Saturday, April 28, 2012

Long Mountain and Rattlesnake Knob

I grew up looking across fields to the top of Long Mountain from our home on Bay Road in Amherst, Massachusetts. In winter we'd pull our sleds a long way up the mountain and then sled down. I remember using flashlights one time to see our way down when sledding in the dark. Or maybe that story is just a legend, I'll have to ask my brother as I think he was the ring-leader on that particular expedition.

While still in grade school I learned to identify mountain laurel and rattlesnake plantain and Christmas fern as we hiked up the mountain on summer days with my parents and siblings. Bay Road was quiet back then - we walked to a neighbor's driveway to catch the bus and hung around with our friends in the road. Today the road is a major thoroughfare, traffic is fast and loud at times and busy. But the view across the fields to Long Mountain remains.
We return often to visit my parents at Winterberry Farm, their home now for more than 55 years, and this weekend we celebrate Dad's 90th birthday. It is a lovely spring weekend, if a bit breezy. There is always lots to do outside at the old homestead. In between we find time for walks to the back forty and up into the hills. In recent years we've been hiking to Rattlesnake Knob just west of Long Mountain. The Knob provides a great view east to Long Mountain.
I've written before about the trail to Rattlesnake Knob as it passes through a beautiful oak-beech forest. The final ascent to the top of the knob is steep, but it is easy to pause along the way as the basalt-laden slope hosts many interesting plants. Today was no exception.

Hepatica had already flowered, although its leaves are beautiful too.
Two small clumps of cancer-root or bear corn (Conopholis americana) were emerging. This non-photosynthezing, parasitic plant was growing not far from the base of an oak tree, one of its favorite hosts. I've seen this plant only once before, from this same trail.
Large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandifolia) was flowering farther along the trail, near the top of the Knob. It's single pale yellow flower dangled from the plant's perfoliate leaves -- leaves that clasp the entire stem.
My young nieces enjoy these outings more and more, gathering their own nature experiences based on what they see and feel and smell. Together we tore and sniffed the leaves of wintergreen and paused to see the hepatica leaves and bear corn stalks. They stopped and played with small stones and floated twigs and leaves down a small brook. It is always fun to spend time in the woods with them, watching them explore the very same places that I explored when I was their age.
These woods are full of interesting things to see, especially in spring when hardwoods are just leafing out and understory plants take advantage of the filtered light streaming through the canopy. We find something new every time we hike this trail.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Sweet Rain

According to the UNH Weather Station our area received about 2.5 inches of rain in the last two days. Such a relief. On our walk at mid-day, in between bouts of rain, we felt the humidity. Even that was welcome after weeks of dry, parched Spring air.

The woods sighed with relief as the pools and small streams filled with water.
Overnight the rock tripe transformed itself from a dry, brittle collection of ugly lichen clinging to the rocks to a luxuriant carpet of green.
And how sweet to cross paths with tiny red efts--the immature stage of the red-spotted newt--as they were wandering the freshly moistened forest floor.
Every woodland plant was covered in water droplets, including this solomon's seal perched on a big boulder.
The rain fell steadily overnight. I was worried about the peach trees in our yard; fortunately the blossoms held and the trees weathered this storm quite well. Everything looks grand.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hydroperiod

A steady rain has fallen since mid-day, with heavier rain forecasted for tonight and tomorrow. This will help alleviate the 2012 spring drought. The dry spring had me thinking about frogs and salamanders and the wetlands that they require each spring to breed. The water in their breeding pools was getting a bit thin. The rain arrived none too soon, for amphibians, for our garden, to prevent forest fires, and to replenish water supplies.

Each spring wood frogs and spotted salamanders travel from their upland habitats to "vernal pools" to breed and lay eggs. After hatching the frog tadpoles and salamander larvae race against time to develop and transform (through metamorphosis) into their terrestrial adult forms. Once laid, wood frog eggs take 10 to 30 days to hatch and then another 42 to 105 days to mature into the adult frog. Spotted salamanders take a bit longer--31 to 54 days to hatch and 60 to 110 days for the larval period. For both species, this typically takes them into June or July at the earliest. You can see their problem this year--the wetlands were beginning to dry up far too soon. 

