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.


wash wild said...

I remember the thrill of coming across a clump of Indigo Milky's at the base of Starks Knob. That was several years ago and I haven't seen them since. Ephemeral is a term usually reserved for spring wildflowers but it also describes August fungi. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Woody Meristem said...

Have never seen your indigo mushroom, What a great find!

Unknown said...

Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Jens Zorn said...

Fortunate students to have you as their guide! And amazing photos, as always.