In this week’s Wonder Wander (based on a wander last week) I came across fledglings, ducklings, the hidden life in a Mullein plant and much more. View the photos and read the captions to follow along…
Splayed out at the bottom of the stream—fully submerged—was an American Toad. I found this a little surprising, as even though toads can stay underwater for many hours, they spend most of their adult life on land, usually returning to the water mainly to breed.
This damselfly, an Ebony Jewelwing, caught my eye along the edge of the stream. The black wings indicate it is a male. June and July are the months to look for these beautiful damselflies around slow-moving streams.
Stream edges are also home to the native Water Hemlock plant. If you enjoy walking along streams, it is advisable to familiarize yourself with this plant, and keep a safe distance, as it is often called the deadliest plant in North America. This plant will soon be in flower (note the flower buds).
There was quite the commotion in a large Shadbush just in from the stream, and I soon discovered that several Phoebes had just fledge and Phoebe parents were flying around delivering food to their dispersed offspring.
The fledglings I observed seemed committed to tightly holding onto the branch where they were and waiting for food deliveries from their parents…even when an apparent food source (see caterpillar at left) was nearby.
This fledging did get a caterpillar delivery. New fledglings are vulnerable and lack the self-care skills of mature birds, so their chances of survival are greatly enhanced by parents continuing to care for them.
Another fledgling survival strategy—staying still—was evident a few days later when I came across this Robin fledgling who stayed perfectly still on a low branch, despite my presence.
When I checked the Phoebe’s nest I found that only one nestling remained (and seemed in no hurry to leave). The Phoebe’s nest is actually a renovation (note the added moss) of a Barn Swallow nest that Barn Swallows built a few years ago.
By comparison, here is an actual Barn Swallow nest. I believe I counted 7 babies in this nest, which is a higher than usual number. Barn Swallow parents are sometimes assisted in caring for young by last year’s offspring, which would clearly be helpful with so many mouths to feed.
The White Pine tree by the Phoebe nest is bedecked in male pollen cones. Now is the time when pollen is being released, which can be a source of allergies for some.
My eye was also drawn by the bright orange blotches on several wild raspberry plants. This is orange rust, caused by the fungus Gymnoconia nitens. Though it leaves a beautiful pattern, this is a serious infection without a cure that especially spreads in cool, wet conditions.
I was also struck in passing by the damaged state of this Mullein plant.
Upon closer inspection, I realized the damage was caused by dozens of these caterpillars, which seem to be the larvae of the non-native Paracorsia repandalis moth. This moth was only recently first reported in the United States.
Further exploration of the Mullein revealed a lot of insect activity, including this young true bug which I think may be a Mullein Plant Bug. This bug—like Mullein itself—is also an introduced non-native species. Besides Mullein, it uses agricultural plants like corn and potatoes.
Underneath one of the Mullein leaves I found a crab spider guarding her egg sac. Crab spiders and jumping spiders are two groups that guard egg sacs until the young hatch; the egg sacs of other spiders are left on their own.
This young green grasshopper also popped up onto a leaf of the Mullein plant.
I ended my wander with a paddle around the pond, which is how I came upon this basking Painted Turtle. By extending arms and legs, basking turtles increase the amount of area absorbing sunlight, which plays an important role in many of the turtle’s functions, from thermal regulation to processing calcium.
I dared not paddle my wind-blown kayak as it drifted directly towards this Great Blue Heron. The Great Blue Heron had been preening, and you can see the specialized continuously growing chest feathers, sometimes called “powder down,” whose ends fray and disintegrate into an oily powder that the bird rubs on other feathers to help waterproof and clean them.
From a more distant vantage point across the pond, I was surprised to see a Wood Duck family swim right in front of it with at least 7 ducklings, though only some are visible here.
Here’s a closer view of the female Wood Duck.
While trying to keep track of the ducks, I was startled to look up and see a Deer visiting the pond edge, presumably for a drink, though I saw it just as it was leaving.
Finally, as a parting shot—a young groundhog photographed mid-munch.
Last Friday, we got the opportunity to explore Phudd Hill for the first time as two of FEP’s new summer interns. It is a wonderful place to wander, but it’s even more remarkable when you look up close. We were able to combine Elena’s photography skills and botany knowledge with Kelly’s fast reflexes for catching bugs and education in entomology to explore some of the natural wonders we found on our wander.
Our tool of choice today is the hand lens (or loupe). This is a handy tool for looking at small things, and especially for identifying plants and insects that are too small to see—a wonderful tool for any wanderer’s arsenal. Elena placed the lens over her phone’s camera to take all of the close-up photos! A hand lens is much cheaper than a macro lens, and still takes quality close-up photos with a decent phone camera. You can also use it without a camera by holding it up to your eye and bringing it down until it focuses.
We recommend putting the hand lens on a string or lanyard to keep around your neck so you don’t lose it and have easy access to it during your wandering. Just don’t leave it hanging on a tree! Our hand lens magnifies things by 10× life size, but other models are available in a variety of magnifications.
