Sunday, April 26, 2009

A place fit to live

Moss, red maple flowers and Canada mayflower atop a diabase boulder in the Sourlands

Corduroy, wool, denim...all this came tumbling out of my closet, sticking to my sweaty and sunburned arms, irritating my mind made animal by hunger and heat. A cool drink of water and a sandwich made long hours spent standing on blacktop outside a municipal garage fade.

Only a pair of killdeer and tree swallows found the municipal building landscape satisfactory. Then again, the swallows never touched the ground once, and the killdeer had the pond across the street.

I can't think of a single, visibly identifiable creature or plant that can survive at the center of several thousand square feet of blacktop.

Add a crack in the hard surface: dandelions and moss. You can now survive here.

Jared exclaimed, "I think there might be three species of Ranunculus here!" and pulled out Newcomb's. "Didn't Hildy say the buttercups were difficult?" "Uh-huh. OK. Basal leaves about as wide as... Hispid buttercup, early buttercup, creeping buttercup, swamp buttercul, tall buttercup, spreading globeflower, flower-of-an-hour..." He read the names again, and I remembered weeding flower-of-an-hour out of a garden I used to work at. I imagined its odd seed capsules. "Stem hairy, no, not hairy..."

Saturday evening
I stood. Still, under the sky, under the stars. I reached up to the stars again and again. Still. I moved my arm and brushed a long strand of hair away. I brushed and brushed, it would not come away. I stepped and felt that same long strand wrapped around my legs. A spider had found me a landscape fit to dwell in.

Marsh marigold


Shocking heat - nearing 90 degrees today. On this wind came the oriole, wood thrush, ovenbird, catbird, house wren. They made their joyful racket with other recent travellers: the common yellow throat, red-eyed vireo and chipping sparrows; and nest builders: the robin.

Two chickadees felt a stir and visited the birdhouse near our tiny wetlands. Once verdant lawn grass that grew hatefully fast around a willowy hemlock, now liatris, lobelia cardinalis, iris versicolor, lilium canadense, pinxter azalea, senecio aureus, osmunda regalis... a landscape fit to a raise a family in.

Frogs are croaking and trilling. The peepers are calling and calling. Bats are flying.

The moon is waxing, drawing up and drawing out all living things - should they find a landscape fit to live in.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Field Visit to a Small and Fragmented Nature Preserve

Bloodroot after last night's tomato seedling destroying hail storm.
All the other wildflowers on the preserve looked great. Could it have been the storm or a careless raccoon on her way to the brook that bent these petals? Don't know, but this photo gives me the chance to complain about my decapitated tomato seedlings (would've been worse if I hadn't run out in my pajamas to grab the neglected seedling tray). Even better, this photo gives me the chance to celebrate the wildflowers of a very small nature preserve that needs alot of tender attention.

Wednesday Morning Field Work:
I spooked a pair of wood ducks out of a gnarly bend in a tributary to Stony Brook. I found two bloodroots in a patch of toothwort, mayapple, and trout lily. In fact, the trail was nearly obscured by wildflowers. I heard a pileated woodpecker and nuthatches; field sparrows and a mockingbird.

These are some of the joys of being a land steward doing field work--out of a morass of multiflora rose arise two spectacular ducks that I have driven miles to peer at through binoculars. Wow, here they are, 20 feet away. There they go.

I think I blacked out with excitement. Not even sure how far away they flew.

Tuesday Field Work:
Tuesday morning a volunteer said, "Good luck, guys." I opened my mouth and was about to thank her. I realized she was addressing the wildflowers we had just rescued from a recently built trail on one of our nature preserves. The wildflowers were bound for a nature preserve bereft of an herb layer.

Tuesday afternoon a volunteer said, "I'm an optimistic person." I agreed that I too was a an optimist. "Have to be, doing working like this."

Wood ducks, wildflowers, good people who are good company to fellow man & woman & flora... they are all right with me. They make optimism the only path. See you on the trail.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Just as beautiful as any other place you could see, anywhere

I'm laughed at when I say: New Jersey is beautiful. Just as beautiful as any other place you could see. Since I am always looking for confirmation, especially after a trip to lovely South Carolina, I took three walks this weekend. I didn't have to look hard, but I did look closely.

Wood Anemone, a face we all can love. This ephemeral carpeted moist, rich soils. It shows a surprising amount of variety in its leaf size, but not its flowers. I noticed several dense clumps hugging exposed tree roots. The leaves were particularly large, but no flowers or buds.  Was it a good place to germinate?

Shelf fungi with one of our earliest spring flowers - those of the red maple. This one was nibbled by a squirrel, I believe. Elsewhere, the forest floor was covered with fresh buds of ash or sugar maple. 

A mossy log is a good place to visit.

