Last weekend, we explored the section of the new Empire Trail paralleling the Kinderhook Creek from Stuyvesant Falls to Rossman Road (Chittenden Falls). Along the way, we learned some about the history of industry harnessing the water power at the three waterfalls of the Kinderhook Creek. We also experienced the stream and its waterfalls in their wintry glory.
This is the actual “Stuyvesant Falls”, which is the third waterfall on the Kinderhook Creek. According to the memorial plaque in the little park next to the parking area on the west shore from which this image was taken, it is 26 feet high.
A closer view of Stuyvesant Falls from the beach (NO SWIMMING!) on the east shore.
The waterfall displayed a mesmerizing mix of water, ice, and snow—some stationary, some very much in flux, and all of them ever changing…
At the base of the waterfall, the tell-tale “sliding” track of a River Otter travelling along the frozen stream, once in a while diving into a pool of water, along the way.
A lone (and cold-looking) American Black Duck was resting by a pool. Note the Otter track on the far side!
Sycamore trees are iconic markers of many of our stream banks. They are easily recognized by their smooth and light-colored or “camouflaged” bark of the upper trunk and limbs. The pompom-like fruits are unmistakable.
The base of a Sycamore growing next to the water with its roots partly exposed and highlighted by a layer of snow.
The sign next to the parking area shows the entire Empire State Trail, which crosses New York State south to north from the Bronx to the Canadian Border, and east to west from Albany to Buffalo.
As you can see on this sign, a good portion of its Columbia County section, is off road (dark green), following the route of an electric trolley that operated between Albany and Hudson from 1899-1929 (hence the current name “Albany-Hudson Electric Trail”).
The mill buildings next to the bridge are part of the Historic Stuyvesant Falls Mill District, which in 1836 encompassed two large cotton factories, two sawmills, a grist mill, a plaster mill, a paper mill and a satine (cotton satin) factory, located on both shores of the stream between the second and third fall of the Kinderhook Creek. Later, a hydroelectric plant at this site provided electricity for the electric trolley traveling between Albany and Hudson.
The second waterfall (45 feet) seen from the bridge. Note the River Otter track leading from the bottom right corner of the image to the big pool of water. This was likely the same animal that left its track at the base of the third waterfall.
Walking up the road to the trailhead, we noticed these fruits of Boxelder. Do they remind you of the two-winged maple fruits (called samaras)? That is because Boxelder, in spite of its common name, which acknowledges its pinnate, elderberry-like leaves, IS a type of maple (Acer negundo). Boxelder is a common tree along streams and in vacant lots.
Near it, we found the “king of vacant lots”, the very invasive Tree-of-Heaven, also still presenting its winged fruits to the world. Note how, in contrast to the paired maple seeds, each with their one-sided wing, the fruits of Tree-of-Heaven are composed of a single, spiraling wing with a seed in the middle.
The trail head for the Empire Trail leading south from Stuyvesant Falls. On the weekend, it had a nice cross-country ski track which ends after approximately 2 miles at Rossman Road, where the trail turns into a section that follows the road.
Chittendens Falls seen from Rossman Road. This is the first waterfall on the Kinderhook Creek and—according to the historical markers—was the site of the second cotton mill and the second paper mill in the County, both built by George Chittenden.
This waterfall also displayed a mix of running water, ice, and snow.
An interesting curtain of icicles had formed under one of the historic mill buildings.
A Mink had wandered across the snow on the frozen stream.
A flock of American Black Ducks burst into flight…
… chased by (an admittedly rather blurry) Bald Eagle, who did not succeed in catching a duck—at least not while we were watching.
The tracks left by the ducks.
The flower buds of American Elm seem ready to burst. Elm flowers are among the first to venture out in the spring and can be expected any time now…
The Empire Trail going north towards Stuyvesant Falls from Rossman Road.
Along the trail, we noticed dozens of these approximately ½ inch long Winter Stoneflies. These winter-hardy insects spend their youth in the water and hatch in late winter, when they can be seen walking across the snow, supposedly in search of mates. Curiously, almost all the stoneflies we saw were bee-lining up from the stream, crossing the trail and continuing up towards the forest, seemingly uninterested in each other… Were they all males trying to find a rare female hiding in the trees???
Somebody else was clearly interested in the stoneflies: a whole flock of American Robins were hunting for them in the snow along the stream.
Our parting shot for today’s post is a male Common Goldeneye. These ducks winter in our area, but breed further north.
Welcome to the third, self-guided tour of habitats in winter, brought to you in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy! Today’s Wonder Wander post introduces the newly installed tour of Oak-Maple Forest habitat at Borden’s Pond Conservation Area in Chatham.
Follow along with this blog post to explore some wonders of the Oak-Maple Forest and/or check out these wonders in-person at Borden’s Pond Conservation Area from now until March 15th.
For those of you who have received our year-end appeal gift of the Wonder Wander Journal, this also reflects the February “Oak-Maple Forest” habitat. Find out more about our self-guided Wonder Wander walks and how to get a digital or hard copy of our Wonder Wander Journal at: hvfarmscape.org/wonder.
This map (below) of Borden’s Pond Conservation Area highlights where the Oak-Maple Forest Wonder Wander is located! It’s on a section of the red trail that is north of the blue trail. You can access that part of the trail from the green, blue and red trails. Do note that the quickest way to get there is by following the green trail, taking a right up the blue trail, and a left up the red trail. Please keep in mind that the trail is on a steep slope; use caution when traversing this trail, and you may want to consider weather conditions before your visit (it was very icy this morning!).
Oak-Maple Forest might be the most abundant of our mature forest habitats. It often strikes folks as a “typical” deciduous forest, with good sized trees and a relatively open understory. The largest trees are usually oaks (including Red, White, Chestnut and/or Black Oak). The rest of the forest canopy includes Sugar Maple, Red Maple, and other deciduous species.
The following image illustrates the bark and buds of many of these common trees in this Oak-Maple Forest. If you’ve also been staying up to speed on the Winter Botany course Conrad has been installing at Crellin Park and PS21, some of these might look familiar?! Either way, it might be helpful to check these out in order to recognize some friends in the Oak-Maple Forest. Thank you to the Northern Forest Atlas Foundation for supplementing our collection of images!
Alright! Now let’s get walking..
Our first stop is a beautiful example of a hanging (“pensile”) cup nest. Such nests are often constructed between the fork of small branches, with material such as adhesive spider webs or sticky plant fiber used to affix the rim of the nest to the branches, leaving the cup suspended. While this nest is a little worse for wear, one can still get a sense of the two layers that comprise such nests—an outer layer with strips of bark, wasp nest paper, and other plant material encasing an inner lining, such as the pine needles seen in the one here.
Vireos are one type of bird that make pensile cup nests, and also prefer deciduous habitats, sometimes near a forest edge or opening (such as a path).
Farther up the trail we point out a pair of Sugar Maples: a young Sugar Maple next to a mature Sugar Maple. Note how the bark differs with age.
One of the main reasons we decided to highlight this habitat in February was because of maple sugaring! Late winter through early spring is sugaring season, when the combination of below freezing nights and above freezing days causes the sap to flow. The processes involved in sap flow are surprisingly complicated. Unlike most trees, some of the cells of maples are largely filled with gas, not water, and scientists believe the interaction of these gas-filled cells with the freeze-thaw cycle creates negative and positive pressure that ultimately pushes and pulls the sap around the tree. The sugaring season lasts as long as these conditions persist and the buds have not yet developed.
Mature Sugar Maples often have patches of whitish bark caused by the aptly named “Whitewash Lichen” (likely a species of Phlyctis) which tends to be most common (but not only) on Sugar Maple bark. Whitewash Lichen is a crustose lichen—a type of lichen that adheres so closely to a substrate as to become inseparable, almost as if it was painted on.
