Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Spring Inches Back

After three sub-freezing days with roaring winds, the thermometer inched back up into the 40s today and the winds grew quiet, which tempted me back outside. I figured the cold would have halted Spring's progress, so I decided to head to the trails in the nearby Skidmore woods just to stretch my legs and get some aerobic exercise. I doubted any new floral discoveries would find me down on my knees instead of striding along.  

But the leaves of wintered-over Hepatica  (both Round-lobed and Sharp-lobed) are still so beautifully colorful, I couldn't miss spotting them on the otherwise brown forest floor, so of course I paused to admire them.

And then I did have to get down on my knees to peer into the heart of those leaf clusters, brushing aside the sheltering oak and maple leaves to see if any flower buds had progressed from the furry nubbins they'd been last week.  And look! I found one plant where the bud covers were pulling back to reveal the pink flowers very soon to open. Hurray! Just a warmer day or two, and we will be seeing some of the prettiest of our native spring wildflowers.

This discovery reminded me to check on some other early-blooming flowers with furry buds, those of the shrub called Leatherwood (Dirca palustris).  Thankfully, these shrubs grow quite a distance away from where I found the Hepatica, so I did accomplish a bit of a brisk hike to find them.  Thankfully, I found much less deer damage to the shrubs than I've found in the past few years. So I didn't have to search very long to find branches with budding twigs.

And very furry buds! I've often noticed that the buds of some of our earliest blooming flowers and shrubs have furry buds, as if to protect the tender flowers from late cold snaps like the one we had just this past week.

One of the reasons I chose the Skidmore woods to walk in today was the possibility I might hear Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs raising their courting songs from the various vernal wetlands that dot the woods.  Neither frog needs much open water to start their courtship,  and I did see some open water along the edges of otherwise still-frozen-over ponds.  But neither a shrill peep from the Peepers nor a quacking croak from the Wood Frogs did I hear.  But I bet it won't be long before I do!

In the meantime, I did enjoy some of Winter's leftovers that remain as beautiful as ever -- such as this marvelous cluster of multi-colored Turkey Tail Fungus, hardly declined from what they had looked like last fall.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Winter Returns!

Just as our hopes for Spring were rising, along with our first few wildflowers, Winter has returned with a frigid blast.  When temps were in the 50s just last Saturday, a big patch of Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)  and Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) were blooming profusely in an old abandoned garden on the edge of the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton. 

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

Snowdrops (Galanthus species)

And back in the woods, the first leaves and buds of Snow Trillium had pushed up from the just-now unfrozen earth. Judging from how this plant has behaved in past years, I fully hoped both flowers and leaves would be wide open within a day or two.  True to their name, they are normally quite impervious to early-spring cold weather.

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)

But then, over Sunday night, the thermometer plunged down into the teens, with daytime temps remaining in the 20s all day Monday.  We even saw a few snow flurries that day.  (Even colder temps have continued into Tuesday, with only slight warming predicted for the coming week.)  Concerned about how those newly arisen Snow Trilliums had fared, I hurried out to the Orra Phelps Preserve on Monday afternoon to check on them.  As soon as I approached the Little Snook Kill that runs through this preserve, I noticed sure signs of freezing, with thick icicles dangling from streamside branches.

The Aconite and Snowdrops -- two introduced garden species famous for their cold hardiness -- appeared completely unaffected and were blooming away unfazed.  But the Snow Trilliums surely looked as if they had suffered: one plant had completely flopped over on a weakened stem, while the leaves of another looked as if its leaves had been nipped and scarred by the freeze.

