Thursday, June 20, 2024



Aaargh!!  Too darned HOT!  And for the third day in a row.  I was supposed to lead a nature walk along a sun-baked powerline today, but no way would I want anyone to risk heatstroke on such a venture. Including myself!  So I cancelled it. I hope everyone stayed home in air-conditioned comfort today, as I am doing myself.  But maybe now I can catch up on reporting some earlier outings over the past week or so.

The North Woods at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY.  June 10.

Every summer, Skidmore College's Sustainability Office selects two Skidmore students to perform as North Woods Stewards.  This year's students, Margot Kelly (left) and Priscilla Kayco, are provided with meals and housing and a small stipend to monitor the trails that run through the 200-acre woods that lies just north of the college's main campus.  Also, each spring for the past few years, I have been asked to escort these students through sections of these woods, introducing them to areas where particularly rare or vulnerable plants are growing and might need protection. The students work to locate invasive species that could threaten these plants, and they also participate in the efforts to reduce that threat.  In addition, the students also educate the visiting public who enjoy these trails, informing them about the remarkable quality of this limestone-underlaid forest and the need to behave in ways that do not endanger the special plants that grow there.  

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am absolutely delighted to do what I can to help these students protect this remarkable forest. Plus, I got to enjoy the company of a couple of delightful, smart, and interested young women.

Probably the most significant factor that makes this woods so remarkable is the lime-rich substrate, which creates a habitat required by a number of remarkable plants. I was able to point out the abundance of Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) throughout the woods as evidence that the soil was indeed rich with lime.

Another plant often found in such a rich woods is Rattlesnake Fern (Botrypus virginianus), and we were able to observe quite a few along the trail, each with a spore-bearing stalk rising from the center of a deeply cut frond.

Quite probably the rarest plant to grow in the Skidmore woods is the Green Violet (Cubelium concolor), for the Skidmore woods is thought to be the only site in the county where it has been found. When I showed the students the vast numbers of Green Violets that crowd the forest floor here, I'm sure they must have found it hard to believe it was such a rare plant.

Most folks would certainly find it hard to believe that this plant was indeed a violet, since it surely looks nothing at all like the low-growing colorful flowers that grace every lawn and alleyway each spring. Actually, the Green Violet is not a member of the Viola genus, but it is indeed a member of the Violaceae Family. We were too late in the season to see the little greenish nubby florets that dangle from the leaf axils, but we certainly found a large number of this plant's seed pods.

And the seed pods of a Green Violet do look very much like a seed pod of ordinary violets: a three-parted hollow pod containing the orb-shaped seeds.

Although not quite as rare as the Green Violet,  Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is certainly much less abundant than that plant, at least in the Skidmore woods.  I know of several sizable patches of it here, thankfully rather hidden and difficult to access, making it less evident to any likely poachers, who find medicinal uses for it. Like the Green Violet, Goldenseal is found only in lime-rich soils like that of the Skidmore woods.  An early bloomer, the flowers have faded now, to be replaced by green seedpods that will ripen to red.

Few woodland wildflowers are blooming now, but many flowers have been replaced with interesting and/or attractive seeds.  This seedpod of a Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) grows on a slender stalk that appears to have pierced a leaf. I often find other Uvularia species in less basic soils, but I have never found this particular species except in lime-enriched habitats.

The seeds of Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) have yet to turn the bright blue that suggested this lime-lover's vernacular name.  Although the seeds have the appearance of berries, they are instead hard seeds covered by a thin but persistent skin.  I frequently find the bright-blue seeds even in winter.

Lots of the lovely spring wildflower called Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) decorate this woods in early spring, but only briefly.  Its handsome leaves persist through the summer, though, so that I know where to look to find the Bloodroot's jade-green seedpods, packed with small globular seeds, each possessing a white fleshy flap.  Ants crave this flap (called an elaiosome) and carry the seeds to their underground nests, where they consume the lipid-rich flaps and discard the remaining seeds in their waste pits underground -- all ready to sprout and produce new plants. (I did sacrifice one pod to display these amazing little ant-tempters to Margot and Priscilla.)  Many other of our spring wildflowers use this same strategy to employ ants to spread their populations -- a good reason to develop protective tolerance for these essential wildflower sowers. Without the assistance of ants, our forest floors would otherwise be much more sparely populated by spring wildflowers.