Wood frog eggs in a vernal pool, April 17, 2008
Wetlands come in various shapes and sizes and types and include lakes, ponds, emergent marsh, scrub-shrub, forested, wet meadows, peatlands, and vernal pools. Each of these has a different "hydroperiod,"  meaning the length of time in a given year that the wetland holds water. Vernal pools by their definition have short or medium hydroperiods, since they dry up in less than four months (short) or within 4 to 11 months (medium) and typically do not hold water year-round. Permanent water bodies, such as lakes and ponds, have long hydroperiods.

All of New Hampshire's 6 salamanders and 10 frogs will breed in wetlands that hold water year-round. However, some species prefer wetlands that dry up each year including the wood frog and spotted salamander. What is the advantage of this strategy, given that in some years, like 2012, the pond dries up too soon? Fewer predators. Short-hydroperiod pools have the fewest predators and long-hydroperiod wetlands have the most predators.

One can picture a frog on a lily pad zapping a fly with its tongue. But a more common occurrence is the insect eating the frog. Diving beetles, caddisfly and dragonfly larvae, giant water bugs, and water scorpions prey on tadpoles and young salamanders, as do fish and red-spotted newts. There are fewer of these predators in the medium hydroperiod and far fewer in the short hydroperiod wetlands. So breeding in pools that might dry up too soon is still a better risk than laying eggs in a permanent wetland that is for sure full of predators.

Green frogs and bullfrogs almost always breed in permanent wetlands as their tadpoles take one year and two years, respectively, to develop. Thus, a vernal pool that dries up each year doesn't work for them. They have to risk the high predator wetlands. But they have other adaptions, including toxic skin that tastes bad to fish.

A Bullfrog in a permanent wetland
Spotted salamanders and wood frogs spend a relatively brief time in the wetland each year. The rest of the year they live in the uplands around the wetland. Hence the absolute need to protect both the wetlands and the surrounding uplands. In addition, frogs and toads and salamanders disperse to new areas when the local population reaches a certain limit. Getting to the nearest vernal pool or wetland requires safe passage through uplands. An interconnected network of wetlands with a mix of hydroperiods is the best for all amphibians. In wet years the short hydroperiod wetlands remain wet long enough to hatch a batch of frogs and salamanders. In dry years, amphibians will shift to wetter sites, but with the risk of more predation.

Fortunately the rain has finally come, although it is unclear whether it was in time for the wood frogs and spotted salamanders that bred in the quick-drying pools. The plants and wetlands are soaking up the rain. I can see immediate effects on the vegetation, they seem to grow before my eyes with this welcome flush of precipitation. The effects on amphibians will take longer to evaluate. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Bloom Times

Sometimes it is about what you don't see.

In their article Early Bloomers in the New York Times on Wednesday the authors noted the change in first flowering dates of many plants. They compared Henry David Thoreau's observations from Concord, Massachusetts in the 1850s to the flowering period of the same plants today. According to this comparison, the highbush blueberry shifted its bloom time from mid-May in the 1850s to early April in 2012. A shift of six weeks.

The authors--Richard Primack, Abraham Miller-Rushing, and Becca Stadtlander--also noted that other plants have shifted to a much earlier bloom time, including shadbush and marsh marigold. This caught my eye as I had just written about those two plants in my blog that very day. Specifically, that they were blooming early here in our neck of the woods. After reading Early Bloomers, I realized that I'd seen quite healthy flowering populations of marsh marigolds and shadbush this year.

Marsh Marigolds
And here is the interesting link between climate change and these changing bloom times. One would think that these plants that are shifting their flowering times so dramatically would be the vulnerable ones. The reverse might actually be the case. Some plants seem to have not changed their bloom time at all or very little. It is these species--the ones that are not adapting to changing conditions--that are likely the most vulnerable. The bloom time shifters seem to be healthy. The static bloomers not so good.

Many plants from Thoreau's Walden Pond have disappeared already--from habitat loss, pollution, roads and development, heavy deer browsing. As species flame out their habitat is taken over by invasive species such as purple loosestrife and garlic mustard or by species adapted to southern climes such as sweet pepperbush and silky dogwood.

All species need to adapt to changing environmental conditions. The great worry is that climate change is occurring at such an unprecedented rate that some species are not able to adapt quickly enough, especially when confronted with all the other human-imposed land use pressures. Some number of these species will disappear, perhaps unnoticed. Other flowering plants--desirable or not--will take their place.

