Saturday, December 15, 2012

Taylor Pond

Taylor Pond, autumn shot, afternoon from near the dam - © Dave Spier
The Taylor Pond Wild Forest Unit Management Plan Final Draft has been released. A copy of the draft plan can be found on the D.E.C. website. A discussion of the final draft and it's key points can be found on The Adirondack Almanack website.

Taylor Pond is north of Whiteface and Wilmington in the southwest corner of Clinton County. It can be accessed from County Road 1 (Silver Lake Road) between Hawkeye and Black Brook. A dirt road leads in to a seasonal state campground and boat launch near the dammed outlet. The water flows to Black Brook and then to the West Branch of the Ausable River.

The orientation of Taylor Pond is SW to NE, typical of many Adirondack waterways that follow fault zones. The lake is moderately forked with an arm extending east and then northeast to the dam. On an aerial photo, the "pond" resembles a one-armed lobster on a long-walk (24 miles) to Plattsburgh.

For birders, there is an eBird hotspot at the state campground, but so far there are only 30 species from three checklists (June and two in October) on the bar chart.

Taylor Pond, autumn shot, seen from the point about a mile west of the campground where the lake forks. From the air, the lake resembles a one-armed lobster. - © Dave Spier
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012


Common Raven over Copper Rock Rapids (Grass River), 10/1/12 - © Dave Spier

Here's a bird for Halloween. It was made famous as a symbol of death by Edgar Allen's poem.

Found completely circling the northern hemisphere, the Common Raven (Corvus corax) is one of the most widespread bird species in the world. Across North America, they occupy a wide swath from Central America to Alaska and east across most of Canada to the Atlantic, northern New England, and the Adirondacks, then south through a disjointed narrow band marked by the Appalachian Highlands. This range covers a great variety of climates and wild habitats, and sometimes they can be found near rural settlements and towns.

Ravens are larger than crows, but it's hard to judge size at a distance. In flight, ravens can be mistaken for hawks until they're overhead. Note the raven's long neck and long tail that ends in what's described as a "wedge" shape (meaning it's longer toward the middle of the tail). They are all black, but several hawk species have dark-phase members, which can be misleading. Like hawks, ravens also alternate flapping and gliding, unlike crows that have a steadier flight. When perched, ravens have shaggy throat feathers and long feathers covering their nostrils and the base of their heavy, thick bills (likened to a "Roman" nose because of the downward curve).

Common Raven eating a roadkill, Rts. 8/30 south of Speculator - © Dave Spier
The raven's diet is omnivorous; it eats anything edible. As scavengers, they can be found feeding on carrion beside country roads (in areas where they are common). I've heard people talk about ravens flying down the middle of a road as they search for new roadkills. You're less likely to actually see them when they're catching insects and rodents or eating eggs, birds, seeds, grain, berries, acorns and buds.

raven above DeGrasse, St. Lawrence County, NY

Ravens generally make croaking sounds, sometimes written "cr-r-ruck," plus gurgling and snoring sounds and woodpecker-like knocking calls. It's hard to realize they are actually songbirds (technically, passerines, or perching birds) obviously related to crows but also to jays, all in the Corvid family, and all can be year-round residents of their chosen locations. All About Birds has several recordings for your listening enjoyment. (There's also a page to help you ID and separate the crow/raven corvids.)

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Please report your sightings to eBird.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk circling above DeGrasse on October 21, 2006 (note the wing tips pushed slightly forward, a typical soaring aspect for this species) - © Dave Spier

Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) can be expected anytime from mid-March through early November in the Adirondacks, based on the combined eBird bar chart for four northern New York counties. More of the reports come from St. Lawrence and Franklin, with few from Hamilton and a moderate number from Essex. The red-shoulder is considered a woodland species associated with mature deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests and likely to be found near rivers, streams, ponds and swamps. It typically avoids pure-conifer stands and it may hold to this pattern during migration.

Their primary diet is rodents followed by frogs and snakes. (A Michigan study placed small birds a close second behind mice.) It was getting late in the season for reptiles and amphibians when I found a red-shoulder soaring near DeGrasse in St. Lawrence County one October 21st.

