Farmscape Wonder Wander: 6 April 2021

The Bats are Blooming.

by Conrad.

Alexander Wilson Red Bat
A Red Bat from Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808-1814). I’ve not yet perfected my bat photography (or, better put, I’ve not managed to photograph a bat that’s more than a dark spot), so here are some historical images. Alexander Wilson is sometimes called the ‘Father of American Ornithology’ for good reason. Preceding Audubon he traveled the US and collected information and images for his master work. For some reason he decorated his plate of the Great Horned Owl with a Meadow Mouse and this Red Bat. So far as I know, bats rarely actually hang by their wings, but imagine studying live bats before the age of photographs and flashlights, and bats do use their wing claws to clamber about.

There is, I admit, something nice about a tool that works while you sleep. Bat detectors can be like that – you set them up and they automatically plug away at recording bats during the night. I have been engaging in such somnolent work since mid March and, if you haven’t already noticed, the bats are back. At least sometimes.

Standing in a field listening (unsuccessfully at that point) for Woodcock on a warm March evening, we saw large moths flutter by – perhaps some of the same moth species that Dylan profiled in his recent blog – and then a bat came swooping and fluttering along the wood’s edge.

J.J. Audubon's bat image
Audubon didn’t ignore bats completely, but, so far as I can tell, he didn’t publish his paintings of them. This 1841 sketch of a bat, from the New York Historical Society’s collection, may be more true-to-life if less dynamic than Wilson’s. Most 19th century bat images were clearly made from dead specimens, although perhaps this one was still alive.

Our bats have a diversity of ways in which they overwinter. Some just hole up in the nearest attic or hollow tree, others travel to a regional cave where they hibernate colonially (and so are particularly susceptible to White Nose Syndrome), and yet others fly south for the Winter.

As one might expect, overwintering strategies affect appearance times in the Spring. The relatively large bat we saw along the forest edge was probably a Big Brown Bat, a fact supported by call recordings made that night. These bats will pass winter in local attics or other shelters, popping out as the weather suggests it. Almost all the nearly 2000 bat calls we’ve recorded since mid-March probably belong to this species.

bat carving from wooden table
Bat’s have a gothic, Dracularian connotation in our society. This is not helped by their connection with rabies and other diseases. Yet, they are potent consumers of insect pests and, at least in some societies, seem to be more widely appreciated. Looking down from my bat work one day, I noticed that a Chinese table I inherited from my father was decorated with this carving.

I’m not sure when our migratory bats arrive; Toby Thorne’s Bats of Ontario pegs their arrival there to April. These include Hoary Bat, Red Bat and, probably, Silver-haired Bat (the last does migrate but it’s thought some may stay more local). Because of similarities between Silver-haired and Big Brown Bat calls, this can be a difficult species to confirm. Our automatic bat call identification program tagged a fair number of our Spring calls as Silver-haired Bats but, at the moment, I think it more likely that they were the traveling call of Big Brown Bats. No definite sign of the other two migrant species yet.

Finally, we’ve got the cave hibernators. These tend to be our smallest bats and include various species of Myotis (such as the Little Brown Bat) and the tiny Tricolored Bat (aka Eastern Pipistrelle). The calls of these species are relatively distinct at least as a group, and they’re certainly not common in our recordings. However, in late March a Myotis did seem to fly by.

Chinese bat gong
This jade Chinese ‘bat gong’ goes so far as to make the bat appear as if it is flying through the clouds. My simplistic understanding of bat reputation in Chinese culture is that they are sometimes associated with good fortune. I have certainly seen few examples of North American or European art or furniture that feature prominent bats!

So in the back and forth between freezing and toasty that is typical of our Spring weather – do these creatures just tough it out, flying through the largely insect-less cold if they have to? Imagine those urgent, fluffed up little Chickadees that show up at feeders on bitter Winter mornings, desperate to stoke their internal fires after a cold night. Are bats likewise pressing the envelope and cruising for the smallest speck of insect life (all of our bats our insectivores)?

No. Bats, as has already been alluded to, can hibernate or, more specifically, can go ‘torpid’. This means that they can let their body temperatures drop to near freezing thereby substantially reducing the heating bill.

The approximate average nighttime temperature compared with the total number of bat calls recorded during that night.

This allows bats to wake up and forage when conditions permit but to stay at home when cold comes. A look at our call data since mid March confirms this. In this graph I’ve plotted number of calls recorded during an evening vs approximate average nighttime. Activity clearly increases with temperature, and no activity was recorded during nights averaging 35 °F or less. (For more on our bats and their calls, please see my posting from last May.) This graphic is a little misleading because bats may, for example, fly ardently at the start of a night that begins warm but then becomes piercing cold (and so has a relatively low average temp).

bat calls & temp by the hour
The number of bat calls (brown line) during the given hour compared with the average temperature (blue line) during that same hour on 25/26 March, a notably warm Spring night.

Let’s look at some of the interesting nuances of what bats were doing during specific nights with different temperatures patterns. The night of March 25/26th was balmy. Temps only dropped to about 60 °F. Bats foraged with vigor, taking a midnightish break (as is typical) and then resuming their foraging before packing it in in early morning. One might suppose that they got in as much foraging as stomach and insect populations permitted.

bat calls and temperature by the hour
The number of bat calls (brown line) during the given hour compared with the average temperature (blue line) during that same hour on 12/13 March, a cold Spring night.

Alternatively, on the 12th of March, the evening started in the mid 50s, but temps dropped to below freezing by morning. Bats were off the mark quickly, foraging early but almost all activity stopped after 9 pm as temperatures approached 40 °F.

The number of bat calls (brown line) during the given hour compared with the average temperature (blue line) during that same hour on 30/31 March, a cold Spring night that warmed towards morning.

Finally, the night of the 30th started out in the mid 50s again and dropped into the 40s. All bat activity seemed to cease by 10pm. However, in the early morning hours, the temperature rose again slightly, apparently prompting at least one bat to begin feeding again.

1874 North American Bat Image
This illustration from 1874 seems to make an effort to show at least some of our local bats in life, even if that Red Bat is glowering slightly. It’s a rather mysterious image – it is from a dated but unattributed lithograph in the Library of Congress. (If you recognize it, please let me know!)

Of course, there are lots of factors affecting bat foraging besides temperature – wind, rain, insect hatches etc no doubt also play a role. However, it’s interesting to note that, as we lie snoozing, our bats have woken up for the Spring and are out there tasting the night, so to speak.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 31 March 2021

By Anna

Yesterday’s walk through the sunshine resulted in a Wonder Wander celebration of basking. Follow along to see how many different plants and animals seemed to be basking in the sun…and also to get a rainy peek at last week’s amphibian migration.

1 Sparrow singing

This Song Sparrow spent several minutes singing from his perch atop a hazelbert (note the male flowers, or catkins, dangling down). Male Song Sparrows have a repertoire of up to a couple of dozen songs that they sing in spring from a perch near a promising nesting site (well protected and concealed) to attract mates.

2 Grackle

Not far away, this Common Grackle was also engaged in song, though far more guttural (it has been described as sounding like a “rusty gate”). Males puff out their feathers when singing, as this one did.  Perhaps to look bigger for competition or mating purposes?

3 Red maple 2

The Red Maple flowers are just visible in these opening flower buds. Red Maples are one of the earliest trees to flower in the spring. They are wind-pollinated and this pre-leaf-out timing helps facilitate pollen dispersal.

4 Elm flowers 5

American Elms are also wind-pollinated and typically flower even earlier than Red Maples, as did this American Elm by the pond.