Ah well, I guess this must be expected.  After all, Snow Trillium is a more southerly species, not native to northern New York, although it grows abundantly in its native states, like Pennsylvania and Ohio.  I am grateful to the late Orra Phelps herself, a noted Adirondack botanizer and former owner of this preserve that now bears her name, for if she had not planted this lovely little wildflower here, I would never find it anywhere else in these northerly regions.  And I have not yet given up hope that these freeze-afflicted specimens will yet revive, since, true to its name, this is usually a very cold-tolerant plant.  I also expect that a few more plants will yet emerge from the earth. I'm just hoping they stay safely underground until Spring stops letting Winter reassert itself.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

A Mud Pond Meander

Oh boy. Just as we're getting excited about Spring, the forecasts now predict a return to sub-freezing temps, maybe even some snow, for the coming week. Darn!  And this past Friday wasn't exactly inviting for a woods walk, either: dank and cold with a low gray sky and wet underfoot from the previous night's rain. But at least the temps were still a bit above freezing, and my friend Sue Pierce and I already had made plans to visit Mud Pond at Moreau.  We didn't expect to find many flowers blooming yet, but at least the snow was now mostly melted from the open areas under the powerline that runs just north of the pond.  And here in this place, an amazing variety of evergreen plants could now be seen and delighted in -- as Sue is doing here, preserving her find in a photo.

How wonderfully the winter's snow preserves the beauty of the many mosses and lichens that thrive in this open area! This gorgeous patch of Juniper Haircap Moss (Polytrichum juniperinum) looked especially beautiful when centered with a cluster of scarlet-topped British Soldiers Lichens (Cladonia cristatella).

Several species of clubmoss thrive in this open sandy area too, including  the aptly-named Tree Clubmoss (Dendrolycopodium obscurum). Could those golden sporestalks have stayed this fresh-looking all winter?  Or are they newly emerging already this spring? I confess I do not know.

These furry-tipped spiky green stems belong to another clubmoss called Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum), looking as fresh and sprightly as ever.

Abutting that open powerline clearcut is a woods populated mostly by White Pines, which carpet the forest floor with golden needles.  Those acidic needles, along with an underlying sandy soil, provide perfect habitat for abundant populations of two of our native orchids,  Pink Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium acaule) in May, and a bit later in summer, a smaller, white-flowered orchid called Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata).

We found more of the evergreen basal rosettes of Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain than we ever have in this woods, and all were looking just as green and lovely as they were before the snow came to cover them all winter.  It should be a great year for finding abundant stalks of their tiny white flowers, come mid-summer.

As usual, many different species of fungi delighted us with their wide variety of shapes and colors. In fact, this sprawling patch of Wrinkled Crust (Phlebia radiata) looked even more colorful than ones we had found last fall. Such a rich, deep red!

Also richly colored, this long stretch of multi-striped Stereum fungi (probably the species S. ostrea, also called False Turkey Tail) looked especially beautiful underlaid by the green and gray lichen covering a fallen log.

The dark rain-dampened bark of this small tree provided a perfect foil for the brilliant color of the Orange Jelly Fungus (Dacrymyces palmata) that ornamented its green moss- and lichen-speckled trunk.

I guess you can't call a coal-black fungus "colorful", but this Black Witch's Butter (Exidia glandulosa) certainly was remarkable.

Many different species of lichens abound on the trunks and limbs of the trees in this woods, and some, like this ruffly brown-edged green one (species unknown to me) were quite beautiful.

UPDATE: My friend Evelyn Greene, a very savvy admirer of lichens and liverworts, has sent me some information about this lichen and its possible ID:  "If you found that lichen on the ground or on a tree limb at least, it is Plasmatia glauca, ragbag lichen.  I first read about it in The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, about the ten-year search for the tallest redwood.  It grows only on tree limbs, here on pines, so we only see it when it falls to the ground and then it is not very obvious.  Mostly it gets stepped on.    It grows in the tops of the redwoods so it likes heights!"  And by the way, we did find it on a tree limb.

After a while, the damp cold had penetrated all of our several layers of warm clothing and began to  prompt thoughts of going home.  But all of a sudden, the sky cleared and a warming sun flooded the powerline trail.  Go home now? No way!  Not until we have checked the thickets of American Hazelnut shrubs (Corylus americana) that line this trail, to see if any had sprouted their tiny red female flowers.