Red-shouldered Hawks breed across the entire state of New York, with heavier nesting concentrations in southwestern NY, the Tug Hill Plateau and the Catskill Mountains. Slightly lower densities occur across south-central NY and the Taconics. There is a scattering of possible, probable and confirmed nest records across the Adirondacks with Essex County having the highest number of confirmed blocks at six. (Each Breeding Bird Atlas block is 5 x 5 km or roughly nine square miles.) Overall, nesting activity has increased statewide since the initial 1980-85 Atlas, although it may have declined slightly in the Adirondacks.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, so to speak, you can learn more about Red-shouldered Hawks at the All About Birds website along with a variety of photos. If you have The Sibley Guide to Birds, the species is illustrated on page 117. (There's a smaller Eastern version of Sibley's which I don't own.)

For a list of birds in St. Lawrence County and their seasonal abundance, I've linked to that eBird bar chart too.
- - -
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Monday, September 17, 2012

Austin Falls

Austin Falls is on the Sacandaga River between Speculator and Wells in Hamilton County. Use Old State Rt. 8/30, which has vehicle access only at it's north end. The old bridge at the south end has been closed for a long time.

Directions from the north: (distances may vary due to differences in odometer calibration) From the Speculator Community Park (and River Walk Trail) next to the Sacandaga River outlet from Lake Pleasant (south of Speculator's four-corners), drive south on Rts. 8/30. To give you an idea of my odometer calibration, at 1.35 miles, pass the south end of Downey Ave. At 2.8 miles, look for the "Town of Wells" sign and turn left onto Old State Rt. 8/30 and within 1/10th mile, cross a one-lane bridge over the Sacandaga River. Reset your trip odometer to 0. (Portions of Old Rt. 8/30 are rough and bumpy, especially where the old pavement has buckled.) At 1.1 mile from the bridge, pass by Fly Creek Rd. (dirt) which goes left. At 1.9 miles, pass Robbs Creek. At 2.1 miles, cross a narrow, one-lane bridge over a tributary stream. Again, reset to 0.0 and at 0.4 mile beyond this second bridge, watch for a flat-water stretch of the Sacandaga on your right (west); this is just above the Austin Falls narrows. At 0.7 mile beyond the 2nd bridge, look for an inconspicuous pull-off on the right. If you get out of your vehicle, you should be looking down a short hill to the river at the base of the falls, which is actually more of a long sluice or channel with a short drop at the end. Total driving distance from NY 8/30 was 2.8 miles on my truck's odometer, but the ADK Guide to Adirondack Trails 3 lists it as 2.6 miles. The Adirondack Waterfall Guide says 2.7 miles. Take your pick.

blocks of granite gneiss created by sets of parallel joints (vertical cracks)
Directions from the south: according to the ADK Guide to Adirondack Trails 3, it is 6.5 miles from the junction of Rts. 8 and 30 (north of Wells) to Old Rt. 8/30, which is a right turn from the south. Proceed as above.

After parking, a short walk downhill leads to the river and lower falls where layers of (what is likely) granite gneiss are broken into blocks by intersecting joints (vertical cracks). From the base of the falls, look upstream (northward) and it's obvious the metamorphic rock layers dip to the west. Climb around these on the right and walk on the sloping rock surface to head upstream on the right side of the rushing river channel which is working its way down a resistant layer and cutting into overlying strata. Interesting geological features include potholes "drilled" into the gneiss, glacial striations (according to one guidebook), and further upstream, a very rippled rock surface (which is what I suspect the book referred to as "ocean-bottom evidence"), although I suspect the river could be entirely responsible (see the last photo).

Donna's photos taken 8/25/12; this image at 1:45 pm (when the river channel was in deep shade)

Photography notes: On sunny days, there is a narrow window of opportunity in the middle of the day when the sunlight reaches the water. By early afternoon, the water is in deep shade while the sun still hits the sloping rock shelf and trees on the east side. This makes the lighting very harsh and nearly impossible to balance without special software. Later in the afternoon, the entire scene is back in shade and light is more balanced for landscapes. Clouds also will even the light. If you shoot RAW, it's easier to adjust the white balance or use the white-point tool on whitewater (although I prefer to push the balance toward the warmer tones). If you have High Dynamic Range (HDR) software, you can shoot several different exposures and combine them, or create several pseudo-exposures from one RAW capture.

17mm wideangle on full-frame body, exp. 0.7" at f/22, ISO 100, shade white balance; most photos from 9/22/07

My basic landscape camera is a full-frame digital body with a 17-40mm zoom, all mounted on a tripod. This permits high depth of field (small aperature) which necessitates slower shutter speeds to compensate. If you don't have a remote-release cable or trigger, you can use the self-timer.

