Friday, September 29, 2023

Autumn Color Everywhere!

Autumn's glory approaches its fullness! And where better to witness this glory's arrival than paddling a quiet Adirondack lake, especially one ringed by forested mountains? When I joined my friends Ruth and Sue at Lens Lake in Warren County this week, we could see that the colorful foliage had yet to reach full crazy-quilt vibrancy, but there was no denying that it was surely beautiful, while yet promising even more vibrant colors to come.

Even the Fragrant Water Lily pads were assuming warm hues to match the shoreline trees, the sphagnum-carpeted bog mats, and the shrubs that crowded the boulders along the rocky banks. 

Before we headed out to explore the bog mats, we drifted closely along the shore,  where quiet backwaters were lined with colorful shrubs, and the still water reflected lovely gardens that had sprouted from waterlogged fallen trees.

My moss-loving pals found much to engage their attention among the moss-covered logs and lichen-frosted stumps.

I felt less obsessed than usual to put names to every beauty I found, and let my eyes instead of my intellect have full rein today.  I did happen to know the name of these dew-spangled Round-leaved Sundew plants, but even if I hadn't, just enjoying their rosy sparkle was adequate and joy-filled satisfaction.

The same, for these tiny red-capped fruticose lichens poking up from a verdant velvety moss.  Even if I did not already know that they were called Lipstick Powderhorns, I bet I could have assigned them that name, just from the way they looked.

The flowering shoreline shrubs held just as much beauty as they had held when they first bloomed last June, the Sheep Laurel actually putting out a second explosion of bright-pink flowers.

And the Labrador Tea shrubs were studded with pretty pink terminal "buds,"  but not buds that were due to open soon.  These cone-shaped growths won't open until next spring, when clusters of pretty white flowers will emerge.

This fallen log was covered so thickly with such a variety of colors and shapes, it reminded me of a  colorful medieval tapestry.  I could almost imagine a Unicorn prancing amid the tiny Large Cranberry leaves and its bright-pink orbs,  the urn-shaped pot-bellied green leaves of a Purple Pitcher Plant, and the scarlet-blotched leaves of a baby Red Maple.

But the bog mats soon beckoned, glowing gold and surmounted by multi-colored mountain slopes.

Drifts of white-tufted Cottongrass floated above the carpets of red and gold sphagnum moss. The Cottongrass tufts danced in the breeze, and also danced again in rippling reflections.

This clump of glossy scarlet and lime-green Pitcher Plant leaves was remarkably robust.

Two different species of sphagnum, one red, one gold, mingled their colors like those in a Persian carpet.

Studding the golden sphagnum were many ripe red fruits of Large Cranberry.

The formerly pink and green leaves of Marsh St. John's Wort had assumed their autumnal ruby red.

A second St. John's Wort species also decorated the bog mat, but this one, called Dwarf St. John's Wort,  had much daintier leaves of a gentler shade of rosy red.

Small floating mats bore the meandering yellow-green ropey branches of Bog Club Moss,which shared its crowded muddy habitat with the spiky remains of Yellow-eyed Grass, Pipewort, and White Beaksedge.

Here and there on the vast bog mats, small young Tamarack Trees still held onto their bright-green needles, which soon will turn golden before dropping off for the winter.  This common denizen of bogs is our only deciduous conifer.

Tamaracks can grow quite tall, but none will ever grow taller than our native White Pines, some of which have attained astonishing heights on the rocky islands that dot the surface of Lens Lake.

One Red Maple stood out from others along the shore, both for its height as well as for the vibrancy of its scarlet leaves.

From craning my eyes to admire these tall trees, I next turned my gaze to see what I could see beneath the water's surface. I soon spied some feathery ropes of Common Bladderwort floating free while submerged, and a few of them held bulbous green orbs at their tips.  These orbs are called "turions," and they are the winter buds of these bladderworts. The turions will sink into the mud after the rest of the plant disintegrates from freezing, and a new plant, a clone of its parent,  will sprout from the turion in the spring.  Although these bladderworts do produce above-water flowers and are capable of reproducing sexually by the production of seeds, they also continue to spread their populations by this vegetative method.

Paddling over some sunken tree limbs, we saw what looked like lengths of green yarn caught in the twigs and waving around underwater.  I lifted up a portion of this "green yarn" to examine it more closely. Its gritty texture, composed of silica, convinced me that this was Freshwater Sponge, a colony of tiny animals that filter water through their bodies, absorbing oxygen from the water and feeding on waterborne food particles.  Their presence in a lake is usually an indication of clean water.

