Sunday, February 11, 2024

Non-Winter Wanderings

We've had a whole string of blue-sky spring-warm days, and even though I'm grumpy and fearful about our lack of wintry weather,  I have enjoyed being outdoors in relative comfort. Here's just a digest of some of the sites I've visited this past week and a few of the fascinating things I have found there.

Return to the Old Cemetery

In my last post, I described a recent visit not only to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, but also to an old cemetery adjacent to this preserve.  My photos of the various mosses that adorned the cemetery's old stone walls aroused the interest of my moss-loving friends Sue Pierce and Tom Callaghan, so together we returned to this site for further bryological explorations.




Many lichens also adorn these moss-covered stones, and this crustose gray lichen (Cinder Lichen?) appeared to be turning red. But thanks to my iNaturalist-savvy friends, I soon learned that this red stuff is actually a fungus: a lichen-inhabiting fungus called Marchandiomyces corallinus. I also learned that the fungus is probably consuming the lichen.  It always amazes me to learn about so much drama occurring beneath our notice! My notice, anyway. I'm very grateful to my more internet-adept friends who can provide me with the names and behaviors of organisms I would never discover without their help.




I can always count on my eagle-eyed pal Sue to detect many treasures my own poor eyesight would never espy.  I don't know how on earth she noticed these itty-bitty mushrooms that had sprouted among the ground-level roots of a small  American Beech tree.  But notice them she did, and our friend Tom also found out from iNaturalist that they went by the name of Fenugreek Stalkball (Phleogena fagina). This is one of our mushrooms that grows in winter, and its curry-powder-like scent of fenugreek is said to grow stronger as the mushroom ages.  The brown color of the caps indicated that this normally whitish mushroom was indeed aging, but it would have been difficult for me to get my nose down close enough to see if I could smell that distinctive scent.



Saratoga's Spring Run Trail

Many friends from points further south have been finding Skunk Cabbage plants (Symplocarpus foetidus) already in bloom this over-warm winter, with open spathes and the interior spadices already covered with pollen-producing florets. So of course I had to go investigate our local wetland sites where Skunk Cabbage grows to see if I could find some for myself.  One of those sites is the Spring Run Trail right in Saratoga Springs. At the far eastern end of this mile-long trail, a convenient boardwalk crosses an open marsh, leading me directly toward a low swale where Skunk Cabbage thrives.




While crossing the boardwalk, I was startled to see this cluster of Woolly Alder Aphids attached to an alder twig.  These are not spring-feeding insects but are usually found  in autumn, and these wingless individuals usually die off before winter begins, after producing a final generation of winged aphids that fly away to mate. A close examination revealed that these aphids were indeed no longer alive, most likely killed with the first hard frosts (despite their woolly-looking coats). How unusual to find a still-intact cluster of them in the middle of winter. Even in this over-mild winter.




Well, I DID find some colored-up spathes of Skunk Cabbage that had burst through their pale winter bracts.  Their spathes still closed tight, these were growing right in the middle of a tiny flowing stream.  Most of the other plants at this site were still tightly closed within their winter bracts.



Aha!  Here was ONE that was fully open enough to invite any pollinators within.  Problem is, few of Skunk Cabbage's pollinators are around as yet, and the interior spadix had yet to produce any pollen-bearing florets.


I'm hoping these early-opening plants aren't pushing the season so fast that any true-winter sub-freezing weather that's likely still to come won't kill them as dead as those aphids were.


Graphite Range, Redux

When I last posted a blog about this marvelous new preserve in nearby Wilton, the woods was a fairyland of fluffy snow.  When I returned this week with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, the trees were now bare of snow and the trails were now hard-packed and icy. And now the snow had receded from the steeper banks, allowing us to see what was growing there.  My friend Sue alerted us that a most interesting moss was growing at this location.


I couldn't see much of the "mossy" leaves of this moss, but the greenish, white-tipped, urn-shaped spore-capsules were much in evidence.  Very odd-looking spore capsules!


