Wondering About My Feet

A fresh layer of snow makes my heart sing and I can’t resist any opportunity to look at footprints left behind by those who travel through it.

l-fox-path

And so early this morning I followed the trail of a fox who had walked in a straight line for the most part, with a wee diversion here and there, perhaps to sniff out possibilities.

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While the fox’s path continued northward, I decided to turn at the logging road and headed west, curious as to what stories might unfold.

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It was the papery calyx of Indian Tobacco to which my eye was next drawn. Its winter manifestation, both delicate and light, offered an ethereal image in a global manner.

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Often a solitary plant, I found it scattered along the path. And then, at one particular spot, I noticed something more than just its form and stature.

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This was the sight of coyote play. Several coyotes at play, in fact.

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And one, or maybe more than one, had peed on the Indian Tobacco. Curiously, Lobelia inflata, as it is known, is a poisonous annual–maybe the coyotes knew that. Or maybe it was just the right spot for one to claim familial rights.

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I’d arrived at the  log landing, that staging place to which logs are hauled, trimmed and loaded onto timber trucks. It’s also the perfect stage for all who dance in the night. In this case, I noted the tracks of at least four coyotes, presumably a family clan, who’d zigged and zagged as they crossed the landing.

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Sometimes they’d followed each other and then split apart.

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But over and over again, they came together, perhaps to play. And maybe it was also a rehearsal for future hunts, practicing yet again how to circle prey.

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I turned around at this point, and as I headed back, I suddenly realized a moose had passed, though earlier than the coyote clan.

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And a snowshoe hare had also bounded through the scene previously.

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More in tune with the coyotes’ time frame, a ruffed grouse had left tracks, but I trust flew off without meeting its demise–yet.

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On my way back, with my eyes still drawn downward, I noticed other visitors. I suspect this was a carpenter ant.

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It was beside a rushing stream and its wings were folded. Had it taken a dip? It kept raising one leg at a time, as if uncertain of the snowy base upon which it walked.

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I found snow cutworms, the larval stage of a noctrid moth. They were less than an inch long, similar in size to a balsam fir needle and I’m not sure how I keyed into them, except that once I did, I noticed them again and again. How had I missed ever viewing these before, I wondered.

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Also quite minute, a tiny spider that posed beside my boot.

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Its hairy body seemed to suit the situation.

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But my favorite find of all, a much larger spider . . .

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complete with a translucent green head and legs, made lighter by the flash of my camera. Why, oh why, did it cross the snow? Perhaps it was a fishing spider? If you know, do tell.

What I know is that it was beautiful, brought a smile to my face, made my heart sing and was the perfect culmination of all that I had wondered about at my feet.

(P.S. Fellow Master Naturalist Alan Seamans shared this with me: ” The beautiful green spider is Tetragnatha viridis, the green long-jawed orb weaver. The color of the abdomen is variable, sometimes with little red, other times with a lot of red like yours (doesn’t seem to be gender-related either). Normally their green color helps them camouflage amongst pine needles, their usual habitat, however it seems that they are frequently spotted in winter on snow for some reason! This species is common in the eastern US. Your specimen shows several i.d. characteristics: eight eyes in two sets of four parallel; long chelicerae (jaws), long legs with spines, and of course the beautiful green color. I will make a guess that it is a female because it lacks enlarged pedipalps? The genus is also called stretch spiders, ’cause that’s what they do! Stretch out those long legs so they look thin and blend in on pine needles and twigs.” Thank you, Alan.

And Rich Holschuh’s comment below.)

 

Some Call Them Weeds

Shades of brown, gray and green dominate the winterscape now that we finally have some snow. It’s those browns that frequently draw my focus as I admire the woody skeletons of bygone summer wildflowers. Of course, some call them weeds.. I’ll admit that they do grow prolifically–especially in land cleared by humans, e.g. the field and power line I frequent.

But . . . come meet a few of my winter friends.

Indian Tobacco

This is Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata). Guides say it tends to be alone, but I’ve seen it grow in colonies as well. The papery calyx is all that is left now.

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Inflata refers to the inflated seedpods, which are two-chamber capsules that split open to drop their seeds.

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Minute and scaly, the seeds self sow.

bugleweed

I struggle with the ID of this member of the mint family. Knowing it is a mint is the easy part. Notice the square stem? I believe it’s bugleweed or water horehound, but I’ve also toyed with motherwort. Either way, both feature toothy calyces that whorl around the stems. I keep flip-flopping because the dried seedpods seem larger than bugleweed, but all were on single stems and the area is known to be wet–though not consistently. Maybe knowing it’s a mint is enough.

spirea 3 meadowsweet

Both hardhack (steeplebush) and meadowsweet are members of the Rosaceae family. Their dried fruit structure is known as a follicle, meaning it splits open along one line–like a milkweed. But these two plants have five follicles encircling a central point.