Our first stop on the trail was this stump, which was bound to have some awesome things to look at. Deadwood is an entire world for little things, giving them food and shelter, as well as providing structure for the forest.
It’s a fungus! A bunch of conks, which are the reproductive portion of decomposition fungi. Even from far away, they are cool to look at, but when we zoom in…
You can see why they are also often called shelf fungi. Conks are made of two structures: the wood-like support structure that holds it up like a shelf, and the reproductive portion underneath that allows the fungus to make spores and spread.
The conk is the reproductive tip of the fungal iceberg – most of the fungus is made up of long strands of hyphae buried within the dead wood, breaking it down for the fungus to “eat.” Shelf fungi are important in a forest’s life cycle, as they work to decay fallen logs like this one.
Our next stop was the pond. Using an aerial net, we were able to catch some damselflies. Damselflies, like dragonflies, are often found by the water because their nymphal form is aquatic, so they need water nearby to lay eggs in to complete their life cycle. When catching damselflies in nets, we had to be careful as they are fragile, and we wanted to avoid injuring them. Holding their wings together gently between our fingers prevented the damselflies from hurting themselves while we were looking at them.
Look at his little face! This male bluet wasn’t too happy to be caught. He even looks like he has pupils, but he doesn’t: insects of all sorts have compound eyes made of many facets. The facets are bigger around these “pupils”, which lets in more light and allows the bug to have a better picture of their surroundings, including better depth perception. Because the facets in an insect’s eye are colored by reflecting light, these larger facets that take in more light reflect less light, making them appear darker than the surrounding eye or even black. This is why some bugs that use vision as a primary sense, like dragonflies and damselflies, may have this “focus spot.”
The pond is also home to many dragonflies skimming across the water and the tops of grasses on the hunt for gnats and mosquitoes to eat. Dragonflies are like hawks of the insect world: they are excellent fliers that are able to turn and twist quickly to catch even the smallest gnats on the wing.
The cells on the wings of dragonflies look like stained glass under the hand lens. Unlike damselflies, dragonflies hold their wings horizontally at rest and are generally larger. This one is in the clubtail family (Gomphidae).
What’s all that stuck on the bedstraw? Cottonwood seeds? Foam from my bubble bath?
It’s stuck in spheres around the stems of the plant. We’ll have to zoom in further to see what it is…
They are bubbles! Lots and lots of tiny bubbles that form a protective cloud around the plant. I wonder who’s inside…
It’s the immature form of a spittlebug! Spittlebugs feed on the plant by stabbing their mouthparts into the stem like a straw and sucking the juices out. Excess plant sap is excreted through the bug’s anus and mixed with excretions from glands in their exoskeleton. This stabilizes the foamy bubble mixture and protects the bug so predators can’t find it. The “spit” also serves to keep the bug inside moist – drying up is a big danger for little bugs. While it might be gross to keep wet this way, it’s also very effective. There might be a lot of these in the bedstraw field, but spittlebugs cause very little damage to the plants they feed on.
We kept seeing these black lumps on the leaves of Common Reeds and didn’t know what they were, so of course we used the hand lens to take a closer look.
A weird shape, but these definitely looked like eggs to us. We didn’t know what laid them when we were out in the field, but when we got home and did a little more research, we found out they were eggs from deer flies in the family Tabanidae. That’s a lot of eggs!
Walking down the hill away from the pond, we decided to take a closer look at some mosses. Stumps really are good places to find cool things to look at! Make sure not to dismiss them as dead, as they are still full of life.
Mosses come in a variety of shapes, but what they all have in common is that they do not have a vascular system to transport water inside the plant. They are green and “active” (which means that they photosynthesize) when moist, but go dormant when it gets too dry. After a good rain, they quickly become active again.
Using the hand lens, Elena was able to take this amazing picture of mating hover flies (Toxomerus marginatus). Bringing a hand lens along when wandering can open many new doors to look closely at things that sometimes we wouldn’t appreciate with just the naked eye. Under magnification, even common plants and animals found on the trail are given new beauty. Tell us: what else are you curious to see in greater detail?
On Sunday we guided a walk for the New York Flora Association along the South Taconic Trail. This post shares some of the botanical and entomological highlights, including two orchids, several species in the heath family (Ericaceae), and a scattering of insects. If you would like to see habitat images and directions/a trail map, you can check out our blog post from an outing on 7 June 2015: https://hvfarmscape.wordpress.com/?s=sunset+rock
Last weekend, one could not overlook the Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule) which had started to bloom along the trail.
Although many of the 30 native orchids known to occur (or have occurred) in Columbia County are rare in our landscape and/or grow in very specific habitats, Pink Lady’s Slippers can still be encountered here and there in undisturbed sites and might well be the best known of our orchids. Its single, pouch-like flower crowns a leafless stalk, which emerges from a cluster of hairy basal leaves. Thanks to John Meierhoffer for this beautiful image.
However, we really got excited when we found several small patches of a much rarer orchid, the Large Whorled Pogonia (Isotria verticillata). It usually has one flower that is displayed above a whorl of shiny, hairless leaves. But the plant in this image had two flowers, each adorned with three long, narrow, purple-brown sepals.