5 Elm flowers 6

The view from below the American Elm shows a tree full of flowers, but also how easy it might be to miss the window of American Elms flowering if you don’t look closely. The relatively inconspicuous petal-less flowers of both American Elms and Red Maples also reflect their wind pollination strategy; big petals would only hinder pollen movement.7 pussy willow3

A little beyond the pond, the male pollen flowers of a small willow were also out.

6 pussy willow 2

A neighboring small willow shows the fuzzy flower buds often called “pussy willows.”

8 elder breaking leaf buds

Amidst all these flowering trees, some leaves are also starting to peek out, especially among shrubs. Here are the breaking leaf buds of an elderberry.

9 honeysuckle leafing

The leaves of honeysuckle are even further developed. Honeysuckle, like many non-native shrubs, leafs out earlier and stays green longer than most native shrubs.

10 cabbage

The leafiest green I came across on my wander, however, was this cabbage coming back to life in the garden.

11 turtles 2

Basking was literally the task of these Painted Turtles during yesterday’s sunshine.  I’m guessing they are raising their front legs into the air to expand sun exposure.  In addition to warming up, basking has many other purposes—some of them not well understood—including regulating metabolism and ridding them of ectoparasites, such as leeches. 

12 two ducks and turtle2

This Mallard couple was also basking (and preening) in the sun, under the apparent watch of another basking painted turtle. Mallard ducks often nest in low, hidden depressions near bodies of water. However, I didn’t notice any nesting behavior.

13 nest

Many birds are starting to build or enhance nests, however, and so when I stumbled upon this fluffy, well-lined nest in a multiflora rose tangle, I wondered if it had made it through the year with such soft material, or had been recently lined with fluffy old seed heads (a quick glance around suggested goldenrod as a possible source)? 

16 frog puddle

Finally, an homage to the acoustic light switch that turned on for us last Thursday, when, following a rainy Wednesday night of amphibian migration, the peepers and wood frogs were suddenly filling the soundscape with their choruses and quacks. That Thursday morning I saw (but did not capture photographically) a wood frog in the goat water bucket, as well as swimming in this small pool, created from an uprooted tree.

16 spotted salamander dylan

Farmscape Ecology Program colleagues spent last Wednesday night helping amphibians cross the road, such as this Spotted Salamander spotted and photographed by Dylan.

17 Jefferson Salamander_Kenny

Meanwhile in Harlemville, Kenny spotted and photographed this salamander of the Jefferson/Blue-spotted “complex” (Jefferson Salamanders readily hybridize with Blue-spotted Salamanders, so we do not try to distinguish between these species and their hybrids).

18 salamander eating worm

Finally, Conrad spotted and photographed this Red-backed Salamander—not one known for migrating, but apparently out enjoying a rainy night and worm meal.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 24 March 2021

By Dylan

Some recent spring happenings from Canaan, NY: leaky maples that attract butterflies, moths, and flies; spring ephemerals slowly emerging but not yet blooming; and shed antlers exposed following the snow melt. Other reports of spring are coming in, including Coltsfoot blooming and Spring Peepers peeping (both in Ghent) and Phoebes heard singing in Chatham.

Installing this bird house resulted in a maple that leaks a little sap. This Compton Tortoiseshell, an uncommon butterfly in our area, probably caught wind of the sugary fluid and came for a drink. Several species of butterflies that overwinter as adults can be seen this early in spring. Instead of feeding on flowers, which are few and far between right now, they feed on sap (and also rotting fruit and nutrients they sip from puddles or scat).

The same butterfly, a Compton Tortoiseshell, in a different posture. You can see its tongue-like proboscis that it uses to suck up sap. Notice how camouflage it has become when perched this way.

Also taking advantage of the Sugar Maple sap are these moths—Straight-toothed Sallow Moths.

A close-up of the Straight-Toothed Sallow Moth and its proboscis. Not all moths have a proboscis—some, like the Luna Moth, lack these mouthparts because they do not eat as adults.

Small sepsid flies were getting in on the sap feeding too. They look like winged ants but these are true flies (they have just two wings, while winged ants would have four). Sepsid flies tend to have a black spot near the tip of each wing and they often wave their wings when perched. It looked to me like some sort of courtship dance but I don’t think it’s related to their breeding.

The recently melted snow is exposing shed antlers. Antlers are grown by bucks in spring and summer and are used in fall during their breeding season to establish dominance and as visual cues to females. While antlers are shed in mid-winter, they are easiest to find right after the snow melts, but before herbaceous plants on the forest floor emerge.

This one has been chewed on. Various animals, rodents in particular, will chew on shed antlers for their micronutrients.

A nice patch of Hepatica on a limestone rich hillside. While Hepatica flowers bloom for just a short time in early spring, the species’ leaves are evergreen and can be seen year-round if they aren’t covered up by snow or debris. We are nearing their blooming time in this part of Columbia County and the flower stalk and buds are just popping up (see next photo).

A closer look shows Hepatica’s furry flower buds are coming up. They have been slowly emerging for a couple weeks now. Blooming may still be a couple weeks away; we’ll see.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 17 March 2021

By Anna and Nellie

Welcome to the final, self-guided tour of habitats in winter, brought to you in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy ( Today’s Wonder Wander post introduces the newly installed tour of a Swamp Forest habitat at Drowned Lands Swamp in Ancram.

Follow along to explore some wonders of the Swamp Forest in spring and/or check out these wonders in-person at Drowned Lands Swamp Conservation Area from now until April 12th. Find out more at


The dense, nest-like clusters we noticed in the top of some trees are actually part of the native woody Poison Ivy vine. Our best guess is that these dense growths are “witch’s brooms”—deformities caused by pests or diseases (for example, a mite or a virus).

2 Poison Ivy 9

Early spring in a Swamp Forest is a good opportunity to get acquainted with the many looks of Poison Ivy before it develops its more recognizable leaves. Poison Ivy vines spread and climb using many clinging roots, giving mature climbing vines a “hairy” look, such as this one climbing a tree.

3 Poison Ivy 3

However, the branches that reach out into the air from these central poison ivy vines, such as those coming up from this rock, are smooth and can be easily mistaken for any woody branch at this time of year.

4 Poison Ivy maybe

Spring is beginning to emerge! Keep an eye out for some of the native early bloomers, including Early Meadow-rue (pictured below), Skunk Cabbage, Bloodroot, and American Dog Violet.

5 Early Meadow-rue DSC_0182

This photo of a flowering Early Meadow-rue was taken last April at Drowned Lands Swamp.

Look for the insects who are attracted to these plants. Skunk Cabbage (below) produces heat as it grows, and its hooded spathe attracts and provides a haven for early pollinators, including bees and flies.

6 Skunk Cabbage Flowering option 1

Look for flowering Skunk Cabbage like this one later in April.

Ants love the fatty attachments, called elaiosomes, on Bloodroot (flower bud and open flower pictured below from last April at Drowned Lands Swamp) and violet seeds. Often times, the ants take the seeds back to their nest to enjoy the tasty elaiosomes, which leaves the seeds in a prime spot to germinate next year.

7 Bloodroot 3W5A8583

8 Bloodroot DSC_0169

American Dog Violet in flower (below); this photo was taken late last April at Drowned Lands Swamp.

9 American Dog Violet DSC_0212

The “beaded” stalks poking up from the ground belong to Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), a fern that is common in wet habitats. It’s called “sensitive” because the leaves usually die back quite quickly after the first frost.

10 Sensitive Fern 4

The beaded stalk is what remains of the fern’s fertile frond (say that three times fast!). The fertile frond, also called a sporophyll, contains mature spores which are released in early spring before the new fronds emerge.

