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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

One Last Time Capsule from Summer

Here's a third time capsule, this one from August 22nd. For more pictures from this hike, see the Picasa web album.

Dylan and I walked east from Nelson Road. It was a hot day, so when it started raining we didn't mind much. The only problem was that it kept me from taking my camera out toward the end of the hike. So I didn't get any pictures of Dylan or me, nor of the rolled leaves that I noticed at the beginning of the hike.

What I did get was some shots of a wildflower I'd never seen before. Just a minute or two into the hike I noticed that the marshy area to the south of the trail was full of magenta blossoms that I couldn't immediately identify. When I went closer, I was surprised to find that I still couldn't identify them. After years of walking all over the hills and ravines south of Oneida I didn't think there was a showy wildflower I hadn't seen. I was wrong.

I just found the flower in my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. It's hairy willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum).

Monday, February 22, 2010


Here's another time capsule, this one from September 19th. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and I took Dylan and Abby on a short hike west from Nelson Road. It was Abby's first hike on the Link Trail, and the timing couldn't have been better. The touch-me-nots were ready to pop, and the kids duly popped them to their little hearts' content.

I just looked up touch-me-nots, aka jewelweed, in Wikipedia and was surprised to find that what I thought was one species is actually two: orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) and yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dylan's First Link Trail Snowshoe Hike

For many more pictures from this hike, see the Picasa web album.

I hadn't been back to Oneida since December so both Dylan and I were looking forward to getting back to the Link Trail. I was particularly eager to try snowshoeing with Dylan. His parents had gotten him a pair a year or two ago, but I hadn't had any excuse to take him out on them.

We parked on the side of Quarry Road and I gave Dylan a little instruction on how to work the straps. I got my own somewhat more extensive bindings strapped on and we hit the trail. Dylan immediately started falling down and complaining, but not too loudly. As usual, I framed it as a learning experience -- a phase he'd have to go through in order to someday climb snow-covered mountains. I stressed that although wearing the snowshoes is tiring for him now, next time it will be easier.

Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota)

As soon as we got onto the trail I saw a great photo op: several Queen Anne's lace plants, each one cupping a small load of snow. I love plants like this that stand like sere watchmen through the winter. They manage to seem at once sad, funereal and graceful.

Here's some interesting information about Queen Anne's lace from the Wikepedia entry.

Like the cultivated carrot, the wild carrot root is edible while young, but quickly becomes too woody to consume. A teaspoon of crushed seeds has long been used as a form of birth control; its use for this purpose was first described by Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago.[citation needed] Research conducted on mice has offered a degree of confirmation for this use—it was found that wild carrot disrupts the implantation process, which reinforces its reputation as a contraceptive.[2] Chinese studies have also indicated that the seeds block progesterone synthesis, which could explain this effect.[citation needed]

As with all herbal remedies and wild food gathering, extra caution should be used, especially since the wild carrot bears close resemblance to a dangerous species Water Hemlock. The leaves of the wild carrot can cause phytophotodermatitis, so caution should also be used when handling the plant.

The wild carrot, when freshly cut, will draw or change color depending on the color of the water it is in. Note that this effect is only visible on the "head" or flower of the plant. Carnation also exhibits this effect. This occurrence is a popular science experiment in primary grade school.
The following is from the book A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes. I stumbled upon it in the library today, and it's so delightful that I ordered a used copy from Amazon. I'm looking forward to reading from it to Dylan.
The seeds, small and lined with four rows of spines, are dispersed by animals, whose fur picks up the seeds as they pass by. Wild Carrot seeds can be gathered and steeped in hot water to make good-tasting tea -- fun to make after a winter walk. If you bite one of the seeds in the field you will find its flavor similar to that of cooked carrots. The seeds can be used as a spice; in fact, many plants from which we get spices are related to Wild Carrot, such as Caraway, Fennel, Coriander, Anise, and Parsley.

American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)

See the Picasa web album for more shots of withered seed pods and fruit.

