Thursday, June 30, 2022

Notes from a Nature Week

This time of year, I hardly have time to post a blog, I'm so busy out in the woods or on the water. But I've got to clear my camera now for further adventures, so just for the record, here are some photos from some of the places I wandered this past week.

The "Green Team" Tours the Mud Pond Powerline

The "Green Team" is a group of volunteer master gardeners who beautify Moreau Lake State Park with flower gardens, using mostly those plants that are native to our region.  My friend Sue Pierce and I have been leading these gardeners to areas of the park where some of our most beautiful native wildflowers thrive, in order to witness these plants in their native habitat.  The last week of June is probably the most spectacular time to visit the powerline clearcut just north of Mud Pond, for that's when some of our showiest native wildflowers have come into bloom.  In the photo above, you can see how the brilliant Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) thrive among the wild grasses, actually preferring the sterile sandy soil here, over the rich soil that most garden plants prefer.

Here's a closer look at the Wood Lily's spectacular blooms.

A second gorgeous wildflower that shares this sandy sun-baked site is the Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), which opens its exquisitely fragrant blooms at the same time that Wood Lilies do.

We weren't the only ones drawn to these milkweeds' beautiful blooms.  We saw Banded Hairstreak Butterflies feeding on nearly every plant.  Often, multiples of them.

I'm not sure what this ant was doing on this Frostweed flower (Crocanthemum canadense), another native beauty that shares this sandy-soiled site.  Sue and I make sure to visit this flower on the first sub-freezing days of autumn, when the frozen sap curling around the frost-split stems reveals how this flower acquired its vernacular name.

Many of the Bear Oak shrubs (Quercus ilicifolia)  and other young oaks that line this powerline had been completely stripped of their leaves by now, due to voracious hordes of Spongy Moth larvae feeding on them.  But now that the caterpillars have done their worst and are preparing to  pupate, the young trees are putting out new leaves, colored red by the substance called anthocyanin, which helps to protect the fragile young leaves from sunburn.

I have read that a virus called Nucleopolyhedrosis is beginning to kill many of the Spongy Moth larvae still feeding in our forests.  On a walk near Moreau Lake just today, every caterpillar I saw was shriveled and limp, hanging dead from the tree bark.  It's too bad the virus didn't show up sooner in the season, before the caterpillars had defoliated whole forests of their deciduous leaves and conifer needles. But it certainly is encouraging to know that this scourge has at least one control.  In addition to Black-billed Cuckoos, which have recently moved in to gobble the caterpillars up.

The Graphite Range Community Forest in Wilton

This 200-acre mountainous forest just north of Saratoga along Rte. 9 won't be open to the public until the fall, not until the professional trail-builders have completed the 5 miles of specialized trails that will serve many different recreational needs, for hikers, mountain bikers, and forest bathers alike.  So what was I doing there, now?  As an early donor to the site's development and one who has some knowledge about native plants, I had been invited to tour the site in the early spring, but that was well before any plants had come into bloom. Now I wanted to see what might be growing along the trails. And I asked my best co-nature-nerds Sue Pierce and Ruth Brooks to help me with this task.

It didn't take long to pass through the open meadow until the trail climbed steeply into the mountainous terrain, where a stream tumbled down a deep gorge and the forest grew thick over our heads.

As we examined the bare-rock ledges that lined portions of the main trail, we noted the presence of Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron).  Although this fern is known to tolerate soils of varying pH, I usually find it in alkaline (higher pH) habitats, on substrates like limestone or marble.  Would we find other plants that would indicate calcareous soils?

We did find other plants that I have found only in rich calcareous woodlands, like the limestone underlaid woods at Skidmore College in Saratoga or near marble quarries atop a mountain in Vermont. One of those plants was Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), and we found a huge patch of them. I really look forward to returning next year when all these plants are in bloom.

We eventually reached the site of the old graphite mines that suggested the name of this community forest preserve. And oh my, were they impressive, with great gaping entrances leading deep into rocky cliffs! Long abandoned now, the mines were in operation during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other evidence of the mining operations can be found nearby, including an old dam once used to process the graphite, crumbling stone foundations of buildings, and large grinding stones.