As you’ll likely notice, this Oak-Maple Forest is located on a steep slope and has a relatively open understory. These two observations, along with the lack of early successional trees (ie Black Cherry, White Ash, White Birch), suggest that this Oak-Maple Forest was likely not cleared for agricultural purposes, aside from selective logging.
Look at the habitats adjacent to the Oak-Maple Forest: they are flatter, with more vines and shrubs in the understory of younger trees. This begins to tell the story of the former pastures and crop fields that once quilted this area.
Does this map look familiar to you?
This is Chatham! As depicted on a poster from 1886, that can be found on the Library of Congress’ website. As the arrow delineates, the Oak-Maple Forest can be seen on the map surrounded by (what was then) cleared fields! Now, as we know, the Oak-Maple Forest is surrounded by other forest habitats, both planted and spontaneous, that together make up Borden’s Pond Conservation Area.
Knowing that a lot of this Conservation Area used to be used as pasture and crop field, do you see other clues of land use history such as stone walls and old fence lines?
This tree (that you’ll find later on down the trail) “absorbed” an old fence line that once likely surrounded pasture. The process of trees engulfing objects is called edaphoecotropism: as the tree continues to grow taller and wider, the living tissue can grow around an object, and over time, they become one.
Speaking of traces left behind..
White Ash is known for its especially hard and strong wood paired with its ability to be bent (making it ideal for many woodworking applications, such as chairs). In this case, it has bent due to a vine. The triple twist and deep scoring of this White Ash suggests the work of the invasive Oriental Bittersweet. Oriental Bittersweet was introduced to North America in the mid-1800s and can rapidly entwine and girdle trees or choke out native plants. This White Ash seems to have survived, but will forever bear the twisted scar caused by the vine. As you walk, can you spot any other evidence of Oriental Bittersweet in this forest?
Other ash trees in the forest are experiencing an ailment that is more specific to ashes. The exposed areas on these ash trees is due to the “flecking” activity of woodpeckers removing strips of bark in search of insect larvae. For ash, this is a sign of infestation by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, a bright green beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees.
The Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered in the US in 2002, and has already killed tens of millions of ash trees. After a tree is infested with Emerald Ash Borer it often dies within just a few years. Emerald Ash Borer was first detected in Columbia County in 2019. The years ahead will provide an opportunity for us to observe how forests like this one (though more commonly, Northern and Young Hardwood forests) are impacted by the loss of ash trees.
The Emerald Ash Borer is not the only insect we find traces of in this forest.. The hairy egg masses (below) attached to the tree trunk belong to Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar), and will hatch into little caterpillars in the spring. Gyspy Moth caterpillars can defoliate an entire tree before pupating and mating. While they feed on different types of foliage, they seem to prefer oak trees.
Gypsy Moths were brought to Boston from Europe in the late 19th century as a potential silk-worm substitute. They soon escaped and spread wide and far, arriving to this region in the 1930s. Gypsy Moth populations often move in cycles of booms and crashes. While last year had, and this year might have, outbreaks, next year may be different.
This is a Gypsy Moth chrysalis from last season, which likely belonged to the female who laid the nearby eggs. Check out the following blog posts from previous months for more information on Gypsy Moths: 22 June 2020; 20 July 2020.
While winter might not seem to be the time to observe flower buds, there are in fact some buds to keep an eye out for!
Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) are two tree species whose flower buds have been set since fall, waiting to break early this spring.
Look up for Red Maple’s clustered flower buds at the end of the twigs, which will open in April.
Hop Hornbeam, abundant in this forest’s understory, has catkins that grow in groups of three, resembling birds’ feet. Each catkin is made up of tiny buds of male flowers, and will elongate as the flowers open to release their pollen in the spring to pollinate female catkins.
We’ll leave you with this beautiful photo of Witch Hazel, in between having flowered in the fall, and waiting patiently to develop into fruits in the spring.. Perhaps you’ll find this shrub along the trail when you visit the Oak-Maple Forest!? We hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and that you get a chance to observe these wonders in person as well.
Well, the weather certainly made a Winter Botany course seem appropriate – a nip in the air & some snow underfoot.
This posting profiles the woody plants covered in the third and final installment of our free do-it-yourself winter botany course: Staghorn Sumach, willow, White Mulberry, Shagbark Hickory, American Elm, hawthorn, European Buckthorn, Toringo Crabapple, Grey Dogwood, Multiflora Rose, Slippery Elm, and Witch-hazel.
The species profiled here are marked with bright green flagging at Crellin Park and, primarily, on the adjacent lands of PS21 in Chatham NY. Even if you’re not able to visit the individual trees themselves, I hope these materials help you learn a bit more about our forests here in the Northeast.
PS21 and the Town of Chatham have been enthusiastic hosts for this course, which typifies their commitment to continuing to provide area residents with on-going ways of enjoying the land during these challenging times. For more information, please see the web pages of PS21 and the Town of Chatham Recreation Department.
PS21 and the Town of Chatham have recently been collaborating on a pair of initiatives – first, a program called PS21Chatham/ Pathways: Blazing a Trail to a Sustainable Future, which includes free performances, arts, and environmental education programs, and other events along the new trail system and, second, in consultation with the Columbia Land Conservancy, an expanding network of trails linking the two adjacent properties and stretching beyond them towards the Village of Chatham. These trails and programming were intrinsic to the PS21 founder Judy Grunberg’s vision of PS21 as an environment embracing nature and culture.
The map above shows the location of the woody plants marked with numbered green flagging for this last installment of the course. We invite you to consult the course web page for materials including links to three videos, digital plant ID cards, maps for the first two installments, and some additional resources, and then get out and visit the trees in person. The flagging will stay up through February.
The first tree of this installment is Staghorn Sumach. Sumachs are small, somewhat straggling trees which grow up rapidly in small clusters on disturbed lands.
I am so used to seeing these around parking lots, roadsides and other relatively recent disturbances, that I had to pause to think about where these may have occurred during earlier times. Reading and reaching out to colleagues provided perspective. Some suggest talus slopes, prairies, and savannas, and yet we can think of few sumach-populated, regional examples of the first, and the last two habitats are not common in our area. Perhaps, centuries ago, it occurred primarily farther west and on sand plains such as the Pine Bush and those in the northwest part of Columbia County. Native Americans may have also helped spread it because of its medicinal and food value. Chances are that it is now more common than it was, say, 500 years ago, however, the truth is that we can only speculate.
The clusters of red, fuzzy fruits persist well into Winter, providing important seasonal food for some birds. Dried, they are a source of spice and have also been used traditionally to make a form of pink lemonade. When malaria was endemic in the Northeast (and was known as ague or ‘intermittent fevers’), people searched for botanical cures. Quinine was the most famous, but sumachs (and dogwoods) were also said to be effective.
Staghorn Sumach is a ‘clonal’ plant, meaning that a cluster of what appear to be individual stems may in fact be but a single plant, connected underground. Clones are either male or female, hence not all Staghorn Sumach clumps will sport these snappy fruits, but many will.
Staghorn Sumach gets its name from the fact that its furry branches look like deer antlers in velvet. In keeping with their tendency to grow in very transient habitats, these are fast growing plants and their wood is weak. As a result, any clump of Sumach usually has a few dead and/or broken individuals.
Sumach is flagged tree #32 along the path, just as you’re leaving Crellin Park land.
The next along our walk is a willow tree. Our only native willow tree is Black Willow (not to be confused with Black Widow), but there are also an array of non-natives, and so I won’t guarantee that this is Black. However, all our willows share this unique bud form with a single, enclosing scale that reminds me of a bedroom slipper. If you see this on an alternate-budded plant, you can feel pretty sure that you’re looking at a willow. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.
We have several native (and non-native) willow shrubs, several of which are called “pussy willow” because of the furry flower catkins that appear in Spring. However, as you can see here, all of them share that same beetle-back of a bud scale.
Willows often grow along stream courses where they’re battered by ice and passing floods. Related to that, they are supple plants that bend easily but live on. When they do break, those branches, which may have been buried by sediments, readily take root and produce new individuals.
