Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Students Along the Shore

I love Moreau Lake.  It's a lovely little kettle lake, rimmed by mountains, surrounded by forest, circled with both sandy and marshy shores.  I've been walking these shores in every season for more than 20 years, and I think it's fair to say that I know the name of just about every plant that grows on these shores and in these woods and up on these mountains. So I wasn't surprised when the Rebecca Mullins, nature educator for Moreau Lake State Park, asked me if I would lead a wildflower walk here this past Sunday for a group of first-year students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (more familiarly known as RPI).  And of course, I was delighted to do so.  Nothing makes me happier than spreading my enthusiasm for native plants, hoping to ignite some similar spark in others, especially young people.

And I was especially happy to share this day with insect-expert Jim Pierson, a former science teacher who spent the morning talking to the students about his passion, his love for bugs.  My turn to teach would come in the afternoon, so I got to tag along in the morning while Jim shared his knowledge and even caught a bunch of insects for us to observe up close.

The students came from across the U.S. as well as around the world, and for many of them this was their first experience of nature in northeastern North America.  The opportunity to visit Moreau Lake State Park to participate in these nature experiences was only one of the fun options that RPI offered the new students during their orientation to the college.  Somehow I have more hope for the future, knowing these kids chose this activity over such other options as Ultimate Frisbee.

Among the first insects Jim showed us were these red aphids feeding on the stems of False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).  Many aphids will feed only on specific plants and no others, so these were probably the ones called False Sunflower Aphids. Although they feed on the juices of the flower stalks, they really don't cause serious damage to the plants, which continue to bloom and bear seed despite such an infestation.

While the aphids were busily feeding on the stems of these flowers, an Assassin Bug nymph was patrolling the flower heads, perhaps planning its attack on the aphids below, aphids being one of its favorite foods.

Here was another little critter we found on our morning's walk, this furry black-and-white caterpillar, the larva of the Hickory Tussock Moth.  I advised the students not to touch its hairs, no matter how soft they appeared, for some of its hairs can cause a rash in people who are allergic to them.  We were happy to allow the caterpillar to mosey along on its way.

We didn't see this beautiful Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly on our Sunday excursion, but I did see it the day I prepared for my own walk with a preview walk around the back bay of the lake.

I never have time to take photos when I am leading a wildflower walk, so the rest of these photos (except for the last two of the remarkable blue mushroom) I took on the Friday before our Sunday excursion.  I found quite a few more than are pictured below, and even more than the list of 41 plants I handed out to the students before we began our walk around Moreau's back bay.  But these are the most common ones to be found on these shores.

The plants in this photo -- Grass-leaved Goldenrod, Boneset, and Small-flowered Gerardia -- represent the majority of the species that thrive in the damp sandy soils along the shore.  I told the students to note what they looked like, for we were going to see them again and again as we walked along.

Here's a closer look at the Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula) that shows up in the photo above as tiny dots of pinky-purple.  Even though state botanists have ranked this species as Rare in New York, this is one of the dominant flowers that inhabits the back bay.  It blooms well into October.

Less abundant on these shores but still present here and there is the Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia).  Note that it holds its flowers on much longer stalks than does the Small-flowered Gerardia.  These two species grow side-by-side with no signs of producing any hybrids, a sure sign that they are two different species, despite their similar flowers.

Aster season is now upon us, and the most abundant species along the back bay is this Small-flowered Aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum) with its masses of tiny white blooms.

We found but a single plant, bearing one single open bloom, of New England Aster (Symphyiotrichum novae-angliae), but that was enough to impress the students with its gorgeous deep-purple color

There were many different Mint-family plants growing in the damp sand, but Northern Bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus) was the most numerous.

There were also several different species of Smartweed (Persicaria spp.) along the shore, but this one, called Pinkweed or Pennsylvania Smartweet (P. pensylvanica) stood out because of its pretty color.

There's another pink Smartweed along here, but this one -- Persicaria amphibia or Water Smartweed -- was growing too far out on the water for the students to examine closely.  My camera's zoom lens allowed me that privilege.

