Thursday, September 22, 2022

Twenty Yards of Riverside Wonders. And More.

We had some beautiful weather last week, and my friend Ruth and I arranged to meet at the Sherman Island Boat Launch to enjoy a paddle on the Hudson River.  Our only dilemma was, "Should we paddle upstream or down today?" The forested mountains fall right down to the water along this catchment between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams, offering beautiful unspoiled vistas in either direction.  Also, botanical wonders await us plant enthusiasts whether we paddle upstream or down, on the Saratoga County side or over along the Warren County banks. Ultimately, we chose the Saratoga banks and the downstream route, mostly because this steeper and more boulder-lined shore offered more rocky nooks and crannies for lots of mosses and liverworts to thrive in.  Ruth has a special interest in bryophytes, and I am an eager student.

Well, we hadn't ventured more than twenty yards downstream when I remembered, "Oops!  I left my lunch bag in my car!"   So we beached our canoes right there (the river was low, providing a broad sandy landing spot), and I ran back to the parking lot to fetch my food while Ruth lingered there to explore the wooded shore.

And there we remained, for quite a long while.  When I returned, Ruth was already delighted by some of the things she had found at this spot and was searching her nature apps to confirm their names. 

One of those fascinating finds was this pretty moss called Fern Pocket Moss  (Fissidens osmundoides).  A number of reddish-stalked, pointed spore capsules protruded from the clump.  The leaves of this  genus are folded in such a way that a pocket is formed in the leaf, hence the term "pocket moss."  I, of course, cannot detect this pocket with my poor eyesight, but Ruth has lent me her loupe on other occasions so that I could see it. This moss's "ferny-ness" is obvious to even my impaired and unaided eye.

Here's the first fascinating thing I'd found when I stepped from my canoe, the underwater branching structures of some (unknown-to-me) species of bladderwort (Utricularia sp.) sprawling on the damp sand.  Still attached were the tiny bladders that trap and digest even tinier underwater organisms that provide for the plant's nutrition. This bladderwort must have been drifting along with the river's current when the water went down rather suddenly, stranding it on the shore.

Those two finds were just the first of many that kept us exploring this limited woodsy wetland so close to our launch site for quite a while longer. This tall plant of Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) stood noticeably above the surrounding vegetation, its reddish stems and coloring leaves inviting our notice.

Thankfully, the Water Hemlock's divided leaves distinguish it from the very similar Water Parsnip, so as to prevent mistaking the two. All parts of Water Hemlock are deadly poisonous to consume, at least for humans. The leaves were certainly pretty, though.

It always delights me to find a carousel of Canada Lily seedpods (Lilium canadense), especially since the Scarlet Lily Beetle has extirpated so many of this beautiful native wildflower's local populations. I was happy to be reminded of the beautiful bright-orange lilies I had seen dangling from these stems at this very location last July.

And here, too, were the big fat seed pods of Great St. John's Wort (Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum),  a native plant with large beautiful flowers that is rated as a Rare species in New York. Happily, I know of several populations, most of them along this very stretch of the Hudson River.

The large white flowers of Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) that bloomed here a few weeks earlier had now yielded these attractive green seedpods, perfectly round and beaded with white-striped scales.

I was amused by the spiky pods of a Bur Reed species, resembling a bunch of vegetable hedgehogs.

We did find a few flowers that were still in bloom, too.  In the shallow water near the bank, a number of the white flowers of Grass-leaved Arrowhead (Sagittaria graminifolia) were still attracting their regular cohort of small black pollen-eating flies.

Several plants of Closed Gentian (Gentiana clausa) were blooming here, too, their stems bent over by the weight of multi-bloom flowerheads.

This Heal-all plant (Prunella vulgaris) probably would have remained hidden among the surrounding greenery if not for the brilliant purple of its small florets. Folklore once held that this very common Mint-family herb, native to northern regions of several continents including ours, was sent by God to heal any ailment of man or beast. I won't attest to that, except to admit that the beauty of this pretty flower would be a sight for sore eyes.

Look what else we found at this most interesting patch of riverside woods:  a Spotted Alder branch that held several tufts of white furry stuff.

A closer look revealed that this "fur" was really the white waxy substance excreted by a mass of wingless Woolly Alder Aphids.  The aphids produce this fur-like coating to protect themselves against the weather (and would-be predators, as well) as they spend the rest of their lives in place, feeding on alder sap.