After awhile we will fail to notice what is no longer there. Will these disappearing plants be missed by us? By bees or birds? Or some other tiny insect that we do not yet understand?

Shadbush

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Peach Blossoms and Buzzing Bees

The two peaches in our front yard are in full bloom. Their pink blossoms fill the yard with a delicate, sweet fragrance.
The creaky old peach is as full of flowers as the much younger tree. The carpenter bees zoom by my ear as they move quickly from one flower to the next. The honey bees by contrast are slow and deliberate.
The carpenter bees live and nest in the sunny gable end of our house. They burrow into the eaves, which is probably not so good for our house. But the bees are such vital pollinators and important members of our yard community that I'm willing to share our space.

If the peach trees can weather the vagaries of the season then we should have a banner crop in August. Other plants and animals are springing forward. The frogs and toads are racing against the drought to mate and lay eggs with enough time for the tadpoles to reach adulthood before the pools dry up. Tree frogs are calling from the red maples behind our house. We also watched a broad-winged hawk carry a stick to a thicket of tall trees; we hope they build their nest and stay.

On a walk yesterday morning through a nearby conservation area we listened to a grouse drumming. Yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, and hermit thrushes are here in droves. We heard toads trilling from wet spots--I say wet spots because the wetlands are so dry. The gorgeous yellow flowers of marsh marigolds are in full bloom as are the shadbush. It all seems so early.

The sugar snap peas are an inch high. I finally finished the pea fence and now need to put up the full garden fence before the deer find the tender shoots. At this time of year I squeeze my work in between gardening. The weeds are speed growing in this warm weather, soon the lawn will need mowing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Welch-Dickey Loop Trail

On this beautiful spring day we hiked the 4.4-mile Welch-Dickey Loop Trail off the Waterville Valley Road. It was a perfect first spring hike in the Whites, in recognition of tax day and in celebration of being outdoors. We met our hiking friends Mike, Kevin, and Jerry at the big parking lot. Srini and I (and Kodi) were the third car there. By the time we finished the hike at 1:30 we counted 50 cars; a very popular route, although we never felt crowded on the trail.
These mountains are not high: Welch tops out at 2,605 feet and Dickey is slightly higher at 2,734 feet. The views along the way though are terrific, and the upper half of the stretch to the top of Welch Mountain leads up one giant slab, with many, many great views along the way.
Where soil and leaves and twigs accumulate on the south-facing slope, plants grow, including a unique jack pine rocky ridge plant community. Jack pine is a fire-dependent species, is rare in New Hampshire, and reaches the southeastern limit of its range here. A new wonderful book--The Nature of New Hampshire--by Dan Sperduto and Ben Kimball notes that Welch Mountain is one of the best examples of this rare community in New Hampshire. Jack pine cones are serotinous, meaning they only open when exposed to hot fire or high temperatures. Hot summer temperatures on the south slope of Welch Mountain likely generate enough heat to open the cones.
Today was warm, but not hot. A gently breeze kept us company all day, and perhaps was the reason that we experienced no black flies or mosquitos. Kodi found it a little hot; he rested under the shade of the jack pine when time allowed. Our hiking party proceeded at a perfect, casual pace, so Kodi was able to rest at will.
The woods remain so dry. The rock tripe that clasps onto the big boulders looked withered. Typically, April rains moisten the tripe such that it turns a luxurious blue-green.
In the few shaded sections of the trail, a bit of moisture seeped out of the ground. I imagined all the nearby trees extending their roots to soak up this moisture. We saw only a few small patches of ice remaining in the darkest crevasses along the trail. Despite the droughty conditions we saw and heard much life along the way. We heard yellow-bellied sapsuckers tapping among the hardwoods and juncos trilled among the jack pines.
A small flotilla of turkey vultures soared over the valley. A kestrel and broad-winged hawk passed overhead. Ravens soared over the peaks. As we descended through a beech-oak forest, mourning cloak butterflies flitted in the understory. Bear-clawed beech trees were evident here too.
Along the way we stopped often to admire the views and soak up the warm sun and wonder at our good fortune to be out on such a fine day.
Enroute to Welch Mountain....
The Forest Service has fenced off the sensitive plant communities,
so hikers don't trample rare plants that take hundreds of years to develop.
A look back at Welch Mountain as we hiked toward Dickey Mountain.
A view toward the Tripyramids from atop Dickey Mountain.
Descending from Dickey Mountain--another great big slab.
This was our first hike on the Welch-Dickey Trail. We couldn't have asked for a better day. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Beaver Update

I contacted Eric Orff, a wildlife biologist who is retired from NH Fish and Game, about the dead beaver that I posted about yesterday. Eric is a well-known authority on beaver, among other wildlife, so I knew he would set me straight.