Here was a third Persicaria species, P. sagittata or Heart-leaved Tearthumb -- that I had to warn students to keep clear of, especially those wearing shorts, since this plant has stems covered with prickles sharp enough to scratch your skin .  My own personal name for this is Tear Shin, suggested by the sight of all the bloody scratches on my shins when I've inadvertently walked through a patch in shorts.

One of the tiniest flowers we found were these wee little blooms of Northern Willowherb (Epilobium ciliatum).  I commented that I thought these flowers were just the right size to make a sweet little bouquet for a doll house.

From tiny and pale to big and showy:  this is another Willowherb species called Great Hairy Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum), and it surely would have been hard to miss as we passed it along the shore.

These spiky white globes of Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) stood out against the background shade of the woods.  I asked the students to sniff the blooms and see if they could detect any fragrance.  They could not.

I then asked the students to sniff the flowers of this second plant called Everlasting (Sweet Everlasting or Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), and many were surprised by how much it smelled like pancake syrup. No wonder it acquired the name Sweet Everlasting!

Here was another very fragrant flower we found as we rounded the last curve of the bay.  There's a huge stand of the invasive Phragmites there, and the best thing I can say about that reedy invader is that it provides a prop for the vines of Groundnut (Apios americana) to climb on.  I often can detect the fragrance of these odd brownish flowers on the air before I see them hidden among the leaves.

Here are two plants that had long dropped their flowers and gone to seed, but they still looked as lovely as ever.  This shrub with the rosy clusters of pedicels is Round-leaved Dogwood (Cornus rugosa).

And here are the seedpods of Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), their dangling yellow flowers replaced with these little brass-colored orbs set within the stars of the bracts.

This was just a sampling of the many plants we found on the shore, and I am so pleased to report that all of them but the Great Hairy Willowherb were native species.  Here is one more non-native that we found, but it blooms on these sandy shores in non-invasive numbers and only adds to the beauty of its environment.  This is called Butter and Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) or Yellow Toadflax.

Probably the plant I was most excited to show the students was the orchid called Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua),  blooming here in greater numbers than I had ever seen before.  I counted over 70 blooms in one spot, plus small groups of more blooms at other places along the shore.

Most people think of orchids as tropical plants, and I believe some of the students were surprised to learn that New York has at least 60 species of orchids that are native to the state.  Nodding Ladies' Tresses is among the prettier of them.

I knew this was, strictly speaking, a wildflower walk I was leading, and so I forced myself to ignore the many fungi I spotted sprouting out of the forest floor.  But I couldn't resist stopping to note this mushroom with the pale blue color.  I had never seen one this color before.  So I picked it to examine it more closely.  That's when I noticed it left an inky-blue ring where its severed stalk had touched my palm.  (It took many washings before the stain disappeared.)

Then, when I turned it over, I was truly wowed by its deep-blue gills, and by the equally deep-blue fluid that oozed out where the stalk had broken.  Thanks to a quick cell-phone google search, we soon learned that our mushroom was a Lactarius indigo.  According to some references, this is not a rare mushroom in our region, but none of us had ever seen it before.  What a prize to reward me for leading this walk today!  I couldn't have asked for more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Changing Flora Along the Kayaderosseras Creek (2018)

There's a trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa that is serving as quite a laboratory regarding the succession of plants after a site has been denuded.  The photo above was taken this week, with abundant shrubs and herbaceous flowers teeming along the shore.  The photo below was taken in late December of 2012, after the state's Department of Transportation had reconfigured the creek's formerly steep banks,  beveling them back in order to allow flood waters to flow out over a floodplain instead of charging full-force through a narrow channel and undermining a roadway further downstream. In the process, the DOT removed all the resident trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, replacing them with comparable native species. (In the photo below, twigs of Red Osier Dogwood have been layered along the banks.)

This next photo, taken about two years later, demonstrates how the strategy succeeded, allowing a flooding creek to wash out over the beveled banks and onto the floodplain, where a small forest of native trees had begun to take root and grow.

This next photo shows the creek-side plantings less than a year after the banks had been denuded, with a healthy variety of native plants becoming well established by September, 2013. (A few non-natives, too, like that very tall mustard in the foreground, had also found a home here.)

