Farmscape Wonder Wander: 19 January 2022

By Kendrick Fowler

For the second year in a row, we at FEP are offering a temporary, self-guided course on identifying woody plants in winter. This week, I decided to wander along part of the course to practice my plant identification and see what I could see.

The course consists of three series of flagged plants at Crellin Park and PS21 in Chatham, NY. Maps directing you to the plants’ locations and guides to the included plant species are available on our website.

Collage showing a tree labeled "Quiz #15"

As an example, here you can see the tree we’ve picked out as “quiz # 15” for the first (pink-flagged) of the three series of plants. Do you know what species this tree belongs to?

Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata)

Nearby, I found an old Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) vine loaded with the husks of that species’ large, spiny fruits.

Yellow flagging tied to a tree trunk; flagging reads "#20"

Most of you reading this post probably know how to identify common trees by their leaves—the leaves of an aspen, a maple, and an oak all look very different, for example. Identifying these plants in winter, however—when the trees lack foliage—is more difficult: you need to rely on less-obvious details, such as the texture of the bark or the appearance of the buds. Tree #20 from the second (yellow-flagged) series of plants has a striking, coarse-ridged pattern to its bark. Do you know what species of tree has bark that looks like this?

(Here’s a hint on the IDs of both trees pictured above: these species like to grow alongside rivers and streams.)

Trail through a hemlock grove

Continuing on, I came upon a grove of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae)

These hemlocks unfortunately showed signs of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae), an invasive insect that has spread throughout eastern North America and threatens the health of our hemlock populations. These are visible as white, cotton-ball-like spots on the hemlock twig pictured above.

Bird's-foot-shaped debris on snow

The snow in the hemlock grove was littered with tiny, bird’s-foot-shaped pieces of plant debris.

Cones of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)

Since I was in a hemlock grove, I wondered if these pieces of debris might be the seeds of Eastern Hemlock.

Bird's-foot-shaped debris (top) and seed of Eastern Hemlock (bottom)

To check, I found a hemlock cone that still had seeds inside and pulled one out. It’s the lower object in the image above. As you can see, the hemlock seed looks kind of like a tiny version of a maple seed, and nothing like the bird’s-foot-shaped debris (the upper object)! If not hemlock, where was the debris coming from?

Bracts hanging from old catkins on the twig of a Black Birch (Betula lenta)

The answer struck me as I continued my wander. I mean that literally! I was walking along, looking down at the snow and wondering what the identity of the plant making the debris could be, when I carelessly walked right into a branch. I looked up, and that branch was loaded with the bird’s-foot-shaped structures!

Bud of a Black Birch (Betula lenta)

The tree was fairly small, so I couldn’t easily tell what it was it from its bark. Its buds, though, gave me a hint at its identity. Notice how the bud in this image sits at the end of a small growth, called a “spur shoot.” There aren’t many plants in our area that develop spur shoots like that! This is a member of the birch family (Betulaceae). More specifically, this is a Black Birch (Betula lenta), also known as Sweet Birch. And the bird’s-foot-shaped debris I was seeing? The flowers and fruits of birches develop on a structure called a “catkin,” and the bird’s-foot-shaped structures are bracts that protect the tree’s developing seeds, then fall away when the seeds ripen.

Regular readers may remember that Anna wrote about the catkins of the closely-related Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) in her post from December 1, 2021.

Seeds from a birch tree

As a contrast to the hemlock seed shown earlier, here’s what birch seeds look like. I did not manage to find any birch seeds during my wander, so note that the above photo comes from a different adventure. These seeds also do not belong to Black Birch! (They probably came from a Paper Birch, Betula papyrifera.) However, the seeds of most of our birch species are more or less similar-looking.

Pink flagging tied to a tree trunk; flagging reads "#7"

If you enjoyed reading about how I solved my tree mystery, give our self-guided winter botany course a try! Also, if you would be interested in in-person instruction on identifying woody plants in winter, we will be offering guided winter botany sessions on January 29, February 12, and February 26. Email Claudia for more information and to sign up.

Thanks for reading!

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 12 January 2022

By Anna

This Wonder Wander ended up being a meditation on a patient Red-tailed Hawk and the life happening under its watchful gaze. View the photos and read the captions to follow along…

The morning temperature was around 5°F yesterday when I locked eyes with this immature Red-tailed Hawk—it was not the first time.

This is a photo from this past weekend of what I believe to be the same Red-tailed Hawk on the same tree. Red-tailed Hawks often hunt from a prominent perch.

In this case, a perch located directly over the chicken yard. In what I doubt is a coincidence, we have also gone from 11 to 10 chickens over this past week. Perhaps because of hunger or youth (the two often go together), this particular Red-tailed Hawk has not been easy to deter with shouts and hurled objects. I have therefore spent a good deal of time keeping watch as it keeps watch.

