Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Early Risers

When I went out to measure the amount of rain we had last night (0.77"), I found a bee hunkered down behind a soggy hollyhock flower.

Looking around the garden, I found two more,

and a moth!

It sort of reminded me of the stories you hear of folks camping out at ticket boothes or stores waiting to be the first in line to get tickets for the greatest show on earth or the latest popular toy.

I wonder if these insects simply got caught out in the rain and cooler temps and "froze" in place, or if it was a "choice" to hang out until morning.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Insects in the Garden

I did a drop-in program today titled "Insects in the Garden," the purpose of which was to introduce visitors to the flighted things that visit our gardens most often. I only had a few takers, but they were interested in seeing what we had.

Most of the garden's visitors today were bees and flies of one stripe or another. And even though it is technically a Butterfly Garden, there wasn't a butterfly to be seen.

As I stood there, sneaking up on insects, I finally decided to try and identify to species (!) some of the bees I've been seeing with relative frequency. Are there really many species visiting the blooms, or are there only a few? It was time to find out.

Many of the bees I've been seeing are these medium-sized, fuzzy bodied ones. What stands out are the orange sides. I paged through the photos in the Audubon Field Guide to Insects and Spiders and I'm fairly confident that these are Red-tailed Bumble Bees (Bombus ternarius). They are described as "robust and hairy," the male drones measring up to a half inch in length, while the Spring Queen may reach three-quarters of an inch. The adults sip nectar while the larvae eat honey. Like many bees, only the young, mated females overwinter, to start the next generation the following year. The field guide then notes that "unlike the honey bee worker, a bumble bee can sting many times." Hm - so much for the "bumble bees don't sting" statement I've been told for years and years. Still, I wander among the bumbles with relative ease these days and with the exception of one last weekend who repeatedly stung the tire of my lawnmower (I really wasn't trying to run it over - in fact, I gave every bee I encountered plenty of time to fly off before I mowed on).

One of the other diagnostics of the Red-tailed Bumble Bee is the "broad black band between the wings." Could this be a Red-tailed, even though we don't see the red bands? I doubt it - the red bands are probably essential to the ID of the Red-tailed. What species could it be?

Ah, now this one is different. Note that it is mostly yellow. No red bands, no broad black band between the wings. I have no idea what species it is, though.

There were some bumbles out in the garden that were positively huge! Size is difficult to record on "film" unless one has a ruler handy, which I didn't (not that a bee would sit still enough for a portrait with a ruler). This was one of them, though. The globe thistle upon which it is nectaring probably measures two-and-a-half inches across. Could it be a Golden Northern Bumble Bee (Bombus fervidus)? Also described as "robust and hairy," the Golden Northern queen can reach 7/8" in length. The face and head are mostly black and it also sports a black band between the wings, although the description goes on to say that the female has a mostly yellow thorax. And the wings are smoky. Sounds pretty close, doesn't it?

Not a single honey bee was to be found, though.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Late Bloomers

While out admiring the beavers' engineering project the other day, I "discovered" some new plants.
This first one took me forever to key out! It wasn't until I was showing someone the sketch for pussytoes that I found it.
It is Arrow-leaved Tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum).

A close look at the stem (and leaf shape) explains the name. It was growing in a dense mat (if you can call something a couple feet tall a mat) along the shoreline just below the new beaver dam.

Along the boardwalk on the other side of the Rich Lake Outlet I came across these golden yellow flowers:

This one also took me a while to key out. Turns out it is Beggar Ticks (Bidens frondosa), aka Sticktight. Now this is a plant with whose seeds I am quite familiar, but I'd never seen the plant! The seeds are brown triangles, longer than wide, with a prong sticking off each end of the short leg. These prongs are what stick tight(ly) to passing animals and people.

The flowers were very popular with an assortment of flies. You can tell they are flies, by the way, by looking for two characteristics. One: flies have two wings, not four. Having said that, I recently had a entomologist tell me that the two wing criterion can be iffy for ID. He recommended the second trait: look for the halteres. These are, as he described them, pads upon which the wings rest. They also function, I believe, as stabilizers during flight. On some flies they are quite obvious, while on others you have to really look for them.