And, lo and behold, they had! Teeny-weeny tufts of scarlet pistils had erupted from cone-like buds, ready to receive pollen from the ripening male catkins on separated shrubs.  But we really had to search for them, since we could find very, very few pistillate flowers among the thousands and thousands of Hazelnut twigs that line this trail.  I bet these female flowers are waiting for more male catkins to start wafting their pollen.  On this day, most of the catkins were still closed tight.

Here's a photo that better reveals how truly tiny these American Hazelnut female flowers are. Tiny they may be, but always worth searching for, signaling as they do that Spring is here at last!

Here's one more interesting organism I always search hazelnut shrubs to find: the Glue Crust Fungus (Hymenochaete corrugata).  See how this smaller twig is stuck to the larger one by that reddish and whitish blob?  Believe it or not, that blob is a fungus that has a good reason to do just that. Its strategy is to hoard dead hazelnut twigs for itself, gluing the dead twigs to living ones high in the shrubs, so they won't fall to the ground, where other, rival fungi could compete to consume them. Who could have guessed that a fungus could strategize like this? Sometimes, Nature absolutely astounds me!

UPDATE: A reader has suggested to me that the species Hymenochaete corrugata is strictly a European species, so that this fungus is more likely the related Hydnoporia diffusa instead.  I could not find much information about this on Google, although this site does mention that "Hydnoporia diffisa [sic] is described from eastern United States . . . . It is an American relative of the European Hydnoporia corrugata (syn. Hymenochaete corrugata)."

Meanwhile, the day had turned so sunny and pleasant, Sue and I decided to continue our walk, enjoying the trail that circles Mud Pond, one of the prettiest trails in Moreau Lake State Park.

There were a number of interesting waterfowl on the pond, paddling the open water revealed by the receding ice.  Sue located both Hooded Mergansers and Buffleheads out there.  Sue has incredible eyesight!  And she also carried binoculars.

Again, we found lots and lots of winter-surviving fungi, and probably some that had newly emerged.  We couldn't get close enough to ID these that mounted the trunk of this birch, but we could still marvel at their variety of shapes and colors.

Patches of Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) bore shiny red berries, as shiny and red (and tasty!) as ever, even after enduring months under the snow.

The same could be said for the patches of Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens).  Except that their berries, while just as shiny and red as those of Winterberry, are tasteless in comparison.  They are equally as welcome a sight, though, as the snow recedes from the forest floor.

Have I mentioned Sue's excellent eyesight?  Well, I would have passed this rotting log lying on the forest floor without a pause, but Sue immediately noticed the tiny critters crawling around on the barkless wood.  SNOWFLEAS!  We'd both been looking for them on the melting snow as the winter waned, and here they were, scads of them, scurrying about on the golden surface of this fallen log.

Here's a closer look at these tiny critters, a fascinating being that occupies a taxonomic niche all its own.  Even though Snowfleas have six legs and they hop, they are neither insects nor are they fleas but belong to a class all their own: the Collembola, or Springtails. There are lots of articles you can find online that offer much fascinating information about these creatures, and here is a link to one I enjoyed.

As we rounded the end of Mud Pond and turned toward home, I paused for a moment to enjoy this view that spoke to me so encouragingly of Spring, with the melting ice revealing open water that reflected a beautiful blue sky. With freezing nights yet to come, that water may yet ice over again, but I hold on to this vision to remind me that Spring is truly here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Spring Flowers: An Update

It won't be long, if our weather warms a bit, before the Skidmore Woods here in Saratoga will abound with Hepatica, both the Sharp-lobed and the Round-lobed species.  From evidence I found just yesterday, the furry little buds have already emerged, and some are almost ready to raise their heads and open their pretty faces. (The plants are easy to find, since their colorful leaves have persisted all winter.)

Today, I stopped by the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton to see how the Skunk Cabbage that thrives there was developing.  There's a watery swale there where not only do many plants grow, but also the spathes grow larger and more colorful than I've seen them grow anywhere else.