11 Sensitive Fern 1

Look for (but don’t pick) the unfurling fronds, or fiddleheads, near the base of the beaded stalks. The stalks of the young fronds are usually smooth, and might have an orange or reddish hue. The below photo is from later in spring, so stay tuned!

12 sensitive fern unferling

When you are in a Swamp Forest at this time of year, do you hear a raucous quacking or chirping chorus? These may be the calls of Wood Frogs (such as the one pictured below, from April of last year) and Spring Peepers. These are among the first frog calls each year, and are often noted as a sign of spring. In fact, we have records of when frog calls were first heard dating as far back as 1832 in Columbia County (in that year, they were first heard in Kinderhook on March 29 and in Hudson on April 1).

13 Wood Frog by Dylan IMG_9060

Both Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers (such as the one pictured below, from April of last year) seek out small, temporary pools as can often be found in Swamp Forests, to breed. Males make the calls to attract females who assess potential mates by the speed and volume of their calls.

14 Spring Peeper IMG_2647

Black Ash trees are a good indicator that you are in a Swamp Forest, and even an “ancient” Swamp Forest that was never completely cleared or drained—perhaps because of the Black Ash.

15 Black Ash 6

Black Ash has a distinctive cork-like bark. It has long been uniquely valued for basket making, cabinetry, and other woodworking crafts. When processed—often through pounding—the weaker spring growth rings are crushed, allowing the harder summer growth rings to be peeled off in strips that can then be prepared for such uses as basket splints. There are long traditions of Black Ash basket making in Native American tribes, as well as the neighboring “Taghkanic basketmakers.”

16 Black Ash 2

Sprinkled throughout this Swamp Forest are Red Maple and alder, two woody plants that typically grow in wet areas and flower early in the spring, likely in the next few weeks. The male and female flowers usually grow on separate trees (dioecious). The male flowers (pictured below) are pollen-producing, or staminate—can you see any yellow pollen sacks?

male (stamminate) flowers

Male (stamminate) flowers on a Red Maple in April (photo from FEP archive).

The smaller female flowers are seed-producing or pistillate, with stigmas designed to catch pollen.

female (pistillate) flowers

Female (pistillate) flowers on a Red Maple from our archive. Look for them in April.

Alders on the other hand are monoecious, meaning you’ll find the male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers are the dangling catkins.

19 Alder 6

The female alder flowers are the much smaller, red clusters, which develop into cones when pollinated. 

20 Alder 4

The sudden appearance and trilling of Red-winged Blackbirds is a sign of spring each year. The marsh at the edge of this Swamp Forest is exactly where one might expect to see and hear Red-winged Blackbirds, as Red-winged Blackbirds breed in such wet, marsh-like habitats.

21 Red-winged Blackbird in Red Maple 3W5A6198

Have you seen any signs of Red-winged Blackbirds? Males arrive first to establish and defend a breeding territory. They often choose a high perch to sing from, such as a cattail, and sing with a forward-leaning, tail-spreading, shoulder-fluffing posture that makes their red patches more visible. By contrast, the later-arriving brown, streaked females are much less conspicuous. Females build cup nests in dense, low vegetation.

22 Cattails 1

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 10 March 2021

by Claudia

“Early Risers”

One of my favorite activities in late winter is to go out just as the snow melts to see, who was green and alive under the snow all this time.  This post is dedicated to those brave plants whom I found green and well today during a brief exploration in our yard. Before we dive into the plant images, I would like to share that Nellie has heard her first Red-winged Blackbirds near her house in Ghent, our Chipmunk (which made a brief appearance under the bird feeder around Christmas) is back out, scavenging sunflower seeds, and we saw our first butterfly of the season yesterday at the Mohonk Preserve. It was a Mourning Cloak darting from tree trunk to tree trunk in the sunny forest which still had a lot of snow on the ground!

Mourning Cloak

A Mourning Cloak image from our archive, because we were not able to get a picture of the one we saw yesterday. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults in protected spaces under bark etc. and are usually the first butterflies to be seen in late winter/early spring. Obviously, they are not out looking for nectar, but drink sweet tree sap, instead.

A patch of Tree Moss (Climacium sp.)

We have a somewhat mossy “lawn” and—after the snow has melted–the most obvious patches of green in our yard are mosses. On my quick search today, I found at least five different kinds. Tree Moss (Climacium sp.) is the largest and grows in a moist, shady spot. In the forest, I often see this moss at the edge of swamps.

Climacium sp.

The individual plants of Climacium sp. look like miniature trees, hence the common name, “Tree Moss”.

A patch of Atrichum undulatum moss

Mixed in with grasses in a dryer, sunnier area I spotted a small patch of “Sunburst Moss” (Atrichum undulatum group), which is a somewhat weedy moss often found along forest trails.

Atrichum undulatum group (photo by Jerry Jenkins)

A close-up of “Sunburst Moss” (Atrichum undulatum group) by Jerry Jenkins from the spectacular collection of detailed plant images available (for free for educational purposes by non-profits or for personal use) on the Northern Forest Atlas website. Note that Jerry’s images all have amazing resolution and can be zoomed in for even more detail. For example here, pay attention to the undulating leaf blades and the serration of the leaf margins, which are also discernible with a good hand lens.

Entodon seductrix suspect

Another moss was covering a rock in our yard. I suspect this to be Entodon seductrix, called “Cord Glaze Moss” in the Princeton Field Guide to Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians. This moss has a yellowish sheen and closely hugs the rock with its narrow branches.

Entodon seductrix (photo by Jerry Jenkins)

A close-up of Entodon seductrix by Jerry Jenkins (Northern Forest Atlas).

Thuidium sp.

Another moss mingles happily with the dry grasses. This is one of the Fern Mosses (Thuidium sp.).

Thuidium recognitum (photo by Jerry Jenkins)

A close-up of Thuidium recognitum by Jerry Jenkins (Northern Forest Atlas) reveals the fern-like branches of this beautiful moss. If you get excited by mosses and are looking for a nice introduction, check out Jerry Jenkins’ free moss lessons.

Callicladium haldanianum suspect

Finally, just to drive the point home that—with mosses—it pays to take a hand lens and look at them closely. For example, a mossy patch in our yard that looked very similar to that of the Fern Moss, turned out to be a different moss, probably “Sword Moss” (Callicladium haldanianum)…

Callicladium haldanianum (by Jerry Jenkins)

… which—upon closer inspection–looks like this (photo by Jerry Jenkins, Northern Forest Atlas).

Calico Aster

Other than the mosses, one of the few native plants that had green leaves overwintering under the snow is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum).


Fleabane (Erigeron sp.) is another native member of the Aster family which sometimes has overwintering basal rosettes. Its basal leaves all emerge from one point, have long petioles, a roundish shape with irregularly toothed margins, and are a little hairy.


The last example of a native “early riser” in our yard is Pussytoes (Antennaria sp.). Its leaves are velvety on both sides, greyish-green above and whitish below.

Common Bedstraw

Common Bedstraw (Galium album, formerly G. mollugo) is a European plant that thrives in many hayfields, along roadsides, and in our yard. It is easily recognized by its shiny oval leaves arranged in whorls of six to eight. It grows quickly in the spring and in early summer produces a plethora of tiny, 4-petalled white flowers, reminiscent of “Baby’s Breath”.

Common Chickweed

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media) is a European plant that readily colonizes bare soil in vegetable gardens and agricultural fields. According to, “Chickweed is excellent raw–use it like sprouts; eat it in sandwiches, wraps, etc. And of course it’s a great base for salad. It’s also great cooked and makes a good substitute for spinach. Given chickweed’s purported nutritive value, it’s actually strange to me to call it a “substitute” for anything. It would be more appropriate to call spinach a substitute for chickweed.” However, I would wait for a few fresh young shoots before trying it!

