Sunday, October 21, 2012

what does being an amateur naturalist look like?

It looks like wandering around, wondering, asking questions, and taking notes. And with luck, finding useful information in field guides to help the process out.

This particular post will mark a slight departure from the normal, because while I’m certainly not including all 263 pictures I took today (!!!) I’m sharing a LOT. Not all of these are as gasp-worthy as I usually aim for. I thought I’d document the whole trip – everything I explored, every question I had, more or less. Not just the highlight reel.

First, though, allow me to boast that I did an 8.5 mile run this morning. Ahhhhh, heaven.

OK. We’re in the woods up the hill from our house, to the west.

I started with yesterday’s stump-with-maybe-its-own-sprouts. I confirmed they were really coming out of that stump. (I could see that from a different angle.)

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So who is this?

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Pointy brown bud: sugar maple. I know the bud well enough to not need to proceed any further, but thinking I might do this type of post, I took more pictures, for you, dear reader. Note the opposite (paired, not alternating) branching structure.

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opposite, opposite, opposite.

It’s useful to learn trees at all their ages. Sometimes when they’re big, you don’t get a chance to find a bud – it’s all above your head. So trunks are useful.

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Sugar maple trunk apparently looks like this at this age. For another day: figuring whether that’s a moss or a lichen.

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A yellow birch neighbor drapes a root right next to the stump. Had it started growing here when the main sugar trunk was still alive? Or is this more recent? Hm. I played some more with following sugar maples out to distance shots of their opposite branching, blue sky in the background.

In the meantime, I was thinking about roots, their fingers reaching into the earth, where things are broken down into the building blocks of life.

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They suck a lot out of the earth to build themselves, but they pay it back in the form of leaves every fall.  Those are our solar panels in the background.

I watched a single oak leaf drift down. Its own dance, its one big performance. And I, the audience.

I wondered about life. That fallen leaf: it rots. At one point does it turn into life again? I don’t know much about how decomposition actually happens. Other than it involves both mechanical degradation, as well as other littler buggers saying “yum! food!” So there’s a future adventure.

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I realized that beech and sugar maple, at a particular size I call “teenager”, look very similar to one another. There are both in the shot above. But the leaves are all beech.

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beech leaves. See the pointy bud, just above the word “pointy” in this line?

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beech trunk, beech leaf shadows.

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Now compare that to the trunk of a neighboring sugar maple (sadly, dying – that’s the mushrooms.) Same even gray, same colonization by pale circles of lichen.

Onto the saga of the ferns.

I either found out more about the fern I keyed out yesterday, or found it, plus a different species. I have yet to consult the guide. Here’s the data:

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This is from a new plant. It’s generally similar to who I was dealing with yesterday. Except, NOTE THE SPORES. Every leaf seemed to have spores.

I spent a while documenting that this one’s not broadest at the base (as I’d thought yesterday’s was). I’m not sure if they are the “intermediate”, or the “super-tapered toward the base”, kind, that I saw in the guide.

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The tip is off-camera at left. The base leaves (pinnae) definiteIy taper a bit. I took boatloads of pix at different levels of scale in case I wound up having to re-key yesterday’s example, based on the tapered part.

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The stalk.

Note to self, we were just uphill (west) of here:

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I know: amazing, right?

Now I went in search of the ferns I’d been working with yesterday.

I found them.

No spores. I checked every single leaf.

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So the question is: Are they the same species, in a boy/girl variety in which one kind gets the spores and the other one doesn’t? Wait, what would the point be of the kind with no spores?  (I am aware that spores grow into little plants that themselves, bear girly bits that make eggs, and boy bits that make sperm, and the union of those is what grows up to be what you’d recognize as a fern.) Maybe bearing spores is a function of age? How long does a fern live? More than one year? If I find all the leaves of a given plant have NO spores, is it just, they haven’t gotten around to it yet? I’ll be looking that up. (But as a teaser, more ferns are coming up.)

