Friday, September 28, 2018

A Lovely Day for (Another!) Walk on the Shore

Ever since finding that endangered Dwarf Flatsedge on the shore of Moreau Lake a couple of weeks ago, I've been back to walk that shore almost every other day, looking for more of the flatsedge (and I found LOTS!). I also led two walks on the shore this week, last Tuesday in the pouring rain for a small group from the Environmental Clearing House of Schenectady, and today under a beautiful blue sky and warm sun for my friends in the Thursday Naturalists. On both occasions this week, we only walked a short stretch of the shoreline that is teeming with interesting shoreline plants, and then moved up to the forested road to return to our starting point, noting the woodland plants and fungi as we passed. Looking across the lake, that stretch of shoreline can be seen in this photo, from the swimming beach pictured in the center, to approximately where the photo ends on the left.

I was able to show my fellow walkers our little Small-flowered Dwarf Flatsedge  (Cyperus subsquarrosus) almost immediately as we headed out to the beach.  But even though I know very well that it grows there abundantly, I still had to search and search to find its tiny whorl of curving stems and blunt little spikelets, it is so very small.

As we continued our walk, I was pleased to see a few Small-flowered Gerardias (Agalinis paupercula) were still in bloom.  Once classified as a rare plant, this little flower thrives on the shore of Moreau Lake in uncountable numbers.

Also growing in uncountable numbers were several different species of small white asters.  Even though we had aster experts among us today, we decided to proceed on our walk and save our attempts at identification of each species for another day.

We sure didn't have to search our wildflower guides to identify this big beautiful New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), since no other of our regional asters have flowers this vividly purple.

As we walked along, we couldn't help brushing up against many plants of Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis), which released its refreshing minty fragrance on the cool morning air.

Here and there, we found a few Nodding Bur Marigolds (Bidens cernua) still in bloom, but most were now dangling the fat seed heads that suggest how this flower acquired the "nodding" part of its name.

A few plants of Northern Willowherb (Epilobium ciliatum) still held their tiny pink flowers, too.

Where a tiny stream entered the lake, we found some Grass-leaved Arrowhead (Sagittaria graminea) tucked in among some bright-green reeds.

Pilewort (Erechtites heiraciifolius) had produced large silken puffs that were wafting bits of fluff on the air.

We lingered a while by a massive hedge of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) that was hung with thousands of fat seed pods, just waiting for our touch to release the little seeds within.  I can never resist the urge to pop the seeds into my hand and eat a few, which taste very much like walnuts.

The matted stems of Canada St. John's Wort (Hypericum canadense) colored parts of the sandy shore a vivid red.  We also found a few much smaller Canada St. John's Worts still in bloom with their tiny yellow flowers.

Eventually, we headed up to the road from the shore, passing along a path that was adorned with the arching stems of Bluestem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia).

As we walked along the forested edge of the road, we soon spotted a large patch of the glossy  evergreen leaves of Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) under the trees.

A number of Solomon's Plume plants (Maianthemum racemosum) bore heavy clusters of dark-red berries. I have read that these fruits are not poisonous, but can cause digestive disorder if eaten in quantity.  So I am happy to leave them for wildlife, but I did taste one and found it quite sweet, although the sweetness was followed by a bitter aftertaste.

We also found Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) at the edge of the woods, many of the plants hung with blue-black berries.  I have read that these fruits are toxic, so I refrained from tasting them.

I did not refrain from eating the fruits of Clammy Ground Cherry (Physalis heterophylla), although we did not find many that were ripe enough to enjoy today, since I had harvested most of the ripe ones on Tuesday. We found only one fruit with the papery husk turned brown and the interior pea-sized fruit turned golden and sweet.  Farmers now grow cultivars of ground cherries that have much bigger fruits.

No, no, no, do not eat THESE berries!  They are not called Baneberries without reason!  But they certainly are beautiful to look at.  This is the White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), also known as Doll's Eyes because of the porcelain-white fruits dotted with black that are borne on vivid red pedicels.

This was the last of our floral finds today, and even though I had marked the spot with pink pipecleaner from a preview walk, I could not see this tiny Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) until one of our friends with better eyesight than mine spotted it. This is one of the nearly 60 orchid species that are native to New York, and certainly among the smaller and least showy of them. Even in full bloom (as this one is), the flowers are nearly invisible, no more than a single tiny petal protruding from a pod in this specimen.