We were prevented from exploring the walls of the mines by pools of water covering the floors.  The water was the most beautiful color of blue, and we wondered what mineral or other substance might be the cause of that color.

This property, obtained by a private citizen to eventually be owned by Saratoga County, will provide a link to a future trail through the Palmertown Mountain Range that will connect Moreau Lake State Park to Saratoga Springs. The land conservation organization called Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land And Nature) as well as the Open Space Institute were instrumental in the efforts to preserve this remarkable site and prepare to make it available to the public in the fall.

The Exposed Shores of the Hudson River at South Glens Falls

Wow!  Where did the river go?  As a matter of fact, it was being held back behind dams upstream, while work on the dam at Glens Falls is being undertaken. I have heard that the level has been lowered 8 feet, and that level will be maintained for some weeks, until the work is completed.  This section of the Hudson is one of our favorite places to paddle toward the close of summer, when some of our most interesting native wildflowers (some quite rare) thrive in a series of shallow backwaters, sorting pools carved out of the bank back in the logging era.  Each lumber company would store its own logs, floated down from the Adirondacks, in separate pools along here.  They would not be able to do that this week! Nor would we be able to paddle those shallow backwaters to find such floral rarities as Small Floating Bladderwort or Water Marigold. I can't help but wonder how they will survive this prolonged exposure.

It was interesting to see the remnants of the underwater plants now stranded high and dry on the mud. Most had been shriveled to unidentifiable shreds, but sweeping strands of Water Bulrush (Schoenoplectus subterminalis) revealed why I had made up my own name for it: Mermaid's Hair.  A more official common name is Swaying Bulrush.

I wonder what this Great Blue Heron makes of his disappearing pool? I'm sure it could still find a frog or two for its supper. 

At least some big patches of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) still looked as beautiful as ever.

Higher up on the banks, we found some Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also beautifully in bloom. And look down there on one of its leaves: a colorful beetle had found this plant, too.

Such a pretty beetle! And so aptly named: the Swamp Milkweed Leaf Beetle (Labidomera clivicollis), seen here munching its favorite food.  A smart little bug, too. So as not to get a snoot full of milkweed latex that could glue its jaws shut, the beetle has severed the leaf veins upstream, so the milky sap flows out before it reaches the edge of the leaf the beetle is feeding on.  And similar to most other insects that feed on toxic milkweed, its bright red coloration serves as a warning to potential predators that this bug is not palatable.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Scenes from an Adirondack Lake

Lens Lake lies in the southeastern region of New York's Adirondack Park.  At an elevation of 1,841 feet and surrounded by mountainous slopes, it does qualify as a mountain lake.   But its attraction for my naturalist friends and me lies not in its altitude, but rather in its extensive bog mats and the fascinating variety of plants that thrive on them -- as well as along the convoluted shoreline of this quiet and beautiful body of water.

On a perfectly gorgeous June day last week, my friends Sue Pierce and Ruth Brooks joined me to paddle Lens Lake.  Here, we are moseying close to the shore, curious to see what plants we might find there, as well as to listen to the birdsong chiming out from the forest. The green leafy shrubs towering over our heads in this photo were mostly Mountain Holly (Ilex mucronata), with developing fruits that will later become the most saturated red imaginable.

As for now, the Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) growing thickly along the shore provided flowers of the most saturated pink imaginable.

An occasional shrub of the shoreline was Witherod (Viburnum nudum), also known as Wild Raisin.  The fruits will come later, but now is this native shrub's blooming time, with showy clusters of crowded white florets.

Hard to believe, but these low-growing plants are miniature shrubs, a species of dogwood called Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a name suggested by the bunches of bright-red berries that will follow the snow-white blooms. (Actually, the "real" flowers are small and green, clustered in the center and surrounded by  showy white sepals to attract pollinators.)  

Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) was one of the common shrubs along the shore, sporting clusters of white flowers and leathery lance-shaped leaves that were fuzzy underneath -- as were  the twigs.

This old stump had weathered to a silvery gray, and it was crowned by a gorgeous growth of scarlet Sphagnum moss. I loved the shimmering reflection in the dark water.