I was surprised to realize that the chickens are not the only birds who seem overly intrepid under the Hawk’s gaze. This Song Sparrow was one of several flitting around and eating Pokeweed berries directly under the Hawk’s perch.

Perhaps part of why the birds did not seem overly concerned about the Hawk is because it is there for hours at a time, day after day, though not always with the same hunting intensity. This photograph was taken in the middle of a preening session.

At times the Hawk even appeared to close its eyes. Red-tailed Hawks, like many birds, have a third eyelid called the nictitating membrane that they can close to moisturize and protect their eyes. Because the nictitating membrane is semi-transparent, however, this Hawk may still be keeping an eye on the surroundings.

A lot of bird activity was also occurring among the grape vines directly below the Hawk, including this Carolina Wren sunning itself. Carolina Wrens seek out shelters, such as old nests, to roost in—perhaps the old nest above it serves as such a shelter.

A small group of White-throated Sparrows was moving among the grape vines as well, feeding on the dried grapes still on the vine.

Their short, cone-shaped beak seems adept at picking grapes.

In addition to fruit, like these grapes, White-throated Sparrows mainly eat seeds.

This Robin was also out feasting in the cold, though on a more troublesome fruit—that of Oriental Bittersweet, an invasive vine that can choke out trees and shrubs. The berries of Oriental Bittersweet are eaten by many birds once more desirable berries (with higher fat) are scarce. Birds play a large role in spreading Oriental Bittersweet by consuming the fruit and defecating the seeds wherever they perch.

Finally the Red-tailed Hawk departed after several hours, though I’m not sure what inspired this flight—perhaps lack of success in hunting.

This morning, however, who should I see on a low branch in the apple tree in the backyard?  I suspect it is the same immature Red-tailed Hawk.

I wasn’t sure if this was a yawn, a moment of preening, or a vocalization that I didn’t hear.

As I watched, the Red-tailed Hawk suddenly took off, and this time it was different than the previous departure—focused and full of purpose. I turned just in time to see it tussling on the ground and taking off with a large rodent in its talons. Hopefully the chickens will have a day of reprieve from the hawk’s watch.

As a parting shot—Tuesday’s single digit temperatures froze the pond thick enough to walk on for the first time this winter.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 5 January 2021

By Nellie

I’ve been craving snow this winter, and I hope there will be some soon! In the meantime, I set out through the snow-less landscape to observe what greenery was still visible, and ended up collecting a whole rainbow of colors in the forms of plants, fruits, fungi, ice and more. Scroll to follow along with the colorful exploration.

a photo collage of a rainbow of different plants and other things found in the woods
A rainbow of wonders

Red came in the form of  two different fruits from two introduced species: first were these egg-shaped fruits belonging to Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), pictured below.

plant with spines and red, oval fruits
Red fruits of Japanese Barberry

Second were these red fruits belonging to Asian (or Oriental) Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) an introduced vine that was very abundant along the trail. A yellow, three-parted capsule splits open to reveal a red fruit (technically an “aril”) inside.

vining plant with red fruits
“Arils” of Asian Bittersweet

The reddish leaf below belongs to Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca). It’s not unusual for a leaf to get a reddish tint in the winter when chlorophyll pigments that make green decrease, and when there’s an increased presence of the anthocyanin pigment (which makes red, purple and blue). It’s suspected that the presence of anthocyanins can help to protect the leaves from harsh temperatures.

reddish three pointed leaf
Leaf of Wild Strawberry

Onwards to orange!

The capsules of the Bittersweet fruits were responsible for some orange (and yellow) color in the woods, but even more vibrant were these Orange Jelly fungi (likely Dacrymyces palmatus) growing on a mossy log. This fungus is saprobic, meaning it lives off of decaying matter, such as the decomposing log in the photo.

bright orange gelatinous fungus on green mossy log
Orange Jelly fungus on mossy log

Another non-plant brought some orange into the environment: these orange-tinted icicles hanging below a log resembled teeth that needed brushing! The ice could be tinted by the tannins being leached from the wood.

long orange icicles form between a fallen log and the ground
Orange Ice

I was delighted to see the yellowness in these round, latent flower buds that belong to Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)! This shrub, with its delightfully fragrant twigs and leaves, is native to moist woodlands. These flower buds will open into dazzling little yellow flowers in the early spring before leaf-out!

small round flower buds on a twig
Spicebush’s flower buds

Green time:

As I mentioned earlier, I initially set out to observe the plants that remain green through the winter (evergreen), curious about the methods they employ and the choice they make to brave a harsh season above ground.

a gloved hand holds two branches from two different evergreen trees
White Pine (left) and Eastern Hemlock (right)

These branches of White Pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) might be what comes to mind when you hear the word “evergreen.” Unlike the deciduous trees that shed their leaves in the fall, these evergreen conifers retain their needles (leaves) throughout the winter. One reason they do this is so they don’t have to put so much energy into creating a whole new canopy in the spring. The needles have less surface area and a waxy coating, which allows the needles to hold in more moisture and to reduce damage from wind and temperature.