Three years later, in 2016, here's that same creekbank as in the above photo.  Some of the young trees have died, but the herbaceous plants, now well established, have grown to shoulder height.

And here's that same trail today, with many plants towering over our heads and crowding the trail with their branches.

Unfortunately for me, as a wildflower enthusiast, the rich variety of wildflowers I used to find here has been supplanted by a near-monoculture of these tall sunflowers.  I haven't yet figured out which species they are, but I believe that at least they are ones that are native to our area.

Just two years ago, an entirely different species of sunflower, called Maximilian's Sunflower, had emerged as the dominant species along this trail.  Native to more central regions of North America, they had certainly taken a liking to this habitat and climate, with their population exploding from the single unfamiliar plant I had found in 2013, to numbers I feared were becoming invasive by 2016, when the photo below was taken.  As this photo also reveals, however, our native New England Asters appeared to be holding their own against the introduced Maximilian Sunflowers.

But last year, I had to search and search to find even ten Maximilian Sunflowers.  And this year, I found even fewer.  Only after diligent searching did I discover several leaf stalks of this very showy plant.  Perhaps when they come into bloom I will be able to find more.

 Even though I feared they were becoming too numerous here, I do miss their gorgeous blooms.

I also miss the marvelous variety of native wildflowers I used to find here in bounteous numbers, the Blue Vervain, Great Lobelia, Wild Bergamot, Purple Coneflower, and all three colors (purple, pale pink, and deep rose) of New England Aster.  All have been mostly supplanted, it seems, by those tall un-named sunflowers as well as masses of goldenrods.  But who knows what the next succession will be?  This landscape certainly has a habit of species impermanence!

Another remarkable quality about this creekside habitat is how it nurtures plants of gigantic size.  There's a thicket of Jerusalem Artichokes that are already towering over my head, and they're probably not yet done growing.   Same goes for the Giant Ragweed pictured below,  almost as tall as some surrounding trees, with a stem about the girth of a broomstick.  Note, too, the Evening Primroses next to it, which loomed at least two feet over my head (and I'm a tall woman, nearly 5'8").

These Joe Pye Weeds had also achieved a prodigious size.  I  wondered if they might be the related enormous species called Trumpetweed (Eutrochium fistulosum), but the herbaceous growth was so thick here, I felt reluctant to push through to closely examine the plants.

Unfortunately, this site is also home to some of our most robust invasive weeds.  Thankfully, we have some native bullies, too, that help to push back against the intruders.  I was glad to see, as this photo shows, that our native Nettles are crowding out some of the pernicious Wild Chervil so as not to let it take over the shaded banks entirely.

When the Department of Transportation planted numerous small trees along the creekbank six years ago, some invasive species hitched a ride here on the rootballs.  The nastiest of these was Mugwort, and by last year it had spread to a distressing extent.  But wonder of wonders, it met more than its match in our native Tall Goldenrod, and this year the Mugwort is scarcer, engulfed by masses of goldenrod.

I doubt we will ever see the thickets of Japanese Knotweed diminished here, but at least the equally stubborn Pale Jewelweed won't let it have ALL the space. I would estimate there are at least equal numbers of jewelweed plants to those of knotweed.  And aren't they beautiful?

Amazingly, even after nearly a decade of closely monitoring the plants that grow here, once in a while I still find a new one.  Last year, I was surprised to find some Tall Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) holding its own among the Tall Goldenrods.  I was indeed surprised, not just because I'd not found it here before, but because NO ONE had found this plant here before, according to the New York Flora Atlas, which rates this Ironweed as an Endangered species.  So that was quite a surprise.  And of course, I went looking for it again when I returned there this week.  Well, it was gone from where I found it last year, but then, there it was, across the trail in another location!   Perhaps in time a population might yet be established.

I did push through the surrounding thick plant growth in order to closely examine the Ironweed's florets, wanting to make sure this was the rare Tall Ironweed and not the similar New York Ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis), a more commonly occurring plant.  Sure enough, the lack of hair-fine threads to its pointed bracts surrounding the florets clinched the suspected ID.