Here's the tallest and reddest Skunk Cabbage spathe I have ever seen!

The scars on one of the spathes looked as if some creature tried to eat it. If so, I hope its mouth has recovered from the cuts rendered by the sharp calcium oxalate crystals that Skunk Cabbage plant tissue contains.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Celebrating Winter's Woodland Wonders

Here it was, March 20, the first official day of Spring, and right on schedule I found in bloom the first wildflower of Spring that actually looks like a flower: some sunny little Coltsfoots pushing up from the mud along the Spring Run Trail in downtown Saratoga Springs. While it's true that Skunk Cabbage bloomed a few days earlier, many casual observers of those bulbous spathes might not recognize them as being flowers. But no one would mistake the quintessential "flower-ness" of Coltsfoot -- which closely resembles the first flowers our children might have drawn with a yellow crayon.  These two -- the Skunk Cabbage and the Coltsfoot -- represent the first trickle of what will very soon be a great wildflower flood: Hepatica, Bloodroot, Blue Cohosh, Foamflower, Columbine, violets of many species, etc., etc., all coming on so fast that wildflower nuts like me will have to scurry to keep up with them.

But before I get swept along on that floral flood, I want to pause to celebrate some of winter's woodland wonders,  a few of the many beautiful and otherwise fascinating finds that tempted me out into nature throughout the winter. What follows here is just a sampling of the incredible variety of wonders my friend Sue Pierce and I found in just this past week, and at only two still-rather-wintry locations: the Spring Run Trail and the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, both trails in Saratoga Springs.

Winter Fungi

I am always astounded by how many fungi persist through the winter, many of them retaining their beautiful shapes and colors no matter how many punishments the worst winter weather assails them with. Among the most abundant of these is one called Crimped Gill Fungus (Plicaturopsis crispa).  Often quite small as individuals but almost always growing in massed rows along rotting limbs, this rather ruffly-looking fan-shaped fungus retains its warm brown zonal stripes all winter.

But as pretty as the tops of these small mushrooms might be, the truly ruffled undersides are just as lovely, if maybe even more so, displaying the crinkly gills that suggested this species' vernacular name.

Another common persistent fungus is the Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune), another stalkless wood-dwelling fungus that also tends to stay quite small.  The one pictured here is typical of how this fungus appears in late winter: still as white as it was when fresh last fall, it has over the winter acquired what resembles a furry coat.

To observe how this fungus acquired its names (both scientific and vernacular), simply flip it over and there you will find its obviously split gills. This is truly one of our most fascinating fungi, possessing many amazing attributes, which I once wrote about in this blog post.

Despite its often tiny size, the sac fungus called Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina) is hard to miss, not only because of its brilliant color, but also because it tends to fruit in masses, glowing colorfully against the dark of de-barked rotting wood.

Here's a closer look at those Lemon Drops, revealing the shapes of the tiny discs that suggested another of its vernacular names: Fairy Cups.

While those Lemon Drops may seem to glow because of their bright color, this much-more-muted wood-dwelling fungus earned its descriptive vernacular name, Luminous Panellus, by actually glowing in the dark.  I have never witnessed this trait myself, but every one of my mushroom guidebooks mentions it.  This mushroom's scientific name, Panellus stipticus, was possibly suggested by its reputed ability to staunch bloodflow from wounds.

I have found Luminous Panellus in the fall, before its plain-brown caps had acquired the frosty bloom it displays now, so I might not have recognized it if I hadn't turned it over to observe how its gills radiate from an off-center, very short curving stalk, a distinctive trait.  (Also, my friend Sue used her I-Naturalist app to discern its species.)

Here was a rather plain-looking shelf fungus, possibly having lost some color over the winter, but still looking rather attractive, sharing a fallen tree limb with colorful lichens and mosses.  From the top, it could have been one of several similar-looking fungi.