White Pine’s long needles are grouped in clusters (or fascicles) of 5. The needles of Hemlock are short and flat, and attached individually to the branch. Both trees’ needles are rich in vitamin C!

In addition to the evergreen conifers in our region, there are also a range of evergreen non-woody plants that decide to endure the winter! One reason why a plant, such as the introduced Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), might stay green and not die back in the winter is so it has a longer window for photosynthesis in the fall and early spring.

Garlic Mustard

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of a few different evergreen ferns in our region, who likely also wants to get a jumpstart on photosynthesis in the spring. In order to make it to the spring, the plant has to protect itself during the cold temperatures. One way that this fern might do so is by storing sugar in their leaves to act as an antifreeze.

a dark green fern in the leaf litter
Christmas Fern (can you make out the stocking shape of the individual leaflets?!)

White Avens (Geum canadense), a native woodland plant stays green through the winter too! Though it’s quite prone to getting a more blueish purple pigment from the anthocyanins mentioned earlier. Its leaves vary in appearance, however the basal (bottom) leaves are usually compound (made up of many leaflets) that are coarsely toothed. It’s fun to see the different shades of color that these leaves turn in the winter.

a cluster of green and blueish leaves
Basal rosette of White Avens

In addition to the blues I observed in the White Avens (as well as some blueish tints to grasses and sedges), these fruits of the introduced shrub, Privet (Ligustrum sp.), definitely satisfied the blue category!

dark blue fruits on a bare shrub
Fruits of Privet

Lastly: purple!

These beautiful, waxy, purple stalks of the native Black Cap Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) were a joyful color to witness. The stalks or canes are glaucous, meaning they have a waxy, whitish coating. They really stand out this time of year!

purplish white stem with thorns
Cane of Black Cap Raspberry

I hope that you enjoyed this journey in color from red to purple, and that it inspires you to notice what colors are visible in your neck of the woods during this quiet, wintry time!

Posted in Fungi, Plants | 2 Comments

Farmscape Wonder Wander: 29 December 2021

The Big Woods of Columbia County

By Dylan

I recently visited a large unbroken forest in Austerlitz, NY. To me and many others, these forests are an inspiration, a break from the noise; they are some of the last big woods of Columbia County. Even renowned poet Mary Oliver wrote of the mystery of these “last unviolated mountains” of Austerlitz (final photo to learn more). Highlights from this walk were visiting a quiet Beaver pond that has no name and finding a massive Northern Red Oak that is used as a North American Porcupine den.

A large Northern Red Oak in Austerlitz dwarfs my hiking partners. Aging trees from size alone is difficult. However, this tree is likely at least a couple hundred years old.

An opening at the base of the big oak tree was full of scat.

A closer look revealed that the inside of the oak is serving as a den for North American Porcupine. Their scat, which is often deposited at den entrances, is cashew-shaped, and we found some quills too.

We then came across a large beaver pond. Unlike some of the other ponds in the neighborhood that are smaller than this one, this pond has no name (according to historical and modern USGS topo maps). I like to call it “Foggy Pond”.

Along the pond’s shores were various shrubs, including one with red buds and bunches of dried fruit capsules. After doing some research at home, I discovered it is Maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina), a member of the blueberry family.

There are great old stories from Austerlitz’s big woods, of goldmining hermits, cave-dwelling counterfeiters, wandering Moose and other relics that found refuge in the last wild parts of Columbia County. One of these stories, a poem shared below, was written by Mary Oliver, who lived in Austerlitz for a short while during the 1950s.