This image shows two Large Whorled Pogonia plants whose flowers are about to open, and a dried seed pod left over from last year. We know this easily overlooked botanical jewel only from three locations in Columbia County, all in Taconic State Park. If you ever come across any orchids, PLEASE do not even think about picking them or digging them up! But we would love to see your photos and learn about additional locations where they occur in our county.
Almost orchid-like are the flowers of Gaywings or Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia), which are composed of five sepals (two of which create the “wings”) and three petals (one of which is boat-shaped with a fringed tip). The leaves of these small perennial plants (they are usually no taller than a few inches) stay green through the winter. New leaves emerge in early spring and the new branches also bring forth these delightful flowers. In addition to the insect-pollinated flowers that draw our attention, Gaywings also have self-pollinating flowers that remain in the ground (a strategy this species has in common with violets).
No walk through a dry woodland in May would be complete without Canada Mayflower (Maianthemum canadense), which forms large, rhizomatous colonies under oak and pine trees. Most of the plants in each colony consist of a single leaf and don’t bear flowers. The racemes of tiny 4-parted flowers (an exception in this plant group, which usually has 3 or 6 flower parts) only develop on two-leaved plants.
Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) is a hemiparasite, which is a plant that photosynthesizes, but also parasitizes the roots of other plants to steal nutrients. In our region, it seems to almost always grow near blueberries (Vaccinium sp.) and is most common near rock outcrops on the Taconic Ridge. (If we ever create a rock band, we will name it after this plant.)
One of the most common, hip-high shrubs along the Taconic Ridge is Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), a member of the Rose family. Its early flowers are an attraction to a variety of pollinators, including this cuckoo bee (Nomada sp.), which is a nest parasite of other bees.
Even without flowers, Black Chokeberry is easily recognized by its unique glands along the midrib of the leaves.
Early Azalea (Rhododenrdon prinophyllum) is a taller shrub that just opened its fragrant flowers during the last week. It is one of the members in the heath family (Ericaceae), which grow in the dry acidic soils along the Taconic Ridge.
A closer look at the flower stalk and corolla tube of Early Azalea reveals that it is covered with two kinds of hairs: fine, simple hairs that bend every which way, as well as stubby, straight, glandular hairs. The glands are visible as tiny “balls” at the tip of these hairs. The similar Pink or Pinxterbloom Azalea (R. periclymenoides) lacks these glandular hairs. In addition, its leaves are less hairy than those of Early Azalea.
Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) is another very common member of the heath family in this habitat. It is a colonial shrub that grows knee- to hip-high and has racemes of tightly-clustered, urn-shaped flowers that turn from green-pinkish to white as they mature.
A closer look reveals yellow gland dots on the flowers, young stems, and leaves of Black Huckleberry. (The edible berries, which will ripen in June, lack these glands.)
The leaves of Black Huckleberry are sticky to the touch and their undersides sparkle in the sun. This makes this species easy to distinguish from blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), who lack the yellow glands.
Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) is one of the taller blueberries on the Ridge. It has bell-shaped (rather than tubular or urn-shaped) flowers (the ones in the image are not quite open, yet—their petals will grow bigger and spread out more…), each with a long peduncle. It is easy to recognize when in flower or fruit (the fruits also have long stalks and are not particularly tasty), but in their absence can be confused with Highbush Blueberry (V. corymbosum; which we did not find near Sunset Rock, but often see in swamps and sometimes in oak forest).
Common (or Early) Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) is probably the most common, low-growing blueberry that can form large colonies. Its leaves tend to be shiny and have a similar color on their upper and lower side. They can be glabrous or somewhat hairy. The margins of the leaves tend to be finely serrated and the leaves often have pointed tips.
Hillside (or Late) Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) often occurs together with Common Lowbush Blueberry. It sometimes grows a little taller, and its leaves tend to be matte, with a glaucous (dull grayish-green) underside, no hairs, and mostly entire (non-serrated) margins. Often (though not always), the leaves are broader and more rounded at the tip than those of Common Lowbush Blueberry.
The rarest of the lowbush blueberries is Velvet-leaf Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides), which has a dense cover of fine hairs on its leaves and young stems. It seems to be confined to the higher elevations in our County.
Another member of the Ericaceae family is Bearberry or Kinnikinnick (Arcostaphylos uva-ursi), an evergreen, very low, colonial shrub that forms carpets around the rock outcrops on the Taconic Ridge. Unlike the sweet and juicy blueberries, which are quickly eaten up by all sorts of animals (and people), the tougher and drier berries of this species tend to stick around for a long time, and are sometimes referred to as “emergency food” for wildlife.
Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) is an inconspicuous member of the Ericaceae family that sticks very close to the ground. Its leaves stay green through the winter. Very early in spring it has white flowers (note their orange-brown, already dried corollas from earlier in the spring!) which are now developing into berry-like capsules. According to Keith Clay, who published a paper on this in 1983, the seeds are ant-dispersed, but don’t feature elaiosomes typical of other ant-dispersed species. Instead, the seeds are embedded in the sweet, jelly-like placental tissue, which the ants gather and carry to their nest.
Maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina) is one of the shrubs in the Ericaceae family that produces dehiscent capsules instead of fleshy fruits. This image shows the seed capsules from last year, which had split open with five slits to release the seeds.
Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) mixes with small oaks along the Taconic Ridge. Its needles grow in bundles of three while the more common White Pine (Pinus strobus) has five needles per bundle. Short branches growing right out of the bark are often seen in Pitch Pine.
A close-up image of the pollen cones of Pitch Pine. Pines are monoecious, with seed cones and pollen cones growing on the same plant.
Oaks of three species occur along the ridge: stunted Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and White Oak (Quercus alba), which in more favorable conditions would grow into tall trees, are found together with the pictured Scrub Oak (Quercus ilicifolia), which stays shrubby and low and therefore presents its flowers and acorns at eye level. This image shows young acorns that are developing from last year’s female flowers and will be ripe this autumn. Above them on the new growth are this year’s pollen (male) catkins and this year’s tiny reddish female flowers, which—if pollinated—will take two years to mature into acorns.
A close-up image of the female flower of Scrub Oak being visited by the nymph of a treehopper. We’re not sure if this was anything more than a casual visit.
This serves as the segue to the entomological portion of the program, so if you need an intermission, now’s your chance!
Not surprisingly, the diversity of herbivorous insects we saw along the ridge mirrored the plant composition described above. Oaks harbor a great number of insects, and we saw several Lepidoptera whose caterpillars are oak feeders.
For example, this elegant moth is known as the Oak Leaffolder Moth or Ancylis burgessiana. As the name implies, its caterpillars are known to feed on oaks and, in addition, on chestnut and cherries, both of which were also present on the ridge. It occurs in eastern North America, and presumably, given the behavior of related species, its caterpillars fold leaves to protect themselves while feeding on shallow layers of leaf tissue.
Similarly, Phyllonorycter aeriferella is another Eastern oak eater (no other hosts seem to be reported). Unlike the leafroller, the caterpillar of this moth protects itself by feeding in between the leaf cuticles, where it seems to cause a rather blotchy leaf mine.
This beauty, here apparently attracted to skin salts on one of our feet (one takes the shots one gets!), is the Yellow-washed Metarranthis, Metarranthis obfirmaria. It has a similar distribution as the first two moth species and its caterpillars shouldn’t be short of food: they feed on oaks, Vaccinium and cherries.
The biggest moth which we saw (and it wasn’t very big) was American Barred Umber, Plagodis pulveraria. The caterpillars of this widespread North American species were probably feeding on the leaves of the Grey, White and Black Birch scattered along the ridge.
Finally in terms of moths, tree trunks were scattered with the remains of last year’s Spongy Moth (formerly Gypsy Moth) pupae and egg masses. Because the females are wingless, this egg mass might be from a mother who emerged from one of the nearby pupae. The pinholes in the egg mass indicate that the young have already emerged…
The young caterpillars were plentiful and seemed to be having no trouble finding food.
We saw them on Oak, Vaccinium, Witchhazel, American Chestnut, and Azalea, amongst other species. Maples seem to be largely, although not entirely, avoided.
While butterflies weren’t overly abundant, our ridgeline species were well-represented and, again, reflected the surrounding vegetation.
The Eastern Pine Elfin is a small, dancing butterfly and, so far as we know, our only regional butterfly whose caterpillars feed on pine. Along the ridge, their caterpillars were presumably feeding on the Pitch Pines pictured earlier.
Its close relative, the Brown Elfin, was also on the wing. This is as close as we get to a butterfly which looks (due to color, not texture) as if it’s made out of leather. Its caterpillars are probably feeding on one or more of the ericaceous plants that have already been described. In our area, this species seems more restricted in its occurrence than the Pine Elfin, and we have only found it on rocky, open Taconic ridgetops. Brown Elfin has an interesting, split distribution, occurring in the eastern and western thirds of the country, but not through the central plains.
The most abundant butterfly was probably Juvenal’s Duskywing. This is one of our so-called “skippers”, presumably so named, because they skip about with a darting, hurried flight. One can get tired just watching a tattered male duskywing defend his territory against all winged passersby.
While their coloration is muted, the male (pictured previously) and female (shown here) are distinct, with females markedly more patterned than males. The caterpillars of the Juvenal’s Duskwing feed primarily on oaks and, as one might expect given the broad distribution of oaks in our landscape, they can be found from hilltop to valley.
Determining that a duskywing is a duskywing is easy (a dark mottled skipper that holds its wings flat), but distinguishing amongst the species in the field seems like it is as much art as science.