But a glance at this mushroom's fertile surface revealed a maze-like pattern to its gills that indicated it was one of the maze-gill fungi, probably the Thin-walled Maze Polypore (Dadaeleopsis confragosa).

I found other mushrooms, similarly plain and pale on top but differently gilled on their fertile surface.  Could these mushrooms also be Dadaeleopsis confragosa, despite their undersides' more vivid color and a more squiggly shape to their maze-like gills? My mushroom guides do suggest that this species can vary quite a bit. Whatever their actual species, I was enchanted by their remarkably interesting appearance.

We seem to have quite a few colorfully striped shelf fungi, and at first glance I was sure these must be the one called Turkey Tail, with its alternating zonal stripes of tan and orange.  But I was wrong!

When I flipped one over, I could see that the undersides of these mushrooms were definitely gilled, not like the smooth white surface consisting of tiny pores that is diagnostic for the real Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).   I am going to guess that this mushroom is instead Lenzites betulina, which is known to closely resemble the Turkey Tail, except for possessing a gilled fertile surface. In fact, the vernacular name for this fungus is Gilled Polypore (an oxymoronic name if there ever was one!)

I wonder if this next mushroom could also be Lenzites betulina, perhaps a younger specimen with gills not yet dried out.  The bright-yellow color suggested to me that it must be another species, but when I looked at Google Images of Lenzites betulina, I found that that species can display quite different colors, including this gaudy gold.

Here are the gills of that yellow fungus.  They do rather resemble the gills of Lenzites betulina. I would certainly welcome alternate suggestions from readers more knowledgeable than I am.

The color alone of this rather flabby mushroom suggested to me that it might be the Orange Mock Oyster (Phyllotopsis nidulans), a guess that its kidney shape, inrolled margins, and lack of stalks reinforced. A check through my mushroom guides when I got home confirmed that ID. Despite the vernacular name, this is not an edible mushroom. It stinks, I read, and the taste is very bitter.

Could this be a newly developing Orange Jelly Fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus)?  Or is it a persistent remnant of one that has made it through the winter unscathed? It does look a bit desiccated, so I'm guessing it might be an old one. Is that white fluffy stuff its mycelium?  Is it ready to start producing new growth?  Part of the fun of these woodland finds is trying to guess what I'm seeing. And also realizing I don't have to know everything.

For example, I have no idea what these tiny orange jelly dots are. Will they grow into something more recognizable in time, like maybe some Fan-shaped Orange Jelly? Are they newly emerged, or have they been here all winter? For the moment, I was simply content to be delighted by how lovely they looked nestled in among the pretty green moss.

More teeny-tiny jelly dots, these being tan, not orange. And very, very tiny!  I have been finding them on rotting woods for years, but I never found any photos that resemble them at all in my mushroom guides.  Finally, this week I posted this photo on a Facebook mushroom site and got an answer, one that a Google Images search verified: they're called Helicogloea compressa, and they have no vernacular name that I could discover. Nor could I find any more information about them anywhere.  How odd!  I find them often, so you'd think mycologists have found them too and have written them up somewhere.  They probably have, but not in publications found on Google!

It's hard to imagine a fungus more distinctive than Red Tree Brain Fungus (Peniophora rufa), a crust fungus whose scrunched-up wads of red waxy stuff can be found dotting the bark of poplars or willows.

Here's yet another quite distinctive fungus that I've only recently been seeing, and there's a good reason for that.  As its vernacular name, Asian Beauty, suggests, this is not one of our native fungi but rather one that has only recently been introduced to North America from Asia.  Its first reported sighting in the U.S. was as recent as 2019, in Massachusetts. And I have just this winter found several examples of it here in Saratoga County,  pale-ivory, needle-thin, tiny sharp teeth that stretch, ribbon-like, along cracks in fallen logs.  Radulon coplandii is its scientific name.