Even though the white balance was set to shade, I further reduced the blue cast on the rocks using the RGB adjustment. (This image was shot 9/10/05 before RAW became my default format.) Exposure was 1 sec. at f/16.
Adirondack Waterfall Guide, by Russell Dunn (© 2004), published by Black Dome Press
Guide to Adirondack Trails: 3 - Central Region, by Bruce Wadsworth (© 1994, reprinted with revisions 2000), published by the Adirondack Mountain Club
New York State Atlas & Gazetteer, published by DeLorme Mapping Co.
Roadside Geology of New York, by Bradford VanDiver, PhD (© 1985/reprinted 2003), published by Mountain Press

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There is a separate Fb page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Northeast Naturalist and Heading Out

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Milky Way

Milky Way -- © Dave Spier

Okay, something a little different, something out of this world.  It's the Milky Way, our home galaxy, from Nick's Lake campground on September 20, 2009. This part of the Milky Way is in the "summer triangle," formed by the three brightest (alpha) stars in the constellations Cygnus (the swan), Lyra (the lyre, or small harp) and Aquila (the eagle).  I've marked them on the photo, which is repeated below. Deneb is the tail star in Cygnus, a.k.a. the northern cross, which flies down the Milky Way.  Vega is a very bright star located in Lyra, and Altair is the eye of the eagle flying up the Milky Way. You can download a free star chart for September (or any month) at to help you locate constellations and stars in the night sky. The dark, irregular band through the middle of the Milky Way is an absorption nebula, a cloud of interstellar gas and dust between us and the concentration of stars beyond as we look edge-wise across the galactic plane. The center of our galaxy in the constellation Sagittarius, visible during the summer, is now below the horizon.

A love of stars goes back to my days as an amateur astronomer.  At the time I could have lived in the Adirondacks for no other reason than the dark skies, but no memory tops an October(?) camping trip to Meacham Lake.  On a dry, moonless night, we could see every star visible to the human eye, right down to the southern horizon, but what made it special was the perfect reflection of every star on an unusually dead-calm water surface.  We had walked to the edge of the lake from our campsite in the woods, but alas, had taken no camera (and therefore no tripod either).  It would have been interesting to shoot star trails with their perfect reflections, so there's a suggestion if you ever encounter that situation..

Photo notes: The four-minute (240 second) exposure started at 8:36 pm.  I was using a 17-40mm L zoom lens wide-open at f/4 on a full-frame body.  For landscape photography, I need depth of field and small f-stops, so I no longer own a fast wideangle lens, but it leaves me at a disadvantage on these rare occasions.  To compensate, I shot at ISO 800 with long-exposure noise reduction and then further processed the image using Levels.  The camera was strapped to a small refractor used as a guide scope on an equatorial mount aligned to the North Star. The blur on the trees at bottom results from tracking the stars as the Earth rotates, rather than using a fixed-mount tripod.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012


Drive north on I-87 from Albany toward Canada and you pass through a long stretch of the eastern Adirondacks.  Toward the north end of the park, between exits 32 and 33 (south of Keeseville), watch for the long, glacially-polished cliff of Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain on the left (west) side.  It's nearly a thousand feet high and a favorite of rock climbers.  You can get closer views by taking exit 33 and driving south on Route 9.  The mountain's name is derived from the Algonquin words for broken and smooth.

The north-south cliff is an up-thrown block of granitic gneiss along a fault line [a huge crack where there is enough pressure to shift the rocks out of alignment], while Route 9 traverses a down-dropped block of gneiss interfingered with anorthosite (very similar to Moon rocks) east of the cliff.  The term "block" may be misleading as these are large-scale structures with horizontal dimensions measured in miles. North-northeast of the mountain and continuing over halfway to Keeseville, Route 9 crosses the west edge of anorthosite mixed with metasedimentary rock (the green area on the geology map).

From the Geologic Map of New York - Adirondack Sheet
yellow is an extension of the Marcy massif, lavendar-pink is gneiss,
and green is a hybrid anorthosite mixed with metasedimentaries

Weathering of the cliff [a fault scarp, or escarpment] has obscured thick bands of darker rock, loosely classified as "metagabbro" (without knowing its original nature, either gabbro or basalt/diabase).  Although somewhat horizontal, the major rock layers have a gradual rise to the north (right).  In several locations, the bands are offset by vertical faults.  Also difficult to discern are thinner bands of dark diabase or basalt that intruded as molten sills between the bedded layers.

Like the core of the Adirondacks (actually a southeastward extension of the ancient Canadian Shield), the original sedimentary rocks of Poke-O-Moonshine were metamorphosed [transformed by intense heat and pressure just short of complete melting] during the Precambrian Grenville collision of pre-North America and pre-Europe/Africa around 1.1 billion years ago.  The name is taken from Grenville, Quebec.  The scarp's granitic gneiss is a strongly-banded and coarse-grained rock similar in composition to granite with feldspar, quartz and the dark minerals pyroxene, hornblende and biotite mica. The darker bands of "metagabbro" [a.k.a. amphibolite, a dark rock composed of hornblende and plagioclase with smaller amounts of biotite mica and/or dark-green pyroxene] were also metmorphosed by the end of the Grenville Orogeny [mountain-building episode] that completed the assembly of the supercontinent Rodinia at that time.  The thinner diabase sills were injected as hot, molten magma at a later date, likely after one of at least four collisions of North America and Europe when the continents were again separating and stretching the tectonic plates (which causes vertical cracks that allow magma to rise and then spread horizontally between bedded rock layers). Just south of the Adirondacks, in the Mohawk Valley, the diabase dikes [that cross-cut the older Precambrian rock layers] and the sills [that flowed between the layers] are also found in Cambrian and Ordivician rocks, but not the younger Devonian or Silurian deposits, so it's implied that they rose after the Taconic Orogeny when the continents began separating at the end of the Ordovician Period.

The anorthosite is related to the Marcy massif, a huge pool of crystalline rock under the High Peaks that entered (intruded) the surrounding Grenville rocks as a molten plume through cracks, spread laterally and then slowly cooled.  It can be likened to a geological breast implant.  Uplift and erosion has stripped more-recent rocks off the dome to expose the anorthosite.  A deeper hot spot is theorized to be fueling the continued rise in the Adirondack dome at the rate of three millimeters per year.  You may have heard the expression "new mountains from old rock."

The mineral composition of anorthosite rock is 90% plagioclase feldspar which forms under extreme heat and pressure at great depth (likely 15 miles, give or take a few) and can be termed Plutonic rock.  Plagioclase is a group of silicate minerals built around one silicon atom bonded with four oxygen atoms or three silicons plus eight oxygens.  These molecules combine with various amounts of sodium and/or calcium or potassium plus aluminum to form one of the minerals in the feldspar series.

Glacially-polished cliff face catches the morning sun, August 10, 2007.

The Grenville Province is a long band of rock stretching from the southern Appalachians north-northeastward through southern Ontario Province to the Laurentian Highlands of Quebec.  It's now moslty basement rock with narrow exposures in places like the Blue Ridge (NC/VA), South Mtn. (PA), the Hudson Highlands (NY), the Berkshires (MA), and the Green Mtns. (VT).  Also exposed are the Adirondack dome and the Frontenac Arc (across the Thousand Islands in the upper St. Lawrence River) which connects the Adirondacks to Ontario. The Grenville rocks were originally sediments, volcanics and plutonic (deep) intrusions that were metamorphosed (i.e., transformed or recycled by heat and pressure at great depth) during the Grenville Orogeny between 1.2 and 1.0 billion years ago in a process that resets the rock's "geological clock."  The Grenville collision completed the assembly of the Rodinia supercontinent.

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2 books by Bradford VanDiver, PhD: Rocks and Routes of the North Country (1976) and Roadside Geology of New York (1985/2003)

Geology of New York, NYS Museum (1966/1976)

Geology of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, Howard & Elizabeth Jaffe, 1986, is not directly relevant to Poke-O-Moonshine, but has a good overview with diagrams in the "Introduction and Geologic History."  Their dates for Grenville events are slightly older.

[also several general rock and mineral guides]

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Narrowleaf? Gentian

Narrow-leaved Gentian on Whiteface - © Dave Spier
Gentian on Whiteface -- © Dave Spier

For some reason, gentians have always fascinated me.  Maybe it's because I usually come across one of the closed or bottle-type gentians and wonder how it gets pollinated.  Such is the case with a tentatively-identified Narrow-leaved Gentian (Gentiana linearis), a.k.a. Narrowleaf Gentian, beside the Memorial Highway on Whiteface (Mountain) above Wilmington.  It has showy violet-blue flowers, but the tips of the five lobes ("petals") bend in at the top and meet. [ I found one source claiming it has four petals, but it's my personal policy to not disturb native wild flowers and I didn't think to count the lobes at the time. Fringed gentians have four obvious petals, so that's likely where the confusion lies.] Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria), generally a more southerly species,* is another possible ID, but its flowers tend to be slightly open at the top and fringed between the lobes.
I imagine insects force their way in to reach the gentian's nectary glands. Apparently this perennial is of special benefit to bumble bees, and I assume they're the ones strong enough to part the tips.  Sorry, I didn't stay around long enough to find out.