My second photographic subject was a brindle seed pod. It reminds me of a Chinese lantern plant, although this was a shrub. I eventually found it in Graves's "Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs".

Rocks blackened by manganese oxidation?

I looked up to the rock cliff to the left and saw another teaching opportunity. I pointed out the rocks to Dylan and told him that the rocks we've seen fallen along the trail came from up there. I said "Look at how some parts of the rocks are blackened, and some parts are light brown. The black parts are black because of oxidation. That's a chemical process that you won't understand for a long time, but the point is that when some things are exposed to air they turn black. The parts of the rock that have been exposed to air for a long time are black, but the light brown parts haven't. That's how you can tell that rocks broke off from those parts recently."

I know very little chemistry, so I wanted to check up on the assertion I made to Dylan that the black parts of the rock were black because of oxidation. A spot of Googling led me to the Pro Trails page on Petroglyph National Monument. The stones there, into which the Ancestral Pueblos carved their petroglyphs, certainly look similar to what Dylan and I saw. That page says that "The dark desert varnish on the face of the basalt rocks was caused by the oxidation of minerals such as manganese and iron."

Grace and I were dredging our memories of chemistry in an attempt to figure out exactly why an oxidation process would change the color of a stone. Eventually I found an interesting article about manganese and its several oxidation states. Then I looked at the Wikipedia entry on desert varnish, which says the following.
Desert varnish forms only on physically stable rock surfaces that are no longer subject to frequent precipitation, fracturing or wind abrasion. The varnish is primarily composed of particles of clay along with iron and manganese oxides.[1] There is also a host of trace elements and almost always some organic matter. The color of the varnish varies from shades of brown to black.[2]
So although the rocks along the trail certainly look like they were discolored by the same process of manganese oxidation, I'd need to talk to a geologist or a chemist to be sure.

Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Gosh I love the intellectual process sparked by traipsing about a trail and looking at stuff that catches my eye. And this particular process was spurned by the most unintellectual of exclamations: "Red!"

For decades I've found that what one finds in nature is exponentially proportional to how hard one looks. In spring after the snow melts and the residue of winter coats every surface, it's easy to look at the landscape and see nothing but brown. Likewise, when the leaves have dropped and the world seems to have devoted all its energy to quiescence like a sullen child, it's easy to see nothing but stark white overlaid with shades of grey. But that's just us casting our own mental shadows onto a system that knows nothing of our dourness. Nature is always processing. Nature's always got plenty of red.

Don't believe me? In the spring take a moment to look past the road scum. Gaze into the brush. Focus on the midground. Look for that hazy strip of red -- the constellation of reddish tinges from all the buds on all the shrubs focusing their energy like a legion of tiny green barbarians painting themselves in preparation for the frenzied yearly assault on entropy.

But you don't have to wait until spring. Hop in the car and park along Quarry Road. Hike a little ways southwest on the Link Trail. At first you'll just see white and grey. I did. But if you're like me, you'll notice a little red and then start seeing more. Before long you'll be seeing a barrage of red: red that jumps out at you, screaming at you, daring you to call it "quiescent".

And if you're like me, you'll be drawn to the source of the red: thorny shrubs, each with a host of ruby berries still hanging from them. You'll take lots of pictures. Then, later, as you're spending hours going through more than nine hundred pictures and choosing which ones to show people, you'll fume at yourself for doing so.

Then you'll get curious as to what exactly the buggers are. It'll bother you that you've seen them all your life and all you really know is what your father told you: don't eat them because they might be poisonous. So you'll Google "thorny shrub red berries" and several variations on such wording. You'll find nothing.

Eventually you'll find yourself at your local library thumbing through copies of Peterson's "Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs" and Graves's "Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs". On page 119 of the latter you'll find the following.

Then you'll do a bit more Googling and feel a sense of wonder. The Wikipedia entry for Berberis vulgaris is so fascinating that I'm posting a big chunk of it here.
Culinary uses

The berries are edible, and rich in vitamin C, though with a very sharp flavour; the thorny shrubs make harvesting them difficult, so in most places they are not widely consumed. They are an important food for many small birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings.