Thyme-leaved Speedwell

Thyme-leaved Speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia) currently looks somewhat similar to Common Chickweed (both have smallish, opposite leaves), but the leaves of Speedwell are smaller, have shorter petioles, and have a more oval shape. While Chickweed thrives in bare soil that is deep and moist, the Speedwell is a good competitor in lawns and other meadows. Look for its tiny sky-blue flowers later in the spring!

Common Speedwell

Common Speedwell (Veronica officinalis) also has opposite leaves and (eventually) light-blue flowers. Its leaves are larger, hairy, and have serrated margins. When you look closely in this image, you can see the heart-shaped dried fruits. This plant is found in open meadows and along forest trails, but never in great numbers. Its common name reflects that in European traditional herbal medicine it was highly regarded for its healing properties, which—in my German herbal medicine book–are summarized as “an excellent remedy for the stomach, lung, liver, pancreas, kidney, and bladder. ”

Ground Ivy

Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) can form large patches in lawns and is often one of the first plants to flower in spring. Look for its blue flowers reminiscent of those of mint (with whom it shares a family!). It has a creeping stem that is square in cross-section and the kidney-shaped leaves are opposite each other. When crushed between the fingers, the leaves are aromatic. In traditional European herbal medicine, it was valued as a remedy for respiratory diseases.

Garlic Mustard

The leaf of Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has a very similar shape as the leaves of Ground Ivy. However, its aroma (if any) is garlicky, and its early leaves are arranged in a basal rosette, all emerging from a single point (not arranged in pairs along a creeping stem). It tends to be more a plant of the forest than the open lawn. Its new leaves can be used for pesto and its broccoli-like flower buds can be eaten raw, as pizza topping, or in any other way you would use broccoli.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 3 March 2021

By Kendrick Fowler

The other day, I went down to Summit Lake in Philmont, NY, in order to look for ducks. Winter is one of the best times of year to look for ducks, as there are a variety of species that breed to our north, in Canada, but can be found spending their winters on our lakes and waterways (including the Common Goldeneye [Bucephala clangula] that Conrad and Claudia found last week [link]). On that day, however, Summit Lake was almost entirely frozen over, and I found only a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) tucked away in a distant corner that still had a little open water. I watched them for a few minutes as they paddled around—seemingly contentedly—and then I turned to go. As I did, however, the Mallards suddenly burst into the air and flew off. What caused them to leave so suddenly?, I wondered. Had they been spooked? I looked up into the sky, and the answer to my questions soared overhead: a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) had appeared!

Bald Eagle

An adult Bald Eagle soaring over Summit Lake

It feels remarkable that I can go outside and, out of the blue (quite literally!), see a Bald Eagle at a local park. Who isn’t familiar with the story of DDT and its impact on Bald Eagles and our other raptors, or can’t remember a time when eagles were truly rare? In 1976, the year New York state initiated an intensive effort to restore Bald Eagle populations, only one nesting pair remained in the state. That number grew to 10 pairs by the end of the 1980s and 50 by the turn of the century, and it continues to grow today. The most recent count I found, from 2017, indicated that 426 pairs were known throughout New York. The number of eagles overwintering in the state has also increased, and at this time of year, concentrations of the birds can be observed reliably at sites around our largest lakes, rivers, and wetlands, including the Hudson River. It is simply incredible that, thanks to concerted conservation efforts, a creature that seemed almost mythically rare in my childhood is now, while still uncommon, fairly easy to find.

Immature Bald Eagles on an ice floe

An immature Bald Eagle defends its prey from two others on an ice floe in the Hudson River

Eagles of all kinds have held symbolic meaning for people since before the advent of recorded history. Today, the Bald Eagles patrolling our skies hold additional meaning as a conservation success story—a conspicuous reminder of both nature’s fragility when confronted with environmental change caused by humans, and of its resilience when cared for in an intentional way.

Do you have a story of a memorable encounter with a Bald Eagle? Let us know in the comments! And, as always, thanks for reading.

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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 24 Feb. 2021

By Claudia and Conrad

The Waterfalls of Kinderhook Creek in Winter

Last weekend, we explored the section of the new Empire Trail paralleling the Kinderhook Creek from Stuyvesant Falls to Rossman Road (Chittenden Falls). Along the way, we learned some about the history of industry harnessing the water power at the three waterfalls of the Kinderhook Creek. We also experienced the stream and its waterfalls in their wintry glory.

This is the actual “Stuyvesant Falls”, which is the third waterfall on the Kinderhook Creek. According to the memorial plaque in the little park next to the parking area on the west shore from which this image was taken, it is 26 feet high.

The third waterfall along Kinderhook Creek at Stuyvesant Falls.

A closer view of Stuyvesant Falls from the beach (NO SWIMMING!) on the east shore.

The same waterfall seen from the other shore.

The waterfall displayed a mesmerizing mix of water, ice, and snow—some stationary, some very much in flux, and all of them ever changing…

Water, ice, and snow in the waterfall

At the base of the waterfall, the tell-tale “sliding” track of a River Otter travelling along the frozen stream, once in a while diving into a pool of water, along the way.

The line through the snow from pool to pool is the track of a River Otter traveling over the ice.

A lone (and cold-looking) American Black Duck was resting by a pool. Note the Otter track on the far side!

American Black Duck

Sycamore trees are iconic markers of many of our stream banks. They are easily recognized by their smooth and light-colored or “camouflaged” bark of the upper trunk and limbs. The pompom-like fruits are unmistakable.

Sycamore trees with pompom-like fruit

The base of a Sycamore growing next to the water with its roots partly exposed and highlighted by a layer of snow.

Exposed Sycamore roots on the stream bank

The sign next to the parking area shows the entire Empire State Trail, which crosses New York State south to north from the Bronx to the Canadian Border, and east to west from Albany to Buffalo.

Map of the Empire State Trail next to the parking area in Stuyvesant Falls

As you can see on this sign, a good portion of its Columbia County section, is off road (dark green), following the route of an electric trolley that operated between Albany and Hudson from 1899-1929 (hence the current name “Albany-Hudson Electric Trail”).

Map of the Albany-Hudson Electric Trail

The mill buildings next to the bridge are part of the Historic Stuyvesant Falls Mill District, which in 1836 encompassed two large cotton factories, two sawmills, a grist mill, a plaster mill, a paper mill and a satine (cotton satin) factory, located on both shores of the stream between the second and third fall of the Kinderhook Creek. Later, a hydroelectric plant at this site provided electricity for the electric trolley traveling between Albany and Hudson.

Historic mill building next to the second waterfall in Stuyvesant Falls

The second waterfall (45 feet) seen from the bridge. Note the River Otter track leading from the bottom right corner of the image to the big pool of water. This was likely the same animal that left its track at the base of the third waterfall.

The second waterfall along Kinderhook Creek seen from the Stuyvesant Falls bridge.

Walking up the road to the trailhead, we noticed these fruits of Boxelder. Do they remind you of the two-winged maple fruits (called samaras)? That is because Boxelder, in spite of its common name, which acknowledges its pinnate, elderberry-like leaves, IS a type of maple (Acer negundo). Boxelder is a common tree along streams and in vacant lots.  

Fruits of Boxelder

Near it, we found the “king of vacant lots”, the very invasive Tree-of-Heaven, also still presenting its winged fruits to the world. Note how, in contrast to the paired maple seeds, each with their one-sided wing, the fruits of Tree-of-Heaven are composed of a single, spiraling wing with a seed in the middle.

Fruits of Tree-of-Heaven

The trail head for the Empire Trail leading south from Stuyvesant Falls. On the weekend, it had a nice cross-country ski track which ends after approximately 2 miles at Rossman Road, where the trail turns into a section that follows the road.

