Friday, April 30, 2010

What's Bloomin' at the VIC

Snow or no snow, the flowers bloom on here at the VIC.

I haven't been able to get out on the trails since blooming began, but today I grabbed a couple quick shots of plants flowering around the main building - a sampler, as it were, of what awaits you out on the trails.

First, we have American Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis). It's pale yellow flowers dangle like little silver bells beneath the shelter of its oval leaves. Eventually these flowers will turn into red fruits, which look (to me at least) like a very small, glossy red mustache.

The red, or purple, trillium (Trillium erectum) is flowering all over the place. Some plants are just starting to bud, while others have already passed their prime. Soon the painted trilliums will also grace our woods.

And sessile-leaved bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), aka wild oats, are just starting to put forth their flowers. This flower gets its somewhat odd name from the fact that its leaves clasp the stem. In New York, the other species of bellworts have stems that actually "pierce" the leaves - or so it appears. Like the honeysuckle above, this flower sports pale yellow flowers, which can make it difficult to spot if the sun is dappling the forest floor.

Visitors have also reported trout lily, spring beauty, northern blue and northern white violets along the trails. I hope to get out soon and see for myself which of my botanical friends have put in an appearance so far this spring.
Meanwhile, out the other end of town, the shadbush (Amalanchier sp.) and wild strawberries are just starting to bloom. Spring is creeping up on us (after an earlier headlong rush).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spring Throws a Curveball

Spring - she has her foibles, eh?

Here's what she threw at me yesterday as I drove out to Montezuma for a job interview:

The snowflakes were so big and heavy that I could feel each one smack me in the back of the head as it landed!

And here's what my street looked like this morning:

The drive in to work:

Yet, despite it all, that lovely pale green shade of green glowed from the trees' new leaves:

By evening, most of the snow had vanished and temps had climbed into the 40s. The weather dudes are calling for the 70s this weekend.

Gotta love spring!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Exciting Things Happen...

...when you don't have your camera in hand.

I'm at my folks' house in central NY, en route to western NY for another interview. It's a good half-way point and a safe place to leave the dog for a few hours while I'm out. But, routines must be followed, so after dinner we went for a the rain.

I didn't want to do my parents' street as it is populated with other dogs who are not yard-bound, so we drove downtown to walk the sidewalks around almost 200-year-old neighborhoods. In the rain.

Because of the damp conditions, I (understandably) left the camera behind.

As we were winding up our walk, heading back to the car, I heard the sound of a bird in distress. I looked up just in time to see a medium-sized brown bird flying away from a roadside tree and across a yard with an only slightly smaller black bird dangling from its feet. A second medium-sized brown bird was flying along side. All three disappeared into some tall conifers beside a house. The birds may have vanished, but the birdcalls continued. Shortly afterwards, I watched the brown bird carry the black bird to the driveway, where it sat upon its now-silent prey.

I REALLY wanted to walk up that driveway and see who was who, but I knew the bird was likely to take off again if I approached. So I stayed put and watched as best I could in the dimming evening light, wishing I had at least brought my binocs (which were in my pack back at the house; remember - it was raining).

a) I think it was a sharp-shinned hawk in the role of predator (straight tail, from what I could tell).
b) The victim could very well have been a starling. No great loss there, except on a personal level for that particular bird.
c) Even if it is raining, take your camera along. That's why camera bags have raincoats. And bring an umbrella, which you can hold with your fourth hand, while your third hand holds the dog leash and your first and second hands get the camera out of the bag, focused, and take the photo. least it wasn't a moose.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Earth Day

I spent Earth Day travelling.

I was off to Maryland for a job interview, and had taken my camera along with every intention of visiting parks along the way and taking photos, but one thing led to another and I decided that I'd not risk getting lost and ending up late returning the rental car and possibly missing the flight home. So, no pictures.

Suffice it to say, though, that it is already SUMMER in Maryland! And the people I met, all except the surly guy at the parking garage, were incredibly friendly and polite. If that's a sample of Maryland hospitality, I must say I am very impressed!

So, Happy Belated Earth Day to all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It's a Small, Small World

One day last week I was out weeding the veg garden (just in case) and noticed a splash of yellow on the lawn. At first I thought it was the first dandelion, but it was in fact this lovely viola.

Looking around, I saw several more in bloom or budding. Then I saw this purple-edged one. Look at those lines near the throat of both flowers - these are there to guide the bees into the flower for a sip of nectar. Don't be fooled though - it's all part of the flower's plan to get itself fertilized. Those stripes are like big neon arrows saying "Eat Here!"

Isn't this a great flower head? This is from last year's purple stachys. In the summer the bees love it, and even now it hangs on to its beauty. In fact, so many of last year's flowers left behind great skeletons that I thought I'd share some with you.

Garlic chives - large purple flowers, flattened and twisty leaves. Lots of seeds. It spreads rapidly, kind of like regular chives do. In other words, this is a plant to keep an eye on in your gardens.

Here's the dried flower stalk of verbascum. It's related to mullein, which is why it (maybe) looks familiar.

You can probably guess this one with relative ease: echinacea.

A few days earlier, I discovered some interesting things growing on my wooden lawn beaver. I've had this beaver for over 15 years - bought it in NJ. The years have not been kind to it; between the ants and the weather, its taken rather a beating. Still, up close, it has developed some very interesting communities.

Like these tiny tiny mushrooms:

I have no idea what they are, except very very small.

Here's another batch. Are they the same, or something different? If anyone as an idea, let me know!

Then there were these wonderful lichens - again, very, very small. They might be a species of Cladonia, but I wouldn't stake my life on it. The two species that I found that might be potentials are wand lichen (C. rei), and powdered funnel lichen (C. cenotea). Lichen experts, please chime in!

I think this is something else - another lichen, but a different one. Several of these had white tops...

...but futher examination indicated that it wasn't the top that was white, but the interior, which was showing through because the stem had been broken off.

These brown lichens were interspersed with the pudgy "white-topped" ones. Are they part of the same species, or are they more of the first species, just brown instead of green-grey? It's a mystery. Whatever they are, they're small - as in only a very few millimeters tall.

There was also a nice green moss growing on the beaver's head, but none of the photos turned out well.

Slowly, so slowly, the beaver is being reduced to its component parts. One foot has entirely fallen off. The interior is mostly hollow (thanks to the ants). And now the exterior is being worked on by mosses, lichens and fungi. While I'm saddened to see my beaver disappear (it's tail vanished a few years back), it's kind of fun to see what is colonizing it during its decline. Nothing is permanent but change, eh?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Walk in the Park

While in The City to have some automotive work done (thank goodness for warranties), I met up with my friend Jackie and we went for a walk in Moreau State Park, which is just south of Glens Falls. Rain was in the forecast, but we forged ahead - a few raindrops weren't going to stop us.

I've never been to Moreau before, and we had many choices of where to go. In the end, we opted to walk around the lake. We were there for four hours! Lots of great finds, even though the day was grey and cool.

Skirting the lake, our eyes were grabbed by small dark figures wiggling through the water: newts!

These are the first newts I've seen this year. It's possible they've been out in the breeding ponds with the frogs, but I haven't seen 'em. These newts are the adult stage of our little red efts who prowl the woods throughout the summer. They stay in the eft stage for a couple years before returning to the water to breed as adults, at which time they lose their vibrant coloration - it's easier to blend in when your clothing is drab.

All across the forest floor ferns were beginning to unfurl. We usually thing of young ferns rolled up in the classic "fiddle head" shape, but these sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) were coiled inwards from their sides. It kind of reminds me of the Thistles/Russian Dancers from Disney's version of The Nutcracker Suite.

>Red trilliums (Trillium erectum) were starting to open, too. Also known as Stinking Benjamin, these flowers smell and look like very ripe meat. This is what brings in their pollinators, the green flesh-flies.

This handsome fungus was hanging out on a tree just a short distance from the lake shore. I'm not 100% sure which fungus it is, but I'm leaning towards it being a young artist's conk, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong. Any mushroom folks out there who can ID it for me? It looks kind of like a loaf of bread that is almost finished baking. Mmmm.

