Monday, August 30, 2021

A Week's Worth of Wanderings

A busy week!   But so is every week for me, during the growing season. I live within easy driving distance to many wonderful parks and nature preserves, each one offering distinctive habitats, so I'm on the go nearly every day, off to visit some of my favorite floral and fungal finds.

I'm always thrilled when the Closed Gentian (Gentiana clausa) comes into bloom. What incredible color! Is there any more appropriate word for this color but Royal Blue?  I found a big patch of these gentians in perfect bloom at Moreau Lake State Park this past week.

If Closed Gentian is a flower you'd call "showy", what would you call these tiny flowers, almost invisible against the leaf litter in the woods?  Well, I call them "really rare," since the open throat and broad lower lip of these Autumn Coralroot orchids distinguishes them as the Endangered variety called Pringle's Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei). This variety was long thought to be extirpated from New York State until a substantial population of them was found at Moreau Lake State Park two years ago. We always have to look hard for them, but oh happy day, we do still find them there!

In another part of Moreau Lake State Park, on the shores of Lake Bonita, I came upon an abundant patch of Ditch Stonecrop (Penthorum sedoides), a plant with remarkably-shaped chubby blooms.  Note that the anthers surround the flowers instead of protruding from the center.   Usually colored greenish-yellow, the flowers have started to turn their gorgeous autumn crimson.

It was such a sweltering, horribly hot day last Thursday,  I thought about cancelling the walk I was to lead for my Thursday Naturalist friends at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa.  But oh, the Sphinx Ladies Tresses were starting to bloom there in the wet meadow section, and I didn't want my friends to miss seeing them. This is the same native orchid that we used to call Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua), but which now has been reassigned to another species, Spiranthes  incurva.

Another favorite flower at Woods Hollow is this adorably pretty plant called Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum).  The hotter and drier the site and the poorer the soil, the more this aptly named flower seems to thrive. As it does in the sandy oak/pine savanna area of this nature preserve.

We were lucky to have many pairs of eyes searching for this tiny flower called Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica) along a boggy section of the pond shore at Woods Hollow.  There were actually quite a few of these grass-fine plants down close to the water, but every time I averted my gaze, I had great difficulty discerning them again, the plants are so greenish and small.

I tried to keep my friends to explorations within the cooler shade of the piney woods at Woods Hollow Preserve, and this is where we found many Indian Cucumber-root plants, now bearing shiny black fruits surrounded by ruby-splashed leaves.

At last, the weather turned cooler on Saturday! This was the day my friend Sue Pierce and I were to meet a fellow naturalist who had traveled all the way from Brooklyn to explore the Saratoga Sandplain area of the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park in Wilton. And most of our explorations took place within the native-grasslands-restoration part of the preserve, wide open to the sky. Lucky for us, the sky was thinly overcast, so we were not baked by the sun.

A number of different species of native grasses abound at this site -- Indian Grass, Turkey-foot, Little Bluestem, and others -- but I was especially taken by the frothy-looking clumps of the feathery-topped Switch Grass, which towered over my head.

I was happily surprised to find here such fresh-looking clusters of Spotted Horse-mint (Monarda punctata), since at every other place I had found them this week, they had started to wither.

Here's a closer look at the complicated structure of Spotted Horse-mint. From a distance, this plant appears to have pinkish-green flowers, but those pinkish-green parts are actually the bracts that surround the wreaths of purple-spotted yellow flowers that circle the stems.

The dominant flower in these grasslands this time of year is Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima),  and on warmer days and later in the day, the flowers would be all abuzz with bees and other pollinators. Sue and I were puzzled by what seemed a genuine dearth of insects visiting these showy blooms, until our friend told us that sunshine would bring out the bugs.  It was rather cool and darkish this morning.  Of course, this Nursery-web Spider (Pisaurina mira), resting atop a goldenrod bloom, might also have been disappointed by the dearth of visiting prey!  A Female Nursery-web Spiders is known to tenderly care for her egg sac,  carrying it within her fangs until she folds it within a plant's leaf, surrounds it with layers of silk, and guards it until the spiderlings hatch.  I wonder if that brown object below this spider could be her egg sac, wrapped within a now-browning leaf.

This beautiful beetle we found on the ground, an apt spot for finding a Splendid Earth-boring Scarab Beetle (Geotrupes splendidus).  This beetle was probably newly emerged from its larva, and if it's a male he will start creating a burrow in the ground, which he will provision with dead leaves and wait within for a female with which to mate and start the lifecycle all over again. I have read that this is not an uncommon beetle, but I had never seen this beautiful iridescent green beetle before.

I found some interesting fungi this week, too. What looked like puffs of popcorn tossed along a pinewoods trail were actually a pair of Elfin Saddle Mushrooms (Helvella crispa).

