these vividly red Bunchberry fruits (Cornus canadensis).

These dainty little flowers belonged to a plant called Dwarf Enchanter's Nightshade (Circaea alpina).

Thanks to some heavy rains that relieved our near-drought conditions this month, we found a number of interesting fungi in this woods.  I particularly enjoyed this rusty-red Painted Suillus (Suillus spraguei) nestled among the New York Ferns and White Wood Sorrel, Indian Cucumber Root,  and Partridgeberry leaves.

But the Hallelujah Chorus of spectacular color awaited us near the end of the trail, when we came upon abundant stands of Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) adorning a pond shore and creek bank.

Such vivid blasts of saturated red, the individual spikes of crimson blooms massed together to amplify their impact, seemed more than I could take in with just my eyes.  It almost seemed as if these flowers were singing a joyful, booming, many-voiced chorus of colorful gorgeousness.

Awesome! Amazing!  Spectacular!

Wow!  Just . . WOW!!!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Wandering Woods Hollow in the Rain

It wasn't the nicest day for a walk in the woods, with intermittent showers and solid gray skies.  But it wasn't swelteringly hot, either, and no raging thunderstorms or drenching downpours were predicted, so a few of my hardier friends in the Thursday Naturalists showed up to explore the varied habitats of Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa last week.

It is these varied habitats -- open wet meadow, dry sand plain, mixed hardwood/conifer forest, and woodland pond with a sphagnum shore -- that make this particular preserve so rich in botanical possibilities, whether in rain or in shine.  So donning various kinds of raingear, we set off to see what we could see. 

We first entered the preserve through what used to be an open wet meadow filled with Boneset and Joe Pye and Tall Goldenrod, and edged with Slender Gerardia and Nodding Ladies' Tresses.  But just over the past few years, this meadow has grown up into a thick pine woods instead of an open meadow.  The land surrounding this young woods is now dry, supporting masses of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale) and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in the sandy soil.

One of the more interesting trees that border this meadow is Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera), a tree that usually grows further north.  If you turn over the glossy green leaves of this tree, you can see the fine pattern of "mudcracks" that cover the surface, a distinguishing feature of this species' leaves.

As we entered an area that once was mined for sand, we noticed stands of Black Oak (Quercus velutina) with their broad, glossy, dark-green leaves.  Little saplings of this species abound in the sandy soil.

Our friend Ed Miller told us we could ascertain that these leaves were those of Black Oak by noting the hairiness of the leaf's midrib on the underside.  Sure enough,  this midrib is definitely hairy!  My camera's macro lens could see this feature better than my eyes could!

Another inhabitant of this sandy area is Spotted Horsemint (Monarda punctata), which possesses a complicated array of purple-spotted yellow flowers layered between wreathes of green-tipped pink bracts.  It also has a powerful minty scent.

Here was another Mint-family plant, the Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), with terminal clusters of tiny white flowers that are also spotted with purple.

This kind of dry sterile soil is exactly the place you are likely to find Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium), and sure enough, we did.  Just little sprouts of it so far, of what will eventually be large spherical growths atop single stems that will eventually break off and go rolling and tumbling across the land, spilling seeds as they roll. Now in flower, the plants already had a few of the distinctive segmented circular seed pods that are edged with pale wings.

A very pretty yellow moth was moving among the plants nearby.  I once learned that it is extremely difficult to ID this moth as to species without examining its genitalia.  Since I did not do that, it will have to suffice to say that this moth is in the genus Xanthotype.  That's according to the experts at BugGuide.net, who examined my photo of it.

We next climbed a sand dune to enter the extensive wooded habitat of Woods Hollow, a mixed hardwood/conifer forest that is criss-crossed with many wide trails.  In this photo, we have stopped to examine an American Chestnut sapling, a scion of one of the majestic trees that once populated our northern forests.  New growth continues to sprout from the stumps of long-dead trees, killed long ago by the Chestnut Blight that will eventually kill the scions as well, once they mature. 

Now we began to see those plants that inhabit the shaded forest floor.  Indian Cucumber Root  (Medeola virginiana) is one of those plants, and we noted how the little spidery flowers that once dangled beneath the top tier of leaves have now produced the green fruits that will eventually turn blue-black.

We had to lift the glossy green leaves of Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) to discover the pretty white bell-shaped flowers that dangled beneath.  These flowers will later produce the shiny red berries that taste like Teaberry chewing gum.  (That's a reference that certainly dates me, doesn't it?)

Along the wide trails that move through the woods we found patches of Deer-tongue Grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum), with delicate seed heads that reminded me of exploding fireworks.

Here was a strange-looking growth on the trunk of a Black Birch (Betula lenta), some kind of gall or canker that caused leaves to sprout directly from knobby masses that form on the bark.

Low shrubs of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) can be found along the trails, their clusters of white flowers now replaced by clusters of colorful seed pods.  I know that the flowers are powerfully attractive to many different pollinators, but I wonder if this odd-looking bug has found something to its liking among the seed pods.

In the deeper shade of the woods, we found the ghostly pale stems of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) emerging from the duff of the forest floor.

The beautiful star-shaped flowers of Starflower (Lysimachia borealis) have now been replaced by what I think are the equally pretty seed pods, tiny powder-blue spheres set among star-shaped bracts.