A widely available Russian candy called Барбарис (Barberis) is made using extract from the berries, which are pictured on the wrapper.

The Zereshk (زرشک) or sereshk is the Persian name for the dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris, which are widely cultivated in Iran. Iran is the largest producer of zereshk and saffron in the world. Zereshk and saffron are produced on the same land and the harvest is at the same time.

The South Khorasan province in Iran is the main area of zereshk and saffron production in the world. Barberry cultivation in Iran is concentrated there, especially around Birjand and Qaen. About 85% of production is in Qaen and about 15% in Birjand. According to evidence the cultivation of seedless barberry in South Khorasan goes back to two hundred years ago.[1]

A garden of zereshk is called zereshk-estan.

Zereshk is widely used in cooking, imparting a tart flavor to chicken dishes. It is usually cooked with rice, called zereshk polo, and provides a nice meal with chicken. Zereshk jam, zereshk juice, and zereshk fruit rolls are also produced in Iran.
The entry goes on to describe the plant's use in alternative medicine and its historical impact on the United States wheat crop. The USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System entry for Berberis vulgaris goes into more detail on this subject.
Eradication efforts and effects on local distributions: Soon after the introduction and escape of common barberry in New England, colonists determined it was responsible for dramatic reductions in wheat crop yields [28]. Common barberry is an alternate host for cereal stem rust (Puccinia graminis). As a host, common barberry provides an inoculum source and a sexual reproduction site for stem rust (Leonard 2001 cited in [71]). When common barberry grows near cereal crops (‹330 feet (100 m) away) (Roelfs 1985 cited in [71]), it can support the development of new genotypes able to adapt and attack rust-resistant crops (Leonard 2001 cited in [71]). Earlier reports suggested that common barberry in urban areas was also able to spread stem rust to other grasses that eventually passed it on to wheat crops [80], suggesting there was no safe distance between common barberry and cereal crops. During epidemic stem rust outbreaks, wheat yield losses up to 70% were reported [71]. In 1916, stem rust was considered the principal reason for a 200 million bushel reduction in wheat yields for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana [80].

In the 18th century, the New England colonists of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island wrote laws restricting the planting and spread of common barberry. Over time many other states developed laws against the sale, transport, and planting of new barberry (Berberis spp.) plants and for the removal of established plants. It was not until 1918, after "devastating" wheat losses to stem rust, that federal laws and funding were devoted to eradication. Eradication projects and funding between 1918 and 1942 led to the destruction of 309,645,502 landscape, escaped, and nursery plants from the 964,000 mile² (2,497,000 km²) eradication area that included nearly all of the North American spring-wheat growing areas [28]. Between 1935 and 1950, there were 150,087,197 common barberry or American barberry (B. canadensis) shrubs destroyed in West Virginia [84]. By 1956, nearly 500 million barberry shrubs were killed on 149,318 properties in 19 states [12]. Widespread barberry eradication was "gradually phased out" by 1980 [71]. It is important to note that scattered common barberry populations persist in several areas of North America, and the potential for long-distance seed dispersal by birds makes monitoring and early detection of common barberry important to long-term control.
It's amazing to me that I can walk out onto the trail and obtain a profound connection to world and local history through the simple expedient of looking up teasel, St. John's wort, Queen Anne's lace or Common Barberry.

Dylan bracing himself against one of the fallen rocks that I'd told him about at the beginning of the hike.

Dylan got tired quickly, as you'd expect of a kid who's not used to snowshoes. He asked to turn around before we got to the quarry. At about that time I noticed a lot of vertical cracks in the rocks on the southern slope, so I took advantage of another teaching opportunity.

I said to Dylan "You know why the rocks fall off those cliffs? When it rains, the water goes down into the cracks in the rocks. And then when winter comes and it gets cold, the water freezes and expands. Do you know what that means?"

Dylan immediately answered "It gets bigger." Ah. I remember this feeling. It's the differential between adult perception of time and youthful passage of time. I still think of Dylan as four years old, but he just turned six. A lot of neurological development happens between four and six--a lot of neurological development that I've taken part in. Who knows, maybe I'm the one who told him what "expands" means during an earlier hike.

So I continued with my explanation of how water fills cracks in the rocks, freezes, expands, and makes the rocks fall apart. I remember my father telling me this. I love coming full circle.

Snowdrift ridge along the top of the slope and the northern edge of the trail

This wavy soft-serve snow crest prompted me to attempt the most-difficult-to-teach lesson of the day. I pulled a trick I used to pull on Morgan when she was about eight years old and I was attempting to teach her the concept of surface-area-to-volume ratios. I said to Dylan "I want to tell you about something but it's very hard to understand." I never even got to the "I'll try if you think you're ready to listen" part. He said something like "I want to hear it."

So I tried to translate what I know about the behavior of particles suspended in a fluid stream into kidspeak. Which is tricky, because "I just barely passed" is the polite version of the description of my performance in the fluid dynamics course I took eighteen years ago at Cornell. The not-so-polite version is "I was so completely clueless that I never should have passed at all."

What came out was something like this: "The wind comes up the slope and then, here where the ground flattens out, the wind slows down because it has to fill this whole space. And when the air is going slower, it can't hold as much snow, so it dumps it right here along the top of the slope."

There'll be more teaching opportunities.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Time Capsule from July 4

For many, many, MANY more pictures from this hike, see the Picasa web album.

After Grace and I got back from the work hike on the morning of July 4, we took Dylan on another hike. Unfortunately I've not had the time to document it until now. But perhaps February is an appropriate time for a July retrospective: I know that looking back on the light and colors of summer makes me smile.

Dylan was very excited to get back to the Link Trail. It's times like this when I feel like I could stop counting my blessings at one, and still consider myself lucky.

I started to present him with his choices for places to hike, and at first I didn't get beyond "We could go back to the bridge over the creek where you threw sticks in, or we could go to the quarry..." He interjected that he wanted to go back to the quarry, but I said "Slow down, you haven't heard all the choices yet!" I continued, telling him that there are some parts of the Link Trail he hadn't seen, that go along a pretty stream. Immediately he changed his mind, saying he wanted to go to the part where he hadn't been!

We drove to Bingley and parked in the little area at the end of Emhoff Road. While looking at wildflowers right next to the parking area, I got excited at seeing a small toad. Unfortunately I lost it before I could show it to Dylan. We went north a few hundred feet so that we could write in the trail register, and then headed south. As we descended the small gravel switchback trail to Bingley Road I explained to Dylan the concept of a switchback, and how we were walking gradually downward and across the slope rather than trying to go straight down. Then, after climbing the staircase, I explained to him that the fence with the door is there to let people through but keep four-wheelers out.

Before we got far, I got excited about photo ops and Dylan got excited about construction equipment. His most excited exclamation of the day was "WOW, FRONT LOADER!!!" Having a quarry and a few private businesses with construction equipment along the trail is a huge bonus for hiking with a small boy.

Snail on plant

This snail was the first photo-op of the hike. This photo represents the state of my macro photography skills. The tail end of the snail, along with parts of the plant it's climbing, are in focus, but its antennae are little more than a blur. Yes, this gives a sense of intimacy and focus on the rear shell patterns, but I would like to be able to choose to have more of the critter in focus, and for that I need to spend more timer jiggering with F-stops and exposures and ISO settings.

Deptford pink

This species has been a favorite companion ever since around 1992, when I began my wildflower hikes. It's an elusively narcissistic little bugger: it doesn't deign to show its face at my parties very often, but on those occasions when I catch a blast of saturated pink from the side of the trail, I always stop and smile. How could I do otherwise?


Here's what I wrote after my first, erroneous attempt to identify this flower.