So… we’re going out on a limb here when we claim we also saw a second duskywing species, Horace’s Duskywing, along the ridge. In appearance and habits (also an eastern oak eater), Horace’s is very similar to Juvenal’s. We’re proposing Horace’s here because the hind underwing lacks conspicuous white spots and the face seems lighter than in some of the Juvenal’s we’ve seen. That said, each of those traits is variable and none of the experts we consulted felt confident with this ID – dissection of the genitalia seems to be the defining trait. We’re not planning to undertake that, but there is another trick – the Juvenal’s Duskywing apparently has only one, springtime generation per year, whereas Horace’s also has a later flight. So, if we go back to Sunset Rock later in the summer and see a Juvenal’s Duskywing, then it’s probably actually a Horace’s Duskywing… Isn’t entomology fun?
We’ll round up this blog with a brief foray into the Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps). Bees were occasional – loud queen bumblebees searching for nesting sites, trim Nomada (see Aronia photo earlier) seeking nectar and the nests of other bees to parasitize, and the occasional carpenter bee out for a buzz.
Ants seemed more forthcoming than bees with several species out and about. This attractively colored species is probably Dolichoderus plagiatus, the Mottled Dolichoderus. It is apparently a relatively common species of drier areas. It is said to have relatively small colonies (fewer than 100 workers) and to forage solo. However, as the photo attests, this group was on the move together.
Lastly, what actually led us to notice the ants was a prominent woody gall protruding out of the ground. It had apparently afflicted the stem of some plant which had since died. The surface of the gall was dotted with tiny holes, presumably where the gall maker (or its parasites) had recently emerged. Several small wasps seemed interested in the gall, periodically landing on it and wandering over it. What their connection to the gall was, we don’t know. According to Kenny (our in-house wasp expert) these could be members of a gall making species or they could be the parasite of a gall making species. Or, they could just be passing gall fans. As with almost everything in natural history, MOA : “more observation advisable”!
Three Trilliums (or The Search for the Rare Nodding Trillium)
The Trilliums are in full bloom in Columbia County right now. So far, we have found three species. The most common is Red Trillium (T. erectum), which can be found in reasonably fertile and moist woods throughout the County. Painted Trillium (T. undulatum) seems to be limited to the forests in the higher elevations in the east half of the County (e.g., Beebe Hill State Forest, Harvey Mountain, Mt. Alander). Finally, the NY state-wide rare Nodding Trillium (T. cernuum), we know so far from only a few small patches at Art Omi.
Should you come across any Trillium, please do not dig it up! They do not transplant well and they take seven years to flower when grown from seed, so removing a flowering plant from the wild definitely hurts the population. This is one of those plants that is best enjoyed in its natural setting.
Should you come across Nodding Trillium anywhere else in the County, we would love to know about it! Please email a picture to Claudia@hawthornevalleyfarm.org
Please check out the images below for tips on how to distinguish the three species.
Red Trillium (T. erectum) usually has purple petals in our region, although occasionally you can find a white Red Trillium. However, even when the petals are white, Red Trillium tends to have a purple center of the flower. The flowers can be elevated high above the leaves or dangle below the leaves. This species is usually found in fertile, moist woods and occurs throughout Columbia County.
Painted Trillium (T. undulatum) always has white flowers with fine pink lines around the center. Its flower is usually above the leaves and the center of the flower is white. It occurs in woods at the higher elevations in the eastern part of Columbia County.
The rare Nodding Trillium (T. cernuum) has white flowers that dangle below the leaves. In contrast to the occasionally observed white flowers of Red Trillium (T. erectum), which tend to have a purple center, the center of the flower of Nodding Trillium is white in fresh flowers. Only once the fruit matures, it will turn red.
Should you find any Nodding Trillium, please do take a picture and send it to Claudia@hawthornevalleyfarm.org, so we can better assess just how rare this species is in our County.
The Spongy Moths (formerly called “Gypsy Moths”) are hatching. Tour a local woods, and you’re likely to see foamy blotches on tree trunks. Inspect these closely, and you may well find tiny (ca. 5mm), hairy black caterpillars. Even if you don’t walk into the woods, you may encounter these creatures dangling from lawn furniture or parked cars.
Here, a cluster of recently hatched Spongy Moth caterpillars emerges from the ‘sponge’.
This species was originally imported to Boston in 1868. The hope had been to find a substitute for the Silk Moth. That venture failed but the caterpillars escaped and have been making their way west ever since.
We had quite a Spongy Moth population boom last year, and many trees, especially oaks, were defoliated in certain areas. A variety of diseases, parasitoids and predators attack this species, and so populations usually crash after 2-3 years.
The tiny caterpillar is quite hairy, and those hairs can be irritating. Short sleeves and a picnic table scattered with caterpillars is a recipe for itchiness.
On the weekend, we visited a rocky forest in the northeastern part of the county. We consider it an ancient forest, because it certainly has never been plowed. It is also a special place, because two very different bedrocks are exposed side by side: Stockbridge marble and Walloomsac phyllite/schist.
This post starts with some of the native calcium-loving plants we found on and around the marble. And then continues to share some of the other observations on spring flora we made (and were able to document with images worth sharing).
If this flower does not look familiar to you, it is because Large Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) is rather unusual in our region. It seems to require calcium-rich soils, but does not occur in all calcium-rich areas.
The unfolding bud of a Large Bellwort, which is a more sturdy plant than Sessile Bellwort (U. sessilifolia) and Perfoliate-leaved Bellwort (U. perfoliata).
Large Bellwort has perfoliate leaves (which means that the stalk seems to grow through the leaves, rather than the leaves being attached to the stalk), but its flowers are larger and a deeper yellow than those of the smaller bellworts.
Kidney-leaved Violet (Viola renifolia) is another calcium-loving plant we rarely see in our region. Its leaves are proportionally broader and rounder those of the similar and more common Sweet White Violet (V. blanda).
Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) is a small, pink-flowering native geranium that prefers calcium-rich soils. It can be found around outcrops of calcium-rich rocks and also around the foundations of buildings, where calcium from the cement has enriched the soil.
Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) also prefer calcium-rich soil and is often found near outcrops. As its scientific name indicates, this species is dioecious, which means that male (pollen-producing) and female (seed-producing) flowers occur on separate plants. These are the male flowers whose dangling stamens remind me of Tiffany lamps.
Early Meadow-rue female flowers are more closely clustered, try to catch pollen grains with their greyish stigmas, and—once pollinated—develop into a tight cluster of inconspicuous one-seeded fruits.
While clearly a buttercup, this is NOT the European Common Buttercup of our pastures and hayfields. It is the native Hispid Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus), another calcium-loving spring flower.
The Small-flowered or Kidney-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus) does not seem to be as specific in its soil preference, and is a quite common early spring bloomer in open forests and along forest edges. However, because of its tiny petals, it is often overlooked.
Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is an exotic-looking fern that thrives in calcium-rich soil.
Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) is another unusual fern associated exclusively with limestone, marble, and other calcium-rich rocks. Its narrow, undivided fronds make it easy to recognize. The long tips are able to form roots and grow into new little fern plants. Hence the name “walking” fern.
The spores of Walking Fern grow on the underside of its leaves.
Very rarely, an entire calcium-rich cliff or boulder is covered with Walking Fern.
Another fern that grows almost exclusively on rocks, but does not seem to care much about the rock’s chemistry, is Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum).
While not exclusively associated with rocks, Marginal Woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis) often is found on or near rocks. Like Walking Fern and Rock Polypody, this is an “evergreen” fern. The fronds of Marginal Woodfern stay green through the winter, but wilt in the spring when the new fiddleheads unfold.
A closer look at Marginal Woodfern fiddleheads.
And for comparison, a very hairy fiddlehead of Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).
American Fly Honeysuckle (Lonicera canadensis) is a small native shrub in the same genus as the invasive European shrub honeysuckles (L. morrowii, L. maackii, L. x bella, etc.). It stays smaller than its invasive cousins, has glabrous (non-hairy) leaves with smooth margins, and straight, tubular flowers. Note, how in all other Lonicera species, the flowers are paired and—when pollinated—will form paired berries.
Another native shrub about to flower is Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). Superficially similar to a maple (opposite, maple-shaped leaves), it can be identified by its velvety leaves and white, flat-topped clusters of flowers.
Last year’s fruit are still attached to a Maple-leaved Viburnum. They are clearly different from the “helicopter” fruits produced by all maples.
The leaves of Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) have spent the winter as tiny versions of themselves in so-called “naked” buds, unprotected by bud scales. Come spring, they just start enlarging, without the need to break buds.
In contrast, the young leaves of Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum) emerge from their large bud scales.
Almost simultaneously with the unfolding leaves, the flowers of Striped Maple appear.
Turning our attention back to the forest floor, we notice a grass-like plant that is already fruiting: Common Wood Rush (Luzula multiflora) has many tightly-clustered flowers and—subsequently—fruits.
Nearby, we noticed Hairy Wood Rush (Luzula acuminata) which displays it flowers and—subsequently—fruits individually in an expansive inflorescence, which reminds me of fireworks.
The perfectly-formed fruits of Hairy Wood Rush.
While most Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) plants had dropped their white petals which so delight us in early spring, their uniquely-shaped single leaves were spotted here and there in pockets of soil among the rocks. Inside the tiny capsule at the tip of the flowering stalk, the seeds are now quickly maturing and will be dispersed by ants, once the ripe fruit breaks open.
The maple-shaped leaves of the basal rosettes of Two-leaf Miterwort (Mitella diphylla) remained green on the ground throughout the winter. In early spring, the flower stalks grew up and are now displaying their spikes of little white flowers above a new pair of leaves.
A close-up of the delicate Miterwort flowers.
In some areas, Miterwort was forming dense colonies.
No spring botany walk would be complete without Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum). This is the most common and widespread Trillium species in our county, but we have seen the densest populations in deep soil at the base of a calcium-rich outcrop.
Broad-leaved Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla) is a native mustard often found in the floodplains of large and small streams. This one grew along the banks of a small headwater stream.
We will close this post with a locally-rare lichen, Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) which a friend had spotted growing on this marble rock many years ago. It is the only one of its kind that we have ever seen in Columbia County. This lichen had historically a wide distribution throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America, but has become rare in many places. In the Pacific Northwest, it is considered an indicator of old growth forest and here in Columbia County, we would not expect it to occur in a post-agricultural forest.