Across the road from that little orchid we found a large patch of this ground-hugging foliose lichen called Peltigera canina, also known as Dog LichenMost of the Dog Lichens I have seen before were more brown in color, but this one was a lovely silvery gray.  I have read that these lichens can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, and so are influential in soil composition and regeneration.

We found quite a few fungi today, but the most abundant were the lemon-yellow disks of Chicken-fat Suillus (Suillus americanus), also known as American Slippery Jack (yes, they are slimy) or White Pine Bolete, a name suggested by the fact that they are micorrhizal with Eastern White Pines.  Lots of White Pines do grow in Moreau Lake State Park, so it was not surprising to find this mushroom here.

I'm not sure what the name of these little orange mushrooms is.  I had thought at first they were a species I had found and identified before, but after checking my file photos I found I was mistaken. They were growing by the hundreds on a rotting log and seemed to glow in the dark of the forest.

One little cluster of those orange mushrooms was covered with a veil of fibers from some other species of fungus.  I had never seen anything quite like this veiling before.

Here were a couple of Amanitas (possibly Amanita muscaria) just emerging from their volvae, the cup-like structures that enclose the immature fruit of these mushrooms. I was amazed by how hard these volvae were as they first emerged from the ground, considering how fragile the mature mushrooms will be.

I was glad to see that a few of the winged generation of Wooly Alder Aphids (see my last post) still clung to some Speckled Alder twigs so I could show my friends one of my most beloved insects.  I was able to lift a few of these tiny creatures onto my fingertip and hold them up to the sunlight.  After a few minutes, they opened their wings and lifted off into the air, tiny bits of baby-blue fluff that easily suggest how they acquired the name of Fairy Flies.

We did find a few caterpillars today, but this colorful one I found on my previous walk in the pouring rain on Tuesday.  Even though soaking wet, this Smartweed Caterpillar, larva of the Smeared Dagger Moth (Acronicta oblinata), looked as spiky as ever.  Although this caterpillar will eat plants of the Smartweed genus (Persicaria), it often dines on the leaves of many other plants.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Highlights of a Shoreline Walk

Perfect weather for the first day of fall!  And a perfect day to preview some nature walks I'm due to lead along the shore of Moreau Lake this coming week.

I'll save the flower photos for when I report on the walks, except to post now these two photos of Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza).  This tiny native orchid is so small and so well-camouflaged against the forest floor, I may not find it again, even though I marked its location with some pink pipecleaner.  I doubt very much I would have seen this one, if a beam of sunlight had not lit it up against the dark shade of the woods.


Sometimes this orchid doesn't bother to put forth any petals, but one of the four specimens I found today had pod-like florets adorned with a single, ruffly, purple-dotted white petal.

Another notable find today was a Speckled Alder shrub with a few of its branches hosting colonies of Wooly Alder Aphids (Prociphilus tessellatus).  I hope they are still around when I lead my walks later this week (one on Tuesday and a second on Thursday), for this is a very interesting insect.

I noted that there were two distinct groups of aphids on each branch, the lower groups still wingless and covered with the white waxy filamentous stuff they exude to protect themselves against both weather and predators while they spend the summer feeding on alder sap.  This wingless group got started when a single winged female aphid landed here and produced a wingless clone of herself.  That clone produced clones who produced clones who produced clones, etc., etc, until a considerable colony formed on the branch, every one of them a wingless female clone of the first winged female individual that landed here.

Higher up on the branches, I found the latest generation of clones, only these were individuals with WINGS!  And chances are good that there might be a male or two among them.  (How can female aphids clone males?  That's a good question!  Can anyone answer it?)

As soon as they lose some of the sticky fluff that still clings to their wings, they will take to the air and fly off to find some male mates from another clonal colony.  Thus they will produce fertile eggs for a new generation, laying these eggs on the bark of Silver Maples, where winged female aphids will emerge next spring to start the cycle all over again.

It won't be long before we start seeing tiny puffs of pale-blue fuzz wafting around, one of the delights to be found in autumn.  Another name for the Wooly Alder Aphid, when it takes flight, is Fairy Fly.  Here are a few that look as if they might be almost ready to take to the air.

