My friend Sue Pierce had some exciting news: a poster to the internet app "iNaturalist" had pinpointed a large population of the spectacularly beautiful native wildflower called Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), and this population was right here in our personal traipsing territory! Of course, Sue and I would have been more circumspect in naming so exactly where to find such a "collectible" species, but we ourselves were quite delighted to have this information. And of course, to act on it!
So here we were one day this past week, exploring an unnamed powerline clearcut to see if we could find those Fringed Gentians -- or any other of the floral treasures we've come to expect we might find on these often overlooked wildflower habitats. In many ways, these clearcuts replace the forest clearings that would naturally occur after fire or windstorms, and we have actually found some really rare or otherwise fascinating plants in other clearcuts we've explored. What might we find today? Our hopes were high!
At first glance, this site didn't look very promising. As we entered, we saw huge mounds of what looked to be excavated "dirt" piled on a barren-looking weedy field. But whoa! What are those bushy "blobs" sprouting up from the heaps of sand and rubble?
A closer look revealed them to be this most interesting plant, called Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium), a native of North America's central plains that has expanded its range by now to our northeastern states. Its favored habitat is exactly the kind of disturbed sandy soil where we found it growing today. Some of these bushy plants had aged to a somber gray-brown, but a few still sported their beautifully rosy-purple autumn coloration.
Here's a closer look at an individual winged floret, now forming its seed. Each bushy plant is attached to the ground by a single stem, which eventually will break off to send the rest of the plant tumbling away in the wind, shedding its seeds as it rolls.
As we followed the powerline through more woodsy territory, we were delighted by the crazy-quilt autumn colors of the trailside vegetation.
The blazing star of this trailside vegetation was our native New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), with blooms of the most vivid purple.
Here, too, flourished many plants of New England Aster bearing vivid-rose blooms, looking especially beautiful in combination with their purple-flowered neighbors.
Many white-flowered asters crowded the trailside grasses, too. They might all have been Heath Asters (Symphyotrichum ericoides), but I was not carrying my Newcomb's Wildflower Guide to help me key out the many similar species of small white asters. Whatever their species, they were very pretty.
We were not surprised to find here many plants of Slender Agalinis (Agalinis tenuifolia), since open, sandy-soiled sites like this are its preferred habitat. But we hadn't really expected to see so many still in bloom this late in the year.
Still searching for those Fringed Gentians we hoped to find, we enjoyed other trailside beauty as we walked, delighted to find Winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) heavy with scarlet fruits.
These gray seedheads of Virginia Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) may not have been colorful, but we were happy to find this species of mountain mint growing abundantly here. Their leaves were quite a bit broader than those of the more common Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint, which we find much more frequently than this species flourishing under this powerline.
And finally, there they were! The Fringed Gentians we were hoping to find! Even though most of the many plants we encountered were somewhat past their prime, the radiant royal blue of the occasional still-open flowers blazed out from amid the overgrowing grasses, making them easy to discern.
Once we espied the first Fringed Gentian plant, we kept seeing more and more. And more! And many stems bore multiple blooms like this one. A true treasure-trove of Fringed Gentians! This site will obviously be on our list of sites to visit next September.
(At this point, I do want to urge everyone to NEVER pick a Fringed Gentian. This is a biennial species, depending on its flowers to produce and drop seed, which (conditions permitting) will germinate to produce non-flowering leafy plants the following year, which will eventually produce the flowering plants the second year after seed drop. Without the flowers left in place and allowed to produce seeds, the plants will disappear.)
In addition to exposure to sunlight, one of the habitat conditions that must be present to promote the growth of Fringed Gentians is the presence of dampness in the soil. Dampness of soil is also a condition required by many species of liverwort. Here, Sue is photographing a liverwort (species unknown to us as yet) we were surprised to discover along the trail.
I hope Sue's photo is better focused than mine. But at least my photo shows certain details that might help a bryologist determine its species. I suspect those small brown dots might be the fruiting bodies. I'm not sure if the wispy green threads poking up through the liverwort's leaf cluster are part of the liverwort itself, or rather bits of moss occupying the same patch of soil.
We didn't meet any other human walkers under this powerline, but we did find evidence that wildlife passes here frequently. Probably the most frequent visitors, to judge from the number of deep tracks left in the damp sand and mud, were Whitetail Deer.
We found many canine footprints, too. Since the canine prints were not accompanied by human tracks (and we also heard many Coyote vocalizations, too), I am going to assert that this is most likely that of a Coyote, not a domestic dog.
The American Turkey footprints were no surprise, either, since this native wild bird is known to prefer foraging along open roadsides.
I was surprised, though, to find these tracks. The size and the slightly curving furry toes projecting sharp nails caused me to think they might be those of a Fisher, a large weasel whose tracks I often find in nearby woods and follow in the snow. But I am no expert tracker. Other suggestions would be welcomed. I know that Fishers have five toes, not four, but all my track guides suggest that the small fifth toe often does not show in the track.
UPDATE: Both Sue and Woody have commented to inform me that these prints are most likely made by a canine species, NOT Fisher, and they give very helpful reasons why in their comments. Because of the size (smaller than other canine prints that were most likely Coyote), I will assume they were made by a fox, but whether Red Fox or Gray Fox I still would not know. Since there were no accompanying human footprints, I am assuming they were not domestic dog.
When we came to a crossroads, we observed that we could continue on and on and on, in several directions. Wow! Lots more clearcut to explore! Considering all the interesting things we encountered today, you can be certain we will be back again, to wander even further along these trails.
Had a great time walking there with you ! Returned with Ruth today and we already know we are going to check the place out earlier in the year next season.
I do think those are canine tracks though, pretty clear in the mud, only 4 toes and concave pad ... have never not-seen the five toes on a fisher track. (But then I have only seen prints in snow).
Also, fishers would leave different prints for front & hind feet. General area (mostly deciduous woods near apartments and houses) would suggest fox a more likely visitor there.
I did see some clear cat prints there as well. It's a busy place and fun to see who was there.
Glad you found the fringed gentian. I'm fairly certain the tracks in that one set are not fisher tracks. Fisher's have a "U"-shaped heel pad; those tracks' heel pads show one front lobe and two rear lobes which are typical of canid tracks (fox, coyote or dog).
Thanks, Sue and Woody, for your helpful comments about the "Fisher" tracks. I will edit my remarks to send readers to your corrective comments.
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