The flexibility of their twigs has made them a favorite for basketry. Their eagerness to re-root has led to their use in erosion control. Planted along stream banks, they can quickly take hold and help control bank loss.
Willows have also been used medicinally and a key ingredient in aspirin is derived from them.
A willow is flagged tree #33 at PS21.
The next tree is White Mulberry, a non-native that one can find scatted along hedgerows and edges. Although we do have a native mulberry (the Red Mulberry) and it has been reported by others from Columbia County, we have never identified it in our area.
In Winter, White Mulberry is admittedly a somewhat nondescript little tree, but a couple of clues might point you in the right direction. While the bark structure is not very unique, it tends to have orangey accents which appear to be characteristic.
The alternate buds are somewhat reminiscent of elm (whom you will meet shortly), but are more rounded, forming small nubbins along the twigs. The buds of the native Red Mulberry are said to be bigger.
One of the origins of the White Mulberries in our area is likely the ‘Silk Balloon’ of the 1830s. It was a ‘balloon’ in an economic sense of a speculative bubble. In that era, some people became convinced that the Northeast could be a hub of global silk production. Mulberry is the food of the Silk Moth caterpillar, whose cocoons are the source of silk fibers. Arborists made ample money growing and selling White Mulberry to prospective silk entrepreneurs, and numerous books were published heralding silk production as one key to unlocking a prosperous agricultural future.
Unfortunately for the investors, the mulberry did not seem to grow as profusely as advertised nor was the industry an easy one to undertake, and the balloon soon popped. Some of the White Mulberries around the County may be the descendants of that botanical venture.
However, there are additional reasons that people may have planted mulberries, and their fruits are one of them. Superficially looking a bit like blackberries, mulberry fruits are a sweet treat and have been long used in jams and other cooking. Wildlife appreciate them too and will, literally, flock to a tree in fruit.
The names White and Red Mulberry don’t describe consistent differences in fruit color; the berries pictured here are from a White Mulberry. They’re whitish before they ripen, but once ripe, most are red or purple (a few that remain white have been reported). Red Mulberry berries are similar. The key diagnostic character character is leaf fuzziness, although there are also bark and, as mentioned, bud differences. This Purdue web page provides a nice, illustrated summary of the differences.
White Mulberry is our flagged tree #34.
Our next tree is a common, native forest resident and represents an important group of trees, the hickories. This is Shagbark Hickory. As the name implies, the bark is characteristic and should help you with identification, however be careful – young Shagbark can have relatively smooth bark, and I have seen old Sugar Maples that have long flakes somewhat similar to those of Shagbark (but remember – maples are opposite budded, while hickories have alternate buds).
Shagbark Hickory buds are large and bulbous; the end buds look as if they’re ready to pop, an impression accentuated by the loose outer scales that seem to be in the act of falling away. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.
Look too for the nut husks. Those of Shagbark are thick and corky, unlike the thin-husks of our other two common hickories, Bitternut and Pignut. While squirrels may quickly abscond with the savory nuts, the thick husks remain and if you think you’re standing in front of a mature Shagbark, some digging beneath the snow and leaves should reveal some confirmatory husks.
Shagbark Hickory is flagged tree # 35 of our walk.
Our next tree is American Elm. Once a familiar street tree, many such shade trees fell victim to the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease, but off the beaten track, along fence rows and streams, they can still commonly be found. Aside from the vase-shaped form of open-grown elms, elms can initially seem somewhat hard to ID. However, look for tell-tale architecture of the alternate buds with the crooked end bud and the off-center (relative to the prominent leaf scar) lateral buds. Study this form, and you’ll be well on your way to recognizing elms.
Another clue, at least on mature trees, are the flower buds. These are present in Winter and resemble a series of blobs dotting the branches. Perhaps our only other trees with a somewhat (but not quite) similar flower bud prominence are the poplars/aspens but their bark and bud structure are very different (see our second winter botany blog where we covered aspens).
The bark of American Elm is somewhat ‘standard issue’, although its scruffy ridges are typical. While the bark may not be so helpful in distinguishing American Elm from all other trees, a certain characteristic does help you separate it from closely related Slippery Elm. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.
If you break off a flake, snap it in half, and then look at the cross-section, you will see it has what we call an ‘Oreo Cookie’ layering of light/dark/light/dark. Keep this cookie analogy in mind and we’ll conjure up a slightly different culinary image when we meet Slippery Elm.
American Elm is tree #36 of our hike.
Our next character is a member of the shrubbery. Hawthorns are so-named in part because of their prominent thorns. Many of our hawthorns are native, and a visiting botanist identified 10 species around the farm where we work. We won’t worry about species-level identification in winter, but you should be able to pick out hawthorns as a group. Aside from the distinct thorns, look for the relatively small, round, bright red buds.
The other part of Hawthorn’s name refers to its rose-hip like fruits, or ‘haws’. Most of these seem to be gone come winter, but perhaps you’ll still find a few.
The bark of Hawthorne has fine, elongate flakes somewhat like that of Hop Hornbeam, but more irregular (in other words, if that’s French fry bark, whoever cut the fries was pretty sloppy).
In our mind, when we see a hawthorn growing in the forest, we tend to think that that stand was former pasture land. The thorns deter livestock grazing, and hawthorns seem to take hold where grazing animals once roamed.
Hawthorn is plant #37 along our way.
Here’s a thorn of a different form – European Buckthorn. The thorns of this non-native but widely dispersed tree are usually found at the twig tip, nestled between two end buds or branches.
As you may recall, one of the first steps in getting to know a new woody is to ask whether its buds are opposite or alternate. European Buckthorn is one of our few woody plants where that “or” can truly be replaced by an “and”: the buds of European Buckthorn are opposite AND alternate. While that may sound confusing, it’s actually a reliable trait, together with that twig tip point, for ID’ing this species.
The dark bark somewhat resembles that of Black Cherry, although the flakes are smaller.
Needless to say, we took this photo at another time of year, but it’s good to be reminded of Buckthorn’s dark berries which sometimes persist into winter. Lest you be tempted to sample them, note this species’ scientific name – Rhamnus cathartica. Those berries could give you a strong purge and should be avoided. They may however help account for the Buckthorn’s arrival in our landscape. Early healers apparently thought such a catharsis could sometimes be beneficial and planted this species as part of their botanical apothecary’s shop.
While European Buckthorn is an import, it seems to have more or less settled into our landscape. While it seems to be abundant in some areas, we most frequently now see it as scattered edge trees. Not so with our next tree.
European Buckthorn is stop #38.
Toringo Crabapple is an up and coming non-native. It is currently one of the most quickly spreading trees in our area, and we know of former farm fields where it forms dense thickets. Farmers need to actively work to keep it out of pastures.
Despite (or perhaps partially in explanation of) its invasiveness, Toringo Crabapple fruits are abundant and apparently often appreciated. We have watched flocks of Cedar Waxwings enjoy the feast. They are also a good identification clue. While we have various feral fruit trees in our landscape, including apple, pear, domestic cherries, and other crabapples, none have these abundant ‘explosions’ of tiny fruits. Earlier in the season, the fruits are often a golden yellow.
Another characteristic that can be helpful when identifying Toringo Crabapple are the abundant (and alternate) spur shoots – these short, somewhat pointed structures can remind one of thorns, but, unlike in Hawthorn, they usually have buds along their length.
The fruits and preceding flowers of Toringo Crabapple put on quite an appealing show, and the tree was probably brought in as an ornamental. Given its expansive ways, we would urge you not to plant it.
A Toringo Crabapple (adjacent to a field of Toringo Crabapples) is tree #39.
Grey Dogwood is admittedly somewhat ‘subtle’, appearing as a haze of grey brush. However, if you look a bit more closely, it has some distinctive traits. Given its abundance in certain habitats (i.e., fencerows and old fields), it’s worth getting to know.