This golf-ball-sized puffball covered with white pyramidal spines is called, simply, White Puffball (Lycoperdon candidum).  It may be white on the outside, but when it matures, that crust will slough off in patches to reveal a dark interior, either chocolate brown or deep olive. 

The woods were dark and deep where these Cinnabar Chanterelles (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) had emerged, but their vivid orange color made them easy to spot among the moss and pine needles.

Many Turkey Tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) can be found in vivid shades of orange or yellow or even blue, but this chocolate-brown one edged with creamy white had me examining it closely to determine if it really was a Turkey Tail. Although at first it appeared to be growing on the soil, there actually was a rotting log hidden beneath all those pine needles and ruffled mushroom.

It was startling to come upon this snowy-white growth that looked like icy fingers of frost covering a rotting log -- especially since the day I found it was particularly hot. And it even melted at a touch, like frost, turning to liquid beneath my finger.  But of course, it was a slime mold, called Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa, not frost. Not a fungus, either. Slime molds belong to a category of life-form all their own, displaying almost animal-like abilities to move and feed and eliminate waste until (like fungi) they produce spore-dispersing fruit bodies.  Like this one.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Backyard Visitor

This was our in-town-Saratoga back yard in late March, when our new rear neighbor cut down all the towering mature trees on his lot that once shaded our house and yard.  He also severely pruned back the evergreen vines that had covered our fence to a height of nearly seven feet, shielding our view of our neighbors and providing us with a lush green enclosure. (He claimed our fence intruded on his property.) Now our house and our yard would be blasted with full sun all day and all summer long,  creating a habitat my shade-loving plantings would hardly find to their liking.  In despair, I abandoned my yard.  I no longer have the desire nor the energy for gardening, preferring to wander the woods and waterways, enjoying the plants that grow wild.

Left to her own devices, Mother Nature took over my yard. Here's what it looks like now. My own red Oswego Tea and yellow native Thin-leaved Sunflowers did not mind at all the additional sun, and Moonseed and Virginia Creeper took over the fence. New shoots of Black Locust sprang up from the stump and roots of the felled trees, and a giant pumpkin vine (Where did THAT come from?) now charges across the lawn. Our neighbor had sown Giant Sunflower seeds in his still-vacant lot, and these non-native plants now tower to nearly ten feet tall.  Now that I no longer keep after the invasive Bishop's Weed, that plant now fills in any and all bare ground not otherwise occupied. Overgrown, for sure, but who cares? At least it's green and flowering.

With all the sun now blasting our lot all day long, the paved area to the side of our house has come alive with a fascinating collection of "weeds" that includes Amaranth and Lamb's Quarters and Black Nightshade, as well as various grasses -- even cornstalks! -- that have sprouted from the seed we spread on the cement for the birds and squirrels.  And suddenly, this new visitor, a young groundhog, has arrived. We've long had other wildlife visitors --  skunks, raccoons, opossums, and feral cats -- but never in all the 50 years we've lived in this house have we ever had a groundhog come to dine. 

I'd been meaning to pull out some of the weedy growth, but I kept being dissuaded by days too sweltering for even an hour of yard work.  And now I'm so glad I never got to it. The groundhog has been feeding on birdseed for several days, but today it discovered the tasty young seeds that were forming on the Amaranth.

Ooh yes, this tender young seed tastes much better than that old dry stuff! Maybe the leaves are kind of yummy, too.

Just look at all that tempting growth atop this long stalk!  But just as the groundhog was about to pull it down for a nibble, something spooked it and it tore off as fast as its short little legs would carry it.  But I know this chubby critter will soon be back.  There's lots more Amaranth than these. 

Another name for Amaranth is Pigweed. How appropriate that we have lots of PIGweed for this groundHOG!

UPDATE, September 1:  I am sad to report that the very next day after I celebrated our groundhog visitor, Little Bear (as we named him/her) did not show up and has since disappeared. I am trying to put a happy possibility on Little Bear's disappearance: perhaps some neighborhood gardeners feared for their tomatoes and had Little Bear trapped and relocated to the wild, where she/he will be happy forever. But I am sad.  I loved our daily visitor.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Lakeshore Finds: Floral, Faunal, and Fungal

Doesn't this green and watery lakeshore look invitingly cool on a hot and sweltering day?  

Well, it might have looked cool and inviting, but it was just as hot and sweltering here as everyplace else in Moreau Lake State Park -- or anyplace else in Saratoga County -- on Friday afternoon, when I'd hoped to venture out for a breath of non-air-conditioned air. The temperature might not have topped above the high 80s, but the dew point was somewhere around 70 degrees. Walking through this hot soggy air felt like swimming through hot oil.

