Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wearin' o' th' Green

Saint Paddy's Day found me outside scouting the trails for animal tracks. We had a school group coming the next day, and I knew recent conditions were less than ideal for making, not to mention finding, tracks. Almost two weeks of mild weather, lots of sunshine and a wee bit of rain, plus some pretty strong winds, were bound to make things interesting.

Here's what the trail looked like:

Between the debris and hard, icy snow, it was going to be interesting!

Of course, I found myself distracted my all sorts of naturey things. Who could resist this fungus? Look at all the tiny wee holes on the underside - fitting that it is a polypore, eh? I believe this is Fomes fomentarius, the tinder polypore.

Despite questionable conditions, I was able to find a few tracks. As one might suspect, mouse and squirrel tracks were non-existent, but heavier animals, like deer, left pretty good tracks behind.

Along the sunny shore of a wetland, I found wild iris starting to emerge.

And the sphagnum moss was looking quite thick and juicy. I'm wondering if this is the "cat sphagnum" I learned about from Evelyn last fall.

This small shrubby plant was also along the side of the wetland. It's stem was fuzzy - almost downy. The buds look familiar, but I must be having a senior moment because I can't place it.

Here's some of the bright green that the Earth was wearing just in time for this Irish holiday. The leaves are even shamrocky in shape. Of course, this is goldthread, not shamrocks, but even so, it was nice to see on St. Patrick's Day.

This jumping spider was one of several I saw traversing a mossy rock in the sunshine next to the beaver pond. Here it is modeling for us a very nice little pixy cup lichen - I suspect it is a mealy pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea).

And right nearby was the tiniest British Soldiers lichen I've ever seen (Cladonia cristatella). Although it could be Gritty British Soldiers (C. floerkeana) - I didn't look closely enough to note the difference and I can't tell from this photo. Reading the habitat requirements of each may give a clue: the former is "equally at home on wood, soil, or even bark (tree bases)", while the latter is found "on earth, rotten logs, or soil-covered rocks, usually in the open." Hm...this was on a rock, in an open spot along the beaver pond. The rock had a healthy population of mosses and lichens, so some soil build-up was present. Both species can grown on soil. Guess habitat wasn't too helpful. Better observations and some chemical testing are in order.

As I sat there enjoying the sunshine and watching the wildlife crawl around the rock, this tree-, plant-, or leaf-hopper dropped in for a visit. I'm waiting to hear back from for confirmation on what it is. Update: It turns out that this is a diamondbacked spittlebug (which are related to leafhoppers) - Lepyronia quadrangularis. It seems that these insects, which are commonly found in meadows and open spaces, where the young feed on grasses and other plants, safe within their foamy spittle homes, will overwinter as adults. When they do, they move to lower, swampy areas where the microclimate is less harsh and varied. This explians why I found this individual in the woods next to a beaver pond!

Ditto on this little guy. Lots of these were flying about (and landing on me - that's my hand it's crawling across, not Mars). Update: when I sent in my ID request to BugGuide, I mentioned that the back end of this insect had two "tails" like those on a stonefly. The response I got was "That's because it is a stonefly." Well - there you are, then. I looked it up in my Kaufman's Field Guide to Insects of North America and there, on the bottom of page 61 is a tiny little stonefly of the genus Allocapnia. These are "small winter stoneflies" (as opposed to "winter stoneflies") that can be out and about in temps a chilly at 20*F. Since it was well into the 50s, it's no surprise they were out and about. According to my Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America, the adults emerge between December and April. As larvae, these insects are shredders, or detritivores, chowing down on decaying leaves that land in the water, consuming up to 30% of their weight in leaves each day.

So, here we are at the beaver pond. Water was rushing through one small opening, but mostly the dam was holding up.

The shallow parts of the pond were still covered with ice. I just loved the soft green of the ice in this section.

On the far side, the beaver lodge was quite visible. Last fall it was a little more difficult to see, but the barren landscape of spring, combined with the bright sunshine and a winter's worth of sticks thrown on the roof, made the bank lodge stick out like a sore thumb. I eventually made my way around to that side of the pond, but couldn't get close enough to see more than a few of the sticks. The beavers picked a good, safe location.

Here's what the slope above the lodge looks like. If these beavers were people, the APA would hit them with a major fine for clearcutting the woods!

Not only was the slope covered with sharp, pointy "stumps," but it was striped with several trails, where the beavers went up the hill to harvest some trees and then dragged them back to the pond. Some of these trails were quite deep and eroded.

Often when beavers cut down trees (saplings) for food, the stump left behind resprouts, sending up numerous new shoots. This one, however, is not likely to do so, for the beavers actually dug out the roots and cut them off as well!

Nearby, an old yellow birch had finally given up the ghost, and the beavers were having at it. The little black spot on the end is a fly. Two of these flies were sponging up the moisture oozing from the end. Sap?

Another old yellow birch, this one perched precariously at the top edge of a steep slope overlooking the pond, also showed signs of sampling by the beavers. I'm going to keep an eye on this one because I'm curious to see if the beavers plan on taking it down, or if this sample is the extent of the damage they'll do.

Although the "pond" part of the pond (to the left in this photo) is still frozen, the "stream" part is open and flowing right along.

Another portrait of my left hand. Have you ever noticed how many left hand photographs naturalists take? Seriously, though, this is a beaver track next to my hand. I had nothing else for scale, and I was simply impressed by the size of the thing. While to the untrained eye this looks like a track left by one of those giant prehistoric beavers, it is in fact merely the melted-out track of an average modern day beaver. Melting snow makes even the smallest tracks look huge.

My scouting trip turned up an additional raccoon track, some otter trails, and a grouse scat, so when the students arrived the next day, we had plenty of animal signs to look for.

Just as new green shoots are a sure sign of spring, so is the lack of trackable snow. It's these conditions that sharpen the observer's eye. We know the animals are still out there, but the signs of their passing are more subtle and we must be more alert if we want to find them.

No comments:

Post a Comment