Here was less-furry group of the aphids, perhaps later arrivals produced via parthenogenesis when their solitary winged mother landed here and "gave birth to" the first wingless clone of herself.  That clone produced another clone, that produced another clone, etc., etc., etc., ultimately creating this entire mass consisting of female clones of that first winged Woolly Alder Aphid that landed on this branch.  Before winter arrives, these wingless individuals will produce a final winged generation of both male and female aphids, capable of flying off to find mates and lay eggs on their second essential tree, a Silver Maple. 

Note how these ants appear to be tending to the aphids.  Like other species of aphid, these Woolly Alder Aphids excrete a fluid called "honeydew" as a waste product, and the ants feed on that fluid, fiercely defending their "flock" by driving off any predators.  I have read that Lacewing larvae, voracious predators of aphids, will avoid the defender-ants' notice by covering themselves with the aphids' woolly "fur" and moving undetected amid the cluster, feeding as they go.  Like wolves in sheep's clothing! Wow!  Nature is so amazing!

After marveling at how much fun we were having on this one small patch of riverbank just a few yards from where we had started,  we agreed we should get in our boats and see what we could find while we ventured downstream.  As we paddled, we were charmed by the royal-blue profusion of many Closed Gentian flowers.

We were happily surprised to find still-blooming stands of bright-yellow Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) this late in summer.

As we paddled close to wavelet-watered bedrock, we found many patches of this lichen called Streamside Stippleback (Dermatocarpos luridum), looking beautifully plump and green. When not watered regularly by splashing water, this lichen resembles a patch of black crumbly stuff.

For the rest of our trip, fungal beauty replaced the floral.  I couldn't get close enough to this group of golden mushrooms to identify them, so I simply admired their glowing color, mossy green setting, and symmetrical grouping from the seat of my canoe below their high bank.

This stark-white Amanita was beautifully arrayed against the dark shadows of the forested bank.

A decomposing tree trunk provided a very happy home to this group of attractive mushrooms, their plump yellowish caps speckled with rusty red dots.

I was able to reach out and pick one of this group to examine it more closely.  What a vivid chrome-yellow its flesh and gills were! This unusual combination, of ruddy tops and yellow gills, made this mushroom easy to find in my mushroom guides when I got home.  Tricholomopsis rutilans is the scientific name, and its vernacular name is just wonderful: Plums and Custard! I'll never forget this mushroom's name!

Paddling slowly along, I noticed this small Pale Beauty moth (Campaea perlata) struggling to rise from where it had fallen into the water. I picked it up, intending to let it rest on my hand until it was able to fly away.  But instead, it died, or certainly seemed to, since it moved no more.

Ah yes, it's that time of year, when many creatures have accomplished what they lived for and have come to the end of their single-summer lifetimes. I felt a bit sad, but I also hoped that my hand had allowed this ephemeral creature to more peacefully rest into death. 

As I raised my eyes, I was struck by the vivid beauty of Virginia Creeper leaves also "resting into death" as their soon-to-go-dormant vine will no longer require their photosynthesizing green.  The leaves will fall, but the vine will live on, to revive after winter's restorative sleep. I find such rhythms in nature quite reassuring, and even instructive.  Especially now that I am old and contemplate my own passing.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Late Summer Beauty on a Beaver Pond

The day was perfect for a paddle: calm wind, sunny but cool, a fine friend to paddle with, and a marvelous group of waterways to choose from.  When my friend Ruth suggested we visit West Vly, a marshy-shored beaver pond in the southern Adirondacks, I at first hesitated.  Would the water be deep enough to navigate (the beaver dam is sometimes breached)?  Would we find enough in the way of plants to delight us, since the shallow-watered shoreline presents quite a monoculture of sedges?  And it was true, when I first launched my canoe and observed the scene before me, it did look less interesting than the boulder-shored, wildflower-abundant, forested ponds and streams we usually paddle.

 But that perception soon changed!

It didn't take more than a few pulls of my paddle to bring me close to a watery wonderland along the shore, where the shining, gracefully arching leaves of Slender Sedge (Carex lasiocarpa) were gently waving in the breeze, perfect flowers of Fragrant Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata) were serenely floating on the mirror-still water, and numerous ancient tree stumps were home to beautiful mixes of colorful lichens, emerald-green mosses, sparkling sundews, and numerous flowers that were just as beautiful in seed as they had been in bloom.

The shoreline, too, offered masses of color, such as this abundant patch of Marsh St. Johnswort (Hypericum virginicum) crowned with vividly scarlet seed pods.