A Nannyberry shrub (Viburnum lentago) hung over the bank, and a gorgeous Fritillary Butterfly was feasting on its flowers.

After cruising along close to the shore for a while, we next headed out to the floating bog mats to see what wonders awaited there.

Carpets of Sphagnum were thick and cushiony, some a rich scarlet and others a beautiful gold. This golden-hued patch was studded with the deep-maroon leaves of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum) .

Sturdy stalks of Northern Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) stood tall above their vase-shaped leaves, crowned with globular blooms bearing petals of glowing red.

Floating logs served as beds for a marvelous assortment of bog-loving plants. Here, the rich red of a mass of Spatulate Sundew leaves (Drosera intermedia) was punctuated by the snaky, lime-green branches of Bog Lycopodium (Lycopodiella inundata).

And here was the flower we had hoped we might find: the beauteous Rose Pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides). It's hard to imagine a lovelier wildflower, one of our most abundant native orchids.  We saw many budding stalks, but only a very few yet in bloom.

As we paddled past stands of the grass-fine sedge called Carex lasiocarpa,  I mistakenly thought we were seeing occasional stalks of Cotton Grass, noticing these cottony tufts high on the grassy stalks.  But a closer look revealed that these cottony tufts were composed of spider silk instead.  And each tuft held a tiny golden spider within.

Here's a closer look at the tiny spider sheltering within those tufts.  Sue sent off its image to iNaturalist and received the opinion that the spider was a species of Arabesque Orbweavers. When I googled images of Arabesque Orbweavers, sure enough, they looked like this pretty little spider. But those webby tufts were not the typical orb webs.  Oh well,  adorably cute she was, whatever her name!

Eventually, we had to take leave of this beautiful lake, but one last treat was granted to me as I reached to open the door of my car.  This big, beautiful Cranefly was resting on my door window, which also reflected the splendid sky that had blessed us all day long.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Happy Summer!

Every year, on the first official day of Summer, my friend Sue Pierce goes looking for Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphicum). She usually finds them, too!  That's because she knows just where to look for them: on the powerline clearcuts that run through Moreau Lake State Park.  And sure enough, we found many in bloom yesterday, and almost as many in bud.  So the show has  just begun!

We always find another delightfully showy flower in the same sunny, sandy-soiled stretch, and usually on the same day:  the deliciously fragrant and ruffly-leaved native wildflower called Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis):

And if WE were happy to find these unusual milkweeds (and more of them here than we ever have!), I bet this Banded Hairstreak Butterfly had even more reason to be happy than we did:

It sure was a happy day for the insects along this powerline clearcut. Lots of New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) grows here, too, and I've never seen a flower cluster on this native shrub that wasn't hosting lots of insects for dinner.

While the insects were feasting on the pollen and nectar of New Jersey Tea, I was feasting my eyes on  the perfect little star-shaped buds of the florets.  The flower cluster resembles a burst of exploding fireworks.

Many, many flowers were exploding into bloom on this first day of Summer, and none were more generously colorful about it than this whole field of hot-pink Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides):

 This whole field of Oxeye Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) was also putting on quite a show! And what flower could say "Happy Summer!" with more exuberance than a whole field of daisies?

Happy Summer!

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Orchids and Oddities on the Hudson

Household tasks were calling to me, and I fully intended to stay home today to tend to them. But I always look at my Facebook page each morning, hoping to see my darling grandkids smiling at me from photos their parents posted.  But today, it was ORCHids, not grandkids, whose photos I found in my Facebook Memories, along with this alert: two native orchids should be blooming now along the Hudson River. OK, chores can wait.  I could spare an hour or two for just a brief paddle to see if I could find those orchids again.

So here I am, setting off on the river, in search of those two orchids: Shining Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes lucida) along the banks, and Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava) out on one of the islands.

In other years, I always have found my first sought-after orchid, the Shining Ladies' Tresses, growing very close to the water along the shore.  So that's where I was moseying when I saw this odd collection of tiny green jelly-like orbs cohering into floating shapes like hunks of miniature corn cob or six-parted posies. 