The butterflies of Spring are a mix of those which overwintered as hibernating adults, those which have migrated in from elsewhere, and those which overwintered as caterpillar or pupae and have now had enough time to go through metamorphosis.
Here a four species we’ve recently seen here in Columbia County.
(We’re slightly changing our posting approach – every other week, you’ll get a Wonder Wander. In between, like today, you’ll get some snapshots of what we’ve been seeing – more a Wonder Moment than a Wonder Wander.)
It has been a few weeks since I’ve heard the quack of Wood Frogs in the Swamp Forest, and so today I headed out in search of the results of all that noisy breeding—egg masses. Read the captions to follow along and see all the egg masses—and other wonders—I found on my wander.
I found my first Spotted Salamander egg mass almost immediately upon entering the forest, in a shallow pool created by a toppled root ball. Egg masses contain dozens of individual eggs. The dark spots are the salamander larvae that you can watch develop and start to wiggle inside their eggs until they hatch 4-8 weeks after they are deposited in the pool.
I found a similar egg mass in this pool 2 years ago that dried out before the larvae could hatch. It seems to be a balancing act to find that perfect intermittent pool that will dry out at some point so as to be inhabitable to fish and other predators, but won’t dry out so fast as to leave the egg mass stranded.
I found more Spotted Salamander egg masses in a small stream with very still water, thanks to many fallen logs crossing it. Spotted Salamander eggs are typically attached to a small stick, as in this case, or some other vegetation.
A close-up view of this egg mass shows how jelly-like the egg mass is, with a gelatinous coating that holds its form (unlike the egg masses of Wood Frogs, up next). The larvae at the bottom of this egg mass seem to be farther along in their development.
Deeper into the watery Swamp Forest I spotted some Wood Frog egg masses. This is what all that raucous was about!
Wood Frog egg masses are flatter and lumpier than Spotted Salamander egg masses because they lack the gelatinous coating.
As with Spotted Salamanders, the Wood Frog larvae (tadpoles) can be seen inside the eggs, although they hatch more quickly than Spotted Salamander eggs; sometimes within a week of being laid.
Under a hemlock tree on the edge of the Swamp Forest I came across this owl pellet that I would guess is from a Great Horned Owl, as a family of Great Horned Owls has been living in this hemlock forest over the past several years.
I initially imagined that the long bones might be those of a Wood Frog, but Conrad’s analysis revealed they belonged to a cottontail and were mixed with bones from at least one White-footed Mouse and two White-footed or Deer Mice.
While I did not collect (or analyze) the content of this nearby owl pellet, I was struck by the smaller size of the bones in it.
This hair and bone-filled coyote scat was near the owl pellets, showing how similar prey animals (such as rodents and rabbits) are digested by a mammal.
Leaving the forest I was happy to see a Bloodroot still flowering.
Who is singing that very loud song at the edge of the forest? I finally found the singer, this Carolina Wren. I was surprised to see that technically, we are north of the range map for this bird provided by Birds of the World, though clearly they are here!
Nearby I spotted a cocoon on a sapling that Dylan identified as from the Saturniidae family—perhaps a Cecropia or Polyphemus, both large, beautiful silk moths.
As a parting shot, these Painted Turtles were enjoying a sunny bask on a log in the pond at the end of my wander.
One of my favorite aspects of climbing mountains is how it can feel like traveling into a different world. Often—especially on the highest peaks—one can observe distinct changes in the plant and animal communities as one ascends a mountainside. Some particularly striking and interesting examples of that phenomenon occur on peaks in the Taconic Mountains that run along the border between Columbia County, NY and Berkshire County, MA.
If you’ve ever taken the time to climb Mount Alander, Bash Bish Mountain, Mount Everett, or any of several other Taconic peaks, you’ve probably noticed that the trees growing atop them are stunted. Such stunted growth forms might be caused by extreme climatic conditions, especially strong winds that can damage plants that become too tall. Soil conditions may play a role as well—mountaintops often have thin soil that provides trees with little in the way of water, nutrients, and space to grow roots.
The extreme conditions found on mountains also shape the assemblage of tree species that grow there. At this time of year, evergreen Pitch Pines (Pinus rigida) stand out among the leafless deciduous trees that grow alongside them on the Taconic peaks.
Pitch Pine is something of a specialist on poor-quality soils and in frequently-disturbed habitats, and is famously the dominant tree species of the sandy, fire-prone pine barrens scattered throughout the eastern United States. On rich soils and in places that rarely experience disturbance events, Pitch Pine is outcompeted by many of the other tree species that make up our forests—so the species’ persistence in the highest parts of the Taconic Mountains is an indication of the harshness of the environment found there.
Pitch Pine can readily be distinguished from the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) that grows abundantly throughout our region by the fact that it has stiff needles that grow in bundles of three (rather than five).
The cones of Pitch Pine also look much different than those of White Pine. They are much more cone-shaped!
