Sue also was the first to spot a number of hairy brown caterpillars hanging from goldenrod stems. When I tried to identify these cats, I peered closely at them and realized I could not see their normal color pattern because their bodies were encased in a tan-colored foamy stuff. Oh my gosh! I remembered seeing a similar "foam" some years ago, on dead flies that were glued to the underside of tall milkweed plants. That stuff turned out to be a mass of fungal cells that make and shoot off infective spores. Could this stuff on the caterpillars also be one of those Entomophthorales, a group of insect-killing fungi? According to Kathie Hodges, a Cornell professor of mycology whom I consulted, the answer was "Yes." Thanks, Kathie. But bye-bye caterpillars!
After that rather disturbing image, it was nice to find some pretty flowers blooming right nearby. However, we did have to peer pretty close to see the wee little purple-polka-dotted blooms of this Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium).
I'm probably one of the only few people on earth who delight in big patches of Lady's Thumb (Persicaria maculosa), an introduced "weed" that many folks observe with disdain. But this location wasn't someone's immaculate garden that needed to be weeded to perfection, but rather the gravelly litter-strewn edge of a parking lot, where its tiny pink flower spikes set among a solid mass of green leaves looked really lovely to me.
The Woods Hollow Nature Preserve is notable for its variety of habitats, from open wet meadow to dry sand plain, from upland mixed forest to boggy pond shore, each habitat supporting the particular plants that thrive there.
Open Meadow Habitat
Our first stop today was this open meadow with spring-dampened soil, which from a distance appeared to be a near-monoculture of Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima). I can tell at a glance and from quite a distance that these goldenrods are that particular species, by the visible presence of both stem and tip galls that are usually present only on this species of goldenrod.
But entering the meadow, we encountered the marvelous mix of other wildflowers that flourish there, including this small white aster [Sorry, I didn't parse out its species!] surmounting a patch of pretty purple Slender Gerardias (Agalinis tenuifolia).
Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are also among the colorful blooms that thrive in this sunny meadow.
A central portion of this wide meadow that once teemed with Tall Goldenrod, Boneset, and Joe Pye Weed has grown up over the past three years to a crowded stand of White Pine and Quaking Aspen saplings. This impenetrable thicket now allows no flowering interlopers within its shadowy depths, but our native clematis vine called Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) had found a place to climb among the outer branches of the thicket.
One of our native sunflowers -- I believe it might be the Pale-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus strumosus) -- has also found this meadow to its liking.
A crowded stand of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale) added an interesting texture of rigidly vertical stems to the landscape of the meadow.
A closer look at one of these Horsetails reveals a spore-bearing strobilus as decorative as any Ukrainian Easter egg.
Although the burgeoning thicket of pines and poplars has crowded out much of the Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) that used to teem here, a few plants of this native meadow-dweller still claim their place in this habitat.
And of course, masses of Tall Goldenrod still claim their place under the sun -- and offer a trysting site for a whole bunch of amorous Goldenrod Soldier Beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus). (Looks like these "soldiers" would rather make love, not war!)
But these particular goldenrod-visitors were perfectly happy to do some killing! The Jagged Ambush Bug (Phymata sp.) lurks among the blooms to grab any visiting pollinator (like this hapless bee) with those huge swollen forelegs. It then quickly stabs the hapless insect with its sharp proboscis, injects a paralyzing poison that also liquifies its prey's innards, and then slurps up the soup through a straw-shaped organ inside the proboscis. I saw a number of these nightmare-inducing insects among the goldenrod blooms today.
By the way, lest you assume that these Jagged Ambush Bugs are engaged in amorous coupling, too, that smaller, darker male atop the female's back is just waiting for his turn at the table. His mate is so much bigger and stronger than he is, he lets her "bring home the bacon" and then partakes of the meal once she has finished.
All sorts of critters were ambling around the flora today, including this furry Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Halysidota tessellaris). Those black and white spiky tufts of hairs surrounding its head provide this tawny-haired larva with a fierce look, like a lion glaring from within his mane. Let that be a warning to you, too, not to mess with this cat. No claws, of course, but those hairs can deliver quite a sting.