I had one more wonderful insect-related delight today, when I came upon a large group of Monarch Butterflies all vigorously feeding on a patch of goldenrods. I'm thinking they might be part of a migrating group.   I counted about 10 of them, but managed to fit only these four within the frame of my photo.  (A blurry photo, but hey, they were fluttering fast!)  How fortunate that the sunlight illuminated these lovely creatures from behind, the better to show off their glorious stained-glass wings!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Poet Sings of Autumn

Song for Autumn
by Mary Oliver

In the deep fall
   don't you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
   the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
   freshets of wind?  And don't you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy.
   warm caves, begin to think

of the birds that will come -- six, a dozen -- to sleep
   inside their bodies?  And don't you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
   the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow?  The pond
   vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
   its blue shadows.  And the wind pumps its
bellows.  And at evening especially,
   the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Sandplain and Creekbank, Fall Flowers and Fungi

Every season has its own wonders, and that's certainly true as summer eases into fall, when Nature saves some of her most spectacular flowers and fascinating fungi for last.  I didn't have to go far afield to find some of these this week, as photos from a quick trip to Woods Hollow Nature Preserve and Gray's Crossing on the Kayaderosseras Creek reveal.  Both sites are within a mile of each other on the northern outskirts of nearby Ballston Spa, but each offers a quite different habitat: sandy and sunny for Woods Hollow, shadier and with richer alluvial soil along the creek.


Fall Flowers at Woods Hollow

I entered the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve through an open meadow adorned with goldenrods and asters, the vividly purple New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) the most outstanding among them.

There's no mistaking the New England Aster, for none of our other fall asters have flowers quite this deeply purple.  This species of aster does come in other colors -- a deep rose and a paler pink -- but all varieties are known for their large showy blooms, as well as the presence of glandular hairs on the flowers' bracts.

It may take a magnifier to clearly espy those glandular hairs on the bracts, but even without one, you can see how they glisten in the sunlight.

Another of our showier autumn asters is the Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), displaying dense clusters of flowers that can range in color from white to tinged with violet.  Those that I found at Woods Hollow did have a slight violet hue.

This Panicled Aster can be distinguished from other tall whitish asters by the way its stalkless, slightly-toothed, lance-shaped leaves meet but do not clasp around the stem.

Just a short distance from the aster-studded meadow lies a dry, sandy area that supports those plants that can tolerate just such an arid habitat as this.  Oaks, pines, and poplars surround this space, while Little Bluestem Grass makes its home in the open areas between the trees.

Fall is the best time of year to find those flowers that prefer dry sand, such as this delicate-looking Sand Jointweed (Polygonella articulata).  It truly abounds at Woods Hollow, but it's quite possible to walk past it without noticing it, for its spindly stems and tiny pale florets can disappear against the sandy background.

But you sure won't walk past Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium) without seeing it!  Especially this time of year, when its yellow-green stems, leaves, and flowers turn a quite startling color of reddish purple.

This bushy vegetable hedgehog -- the whole orb of its floral parts held on a single stalk -- will soon break off and go rolling across the landscape, spilling its seed as it rolls.  Native to the central plains of North America, this plant must have rolled all the way out here to the Northeast, for we are finding it more and more frequently in such barren sandy areas as this.  Here's a closer look at its floral parts, revealing the "wings" that surround the seedpods and doubtless suggested this plant's common name.

I was surprised to find Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) still blooming this late in the day, for it usually drops its florets by early afternoon.  Perhaps as the days grow shorter, its flowers last longer!

But even after its flowers have dropped, Blue Curls is fun to examine.  Look at these  little scoop-shaped bracts, each holding a pair of tiny green seedpods -- like twin babies bundled into their cradles!

Fungi at Woods Hollow

I usually associate fungi with the damp shady woods, usually following rain, but a number of fungus species do prefer just this arid environment, and this is the time of year to see some of the more fascinating species.  The one pictured here below is called the Dyemaker's False Puffball (Pisolithus tinctorius), and the orange-brown powdery stuff on its top indicates it is shedding its spores.

This fungus is known to grow in poor soils under pines and oaks, drawing its nutrients from the roots of those trees.  It can also absorb pollutants such as heavy metals from the soil, making it useful in reclamation and reforestation of polluted and denuded habitats, like those around strip mines.

When this fungus is fresh and before the spores are ripe, it can be used to dye wool a reddish brown color, hence the common name Dyemaker's False Puffball.  Its scientific name, Pisolithus, literally means "pea stone" and refers to the pea-shaped peridioles (the spore-producing parts) seen in the interior of the fungus when it's broken open.  The "tinctorius" part of its name refers to its ability to produce a dye.  I sliced this specimen open to reveal its interior "pea stones" at ascending stages of maturity.