I must confess that this patch of bracket fungi had me stumped. First, was that sprawling mess of crust-like growth the infant stage of what would become the fan-shaped, striped-edge fruiting bodies projecting from this rotting log?  And while these fungi vaguely reminded me of the Violet-toothed Polypore, I could not detect a trace of purple about the stripes that edged the pale-ivory semi-circles.

But when I examined the underside of one of the specimens, the rough-textured surface looked very much like that of an aging Violet-toothed Polypore (Trichaptum biforme), its normal purple color faded to the rusty brown described in my mushroom guides.  I also recalled having once read on the "Mushroom Expert.Com" site that "Sadly, the purple shades of Trichaptum biforme soon fade, leaving only the slightest hints of their former glory." So unless I hear otherwise, I'm sticking with Violet-toothed Polypore.  In its winter colors. (But I'm still not sure about that sprawling mess.)

This last winter fungus we found this past week has no caps or gills or pores or any of the other observable features we might use to determine a mushroom's identity. But in the case of the Blue-Stain Fungus (Chlorociboria aeruginascens), we don't need any of those.  No other fungus stains wood this particular deep-turquoise color with its mycelium.  Although this fungus does occasionally produce tiny ear-shaped fruiting bodies of a most intense blue-green color, patches of this colorfully stained wood can be seen at any time of the year. 

Winter Liverworts, Lichens, Mosses, and More

The fungi listed above are simply a sample of the many other remarkable fungi we found at those two sites over the course of our two outings.  The same could be said for the various organisms listed below. Sue and I had entered these nature preserves with a specific goal in mind (to find some blooming Skunk Cabbage). Yes, we promptly found what we came for, but two hours later we were still poking about among the wooded wetlands' many treasures,  calling out to each other to come see our special finds, and laughing about how "it didn't take much to amuse us."  Except, of course, that the things we found were actually true treasures. Treasures that are there to delight us in every season, including the winter.

One of the wonderful things about liverworts, lichens and mosses is that they can be observed all year, even if we have to brush the snow aside to see them.  In the case of this gorgeous liverwort, though, it was mounded well above the melting snow, so we could see every furry branchlet of this bright-green, fluffy-textured Handsome Woollywort (Trichocolea tomentella).  Not many liverworts have vernacular names, but this one has one of the best ones imaginable.

Here's another beautiful liverwort, the glossy-leaved Bazzania trilobata, sometimes called Millipede Weed for the way its branches resemble such segmented arthropods.  Within this compact circular mound, the Bazzania is interspersed with a spiky-leaved moss I don't know the name of.

I don't know the name of the crustose lichens beautifully decorating this large boulder. Or even how many species of lichen there might be. I just gazed in awe at what a beautiful mix of colors and textures they added to the rock.

Of all the mosses we found these two days, I was particularly delighted by the bright lime-green color and fur-like texture of this Dicranum scoparium, sometimes called Windswept Broom Moss for the way its leaves all appear to be swept to one side.

I realize I've neglected to include our evergreen ferns in this post about "Winter's woodland wonders," but at least I've included this interesting "fern ally" called Dwarf Horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides).  True to its vernacular name, it is a very small Horsetail.  I can find four other, much larger species of Horsetail at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail (which is where this one abounds), but this is the only Horsetail there that stays green and keeps its twisty-squiggly stalks all winter long. In the summer, it will bear spores in tiny cone-like structures at the ends of some of its stalks.

Yes, there's a patch of a pretty green moss, called Delicate Fern Moss (Thuidium delicatulum) in this photo, but that's not why I stooped to take the photo. I was drawn instead to this Foamflower leaf (Tiarella cordifolia) that had turned such a lovely rose color.  Many Foamflower leaves do stay green all winter, but some of them turn quite beautiful shades of red.

Again, there's that Delicate Fern Moss in this photo, but my focus here was on this amazing spider web spangled with water droplets. I doubt very much that the spider that spun this web was active all winter. So its new-spun web must be instead another sign of Spring, one of the first of Spring's Woodland Wonders that await in the weeks to come.