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Showy goldenrods grow abundantly and it’s no wonder given all their seeds. They depend on the wind and my snow pants to disperse. I refer to plants that stick to my clothes as volunteers. And if they are sticking to me, then they are also sticking the fur of mammals that move about this area. Today I found deer, bobcat and squirrel tracks.

achene

Both goldenrods and aster seeds have small, single-seeded fruits called achenes. A receptacle holds the fruits in place until they’re ready to head off on their own.

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Check out the crown of hair, called a pappus, on this aster. These act like parachutes and enable the fruits to float along in a breeze, thus spreading the flowers far and wide.

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While the goldenrod flowers tend to grow in dense clusters, aster flowers are found in a single arrangement.

A turn to folklore explains how the goldenrods and asters are related. Two young girls talked talked about their future. One, who had golden hair, said she wanted to do something that would make people happy. The other, with blue eyes, said that she wanted to be with her golden-haired friend. When the two girls told a wise old lady of their dreams, she gave them some magic corn cake. After eating the cake, the girls disappeared. The next day, two new kinds of flowers appeared where the girls had walked: Asters and Goldenrods.

g gall 2 Goldenrod bunch gall

Another way to identify goldenrod in the winter is to look for these galls. The goldenrod ball gall, on the left, is a round gall in the middle of a stem. In the spring, the Goldenrod gall fly lays her eggs on the stem. Hatched larvae chew their way into the stem and the gall starts to develop. The other is a Goldenrod bunch gall created by a tiny fly called the Goldenrod gall midge. It looks like a mass of tiny leaves. While it stops the main stem from growing, tiny branches extend outward.

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Though not an insect, I did find a spider on the snow today.

 bouquet

And then I came in, bringing a few finds with me. My guy is lucky–bouquets come cheap around these parts.

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Some call them weeds. I call them volunteers who add beauty in any season.

 

Under-Appreciated Beauty

There’s an under-appreciated beauty in our midst right now. It’s one that’s easy to dismiss, but taking the time to look brings great rewards.

wildflowers

What may look like a field of weeds to you, is actually a perfect place to sit and wonder. To admire the structure and form of each wild flower. To watch and listen for wildlife that finds nourishment and cover here.

Hardhack

This particular plant has earned two common names: Hardhack because its woody stem makes it hard to hack down; and Steeplebush because its summertime rosey-pink flowers grow in a steeple-like structure.

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Come fall, it turns a golden brown. Hardhack (Spiraea tomentosa) grows to about two-four feet tall and features short, closely-spaced branches. I should note that we call it a wildflower, but it’s actually a shrub.

hardhack sketch

Thoreau described Hardhack as one of the “other strong-stemmed plants, those unexhausted granaries which entertain the earliest birds . . . ” And here is a bird’s eye view of the fruit–a tiny pod consisting of five parts, reminiscent of the rose family.

Meadowsweet

A relative of Hardback is Meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia).

Meadowsweet 2

Meadowsweet sketch 2

Growing equally as tall, Meadowsweet’s stems are reddish or purply brown. It differs from Hardback in that the flowers tend to have a more pyramid-like structure at the ends of branches, forming a broader top.

Meadowsweet sketch

But the family resemblance is visible in the five-part fruit.

Indian Tobacco, by cow path opening

While the Spiraea family grows in close association with each other, children not wandering far from their parents, a loner in the field is Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflate). The papery two-parted capsules are round and hollow–some still held a couple of seeds.

bulrush

One of the most stunning displays mixed among the wildflowers is the Bulrush, a grass. These were blowing in the breeze today, their downy seeds ready for dispersal.

Black-eyed Susan

And not quite ready to give in to the seasonal change, a Black-eyed Susan.

B-E S bud

Its species name is Rudbeckia hirta. Apparently it was named by Linnaeus for his botany professor, Olaf Rudbeck. Hirta refers to the hairs that cover the leaves and stem.

My question is, will this one make it to the fruiting stage? Will its gumdrop seed head have a chance to stand tall in the winter landscape? I’ll have to keep an eye on it.

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There’s so much more to notice in the world of winter weeds, but it was time to head in. On the way, a fresh rub. Some dear sole was in a shedding mood. Though this Striped Maple will probably survive, it took a beating as a rubbing post.

All about, there’s under-appreciated beauty. It’s up to us to pay attention and wonder. I, for one, accept that mission and hope you’ll join me as often as you can.