According to a site called In Defense of Plants, "These peculiar mosses have earned themselves the common name Powder Gun Moss (Diphyscium foliosum). The reason for this lies in those strange sessile capsules. Unlike other mosses that send their capsules up on long, hair-like seta in order to disperse their spores on the faintest of breezes, the Diphyscium capsules remain close to the ground. In lieu of wind, a Powder Gun Moss uses rain. In much the same way puffball mushrooms harness the pounding of raindrops, so too do the capsules of the Powder Gun Moss. Each raindrop that hits a capsule releases a cloud of spores that are ejected into an already humid environment full of germination potential."
How cool is that!


It was also quite cool to see such fresh-looking shiny-green leaves of the Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) from dozens of plants that dotted the steep hillside along the trail.  But lest you leap to the conclusion that these are new-sprung spring plants, these are actually the same leaves that sprouted last spring, just as the flowers were fading. They have persisted virtually all summer, fall, and winter and won't disappear until the new leaves sprout, following this year's blooms.



Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail

Saturday was the most spring-like day of all this past week, with temps approaching 60 degrees under a mostly clear blue sky (before a late-afternoon downpour). I just had to take a walk under that sky! Choosing the nearby Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, I entered it via the eastern Meadowbrook Road trailhead, which led me directly toward a large sun-warmed shrub swamp. What a colorful scene it was, the sedge-tussocks rendered golden in the afternoon light, and abundant numbers of Red Osier shrubs made vivid with scarlet twigs.  


Poking up from amid the tussocks were numerous stalks of seed-cluster-topped Swamp Dock (Rumex verticillatus), a plant I've been trying unsuccessfully to collect for several years.  (A single plant can be seen in the center of this photo.) Our New York Flora Association Plant Atlas indicates that this plant is absent from Saratoga County, but that just means that no specimen has been contributed to state botanists for vouchering.  That could be because it is not all that easy to collect. During the warm months when the plant is in flower, I cannot really wade out and pick one amid the tussocks, where I would sunk to my knees in muck.  Also, during times of open water, the water here is mostly too shallow to allow for paddling. And even when the standing water here is mostly solidly frozen, the ice around the base of the tussocks is usually too weak to bear my weight. (Plus, winter-collected specimens promptly shed their seeds in the pressing process.) I just keep hoping that someday a blooming Swamp Dock plant will grow within grabbing distance from the shore.


As for this day, I had another quest.  Would I be able to find the pods of a tiny orchid called Loesel's Twayblade (Liparis loeselii) amid the jumbled dry vegetation along this trailside creek?  I know where this orchid grows, but its pods are small and the same dead-grass color as everything else that grows here.  But believe it or not, this little native orchid's presence is easier to locate now than it will be in June, when its tiny yellow-green flowers will be virtually undetectable amid all the other, now much taller, greenery.



And find it I did! Lucky for me, these two  Loesel's Twayblade seedpods were visible against a deep-shaded background.  Against a tangle of similarly colored grasses, two other plants only revealed their presence after I stooped to photograph these.



Monday, February 5, 2024

Spring is NOT here yet! But neither is real winter.

Skunk Cabbage already in bloom?!!!  Some friends from the Albany area are posting Facebook photos of Skunk Cabbage already in full flower, about 40 miles south of Saratoga Springs.  Well, why am I not surprised?  The beautiful snowy forest I pictured in my last post is now nearly completely bereft of snow, and every day this week will be sunny with temps quite a bit above freezing. But still!  It is still way too early to expect to find this first flower of spring in actual bloom.  We haven't even had any real winter yet. But that didn't stop me from heading over to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in nearby Wilton to check on the hundreds of Skunk Cabbage plants that grow there.