We can't see what the Gall-gnat Midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides) looks like here, because this tiny fly larva is snugly ensconced within these galls that look like pine cones growing at the tip of willow twigs. We would have to wait until next spring to lay our eyes on the wee little midge that emerges then, but we would have a hard time seeing it even then, it is so very small. Isn't it amazing that a creature so small can have such power over a plant as to induce the plant to build it such a safe protective structure to pupate in?
As we leave this open-meadow site, we stop to observe the one Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera) I have ever seen outside of the Adirondacks. Like some other poplars, it has rather sticky and aromatic buds, but the "mud-crack" veining on the pale underside of its leaves is considered its distinguishing and diagnostic feature. This tree is the source of the soothing ointment called Balm of Gilead, used to treat pain and inflammation of the joints.
There were Speckled Alders sharing the same thicket with that Balsam Poplar, and look what we saw resting on one of those alder leaves: a tiny little Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) chowing down on what must have been a very long-legged insect. Or what?
Another critter climbing around in the alders was this impressive Io Moth Caterpillar (Automeris io), another "look but don't touch" caterpillar, whose venomous hairs can deliver a painful sting.
Sand Plain Grassland Habitat
There was so much to see and amaze us within that open meadow site, I had to holler, "Come on, you guys, let's MOVE!" to urge my friends to follow me into the next habitat, one that is underlaid with dry sand, surrounded by pines and oaks, and carpeted with acres of tawny Bluestem Grass that was blowing in the breeze.
Here, we encountered those species of plants that can not only tolerate but thrive in this arid, nutrient-poor soil.
Horsemint (Monarda punctata) was immediately visible, knee-high plants with pale, pink-tinged bracts surrounding clusters of small yellow purple-dotted flowers that wreathed the stem.
But we could have walked right by teeming masses of Sand Jointweed (Polygonella articulata) without noticing them. Their flowers are so small and their stems are so fine and leafless, they seemed to disappear against the sandy background.
Our friend and expert bryologist Nancy Slack helped us to notice the many lichens and mosses that inhabit this dry habitat. Here, she is holding out a miniature garden of Cladonia lichens and Haircap moss for us to see up close. I added the tiny white puffball fungus I had sliced open to reveal its dark interior.
Probably the prettiest flower of this sandplain habitat is Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum), with its purple-blue flowers and glossy arching stamens. We were lucky to find abundant numbers of this plant in full bloom. If we had come later, in the afternoon, we would have found all those pretty blue flowers littering the sand beneath the plants, for this plant produces (and loses) new flowers every day.
If Blue Curls was the prettiest, then this plant was the oddest. Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium) bears stems lined with odd little winged nubbins, all the stems radiating from a single stalk that breaks off when the plant matures in the fall. This now beachball-sized tumbleweed rolls along with the wind, dropping its seed as it rolls. A native of the Central Plains, it has managed to roll all the way out east, for now we find it in many arid, nutrient-poor sandy spots across New York State.
Regarding superlatives, these Sandburs (Cenchrus longispinus) have got to be the nastiest plant of the sandplain, with needle-sharp barbs that collect on your shoelaces and stab your fingers bloody when you try to pull them off. Since this is a plant that is native to this region, we have to assume it fills some important ecological niche that benefits SOME creature or another, but this plant and I have an unpleasant history together, so it's hard for me to whip up enthusiasm for it. But I did need to point it out to my friends, the better to have them avoid it as we walked around in the sand.
Believe it or not, right here in the middle of this dry sandy area, we found a small swale, a soggy spot at the base of a dune where rainwater collects and supports a collection of plants often found in wetlands. The most obvious species here was a mass of bristly-headed sedge. I believe this may be the one called Yellow Nut Sedge (Cyperus esculentus), a common native graminoid that can be found in dry areas as well as wetter ones.
Another of the graminoids thriving here in this damp soil was this pretty rush with clustered spikelets that looked like tiny bouquets. It has fine, grasslike leaves, and is called Grassleaf Rush (Juncus marginatus).
Some Northern Willowherb plants (Epilobium ciliatum) were blooming here with tiny pink flowers held on very long stalks.
Another plant at home in this swale was the wee-flowered Canada St. Johnswort (Hypericum canadense), distinguished from other small-flowered St. Johnsworts by its very narrow leaves and blood-red seedpods.