On G. linearis, the lance-shaped leaves are opposite on a single stalk, and the sepals (modified leaves) at the base of the flowers are a similar shape. By comparison, the leaves of Soapwort Gentian are slightly wider with a broader point at the tip.

Narrow-leaved Gentian is found from Manitoba to Maine and south in the mountains to Tennessee. The USDA Plants Database map for New York shows its range spread around the Adirondacks plus one county in the Catskills, indicating it's a higher-elevation species. *Several similar species of the blue closed/bottle gentians have more southerly ranges. Red species of gentians are dominant in the Andes where they are more dependent on pollination by birds.

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Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, by Lawrence Newcomb and Gordon Morrison (© 1977), published by Little, Brown & Co. -- see page 252
USDA Plants Database at
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center at

Friday, August 10, 2012


First off, they're not weeds.  They're attractive native wildflowers.  Second, and this is unfortunate, they are not jewels.  The name comes from water's inability to wet the leaves, so after a rain or morning dew, beads of water rest on the surface and scatter light like diamonds.  The plant's alternate name, touch-me-not, refers to the small seed pods that spring open and eject its seeds if you touch them when plump and ripe.

There are two species based on color. The orange species, a.k.a. Spotted Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) is speckled with reddish-brown and its long tail spur curls underneath the back end of the irregular blossom. It prefers wet ground and I've found it in places like the soggy edges of Middle Pond near Saranac Inn.  Ruby-throated Hummingbirds love this plant.

The dangling, one-inch flowers [roughly the length and width] of the yellow version, also called Pale Touch-me-not (Impatiens pallida) have a tail-spur that points down.  It's mostly found in limestone regions with alkaline soils and prefers damp locations like wooded flood plains and shady ravines with a steady supply of moisture.  I'd look for it in the marble (metamorphosed limestone) belts of St. Lawrence County and the limestone bands on the edge of the Adirondacks.

Impatiens are succulents with translucent green stems.  The crushed leaves and stem juice (particularly from the Orange Jewelweed) are folk remedies for poison ivy rash, insect bites, nettles, minor burns and cuts.

Young shoots in spring and the stems and leaves in summer can be eaten as cooked greens.  Boil in two changes of water and discard the water.

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Friday, August 3, 2012


Cardinal-flower beside the Moose River in the Nelson Lake vicinity, August, 2010
Cardinal-flower -- © Dave Spier

This native perennial grows wild along streambanks and in swamps and other wet places up and down the eastern half of the U.S., northeast into Canada and south to Columbia. I've found it in places like Copper Rock Falls on the Grass River (St. Lawrence County) and beside the Moose River (Herkimer County). The plant can reach two or three feet in height, making it a nice addition to any garden if you want it closer to home.

The Cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis) gets its name from the bright-red blossoms hugging the upper stem. (Although sometimes called a spike, it is technically a raceme because of short flower stalks called pedicels.) Look closely at an individual corolla [flower] and you’ll notice three wide lobes forming a lower lip while two narrow lobes extend to the sides like arms. The male and female parts, also scarlet colored, form a narrow projection emerging like a crane above the petals. The base of the flower is a tube that seems perfectly made for hummingbird beaks.

Leaves are lance-shaped, long-pointed and serrated or toothed on the edges and they alternate on a single, main stalk.

Cardinal-flower contains alkaloids and should be considered toxic, as are other members of the genus Lobelia. In spite of this, Native Americans used root and leaf teas for various ailments.

Cardinal-flower and its relative, the blue-violet Great Lobelia (another moist-ground species) belong to the Lobelia subfamily of the Bluebell family.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Pickerelweed -- © Dave Spier

In the world of emergent, aquatic plants, Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) is similar in size and habitat to the Arrowheads and Arrow Arum, but instead of having arrowhead-shaped leaves with pointed lobes, it has leaves more like an upside-down heart. These are held erect above the water by stiff stems. The leaf veins are linear (non-feathery and non-branching) and generally follow the outline shape of the leaf. In the spring, young curled leaves can be collected and added to salads or boiled for 10 minutes and eaten like a cooked green.

Pickerelweed (named for the pickerel fish which frequents the same habitats and sometimes hides under the plants in some locations) is common along sunny, shallow margins of rivers, streams and ponds in much of the eastern half of North America. Even though the plant can reach a height of three feet or more, some of that is underwater. A thick pad of fibrous roots anchors the colonies in the mud. Pickerelweed is intolerant of shade so you’re unlikely to find it in wooded swamps.

The showy blue to blue-violet flowers are arranged in distinctive clusters called spikes at the top of thick, fleshy stalks. Use binoculars to look at the individual flowers if you don’t want to get your feet wet (and don’t have waders or a canoe/kayak at the moment). Each blossom is 2 lipped, and each lip has three lobes for a total of six "petals." Most wildflowers have golden anthers that produce yellow pollen, but the Pickerelweed has dark blue anthers. Instead, a double yellow spot on the top-center "petal" serves as a guide for bees and insects to reach the nectar. Pickerelweed is popular for water gardening because of the attractive blue-violet flowers.

Seeds produced by cross-fertilization are sometimes eaten by Black Ducks and Wood Ducks. Muskrats may also eat a few seeds as well as some of the foliage, and deer feed on the plant. The nutritious, starchy seeds can be eaten like nuts or added to granola, but they are small. It takes roughly 5000 seeds to weigh a pound. They can also be roasted and ground into flour.

The perennial Pickerelweed is a monocot, meaning that each seed produces a new sprout with one (mono) seed leaf, just like cattails, lilies and irises (all plants with parallel-veined leaves). Another similarity with lilies is the trumpet-shaped flowers with six fused petals.

The shed nymph cases of dragonflies and mayflies may sometimes be found clinging to the plant stems. The previous occupants, after spending their youth underwater, climbed into the air, split the shells and emerged to spend the remainder of their lives above water.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012


Bunchberry -- © Dave Spier

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, subgenus Chamaepericlymenum) is essentially a miniature Flowering Dogwood, hence its nickname, Dwarf Dogwood or Dwarf Cornel.

What look like white petals are actually bud scales or bracts. They surround a dense cluster of tiny flowers, each with its own set of four yellow petals that nearly require a magnifying glass. What's unusual is the speed with which each flower opens. The highly-elastic petals snap back to release spring-loaded stamens which then catapult the pollen into the air. The plant generally blossoms in June, but sometimes later.

The flowers and later the fruits are held on a stem above a whorl of generally six strongly-veined leaves (two large plus four smaller ones growing from the axils). The leaf veins converge again toward the pointed tips in typical dogwood fashion. Unlike its woody relatives, the herbaceous Bunchberry dies back to its roots and rhizomes at the end of the growing season.

Bunchberry prospers in acidic soils over an extremely wide elevation range from low swamps through moist, intermediate forests to high alpine zones on Mt. Marcy. It has a wide geographic range across Alaska, all of Canada, the northern states and down through the Rockies, but it doesn't stop there. Bunchberry is also found in the montane and boreal zones of China, Russia and Japan

Look for its clusters of bright scarlet-red "berries" (actually drupes) from mid-August through September. They are edible, but considered tasteless. Eat them raw or cook like a pudding or make the fruits into jelly. Birds (grouse, veery, vireos, etc.) also eat the fruits and deer browse the perennial plants that often grow in clonal colonies.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pink Lady’s-slipper

Of all the native orchids in the Northeast, I've encountered the Pink Lady’s-slipper or Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule) more often than other species.  In addition to bog edges, it can survive in drier pine woods. Acidic soil seems to be the common denominator.

The bottom petal, inflated into a hollow pouch, is longitudinally cleft almost the entire length, providing access to larger insects like bumblebees in search of nectar, although smaller bees in the family Andrenidae are the major pollinators.  Charles Darwin observed that once inside, the smooth, “slippery” pouch interior and incurved edges of the main opening force the bees to leave by a smaller opening where they first brush against the (female) stigma which dislodges any pollen and then the bees pass the (male) anthers where they pick up new pollen that could be carried to the next lady’s-slipper.  After successful pollination the blossoms quickly discard their beauty as the top (dorsal) sepal drops down to seal the opening.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cinnamon Ferns

Cinnamon Ferns -- © Dave Spier

The Cinnamon Fern is a large, coarse and attractive plant usually found in shaded to partly-shaded bog edges, swampy areas, streambanks and similar moist woodlands often in association with sphagnum moss. The green, vegetative leaves (fronds) grow in circular, vase-like clusters reaching a height of three feet or more. Around the end of May or early June, the separate, fertile fronds rising in the center ripen into bright, rusty-red (cinnamon-colored) stalks in preparation for releasing their spores.