One of the best characters for recognizing Pitch Pine, however, is the presence of needles sprouting directly from its trunk and branches—a characteristic that, in our region, is seen only in this species and in the closely-related Pond Pine (Pinus serotina).
Trees are not the only part of the plant community that changes with elevation! Mountaintops usually have different assemblages of shrubs and herbaceous plants than lower elevations as well. Members of the heath family, including blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), Common Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), and the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) shown in the photo above, are especially prominent.
The next time you find yourself climbing a mountain, take a few moments to observe the vegetation as you ascend. Can you find plants at the top that you did not see at the trailhead, and vice versa?
It is with gratitude and sadness that I share the news that March is my last month working with FEP. I’ve had such an incredible, educational and eye-opening experience here, and I’m excited to continue to grow my love for plants and education with other organizations and land projects in the Hudson Valley! Here are some photos that express my appreciation for the projects and people I’ve had a chance to work with during my time at FEP.
I will never forget this moment (pictured below) last July, when Claudia, Erin and I stumbled across this thistle while doing a plant inventory at Hawthorne Valley Farm. We knew right away it wasn’t our typical Canada or Bull Thistle that grow abundantly in meadows and fields.
Our wildflower guide prompted us to smell the flower in order to confirm it was Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)—and the smell was so sweet, rose-like and immersive! I want to express gratitude to this beautiful, native thistle plant, growing in the fields above the farm.
Here’s Claudia, taking photos in a swamp last spring during a plant inventory at a nearby property. It was raining most of the day, but we had a really fun time exploring the spring flowers in swamps and around rocks in the woods!
Claudia has been such an incredible mentor and teacher to me over these past two years—I am grateful for her fearlessness, her vast and deep knowledge of plants, and her patient and careful teaching.
It’s always a pleasure to go over to Ancramdale to observe the progress of a native wildflower meadow that we seeded at Overmountain Conservation Area.
Pictured above, Claudia and Erin assess the vegetation of the meadow in order to get a sense of the composition of seeded and unseeded plant species. The wildflower meadow that was seeded in a former hay field is taking off, slowly but surely!
Another beautiful “workplace” I frequented was down at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub in Hurley. There, another native wildflower meadow seeding is in its sixth season. This experiment aims to get a sense of what is needed for farmers to create native wildflower habitats, what insects the habitats attract, and what impact they have on vegetable production.
My task every two weeks was to walk through the different meadow trials and measure the “flower abundance,” in order to quantify which species were flowering when, and how much “floral area” they amounted to. I am pictured in one of our flower-rich meadows, surrounded by the delicious spicy aroma of Monarda (Monarda fistulosa).
In addition to measuring the flower abundance in the native meadow trials at the Farm Hub, we also spent time assessing the plant composition of all species there (not just those in flower). Below, Tash captured a picture of me fanning myself with Cottonwood leaves in the Cottonwood “jungle” that one of our control plots has become.
A lovely part of my weeks during the growing season has been to work with a delightful group of garden volunteers! These gals have helped tremendously in the native plant gardens around the Creekhouse, and in our beneficial habitats in the vegetable fields on the farm.
A group of us is pictured above, after doing some native wildflower seeding on a nearby hayfield. (Left to right: Joanne, me, Lauren, Eve and Susan.)
Below is one of my favorite pics… Lauren, Joanne and Tracy are pictured here, bringing their buckets and tools back to the Creekhouse after doing some transplanting along our roadside garden.
Below, Joanne, Deborah and Lauren transplant native seedlings from our nursery into newly prepared ground in the Corner Garden, to extend our already existing pollinator patch on the right side.
I am so grateful for all the hard work and care that these volunteers have contributed to FEP! You have all been such joyous parts of my week, and I have cherished our time together. I also want to give a special shout-out to Anne who was not pictured in these photos.
I’ve also had the pleasure of leading some educational and outreach programs over the past two years for different groups of students and youth. We’ve worked with school groups at Hawthorne Valley School, Taconic Hills, the Hudson School, as well as camps at the Hudson Youth Center, and more! I’m pictured below, showing an enthusiastic young person what monarch caterpillars eat.
It’s really exciting being around young people and seeing their enthusiasm to learn about what’s growing, flying and crawling around us. These campers (pictured below) at the Hudson Youth Summer Camp were really interested in observing pinned insects and holding caterpillars!
Lastly, I want to give a big shout-out to the plants and critters that I feel so connected to and learn so much from… I found this plant (pictured below) in a field at the Farm Hub last summer, and as you might observe, it’s really tiny!
The little flowers and bladder-shaped fruits invited me in, asked me to pay attention, and also made my heart sing a little bit. And oh right, this plant is called Nodding Spurge (Euphorbia nutans)!
Snails are some of my greatest teachers. I watch them closely to learn about taking my time, being sustainable, and moving without urgency. This snail was chilling on top of some mint in a wet meadow after a lot of rain last summer.
Thank you all for following along, and thank you FEP for such an amazing opportunity it’s been to work with you all!
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.