What the heck IS this stuff?!  I have seen floating green jelly-like orbs of a cyanobacterium called Nostoc balls, but they don't stick together like this, nor do they show up until the fall.  Also, I could pick those  up and they kept their perfectly round shape in my hand. As soon as I touched these shapes, they disintegrated into amorphous slime.  The  only way I could bring them closer to examine them was to hold water in my hand.  Then I could see that each orb was made up of tinier transparent orbs. Anyone want to bet these are the eggs of some aquatic critter?

I was so fascinated by these globs I almost forgot about that Shining Ladies' Tresses orchid. But then I looked up, and there she was!  On the bank, very close to the water.  This is our earliest-blooming species of Spiranthes, and our only one with a bright-yellow lower lip. I found just one, but that's all I have ever found, right here in the very same spot.  And some years, none at all. (Sigh! Orchids are like that!)

OK, let's go look for that other orchid now. So off I paddled, out to a series of small islands, not far from where I launched my canoe.  It sure was a pretty day for a paddle. I could have stayed here all day.

Well, that other orchid, the Tubercled Orchid, was NOT where I used to find them.  Not a single one, where once I found close to 30. The population has fluctuated over the years, but I never came away completely empty, as I seemed to be doing today.  Oh well, this little island is full of other pretty flowers.  Here's one called Small Sundrops (Oenothera perennis), of such a bright yellow they DO resemble small pieces of the sun dropped down to earth. I always have to turn the exposure way down on my camera, if I hope to capture any detail at all in the brilliant blooms.

And oh, the lovely Common Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) was winking its radiant blue eyes among the other low plants across the island. (Including LOTS of Poison Ivy.  Lucky for me, I seem to have outgrown my adverse reaction to it.)

And here was one of my very favorite flowers, called Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus flammula var. reptans), with individual blooms so teeny weeny it's very easy to miss it. At least, for now.  Those curving stems will travel across the damp sand, rooting at nodes as they go, and eventually a vast carpet of them will cover the ground, starred with dozens of bright-yellow blooms. It's that very exuberance that endears this tiny flower to me.

So there I was, making my way around the edge of the island, when a fallen log too high to step over  forced me to walk around it.  And look what I found sheltering beside the log on the other side: a trio of Tubercled Orchids, just coming into bloom!  Not the big population of some other years, but enough to relieve me that they have not vanished from this island completely. Oh, happy day!

The scientific name for this orchid, Platanthera flava, refers to its yellowish blooms (flava means "yellow" in Latin), but the vernacular name refers to the little bumps ("tubercles") that protrude from the lower lip of each floret.  I think in this photo you can see that little bump on some of these florets.

Mission accomplished!  I found both orchids! Guess it was time to get back to my household chores. But wait a minute!  What's going on with the terminal pinnae of these Royal Ferns? I found almost every  plant with terminal tips formed into globular balls and wrapped with webbing. Is some critter pupating in there?  Or what? I thought I should take a look inside, and I peeled the pinnae back, one at a time.

Aw jeez, what the heck is this gunky looking stuff? It sure doesn't look like eggs or even a pile of pupae to me!  Could that be a caterpillar lurking there above the pile?  (I didn't notice it until  I enlarged this photo.) Could that possibly be a huge pile of frass some larva has excreted? Whoever heard of a caterpillar piling up its poop and wrapping it with web?

UPDATE: I took one of the fern-tip chambers home and opened it, and found inside this tiny larva that sure doesn't look big enough to have pooped out that huge pile of frass. Maybe the larva that produced that frass was an older, bigger one.

As soon as I got home, I posted these photos on various sites, hoping some insect expert will get right back to me.  If so, I will get right back here and tell the rest of this story.

UPDATE: A friend named Mary Esch has sent me a link to a post describing a very similar pupation chamber formed by a moth caterpillar from fern pinnae, where the moth eats the fern tissue and defecates into a pile until it pupates. The moth described in that post, though, eats ONLY the pinnae of Sensitive Fern, and mine were forming their pupation chambers from the pinnae of Royal Fern. I bet the moths are at least related, if not the same. Here's a link to that blog post discussing the moth in question: