Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Canal Park, Low Water, High Risk

Canal Park at Lock 4 of the Champlain Canal offers many delightful options to the nature lover seeking a fascinating place to explore. This park is located in Rensselaer County where the Hoosic River flows into the Hudson River's barge canal, and the two rivers present quite varied habitats, from moss-carpeted woodland trails along high shale banks to rich bottomlands where unusual plants grow to enormous size. And this year, near-drought conditions have created a third very interesting habitat: exposed river bottom, consisting either of water-carved rock or wide muddy flats.  As it happens, I agreed to lead two group walks here recently, one this past Thursday for my friends in our Thursday Naturalists group, and the other to take place on September 6 for another group of naturalists from Schenectady. Since I cannot pause to take photos while leading a group, I took these photos when I previewed the trails last Wednesday.

Canal Park offers a large parking area right next to the lock, where porta-potties, picnic tables and grills offer picnicking conveniences to visitors.  Some visitors stay by the lock to watch it operate to allow large or small water craft to navigate around the Hudson River's rapids. Our particular groups usually set off to explore the trails, often choosing to start on the shady woodland trail along the canal. As did I, on this preview walk.

The clanking and grinding of huge metal gates upstream alerted me that some kind of watercraft would shortly appear on the canal.  And so it did, as this cabin cruiser came slowly making its way toward the main course of the Hudson River downstream.

This particular section of trail is carpeted with many different kinds of lush green mosses and lichens.  Here, a pale green Reindeer Lichen shares its space with the star-burst leaves of Haircap Moss.

That same Haircap Moss (Polytrichum commune) also grows intermixed with the red-stemmed moss called Big Red (Pleurozium schreberi) in lush green patches.

This moss, called Windswept Broom Moss (Dicranum scoparium), often looks as if its leaves had all been swept. The long slender stalks held this moss's spore capsules aloft, the better to catch a breeze to carry the spores away.

Few flowers bloom in the dense shade of this trail, but the delicate rosy-purple flowers of Slender Gerardia (Agalinis tenuifolia) are an exception.

I was quite excited to see these pale-aqua fruits dangling from the twigs of Deerberry shrubs (Vaccinium stamineum), since I had sought in vain to find any of its flowers back in May. These fruits maintain their pale aqua color even when fully ripe.

At first glance, one might think that these low-growing Pussytoe rosettes (Antennaria sp.) had sprouted tiny pale-green rose-shaped flowers. But no, these "blooms" are galls, not flowers, formed when an Everlasting Bud Midge laid her eggs on the plants, which responded by producing this rosebud-shaped plant tissue to surround and protect the developing larvae.

Since we did have some recent torrential rains, a few fungi had sprouted up along this shady trail.   It looked as if this Red Russula mushroom had used that heavy rainfall to grow to prodigious size!

These tiny fragile mushrooms make up for their small size by being colored brightly enough to detect on the forest floor.  If not for their orange color, we might never notice the tiny Marasmius siccus.

I do not know the name of these itty-bitty white mushrooms that had sprung from the slimy, rotting cap of a much larger mushroom, but I didn't need to know that name in order to be astounded by this very interesting fungal event.

I do not know the name of this developing fungus, either, just beginning to grow its "baby teeth" as it takes form from fuzzy white growths on a fallen twig.  Is it a toothed fungus, like Milky Tooth, or will those "teeth" develop into maze-like gills?  Maybe somebody can tell us, but I sure don't know!

As this woodland trail reaches the sunlit site where the Hoosic River joins the canal, I was surprised to see how low the water had fallen since I was last here in June. Back then, the water was flowing close to the trunk of that overleaning tree.

And of course, when there are muddy flats, masses of False Pimpernel (Lindernia dubia) often take the opportunity to spread across the mud.

Here's a closer look at one of those pretty pale-blue native wildflowers.

Another eager colonizer of mud flats is this species of aptly named Nodding Smartweed (Persicaria lapathifolia).  Another vernacular name for this native wetland wildflower is Pale Smartweed, also an apt name for a plant with such pale blooms (which can also be pale pink).  The "smartweed" name is also accurate, as can be proved by nibbling a leaf and experiencing how quickly your tongue then "smarts"!

Apparently, that biting quality of its leaves does not dissuade this Pearl Crescent Butterfly from tasting the Nodding Smartweed's nectar.

Before we made a sharp turn to follow the Hoosic River upstream, we searched a grassy area here on this point, hoping to spot the nearly invisible greenish-pink blooms of Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata).  Despite that "whorled" appellation, these tiny plants have some alternate leaves on their stems, indicating this is probably the variety ambigua.

As we start to follow the Hoosic River upstream, we are amazed to see how low the water has fallen, exposing much of the water-carved shale that constitutes this river's bottom. We easily could have crossed the river here, hopping from dry rock to dry rock, without even getting our feet wet.

After a woodland walk along high banks, we descended to a flat area just where the Hoosic bends, delivering silt-rich floodwaters that encourage the plants that grow in this alluvial soil to reach prodigious size. These Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), for example, grow nearly chest high, beneath towering Sycamores and Cottonwood trees.

This is the only place my friends and I have ever found Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium) of any size, and here it grows hip high.  The plants were still erect and readily visible now, although the long pencil-thin spathes had given "birth" to clusters of glossy green fruits attached to the sturdy stems. The fruits will later turn a brilliant scarlet, easily seen among the collapsing leaves.

Among the other wildflowers thriving on this sunlit shore, the deep-purple blooms of Monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens) were especially colorful.

The big, showy, bright-yellow blooms of Great St. John's Wort (Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum) have yielded some big showy seedpods now, and a large patch of this state-listed Rare native wildflower was easily spotted, leaning out from the thickly overgrown bank.

This pair of Turtleheads (Chelone glabra) was also easy to spot, their fat white flowers shown to best advantage agains the dark shale of the steep bank rising behind them.

Just downstream from the low floodplain site so full of wildflowers, the banks of the Hoosic rise steeply from the flat exposed river bottom. Those steep shale banks are home to some plants we rarely have access to, but which the lowered water level will allow us to approach this year.

I am always amazed by how a flower as delicate in appearance as Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) can grow in some of the ruggedest habitats.  Here, the Harebell's long slender stems project horizontally from the steep rocks, holding the vibrantly purple flowers out closer to the sunlight.

These Provancher's Fleabane basal rosettes cling tightly to the vertical shale banks.  The presence of such rosettes so late in the summer is a very strong clue that this particular variety of fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus var. provancheri) is the Endangered variety, known from very few sites in New York. I found many fewer plants this year than the hundreds I found a year ago, possibly because of the lack of rainfall and hot temperatures this summer.

Because I took my preview walk at Canal Park in the afternoon, I was able to see many flowers starring the floating leaves of Water Stargrass (Heteranthera dubia), an aquatic species that was thriving in the shallow pools among the exposed flattened rocks of the Hoosic riverbottom.  Since this flower appears to bloom only in the afternoon, my Thursday Naturalist friends could see very few of its bright-yellow blooms on our mid-morning walk.

Most of my Thursday friends also missed seeing these floating rafts of Water Chestnut leaves, since I ripped them up from the river and threw them high and dry on a hollow log to desiccate.  This alien plant (Trapa natans is the scientific name) has become a terribly invasive species since it was inadvertently released in North American waters in the late 1800s.

As we considered our return walk, I suggested two different routes to my friends:  either continue on a shady wooded loop that would lead to where we began, or choose the more difficult terrain of the exposed river bottom, mostly flattened shale but with occasional jagged areas that would pose a risk to the less sure-footed among us.  Such an opportunity to explore a previously inaccessible site was tempting, but it also presented some danger.  

I had easily walked this river-bottom route myself on the previous afternoon when the sun's direct rays had begun to relent, but on the mid-day my Thursday Naturalist friends considered this option, a hot sun was blazing down on this shade-less course. Since I had already explored this route, I offered to accompany any friends who chose not to risk this difficult terrain and wished to continue along a less arduous route. (Unfortunately, some chose unwisely, and we suffered some agonies of concern, but luckily, all finished the walk while still upright.)

Although Goldenrod is hardly a plant worth risking exhaustion to see, I hoped my friends might stop to marvel at how many Goldenrod Soldier Beetles used this particular plant (species unknown) as their love nest.  I couldn't help musing when I saw them:  these soldiers would rather "make love, not war"!

An even more fascinating visitor to these riverbank goldenrods was this species of tiny, dust-colored moths.  Members of the Petrophila (rock-loving) group, they seek out the shores of fast-moving rock-lined rivers like the Hoosic to create their offspring in a most unusual way. 
After mating, the female will hold an air bubble to her ventral surface as she descends an underwater rock face, there to deposit her eggs. The larvae that emerge will feed on the organisms coating the rocks before they create their double-walled silk pupation chambers, also on the rocks. The adult moths emerge from those pupation chambers to rise to the surface and fly away, to start the process all over again.  Being otherwise engaged in assisting a struggling companion, I was unable to relate this incredible tale of scuba-diving moths to my friends who were walking this shore far ahead of me.  Perhaps some will read about these amazing creatures here on my blog.