One of the first things you should pick out is that it has opposite buds and branches. Maples and ashes are our most common native, opposite trees, but once you get in the shrubbery, a few more native and non-native opposite woodies appear. The dogwoods are one of them (viburnums and honeysuckles are perhaps the most common others); we do have one species of forest dogwood that is alternate-leafed and named accordingly. Our most treeish dogwood is Flowering Dogwood, which creeps into the warmer forests of the County and brings a showy Springtime display.
The twigs, and sometimes the stalks, of many of our dogwoods have a reddish hue. In Grey Dogwood, although the older stalks are appropriately grey, the young twigs, shown here, have a reddish cast.
The buds of Grey Dogwood are understated. Small, almost wizened in appearance, they can almost look dead, but those are actually good features for identifying the buds of this and some of our other dogwoods. Pair those features with a shrub of grey (not burgundy or brighter red) main stalks, and you’ve probably found a Grey Dogwood.
Grey Dogwood’s pearly berries appear in late summer, but seem to be favored wildlife fare and soon all that remains are the miniature reddish ‘trees’ that once bore them at the twig tips.
These are preceded by a flush of white flowers in Spring.
Grey Dogwood is flagged as #40.
Our next plant often mingles with Grey Dogwoods along edges and in old fields, but is a bit spinier!
Multiflora Rose is a non-native tangle, which often spreads eagerly into open spaces. Its grasping thorns quickly remind you that you’ve met a rose. We have several other species of native and non-native roses, but none have the collection of tiny flowers and then hips of Multiflora Rose.
The plant you might be most likely to confuse our roses with are the Rubus (the Blackberries & Raspberry). However, note the bump-like buds of roses as compared to the …
…more prominent, scraggly buds of our Rubuses. Note too the somewhat finer thorns along these stalks, compare those in turn to slightly stockier, distinctly colored thorns of…
Multiflora Rose was originally introduced into our landscape as a tool for erosion control and, perhaps more extensively in our region, as living fences. “Living fences” were meant to be self-sustaining fences that freed farmers from some of the costs of establishing and maintaining a ‘hard’ fence; this use was encouraged by government programs. Inconveniently, Multiflora Rose did not stay in the fence, but rather its protective thorns let it fend off livestock as birds spread its seeds across the land. Farmers spent discouragingly large amounts of time keeping these roses out of their pastures.
More recently, Rose Rosette Virus has begun knocking back Multiflora Rose in our area. In some areas, we’ve seen at least a 50% decline in Multiflora Rose abundance. The symptoms include the shriveled, reddish vegetation shown here in this growing-season image. While these colors fade in winter, the woody shriveling persists. Multiflora Rose may be somewhere between European Buckthorn and Toringo Crabapple in terms of settling into the landscape; we shall see what ecological place this species finds in the future.
While some people will be relieved to see the decline in Multiflora Rose, some wildlife might not be so keen – Multiflora Rose thickets provide dense cover for both nesting birds and the likes of rabbits. It’s not uncommon to find a nest filled with feathers and/or milkweed down, where a mouse is overwintering with handy access to a rose-hip larder.
Multiflora Rose bears flag #41.
Remember the Oreo Cookie bark of American Elm? Our next tree is also an elm, but Slippery Elm has solid chocolate truffle bark – smooth brown with little layering.
However, before getting to the bark, make sure you determine that you are indeed looking at an elm – does it have those somewhat ‘loosely assembled’ twigs with their crooked end buds and off-center side buds?
Like American Elm, Slippery Elm often has prominent flower buds, but note their Woolly Bear-like fuzziness when compared to those of the American Elm.
However, none of this explains the common name. The namesake trait doesn’t doesn’t translate well into photography – but if you chew on a slippery elm twig, it quickly becomes slimy, not just wet. This characteristic also relates to its indigenous medicinal use for sore throats and coughs.
Slippery Elms don’t seem as common as American Elm in our landscape, but both share a penchant for moistish woods, and can most commonly be found on floodplains and along streams and ditches.
Slippery Elm is flagged tree #42.
The last woody who you’ll meet is Witch-hazel. As this photo from our archive suggests, our native Witch-hazel is unusual in being a late-autumn bloomer, so late that it is occasionally caught in flower by the earliest snows.
Now, in February, those earlier petals have fallen away and what you find are the flower bases, some of which will develop into next year’s dry fruits.
Aside from the flower remains, a couple of other traits will help you distinguish this bush or small forest tree.
First, Witch-hazel have what are called ‘naked’ buds, meaning that, unlike the usual scales (for example, see the American Elm buds earlier), Witch-hazel buds resemble dry, leathery leaves.
Also evident in the above photograph, which comes to us courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas project, is the zig-zagginess of Witch-hazel’s twigs, formed by its raised and alternating leaf bases/bud scars.
One last characteristic that, while it has little immediate identification value, is fun to watch (or perhaps, listen) for is its ‘explosive’ seed dispersal. As the fruits dry, they shrink and, at some point, they snap open propelling their pair of dark, smooth seeds for quite a distance. This photo shows a ‘fruit’ which has discharged its seeds.
Bring in a be-fruited twig in autumn, place it over your mantel, and await the day that it will shoot its charge across your room. Better yet, if you find just the right sort of day at the right time of year, you can apparently sit yourself in a Witch-hazel-rich woods, and listen to the patter of seeds landing on dry autumn leaves. Not something I have yet to accomplish myself.
Witch-hazel is one of the few native plants whose extract can still be purchased at conventional drug stores; it is used to sooth irritated skin.
Witch-hazel, at flag #43, is the last new tree of our wander.
So ends our course for this winter – there are various other trees and shrubs which I would have liked to include, but this is a start and if you learn to recognize the ones we’ve covered, you’ll be well on your way, until, that is, the leaves start popping and mess up all your good winter ID clues! Actually, many of the characteristics you’ve learnt aren’t season-dependent, and typical buds will start appearing again sooner than you might think.
I hope you’ve made at least a few woody friends and that they help both to make your woods walks a little richer and to nurture informed compassion for the nature around us.
Thanks again to Jerry Jenkins and the Northern Forest Atlas for letting us use some of their images – checkout their web site, it holds beautiful images of not only woody plants, but also mosses and sedges with grasses on the way.
As always, questions and suggestions are welcome. Enjoy your time afield,
Here are a couple recent videos from my camera trap in the Taconic Mountains. The first is of a nice looking Coyote that seems to be on the trail of another ‘yote that came through earlier that day. It is Coyote breeding season right now, so this individual could be seeking a mate.
These White-tailed Deer were recorded by one of my cams during the recent snow storm. Their breeding season has been over for months, so deer now focus on finding food (see this one browsing on twigs?), staying safe and conserving calories. Compared to deer in more agricultural/developed parts of Columbia County, these mountain White-tails often cope with tougher weather and scarcer food sources.
Yesterday morning before the snow, I took a long loop around Ooms Conservation Area to document the herbaceous plants in the Old Fields. During the warmer months, we may recognize plants by the color of their flowers, or the shape of their leaves, and often times what’s left standing in winter is a whole new plant-form! Join me and my trusty backdrop as we introduce you to some plants in winter.
As I started out around the pond, I saw Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), a perennial plant that thrives in wet areas.
While this plant’s vibrant purple flowers are eye-catching in the summer, look for the seed capsules that now remain through the winter. One mature plant can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds, though this plant is known to spread very quickly and effectively through it’s roots. This can give Purple Loosestrife a bad rep, because it can crowd out native species from wetlands; I am finding some positive studies about Purple Loosestrife’s ability to filter and remove toxins in the areas that it grows!
Look for Purple Loosestrife’s “opposite” branching pattern, as shown below. The branches off of the main stalk are 180 degrees across from each other.
Farther uphill from the pond, I found myself surrounded by the beautiful rolling, Old Fields that make up much of the conservation area. If you recall from Anna and my Wonder Wander at Greenport Conservation Area a few weeks back, Old Field habitat usually marks a transitional period between agricultural fields and shrubland. Old Fields are usually managed to a certain degree with occasional mowing, otherwise shrubs would dominate, and later trees. As such, there is a blend of herbaceous plants and small shrubs that are usually left standing during the winter.
Similar to Purple Loosestrife, St. John’s Wort’s (Hypericum sp.) fruits develop into capsules that split open when ripe. St. John’s Wort also has opposite branching. This plant wasn’t hugely prominent at Ooms, but occasionally I would spot it by it’s reddish-brown, bushy appearance.
As expected, many of the herbaceous plants in the fields are asters and goldenrods, both native to our region. There are many different species of asters (Symphyotrichumsp.) that grow in this context, and often I find that they are multi-branched, with individual seed heads, like the plant pictured here.
As you can see below, each seed head is made up of individual seeds, just as each flower head was made up of many small flowers when the plant was in bloom. Each seed is produced by a small flower.
Similarly, asters’ relative, goldenrod (Solidago sp.), also has seed heads that are made up of individual seeds, attached to white fluff that acts as a parachute.
In contrast to the aster plant structure, I find that the seed heads of goldenrod cluster together more: sometimes, many branched strands of seed heads will form a conical shape together. Every species and every plant is a bit different!
This next goldenrod plant’s branches splay out much farther.
The strands of seed heads are clustered much more tightly on this next plant, creating a more fluffy effect.
In these fields I suspect that Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Smooth Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea) and Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) are some of the more prevalent species. These past few goldenrod images are likely one of those species, but in this season it’s hard to tell exactly which one it is.
Another common species of goldenrod in the fields was Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which, being flat-headed on top, has a much more recognizable structure.
Ok, maybe enough goldenrod talk for now? Let’s look at some other plants: I occasionally had the pleasure of seeing the beautiful, textured Curly Dock (Rumex crispus).
Aren’t these winged seeds spectacular?
When distinguishing these seeds between those of Bitter Dock (Rumex obstusifolius), notice how the margins of these seeds are entire, or smooth; whereas the margins of Bitter Dock’s seeds are lobed.
Other interesting-looking seeds included those of dodder (Cuscuta sp.), the parasitic, spaghetti-like plant in the Morning Glory family. This one was wrapped tightly around a phragmites’ stalk near the pond. If you want to be reminded of dodder’s appearances in the warmer months, check out both Kenny’s post on July 17th, and my post on September 2nd.
You likely recognize these large, empty seed pods as belonging to Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I love seeing these sculptural shells scattered throughout fields.
Another familiar Old Field resident is Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota). The lacy umbel seed heads tend to curl inwards when they dry up, forming a basket or nest-like shape.
The seed pods of willow-herb (Epilobium sp.) also transform once ripe, splitting open to let their seeds disperse. The remains of the seed pods create a beautiful, tan, fire-plume effect. Look for the opposite branching on this plant as well.
Long, slender (empty) seed pods also remain on this member of the Mustard or Brassica family, either Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), or Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). It is hard to distinguish the two species at this time of year, especially if there are no clues below in the form of the nearby leaf rosettes. If anybody feels they have figured out a reliable way to tell them apart at this stage, we’d love to hear!
Along my walk, there were some big patches of the scrubby-looking knapweed (Centaurea sp.), a member of the Aster family. At this stage, it’s also hard to know which species these seed heads belong to; in the summer and fall, one can distinguish between knapweeds by observing the shape of their leaves, the structure of their flowers, and the timing of their flowering.
Chicory (Cichorium intybus), another member of the Aster family was not too common at Ooms, but is a familiar friend, often found on roadsides and in fields. Check out Claudia’s post from September 19th to be reminded of Chicory’s pale blue flowers (as well as knapweed’s pink-purple ones!).
I think that’s enough plants for today, how was that for you? I hope that this has been a helpful way to engage with our wintery landscapes. As a parting note, I’ll leave you with a picture of my big pup, Ollie, surveying the beautiful scene at Ooms.
While out enjoying a walk in Ooms Conservation area after last month’s snowstorm, I came across a strange insect crawling across the surface of the snow. Its appearance was strikingly spider-like: wingless, brownish, stout, and with gangly legs. It was also fairly small—its entire body (legs included) could probably have fit on a penny. What was this creature, and what was it doing on the snow? Read on to find out!
Snow fly (Chionea sp.)
Although the insect appeared to lack wings, it had a pair of yellowish, club-shaped appendages on its back (visible on the back between the middle and hind legs in these photos). These appendages are called halteres, and are an adaptation shared by only two groups of insects: the flies (Diptera) and the twisted-wing parasites (Strepsiptera). Twisted-wing parasites are fairly uniform in appearance, quite distinctive, and look nothing like the insect I saw, so they can be ruled out as a candidate for its identity. Thus, the creature must have been some kind of fly!
Snow fly (Chionea sp.)
In fact, the insect was a snow fly (Chionea sp.). Snow flies are a member of the crane fly family (Tipulidae) that have become specially adapted for terrestrial life in the wintertime. They spend most of their time in plant litter and animal burrows, where they are sheltered from temperature extremes, but occasionally come out onto the snow to disperse and find mates. Studies suggest that the range of conditions in which these flies will venture onto the snow surface is very narrow: their activity seems to be constrained to days with little or no wind when temperatures are between about 20º–32ºF, and there is a noticeable peak in activity at temperatures between 23º–26ºF. That narrow activity range may have something to do with the flies’ body chemistry. Like other cold-active arthropods, Chionea probably produce anti-freeze chemicals and/or special cold-active enzymes to avoid freezing and maintain their body functions at cold temperatures, but those adaptations might also reduce the insects’ ability to tolerate temperatures much above freezing. Meanwhile, it has been observed that temperatures below about 19ºF will kill Chionea, placing a clear lower bound on the range of conditions they can tolerate.
How did Chionea come to be a terrestrial, wintertime insect when most other crane flies are strong fliers active during the summer? The answer to that question is not entirely clear. Being winter-active probably frees these insects from predation by crane flies’ usual natural enemies, like spiders, which might confer a survival advantage—but, then again, Chionea are probably preyed upon by the small mammals whose burrows they often inhabit. Meanwhile, these flies’ life in and on the soil would seem to explain their winglessness—wings simply would be a hindrance for moving through burrows and leaf litter—but how did Chionea become terrestrial in the first place? Might winglessness and winter activity in Chionea be connected somehow? What do you think?
Want to learn more about snow flies? The Kansas School Naturalist published an issue featuring these strange creatures, and it can be read here [external link]. Or, for a complete synopsis of the state of knowledge on North American snow flies, check out this article [external link] in The University of Kansas Science Bulletin.
Thanks, as always, for reading! And, keep your eye out for snow flies the next time you’re out skiing or snowshoeing on a calm day when the weather’s in the mid-20s!
Today’s Wonder Wander will introduce the newly installed, self-guided tour of Old Field habitat at Greenport Conservation Area outside of Hudson! This is the second in a series of self-guided Wonder Wander walks installed in different habitats and public recreation areas in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy.
Follow along with this blog post to explore some wonders of the Old Field, and/or check out these wonders in-person at Greenport Conservation Area from now until February 15th!
For those of you who have received our year-end appeal gift of the Wonder Wander Journal, this also reflects the January “Old Field” habitat. Find out more about our self-guided Wonder Wander walks and how to get a digital or hard copy of our Wonder Wander Journal at: hvfarmscape.org/wonder.
For starters, it might be helpful to share what defines Old Field habitat: it is habitat that usually represents a transition between productive agricultural field and shrubland, and is maintained by infrequent mowing. In winter, you’ll recognize this habitat by the standing dead vegetation (typically asters and goldenrods).
The Old Field at Greenport Conservation Area is composed of many different types of plants, the first one we’ll talk about is dogbane (Apocynum sp.). Dogbane in winter has a reddish-brown color, and still has its long seed pods, which are are attached in pairs, and almost resemble beans.