There were mounds of Dwarf St. Johnswort (Hypericum mutilum), too, bearing equally red but much tinier seed pods, as well as a few miniature bright-yellow blooms.

Even the sedges and rushes were colorful now, many of them bearing spikelets that rivaled wildflowers for beauty. (I confess I have difficulty remembering their names, but I still can admire their beauty.)

This tall tuft of grass towered over the extensive expanse of Slender Sedge,  where it danced and waved with the slightest breeze.

We were pleased to note that the beavers were still quite active here, their lodges clear evidence that legions of workers were ready to stanch any breaches that might occur in the dam that held all the water back to form this pond. This lodge was decorated with the bright blooms of Nodding Bur Marigold (Bidens cernua).

Here's a closer look at the Nodding Bur Marigold.  The flowers remain erect in bloom, but the center disk flowers will indeed nod when they drop their petals and go to seed. 

When I spied this nearby plant of Yellow Loosestrife (Lysimachia terrestris), it occurred to me that I can't recall ever seeing the terminal clusters of this plant's flowers in seed. I do frequently find the little red bulbils that sprout in the leaf axils, however. These bulbils will drop off to create clonal offspring where they fall.

As we approached the extensive beaver dam at one end of the pond, we noticed a significant change in the shoreline.  Instead of wide marshy areas of aquatic sedges standing in shallow water, the steeper, rockier banks here were forested with tall conifers, with many of the trees growing right at the water's edge.  Ruth has here climbed from her canoe, the better to observe the vegetation growing along the top of the dam.  When I paddled close to the edge of the dam and peered over the edge, I was startled to note a drop of at least eight feet. Those beavers are certainly skilled engineers!

This bright-yellow Amanita mushroom was so brilliantly colored it shone as if lit from within from out of the deep shadows of the forest.

A glimpse of something blue along the shore had me beaching my own canoe and climbing out to explore the the forest where it met the water's edge.  And look what I saw! Dozens of royal-blue Narrow-leaved Gentians (Gentiana linearis), some a bit past prime but others looking as radiant as ever.

And here was another surprise: new bright-pink blooms on the shoreline Sheep Laurel shrubs (Kalmia angustifolia).  This shrub normally blooms in early June, but will occasionally sprout new flowers in the fall.

We continued around the edge of the pond, next entering a region of very shallow water and extensive mud flats, the shallowness impeding us from paddling any closer than this. These mud flats were  decorated with hundreds of Spatulate Sundew plants (Drosera intermedia), the bright-scarlet leaves of which glistened with sparkling but sticky fluid drops that entice this carnivorous plant's insect prey to visit and be trapped and consumed.

As I pushed my canoe through the shallows to take a closer look at the sundew-carpeted mud, I noticed myriad tiny yellow flowers poking up from amid the sundews.

Very tiny yellow flowers, held above the shallow water on slender leafless stalks.

I did manage to push my boat in close enough to lift one of the tiny flowers and get a good look at its yellow petals that were faintly striped with thread-fine red lines.   The tininess of the flower, the equal size of the top and bottom petals, the noticeable hump beneath the top petal, and the way the plants were affixed in the watery mud instead of floating free convinced me that these were indeed the aquatic flower called Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba). This is another carnivorous plant that obtains its nutrients, not by photosynthesizing with green leaves (note the absence of leaves), but by digesting tiny organisms it sucks into its underwater bladders.

We eventually reached the far side of the pond, where a sphagnum-carpeted bog mat, holding dancing tufts of cottongrass atop long slender stems, extended for many acres before meeting the forest beyond. We could not find any place where we could pull our boats up and get out to examine the mat,  so we called it a day and paddled back to where we had put in.

Before leaving West Vly, I let my boat just drift while I gazed about at the beautiful forest that surrounded us, some of the Red Maples already taking on their gorgeous autumn color. I was also struck by the absolute silence of this isolated place, with the only sounds those of a cricket's high-pitched faint  call and the occasional drip from the blade of  my resting paddle.  And to think that I had wondered if we would find enough here to delight us!

One final delight awaited us as we climbed the trail back to our cars, our lightweight canoes on our  shoulders.  I was glancing around the woods that surrounded the trail, grateful that the shotgun shells and beer cans that used to litter this beautiful place had disappeared, when I noticed many small Ladies' Tresses orchids growing right by the path.  What gracefully curving petals, and so snowy white!  We once called these Nodding Ladies' Tresses, but now they go by the name Sphinx Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes incurva).  Ah well, who cares what taxonomists call them now?  I call them gorgeous, and that's good enough for me.