Wow. I just had one of those frustrating experiences where I thought I knew something and then I spent the better part of an hour having Google and Wikipedia teach me otherwise. This looks like what my mother used to call "baby's breath" but, as it turns out, that's about as definite as saying "That's a Queen Anne's lace". There are over 70 species of what people call Queen Anne's lace, and as it turns out there are about 100 species in the genus Gypsophilia. If anyone could tell me what species this is, I'd appreciate it.
As it turns out, I made the mistake I always make: confusing baby's breath with forget-me-not. This looks like a Myosotis laxa, or tufted forget-me-not. It also looks like Myosotis nemorosa, or possibly like several others on the Wikipedia page for the genus.


I can never resist a good shot of one of these fascinating creatures. For more on the ancient order Opiliones, see the Wikipidea entry.

What my father used to call a "water-skipper"

Sigh. I thought the term "baby's breath" was vague, but that's nothing compared to this insect's genus. Gerridae contains "around 500 known species, commonly placed in around 60 genera". Good luck figuring out which species this is. I know enough from the hours I've spent on that I'd need
much more detailed pictures than this in order to get even close to identifying them.

We saw a fairly well-traveled trail coming in from the left that looked like private property to me, so I took the opportunity to tell Dylan about the importance of respecting private property and staying off it. Then we saw a big trail that led down the slope to the right. It was clearly a public fishing access, so we headed down to check it out. It turned out to be an ideal place to take a kid, and to take pictures. I tried to explain to Dylan how the steps beneath the culvert slow down the stream flow so that it hits the downstream pool as gently as possible and so minimimizes erosion. I don't know how well I did.

Unidentified arthropod on rock

Identified anthropoids on rocks


This is probably a common buttercup, or Ranunculus acris, but it could be one of a few Ranunculus. It's impossible to say for sure because I didn't get a shot of the stem or leaves.

We crossed the slippery, tippy rocks while holding Dylan's hand, and I got some great shots of flowers and arachnids and water-skippers. Grace got some shots of me and Dylan on the culvert, and we made our way back across the stream and up to the trail.

Fragrant bedstraw, or Galium triflorum

My first guess was wild madder because I remember that one from my old wildflower walks. But after looking it up in my Peterson's I think this is fragrant bedstraw. Note that the lower leaves are in whorls of six and that the stems appear to be hairless.

Tiny spider on leaf

Grace spinning Dylan

I'm grateful to Grace for being such a cheerful companion to Dylan, because it gives me some leeway for lagging behind and snapping away with the camera. She kept him busy while I got many shots for the Link Trail wildflower guide that I'm hoping to start compiling soon. And of course there were the lucky finds of bees and spiders and such on some of those flowers. When I caught up with them, Grace was swinging him around like a giggling whirligig - a whirligiggle?

Wild basil, or Satureja vulgaris

I spent an hour or two identifying this plant. For most of that time I was in the blue/violet section of my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers. It's not the first time I've made this mistake. A lot of flowers I think of as primarily blue, Peterson obviously thought of as primarily red. Also, judging from some of the botanical plates I found online, this particular species seems to have a blue variety and a pink variety.

So I was on the verge of pulling my hair out, thinking this was in the genus Mentha but not being able to find anything closer than pennyroyal. But the two were structurally different in enough ways that it seemed impossible that they could be the same plant.

I actually started to wonder if it was a speedwell but the blossoms looked much more like a mint than a speedwell. Finally I noticed on page 352 the note "See also pink and lavender species on p. 252." Once I started looking in the red/pink flowers, it was only a matter of time before I discovered the wild basil. I gave myself a mental forehead-smack just now as I noticed the following words at the front page of the "Violet to Blue Flowers" chapter.
We repeat the warning here that it is not always easy to separate some lavender or reddish-purple flowers (treated in a pink-red section, which starts on page 212) from some violet ones, shown here in the following pages. If in doubt, look in both places.
I won't forget again.