South-leading trail head in Stuyvesant Falls

Chittendens Falls seen from Rossman Road. This is the first waterfall on the Kinderhook Creek and—according to the historical markers—was the site of the second cotton mill and the second paper mill in the County, both built by George Chittenden.

Chittendens Falls, the first waterfall on the Kinderhook Creek

This waterfall also displayed a mix of running water, ice, and snow.

A closer look at Chittendens Falls in their winter attirel

An interesting curtain of icicles had formed under one of the historic mill buildings.

A curtain of ice under one of the historic mill buildings

A Mink had wandered across the snow on the frozen stream.

Mink tracks

A flock of American Black Ducks burst into flight…

American Black Ducks hastily flying off

… chased by (an admittedly rather blurry) Bald Eagle, who did not succeed in catching a duck—at least not while we were watching.

Bald Eagle (apologies for the lack of focus in the image)

The tracks left by the ducks.

Duck tracks

The flower buds of American Elm seem ready to burst. Elm flowers are among the first to venture out in the spring and can be expected any time now…

American Elm flower buds

The Empire Trail going north towards Stuyvesant Falls from Rossman Road.

Empire Trail north of Rossman Road

Along the trail, we noticed dozens of these approximately ½ inch long Winter Stoneflies. These winter-hardy insects spend their youth in the water and hatch in late winter, when they can be seen walking across the snow, supposedly in search of mates. Curiously, almost all the stoneflies we saw were bee-lining up from the stream, crossing the trail and continuing up towards the forest, seemingly uninterested in each other… Were they all males trying to find a rare female hiding in the trees???

Winter Stonefly on snow

Somebody else was clearly interested in the stoneflies: a whole flock of American Robins were hunting for them in the snow along the stream.

American Robins hunting for Winter Snowflies on the snow-covered shore of the Kinderhook Creek

Our parting shot for today’s post is a male Common Goldeneye. These ducks winter in our area, but breed further north.

Common Goldeneye (male)
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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 17 February 2021

By Nellie and Anna

Welcome to the third, self-guided tour of habitats in winter, brought to you in collaboration with the Columbia Land Conservancy! Today’s Wonder Wander post introduces the newly installed tour of Oak-Maple Forest habitat at Borden’s Pond Conservation Area in Chatham.

Follow along with this blog post to explore some wonders of the Oak-Maple Forest and/or check out these wonders in-person at Borden’s Pond Conservation Area from now until March 15th.

Welcome Sign for Wonder Wander Walk at Borden’s Pond in Chatham

For those of you who have received our year-end appeal gift of the Wonder Wander Journal, this also reflects the February “Oak-Maple Forest” habitat. Find out more about our self-guided Wonder Wander walks and how to get a digital or hard copy of our Wonder Wander Journal at:

This map (below) of Borden’s Pond Conservation Area highlights where the Oak-Maple Forest Wonder Wander is located! It’s on a section of the red trail that is north of the blue trail. You can access that part of the trail from the green, blue and red trails.  Do note that the quickest way to get there is by following the green trail, taking a right up the blue trail, and a left up the red trail. Please keep in mind that the trail is on a steep slope; use caution when traversing this trail, and you may want to consider weather conditions before your visit (it was very icy this morning!).

Oak-Maple Forest might be the most abundant of our mature forest habitats. It often strikes folks as a “typical” deciduous forest, with good sized trees and a relatively open understory. The largest trees are usually oaks (including Red, White, Chestnut and/or Black Oak). The rest of the forest canopy includes Sugar Maple, Red Maple, and other deciduous species.

Oak-Maple Forest habitat

The following image illustrates the bark and buds of many of these common trees in this Oak-Maple Forest. If you’ve also been staying up to speed on the Winter Botany course Conrad has been installing at Crellin Park and PS21, some of these might look familiar?! Either way, it might be helpful to check these out in order to recognize some friends in the Oak-Maple Forest. Thank you to the Northern Forest Atlas Foundation for supplementing our collection of images!

Alright! Now let’s get walking..

Our first stop is a beautiful example of a hanging (“pensile”) cup nest. Such nests are often constructed between the fork of small branches, with material such as adhesive spider webs or sticky plant fiber used to affix the rim of the nest to the branches, leaving the cup suspended. While this nest is a little worse for wear, one can still get a sense of the two layers that comprise such nests—an outer layer with strips of bark, wasp nest paper, and other plant material encasing an inner lining, such as the pine needles seen in the one here.

Hanging cup nest

Vireos are one type of bird that make pensile cup nests, and also prefer deciduous habitats, sometimes near a forest edge or opening (such as a path). 

Farther up the trail we point out a pair of Sugar Maples: a young Sugar Maple next to a mature Sugar Maple. Note how the bark differs with age.

Mature Sugar Maple (left) and young Sugar Maple (right)

One of the main reasons we decided to highlight this habitat in February was because of maple sugaring! Late winter through early spring is sugaring season, when the combination of below freezing nights and above freezing days causes the sap to flow. The processes involved in sap flow are surprisingly complicated. Unlike most trees, some of the cells of maples are largely filled with gas, not water, and scientists believe the interaction of these gas-filled cells with the freeze-thaw cycle creates negative and positive pressure that ultimately pushes and pulls the sap around the tree. The sugaring season lasts as long as these conditions persist and the buds have not yet developed.

Mature Sugar Maples often have patches of whitish bark caused by the aptly named “Whitewash Lichen” (likely a species of Phlyctis) which tends to be most common (but not only) on Sugar Maple bark. Whitewash Lichen is a crustose lichen—a type of lichen that adheres so closely to a substrate as to become inseparable, almost as if it was painted on.

Whitewash Lichen on mature Sugar Maple

As you’ll likely notice, this Oak-Maple Forest is located on a steep slope and has a relatively open understory. These two observations, along with the lack of early successional trees (ie Black Cherry, White Ash, White Birch), suggest that this Oak-Maple Forest was likely not cleared for agricultural purposes, aside from selective logging.

Oak-Maple Forest on steep slope with relatively open understory

Look at the habitats adjacent to the Oak-Maple Forest: they are flatter, with more vines and shrubs in the understory of younger trees. This begins to tell the story of the former pastures and crop fields that once quilted this area.

This crowded understory contrasts with the mostly open Oak-Maple Forest.

Does this map look familiar to you?

This is Chatham! As depicted on a poster from 1886, that can be found on the Library of Congress’ website. As the arrow delineates, the Oak-Maple Forest can be seen on the map surrounded by (what was then) cleared fields! Now, as we know, the Oak-Maple Forest is surrounded by other forest habitats, both planted and spontaneous, that together make up Borden’s Pond Conservation Area.

Knowing that a lot of this Conservation Area used to be used as pasture and crop field, do you see other clues of land use history such as stone walls and old fence lines?

This tree (that you’ll find later on down the trail) “absorbed” an old fence line that once likely surrounded pasture. The process of trees engulfing objects is called edaphoecotropism: as the tree continues to grow taller and wider, the living tissue can grow around an object, and over time, they become one.

Tree “eating” old fence line

Speaking of traces left behind..

White Ash tree with imprint of Oriental Bittersweet vine

White Ash is known for its especially hard and strong wood paired with its ability to be bent (making it ideal for many woodworking applications, such as chairs). In this case, it has bent due to a vine. The triple twist and deep scoring of this White Ash suggests the work of the invasive Oriental Bittersweet. Oriental Bittersweet was introduced to North America in the mid-1800s and can rapidly entwine and girdle trees or choke out native plants. This White Ash seems to have survived, but will forever bear the twisted scar caused by the vine. As you walk, can you spot any other evidence of Oriental Bittersweet in this forest?