Ah well,  I nevertheless enjoyed my walk along the shore of Moreau Lake, despite my glasses swimming off my nose and my shirt sticking to my sweating back. For one thing, I'd come here looking for a flower called Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula), and I sure found it! I bet there were not just hundreds, not even thousands, but probably TENS of thousands of this pretty little purple flower growing in masses on the sandy verge of the lake's back bay.  Believe it or not, this flower is ranked as a Rare species in the New York Flora Association Plant Atlas. But it's certainly not a rare plant along the shore of Moreau Lake!

Here's a closer look at the flowers of Small-flowered Gerardia.  Note how short the flower stalks are.

And here's a close look at the very-similar flowers of Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia),  a much more common Agalinis species, rated Demonstrably Secure in New York State.  Note that its flowers are borne on long slender stalks.  While this species is frequently found in other locations throughout the region, only a few grow here at Moreau Lake, where the rarer Small-flowered Gerardia claims these shores as its territory. I did find a couple plants of Slender Gerardia here, but its Small-flowered sister predominated.

Another abundant shoreline flower at Moreau Lake is this Smaller Forget-me-not (Myosotis laxa), a flower so small, it can go undiscovered unless you bend down to see what those tiny dots of blue are, scattered across the sand.

Here's yet another wee flower that prefers the damp soils along lakeshores, the Northern Willow Herb (Epilobium ciliatum), and I was happy to find a few blooming today. The pinkish flowers grow in small clusters that I have always thought would make a perfect tiny bouquet for a dollhouse.

More small flowers.  In fact, I believe that  the vernacular name of this plant is Small White Aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum). Or maybe it's one of the other asters with small white flowers blooming now.  I find them very difficult to parse as to species, but years ago my friend Ed Miller (may he rest in peace) keyed this one out as S. racemosum, so unless I am corrected, I will still go with that. It did seem to prefer the dryer habitat higher up from the water's edge.

This plant with the bright-pink flower spikes is called Water Smartweed, but true to its scientific name of Persicaria amphibia, it can grow either on land or floating on water. This one was growing on damp sand.  

There were numerous sedges and rushes and grasses crowding this shoreline, but my attention was drawn to this particular tiny low plant at the water's edge, one of dozens and dozens of the same, scattered across the damp sand.  I have a special fondness for this Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), since I first helped rediscover this Endangered species here on these shores a few years ago. Since I first posted a blog about finding it back in 2018, its population has varied as the lake's water levels have risen and fallen dramatically, so I was happy to see so many plants thriving here today.  The small size, curving green leaves, and stubby little spikelets are features that distinguish this species from other low-growing flatsedges that thrive on the shore of Moreau Lake.

Higher up on the shore, between the forested banks and the water's edge, many colorful meadow species were in their glory, including abundant numbers of the bright-yellow Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia).  And I sure wasn't the only one who found this plant attractive: just LOOK at all the busy buzzing bugs happily feeding on this flower's nectar and pollen!

Another lakeshore species the local insects could not resist was this white-flowered plant called Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).  All this insect activity was causing the flowerhead to sway as if in a breeze, although (sadly) there wasn't a whiff of breeze blowing along the shore.

I moved in close to observe all the small winged critters at their feasting, and I was particularly taken by this small, golden, red-eyed fly with spindly long legs and black bristles on its little tapering butt.  Those bristles said "tachinid fly" to me. Although searching the web for "yellow tachinid fly with red eyes and long legs" has yet to yield an exact match, sufficient images have come close enough to suggest I am on the right track.  (If I do eventually ascertain the species, I will return to add it here.)

Here's another, somewhat blurrier view of the same little fly. Really cute!

UPDATE: Thanks go to my friend Sue Pierce for directing me to a page in Bug, where I discovered that, although the species will remain elusive, we can now place this cute little fly in the Tribe Leskiini.

I had now reached the south-facing stretch of shoreline my friend Sue and I call the "Odonata Shore" because it's the favorite haunt for lots and lots of dragonflies.  And there sure were lots and lots of dragonflies whizzing about today, but unfortunately (for this photographer) seldom perching for long enough to get a photo.  At last, this one did, but way out in the water atop a horsetail stalk. 

I zoomed my lens as far as I could, but this photo still is not clear enough to capture enough of the dragonfly's features to be able to look it up in my dragonfly guide.  And standing now in the blazing sun, with heatwaves rising up from the sand, I decided I didn't really need any more photos of dragonflies. Or even to know the name of this one.  I pocketed my camera and made a beeline for the surrounding shady woods.

Aah!  This was a little cooler. And even though few flowers were blooming along this woodland trail, I found a few marvelous fungi to capture my attention. I haven't seen such a spectacular cluster of Scaly Cap Pholiota (Pholiota squarrosa) in many years! They always remind me of coconut macaroons. But don't let that convince you that this toxic mushroom might be good to eat!

I have seen these white-edged, frilly, dark-brown Earth Fans (Thelephora terrestris) before, but always in the ground at the base of a tree, never wrapped around a stem of Wild Sarsaparilla.