Here's another mushroom that prefers a sandy habitat, that preference reflected in its common name, Sandy Laccaria (Laccaria trullisata).  And it can easily disappear against the sand, due to its dull, sandy-tan coloration.  Dull, that is, until it's cut open, revealing flesh and gills of a startling purple hue.

I was quite surprised to find this Black Tooth fungus (Phellodon niger) here, for I have found it before only in the damp shade of the woods along a creek.  But despite the amount of white adorning its top,  the "black" part of its name was still evident.

Also diagnostic were the teeth that covered the Black Tooth's underside:

Here's a little mushroom I had never seen before.  After pondering my mushroom guides and Google Images, I'm going to venture that this is the fungus called Thelephora terrestris, which is called by a number of different common names, Earth Fan and Fiber Vase among them. According to various sites I visited, this fungus is nearly always found on dry sandy soils, where it forms mycorrhizal associations with conifers.  That's a pretty good description of this habitat, that's for sure.

I'm guessing EVERYbody knows the name of this fungus:  the Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea), a common edible mushroom that can be cut into steaks and fried in butter.  But when I first saw it here beneath some pines, I didn't even grasp that it was a mushroom, thinking it was a big white ball some child had left behind.  I left this fungus behind for someone else to collect and enjoy.

I found this lovely creature on the ground, loosely clasping the stem of an oak seedling and flopping weakly.  When I reached my finger beneath it, it seemed unable to fly and just sat there quietly. I guess this is one Monarch Butterfly that will not be heading south on migration.  Perhaps it is one that has already headed south from a much more northern location and has now reached the end of its life after breeding.  One thing about butterflies:  they don't look any less beautiful as they grow old and get ready to die.


Just a short drive from Woods Hollow along Northline Road lies a very different kind of nature preserve called Gray's Crossing, which is actually a non-contiguous part of the Saratoga Spa State Park.  This preserve offers a trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek, a trail that is shaded by giant Silver Maples.  This site's rich alluvial soil is home to some of our most vigorous wildflowers, a few of which grow to gigantic size.  The native sunflower called Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is one of those outsize species, and a large patch of it has just this week come into bloom along the creek.

With the first day of fall arriving this weekend, we now say hello to the last flower of summer, a plant that I could imagine has stored up a whole summer's worth of energy to burst into prodigious bloom as summer wanes. Everything about Jerusalem Artichoke is big and beautiful.

To photograph this flower I had to reach up and bend its stalk down to my eye level.  The stalks pictured below must have been at least 8 feet tall, for they towered well over my head, and I am not a short person.

I next set off down the creekside trail (it's called the Burl Trail) in search of a second species of sunflower, but on the way I had to stop to take in the gorgeousness of the New England Asters that also thrive here.  Although I found a few of the deep-purple variety of this aster, I more often encountered the variety that had blooms of pink or rose.

Did I mention how gorgeous they were?

Gorgeous, too, is a species of sunflower that was introduced to this site just a few years ago, following extensive denuding and restoring of plants along the creekbanks.  This is Maximilian's Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani), a marvelously showy sunflower with large blooms all along the tall stalks and not simply clustered at the top.  The species is also distinguished by its narrow lance-shaped leaves that curl scythe-like from the stalks.

Three years ago I was concerned that the Maximilian Sunflowers  -- native to the central states but not to the northeast -- were becoming invasive along this trail, for their numbers had exploded from a single specimen I found one year to overwhelming numbers the next. But then their numbers diminished considerably over the past two years. I found only four plants along the creekside trail this year, and I wondered if this sunflower was well on its way out of here.

Ah, but I shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion!  Yes, there are very few remaining on the trail that closely follows the creek, but how about elsewhere in this preserve?  I glimpsed this scene through the thick vegetation along the creek and wondered:  could those all be Maximilians out there?  I braved the nettles and tearthumb to push through that vegetation, and this is what I saw when I emerged onto a large open meadow.  Maximilian Sunflowers flourishing here as never before!

Is there cause for concern that this species could become invasive here?  Maybe so.  But considering how the population flourished and then declined along the creek, it's probably too soon to predict. And in the meantime, oh gosh, they are beautiful!  And judging by the numbers of Monarchs I saw fluttering among them, other creatures are enjoying them, too!