I love newly opening leaves. There's something about their color, shininess and supple texture that makes them just so appealing. This set is from a sugar maple (Acer saccharum).

The blueberries (Vaccinium sp.)were in various states of getting ready to bloom. This one was such a brilliant pink that it caught our attention and we spent quite some time photographing it.

Another new plant for me was maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina). This shrub is a member of the heath family and is related to blueberries. According to Jackie, its fruit are rather hard and inedible. Still, the dried capsules here are rather attractive. They remind me of bittersweet.

A traditional springtime flower is trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). It's also called Mayflower, but these days that may have to change to Aprilflower! Down here these flowers are about past their blooming time, but we found some that were still open and smelled spicy. Two different colors were present here: pale pink...

...and white

I love plants that have multi-colored leaves. Therefore, finding striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) was delightful.

We also found "regular" wintergreen (Caultheria procumbens), complete with bright red berries. Partridgeberry was also around, with its red berries. The two are often confused by the layperson. A good way to tell them apart is that partridgeberry had small, almost round leaves that are paired and a dark green with a white mid-rib. The fruits are formed from two flowers each - so look for two blossom ends at the end of each berry. Wintergreen has just one (note the little "stem" hanging down from the end of the fruit).

When we first encountered this thorny shrub, we were perplexed. What in the world was it? The thorns were too small for hawthorne, but too big for even the most robust blackberries. Jackie suspected black locust. We found more around the far side of the lake, complete with fallen pods. It was, indeed, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), named after Jean and Vespasian Robin, herbalists to King of France in the early to mid-1600s, who did much to popular this species in Europe.

Hard by the locust this handsome spider was hanging out on his wispy web. I say "he" because of the large black pedipalps (the two knobs in front of its face) - structures attributed to male spiders.

This second spider was only a few inches away. I'm not sure if it was another male or if it was a female. This is because although it had something large and black in the region of the mouth, I couldn't discern if it was pedipalps or a partially consumed meal. I'll send the photos on to BugGuide and see if I can get an ID.

The shad were in bloom. Shad trees, shadbush, shadblow - Amalanchier sp. - typically come into flower when the shad (fish) are running upstream to spawn. Or, at least this is what happened historically. Everything is blooming much earlier these days. And this year, for the first time, the shad fisheries have been closed. The population of these fish, which spend part of their lives in the ocean and part in freshwater, has declined to such a level that it can no longer sustain commercial fishing. Annual shad bakes are now a thing of the past.

How sweet are these maple keys?

While making our way around the muddy shoreline, we spied this dark shape near the water's edge. A deceased bullhead. I wonder how it died? It apparently wasn't anyone's meal for there was no evidence of any feeding. HM.

This fish's demise, however, was less of a mystery. Most of the flesh was gone, leaving just the head, bones and a few scales behind. Otters? Very likely.

Beaver sign was all around the lake. Jackie likes to call this the beaver diner - look at all the places where they have been chewing!

This tree has been consumed a bit more recently.

Nearby, we found this pile of scat on a log that was partially submerged. I found a stick, scooped up a bit and took a sniff. If it was fishy, we could reasonably guess otters. It wasn't. The texture looked a lot like sawdust. Beaver? My field guides all describe beaver scats as well-formed pellets, usually expelled in the water, where they dissolve. HM. Maybe this beaver had an upset stomach. Or maybe they were just old and weathered scats, flattened by time.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) - I love these plants. They are also called mandrakes. Those who are Harry Potter fans will recognize the name mandrake. But this isn’t the same mandrake – that is a European plant, which does look a lot like our native mayapple here. The story behind the real mandrake is that the root sometimes had a somewhat human form. In truth, it looks kind of like a carrot, and anyone who’s grown carrots knows that sometimes they can develop into some pretty crazy shapes – sometimes with arms and legs. Anyway, it was believed that if pulled from the ground its cry would kill the person who disturbed it. In order to avoid this problem, it was recommended to tie a rabid dog to the plant. The dog would then pull up the root and die, leaving the area with one less rabid dog and the perpetrator with a now harmless mandrake root.