We came upon extensive patches of Dalibarda (Rubus repens), the bright-white, five-petaled flowers strewn across the forest floor like stars in the sky.  Another common name for this flower is Dewdrop.

Here was a prize I was not expecting to see, since in my preview search I had not found any of the little native orchid called Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata).  But one of our group spied it some distance off from the trail and called our attention to it.   I am so glad he did.  There are other parts of this preserve where this orchid abounds, but rarely do I find it where we were walking today.

Finally, we came to the pond, with its tree-lined shore and banks that proliferate with many wetland species.

Parts of the pond's shore are markedly bog-like, with extensive mats of sphagnum moss and thickets of such peatland denizens as Leatherleaf shrubs.  In this photo, the shiny green leaves of Swamp Dewberry punctuate the paler green of the sphagnum moss.

One of the flowering plants that prefers this wetland habitat is Mad-dog Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), with its small purple flowers strung like beads along its flower stalks.

As we circled the pond on narrow paths, we came upon a large patch of Clintonia (Clintonia borealis), its yellow, lily-like flowers now replaced by the blue berries that suggest this plant's other common name of Blue Bead Lily.

As we passed a particularly damp place on the trail, I plucked a stem of Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana) to show my friends the tiny green flowers that bloom in the axils of its pretty,  almost circular scalloped leaves.

You have to peer pretty close to discern the tiny pad-like leaves of Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)  hiding down among the moss, but because I knew where they were likely to grow, I was able to point them out to my friends.  Usually, the tiny hairs that rim the leaves are tipped with beads of a sticky fluid, a fluid that unsuspecting insects mistake for an easy meal of nectar, only to be trapped by the sticky stuff and then enfolded by the leaves that close over them.  This plant obtains its nutrients by digesting the insects it traps.  I wonder if it is nearing the end of its growing season, and thus no longer needs to lure insects to its traps.  It was producing flower stalks now, which were still in bud (and also very hard to photograph!).

Here was the final prize of our botanical tour:  the slender stalks and tiny green buds of Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica).  I had despaired of finding this wee little plant on this trip, since my preview search of areas where I had found it before had proved fruitless.  But there it was, right next to the patch of Sundew in its typical peaty habitat.  This is not considered to be a rare plant in the state, but it is certainly easy to overlook, being so small and colored like its surroundings.  I am so glad we were able to find it at last!

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Busy Bugs!

Since I'm leading a nature walk at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa this week, I braved the sweltering heat today to preview what we might find at this wonderful preserve.  I found a number of interesting plants, but I'll save my photos of the flora for when I post about the walk. Right now I want to report some fascinating insect behavior I witnessed while exploring the open, sandy area of the preserve.

I was hoping to see a Sand Tiger Beetle scurrying at breakneck speed across the sand, so I was standing still, letting my eyes scan the sandy expanse.  That's when I noticed this small black wasp with a noticeably red abdomen running back and forth around a hole in the ground.

From time to time, she would fly away, only to promptly return and then resume patrolling the area around the hole.  On one of her returns, she halted at the edge of the hole, then suddendly entered the hole and disappeared in the darkness.  I am quite nearsighted, so I did not realize the wasp was schlepping a grasshopper until I checked this image on my camera and zoomed in on it.

The wasp had dropped her burden when she entered the hole, and the grasshopper just continued sitting there.  (It had been paralyzed by the wasp's sting, I now know, but I didn't know this at the time.)

Soon enough, the wasp again appeared at the entryway and, grasping the grasshopper, dragged it down into the hole.

A moment later, the wasp emerged and began kicking sand into the hole.

After a few moments' efforts, the hole became filled with sand.  Here is the wasp, seeming to inspect to see if the entrance to her hole was sealed to her satisfaction.  It must have been, for the wasp then flew away and did not return.

Wow!  What a fascinating display of wasp behavior!  As soon as I got home I googled "small black wasp with red abdomen" and promptly found look-alike photos labeled "Grasshopper Hunter Wasp."  Eureka!  I soon found out that this wasp (its scientific name is Prionyx parkeri) can capture grasshoppers many times her size, which she paralyzes with a sting or two before carting her prey off to her nest and hauling it down into the hole.  There, she lays her eggs in the body of the still-living grasshopper and then seals it inside the hole.  Her eggs will hatch and the larvae will consume the grasshopper as their early food. The larvae will pupate within the nest, emerging as adults in the spring. As an adult, this species of wasp, despite being a ferocious predator of grasshoppers to feed its larvae,  eats mainly plant material, such as nectar from blooming flowers.

After all that, I DID see a Sand Tiger Beetle (Cicindela formosa), and I'm lucky I got a photo of it, since it was tearing across the sand at breakneck speed.  But then it would stop, bam! -- halting for just a few seconds before streaking off again.  I have read that this beetle can run so fast pursuing its prey, it outruns its eyes' ability to see, which is why it has to stop now and then and wait for its eyesight to catch up.  (I learned about this on this site full of fascinating information about this and other beetles.)

Topping off this day of marvelous insect encounters,  I was treated to visits by two beautiful dragonflies, both of them the species called Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).  And both of them were kind enough to sit still for the picture-taking.

Here is the female Widow Skimmer, with her gold-striped abdomen and big brown eyes.

And here is the male Widow Skimmer, with darker eyes,  a powdery blue abdomen, and white areas on the wings.