Mountain Lion on East Hill Rd, Austerlitz, NY

By Mary Oliver

Once, years ago, I saw

the mountain cat. She stepped

from under a cloud

of birch trees and padded

along the edge of a field. When she saw

that I saw her, instantly

flames leaped

in her eyes, it was that

distasteful to her to be

seen. Her wide face

was a plate of gold,

her black lip

curled as though she had come

to a terrible place in the long movie, her shoulders

shook like water, her tail

swung at the grass

as she turned back under the trees,

just leaving me in time to guess

that she was not a cat at all

but a lean and perfect mystery

that perhaps I didn’t really see,

but simply understood belonged here

like all the other perfections

that still, occasionally, emerge

out of the last waterfalls, forests,

the last unviolated mountains, hurrying

day after day, year after year

through the cage of the world.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander 22 Dec. 2021

Ice: Suddenly, We Can Study Water Laughing.

by Conrad.

ice splinters

Ice both freezes water’s motion in place and, due to ice’s unique physics, throws in some additional tricks of its own. One can think of ice in somewhat the same way you can think about a person: ice has its surface patterns (as seen above in the ice splinters at an interface with water); that external face also is social – it interacts with other beings in its surroundings; and, finally, ice has an internal structure that is sometimes hidden, sometimes gloriously evident. This little end-of-year photo essay hints at these different aspects of ice’s being.

ice surface pattern

Here, ice presents a very organized surface, etched, it would seem, by some hidden regularities of its personality.

ice surface pattern

It’s difficult to imagine that this orogenic pattern did not result from some dynamic pushes and pulls within the ice forces.

melting ice

Water and Swiss cheese, what else? This surface would appear to be more the result of the ice’s decay than its formation.

ice surface pattern

These textural shots with little context can be both maddeningly confusing and refreshingly liberating. Here, a trough of clearer ice has formed through a sea of cloudier crystals, Clearly the work of an Ice Vole!

ice surface pattern

What hand fits the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle together? A frozen pond surface several feet wide revealed these shapes when reflecting light.

ice flowers

Ice Flowers, which, under certain circumstances (sudden cold?), grow atop smoother ice.

birch foot and ice

Ice formation plays with bodies in its surroundings. Here, a turkey-foot like birch bract has creased the ice before it and ruffled the ice behind.

pattern around particle

It’s tempting to picture a meteoric collision, but this may have been the product of a subtler, more peaceful process.

ice on stream twig

Not only does ice’s surface converse with its neighbors, but its very shape does too. Here, a splashing gurgle of running water has sprayed a branch creating a solid curtain.

ice worm

Although this is probably the product of much the same processes as the preceding shot, here we have an ice-snake looking longingly at the water below.

ice on leave hairs

This fuzzy leaf surface invited spots of ice, its vague colors accentuated by the white highlighting.

ice cystals

Hoarfrost is usually ice’s more fleeting form, building on the existing scaffolding when a still cold descends on damp air.

ice pattern on wood

The next three shots are ice’s essay on wood – here, it wanders around a knot;….

ice pattern on wood

here, two nails frame an exuberant explosion of ice fronds; and here….

ice pattern on wood

fronds and knot meet and darken in the knowing.

patterns inside ice

Ice also holds its own internal patterns, shaping its solid flesh during the secrets of its formation. While one might suppose this were a towering ice cliff, it is but an edge-on photo of a broken slab less than an inch thick.

patterns inside ice

A school of Ice Eels frozen in their passing?

patterns inside ice

These too are internal air patterns in ice, but rather than being a calm school of eels, the impression is of a flurry of tiny splashes captured by a strobe light.

patterns inside ice

Perhaps another school of creatures, but somewhat more comic.

Apparently, ice can hold less dissolved air than water, so when it freezes, bubbles may appear. Perhaps that explains the spontaneous generation of Ice Eels!

ice crack

Here, the internal and external patterns intersect with internal cracks reaching and shaping the surface.

ice against sunset

An ice pane onto a setting sun – surface, body and context all combine.

skater's trails

And our own patterns play on the ice. Here, skater’s blades have scrived a frozen pond.

May you find the time & peace to play and reflect during this holiday season, and may your path through 2022 have just the right number of twists & turns!

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 15 December 2021

by Claudia

On a late afternoon earlier this week, I went to visit a patch of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) here at Hawthorne Valley Farm and found a few other late season plant wonders along the way.

Winterberry branches with berries

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a well-known decorative ingredient of wreaths and other wintery floral arrangements. These gorgeous red berries grow on female shrubs of a native species of holly. In contrast to English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and American Holly (Ilex americana; which is native to the eastern and south-central states and reaches its northern limit along the coast of Massachussetts), our Winterberry is not wintergreen, but it does hold on to its fruit long into the winter.

Winterberry shrubs glow in the late afternoon sunlight

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is dioecious (which means some plants only bear male/pollen-producing flowers and others only bear female/berry-producing flowers). It grows here and there in wetlands, where it surprises us with its bright red color during the early winter months. While we feast our eyes on these welcome patches of color in the leafless landscape, birds visit this shrub to eat the berries. Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, and American Robins can be seen feeding on Winterberries at this time of year.

Winterberry shrubs in a wetland at Hawthorne Valley Farm

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is not a common plant in our landscape. This fact and the importance of its berries for overwintering birds should caution against excessive (or even any?) harvesting of its branches from wild populations.

Rose hip of a Swamp Rose

Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) grows right next to our patch of Winterberry in the same wetland. This is a native rose which produces large pink flowers in June and holds on to its rose hips into the winter. They are larger than those of the more common, non-native Multiflora Rose (R. multiflora) and covered with glandulose hairs (can you see the little “balls” at the tips of the hairs?). The stout, paired prickles are also typical of Swamp Rose.

Rose hips of Multiflora Rose

Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) grows profusely in the nearby hedgerows and pastures and is classified as an invasive species. In contrast to the native roses, it has small white flowers in June and very small rose hips at this time of year.

Female Staghorn Sumac with fruit clusters

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) is a common native component of our hedgerows. This image shows this year’s fruit clusters on a female plant of this dioecious species. The clusters of hairy red berries often remain on the plants until late winter and early spring, when few other fruits are available. Then they become an important food for overwintering birds and are eagerly devoured by American Robins, Wild Turkeys, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, Cedar Waxwings, and many other birds. The berries from last year’s fruit clusters are completely gone, leaving only the bare, much-branched infructescenses marking the tips of last year’s growth like tiny Christmas trees.

Bare branches of a male Staghorn Sumac

The bare branches of a male Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) are reaching into the sky. The whispy, pale-colored branch tips are all that is left of the inflorescences that bore clusters of tiny, yellow, pollen-bearing flowers earlier in the season.

Winter buds of Basswood

These leaf buds contain dormant, miniature leaves of Basswood (Tilia americana) which will unfold next spring. They are protected by the shiny red bud scales. If you are interested in seeing the variety of shapes and colors of our woody plants’ winter buds, please check out this winter bud pdf which Conrad compiled a few years ago. In addition, you might find other useful tools for your learning on our Winter Woody Plant Botany webpage.

A branch of Speckled Alder

A nearby Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) had so many different features on the same twig that I felt compelled to number them for easier reference. Our native alders are wetland shrubs grouped into the same botanical family as birches, hazelnut, hop-hornbeam, and musclewood. They are all monoceous (male/pollen-bearing and female /seed-bearing flowers are present on the same plant) and their flowers are tiny and (mostly) arranged in catkins.

In above image, you see the leaf buds containing the tiny leaves that will unfold and grow next spring (1). The insert (1*) is one of Jerry Jenkin’s images freely available on the Northern Forest Atlas website, showing a closeup of the hairy bud scales of Speckled Alder’s winter buds.

The flower buds which will open next spring are dormant in the male (2) and female (3) catkins. Last spring’s female catkins have developed over the season into pseudocones (4) and are currently releasing/or have already released their seeds. These pseudocones (they are reminiscent of the cones of conifers) will remain on the branches through the winter.

Speckled Alder pseudocones, some with a fungal disease

Another image of a cluster of this year’s Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) pseudocones, but something odd is going on here! One of the pseudocones has developed a bunch of tongue-like structures. This is probably an example of an Alder Tongue Gall caused by the fungus Taphrina alni. Fungi in this genus cause leaf and catkin curl diseases in a variety of plants, as well as witches brooms in serviceberries, birches, and other tree species.

Black Knot Disease on a cherry branch

Black Knot is a fungal disease caused by Apiosporina morbosa that afflicts trees and shrubs of the genus Prunus (cherries and plums). Its presence is an easy and quick way to identify cherries in winter. If you want to make double-sure that the black knot has led you to a cherry tree or bush, scratch the bark of a live twig and sniff for the tell-tale cyanide smell.

A spent Witch-hazel flower

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is unusual among our woody plants, because it flowers in late autumn and into the winter. This image shows a recent flower which—judging by the shriveled up petals—probably got pollinated (you can still find unpollinated flowers at this time of the year which look “like new”).

A fresh Witch-hazel flower photographed by Jerry Jenkins. Image available for free at

Another image from Jerry Jenkins (available for free on the Northern Forest Atlas website) showing a fresh Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower.

A cluster of wilted Witch-hazel flowers in December

A cluster of spent Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flowers found this week. The ovary in each flower, which is surrounded by the four persistent sepals, now goes dormant. It will continue its development next spring and turn into a woody fruit containing ripe seeds by next autumn. These woody capsules will expel their seeds with an explosive mechanism at the same time as Witch-hazel leaves turn bright yellow and the next generation of flowers opens.

A cluster of Witch-hazel fruits recently opened and dispersing their seeds

On the same shrub as the spent flower pictured above, one can find cluster of this year’s Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) fruits or seed capsules that have already opened and shot out their seeds.

Witch-hazel leaf bud

Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) leaf buds are also different from those of most other woody species. They are “naked” and not protected by bud scales. The visible buds are the tiny leaves which will expand and grow into next year’s leaves come spring.