Other ash trees in the forest are experiencing an ailment that is more specific to ashes. The exposed areas on these ash trees is due to the “flecking” activity of woodpeckers removing strips of bark in search of insect larvae. For ash, this is a sign of infestation by the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, a bright green beetle whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees.

Ash tree affected by Emerald Ash Borer

The Emerald Ash Borer was first discovered in the US in 2002, and has already killed tens of millions of ash trees. After a tree is infested with Emerald Ash Borer it often dies within just a few years. Emerald Ash Borer was first detected in Columbia County in 2019. The years ahead will provide an opportunity for us to observe how forests like this one (though more commonly, Northern and Young Hardwood forests) are impacted by the loss of ash trees.

Close-up of ash tree bark

The Emerald Ash Borer is not the only insect we find traces of in this forest.. The hairy egg masses (below) attached to the tree trunk belong to Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar), and will hatch into little caterpillars in the spring. Gyspy Moth caterpillars can defoliate an entire tree before pupating and mating. While they feed on different types of foliage, they seem to prefer oak trees.

Gypsy Moth egg mass on an oak tree

Gypsy Moths were brought to Boston from Europe in the late 19th century as a potential silk-worm substitute. They soon escaped and spread wide and far, arriving to this region in the 1930s. Gypsy Moth populations often move in cycles of booms and crashes. While last year had, and this year might have, outbreaks, next year may be different.

More Gypsy Moth egg masses

This is a Gypsy Moth chrysalis from last season, which likely belonged to the female who laid the nearby eggs. Check out the following blog posts from previous months for more information on Gypsy Moths: 22 June 2020; 20 July 2020.

Gypsy Moth chrysalis or pupa next to egg mass

While winter might not seem to be the time to observe flower buds, there are in fact some buds to keep an eye out for!

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Hop Hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) are two tree species whose flower buds have been set since fall, waiting to break early this spring.

Red Maple flower buds

Look up for Red Maple’s clustered flower buds at the end of the twigs, which will open in April.

Hop Hornbeam’s male catkins

Hop Hornbeam, abundant in this forest’s understory, has catkins that grow in groups of three, resembling birds’ feet. Each catkin is made up of tiny buds of male flowers, and will elongate as the flowers open to release their pollen in the spring to pollinate female catkins.

We’ll leave you with this beautiful photo of Witch Hazel, in between having flowered in the fall, and waiting patiently to develop into fruits in the spring.. Perhaps you’ll find this shrub along the trail when you visit the Oak-Maple Forest!? We hope you enjoyed this virtual tour, and that you get a chance to observe these wonders in person as well.

Witch Hazel’s spent flowers/will-be fruits
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Wonder Wander: 10 Feb. 2021

The Last Batch of Winter Woodies.

by Conrad.

Well, the weather certainly made a Winter Botany course seem appropriate – a nip in the air & some snow underfoot.

This posting profiles the woody plants covered in the third and final installment of our free do-it-yourself winter botany course: Staghorn Sumach, willow, White Mulberry, Shagbark Hickory, American Elm, hawthorn, European Buckthorn, Toringo Crabapple, Grey Dogwood, Multiflora Rose, Slippery Elm, and Witch-hazel.

The species profiled here are marked with bright green flagging at Crellin Park and, primarily, on the adjacent lands of PS21 in Chatham NY. Even if you’re not able to visit the individual trees themselves, I hope these materials help you learn a bit more about our forests here in the Northeast.

PS21 main building

PS21 and the Town of Chatham have been enthusiastic hosts for this course, which typifies their commitment to continuing to provide area residents with on-going ways of enjoying the land during these challenging times. For more information, please see the web pages of PS21 and the Town of Chatham Recreation Department.

PS21 and the Town of Chatham have recently been collaborating on a pair of initiatives – first, a program called PS21Chatham/ Pathways: Blazing a Trail to a Sustainable Future, which includes free performances, arts, and environmental education programs, and other events along the new trail system and, second, in consultation with the Columbia Land Conservancy, an expanding network of trails linking the two adjacent properties and stretching beyond them towards the Village of Chatham. These trails and programming were intrinsic to the PS21 founder Judy Grunberg’s vision of PS21 as an environment embracing nature and culture.

Map of tree locations

The map above shows the location of the woody plants marked with numbered green flagging for this last installment of the course. We invite you to consult the course web page for materials including links to three videos, digital plant ID cards, maps for the first two installments, and some additional resources, and then get out and visit the trees in person. The flagging will stay up through February.

Sumach fruit clusters

The first tree of this installment is Staghorn Sumach. Sumachs are small, somewhat straggling trees which grow up rapidly in small clusters on disturbed lands.

I am so used to seeing these around parking lots, roadsides and other relatively recent disturbances, that I had to pause to think about where these may have occurred during earlier times. Reading and reaching out to colleagues provided perspective. Some suggest talus slopes, prairies, and savannas, and yet we can think of few sumach-populated, regional examples of the first, and the last two habitats are not common in our area. Perhaps, centuries ago, it occurred primarily farther west and on sand plains such as the Pine Bush and those in the northwest part of Columbia County. Native Americans may have also helped spread it because of its medicinal and food value. Chances are that it is now more common than it was, say, 500 years ago, however, the truth is that we can only speculate.

Staghorn Sumach fruit cluster

The clusters of red, fuzzy fruits persist well into Winter, providing important seasonal food for some birds. Dried, they are a source of spice and have also been used traditionally to make a form of pink lemonade. When malaria was endemic in the Northeast (and was known as ague or ‘intermittent fevers’), people searched for botanical cures. Quinine was the most famous, but sumachs (and dogwoods) were also said to be effective.

Staghorn Sumach is a ‘clonal’ plant, meaning that a cluster of what appear to be individual stems may in fact be but a single plant, connected underground. Clones are either male or female, hence not all Staghorn Sumach clumps will sport these snappy fruits, but many will.

Staghorn Sumach twig

Staghorn Sumach gets its name from the fact that its furry branches look like deer antlers in velvet. In keeping with their tendency to grow in very transient habitats, these are fast growing plants and their wood is weak. As a result, any clump of Sumach usually has a few dead and/or broken individuals.

Sumach is flagged tree #32 along the path, just as you’re leaving Crellin Park land.

Willow bud

The next along our walk is a willow tree. Our only native willow tree is Black Willow (not to be confused with Black Widow), but there are also an array of non-natives, and so I won’t guarantee that this is Black. However, all our willows share this unique bud form with a single, enclosing scale that reminds me of a bedroom slipper. If you see this on an alternate-budded plant, you can feel pretty sure that you’re looking at a willow. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.

pussy willow

We have several native (and non-native) willow shrubs, several of which are called “pussy willow” because of the furry flower catkins that appear in Spring. However, as you can see here, all of them share that same beetle-back of a bud scale.

willow fasicles on bank

Willows often grow along stream courses where they’re battered by ice and passing floods. Related to that, they are supple plants that bend easily but live on. When they do break, those branches, which may have been buried by sediments, readily take root and produce new individuals.

Shoshone willow basket

The flexibility of their twigs has made them a favorite for basketry. Their eagerness to re-root has led to their use in erosion control. Planted along stream banks, they can quickly take hold and help control bank loss.

Willows have also been used medicinally and a key ingredient in aspirin is derived from them.

A willow is flagged tree #33 at PS21.

White Mulberry fruit and leaves

The next tree is White Mulberry, a non-native that one can find scatted along hedgerows and edges. Although we do have a native mulberry (the Red Mulberry) and it has been reported by others from Columbia County, we have never identified it in our area.