While dogbane is native to our region, it can get a “weedy” reputation because it spreads easily and quickly through its underground rhizomes.
Dogbane is a relative of milkweed, and its seed pods also open when ripe to disperse hundreds of seeds attached to white fluff. This fluff acts as a parachute, which helps the seed to travel in the wind. While this plant is toxic to mammals, many insects including the Milkweed Bug and Dogbane Beetle eat the seeds and other parts of the dogbane.
While exploring the Old Field, look for (but don’t touch or remove) the puffy, foamy praying mantis egg cases (oothecae). These can be found attached to stalks, a foot or two off the ground.
In late summer, the female copulates and lays dozens to hundreds of eggs inside these foamy masses which soon harden and become water-repellant. The eggs overwinter inside, hatching in the spring as small, wingless mantises.
Praying mantises are superb predators, that ambush or stalk a wide variety of insect prey, and occasional larger animals such as hummingbirds. Their predation abilities is why praying mantises were originally introduced in the 1800s.
Because of the way Old Fields are managed, plants often remain standing through the winter, which gives one an opportunity to look at the plants’ “winter bodies.”
There are typically many species of asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) and goldenrods (Solidago sp.), all native to this region, that populate Old Fields.
Of course there is a variety of nonnative species, including Queen Anne’s Lace or Wild Carrot (Daucus carota). This seed head is full of seeds covered in small barbs. The barbs help the seeds to disperse on the wind and on animals.
While many seeds on in the Old Field may have already been dispersed, some still linger on the plant and can offer food to birds and other animals.
And speaking of goldenrod…have you ever seen a goldenrod stem with a round growth on it? This is called a Goldenrod Ball Gall, and it’s formed in response to the native Goldenrod Gall Fly (Eurosta solidaginis).
Female Gall Flies lay eggs in young goldenrod stems in the spring. When an egg hatches, the larva feeds on the inside of the stem and chemicals released through its saliva prompt the stem to grow abnormally, forming the ball-shaped gall. The gall then serves as food and shelter for the larva, which grows until it reaches its third (freeze-tolerant) larval stage, at which point it overwinters until spring.
The Goldenrod Gall Fly is but one of around 150 insect species for which goldenrods provide food. Then there are the birds that feed on the fly’s larvae inside the gall, primarily the Black-capped Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker. These relationships point to goldenrod being a vital part of this field’s food web.
Old Fields contain the seeds (and plants) of their own destruction—woody shrubs, that (if left to grow) can transform an Old Field into a shrubland within years. Some of the common shrubs in Old Fields, all present here, are the native Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum) and non-native Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora).
Beginning in the 1930s, Multiflora Rose was widely promoted for erosion control and to serve in “living fences”—only to quickly become the bane of many farmers due to its invasive takeover of fields. Recently, however, the arrival of the Rose Rosette Virus has noticeably reduced its spread.
Maybe you recognize the spiky seed heads that belong to a wild teasel (Dipsacus sp.), a non-native plant that grows in open areas such as this field, along roadsides, and by creeks.
Its cultivated relative, Fuller’s Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), was once a big part of cloth manufacturing. The seed heads were important tools in the finishing process of woolen cloth, as they were used to “raise the nap” of wool, which made cloth fluffier and softer. Historically, Onondoga County, NY was a national hub for teasel production until teasel heads were replaced by metal parts in the early 20th century.
Lastly, we’d like to point out how Old Fields provide habitat and food for many different animals in winter. If you know what to look for, you might be able to find traces of who is coming and going.
Keep an eye out for bird tracks in the snow. Birds, including American Goldfinches and several species of sparrows, feed on seeds that remain from last season. The bird tracks might even tell you which plants the bird was eating from.
Have you ever seen tunnels in a field? Small mammals like Meadow Voles make shallow tunnels in the soil and under the snow to connect their underground burrows and to stay safe from predators and other winter dangers.
When the snow is deep, Meadow Voles will most likely tunnel under the snow if they have to get somewhere. On the surface of the snow, look for the bounding, tail-dragging tracks of a White-footed or Deer Mouse.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our virtual Old Field Wonder Wander at Greenport, and we hope you get to enjoy the wonders of the Old Field in person as well!
OK, I have spangled Crellin Park in Chatham with yellow ribbon this time around, and the second installment of the our DIY Winter Botany Course is open for ‘attendance’. This posting introduces you to the species that form our second set of arboreal friends.
Remember: Course materials, including tree ID cards and an introductory video, are at the course web site
And thanks again to our botanical companions at the Northern Forest Atlas for kindly letting us use some of their images. Check out their web site for additional striking images of our plant life.
This map shows the study and quiz trees at Crellin Park. The first set (pink flags) went up in December; those species are profiled in our 22 Dec. 2020 posting. The second set, with yellow flagging, just went up.
Don’t worry, if you haven’t visited the Park yet, you can do installments 1 & 2 all in one fell swoop!
This time around we included three species in the genus Populus, mostly known under the common name of aspen or poplar (aka popple).
Quaking (aka Trembling) Aspen, shown here in Autumn, often has a smooth bark whose base color varies from a faint green (the bark can photosynthesize) to a whiteness that approaches that of Paper Birch.
As the tree ages, bark at the base of the tree tends to get grey and furrowed, but aspen are often relatively short-lived trees.
The pointed and alternate buds of Quaking Aspen are a rich and shiny brown.
The leaves are somewhat fan-shaped. Note the small teeth along the margins; it looks almost as if the leaf edge were rippled.
Big-tooth Aspen, our other common local aspen species, has slightly stouter buds which are covered with a grey wash.
The leaves have a rip-saw margin formed by prominent teeth.
While both Quaking and Big-tooth Aspens can intermix on a site (as they do at Crellin Park), Big-tooth tends to be a species of slightly drier sites. Both, however, are young-forest species, coming into clear cuts and other openings.
Aspen, or more directly, Ruffed Grouse (pictured here in the illustrations of John W. Hill in DeKay’s 1844 book on the birds of New York) were actually responsible for my love of winter botany.
Ruffed Grouse are about the size (and approximate shape) of a medium-sized teapot. These mainly herbivorous birds spend the entire year with us and during winter feed mainly on the buds of select trees.
The flower buds of aspen (the larger buds shown here) are one of their favorite foods, but they consume a wide variety of woody plant buds. During grad. school research, I studied the winter diets of Ruffed Grouse based on the bud remains found in their droppings. Needless to say, that made it necessary to ‘familiarize’ myself with the buds of our woody plants.
During winter, look for Ruffed Grouse perched somewhat precariously at the top of aspen at dawn and dusk, when they feed furiously, stuffing their crops with buds for subsequent gizzard grinding and digestion.
If any of you see Ruffed Grouse regularly in our area, I’d appreciate hearing about it; we’ve come across them only occasionally.
Our last member of the Populus clan is this behemoth – Eastern Cottonwood. A fast-growing tree, it joins Sycamore as one of the giants of our floodplain forests.
Mature Cottonwood typically have the deeply furrowed bark shown here.
Although you can’t really tell here, Cottonwood leaves tend to be markedly larger than those of Quaking or Big-tooth Aspen. The marginal toothing is intermediate between that of those two other species.
One distinction of all of our Populus leaves, again not really visible here, is that the leaf stalk is flattened in the plane perpendicular to the leaf blade. This is why the leaves of these trees are so apt to quake or tremble in the slightest breeze.
Cottonwood gets its name from the cotton-like material that helps its seeds disperse. In Spring, this can produce a snow-like layer on the landscape.
Here a carp scoops up Cottonwood seeds from the surface of a small pond in early June.
Our next tree is Paper (aka White) Birch. The bark is certainly a great ID clue. If you see a white tree whose bark is peeling off in large papery strips, you can feel pretty confident you’ve got a Paper Birch.
However, don’t be too hasty in your conclusions. Aside from some light (but tight) -barked aspen, Grey Birch is also common in our region. Its bark does not usually peel in such large strips, and some say that the dark furrowed bark around the branch bases is more prominent on this species (that hasn’t worked so well for me).