Fruit head of Virgin’s Bower

The fuzzy fruit head of the native vine Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) creates a playful pattern against the late afternoon light. Each oval fruit (called achene) contains a single seed and is carried on the breeze by its feathery attachment. Note how most of the fruits have already left these circular fruit heads.

Waxing moon seen through the branches of a hawthorn

As a fitting parting image of this late afternoon Wonder Wander at Hawthorne Valley Farm, the waxing moon seen through the branches of a hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), easily recognizable by its formidable thorns.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 8 December 2021

By Kendrick Fowler

Yesterday, I tagged along on an outing to the Wilson M. Powell Wildlife Sanctuary in Old Chatham with Claudia, Nellie, and several of our volunteers. Our goal was to scout the trails for interesting flora in preparation for our public nature walk at the Sanctuary this coming Saturday—the Platonic ideal of a Wonder Wander!

(If you would like to attend Saturday’s nature walk, please contact Claudia to register.)

Claudia brought along a copy of Jerry Jenkins’ newest field guide, Mosses of the Northern Forest, and so our group spent much of the walk practicing moss identification. I found myself drawn to the intricate patterns and textures that the tiny plants formed on the forest floor.

Fallen pine needles on a patch of an unidentified moss

The colors and textures of fallen pine needles contrast against those of an unidentified moss

Polytrichum sp. and an unidentified moss

Two moss species grow interspersed among each other. The darker-colored, star-shaped moss is a species of Polytrichum; I do not know the identity of the lighter-colored species.

Thuidium sp. and Dicranum sp.

A single Thuidium stands out among a patch of Dicranum

Pincushion moss (Leucobryum sp.) set against a backdrop of other mosses

A pincushion moss (Leucobryum sp., slightly right of center) grows among a variety of other mosses

Brocade Moss (Hypnum sp.)

Brocade Moss (Hypnum sp.), one of our easiest mosses to recognize, forms a carpet on the forest floor

When looking for mosses, one is bound to find lichens and liverworts too. I spotted individuals from both of those groups growing on the bark of a tree (which I unfortunately neglected to identify), where their irregular shapes contrasted against the regular pattern of lenticels in the tree’s bark. I’m not sure what the names of the lichens were, but I believe that the liverworts were members of the genus Frullania.

Liverworts and lichens contrast with lenticels on tree bark

Lichens and liverworts grow on the bark of an unidentified tree

One of our largest and most conspicuous lichens is the Smooth Rock Tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata). True to their name, individuals of this species are found on rock faces, and they grew prolifically on the cliffs at Dorson’s Rock, a landmark located near the Sanctuary’s southwestern border.

Smooth Rock Tripe

Smooth Rock Tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata)

We also encountered the Toadskin Rock Tripe (Lasallia sp.), which can be distinguished from the Smooth Rock Tripe by its warty appearance. Both the Smooth and the Toadskin Rock Tripes are normally brown in color, but they turn green when exposed to moisture.

Toadskin Rock Tripe

Two Toadskin Rock Tripes (Lasallia sp.). The one on the right is receiving water from a seep in the rock face.

Mosses and lichens were not the only organisms that offered interesting patterns to photograph. The bark of this White Oak (Quercus alba) was riddled with holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).

Holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the bark of a White Oak

Holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) in the bark of a White Oak (Quercus alba)

This Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) also appeared to have been drilled by a sapsucker. Oddly, however, the holes were drilled in vertical rows, rather than the horizontal rows that are typical of Yellow-bellied Sapsucker activity (as depicted in the previous image). The bark of Chestnut Oak is deeply ridged, and the sapsucker apparently concentrated its effort on the troughs between the ridges, where the bark is (presumably) thinnest. Smart bird!

Holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the bark of a Chestnut Oak

Holes drilled by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the bark of a Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana)

While examining the bark of another Chestnut Oak, I discovered an old Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) cocoon.

Gypsy moth cocoon

Cocoon of a Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar)

Thanks for reading!

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 1 December 2021

By Anna

Today’s snowy wonder wander was marked by both the silence of a blanketed landscape and the lively evidence of animal errands through the snow.  View the photos and read the captions to follow along.

On the bridge crossing the stream to the Hemlock forest I was intrigued by animal tracks that ended in a hole on the edge of a stream, and I suspect belong to a mink.

These Hemlock seed cones hung low on the edge of the Hemlock forest, and closer inspection revealed they were in the process of releasing their seeds—a process that usually happens during dry, windy weather (as seeds are wind dispersed) at this time of year.

This tree cavity was above eye-level, but by standing on a nearby log and reaching the camera as high as I could, I managed to peek inside and was shocked to find this mass of eggs. One guess is that they may be Gypsy Moth eggs whose protective sac has partially worn away.