There was still a bit of patchy snow on the ground at Orra's, but the creek was running freely, with only a few persistent icicles adorning the limbs hanging over the rushing water:




Next to the creek a low swale spreads out, and it's here in this muddy wetland that I always find dozens and dozens of Skunk Cabbage plants.  They send up sharply pointed winter bracts every fall, and these tightly closed bracts remain visible all winter. What would they look like today?
 



Sure enough, the winter-persisting plants were abundant across the swale, their sharply pointed bracts easily visible above the snow.  But all remained as tightly closed as they'd been since they first shot up last fall.  They might already be creating some internal heat, however, to judge from how the snow has seemed to melt in widening circles around each plant. Skunk Cabbage is one of the very few plants I know of that can generate such heat.





Glancing around this low swale, I could see many patches of greenery, but not a one of them signaled the start of spring.  Every large rock that protruded from the mud was completely covered with evergreen mosses, or in this case, a lovely lime-green liverwort called by the delightful name of Handsome Woollywort (Trichocolea tomentella). Most winters, these rocks and their cold-impervious bryophytes would be deep under snow, but not this year.


Here's a closer look at the furry-appearing leaves that suggested the Woollywort's name.





And look how fresh and green these violet leaves appear!  But these are the leaves of Dog Violet (Viola labradorica), and they sprouted last summer when the pale-purple flowers first came into bloom.  They remain green all winter, usually resting under the snow and not affected at all by freezing temperatures. I might have expected the lack of deep snow this year to have caused the leaves to shrivel or fade, but they looked as intact and freshly green as ever.



The large leafy lichen adorning this fallen tree limb is always green, as the vernacular name for Flavoparmelia caperata -- Green Shield Lichen -- would certainly indicate. Same color, whatever the season.  But the nearly-white small shelf fungi sharing this limb do fade in color over the winter, losing the pretty purple edge that suggested its name of Violet-toothed Polypore (Trichaptum biforme). By now, it has paled so completely, it could be any of several small faintly-striped polypores that thrive in our area forests.


But a look at the fertile surfaces of the Violet-toothed Polypore reveals the distinctive cinnamon-brown color those surfaces become even after the violet edges have faded. And the tiny pores have "exploded" to become more tooth-like in appearance. Hence the epithet "tooth polypore!"





Here was a second rather plain-looking aging fungus, looking a bit like lumps of bread dough dusted with flour. But I know that this Luminescent Panellus fungus (Panellus stipticus) has a couple of other features that make it a far more interesting mushroom than its unassuming appearance might suggest.



Just turn this limb over and those lumpy pale blobs reveal a far more beautiful underside, with orangish gills radiating from an off-center short and curving stalk. A second fascinating feature of this fungus can actually be seen only in pitch dark, when it emits an eerie greenish glow.  Also, as its scientific species name of stipticus suggests, it is said that this fungus can be used to stop the flow of blood from a wound.




Now, here was a mushroom that might be just as much of a sign of spring as a Skunk Cabbage flower.  I was truly startled to find these fresh-looking bright-orange caps of Polyporus mori, for this is a mushroom that normally doesn't fruit until it is time to go hunting for Morels, which is usually in May. In fact, one of its vernacular names is Spring Polypore.  It also has quite a variety of scientific names, since mycologists can't seem to settle on one that suits everybody.  One of the more frequently mentioned (aside from Polyporus mori) is Neofavolus alveolaris.


UPDATE:  I have since heard from someone obviously more knowledgeable about this mushroom than I am, a man named Garrett Taylor: "The current story is that it is likely that we don’t have Neofavolus alveolaris in North America. Of the three species that we know we have in this group, only the rare Neofavolus americanus has a name. The other two species have temporary code names, given by the authors of N. americanus, 'sp-SAV10' & 'sp-ADD05'. There appears to be a seasonality with them with SAV10 coming earlier than ADD05 which is more of a late spring mushroom. I would be extremely surprised to see an actively growing one before say late April.  We currently separate them by the DNA barcode ITS. They all can be orange. Since the margin of this one is flared up, that is another clue that it may not be actively growing. When young the margin is usually curved (not inrolled but nearly). The new ones that we will start seeing in a couple months, those will probably be SAV10. If you find some on iNat that have been sequenced and given a 'Provisional Species Name' field you can right click on it and look for the 'Observations with this same field and value' in the drop down menu that appears. "  

As for me, I will stick to its most common vernacular name, which is Hexagonal-pored Polypore. Just turn over a cap, and it will be evident how it acquired that name.