Mushrooms were around, too:

This, I believe, is Amanita porphyria.

This yellow one, upon which the slug is dining, is possibly another Amanita.

I love these little red ones. Those are hemlock needles at their bases, so you can see that they are very tiny. Any ideas?

I loved this little one. It was in good company with a lot of little friends. Getting a close up without a real macro lens was tough, and it kept getting washed out. I love how it's growing on a leaf.

Molds are everywhere!

I think I have found the source of fuzzy pink slippers:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Someone's Been Busy

For the last couple of weeks, we've had visitors coming in saying things like "I see the beavers have been busy." We all thought they'd seen a few chewed trees here and there, nothing unusual.

BUT! It turns out the beavers have been really busy!!

If you take a stroll around the Sucker Brook Trail, you cross a short bridge over the Little Sucker Brook, a small feeder stream that empties into the Rich Lake Outlet.

A short distance up this trail is the old beaver pond (abandoned now for several years),

the dam of which finally blew out this last winter, leaving the Little Sucker Brook flowing through a beaver meadow instead of a pond.

Over the intervening years, young beavers have temporarily taken up residence, patcching up the old dam or building some small ones below, but not one of them has stuck around and called it home.

Until now.

Today I decided to check it out - curiosity, y'know. Boy was I surprised!!! The little bridge now crosses Little Sucker Pond!
Looking below the bridge, before:

and after (shot from the other direction):

(Note that the far edge is actually dam - about a foot high.)

I scrambled through the woods to see the downstream dam (far right in the photo above), because from the bridge one really couldn't tell how tall it was.

In this photo, it looks a lot more impressive than it really is. It is actually maybe about three feet high. The stream here is maybe six feet across.

So far the water hasn't crossed the trail, but if it does, it'll be bye-bye, beavers.

What Happens When You Forget the Milk

Yesterday evening, having returned from my weekly pilgrimage to The City for groceries and errands (approx. 120 miles round trip), and having spent the intervening time ripping out tomato plants, digging spuds, and picking beans (not to mention photographing stuff around the yard), I realized I'd forgotten to get any milk. My choices were a) go a week without milk, or b) make a run to North Creek. It was about 7:00 and I knew I'd be wanting cereal for breakfast in the morning. Toby hadn't had his walk yet, and he was getting antsy. So, I bundled him into the car and off we went to North Creek (about a half hour drive).

I bopped into the grocery store, grabbed a couple half gallons, stuck them in a cooler, and we headed for the Carol A. Thomas Memorial Walking Trail.

This trail was put together by a group of local citizens in honor of another local citizen. It's a pleasant little walk along the stream that feeds into the Hudson River, past where the tannery used to sit. It's a delightful walk through a jungle of greenery, with the stream gurgling away to the side. With all the rain this summer, the stream was in full voice.

One of the things that makes this trail really neat is that is passes along a boardwalk underneath a bridge (State Route 28N). The boardwalk is almost like a shelf clinging to the side of the bridge abutments, with the stream running along below. And all along the supporting structures, from the wooden posts to the ceiling above (the belly of the bridge), were spiders.

I only noticed a couple on our way out, but one was enormous : her abdomen alone was almost as big as the end of my thumb! When we came back through on our return to the car, it was close to 8:00 and the light was fading, but the contrast between the light before the tunnel and the dark inside set off the gigantic web(s) beautifully. And the spider(s).

I decided to watch the spider closest to the entrance for she was now active. At first I thought she was consuming her web (as many orb weavers do in the evening before building a new one), but as I watched, it turned out she was either repairing the old one or was already well on her way to make the new one. It was fascinating to watch (and of course I'd left the camera home).