But here was the most amazing underwater "being" we saw today, a bulbous mass of transparent greenish jelly submerged in shallow water close to the shore.  These blobs, which occur frequently in this lake, are formed by a colonial microscopic single-celled protozoan called Ophrydium versatile.  As I once learned from the Ask the Naturalist blog, these colonies can be found all over the world in fresh water.  The individual cells line up side-by-side and attach themselves to a jelly-like substance they secrete, eventually forming blobs of different sizes, from as small as a marble to as big as a bathtub.  They are symbiotic with microscopic Chlorella algae that live inside the Ophrydium cells and give the blob its green color.  When the sunlight illumines these colonies beneath the water, they assume a wonderfully mysterious green glow!

Here was one last amazing thing we found at Lens Lake this day: a mass of baby spiders, still residing in their webby nest before wafting off on breeze-lofted filaments of their own web.  Sue saw this mass first, attached to the twigs of a waterside shrub.  

At first, especially when I saw the pale, dry, cast-off skins of the molting spiderlings, I was concerned that all were dead, perhaps killed by frost.   But then I spotted the larger, darker spiderlings that were definitely wriggling around. They were too small for me to determine their species, so I will just call them Adorables. This was just one more delight of this absolutely delightful day in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Powerline Perambulations

 An east/west powerline intersects a north/south lane in the middle of the densely wooded Daniels Road State Forest Preserve, just north of Saratoga.  Two straight lines, easy walking, no way to get lost in the woods.  A friend had told me about an abundant patch of Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) alongside this powerline, the flowers massed just steps from the preserve's parking area, he said.  So on Friday,  off I went to find them, driving north about a half-mile into the woods to the parking area, then headed east on the powerline. I could easily see this intersection pictured below from where I parked my car.

Here's what Purple Milkwort looks like.  It's small (similar in size to a clover flower), but such a bright pink I was sure I couldn't miss it. 

But miss it, I did!  I walked and walked and walked along the powerline, heading east, searching the grass along either side, but found no dots of bright purple.  Hmm, I thought to myself, I must be walking the wrong side of the powerline. (I'd forgotten my friend's directions.)  Better go back to the lane I drove in on and continue on the powerline heading west.  But just as I thought this, I spied some beautiful Yellow Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca) off trail near the woods.  Oh boy, I rarely see these!  Better get some good photos.  So I knelt down, circling around the plants to get shots of it from all angles.  That was my first mistake.

But I did not realize my mistake until some time later. When I rose from my knees I started walking what I assumed was back toward the lane, not realizing that I had got myself turned around and was actually walking away from the lane. I walked and walked and walked, feeling a bit amazed that I had come so far. But then I started noticing trailside features that I knew I'd not passed before.  WHAT?!!!  Oh dear, I must be going the wrong direction! So I turned around and walked and walked and walked and walked and never found the lane.  Stunned and disoriented, I questioned my sense of direction once more, and after repeating my exertions again and never finding the lane in either direction, I totally panicked. I had enough sense to know that I had left the lane by traveling east, so all I had to do was keep heading west and that lane would eventually appear. But clouds had covered the sun so there were no afternoon shadows to indicate east from west, and I had no compass.  (Lesson learned: never leave home without one!) Frightened and exhausted, but lucky there was cell service here and I had a charged-up cellphone, I stationed myself by a numbered power pole and dialed 911.  Long story short, a dear young sheriff's deputy found me not 15 minutes after my call for help and escorted me out through the woods to where he had parked his patrol car nearly a mile away. He then drove me back to where my car was parked. Oh boy, did I feel stupid!  I could not thank my escort enough, but he told me he'd much rather help a lady find her way out of the woods than stop somebody for speeding.  How dear and kind of him! He made me feel very happy that my taxes go to provide such help for the lost.

But I still felt much chagrin that I had made such a stupid mistake, and even worse, that I'd never found the flowers!  So back to the scene of the drama I returned the next day, full of strategies about how to determine directions, as well as clear instructions from my friend about exactly where to find the Purple Milkworts, just steps from the parking area.  This time I headed WEST on the powerline.  And I kept turning around to keep the lane well in view.  I also gazed beyond the lane to where I could see mountains rising far to the east. I could see no mountains, even from a rise in the path, by gazing to the west.  So now I had a sure reference. Those mountains weren't going anywhere. Now I could relax and enjoy the walk.

Just as my friend had told me, the milkworts were only a few yards away from the intersection of powerline and roadway.  And oh my gosh, there were HUNDREDS!  I could hardly walk among them without fear of trampling them.

I have seen this lovely flower before, but never with blooms of such an intense color.

Secure that I could still see the lane from a kneeling position, I once again knelt down to closely admire and photograph the blooms.

Just look at the teeny tiny multicolored flowers held within the surrounding purple bracts! Like a tiny bouquet wrapped in purple tissue paper. They remind me of those Italian porcelains called Capodimonte, which render tiny delicate flowers, often contained in little porcelain baskets.  

These flowers must keep blooming for quite a long time, continuing to add new tiers of delicate bracts as the blossoms age. Evidently, these Purple Milkworts have been blooming for quite a while!