Here is what he said about the dead beaver with lots of notches in its tail,
"That is just usual beaver on beaver chewing. Pretty common. Plus lots of scars likely under the fur if it were skinned out. Being a beaver is a hard lot. Beaver are very territorial and with the high beaver population there is a lot of fighting among beavers. There is little unoccupied territory for a young beaver to move into. Since April is the big dispersal month, death from territorial fights is not uncommon." 
Eric recommends having a few beaver trapped each year to maintain a healthy, and not overpopulated beaver population. Eric also posts a blog at New Hampshire Nature Notes.

Beaver have huge incisors that they use to gnaw down huge trees. Clearly they also use those massive teeth to bite each other. If you look at the photo that I posted yesterday you can now envision two big teeth marks among the smaller ones. This beaver was in some serious fights.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Beaver Tails

Once in awhile I see a dead beaver on the road, the result of a roadkill. The poor beaver was probably dispersing to a new territory in spring, as the two year olds do. They leave their birth wetland and lodge to find their own drainage after spending two years with their parents and their one-year old siblings. Beavers, like most animals, do not like to crawl through dark culverts to move upstream or downstream. Instead, they waddle onto a road at night and attempt the crossing.

Last weekend I found a dead beaver in its own wetland. That was a first. I noticed something floating at the   dam on a large beaver pond along the Sweet Trail in Durham. A boardwalk parallels the downstream side of a long, impressive beaver dam. The beaver dam is at such a height that I was nearly at eye level with the ponded water. I looked over and saw something furry floating in the water--the dead beaver.

My young niece was with me so together we poked the beaver with a stick. The beaver was bloated, but otherwise looked healthy. It even had a small bunch of green vegetation clutched in its teeth. The day was windy and I think the waves pushed the beaver toward the dam. It could have died anywhere in the wetland. But why did it die.

Here is a photo of the beaver. Note the notches in the tail. I wonder if those were caused by a snapping turtle. They seem unusual, although I think had nothing to do with its death.


My niece was intrigued by the flat, leathery tail. For the rest of the walk she talked about the beaver and other dead animals we've found together--a skunk, a raccoon--and what one could do with a beaver tail. Her young, creative mind was so absorbed with our beaver find, that she forgot about the hike itself and in no time we were back to the car.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Gardening Season Underway

Gardening season is well under way here in southeastern New Hampshire. The ground is dry, too dry for early April. Red flag warnings from NOAA continue due to dry air and high winds. I planted sugar snap peas today, although I could have planted them two weeks ago given the warm soil and lack of snow cover. As the perennials emerge or sprout new shoots I notice that many took a beating this winter. The thyme and lavender died back and other perennials did not fare well. The lack of snow cover was a problem.

Over at New Roots Farm this week I transplanted plugs of lavender, marjoram, and chocolate mint into bigger cells. My hands smelled lovely after handling the aromatic seedlings all morning. Farmer Renee's kale and swiss chard seedlings are nearly ready to be planted outdoors. She expects the first tomato from her grafted plants to be ripe in early June.

A walk in the woods in recent days offered a glimpse of a few spring ephemerals. Trailing arbutus is in full bloom and full fragrance. You have to kneel down to smell the dainty white flowers amidst the creeping mat of oval, leathery green leaves. It is worth the effort.
New leaves of the Canada mayflower are unfurling on the forest floor.
Birds trickled in this past week including a few great blue herons that returned to local marshes. The phoebes went suddenly quiet with the return of cooler temperatures. Chipping sparrows arrived back at their usual spot along our road. A friend saw an osprey, but I am still looking for my first sighting of the year.

The expansion of the vegetable garden is advancing slowly. I am digging the lawn up with just a shovel. Each dug spadeful requires a shake of the sod to loosen soil, squishing of grubs that fall out,  and a gentle returning of any worms to the garden. Less lawn and more vegetables is worth the effort.