Spicebush leaves are emerging. I'm particularly fond of spicebush - in June and July a walk through a spicebush thicket is healing and refreshing. The fragrant oils of the plant are released by the gentlest touch.

Spring ephemeral seeds are ant dispersed. Often tiny, shiny and black, these seeds come with a fatty, sticky treat for ants called an eliasome. The ants collect the seeds, eat the eliasome, and toss the seeds. Do ants like to toss their trash in containers like this beech root?

Ants do a better job hiding their junk than we do. This balloon was one of three I found near my home this weekend. I really dislike these things. 

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Which one doesn't belong?

This spring-- actually, this week-- has been great for wildflowers in Hunterdon, Mercer and Somerset counties in New Jersey. I've met another couple who agrees that it has been a bountiful spring. Anyone else?

the wildflower report:
False hellebore leaves are already up. Skunk cabbage leaves are nearly done expanding. Ramps are growing like grass (unbelievable--their colonies are spreading locally, and are appearing in places I don't recall seeing them, again, locally). Dwarf ginseng is just opening. Spring beauty: the first tier of buds open, though closed on Saturday afternoon -- too hot? protecting pollen from drying? The trout lily is like a carpet, some already pollinated and stamen turning dark. Red trillium opened in my garden, never seen any in NJ...yet. Toothwort -- first one open in the Sourlands today. Bloodroot was in bloom on Friday, in seed and in bloom today. False Solomon's seal, Solomon's seal and bellwort are unfurling. I'm sure missed a few.

the bird and butterfly report:
The winter wren greeted us around the nicest bend along Cat Tail Brook. Bluebirds are claiming the nesting box they used last year. Titmice are vocally prowling their territories. Robins are here in large flocks. Flickers are calling regularly. Hermit thrushes are arriving. Yellow rumped and palm warblers are climbing over every buggy branch. Pileated woodpeckers are making a racket. In the vicinity of Cat Tail we heard what I would have called a loon, if I were anywhere near a lake. The call remains a mystery. Mourning cloak butterflies are rare, but I've seen them in a couple places.

Which one doesn't belong?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

South Carolina Swamps and Savannahs

Dwarf palmettos at Congaree National Park

We spent the last week-or-so in South Carolina and visited two distinctive and fantastic habitats: old growth floodplain forest (at Congaree National Park and Frances Beidler Sanctuary), and Longleaf Pine flatwoods/savannahs (at Santee Coastal Reserve and Francis Marion NF).

The boardwalk trail at Congaree

Cypress swamp with tannin-colored water

Congaree was our first stop: about 11,000 acres of barely disturbed forest in all its primeval glory. Truly giant bald cypress trees loomed high overhead, many with broken-antlered crowns from centuries of hurricanes. The cypress knees (above-ground/water root structures) were both aesthetically fantastic and, as we discovered, ecologically rich - a combination that is frequent in the old-growth forest and really deserves a word of its own.

An old Cypress knee

We watched prothonotary warblers harvesting moss from the rims of cypress knees to build nests with - nests frequently located in cavities dead swamp gum trees or in yet other cypress knees.

Prothonotary warbler harvesting moss

The knees and the many downed tree trunks of enormous girth served another function as well - upland habitat for plants unsuited to life partially submerged. Many "floating planters" were absolutely covered in plants ranging from ebony spleenwort to palmate-leaved violets to hornbeams.

It was pretty spectacular to see familiar plants in the exotic and semi-tropical context - tupelos with alligators basking nearby, for example.

Congaree had a full spectrum of habitats from upland to inundated. Here's a giant loblolly pine with stegosaurus-like bark:

Ancient Loblolly Pine

And here's the pawpaw growing right near it. Talk about a tree-lover's dream destination!

Pawpaw flowers!

Common tree species at Congaree and the Beidler sanctuary included Bald Cypress, Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), Sweetgum, Hornbeam, and Red Maple.

Sweetgum leaves

Bald cypress leaves

At the Beidler Sanctuary, we watched several yellow-crowned night herons hunt the swamp for crustaceans. This one had a bloody and mangled left leg and looked like it had narrowly escaped from an alligator's jaws or those of some other swamp predator.

The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron is a solitary and patient hunter

Santee Coastal Reserve had an absolutely stupendous short boardwalk, jumping with prothonotary warblers, northern parulas, yellow-rumped warblers, anoles, and truly beautiful emergent plants like blue flag iris (which was in bloom). The boardwalk terminated in a "pond" overlook which was one of the best if not the best single birdwatching spot I've ever been at. Passing overhead, flying oceanward, were wood storks, osprey, anhingas, egrets and vultures in great number. Meanwhile, alligators alternately basked and prowled in the duckweed-coated waters.

View from the Santee Coastal Reserve boardwalk

View from the Santee Coastal Reserve boardwalk #2 - can you find the alligator?