Mission accomplished and shame assuaged, I continued walking west on the powerline clearcut,  delighting in many of the other wildflowers along the way.  The wayside meadows were a sea of goldenrods, probably of several species, but I was content to enjoy their beauty without having to know their exact names.  This bumblebee didn't care whose nectar it was imbibing.

I did recognize these small yellow flowers as belonging to Rough Hawkweed (Hieracium scabrum), one of our native hawkweeds and one with roughish leaves that climb the hairy stems.

At first glance, I surmised that these starry white flowers were those of Frostweed Aster (Symphyotricum pilosum), because of their relatively large size and the plant's open habit of growth.  But wait:  these stems were smooth, not hairy, as the specific name "pilosum" would indicate.  So this aster is likely the hairless variety of S. pilosum called Pringle's Aster: Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pringlei.

This thickly florabundant pale-purple aster could be the Wavy Aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum), to judge from how the pedicels of its lower leaves widened before they met the stems. But I am never sure of species when it comes to asters.  We have so many species, and they do hybridize with each other at times.

This bumblebee was feeding on what I at first assumed was Spotted Knapweed.  But then I noticed the slender lance-like leaves along the stem, not the deeply-cut leaves of that very invasive non-native weed.  I then decided this must be Brown Knapweed (Centaurea jacea) instead.  The Brown Knapweed (a species introduced from Europe) is possibly just as invasive in the U.S. as the Spotted Knapweed, but I do find it growing wild much less often and much less abundantly in the places I usually visit.

The brown fringed bracts on the Brown Knapweed's involucre are one of the keys to its identification, along with those narrow uncut leaves.

When I saw the bright-yellow blooms of Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua), I guessed that it had found its way to a bit of a wetland beneath these powerlines.  Sure enough, as I approached, I stepped down into a swale that was thick with the barbed stems of Arrowleaf Tearthumb grabbing at my pantlegs, and my feet could feel soft damp soil beneath my shoes.

Slender Agalinis (Agalinis tenuifolia) is another denizen of damp places, and sure enough, I found in this little swale a few of its pretty purple flowers still blooming among the frothy remains of its many plants now gone to seed.

And sure enough, here also bloomed the well-named wetland denizen called Swamp Aster (Symphyotricum puniceum).  Another name for this aster is Purple-stemmed Aster, although it doesn't always have a purple stem.  But it does always grow where the soil is damp.  And it always has a hairy stem. Since "puniceum" means "pink" in Latin, I'm still pondering why it earned that name, since its flowers look more blue than pink. This is our earliest showy aster to bloom, and it keeps on blooming very late in the season.

There were also rocky outcroppings along the powerline, perfect habitat for many interesting mosses and lichens and clubmosses.  I recognized the spiky Bristly Haircap Moss (Polytricum piliferum) poking up through these wavy-leaved mounds of a gray-green lichen, but I will have to ask one of my bryologist friends to help me put a name to the lichen. I found it beautiful, but it was quite unfamiliar to me.

I did recognize these pale fruiticose lichens as one of the Reindeer Lichens (Cladonia species), but my attention was taken up almost entirely by the green spiky tufts of Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris), which is not really a moss, being more closely related to ferns. Although it is quite widespread in its range, it is not a very common find.

The white tufts on the ends of these Running Clubmoss branches have suggested other vernacular names for Lycopodium clavatum: Wolf's Claw and Stag's Horn among them.  The yellow candelabras are the clubmoss's spore stalks.

Here was another clubmoss,  a species called Blue Clubmoss (Diphasiastrum tristachyum), although it's only a little bit bluer than other Diphasiastrum species. What distinguishes this one is that its stolons run beneath the surface of the ground instead of along the top. And yes, a bluish cast to its green leaves.

The grassy meadows under the powerline had their own way of being beautiful. I particularly love our native Little Bluestem Grass  (Schizachyrium scoparium) in the fall, when its fine stalks (more red than blue!) hold fluffy tufts of the seedheads all along the stems.

There was one section where the  grass was distinctly yellow, and its seedheads looked like fluffy yellow-orange caterpillars.  Can any one of my readers put a name to this pretty grass? I confess that grasses are one of my areas of ignorance. But that doesn't mean my appreciation for their beauty is lacking.

I did see some small yellow butterflies along the way, very busy among the asters, but none would hold still for the picture-taking. But this handsome fellow (gal?) did hold still.  A beautiful insect indeed! Note that it was perched on the hairless stems of a Pringle's Aster!

On the other hand, this little critter did not hold still at all!  It was all I could do to hold onto this wee little Dekay's Brown Snake as it wriggled and swayed in my hand -- let alone get its cute little face in focus!  I've been told that this snake never gets much bigger than this, so I'm glad to know my grip wasn't terrifying a helpless little baby. I promptly let it go.