A whole log lined with Violet-toothed Polypores (Trichaptum biforme)!  These pretty shelf fungi virtually glowed in the shade of the woods. Sometimes this fungus is mistakenly assumed to be Turkey Tail, but that purple edge is quite distinctive for this species.

I have no idea what this lumpy blob of a whitish fungus is.  I should have looked more carefully at the tree it was growing on, which might have helped me research its species. But I had eyes only for two things about this lumpy blob of a whitish fungus: first, the shining drops of fluid oozing and dripping from it; and second, the two holes deep into its flesh, each hole exuding a mess of small-seeded gloppy stuff.  

The shining drops of fluid I could explain: it was the natural process of "guttation," by which a fungus (or a plant) can expel excess fluid from its tissues. I've seen this phenomenon several times and on several different species of fungi and plants.  But what the heck is going on, with those deep dark holes and those gloppy deposits that look like masses of sesame seeds held together by mucilage? For sure, I will post this photo on a Facebook mushroom page and see if anyone has an explanation. If any of this blog's readers knows, please leave an answer as a comment.

Dripping with my own fluid by the time I reached my car,  I sure was looking forward to climbing in and turning the AC on high.  But wait, I told myself.  Let's go check on a nearby patch of Spotted Coralroots (Corallorhiza maculata) a friend had told me about.  This is a leafless orchid, not another fungus, but it IS what's called a "myco-heterotroph": a plant that lacks chlorophyll and obtains energy by parasitizing the mycelium of fungi, in this plant's case, the mycelium of fungi in the Russula Family. When I reached the spot where I'd been told it was growing, I was struck by how much energy that Russula mycelium must have been delivering: I had never seen such an abundant patch of Spotted Coralroots. (This group is just a small part of the population at this site.)

The Spotted Coralroot is not the kind of showy orchid our grandmas pinned to their prom dresses. At first glance, I couldn't even tell if these ruddy plants were even blooming. But a closer look revealed that they were, indeed, in bloom.  The flowers may be small, but they certainly are kind of pretty. I'm glad I made the effort to pay them a visit.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

A Quick Paddle, Abundant Blooms

When was our last lovely sunny day?  Ah yes, it was last Monday! But Mondays are the days I usually do my week's grocery shopping, and it was already afternoon.  Would I have time to fit in a paddle on the Hudson River above the Sherman Island Dam? Well, I would MAKE the time.  So I hurried up to Moreau and slipped my canoe in the river where it flows behind an island and in and out of forested rocky coves. How fortunate I am to have such an unspoiled stretch of river, located so close to home that I can just pop in for a hour or two of drifting and dreaming among such natural beauty.

This stretch of the Hudson has become very popular among paddlers over the past few years, but today I  had the river all to myself.  Myself and some Mallards, that is. But they didn't seem to mind my presence as I let the slow current carry me silently past their perch. I think we were all mesmerized by the forest's reflection in shimmering cool-green ripples.

This stretch of the Hudson calls to me most strongly this late in the summer. For August is when the banks are abloom with a marvelous mix of riverbank beauties, those colorful native wildflowers that thrive despite water-levels rising and falling with every rainfall or changes in hydroelectric dam operations both upstream and down. Just in this short section of bank I see Cardinal Flower, Spotted Joe-Pye Weed, Boneset, Arrowhead, Green-headed Coneflower, Grass-leaved Goldenrod, and at least one sprig of Marsh St. John's Wort.

Another stretch of bank in one quiet cove has ceded most of its space to a thicket of Cardinal Flowers, the brilliant red of their florets blazing like flames when lit by a ray of sun.

Abundant clusters of Sneezeweed vie with that Cardinal Flower to claim the title of Showiest Flower of the Riverside.

The Green-headed Coneflowers would offer some competition for that title, too, except that they usually grow so tall that they tower well above a canoeist's eye level. I was lucky that this one stalk, usually towering, was bending low over the water, so that I could enjoy a closer view of its brilliant yellow flowers.

And of course, since it's August, the goldenrods are coming into their glory. On this giant boulder, both  Grass-leaved Goldenrod (the shorter clump) and what could be Tall Goldenrod have found a footing somehow in the cracks in the rock.

After all that burgeoning brilliance on every riverbank, it might be easy to overlook the quieter beauty of Marsh St. John's Wort's satiny pink blooms. But because it was after three in the afternoon, I was on the lookout for them, since I know that they open their flowers about that time, and not much earlier. And there they were! So dainty, so pretty! So worth the wait, for sure.

Ah, but if it was 3 P.M., that meant I'd better get off the river and head to the supermarket. Believe me, it was hard to leave this place of cool green beauty, quiet water, and gorgeous floral abundance.  How lucky for me, that I can return any time!