Because of early heat and lack of abundant rain this spring, many wildflowers that should have been blooming this past week had already faded.  Or not set bloom at all.  I was able to show Priscilla and Margot a huge population of Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora) in a low muddy area near a pond, but only one bore any semblance of what the flowers had looked like over a week ago. (This photo was taken then.)

Luckily, the thick fleshy flowers called Bear Corn (Conopholis americana) are very persistent, and many of them still studded the ground beneath a big old Red Oak.  Lacking any green parts and thus incapable of photosynthesis to obtain nutrients, this plant is parasitic on the roots of oaks.

The Charles Lathrop Pack Demonstration Forest, Warrensburg, NY.  June 11.

It would be hard to imagine a more interesting destination for nature lovers than this 2,500-acre forest, which is named after its donor,  Charles Lathrop Pack, a wealthy Adirondack landowner who in 1927 donated the property originally to Syracuse University. The property is now officially a campus of the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry and is used as a teaching and demonstration forest. Although this vast tract includes a mountain and a lake and many miles of trails, my friends Sue Pierce and Ruth Brooks and I limited ourselves mostly to a mile-long level trail through a 50-acre old-growth forest that includes some of the oldest and biggest White Pines in the state. Plus, some of our very favorite wildflowers and fascinating fungi can be found along this trail.

A sturdy boardwalk carried us over a rushing creek and a wetland section of the trail.

When we reached the section of forest populated by old-growth White Pines, it was hard not to feel a sense of awe as we walked beneath these giants, some over 350 years old and towering to nearly 150 feet tall.

As awesome as those giant trees were, our attention this day was to seek out some of the tiniest plants that grow in the trailside forest.

That forested hillside pictured above was a veritable hotbed for one of New York's miniature plants, the little orchid called Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens). It won't bloom for probably a month yet, but the vividly patterned evergreen basal leaves are actually more showy than are the tiny white florets that climb the flower stalks.

We were a bit disappointed to find the numbers of Twinflower plants (Linnaea borealis) considerably diminished this summer.  But the ones we did find were as charming and lovely as ever. We couldn't help pondering, though, if our relatively snowless winter and our hotter, drier spring have affected the health of some of our native wildflowers. There are some I have not been able to find at all this year. Or they bloomed so much earlier this year that by the time I found them they were already gone to seed.

We did find quite a few solitary blooms of White Wood Sorrel (Oxalis montana), but this lovely wildflower usually grows in colonies that spread across the forest floor.  So many different wildflowers seem to be much less abundant this year.  I hope this is not a portent of things to come with climate change.

The same scarcity of bloom was evident regarding the population of One-flowered Wintergreen  (Moneses uniflora).  We found but a single bloom along the entire trail, and since my photo of it was blurry, I found this photo of two blooms in my files.   

I did get a clearer photo of the One-flowered Wintergreen's underside. Such an interesting-looking wildflower!  Perhaps that's why it has acquired so many other vernacular names: Single Delight, Wax-flower, Shy Maiden, Star of Bethlehem, St. Olaf's Candlestick, Wood Nymph, or (my favorite!) Frog's Reading Lamp.

We found many fewer fungi this visit, no doubt due to a drier spring than normal, but the few we found were certainly intriguing.  Normally, the fungus called Eyelash Cup Fungus (Scutellinia scutellata) is a wee little orange cup no bigger than the diameter of a thumbtack,  so we found it hard to believe when our phone apps insisted that this vibrant-red, large-sized fungus was indeed the Eyelash Cup.

We always expect this fungus -- the Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae -- to be gigantic, though.

But we were curious when we found these smaller, just developing Hemlock Varnish Shelf fungi that appeared to be nibbled on. What could be eating it?

We looked underneath, and there was the culprit itself:  The Pleasing Fungus Beetle (Megalodacne heros).  With its beautiful orange and black shiny wing covers, the Pleasing Fungus Beetle is indeed quite pleasing to look at. This beetle is known to feed on Ganoderma fungi (like this Ganoderma tsugae), and also to lay its eggs on the underside, where its larvae also feed.  Could those small tan wormy critters be this beatle's larvae? I bet they are!  The adult beetle almost appeared to be guarding them.