I also peered behind shafts of loose bark, often only finding cobwebs, but in this case finding what I believe are overwintering Jumping Spiders. If you look closely at the left one, you can see the outline of its body through its silken “sleeping bag.”

Through this Hemlock tree hollow, it seems the growth rings of the tree are visible.

While I was looking for evidence of insects, an up-close inspection of this pine bark revealed a single suspended droplet of resin. Pine resin has antibacterial properties that help trees prevent infection (and also has a long history of medicinal use for humans).

Another track caught my eye, meandering alongside an intermittent stream. I don’t know much about animal tracks, but the size and definition led me to guess these might be coyote tracks.

I followed them until a splash of bright red in the otherwise white landscape distracted me: Winterberry.  These fruit often last through much of the winter and provide an important winter food source for birds such as Cedar Waxwings and Bluebirds.

Intertwined with the red berries were these catkins which initially were quite a mystery, as I did not correctly trace which tree they had come from.  My colleague Conrad helped steer me to birch, and a return visit, including a “scratch” test of the bark of a twig (yielding the strong wintergreen smell of Yellow and Black Birch) led me to conclude it is a Yellow Birch.

Further close inspection revealed that the ground around this tree was littered with the multi-pronged scales of the catkin and the seeds (called “nutlets”).  This scale actually seems to have a nutlet still inside. 

Here is a look at the scale and nutlet. Yellow Birch catkins disintegrate over the course of the winter, dispersing both scales and seeds.

Nearby I came across this “buck rub” that appeared fresh (and had some deer tracks around it). Deer bucks rub their antlers against small trees and branches during the breeding season to mark territory and communicate; the height of the breeding season is right about now.

I soon picked up a new track, that I think is a bobcat…

Following it, I landed in the middle of a very busy animal intersection with tracks heading off in six different directions, along with fresh urine. I gave up on following tracks for the day.

Finally, as a parting shot, this frosty Goldenrod Bunch Gall was just one of the small wonders along the way.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 24 November 2021

By Nellie

Despite the brisk weather last Friday, a walk at Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Sanctuary invited me to pause and ask questions, small and large, inspired by what I was seeing around me.

up-close view of some dark green and light green mosses
A little world of moss: the spiky moss likely belongs to the genus Polytrichum, and the feathery one might belong to the genus Thuidium.

If you’ve ventured to Rheinstrom Hill before, you might recall that mosses have a huge presence on and around the paths. Kneeling down and peering into the little worlds of mosses, I am struck by the beauty and uniqueness of these plants. Thriving in shallow, marginal, or well-trafficked areas, what teachings do these mosses offer of patience and resilience?

I recently read Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer, an Indigenous ecologist and bryologist based in upstate New York. I was glad to have an opportunity to apply the perspective and inspiration gained from this incredible book as I took my walk.

a small hill of spongy moss
This fuzzy friend might be Pincushion Moss (Leucobryum glaucum)

You may well know that mosses are ancient. Spanning back hundreds of millions of years, these non-vascular plants were some of the first plants to venture out of the ocean and make a home on the land. While pausing and ruminating on the ancient-ness that these mosses in front of me represent, other questions start to arise…

How does the land hold history, traces and memory of all that has happened?

How do I move through the world, knowing that I leave behind me an imprint?

How does that knowing inform my next step, and the general direction of my path?

mossy green path with a smattering of oak leaves
Mossy path at Rheinstrom Hill

Many of the paths at Rheinstrom Hill are covered in shallow, spongy mosses. Walking gently on this mat of moss, I consider who else has stepped foot here.

Who has come before me? Who walked this path an hour ago? A day ago? A hundred years ago? A century ago? I extend a greeting to all of the beings that have moved through this space: the people, the animals, the plants...

These are the ancestral lands of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans, most of whom were forcibly relocated to Wisconsin where they still live today.

How does this knowledge affect the way I walk these same lands? How can I honor the original stewards of this land?

How can my walking and being on this land tap into the history that is held here, or has been erased?

tiny pink things that look like mushrooms, growing out of a gray/blue/green lichen
Tiny fruiting bodies of lichen, next to oak leaves

Along the path, I stop to look at what appears to be teensy-tiny pink mushrooms growing on top of a blueish colored lichen. I see more of these precious pink structures as I continue walking, and observe that they only seem to be growing wherever the lichen occurs. As it turns out, these are not mushrooms but the fruiting bodies (apothecia) of the lichen, which might be called Pink Earth (Dibaeis baeomyces). You can find this lichen in disturbed areas such as roadsides or paths.