I also hope my friends were made aware of this large patch of Creeping Bushclover (Lespedeza repens) that thrives out here on a Hoosic River shore that in most years is inaccessible to us because of higher water. Judging from its abundance on this shore, it's hard to believe that this plant is rated as a Rare species in New York State.

Here's a closer look at the pretty pink flowers of Creeping Lespedeza.

As I completed this day's adventures, I was delighted to find a big beautiful Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) arrayed on her zig-zag-adorned web.  Females spin orb webs with a conspicuous white zigzag structure in the middle called the stablementum. Spider experts disagree about why these spiders spin stablementa. Earlier, this zig-zag structure was thought to give stability to the web. Now the thinking is that the stablementum attracts insects or keeps birds from flying through the web. 

On the drive out of Canal Park, I noticed two Ospreys perched on the nest constructed atop a platform erected by the park.  How odd, I thought, to see adult Ospreys still hanging around their nest, long after their offspring should have fledged.  But then I remembered:  the adult Ospreys leave the nest soon after their young have learned to fly and fish for themselves.  But the young ones hang around for a while longer, eventually taking off for Central or South America sometime in September.  Many times I have gazed at this nest, hoping to catch a glimpse of its inhabitants.  How lucky for me, that I finally saw them, just before it was time for them to leave.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

What's Abloom in the Shady Swamp?

Hello again, my loyal readers.  I've been away from this blog for quite a while, traveling to visit kids and grandkids and then hosting houseguests myself at home, and now it's time to get back to the woods and the waterways.  That's especially true now, now that the October issue of Adirondack Life Magazine has appeared on news stands, containing a wonderfully written piece by Amy Godine about this very blog.  So just in case her article inspires new readers to come take a look, I'd better give them something new to see.  

But most of all, I needed to get out there and see what's new in the woods -- in this case, a densely forested wetland called the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just at the edge of Saratoga Springs.  It's technically not a true bog, but rather a swamp, home to lots of trees and ferns and mosses and shade-tolerant plants that love living in mud.

One of those plants is the gorgeous Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), and my wildflower journal told me it should be blooming now.  Although it grows well away from the trail, it is easy to  spot through the dense understory, thanks to its large and vibrantly colorful blooms.  Aha!  I see one now!

This is such a beautiful native wildflower, to me it's well worth the wet muddy feet to approach it for a closer look.  Not only are the gorgeously colored composite florets a marvel to behold, the involucres that contain all those florets are covered with narrow white-striped bracts that are quite ornamental in their own right.

A closer look at those white-striped green bracts reveals a cottony webbing among them.  This webbing is the most distinctive feature of this species of thistle, offering a positive clue to its identification.

Another distinctive trait of Swamp Thistle is its often-towering height, up to eight feet tall sometimes.   I have endured sharp pricks on my hands from its spines, because I reached up to pull a flowerhead down for a closer view.  I noticed that this year the plants were not as tall as they've been other years (perhaps because of low rainfall?).  Of the nine plants I visited this day, none towered well over my head, and this one pictured below barely reached my waist.  Its flowerhead barely cleared the arching fronds of the surrounding Sensitive Fern.

The plants being shorter this year made it easier to observe the many insects that visited the colorful blooms to feed on their pollen and nectar.  This bumblebee must have enjoyed quite a feast, since it spent a long time rummaging among the florets, impervious to my camera lens poking in to snap its picture.

This Giant Swallowtail Butterfly was much more elusive, flitting from flower to flower so fast it was hard for my camera to capture it in perfect focus.  No matter.  My eyes could easily take it in, with all its great size and splendor.

Finally sated on all that thistle-related beauty,  I continued to seek what other flowers might be blooming now in this shady swamp.  My search was well-rewarded!  And yielded quite a surprise, too.  I had not found the gorgeous Great Lobelia (Lobelia syphilitica) blooming at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail for many years, but on this day I was treated to many encounters with it.  This lovely tall spire displayed its royal-blue blooms to great advantage against the dark water of a tiny brook.