For me, the best way to tell apart these two species is the leaf shape. The leaves of Paper Birch are more or less oval, while…
..those of Grey Birch are roughly triangular.
Birch don’t tend to hold onto to their leaves in winter, but look for leafed branches that broke off before leaf fall or dig on the ground. The leaves are relatively quick to decompose, but diligence in digging should have its rewards.
Grey Birch also tend to be smaller trees and to grow in small, multi-trunked clusters.
This is the last birch of the set – Black Birch. It is probably our most commonly overlooked birch species. Its grey bark is relatively inconspicuous, and it is rarely a markedly large tree. They grow relatively commonly in our middle-aged forests.
ID’ing Black Birch is a matter of accumulating the clues.
It is alternately budded (as have been all the trees so far covered in this posting), but, as is true of all our birches, its lateral buds are often on short side branches called spur shoots.
This means that when you look up into the crown of a birch, the silhouettes of the twigs look almost spiny. Another feature evident here is that birch produce catkins; these are the elongate flower buds of the following spring.
Catkins and spur shoots should lead you to ‘birch’. Taken together with that horizontally-banded, dark bark and a marked wintergreen smell on scratched branches should get you to Black Birch.
Yellow and River Birch are our other two regional birch species, both have a more peely, golden- or copper-tinged bark, although, in the sniff test, Yellow Birch does share the wintergreen odor of Black Birch.
Needless to say, I did not take this picture yesterday!
However, fruits are a good place to start with Black Cherry. Their fruits are dark purplish black when ripe and, although big-seeded, can be tasty (there seems to be a lot of variation amongst trees, so sample widely).
Don’t expect to find fruits in the dead of winter – the birds will have long beaten you to them. You might, however, find ample specimens of their musket ball seeds if you rummage in the duff.
In Winter, and at most times of year, the Black Cherry’s bark will be your best clue. We call this burnt tortilla chip bark. Familiarize yourself with its dark, flakey bark, and you’ll soon be identifying them on the fly. Look for their rough trunks scattered through middle-aged forests.
Black Cherry buds aren’t terribly distinct, but they’re alternate and tend to be small with both dark and light coloration. This is another place for scratch ‘n sniff: cherries have a distinct medicinal smell, that some describe as almondy and are the same as the taste one gets by biting into an apple seed – ahh, the bitterness of cyanide.
You can often pick out Beech during the winter because of their tan leaves, which they tend to hold onto. The leaves are quite papery, crinkling like wrapping paper when folded.
The alternate, gnome-cigar buds are also distinctive.
On a healthy Beech, the bark is smooth and grey. (This photo was taken as snow was melting, and the darkness is dripping meltwater.) People often carve their (or somebody else’s) initials into these trees.
Sadly, American Beech is being hit by Beech Bark disease. This fungus (see our 30 December 2020 post on the Albert Family Community Forest) causes the Beech’s bark to roughen and will eventually kill the trunk; the tree often responds by sending up a multitude of root shoots and so creating a Beech thicket. Will future generations consider Beech to be a shrub?
Here’s are first opposite-budded and branched tree of the set – White Ash. Maples and Dogwoods are the other native opposite-leaved trees in our forests.
Note the characteristic end bud of ash – it reminds me of a bishop’s mitre.
Looking up into an ash, you should see relatively stout, opposite branching. Maple branches tend to be noticeably more delicate. Don’t worry if not all branches seem to be opposite – sometimes one member of an opposing pair will be lost.
Also visible here are the hair-like whorls at some branch tips, these once held the ash’s seeds. I don’t have a picture here, but familiarize yourself with ash’s distinctive seeds and that will provide you with another useful clue.
This is the tight, regularly furrowed bark of White Ash. While it may not look immediately characteristic, its patterning is often so standardized as to be typical. Careful however – on older trees these furrows can fall away leaving a relatively smooth bark!
We have at least a couple of other ash in our area. Red Ash is very similar, although its twig tips tend to be fuzzy; it seems to be most often found along stream edges. Black Ash is a swamp species. Its bark tends to look somewhat like this, but is spongy or corky. So next time you think you’ve met an ash and your feet are wet, give it a squeeze – you might have found our somewhat elusive Black Ash.
Unfortunately, you’re not apt to find many old ash in our forests. In part, this is because White Ash are generally a tree of younger forests and naturally aren’t usually very long lived. However, even that life span is now being drastically shortened by the arrival of Emerald Ash Borer.
The more typical bark of White Ash now shows this tan flecking.
This is where a woodpecker has flicked off the darker outer bark seeking the grub of the Borer. The D-shaped hole shown here is typical of that made by this insect. The Borer will probably eventually kill most of the trees it attacks, although younger trees aren’t usually affected.
The best I can say is that this may be producing some fat woodpeckers.
Our last tree is the only evergreen and conifer of the set – Eastern Red Cedar.
The needles of Red Cedar are often flat and appressed, as if the twig tips were wearing green leather.
Having just called it a conifer – here are its ‘cones’! The cones of Red Cedar are actually berry-like and a far cry from those of Hemlock and White Pine.
To add to the confusion, Red Cedar is not, botanically speaking, a true cedar. It is instead a juniper, and these are the juniper ‘berries’ used to flavor gin.
Red Cedar has a loose, vaguely reddish bark that peals in long strips favored by birds for their nests.
While Red Cedar foliage is often that green leather, on smaller trees the needles get more brazen and start poking out at sharp angles. Shake hands with this twig and you’ll realize why browsing mammals tend to avoid young Red Cedar.
As a result, as shown here, Red Cedar are one of the first trees to move into loosely-tended pastures in our region. The stunting on the lower branches of these specimens suggests that browsers don’t avoid the foliage entirely, but enough of it survives so that the tree eventually grows out of their reach.
This image also reminds me to mention that Red Cedar is often sought for fence posts (although the posts in this photo don’t look to actually be Red Cedar); the wood of Red Cedar is relatively rot resistant, and the trunks of young trees are just the right size for making a sturdy fence line.
That’s the last of our set of companions for this outing. See how many of these trees you can identify at Crellin Park or in the forests around you.
As always, I’m glad to answer questions, and don’t hesitate to send along snapshots for ID help (firstname.lastname@example.org).
One of my camera traps recently captured a winter active bear near a swamp in Austerlitz. While bears generally are inactive in our region this time of year, they do occasionally wake up from their torpor to defecate and/or forage, or if they sense danger. There are still plenty of acorns under our light snow cover, so maybe that’s what roused the bear. I also got video of a Fisher (look at that tail!) and a number of deer, all skirting the swamp.
I think the bear smells the human scent left in the area when I set up the camera. I love how quiet and careful they are as they move through the woods. There is sound to the video (try to ignore the hum made by the night vision) and you can just make out its footsteps.
Fishers are large weasels that are quite elusive. They are fantastic tree climbers—their long bushy tails likely help with balance when hunting squirrels and other animals in the trees.
This little buck, called a “spike” because his antlers are not branched, survived the hunting season. He’s about 1.5 years old. Whitetail bucks don’t reach their peak in terms of antler and body size until they reach five or six years of age. From what I’ve seen, at least some bucks in Austerlitz survive for that long, despite the hunting pressure, speeding cars, cold winters and all the other dangers faced by free-roaming animals.
A few days ago, a friend suggested we go on a wonder wander in the Albert Family Community Forest of the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance in East Nassau, just a few minutes north of the Columbia County line. The trails took us through a variety of forest types, including some wonderful stands of Hemlock, and along a lovely tributary to the Kinderhook Creek. Here are some of the wonders along the way that drew our attention.
These drop-shaped icicles lined up along a reed suspended over the creek struck us as nature’s version of a perfect holiday decoration. Conditions have to be just right for these baubles to form—warm enough for there to be open water, cold enough for freezing on near-water structures.