The generally accepted scientific name, Osmunda cinnamomea, refers to the Saxon god, Osmunder, who supposedly hid his family from danger in a large colony of these ferns. In addition to creating new plants from spores, Cinnamon Ferns can form these widespread, monotypical stands by extending the heavy, hairy rootstocks. New plants are added at the front while the oldest bases eventually wither and decay. Theoretically, a single plant can continue to grow "forever" in this fashion.

Cinnamon Fern belongs to the Royal Fern Family (Osmundaceae), sometimes called the "Flowering Ferns" which is totally misleading since ferns are primitive predecessors to true flowering plants and to seed plants in general (Spermatophyta). In fact, the Osmunda's are among the most primitive of ferns based on the fossil record. The Cinnamon's relationship to other members of the genus is now a subject of debate. Recent genetic studies suggest it should be moved to its own (new) genus, Osmundastrum, (partly borne out by its apparent inability to hybridize), but that would have no effect on our enjoyment of the fern's symmetrical beauty and color. It makes an attractive ornamental if you have a shady, moist spot with acidic soil - and it's deer-proof!

Cinnamon Fern leaves taper to a point at the tip, but only semi-taper toward the base, meaning the narrowing ends abruptly. [For those needing additional identification details, the fronds are "twice-cut," i.e. the leaves are divided into pointed leaflets (called pinnae) which are then deeply lobed but not quite divided into blunt-pointed subleaflets (normally called pinnules). Look for small woolly tufts where the leaflets attach to the main leaf stalk (called the axis or rachis). Technically the stem or stalk (a.k.a. stipe) is the portion between the lowest leaflets and the ground.]

Cinnamon Ferns can be found throughout the eastern portion of the northern hemisphere and its range continues south as far as Paraguay. Surprisingly, it also occurs in eastern Asia from Siberia to Vietnam, but this is considered a separate subspecies.

The local variety is noted on several plant lists from the Adirondacks, such as the Moose River Plains, but I'd be interested in hearing about other locations where you've found it. I have some photos of the fronds turning yellow and then bronze in the fall, and if I remember to locate one of these (from Cranberry Lake? or another location), I'll post it at the end of summer.

Corrections, comments and questions are always welcome by emailing

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Painted Trilliums

© Dave Spier

My first encounter with a Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) was Memorial Day weekend, 1971, on a canoe trip up the Oswegatchie River from Inlet to High Falls. I have since found this species in Finger Lakes bogs which harbor a number of Adirondack-like plants. Its natural range is Canada south to Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and it continues south in the Appalachians as far as Georgia.

Crimson veining marks the base of each wavy, white petal in contrast to the surrounding three green sepals and three leaves making the Painted Trillium a spectacular woodland wildflower. It tolerates shade and is generally found on well-drained, but moist, acidic soils. Cool, deep humus is ideal. Memorial Day is actually getting late to find it still blooming; the peak is earlier in the month, but higher elevations will delay its blooming. The one in the photo was growing in Zurich Bog, along with Yellow Lady's-slippers, on May 15. The Painted tends to bloom after the Red Trillium found in late April and the Large-flowered (White) Trillium that blooms earlier in May, but these impressions span many years and I'm sure weather influences the relative timing.

I think of the word "trillium" as a contraction of tri-lilium, meaning a member of the Lily Family with all parts in three's or multiples of three. Three leaves, three sepals, three petals, three-parted (female) stigma and six (male) stamens...

Corrections, questions and suggestions are always welcome at or connect through my Facebook page and photo page. There is a separate community-type page for The Northeast Naturalist. Other nature and geology topics can be found on the parallel blogs Northeast Naturalist and Heading Out.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Eastern Hemlocks

Eastern Hemlocks -- © Dave Spier

Of all the trees in New York, the Eastern or Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is probably my favorite. In old growth forests it is capable of living more than half a millennium. It’s a chief component of the climax forests found in the Adirondacks (generally at lower elevations below 2500'), the Catskills, the Lake Ontario shoreline, bog edges, the glens of the Finger Lakes Region and down across the Allegheny Plateau and Appalachian Mountains. In Pennsylvania, it is the state tree.

