Saturday, November 10, 2018

Beneath the Helderberg Escarpment

It was cold, but otherwise not an unpleasant day last Thursday when we Thursday Naturalists met at a nature preserve called the Heldeberg Workshop.  Located on over 240 acres at the foot of a limestone ridge called the Helderberg Escarpment southwest of Albany, the Heldeberg [sic] Workshop, a not-for-profit educational organization, provides courses in science and nature, as well as theater and art, to young people during the warmer months. But this time of year, the place lies quiet under an autumn sky, with the escarpment massively looming against the horizon, the trails through the forest now hidden beneath fallen leaves.

Lucky for us in the Thursday Naturalists, one of our members, Al Breisch, sits on the board of directors of the Heldeberg Workshop and was happy to lead us in exploring this wonderful place full of natural beauty and interest.  That's Al in the light-colored ball cap, below, as we gathered at the start of our explorations.

And off we go!

We hadn't gone far along this rocky stream before Al, an expert herpetologist, turned over a log on the stream bank to show us a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) hiding there.

Al informed us that the Red-backed Salamander is the most abundant vertebrate in the northeast, in terms of both numbers and weight.  In New York State alone, he told us, there are around 14 billion of them, a major source of food for many other animals, from centipedes and spiders to robins and turkeys.  It wasn't hard to believe those numbers, since we found many more of the little salamanders under almost every log we overturned.  (Along with plenty of other creatures, too!)

And here was a beautiful fungus we found when we rolled back this log.  This was quite a massive fruiting of the sac fungus called Green Stain (Chlorociboria sp.).  We often come upon rotting and debarked logs that are stained a dark teal-green with this fungus, but only rarely do we find it in fruit, especially fruiting bodies in such spectacular numbers.

Here's a closer view of the tiny disc-shaped fruits.  What a gorgeous and unusual color for a fungus!

Fall seems to be the best time to find some of these sac fungi.  It's certainly hard to miss the tiny bright-yellow sac fungus called Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina), especially when they grow in extensive patches like this one, spreading across the damp dark wood of a rotting log.

Here's one more sac fungus we found in this woods, the little coin-shaped fruits of Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides).

Here was a richly colored bracket fungus none of us could put a name to.  I thought that, because of its velvety tops and deep colors, it might be the Dyemaker's Polypore (Phaeolus schweinitzii), but after posting photos of it on a Facebook site I belong to dedicated to lichens, mosses, ferns, and fungi, a person more knowledgeable than I stated that he believed it was instead the Late Fall Polypore (Ischnoderma resinosum).  I'm not yet quite convinced, so I'm hoping my query will inspire more input.  Whichever it is, it was big and beautiful.

This is the underside of the fungus pictured above, showing the many pores of its fertile surface.  This lovely and delicate Cranefly was resting there when I broke off this chunk and seemed quite reluctant to leave.

Usually, when we come upon gigantic isolated boulders like this in the middle of the woods, we assume they are glacial erratics, dropped here by the receding ice sheet that once covered this part of the continent. But a more likely explanation of this one is that it tumbled down from the soaring limestone cliffs that loom above this woods.  A closer look at the surface of similar boulders revealed the presence of lime-loving mosses and herbaceous plants, further evidence that the boulders are of local origin.

Further evidence of a soil here enriched by lime was the presence of numerous American Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia), which only thrive in calcareous soils.  And boy, were they thriving here!  I have never seen so many bladdernut shrubs in one place as there were in these woods.

We Thursday friends enjoy quizzing each other about the identity of trees and shrubs, especially now that most woody plants have dropped their leaves and we have to puzzle over bark texture and leaf scars and other signs. It would be hard, though, to mistake Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) for any other shrub, for no other one has these bright-red pedicels that remain long after both leaves and berries are gone.

Not all the herbaceous plants have dropped their leaves by now.  The leaves of this Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) will winter over under the snow and not fade until after its flowers bloom next spring.

I wasn't aware that Virginia Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) had evergreen leaves.  Perhaps they will shrivel when we get a hard killing frost, but as yet they looked as fresh and green as ever, thriving among the fallen tree leaves.

Both the heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) and the seersucker-crinkled leaves of Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea) remain green this time of year, and both are also signs that the soil they grow in is rich in lime.

And look at this --  a beautiful pink Herb Robert flower (Geranium robertianum) still blooming away, long after other flowering plants have gone to seed.  For all the delicacy of this plant's appearance, its leaves and flowers sure can tough it out against frosts that would kill most other herbaceous plants.  (We had a few inches of snow last night, and I bet this pretty little geranium just kept right on blooming under the snow.)  We found many things to delight us here in the Heldeberg Workshop woods, and this rosy little bloom was certainly one of them.


Anonymous said...

Find any interesting fossils?

threecollie said...

I love that about the salamanders! Well, actually I love salamanders in general, but that is a really neat bit of information.

Laura McCarthy said...

Thank you for the nice documentation and the lovely writing. I was sorry not to join you, but enjoyed seeing what you saw this way! As one who lives in the limestone cliffs above, we too have been enjoying little Herb Robert blooming all through the fall (and still!). I love learning all my local plants with help from people like you!

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jackie. What a beautiful report on our Thursday walk!.

Sue Wright