White Mulberry bark

In Winter, White Mulberry is admittedly a somewhat nondescript little tree, but a couple of clues might point you in the right direction. While the bark structure is not very unique, it tends to have orangey accents which appear to be characteristic.

White Mulberry twig and buds

The alternate buds are somewhat reminiscent of elm (whom you will meet shortly), but are more rounded, forming small nubbins along the twigs. The buds of the native Red Mulberry are said to be bigger.

old mulberry book

One of the origins of the White Mulberries in our area is likely the ‘Silk Balloon’ of the 1830s. It was a ‘balloon’ in an economic sense of a speculative bubble. In that era, some people became convinced that the Northeast could be a hub of global silk production. Mulberry is the food of the Silk Moth caterpillar, whose cocoons are the source of silk fibers. Arborists made ample money growing and selling White Mulberry to prospective silk entrepreneurs, and numerous books were published heralding silk production as one key to unlocking a prosperous agricultural future.

silk processing in England

Unfortunately for the investors, the mulberry did not seem to grow as profusely as advertised nor was the industry an easy one to undertake, and the balloon soon popped. Some of the White Mulberries around the County may be the descendants of that botanical venture.

Mulberry fruits

However, there are additional reasons that people may have planted mulberries, and their fruits are one of them. Superficially looking a bit like blackberries, mulberry fruits are a sweet treat and have been long used in jams and other cooking. Wildlife appreciate them too and will, literally, flock to a tree in fruit.

The names White and Red Mulberry don’t describe consistent differences in fruit color; the berries pictured here are from a White Mulberry. They’re whitish before they ripen, but once ripe, most are red or purple (a few that remain white have been reported). Red Mulberry berries are similar. The key diagnostic character character is leaf fuzziness, although there are also bark and, as mentioned, bud differences. This Purdue web page provides a nice, illustrated summary of the differences.

White Mulberry is our flagged tree #34.

Shagbark Hickory bark

Our next tree is a common, native forest resident and represents an important group of trees, the hickories. This is Shagbark Hickory. As the name implies, the bark is characteristic and should help you with identification, however be careful – young Shagbark can have relatively smooth bark, and I have seen old Sugar Maples that have long flakes somewhat similar to those of Shagbark (but remember – maples are opposite budded, while hickories have alternate buds).

Shagbark Hickory bud

Shagbark Hickory buds are large and bulbous; the end buds look as if they’re ready to pop, an impression accentuated by the loose outer scales that seem to be in the act of falling away. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.

Shagbark Hickory husks

Look too for the nut husks. Those of Shagbark are thick and corky, unlike the thin-husks of our other two common hickories, Bitternut and Pignut. While squirrels may quickly abscond with the savory nuts, the thick husks remain and if you think you’re standing in front of a mature Shagbark, some digging beneath the snow and leaves should reveal some confirmatory husks.

Shagbark Hickory is flagged tree # 35 of our walk.

Our next tree is American Elm. Once a familiar street tree, many such shade trees fell victim to the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease, but off the beaten track, along fence rows and streams, they can still commonly be found. Aside from the vase-shaped form of open-grown elms, elms can initially seem somewhat hard to ID. However, look for tell-tale architecture of the alternate buds with the crooked end bud and the off-center (relative to the prominent leaf scar) lateral buds. Study this form, and you’ll be well on your way to recognizing elms.

Another clue, at least on mature trees, are the flower buds. These are present in Winter and resemble a series of blobs dotting the branches. Perhaps our only other trees with a somewhat (but not quite) similar flower bud prominence are the poplars/aspens but their bark and bud structure are very different (see our second winter botany blog where we covered aspens).

The bark of American Elm is somewhat ‘standard issue’, although its scruffy ridges are typical. While the bark may not be so helpful in distinguishing American Elm from all other trees, a certain characteristic does help you separate it from closely related Slippery Elm. Photo courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas.

American Elm bark

If you break off a flake, snap it in half, and then look at the cross-section, you will see it has what we call an ‘Oreo Cookie’ layering of light/dark/light/dark. Keep this cookie analogy in mind and we’ll conjure up a slightly different culinary image when we meet Slippery Elm.

American Elm is tree #36 of our hike.

hawthorn branches and thorns

Our next character is a member of the shrubbery. Hawthorns are so-named in part because of their prominent thorns. Many of our hawthorns are native, and a visiting botanist identified 10 species around the farm where we work. We won’t worry about species-level identification in winter, but you should be able to pick out hawthorns as a group. Aside from the distinct thorns, look for the relatively small, round, bright red buds.

hawthorn leaves and haws

The other part of Hawthorn’s name refers to its rose-hip like fruits, or ‘haws’. Most of these seem to be gone come winter, but perhaps you’ll still find a few.

The bark of Hawthorne has fine, elongate flakes somewhat like that of Hop Hornbeam, but more irregular (in other words, if that’s French fry bark, whoever cut the fries was pretty sloppy).

In our mind, when we see a hawthorn growing in the forest, we tend to think that that stand was former pasture land. The thorns deter livestock grazing, and hawthorns seem to take hold where grazing animals once roamed.

Hawthorn is plant #37 along our way.

European Buckthorn twig tip

Here’s a thorn of a different form – European Buckthorn. The thorns of this non-native but widely dispersed tree are usually found at the twig tip, nestled between two end buds or branches.

European Buckthorn buds

As you may recall, one of the first steps in getting to know a new woody is to ask whether its buds are opposite or alternate. European Buckthorn is one of our few woody plants where that “or” can truly be replaced by an “and”: the buds of European Buckthorn are opposite AND alternate. While that may sound confusing, it’s actually a reliable trait, together with that twig tip point, for ID’ing this species.

European Buckthorn bark

The dark bark somewhat resembles that of Black Cherry, although the flakes are smaller.

European Buckthorn fruits

Needless to say, we took this photo at another time of year, but it’s good to be reminded of Buckthorn’s dark berries which sometimes persist into winter. Lest you be tempted to sample them, note this species’ scientific name – Rhamnus cathartica. Those berries could give you a strong purge and should be avoided. They may however help account for the Buckthorn’s arrival in our landscape. Early healers apparently thought such a catharsis could sometimes be beneficial and planted this species as part of their botanical apothecary’s shop.

While European Buckthorn is an import, it seems to have more or less settled into our landscape. While it seems to be abundant in some areas, we most frequently now see it as scattered edge trees. Not so with our next tree.

European Buckthorn is stop #38.

Toringo Crabapple fruits

Toringo Crabapple is an up and coming non-native. It is currently one of the most quickly spreading trees in our area, and we know of former farm fields where it forms dense thickets. Farmers need to actively work to keep it out of pastures.

Despite (or perhaps partially in explanation of) its invasiveness, Toringo Crabapple fruits are abundant and apparently often appreciated. We have watched flocks of Cedar Waxwings enjoy the feast. They are also a good identification clue. While we have various feral fruit trees in our landscape, including apple, pear, domestic cherries, and other crabapples, none have these abundant ‘explosions’ of tiny fruits. Earlier in the season, the fruits are often a golden yellow.

Toringo Crabapple twig

Another characteristic that can be helpful when identifying Toringo Crabapple are the abundant (and alternate) spur shoots – these short, somewhat pointed structures can remind one of thorns, but, unlike in Hawthorn, they usually have buds along their length.

The fruits and preceding flowers of Toringo Crabapple put on quite an appealing show, and the tree was probably brought in as an ornamental. Given its expansive ways, we would urge you not to plant it.

A Toringo Crabapple (adjacent to a field of Toringo Crabapples) is tree #39.