She was at the lower edge, below the center of the web. She would scramble up one of the spokes, traverse the connector to the next spoke and then scoot backwards down it, trailing a line of silk behind her. Using a front leg, she felt behind her for the last row of webbing laid down (which in this case was the outermost spiral). When she made contact with it, she knew how far away it was and therefore knew exactly where to lay down the next row. Meanwhile, with one of her hind legs, she had grabbed the silk she was spinning and stretched it out. It reminded me of a fly fisherman pulling out line before casting. Then, with a lightening fast, yet amazingly delicate move, she dabbed her abdomen (the spinnerets) against the spoke, instantly sticking the silk in place. She let go of the line she was holding with her hind foot and it snapped right in place, no slack at all. Up she went, across and down, repeating the entire sequence until she reached the end of her row, at which point she turned and headed back across, laying down a third row of silk.

It was fascinating to watch!

Toby decided that five minutes were enough to spend watching, so we went through the tunnel and finished the trail. This time, however, I was was looking for spiders, and there must've been easily a dozen, if not two, many of which were equally as large as the one I'd been watching.

I think I may have to return, if only to get the species recorded "on film."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Frustrating Fritillaries

Orange butterflies can be sooo frustrating!

Here I thought I had an Arctic Fritillary (Boloria chariclea) flitting around my garden.

A few days later I photographed another one that turned out (I think) to be an Atlantis Fritillary (Speyeria atlantis).

While cruising through my photos, I notice that the first one looked an awful lot like the second one. HM. Now I think they are both Atlantis.

The differences are difficult to see, if you don't know what you are looking for. When you know the answer, of course, it's easy!

So, for your elucidation, it seems that for the Atlantis, the borders of all four wings have solid black margins.

The Artic has solid black triangles sitting along a black diamond margin (and we really are a bit south for this species).

The Aphrodite has a solid black margin along the outer edge of the forewing only.

The Spangled has no solid black margins at all.

Good luck!

It's almost as bad as warblers!!!

Slogging Through a Ditch

A fellow nature nut, and orchid enthusiast, who works for the National Park Service downstate, advised me to keep an eye open for Spiranthes at the roadside ditch where I found the smaller purple fringed orchids.

Spiranthes are the Ladies' Tresses orchids (there are several species). The name Spiranthes refers to the spiraling shape of the flowers' location around the stem. Think "spiral staircase." It seems that most have a single spiral, but some are double. The double ones are difficult to actually discern as a spiral, but with imagination you might see it.

According to Dave, Spiranthes like to have their feet damp/wet, so if I had purple fringed, I was likely to have ladies' tresses as well. So, I've been looking. I knew they were white, but every white flower I've seen in the ditch was an aster...until two days ago.

One stalk of white flowers looked different, so I dragged the dog down the ditch and there it was!

I'm leaning towards it being Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) because it had grass-like leaves (as opposed to a rosette of leaves at the base of the stem).

I took these photos last night after work. The ditch had standing water, and the rest of it was thoroughly sodden. I had to kneel down to get the photos, so I got thoroughly sodden as well. Then it started to rain. So, I figured that since I was already wet, I'd see what else I could find in the ditch.

Eyebright (Euphrasia americana) was all over the place.

I find this flower very difficult to photograph, mostly because purples just don't turn out well in the photos! There must be a secret to capturing purples.

I was most pleased, however, with this small dragonfly.

I believe it is a White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), for it did have a white face (which only showed up in one shot that is a bit blurry). According to the Stokes Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies, this genus is difficult to ID to species.

"The red meadowhawks of North America present an intractable field problem. ...The White-faced/Cherry-faced/Ruby complex is partcularly troublesome. Although face color can be useful, it can be difficult to see in the field and is not always a reliable indicator."

Most of the other flowers were asters and goldenrods. One of these days I'm going to start a photo collection of the different species of goldenrod in Newcomb. It'll be interesting to see how many we have.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Floral Pics

Here are some shots I've taken with the new camera of an assortment of flowers blooming in August. Some are wildflowers, others from my gardens.

This is a tall coneflower-type plant from my garden. I'm not 100% sure which one it is.

This calendula was caught in the early morning light, kissed with dew from the night.

For some reason this lupine is sporting a witch's broom! I've never seen this outside of trees and shrubs, so it intrigued me.

Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare) is a non-native plant found along roadsides and in desolate areas, but it's one of my favorite flowers. The play of colors, blue with a touch of pink, is just so pretty.

Sweet Annie, an artemisia, is one of those flowers encouraged as a companion for veg gardens. I suspect this is because it attracts pollinators. It also reseeds itself very well. It's cheerful yellow blossoms are a welcome addition to the garden.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Another Nifty Insect and a Spelling Lesson

I love - it is a great website for identifying insects! Thanks to their help, this lovely insect I found the other evening has been identified as a Goldenrod Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus), alternatively known as a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle and the Pennsylvania Leatherwing.

First I saw one, as it flitted around the spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), but then I saw pairs of them, clinging to each other as they clung to the blossoms.

I had my work cut out for me chasing them down to photograph.

Anyway, these insects are found in old fields (or, in this case, along roadsides) where there are plenty of flowers. The adults feed on nectar and pollen, but are also predatory, supposedly eating locust eggs and cucumber beetles, although references I found could not say for sure if it was the adults or larvae that ate the eggs and beetles.

Eggs are laid in the soil, and it is also in the soil that the larvae pupate in the spring. Adults are found in late summer and into the fall, most often on goldenrod (hence the name). The ones I found this evening were all on knapweed.

Now, some of you might question the single "n" in pensylvanicus; after all, Pennsylvania has a double "n." Well, it turns out that when DeGeer named this insect in 1774, the single "n" was commonly accepted in the spelling of Pensylvania (and similar words, like pensylvanicus). Because this was so, and not merely a typographical error, the rules of scientific nomenclature dictate that it stays as it is. So, the single "n" is correct, and anyone telling you differenly is wrong. There's a very good write-up about this over at if you don't believe me.

Another New Blog

Another new natural history blog is starting up, Adirondack Natural History, and I've been asked to be a contributor. This one is the brain child of Larry Master (a phenomenal birder and naturalist who works for the Nature Conservancy and travels all over the world to exotic places like Patagonia) and Brian McAllister (another birder, well-known in the Adirondacks, and founder of the Adirondack Naturalist Club and the Great Adirondack Birding Celebration). They have several natural history writers lined up already (Eric Teed, John Thaxton, Ed Kanze, Ted Mack, and Julia Goren), so it should be chocked full of good information!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tour of Tahawus

On Saturday, during Rock Fest, I was lucky to get assigned to follow along on Paul Hai's Tour of the Tahawus Mine. I've been up to the Upper Works several times, and have looked at the old blast furnace that sits by the road, but this was nothing compared to actually getting a guided tour by someone who knows (and is passionate about) the mining history of the area and what all the bits and pieces are.

A caravan of close to 30 people followed Paul up the road to the mines (County Route 25, off the Blue Ridge Road, about six miles east of the Newcomb VIC). We consolidated people in vehicles and drove the rest of the way to the Upper Works, the trailhead parking lot for the southern entrance into the High Peaks Wilderness Area. This parking lot, by the way, was where the old charcoal kiln was located. The early mining operations made charcoal from the local trees to fuel the fires in the various furnaces.

From here you'd never know it, but just a short distance into the woods are the remains of the first blast furnace that was built in this area (c. 1844). It was a cold blast furnace.

This furnace had been preceeded by a bloomery forge, but I don't know if there is any evidence of this left in the woods.

A bit further into the woods you find the remains of the wheel house that drew water from the Hudson River and used it to force cold air into the furnace, providing the necessary oxygen to get a good fire going to melt the ore. No ore pit or evidence of digging has been found in the area; they suspect that the ores were mined/found near the surface.

In a few short years, this furnace was obsolete (or perhaps too small to handle the growing operation). A new one was built up the road - this is the one that has been preserved and sits right along the roadside.

On top of the furnace is the hot blast stove, which is now protected under a plexiglass roof. This is what produced the hot air to help stoke the fires below.