The beautiful Toxicodendron radicans grew shrub-like on cypress knees - this was a real hazard while canoeing through the swamp!

Alligator tracks look almost like the bootprints of a bow-legged man.

We stayed in a cute cabin at Givhans Ferry State Park. Near our cabin was this native wildflower:

Atamasco Lily, or "Naked Lady"

Arrowwood with flower buds.

This arrowwood viburnum was by a roadside at Francis Marion, getting ready to bloom.

At Santee Coastal and Francis Marion, we also walked through Longleaf Pine forests, managed with fire to stay open as they were in the long millenia before habitat fragmentation and wildfire suppression (every time I see Smokey the bear and his cute critter friends admonishing against fires I wince, as many of them and their plant allies were fire-dependent).

Young longleaf pine with burnt needles and fresh growth, Santee Coastal Reserve

The young longleaf pines spend several years in the "grass" stage, with just a lush plushball of long needles over the ground. During this period they build their root systems and weather the frequent wildfires endemic to their sandy soils. After a half-decade or so, they begin their ascent towards the canopy...

Young and crispy pine tree

Longleaf pine cone

The enormous cones of the longleaf open in response to fires, in this case a controlled burn in an area of the reserve being managed for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker which is indigenous to longleaf pine savannahs.

The burnt-over longleaf pine flatwoods and savannahs are astonishingly rich in understory growth, with surprising species such as the carnivorous sundew (which we saw) and pitcher plants (which we didn't), as well as a host of other plants from sweetbay magnolia to cinnamon fern.

A little lizard (anole) on the outside wall of our cabin.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hepatica hair!

Hepatica hair is the style of the season!

Hepatica face.

Hepaticas are absolutely enchanting plants. They live on slopes in our area, but only rich woods which have not been overly disturbed. I've never seen one colonize formerly agricultural soils, nor have I even seen much evidence of them "colonizing" at all. I suppose they are a testimony to the beauty of a bygone era, but I believe in, as Leslie Jones Sauer puts it, "the once and future forest". Our hills will be sheathed in the elfin blues of hepatica once more, I'm sure.

Bloodroot emerging from the earth. The flowers are ephemeral, the leaves will be with us through early summer at least.

Rue anemone; the leaves have yet to unfold. Of the spring ephemeral wildflowers, Rue seems to stick around longest, given an adequately moist spring. I guess I'd forgotten this beautiful pink hue, and remembered only the white that perhaps they become as they progress through the season. Or maybe a few have pinker tints, just as some hepaticas are blue and others almost pure white.
Itty-bitty Rue Anemone.

Spicebush flowering. If everyone who planted forsythia planted spicebush instead, they'd have shrubs with early-spring yellow-clad twigs, wonderfully aromatic leaves, fruits of deep blood-scarlet, and many thankful thrushes for the rest of the year. Instead, they have inanely ugly hooping snarls which look decent for only a few weeks a year. In my humble opinion, of course.

Somewhere else, Spring has already passed someone by

We watched spring disappear.

We watched spring disappear from the seats of our car. The flush of Carolina coastal plain green was drawn back into the creaky buds of Virginia. A haze of yellow greens at the tips of the branches and a stiffening breeze. South Jersey farms were dappled in cherry blossoms. The Sourlands seemed unchanged while we were away... not true.

Above: Givhans Ferry State Park, South Carolina

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Two Crows and Two Humans on a Country Road

I jumped out of the car. My head was down, I was heading right for the mailboxes. I wondered when the jogger I passed while driving would catch up with me. I heard his paces rounding the bend just as two crows perched in the canopy caught my eye. I gaped as I looked up. My mind darted like a rabbit evading a predator - between reverie as I watched the black silhouettes and distraction (never seen this jogger, who was he?, should I greet him and make him feel at ease on this country road? or should I watch the crows? hardly see crows this patient with two people nearby...). Politeness got me. I greeted the jogger.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Vernal Pools, Part II

Wood frog eggs in a tire track in Hopewell Township. They have laid eggs here previous years. How do they find this one spot?

An old farm, now forest: It is crisscrossed by old farm ditches - an attempt to drain it for agriculture. Parts of the land are now in the fits of forest regeneration. Canopy - red maple, shrub layer - multiflora rose and barberry, herb layer - Japanese stilt grass.

I am oversimplifying, hmm... well, only a bit. Some animals seem to make do with the scraps we leave behind. A red-tail pair in a mugwort and autumn olive riddled median. Wood frogs in tire tracks. Herons in golf courses.

It feels bittersweet to see these things - "Oh thank goodness, we haven't ruined everything." But that nagging, nagging question "Wonder how many wood frogs were here before the drainage ditches and the corn?"

If the power went out, really went out, how would I do alongside an abandoned highway? On a wildlife bridge across route 78? In a field full of F1 hybrids?

Heron track in tire track.

Turkey displays by the train tracks.