Grey Dogwood

Grey Dogwood is admittedly somewhat ‘subtle’, appearing as a haze of grey brush. However, if you look a bit more closely, it has some distinctive traits. Given its abundance in certain habitats (i.e., fencerows and old fields), it’s worth getting to know.

Grey Dogwood branches

One of the first things you should pick out is that it has opposite buds and branches. Maples and ashes are our most common native, opposite trees, but once you get in the shrubbery, a few more native and non-native opposite woodies appear. The dogwoods are one of them (viburnums and honeysuckles are perhaps the most common others); we do have one species of forest dogwood that is alternate-leafed and named accordingly. Our most treeish dogwood is Flowering Dogwood, which creeps into the warmer forests of the County and brings a showy Springtime display.

Grey Dogwood twig tips

The twigs, and sometimes the stalks, of many of our dogwoods have a reddish hue. In Grey Dogwood, although the older stalks are appropriately grey, the young twigs, shown here, have a reddish cast.

Grey Dogwood bud

The buds of Grey Dogwood are understated. Small, almost wizened in appearance, they can almost look dead, but those are actually good features for identifying the buds of this and some of our other dogwoods. Pair those features with a shrub of grey (not burgundy or brighter red) main stalks, and you’ve probably found a Grey Dogwood.

Grey Dogwood berries

Grey Dogwood’s pearly berries appear in late summer, but seem to be favored wildlife fare and soon all that remains are the miniature reddish ‘trees’ that once bore them at the twig tips.

Grey Dogwood flowers

These are preceded by a flush of white flowers in Spring.

Grey Dogwood is flagged as #40.

Multiflora Rose hips

Our next plant often mingles with Grey Dogwoods along edges and in old fields, but is a bit spinier!

Multiflora Rose is a non-native tangle, which often spreads eagerly into open spaces. Its grasping thorns quickly remind you that you’ve met a rose. We have several other species of native and non-native roses, but none have the collection of tiny flowers and then hips of Multiflora Rose.

Multiflora Rose buds

The plant you might be most likely to confuse our roses with are the Rubus (the Blackberries & Raspberry). However, note the bump-like buds of roses as compared to the …

Rubus spines and buds

…more prominent, scraggly buds of our Rubuses. Note too the somewhat finer thorns along these stalks, compare those in turn to slightly stockier, distinctly colored thorns of…

Multifora Rose thorn

…our roses.

Multiflora Rose was originally introduced into our landscape as a tool for erosion control and, perhaps more extensively in our region, as living fences. “Living fences” were meant to be self-sustaining fences that freed farmers from some of the costs of establishing and maintaining a ‘hard’ fence; this use was encouraged by government programs. Inconveniently, Multiflora Rose did not stay in the fence, but rather its protective thorns let it fend off livestock as birds spread its seeds across the land. Farmers spent discouragingly large amounts of time keeping these roses out of their pastures.

Rose Rosette Virus on Multiflora Rose

More recently, Rose Rosette Virus has begun knocking back Multiflora Rose in our area. In some areas, we’ve seen at least a 50% decline in Multiflora Rose abundance. The symptoms include the shriveled, reddish vegetation shown here in this growing-season image. While these colors fade in winter, the woody shriveling persists. Multiflora Rose may be somewhere between European Buckthorn and Toringo Crabapple in terms of settling into the landscape; we shall see what ecological place this species finds in the future.

nest with rose hips

While some people will be relieved to see the decline in Multiflora Rose, some wildlife might not be so keen – Multiflora Rose thickets provide dense cover for both nesting birds and the likes of rabbits. It’s not uncommon to find a nest filled with feathers and/or milkweed down, where a mouse is overwintering with handy access to a rose-hip larder.

Multiflora Rose bears flag #41.

Slippery Elm bark

Remember the Oreo Cookie bark of American Elm? Our next tree is also an elm, but Slippery Elm has solid chocolate truffle bark – smooth brown with little layering.

Slippery Elm buds

However, before getting to the bark, make sure you determine that you are indeed looking at an elm – does it have those somewhat ‘loosely assembled’ twigs with their crooked end buds and off-center side buds?

Slippery vs American Elm buds

Like American Elm, Slippery Elm often has prominent flower buds, but note their Woolly Bear-like fuzziness when compared to those of the American Elm.

However, none of this explains the common name. The namesake trait doesn’t doesn’t translate well into photography – but if you chew on a slippery elm twig, it quickly becomes slimy, not just wet. This characteristic also relates to its indigenous medicinal use for sore throats and coughs.

Slippery Elms don’t seem as common as American Elm in our landscape, but both share a penchant for moistish woods, and can most commonly be found on floodplains and along streams and ditches.

Slippery Elm is flagged tree #42.

Witch-hazel flowers in snow

The last woody who you’ll meet is Witch-hazel. As this photo from our archive suggests, our native Witch-hazel is unusual in being a late-autumn bloomer, so late that it is occasionally caught in flower by the earliest snows.

Witch-hazel flower remains

Now, in February, those earlier petals have fallen away and what you find are the flower bases, some of which will develop into next year’s dry fruits.

Witch-hzel bud

Aside from the flower remains, a couple of other traits will help you distinguish this bush or small forest tree.

First, Witch-hazel have what are called ‘naked’ buds, meaning that, unlike the usual scales (for example, see the American Elm buds earlier), Witch-hazel buds resemble dry, leathery leaves.

Also evident in the above photograph, which comes to us courtesy of the Northern Forest Atlas project, is the zig-zagginess of Witch-hazel’s twigs, formed by its raised and alternating leaf bases/bud scars.

Witch-hazel flower remains and nut case

One last characteristic that, while it has little immediate identification value, is fun to watch (or perhaps, listen) for is its ‘explosive’ seed dispersal. As the fruits dry, they shrink and, at some point, they snap open propelling their pair of dark, smooth seeds for quite a distance. This photo shows a ‘fruit’ which has discharged its seeds.

Bring in a be-fruited twig in autumn, place it over your mantel, and await the day that it will shoot its charge across your room. Better yet, if you find just the right sort of day at the right time of year, you can apparently sit yourself in a Witch-hazel-rich woods, and listen to the patter of seeds landing on dry autumn leaves. Not something I have yet to accomplish myself.

Witch-hazel is one of the few native plants whose extract can still be purchased at conventional drug stores; it is used to sooth irritated skin.

Witch-hazel, at flag #43, is the last new tree of our wander.

woods in winter

So ends our course for this winter – there are various other trees and shrubs which I would have liked to include, but this is a start and if you learn to recognize the ones we’ve covered, you’ll be well on your way, until, that is, the leaves start popping and mess up all your good winter ID clues! Actually, many of the characteristics you’ve learnt aren’t season-dependent, and typical buds will start appearing again sooner than you might think.

I hope you’ve made at least a few woody friends and that they help both to make your woods walks a little richer and to nurture informed compassion for the nature around us.

Thanks again to Jerry Jenkins and the Northern Forest Atlas for letting us use some of their images – checkout their web site, it holds beautiful images of not only woody plants, but also mosses and sedges with grasses on the way.

As always, questions and suggestions are welcome. Enjoy your time afield,


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Farmscape Wonder Wander: 3 February 2021

By Dylan

Here are a couple recent videos from my camera trap in the Taconic Mountains. The first is of a nice looking Coyote that seems to be on the trail of another ‘yote that came through earlier that day. It is Coyote breeding season right now, so this individual could be seeking a mate.

These White-tailed Deer were recorded by one of my cams during the recent snow storm. Their breeding season has been over for months, so deer now focus on finding food (see this one browsing on twigs?), staying safe and conserving calories. Compared to deer in more agricultural/developed parts of Columbia County, these mountain White-tails often cope with tougher weather and scarcer food sources.

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