A close look at Great Lobelia's florets reveals this native wildflower's distinctive pollination strategy.  Note how the curving stamen arches up through the split upper lip of the flower, with the pollen-laden anther poised for action.  When an insect lands on the lower lip, its weight forces the stamen to spring down and deposit pollen on the nectar-sipping visitor, which it will carry off to spread to neighboring blooms. Sometimes I am simply astounded by the strategies of organisms that are said to be without intelligence!

I was so delighted by what I had already found in the dense shade of this wet woodland, I had to continue my explorations to see what else was in bloom today. I moved on from the swamp to the somewhat drier habitat of the main nature trail. At first glance, no colorful flowers revealed themselves amid the all-encompassing green of the late-summer woods.

Ah, but a closer look revealed abundant bright-orange dangling flowers of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) crowding the banks of the trailside brook.

The chubby, white, closed florets of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) remained well-hidden within the trailside shrubbery, only revealing themselves when I drew abreast of their tall plants.

If I hadn't glanced down, I never would have noticed these knobby mud-colored fruits, all that remained of the giant leaves and bulbous flower spathes of the Skunk Cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) that dominated this forest floor earlier in spring and summer.

And it was only because I noticed the Skunk Cabbage fruits that I happened to espy the tiny-flowered spindly stalks of Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), so nearly invisible were they among the similarly colored and equally slender trailside grasses and sedges.

By contrast, the large spreading flowerheads of Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata) virtually waved at me to get my attention, swaying as they did atop tall slender stems.

The many trailside plants of White Wood Aster (Eurybia divaricata) were also easy to spot, despite their smaller stature, thanks to their showy floral clusters.

Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) could not be missed, either, thanks to its tall stature and the abundance of its pale lavender flowers.

A number of dogwood species thrive along Bog Meadow Trail, and the species called Red Osier (Cornus sericea) can usually be correctly identified at any time of year by its vividly red twigs that are dotted with pale lenticels.   But I was quite surprised to see it still bearing flat clusters of four-petaled white flowers this late in the summer.

The other dogwoods I found here today were already bearing their distinctive fruit. This Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) bears fruits that are snowy white when ripe, but its most distinctive feature is the bright scarlet of the berries' pedicels, a colorful remnant that persists well into the late fall and early winter, after both the berries and leaves have fallen.

The fruits of Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) are a lovely shade of blue, borne on twigs that can be nearly as red as those of Red Osier, although with pale lenticels that appear more striped than dotted.

I continued my walk until I reached a boardwalk that edges a pond that I expected would be covered with floating water lilies.  But today, the lily pads were lying flat on the bottom of what was once the pond.  I realize that near-drought conditions this summer would have lowered the water level some.  But this complete draining was more likely caused by a breach in the beaver dam that usually  maintains higher water levels than this.

Despite the lack of standing water, a number of emergent plant species persisted, including large patches of Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) bearing abundant snowy-white blooms. This small orange Least Skipper butterfly stopped by to sip nectar from one.

Returning along the same trail I had walked out on, I was astounded by how much I had missed while walking the other direction.  How could I possibly NOT have seen the big bright-yellow flower of this Cut-leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), especially since it had toppled over to lie right in the path? This is one member of the Rudbeckias that prefers to inhabit damp soils and is also quite tolerant of shady woods.

As for Hog Peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), this Pea Family plant can tolerate more "mesic" (neither wet nor dry) soils and can grow in open meadows as well as more shaded habitats. I found along this damp and shady trail many patches of its twining branched stems that bore both trifoliate smooth leaves and clusters of pale-purple flowers.  As suggested by its vernacular name,  the nodules on the roots of Hog Peanut plants are favored by pigs, who root them up from underground. I have read that  these nodules can also be roasted and salted like peanuts, and the dried seeds of its seedpods can be cooked and eaten like lentils.

I wish I had discovered this patch of Horse Balm (Collinsonia canadensis) earlier on my walk, for I might have avoided some mosquito bites if I had.  I cannot swear by this, but the crushed leaves and flowers smell so much like Citronella, a noted mosquito repellent, that I bet I could have rubbed some on my neck and cheeks, and those persistent little bloodsuckers might have gone elsewhere to feed.

Lucky for me, I don't react much to mosquito bites.  But even if I did, the discomfort would have been worth the price for all the pleasure I found along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail this day.  It amazes me how many wonders I found here, even though at first glance there appeared to be little of interest. Silly me!  There's always SOMEthing of interest in any shady swamp or wooded wetland. Especially this one!