Eastern Hemlocks occur naturally from Wisconsin and Michigan eastward to the Canadian Maritimes and south through New England and the Mid-Atlantic states to the Appalachians of Tennessee and North Carolina where it is under attack by the wooly adelgid bug. When we re-visited Shenandoah National Park, it was sad to see the mighty groves of old-growth hemlocks reduced to skeletons and dead logs.

Laricobius nigrinus beetles, which are native to the Pacific Northwest, prey on the hemlock wooly adelgid, but I have not kept up on efforts to use them in the fight against the infestation. Cornell was involved with a test in the Finger Lakes region, where the problem is still minor. Cold winters work against the adelgid, but global warming could change that.

At their northern limit, hemlocks can grow at sea level, but the farther south one travels, the higher its preferred elevation. It is essentially a cool-climate evergreen that does better in areas with extra moisture or humidity. Annual precipitation ranges from 30 inches in the north to 60 inches in the south.

Like the Sugar Maple and American Beech, the hemlock grows well in the shade of other trees and, like its associates, it can reach heights of 100 feet. Under the right conditions, it has reached a record height of 173 feet in the South. The trunk of old trees can reach a diameter of five feet at chest height, and the record is six feet. The bark is dark brown and rough, often fissured with age, and was once a source of tannin used in tanning leather. The lumber was used for railroad ties.

For a tree that can grow to such large size, its cones are remarkably tiny and may barely reach an inch in length. Its needles also are small. Unlike pines and spruces, hemlock "needles" are flat, rounded at the tips and they line both sides of the flexible twigs. This is an advantage in shedding snow before the twigs and branchlets break. The undersides of the needles are whitened with two stomatal bands that allow the exchange of gases with the air. The half-inch long needles are attached to twigs by slender stalks, unlike Balsam Fir needles which are flat but attach directly with circular bases. The needles of all conifers can be used to make a tea rich in vitamin C.

The undersides of hemlock needles -- © Dave Spier

Incidentally, hemlocks make poor Christmas trees because the needles fall as soon as they dry. It’s best to leave them growing because the seeds and needles provide food for Ruffed Grouse and twigs are eaten by deer, Red Squirrels and even cottontail rabbits.

In early spring, before the deciduous trees leaf out, the hemlocks add a welcome touch of green along with mosses, a few evergreen ferns and Skunk-cabbage leaves. On a clear morning, enjoy the sunlight streaming through the evergreens.

Questions, additions and corrections may be sent to The Northeast Naturalist.  There is a discussion of hemlocks in Michael Kudish's book, Adirondack Upland Flora.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Ferd's Bog

Donna at the end of the Ferd's Bog boardwalk (Sept. 20 photo) -- © Dave Spier

Ferd's Bog
© Dave Spier

Anders Peltomaa recently posted a link on the group, Northern New York Birds, to a photograph of a Black-backed Woodpecker perched in a tree along with a Gray Jay near the Ferd's Bog boardwalk.  This Black Spruce bog, stream and bog pond are roughly 50 acres of wetlands surrounded by another 50 acres of boreal forest.  The Central New York Hiking website lists the site as 170 acres, but that likely includes the upland forest between Uncas Road and the boreal forest.

Ferd's Bog is in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness of west-central Hamilton County. The eBird hotspot coordinates are 43.788692, -74.74973.  If you use eBird and zoom in using satellite view, you'll see that point next to the boardwalk, the end of which is a mere 0.3 mile north of Uncas (Brown's Tract) Road.
The Adirondack Experience website has a Ferd's Bog page with an interactive Google map.  The page also contains a list of birds and when they can be expected, based on information taken from or used by the Hamilton County Birding Trail Map.  Directions indicate the tiny parking area is about 3.5 miles east-northeast of Route 28 after they split east of Eagle Bay.  However, the CNY-Hiking site gives the distance as 3.2 miles.  I've never had the foresight to record my odometer readings, so I'm no help on that point.  There's a small D.E.C. sign, usually in the shadows, so it can be hard to find.  A search of the D.E.C. website came up empty-handed.

Questions and corrections may be sent to

Transition from boreal forest to open bog (Sept. 23 photo) -- © Dave Spier
More photos from Ferd's Bog:
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