Below are two photos of New York Ironweed for comparison, showing the hair-fine bract tips. These plants were growing in a rain garden at Moreau Lake State Park and were not part of a native wild population.

I also took apart individual flowerheads from both species to count the florets, counting 22 florets for the Tall Ironweed and 38 florets for the New York Ironweed.  According to Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, Tall Ironweed has flowerheads containing 13-30 florets,  New York Ironweed 30-50 florets.

I used to find a single plant of Tall Ironweed  about 10 miles from here at the Wilton Wildlife Preserve before it got mowed down by county road crews, who continued to mow its site every year thereafter, so I expect it is now extirpated from that site.  I hope we can at least hold onto this one specimen of Tall Ironweed here along the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek.   Considering this site's past history, though, I know I can't count on it.

I sure do wish, though, that some of the New England Asters that used to grow here will someday return, to look as beautiful as they did in this photo from three years ago.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Gillions of Gentians!

A friend alerted me this week that "hundreds" of Narrow-leaved Gentians (Gentiana linearis) were blooming now on the shore of a certain pond in northern Saratoga County. Well, my friend had greatly miscalculated.  When my pal Sue Pierce and I went there for a paddle on Sunday, we found not hundreds, but THOUSANDS of these gorgeous royal-blue flowers, dotting nearly every foot of this pond's extensive shoreline!

The Narrow-leaved Gentian looks very much like the related Closed Gentians (Gentiana clausa or G. andrewsii), except that its bulbous-shaped flowers are somewhat more slender and its leaves are definitely more narrow.  This species also blooms a couple of weeks earlier than Closed Gentian, although they share the same waterside or wet-meadow kind of habitat.

You might think that these flowers were still in bud, but this is as open as they will get.  Only the strongest pollinators, like large bumblebees, are able to force their way inside to obtain the bountiful nectar.

When I paddled this pond last year on an earlier August date, I did see a number of these gentians blooming here and there, but certainly not in the quantities evident today.  This year, we found multiple stems of them blooming almost everywhere! They were abundant where the shore was rocky . . .

. . . and abundant as well where the shore was marshy and lined with the spiky leaves of Bur Reed.

Here, they are clustering around the base of an old tree stump.

So heavy with bloom on slender stalks, they sometimes toppled over into the water, where they continued to hold their flower heads erect.

Some stems were actually submerged, but the inflated flowers rested atop the water's surface. (I love the reflected beauty of these flower clusters.)

At the edge of a Hemlock-dominated woods, the flowers were beautifully profiled against the dark shade of the forest.

Oh look!  Is that a pair of WHITE Narrow-leaved Gentians back there amid the ferns?  Or are those the similar flowers of Turtlehead?

My camera's zoom function revealed that these white flowers really WERE a pair of white-flowered Narrow-leaved Gentians.  I wonder how often this variation occurs?

We did see one or two Turtleheads (Chelone glabra), and yes, the flowers and the narrow, opposite  leaves do share a similarity with the Narrow-leaved Gentian, but those serrated leaves indicate immediately that this is a different species.  And a closer look would have revealed that the flowers were really quite different in many details.

I was amazed by how few other flowers we found along the shore.  Among those few were these Sharp-leaved Asters (Oclemena acuminata) with their rather shaggy flowers.

We also saw an occasional Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata), like these tall stems emerging from a thicket of Royal Fern.

Aside from the radiant blue of the gentians, most of the color we found here today was thanks to abundant numbers of this small, orange, pixy-capped mushroom called Salmon Unicorn (Entoloma salmonem [or quadratum]).  The lush green of Pincushion Moss and other mosses provided a perfect foil for the vivid orange of this little fungus.

Here was another bright-orange fungus, considerably smaller.  This one is called Orange Earth Tongue (Microglossum rufum).

These little orange nubbins are neither flower nor fungus, but rather the tightly-packed leaf-buds of Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides), a very common understory shrub of the Adirondack forest.  Already by late summer, this shrub produces next spring's leaves and flowers, held tightly in these buds that are flocked with a velvety coating.  It's hard to believe such a thin coating could see these buds through winters where temps fall often to 20 or 30 below zero, Farenheit.