Hop clover, or Trifolium agrarium

When I looked at the nodding head on the left I thought "hops". Imagine my delight when I found the following entry on page 150 of my Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers:
...When flower heads (1/2-3/4 in.) wither, florets fold down, become brownish, suggesting dried hops.

Black-eyed susan, or Rudbeckia hirta

Heal-all, or Prunella vulgaris

If you have a Peterson's Guide to Wildflowers take a look at pages 350-351 (which unfortunately aren't available in the Google Books preview). I think that the general appearance of the flower head, combined with the near-toothless leaves, allows us to unambiguously identify it as heal-all.

Rough-fruited cinquefoil entertaining a guest

I've always gotten a smile from this very common species, and that was before I took these macro shots. That last shot is the best photo I've ever taken. I jumped up and down and squealed when I saw it on the screen. See a larger version of the shot here.

Yarrow, or Achillea millefolium.

Wood strawberry, or Fragaria vesca

Leaf miner tracks

Purple-flowering raspberry

This is a Purple-flowering Raspberry, or Rubus odoratus. Note the insect on the flower in the second picture. Don't see it? That's OK, I didn't know it was there when I was taking the shot! See the closeup in the third picture. That's one of my favorite things about nature photography: the surprises waiting for me when I look at the shots on a computer screen.

After about two hours browsing Bug Guide I believe that I've unambiguously identified the critter: Tarnished Plant Bug (Lygus lineolaris). If my image submission gets moved by one of the experts, I'll know I was wrong.

Cow vetch

I believe that this is cow vetch, or Vicia cracca.

Midges(?) swarming against a rock(???)

On the way back I saw one of those things that makes you stop and wonder just what you're looking at. The sun picked out a seed pod or somesuch suspended in midair between a tree and a rock, so I went to check out the spider web. As I approached the boulder a cloud of insects scattered away from it, some colliding with me and some zipping past me. But much of the cloud remained, swarming around the shaded face of the rock. They appeared to be battering themselves against it, although the motion was too frenetic to be quite sure what I was seeing. All that I know is that I've never seen anything like it. Take a look at the shots and tell me if you know what I saw.

Closeup of cinders from the old railroad bed

I asked Al Larmann about the material found on old railroad beds, and he said that gravel or other small stones were used, and that this was called ballast. I replied...
Thanks Al. I think you've led me to the answer. The Wikipedia page says that...
A good ballast should be strong, hard-wearing, stable, drainable, easy to clean, workable, resistant to deformation, easily available, and reasonably cheap to purchase.[2] Early railway engineers did not understand the importance of quality track ballast; they would use cheap and easily-available materials such as ashes, chalk, clay,[3] earth, and even cinders from locomotive fireboxes.[4] It was soon clear that good-quality ballast made of rock was necessary if there was to be a good foundation and adequate drainage.[3]
So am I correct in thinking that this material that covers parts of the Link Trail is cinders? It does seem like something that came from a furnace, because it seems far too light and porous to be unprocessed stone.
Al's reply goes into some interesting history of the railroad.
I concur--The original Cazenovia and Canastota RR was built about 1870. Although their surveying skills were good--given the manner in which they were able to find a way around the Perryville area falls and cut into the hills as you approached Cazenovia, I am sure that the basic ballast used was cinder based.I do not recall where I saw the comment, but there was some industry locally that generated a large quantity of cinders. The engines were small in size and limited in power output. I do remember that the original bridge in Cazenovia spanning the creek was tested by placing the steam engine upon it--it passed, an empirical solution.

Daisy fleabane

I believe that this is daisy fleabane, or Erigeron annuus.

Tiny flies on oxeye daisy, or Leucanthemum vulgare

Yellow avens (Geum aleppicum) with aphid (nymph?) on blossom

The top picture shows the whole yellow avens plant. The second shows a cute little aphid on the blossom, and the third shows the distinctive fruit. Look closely - here's another example of spiderwebs being everywhere!

Bee pollinating oxeye daisy, or Leucanthemum vulgare

One last parting shot of Deptford pink