Still, as I said, our mayapple is a different, and less deadly, plant. Well, the root IS poisonous, but parts of the plant have been found to have genuine medicinal properties, including potential use in the fight against cancer.

Not all early leaves are a brilliant spring green. Some, like these black cherry leaves (Prunus serrotina) show a bit more red. In fact, these leaves were almost coppery in color - really quite beautiful.

I think this was hophorn beam (Ostrya virginiana). What a lovely soft green.

Maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) is also known as dockmackie. One glance at the leaves of this shrub make it clear how it got its common name. The best explanation I could find of "dockmackie" is that it is probably American Dutch in origin, although it could be Mahican. Hm.

I'm not 100% sure what tree/shrub these belong to, but I'd be willing to guess an oak.

We stumbled across this lovely little violet, an ovate-leaved violet (Viola fimbriatula). Most violets have rounded leaves, but the leaves of this little beauty are oval-shaped. Another key to a postive ID is the hairy stem.

But I'm just enchanted with the flower itself - how charming it is! And a nice splash of color to a still mostly brown landscape.

Now, you'd probably think this is another unusual flower, but these are the bracts that remain from last fall's blossoming. The plant? Witch hazel. Hamamelis virginia is one of the last flowering plants to bloom – it comes into its own in the fall with these wild yellow flowers that look terribly windblown. It has astringent qualities, which is why it is bottled and sold in drug stores. Although, now that I think about it, is the witch hazel antiseptic of today still made from this plant, or is it entirely synthetic, like wintergreen flavoring (no longer, or very rarely, extracted from wintergreen plants)? HM…I’ll have to check the next time I’m at the drug store

Plants weren't the only things strutting their stuff. These fish were also feeling the urges of spring. Jackie says they are a type of sucker. I have a call out to a fishy friend to see if we can get a more precise identification for them. UPDATE: My fish friend says that they are most likely white suckers - a native species! And indicators of good water quality.

I really need to brush up on my bryology. Mosses are fascinating, especially up close. This particular patch was a very robust population of hairy-cap moss, Polytrichum sp. The tall sporophytes were thick as theives, looking almost like some kind of forest from a science fiction novel.

A short distance away the splashcups grew. These are the male reproductive parts. When water (rain) splashes into the brown cups, the sperm splash out, hopefully to land on receptive female parts.

Update on Polytrichum: the common name, hairy-cap moss, come from the fact that the tips of the sporophytes (the tall things in the first photo) have hairy caps. As mentioned above, with Polytrichum the male and female reproductive parts grow on separate colonies of the moss.

When you look at a moss, the green leafy bit, you are looking at the part called the "gametophyte." When the gametophytes mature, they produce sporophytes, a result of sexual reproduction. In other words, the gametophytes produce eggs and sperm.

In the case of Polytrichum, the male reproductive parts are on one colony (the ones with the splash cups), the females on another (they just look like green moss - no overt structures). Rain splashes the sperm from the male splash cup and they swim outwards across the wet plants in search of eggs on the female plants. When fertilization occurs, the sporophyte is produced. This structure releases spores when it matures, which explode out onto the landscape in hopes of starting new moss colonies.

This tiny wee plant is known as Wicklow grass, Draba verna. It was one of the last plants we encountered up close this day, but one that Jackie was eager to show me.

Look at how tiny it is! It takes a real nature nut, with botanical tendencies, to find this delicate flower. Someone like Jackie, who, I swear, knows every plant in Saratoga County on a first name basis. Her enthusiasm is a treasure and easily contagious.

Anyway, this little plant is about past its prime bloom-wise. We found a few that were still in flower, but many had already produced their fruits (the green “tongue” sticking out from the white petals). A member of the mustard family, this is a plant that Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation, declared pointed out the true seekers of spring, for they would find it (spring) by crawling across the ground rather than by gazing up towards the tops of trees. Ahhh – I knew there was justification to my walking always with my eyes to the ground!

So, many thanks to Jackie for a wonderful tour of one of her neighborhood parks. We'll have to do it again, on another trail, perhaps when the sun is out. But days are always good when spent with good friends, regardless of the weather.