I understand that another of our commonly found winter-persistent fungi, the tiny yellow discs called  Lemon Drops, also has a second scientific name.  I have always known it as Bisporella citrina, but now I have learned that iNaturalist is calling it Calycina citrina. Sigh!  I think I will stick to Lemon Drops, and I say the hell with Calycina. This is a very common winter-persistent fungus, and lots of it can be found at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve. As I did on my visit there this week.




Finding little more to detain me at Orra Phelps, I remembered that an old walled cemetery lay just up a rise from where I had parked my car.  And a brief easy walk through the woods took me right to it.  A lovely old cemetery it was, with some of the gravestones, barely legible, dating from the 1800s.



And oh boy, just look at all the mosses growing on the old stone wall!




I know the names of very few mosses, and although I am happy to learn some of them, I am also happy to let my friends be the experts.  So I am simply going to post some photos of them here, and maybe my bryophile friends will chime in with their names.  That doesn't mean I don't admire their beauty and variety.  I just loved how many of the rocks bore thick cushions of beautiful greenery.




I would not be surprised, though, to learn that this lovely clump was composed of Entodon seductrix, with its ropy stems and long skinny flat-topped spore capsules that were ringed with minute fringes.




And here is one moss I DO know the name of! With its leafy crowns that look like tiny posies it just HAS to have a floral name.  And it does:  Rose Moss.  Or, to be more scientific, Rhodobryum ontariense. Since I usually find this moss on calcareous rocks, I would not be surprised to learn that the rock it was growing on was either limestone or marble.




And since this moss reminded me of the curly coat of a poodle, I'm going to guess it might be Poodle Moss (Anomodon attenuatus).  Except that I usually associate that moss with the bark at the base of White Oak trees, not old stone walls. So I'm probably mistaken.  




I loved the spiky leaves on this moss, and I hope I will someday know how to call it by name.




This moss was so tiny, I would need a microscope to even describe it, aside from "tiny."




I loved the dark-red sinuous sporestalks of this one, and how they appeared to be dancing.




This stubby moss was quite colorful with its school-bus-yellow capsules.




At least I knew enough to know that this, with its overlapping leaves on upturning branches, was not a moss at all, but rather a liverwort.  And I think it might be the liverwort called Porella, although its specific name remains lost on me.



Wednesday, January 31, 2024

New Trails Into Winter Wonderland

Oh my gosh, here it is, the last day of January!  What have I been doing since I last posted here?  Not much, besides sulking about how crummy our winter has been so far, with more rain than snow and no sub-zero temps to freeze the lakes solid enough to walk on or for tumbling creeks to create their elaborate crystalline iceworks. But we finally did have some snow, and some pretty snow, too, that stayed on the trees to transform the woods into winter wonderlands.  Just in time, too, since I have offered to lead my fellow nature-loving friends on a visit to Saratoga County's newest nature preserve, the Graphite Range Community Forest, a few miles north of Saratoga Springs.  I asked my friend Sue Pierce to join me on a scouting mission there this week, and here are just a few of the highlights of our most delightful visit.


As the map on this welcoming kiosk demonstrates, visitors will have their choice of many trails, most of which are open to both bikers and hikers, although each group can find a trail here for exclusive venturing (and bikers are allowed to ride up but not careen downward on many of the trails). Most of the trails require only moderate endurance levels, although all lead up into the forested regions of the Palmertown Mountain Range.   For more information about the development of this preserve, here's a link to a newspaper article that provides considerable background regarding how this project came about.