A variation on the theme… can you imagine how these icicles got their flat bottoms?
… and another variation on icicles suspended over the water…
… ice on a moss-covered rock in the gushing stream…
… and finally, a celebration of water in its many forms!
Before returning back to the stream to illustrate its changing character along the trail, let’s see some of the tracks we found in the fresh snow and some of the signs of life we discovered on tree bark.
Do you have an idea, who made these tracks, which direction the animal was moving in, how fast it was going, and which print was made by which foot?
These kinds of tracks, with foot prints in “blocky” groups of four, often starting or ending at the base of a tree, were very common in the forest and were left by squirrels. Note that the toe imprints are pointing upwards in the image, so the squirrel was moving away from the camera. And I am pretty sure, it was not going very fast, because the distance between the two groups of four foot prints (the “stride”) is not much longer than the distance between the front and hind feet. My guess is that this squirrel was “hopping”, which means the pair of hind feet were placed behind the pair of front feet. If the squirrel had been “bounding”, it would have made longer jumps (the “stride” would have been longer), and the hind feet would have landed in front of the front feet. Unfortunately, this image does not allow to discern the number of toes (four in front feet, five in hind feet) to confirm my guess.
The above track is a typical canine (including dog, fox, coyote, or wolf) track moving to the left of the image in “direct register trot”. The evenly-spaced imprints are pretty much in a straight line and each imprint actually reflects two tracks on top of each other: the right (left) hind foot on top of right (left) front foot. The size of prints and their stride (relative to my boot) suggests that this is the track of a fox. Theoretically, it could be a smallish dog, but the track was not associated with human foot prints, did not parallel the hiking trail, and tracks were almost one in front of another (think pogo stick…).
Any guesses who might have been this little creature bounding through the snow, trailing a tail, and seeking cover under a small fallen log?
It was probably a mouse in the genus Peromyscus, that is, a Deer Mouse or a White-footed Mouse. They bound and have a long tail resulting in well-spaced “landing zones” connected only by the dragged tail.
Another track in the snow was very different. This evenly-spaced pattern of right (and left) front and back prints placed on top of each other in “direct register” was probably a Striped Skunk walking relatively slowly through the snow with the typical “skunk waddle”.
Although the tracks in the fresh snow were alluring, we also raised our gaze once in a while and were fascinated by tracks of a different kind. Any guess what might have happened in the image below?
We are looking at the bark of a White Birch, which has a green layer of algae that is partly removed along the grazing trails of one or several snail(s) or slug(s). In trying to figure out, what exactly we are seeing here, I came across an entire blog posting dedicated to the various interactions between snails, algae, and the bark of White Birch at https://www.toknowtheland.com/blog/snailtrailsonbirch. However, what interested me most, was the question whether one can actually determine from the grazing pattern, which way the snail/slug was moving. Can you guess?
A closer look at the grazing pattern reveals a sideways (in above and below image) back and forth motion of the head of the snail/slug as it was rasping the algae off the bark with its radula. You can imagine the radula as a tongue studded with sharp little teeth (similar to a cheese grater) which is moved out and into the mouth in a sort of licking motion. There are various videos on youtube to document this mode of eating. Supposedly, one can determine the direction of the snail’s/slug’s head by the forward- (in this image downward-) facing V-shaped patterns left by the radula with each “lick”, and which are lined up next to each other along the sideways movement of the head. So, if I understand this correctly, the snail/slug that left this trail was generally moving downward, while moving its head sideways and taking several (at the order of 10) bites or “licks” with its radula in each direction.
Many other trees did not just have the tracks of past activity on their bark, but were currently supporting other forms of life. How many different organisms can you spot on the bark in the image below? Do you have any guesses what life forms are represented?
We can discern at least four different life forms in this image (see them numbered in the photo below): (1) a layer of algae or crustose lichen; (2) a tuft moss (Ulota sp.); (3) a foliose lichen, the Orange-cored Shadow Lichen (Phaeophyscia rubropulcra); and (4) a liverwort (Frullania sp.). How many different forms of life can you find on the next tree bark you inspect? Are you seeing differences in the bark inhabitants of different tree species? Different tree sizes? In different habitats?
The following (and unfortunately not very good) image shows signs of past and future life of the same organism on a dead tree. Any idea what you are looking at?
Above my finger is the empty chrysalis of (probably a female) Gypsy Moth. The female Gypsy Moths are wingless and usually don’t move far from their place of metamorphosis. The flying males locate them by their pheromones, they mate, and shortly thereafter, the female lays her eggs in a pale orange-colored spongy mass. You can see the egg mass just to the right of the empty chrysalis. The little caterpillars will hatch next spring and—if there are lots of them—can defoliate entire trees, before they pupate and the cycle begins new. We have been seeing a lot of Gypsy Moths this year (see Conrad’s post from July 25, 2020 and are finding a lot of egg masses now—so we might have an “outbreak” of Gypsy Moth caterpillars next season… As Conrad mentioned in his post, when the density of Gypsy Moths reaches a certain point, a viral disease usually knocks them back, again.
Another sign of life (and probably impending death) we discovered on the bark of an American Beech.
While we have been aware of the Beech Bark Disease and know to recognize an infected tree by its uncharacteristically bumpy bark, we had never before observed this stage of the disease: thumb print-sized slight indentations in the bark, with an orange-brown margin and another circle of the same color inside.
Some digging around on the internet revealed, that this pattern is caused by the fruiting bodies (perithecia) of a fungus, Neonectrina faginata, which infects the bark of beech trees in the places where it had previously been pierced by a scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga. These two introduced organisms (which are occasionally joined by similar native species) act together to cause the symptoms of the devastating Beech Bark Disease, which is currently killing many of the larger beech trees in our forests.
Where the large beech trees suffer from Beech Bark Disease, small beech seedlings and root shoots are often quite common. The image below captures a young beech (left) accompanied by the dried stalks of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana; right) a native parasitic plant that taps into the shallow roots of beech for nutrients. Beechdrops are often found in the vicinity of beech trees (and never far from them!) and are not considered a danger to healthy trees.
Now, for the rest of this post, let us return to the little stream and follow its various incarnations along the “Homestead Trail” and the “Cascades Trail”. The Homestead Trail meets the stream for the first time on a lively, rocky stretch, where we found many amazing ice formations.
Further along, the trail skirts a marsh where the same little stream calmly glides through the wetland vegetation.
Near the parking area, it emerges from a forested stretch into another small marsh.
After flowing under the road, it enters a brief stretch of relatively level terrain, where it is bordered by narrow bands of floodplain forest. (We are now following the stream on the Cascades Trail).
Soon, the banks become steeper, again.
And down it tumbles through another rocky stretch, surrounded by Hemlock Forest…
… to emerge into another open wetland, where it loses itself in the marshy vegetation, before gathering itself once more for the final push to join the Kinderhook Creek.
And here ends today’s Wonder Wander. Our heartfelt “Thank You” to the generous donors who are supporting these Wonder Wander posts and all of our other free offerings, such as the self-guided Wonder Wander Walks at different Columbia County Land Conservancy (CLC) areas and the self-guided Winter Botany Course at Crellin Park in Chatham. If you wish to join our circle of supporters, you can donate online or send a check to the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program, 1075 Harlemville Road, Ghent NY 12075.
The entire team of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program wishes you a Happy New Year! May it bring you many memorable encounters with the natural world!
We’re revitalizing this blog with daily-ish postings from Farmscape staff (i.e., Anna, Claudia, Dylan, Kenny, Nellie & Conrad). This will generally be the same material that you can see on our Farmscape Ecology Program Facebook page.
While this blog was originally founded to report then/now phenology comparisons, many of our new posts will be simple this-is-what-we’re-seeing reports. But we won’t completely forget history. We are keeping our sister blog for deep dive thematic postings. If you see something and want to know what it is, don’t hesitate to send us photos – that way, we learn too! Please enjoy, and let us know how we can make this most useful.