Apparently this furnace is a bit of transition technology: it was built using technology for coal fired furnaces, but it used wood (charcoal) as a fuel source instead. It's also a hot blast furnace, another advance in technology - using hot air instead of cold air made the operation more efficient. Ore was brought in from across the road via a bridge to the top of the furnace (you can see the bridge foundations on the other side of the road) in ore carts. It was then crushed by a set of ore stamps, the crushed rock falling through grates and into the furnace. The furnace was kept packed full of ore, and as it heated, it separated out to its constituent parts. This furnace was commissioned in 1849 but wasn't completed and operational until 1854. In 1857 the whole operation was abandoned.

From the back of the furnace, you can see the opening through which the finished product emerged (you can see this better below, next to the STNR/TOOTS artwork).

No one knows what this bit of "artwork" means or what is it from. SNTR? TOOTS?

Anyway, the molten iron flowed from the hearth into a channel called a sow, and from there into molds on either side, called pigs (apparently someone thought this resembled piglets suckling from a sow). The iron filled these troughs (the pigs) and formed bars, which were subsequently called pig iron.

Paul actually had a piece of the original pig iron; even though it is only about a foot and a half long, it is very heavy.

Around the site you can also find bits of slag left over from the ore separation process.

This is a shot I got looking up the chimney of the furnace. I simply stuck my camera into the opening (seen above) and pressed the shutter release. It came out pretty well.

If you walk, carefully, behind the blast furnace you come to wheel house that operated the furnace. Several times larger than the original outfit, this wheel house had a dam and flume that dropped the water down over massive wheels which powered the the machinery. The water then flowed under the works and down a raceway back to the river. Paul talked about lots of things here, but the only bit that stuck in my mind was the driveshaft they made, with a 90-degree bend, that went up the hill to the furnace to operate the ore stamps.

Between the "new" and the "old" furnaces, several buildings in various stages of decay line the road and dot the woods. These are the remains of the old town of Adirondac. Adirondac (aka: McIntyre) was actually a ghost town twice... it's a rare thing for a community to flourish, become abandoned, and then flourish again before being abandoned for the final time. Why was it repeatedly abandoned? The iron produced at this site was of very high quality, but not reliably so. There was an impurity in the ore that made the iron hit or miss. That impurity turned out to be titanium dioxide, which became important during WWII, and in 1941 Tahawus was reopened as a titanium mine.

The McNaughton House has been stablized. There are plans to preserve it as part of the historical preservation of the area.

In between times, when the mines were not in operation (roughly the 1860s through the mid-1890s), the area was taken over by the Tahawus Club, a hunting and fishing club that became a resort for the affluent. The Tahawus Club still exists, but it has relocated to the other end of the road to the Upper Works.

From the Blast Furnace we drove on up into the mine proper, which is officially called Tahawus. This is not open to the public. We had special permission to be there as part of Rock Fest. Tahawus was the titanium mine...and this is where the money was.

The lake seen in this shot is actually the mine pit. The mine closed in the 1980s and with the operation no longer operating, water filled the pit, creating what is likely the deepest lake in the Adirondacks.
The village of Tahawus waas up along the southern "shore" of the pit (as seen on the left of this photo), and it was these houses that were moved, via flatbeds, to Newcomb when a line of ore was found underneath them. I actually live in one of these relocated mine houses. The "shore" is made from the tailings from the mine.

One of the biggest obstacles the mine faced was transportation. The quality of the titanium was (and still is) some of the best in the world, and they say there is still plenty down there. The problem, however, is getting it from the mine to the real world. Newcomb (and Tahawus) is in the middle of nowhere, the railroads no longer run, and trucks would have to drive a long way (at least the road is now paved and product would no longer have to be transported on sledges by horses). It turned out to be a whole lot cheaper to ship raw titanium from Africa to the States for processing than it was to bring it out from the Tahawus Mine. Hm...fuzzy economics, IMHO.

The buildings associated with the Tahawus Mine, and the mining equipment, have mostly been removed now. As you can see from these photos, very little is left.

If you are interested in a more detailed account of the Tahawus operation, and its future, you'll want to read the write-up at the APA website: We also have literature and architectural drawings of the furnace and wheel house available at the VIC.