As this photo reveals, all trails from the ample parking area along Rte. 9 in Wilton start out on level ground along a grassy road that soon connects with trails that gradually ascend into more mountainous regions. Just a few inches of soft snow lay on the road when Sue and I visited, so we easily made our way without needing snowshoes.




Rather than follow the road, we chose to take a trail that immediately led from the parking area to a more wooded path along a rushing creek.



And oh, how lovely the woods appeared along this trail, each branch and twig of the surrounding trees coated with sparkling snow! 



Our path led along a steep rocky gorge, where a small creek tumbled down from the mountains above.



We were accompanied on this trail by the pleasant sounds of rushing water crashing over rocks.



The droplets tossed up by the rushing water decorated the far bank with beautiful icicles.




At one particularly pleasant spot overlooking the stream, a pair of Adirondack chairs provided a place to rest and enjoy the surroundings. We noticed several other spots throughout the woods where other chairs invited hikers to sit a spell, either to rest or just to become one with the beauty of the place.



Sue and I chose the Old Mine Road to follow toward our destination, the several abandoned graphite mines toward which I hope to lead our Thursday Naturalist friends when we meet on February 8.  The mines are located just about a half-mile from the parking area.



Although we had wished that more of the preserve's trails would be reserved for hikers only, we were happy to learn that bikers should not be charging downhill towards us if we happen to crouch to observe a plant or insect near the ground. That's if the bikers observe the restrictions, anyway.




At one point we branched off the Old Mine Road to explore a bit further along the Upper Works Road,  walking as far as a bridge that crossed the creek, widened now and flowing more quietly through a level area in the forest.



This Upper Works Road passed by some impressive old stone foundations, the remains of structures that must have served the graphite mining operations in some way.  Perhaps in the future explanatory signs will be posted that tell of the history and purpose of these old stone ruins.




It was near these old ruins that we chanced upon mossy banks that contained outcroppings of a crystalline kind of rock (marble or quartzite?).




On a section of bank that was carpeted mostly with Delicate Fern Moss, we also noticed a moss with broader fern-like leaves.  This moss reminded me of one of the species of Fissidens moss, but I cannot be certain of the species.




The presence of American Beech trees in this area was revealed by the still-visible remains of Beech Drops, a forest-floor wildflower that needs no green leaves to garner its nutrients, since it is parasitic on the roots of beech trees.



We also detected the presence of occasional Witch Hazel shrubs, their snow-covered branches knobby with numerous ripening seedpods.




We soon back-tracked to re-connect with the Old Mine Road and continued on our journey toward the mines.





Our journey was not only onward now, but also UPward, and we wondered if the rise in elevation was the reason the surrounding branches were even more snow-whitened than those we had admired at a lower elevation.  Was it possible that hoarfrost had settled on every twig up here, whitening them even more than the snow did?



I'm glad that Sue was wearing such a bright-colored coat.  Otherwise, my photos of this snowy woods looked as if they were shot in black-and-white, not full color.



The twigs were actually puffy with frosty snow!




Since I had failed to carry drinking water on this hike,  I found these snow- and ice-tipped twigs could offer me easy refreshment if I just popped them into my mouth.




And here are the entrances of the old mines. Quite an impressive site!A placard here describes some of the history of these mines, which produced the mineral to be powdered and used as a lubricant for machines.  When more abundant sources of graphite were later discovered in Asia and Africa, these mines were abandoned in the early 1920s.


I found an interesting article from The Saratogian newspaper that provides some additional history of these mines. 

The mine openings may appear to tempt us to explore within, but such entry is restricted now, with the area fenced off to make access difficult. Also, water fills the floor of the mines, making for slippery ice in winter and knee-deep sloshing in warmer months.  Better just to marvel at this dramatic sight (and site!).