Witnessing this fascinating little lichen filled me with the familiar feeling of joy and gratitude for the natural world. As we approach a popular holiday, I wrestle with the beautiful qualities and intentions that Thanksgiving inspires, as well as the harmful history and impact on Indigenous communities that this day represents…

How can I enjoy and practice gratitude and the giving of thanks, while also considering the harm and violence on Indigenous people that has come before (and continues now)?

How can I express gratitude to the land for how it holds me (holds us all)?

Can each step of mine be a thank you? Can each breath of mine hold multitudes?

a tiny forest of spiky green moss
A beautiful sea of Polytrichum moss

This prickly little moss, reminiscent of tiny trees, catches my eye. I realize later on at home that in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, she references what I believe is this same moss, Polytrichum, in her chapter “Binding up the Wounds: Mosses in Ecological Succession.”

In this chapter, Kimmerer and her grad student are investigating the role of mosses in ecological succession at a deserted iron mine where only tailings (crushed rock leftover from the mining process) remain. They find that Polytrichum moss is one of the only plants able to find a footing in this devastated environment, and that wherever Polytrichum is, other life can begin to take root. Kimmerer writes “Out of the carpet of living moss came a crowd of seedlings, the next step in binding up the wounds of the land, life attracting life.”

My boots on the mossy (and oak leaf strewn) path

Kimmerer’s words and Polytrichum’s resilience give me hope for the healing that is possible. I believe that within the land, we can find teachings of how to hold the complexity of the past, present and future, how to build community, and how to live with gratitude and reciprocity. Thank you for following along on my mossy Rheinstrom Hill ruminations. I wish you all a restful and peaceful week.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 17 November 2021

By Dylan

Red Spruce (Picea rubens) is one of the rarest native trees in Columbia County. The species looks similar to its relative, the non-native and widely planted Norway Spruce, so identifying Red Spruce takes a careful look. Red Spruce is a species of the Adirondacks and other northern or high-altitude parts of our region. But here, even in the highest elevations of Columbia County, the species is at its thermal limit. There are just two (!) Red Spruce individuals that grow in the county (that we know of), rooted on one of the highest mountains we have. When I visited one of these trees yesterday, I found that it may be more than just a rare tree—it might also be a message board for a large wild mammal.

My pup, Zion, and one of two known Red Spruce trees of Columbia County. A shade tolerant species, Red Spruce tends to grow slowly. This relatively small tree may be older than it looks.

In the duff below the tree, I found several old Red Spruce cones. Red Spruce have small cones, but they are a bit larger than the Eastern Hemlock’s, and much smaller than the Norway Spruce’s.

To me, Red Spruce bark appears similar to Black Cherry; it has that burnt potato chip look to it. The Norway Spruce has similar bark, so it’s best to find a cone and compare needles. Norway’s needles are far bigger than Red’s. Another native spruce that is rare in our parts is Black Spruce. It usually only grows in wetlands having acidic soils, while Red Spruce likes upland forest.

There was some snow around the spruce, enough for my first snowball of the year. The slightly cooler climate on this mountain compared to the rest of our landscape likely contributes to Red Spruce’s existence here. I hope they can hang on as things get warmer and that other Red Spruce take root on this mountainside in coming years.

The base of this tree (the pencil is for scale) has unusually heavy scaring from injuries that occurred in previous years. On top of those old scars are new wounds. The light-yellow parts of the trunk shows where the bark was recently been removed.

Another angle shows a large old scar (right) and a new wound (left).

At the base of the tree’s trunk were shavings of Red Spruce bark and wood. It was clear that these new wounds were made very recently. The shavings were on top of the leaves of Northern Red Oak and American Beech, species that have just lost their leaves.

My theory: this Red Spruce is a “signpost” for an old White-tailed Deer buck. While normal antler rubs (small trees thrashed by buck antlers during their breeding season) are abundant in our landscape, signposts are significant because the same tree is marked by the same deer annually. That means deer need to get old for signposts to become established, and that doesn’t happen often in places with high hunting pressure, like Columbia County.

Signposts are like message boards for mature bucks; they are visual and olfactory signs for other deer to see and smell. Bucks tend to create signposts on locally unusual trees that are aromatic, according to many biologists and veteran hunters, so this spruce fits the bill. By creating a signpost, a buck is telling other deer about his territory and dominance, and other deer will visit the signpost to learn more about the deer community.

Alternatively, maybe it’s all a coincidence and the spruce is not a signpost. The old scars on the tree might have been made during logging. And by chance a big buck rubbed and thrashed his antlers on the spruce’s trunk, on top of those unrelated scars he had nothing to do with. That could be. But I prefer the story of an enduring relationship between a single deer and a tree, a cunning old buck and a spruce at its thermal limit.

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