The Powerline at Mud Pond, Moreau Lake State Park.  June 15.

Since I had agreed to lead my Thursday Naturalist friends on a walk along this powerline later this week, I thought I should go see what there was to see. In past years, we always found many exciting treasures along this sandy-soiled sun-baked site that in many ways substitutes for the clearings forest fires used to create.

The showiest flower of all would be the Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum), and we always find quite a few specimens of it here around the Summer Solstice.  On this day, these two were all I could find.  And if there were more in bloom, it sure would be hard to miss such vivid bloomers.

I did see a promise of bloom with the presence of these three lily buds. So there was hope we might see more. But it's not likely we'll see as many as in other years.

A second unusual bloomer at this site is the Blunt-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), but I had to walk the entire length of this site before I found just this single plant in bloom.  In other years, I have found five or six.  Another plant nearby was in swelling bud, so chances were good it would soon be blooming. Although rated as "Ostensibly secure" across New York State, it doesn't seem to be that widespread.  It certainly seems to prefer sites that are sandy and sun-exposed like this one.

In other years, we have counted scores of the Threatened-ranked  Mustard-family species called Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis) at several areas along this trail.  On this day, only a very few rather puny specimens were evident.  Since the plants were so small,  it's possible others were hidden within tall grass, but I could not find more.

Even more abundant than the Green Rock Cress or Wood Lilies were scarce, the vibrant-pink Maiden Pinks (Dianthus deltoides) were flourishing just as they do every year.  Although they are not a native species here in North America, who could resent the presence of such a pretty flower?  Especially when they grow in otherwise "waste places" where few of our native wildflowers would thrive.

Oh boy, talk about a thriving mass of flowers!  And these are our native wildflowers, called Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia).  Gazillions of them completely filled a median between two sandy lanes under a powerline that ran north from the one I was today exploring.

While that Whorled Loosestrife frequently grows in masses, I have never seen this elegant pure-white flower called Upright Bindweed (Calystegia spithamaea) except as solitary specimens. Often confused with the related pinker and more aggressive Calystegia species called Hedge Bindweed, this wild morning-glory-like plant has only a short, non-vining stem that never wanders far from its pretty bloom.

Lots of Lowbush Blueberry shrubs (Vaccinium angustifolium) thrive in this sandy soil under the powerlines, and the abundant fruit could serve as a refreshing snack for those walking here.

We would have to wait a while for these Elderberry flowers (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) to provide us with its juicy black fruits, but in the present we can certainly admire its pretty clusters of tiny white florets.

Lots and lots of insects are enjoying right now the nectar and pollen provided by the fluffy clusters of New Jersey Tea's white florets (Ceanothus americanus).  I love how the still-closed buds are shaped like tiny perfect five-pointed stars.

Some blight often attacks a huge thicket of Shining Sumac (Rhus copallinum) before it can produce its pretty clusters of red berries, but these short little saplings, not yet diseased, offer a beauty all their own, with such glossy leaves and reddish leaf stalks.  Note the presence of wings along the leaf stalks, the source for this sumac's alternate name of Winged Sumac.

Having scouted the length of the powerline we would walk, I pushed my way through American Hazelnut and Gray Dogwood shrubs to approach the edge of Mud Pond.  As I drew near to the water, I noticed the very sand at the water's edge was squirming!!!  A closer look revealed thousands and thousands of teeny tiny toadlets, just emerging from their aquatic tadpole stage.

Such a squirming mass of tiny toads! They were in such constant motion, it was hard to get a clear photo.

What an amazing sight to end my visit on this day.  How I wish my Thursday Naturalist friends had been with me on this preview visit. What an incredible thing to witness! I imagine these wee little toadlets would have baked to death under the heat of the past three days.  Or might they have gone back into the pond to cool off?  I sure hope so.

1 comment:

threecollie said...

What a delightful post! I learn so much reading your writings. Thank you! How awesome to see all those little toads! I am glad you were there.