After I broke my brain wondering about all this and trying to take enough pictures to be useful later, I looked at a neighboring kind of fern – totally different, less finely divided, glossy green leaves. Eventually I realized it was the very same plant as from yesterday. What I had, yesterday, taken to be rain-soaked rotty dead bits at the end of the leaves, were really the fertile fronds! (Ferns have three places they put their spores: on the backs of the leaves (pinnae), as we’ve seen here today, or on separate stalks entirely, or at the ends of leaves, in which case they’re called fertile fronds.)

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Those nubbly grain-of-sand bits are the spores. Well, they’re probably the “sporangia” inside of which are the spores.

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In the meantime, the leaves were juicy evergreen, with teensy spikeys on the margins.

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Then I looked at corn-on-the-cob clubmoss (my name) for a while.

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Looking up the hill, I can see this place has been logged.

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Five stumps. See them all?


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This is right near that tree from yesterday’s post, that’s draping itself over the stump it seeded in. See the dark brown stuff? Old stump.

Other evidence of a logging some years ago, in a different direction, of pretty big trees. Hardwood of some kind.

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There were four in proximity but with the macro lens I couldn’t frame a shot of all of them – they were too close to me.

I thought about managing these woodlands. How little I know of forestry, despite a couple of classes in grad school that touched on it. I’d like to think I’d never log, but face it: we already have (in ‘08, we cleared out a stand of hemlock blocking our access to sun on the far side of the driveway, and part of the deal was, they could take decent hemlock and pine out of the woods up the hill.) I can see at least two cycles of logging, plus the fact that this was all cleared and kept cleared – as evidenced by the periodic massive mast trees (now all downed as shown above), that were allowed to stick around and grow huge with no competition.

So, how would I manage these woodlands? Maybe as a sugar bush…there’s an awesome sugar bush just up the hill from here – but I like the diversity…

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Like oooh, another cherry.

Then I looked at the fairy bower, and at the apparent disaster that created it – a wind storm of some kind? It bowed a handful of trees that all crashed their heads into each other, leaning over and shading a little patch of forest floor that’s got a lot of ferns and dead branches festooned with the drunk chorus girl mushrooms.

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The roof of the fairy bower.

Where these all meet is in the crook of a dead tree snapped off in what I’m guessing was a different event:

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A disappointing shot of some great spiral growth.

Moving on. I looked at what I’m thinking is an ash, to see how the characteristic diamond bark pattern is in evidence near the base…

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But less so, higher up:

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Now this, really really excited me. These two leaves I am holding hands with– separate blades, bases right next to each other, so this is the same plant.

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Observe the back of the one on the bottom:

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And the one on the top?

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No spores!

So that supports the idea that just cause you’re the type to have spores on the backs of your pinnae, doesn’t mean that you do. It also suggests it’s not a function of age, because these two leaves look like twins. I am officially conflusticated about this. Note to self: w/ respect to how much they taper at the bottom, these guys were the intermediate kind.

I had fun with an understory tree. Witch hazel? I’ll get back to you. That bud’s pretty distinctive.

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At any rate, here’s what I see here: each little-bit-of-that – each little section – represents a year’s growth. Apple trees do the same thing: stubby little branches that grow the tiniest bit each year, culminating in a bud each time. Which at least in the case of the (let’s just say) witch hazel, might be a function of living in the shade of taller trees. They just don’t get a lot of light to work with.

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This particular branch has been at it for eight years now.

If I am right about this, then the terminal end of a branch – the one that is not a side branch, the way the guy above is, but the leading bud of the whole main branch off the trunk – is going to be the one reaching for the light, probably the one most IN the light.  So let’s look down to the terminal bud of this whole branch.

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Victory. You can see something like a centimeter of growth each year. I had fun looking at the next set of branches back from that terminal bud, seeing how they, too, shot off a half to full centimeter every year when they first came off their homebranch.

After this I pondered the mystery of two huge old sections of downed logs.

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I couldn’t tell if that stump in the background had sheared off near the base when it was rotted through (like the one at the bottom of our driveway), or if it was logged. I could go with logged, given how high up that shear is, and how…even it is. But then closer up, it looked kind of jaggedy – not smoothly sawn through.

Let’s say, logged, and then rotted into jaggedyness. So, why leave two huge 10 or 12 foot sections there? If you’ve got the manpower to take down a tree that size, you’ve got it in you to deal with the whole trunk. All the firewood sized branches had been amputated off.  Maybe the big sections just weren’t worth dealing with, but you can’t reach the firewood til you get the main trunk down? That seems like a waste of time, unless you’re pretty desperate for firewood. Or was the whole thing a windfall, in which case the goal was to get what firewood you could manage?

No matter how I sliced it, I kept getting the feeling of an elephant slaughtered for its tusks. I had to drag myself out of there after a while.

I did have the rare privilege of happening to see a little furry thing – of the mouse or mole or vole variety – scampering around a trunk about 30 feet away. The first time I have ever SEEN a mammal, in the woods. No pictures.

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Some mosses cheered me up. I am not kidding when I refer to these fruiting spores as fairy convocations. They resist being photographed, and I have a technical understanding of why that might be (just based on observing how my camera reacts to them.)

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But I have other theories, as well.

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Such as, it’s the fairies blurring themselves on purpose, as if to say, “don’t be RUDE.”

Then I got into some lichen.

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Eventually realizing, this was growing on a branch that had been cut and left there by humans.

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It was a good reminder that trees probably don’t freak out about life and death the way we do. They immediately get reconstituted into another life form. No worries!

I fell in love with a mushroom.

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I realized at this point that I was lost. OK, not lost, lost, but I couldn’t see the next big downed mast tree up the hill from where I was. I realized I was canted to the right (north) slightly. The tree I was looking for would be to my left, to the south.

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Saw this guy. For future exploration. Shelf mushrooms like this mean this tree’s dead. Or on the way to dead.

Eventually, I saw what I’d been looking for.

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The next former pasture up’s mast tree, its useful limbs lopped off. This one has never weirded me out like the other one does.

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From the west, up the hill.

I think this is because I know from tracking up here last winter that folks live in this tree trunk – miceys? squirrels? I’ve seen tracks I haven’t sussed out yet, and fox tracks, all leading into and around this venerable wonder.

Heading back toward the house, I found a young tree I can’t ID – for some reason, I am guessing muscle wood aka ironwood.

It comes off as a dour beech – in that it still has all its leaves, but they’re brown, instead of coppery.

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Whoops, blurry.

But teensy buds! 

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Also blurry! Oops! (By contrast, beech have those long super-pointy golden brown buds.)

And lastly, a sexy, sinewy form, which you’ll just have to trust me on.

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Plus kinda stripy-greeny. Which is reminiscent of striped maple, but not with that bud and those leaves.  Muscle wood is called muscle wood, I believe, cause that’s what it looks like. So that’s my guess for now.

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Nearby we have hophornbeam. Maybe. I forget. Stay tuned. Could be a young shagbark hickory. But I’ve never seen a big one here. And typically I see those around more oak. Not that I know anything. We do HAVE oak…hmmm….

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Cherry, yum. Black bark in potato-chip sized flakes.

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Our buddies, a couple of ash. Note the diamond braid bark. Those are beech leaves in the foreground.

OK now for something really cool: I visited another felled rotted out mast tree stump – the one I call the Dad tree, because it has scoured out holes in it that form heart shapes and it’s just a huge bear of a thing. (Just like Dad.)  I found a knothole to peer through. I had a blast with the focus.

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Ha! Awesome, no?

At this point, I’d been out about two hours. Huge banks of clouds had been coming and going, mostly coming at this point – the wind was picking up and it was getting cool. I realized it was time to go inside and have hot chocolate and find a cat to sit on me. So that’s what I did.

I hope you enjoyed the ride!

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