Pond Shore Habitat
As lunchtime approached and legs grew weary, I knew it was time to hurry my friends down to the pond at the center of the preserve, to a cool and shady walk around the mossy tree-shaded shore. There was even a bench near the old pump house where some of us could rest a while.
On our way through the woods, I was surprised to see yet new clusters of Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) still pushing up through the leaf litter, since I had been seeing this ghostly pale parasitic plant for a month or more already.
We found other patches of Indian Pipe with already maturing flowers. Once pollinated, the downward-turning flowers straighten up, so we could observe the intricate reproductive structures of this unusual flower.
I knew my friends were growing tired and hungry (and so was I), but I really hated to end our walk before we could see the Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica) that grows in just a few spots along the pond. This small Gentian-family plant is not really rare in New York, but it does prefer soggy acidic spots that are often difficult to access. Lucky for us, we found many Bartonia plants close to the start of the pond-side trail, although it took some searching to see them. Their leafless green stems tipped with tiny yellow-green flowers easily blended in with the rest of the pondside vegetation. When they grew in a dense clump like this one, they were definitely easier to see.
We decided to end our walk at this point, rather than continue along a convoluted trail around the pond. Perhaps we might return on another day, and access the pond via a more direct path. So we headed back to our cars, although along a different route, where we found a lovely cluster of Groundnut flowers (Apios americana) resting on the weathered wood of a fence.
Lots of Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) grows in the pondside woods, and at this time of year its top tier of leaves is brushed with splashes of red and crowned with clusters of green berries that will later turn blue-black.
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is one of the most ubiquitous plants of our northern forest floor, and this time of year it is easy to discern from all the other understory greenery because its leaves are mottled with yellow. I don't know what causes this mottling, but I think it makes for quite a pretty effect.
Fall Fungi at Woods Hollow
In addition to all the flowers and creatures we found in these varied habitats, we also found some pretty impressive fungi. Probably the most impressive was this Dyemaker's Puffball (Pisolithus tinctorius), which I have here cut open to display its unusual innards. Possessing neither gills nor pores for the production of its spores, it contains a myriad of these tiny "pea stone" periodoles that contain its spores. The periodoles ripen sequentially, from the top to the bottom. As this photo shows, the top layer is already shedding cocoa-brown spores as fine as dust. As this fungus's name suggests, it has been used at times to produce a reddish-brown dye to color wool. There's lots more information about this unique and fascinating fungus HERE.
This next mushroom is aptly called the Sandy Laccaria (Laccaria trullissata), since it only grows in sandy areas, such as dunes and sandplains like the one we explored today. We almost passed this by, since the only part of it that showed above the ground was a non-distinctive sandy-brown cap that hid its vivid purple gills from view. But lift it up, cut it open, and prepare to be amazed!
This little mushroom certainly did not hide its vivid purple color! I believe it is one of the Cortinarius species, possibly C. iodes, since its cap appeared shiny and its stem whiteish. As the pine needles surrounding it reveal, it was growing beneath pine trees.
The vase shape with descending thickish gills suggest that these bright-colored fungi of the forest floor are Chanterelles, and the vivid almost-red color suggest these are Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellis cinnabarinus).
I loved the color combination of green lichen and orange fungus on this fallen log. We have a number of orange-colored jelly fungi, but the distinctive fan shape of these cause me to think that these are the Fan-shaped Jelly Fungus (Dacryopinax spathularia).
What else could this be, this red-topped mushroom with pure white gills and stalk, but a Red Russula (Russula emetica)? Or so I thought, until I looked through my mushroom guides and found a number of different red-topped, white-fleshed members of the Russula genus that looked pretty much alike to me. Sigh! You almost always have to completely dismember a mushroom in order to examine all parts and be absolutely sure of its species, and I didn't do that. I left it for others to enjoy, because it was so beautiful. And it IS a Russula. And it IS Red. So Red Russula is good enough for me. Unless I intended to eat it, which I didn't.
To get a sense of why it's so difficult to identify a red-topped Russula, go visit Tom Volk's amusing and very informative entry on "Russula emetica, the vomiting Russula."