Monthly Archives: May 2011

Violets and Ladyslippers

This is the time to see many different violet species in bloom. Look for yellow, blue, purple, light blue, and white-flowering species on dry hillsides, in rich forest soil, in seepy areas, and along creeks! Over the last week, we got to see at least 8 native species. Who would have thought that we have such a variety of wild-growing, native violets right around here?

The most common of our native violets is, not surprisingly, the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia, incl. V. papilionacea). Its flower stalk comes directly out of the ground and it has only basal leaves (no leaves are borne on the flowering stalk). It is not very picky with its habitat and can be found in meadows, lawns, hedgerows, along forest edges, and in forest as well.

The Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata) looks similar to the Common Blue Violet, but tends to have longer flowering stalks, often bringing the flowers way above the leaves. It also seems to have more variability in flower color, ranging from the light blue in this picture to a much deeper blue. The biggest difference is its preference for wet feet. Look for it in creek beds, seeps, wet meadows and floodplain forests, for example at the base of Phudd Hill and in wet pastures of Hawthorne Valley Farm.

The Arrow-leaved Violet (V. sagittata, incl. V. fimbriatula) thrives in very dry meadows and tends to stay close to the ground. It can be found on the hillside pastures of Hawthorne Valley. We saw the similar, but yellow-flowered Round-leaved Violet several years ago in Beebe State Forest.

The Northern White Violet (Viola pallens) occurs beside brooks and springs. Its leaves (only the small dark leaves in the picture belong to the violet) are more kidney-shaped than the heart-shaped leaves of the otherwise very similar Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda), which prefers dryer ground.

The Long-spur Violet (Viola rostrata) indicates calcium-rich soils and is quite uncommon in our area. Its pale violet flowers have a long, pointed spur and are borne on a stalk that also bears leaves. A very similar species is the Dog Violet (Viola conspersa) which has also pale violet flowers that are spurred, but with a much shorter, blunter spur. There is a small population on Phudd Hill.

Canada Violet (Viola canadensis) might well be our rarest violet in the county and occurs only here and there in rich moist soil close to calcium-rich outcrops. The petals are white with a purple back, the flowers are on tall stalks that also bear leaves. A few years back, we have seen several plants of this species in one spot on Phudd Hill but have been unable to re-locate that population in subsequent years.

A more common violet is the Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), which is found in rich forests and can be observed at the base of Phudd Hill.

It is also the perfect time to go look for Pink Ladyslippers, our most conspicuous native orchid. We have a very small patch of Pink Ladyslippers right here on Phudd Hill in Hawthorne Valley.

Ladyslippers, like many other orchids, have become quite rare and we are very happy to see our small population “hang in there”, year after year, although it is a bit disconcerting that it is the same 10 plants we see each year and that there are no seedlings. Orchids have a very fragile reproductive system. Not all flowers develop seeds. Seeds are tiny and have no nutrient reserves to help get the seedlings started. Instead, the seeds depend on the presence of certain fungi to form a symbiotic relationship (mycorrhiza) with the seedlings. Where the habitat has been altered and the fungi have disappeared, the seeds won’t germinate.

There are several additional reasons why our native orchids have become so rare: although they are protected by the state, some people can not resist collecting them. And deer eat them like so many other native wildflowers…

The place in Columbia County to see lots of them is along the Taconic Trail in Taconic State Park. Drive up Sunset Rock Road north of Copake Falls, park in the little parking area on the crest and then take the trail either north or south from there and enjoy the Pink Ladyslippers!

We do have another, even rarer Ladyslipper here in the county: the Yellow Ladyslipper. It has not yet been found at Hawthorne Valley, but last week we had the great fortune to spot one near a limestone outcrop in New Lebanon. We have heard about them occurring here and there in Ancram and Kinderhook, as well. It is worth to keep one’s eyes open, especially if you are in a calcium-rich area with deep moist soils…

Yellow Ladyslipper has a smaller flower and is more "leafy" than Pink Ladyslipper.

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Posted by on May 25, 2011 in Nature


Local Salamanders… and a bit more.

I was out and about this week, but in looking over the pictures and notes didn’t feel I had enough for a coherent blog post based on that alone, so… here are a couple of seasonal snippits and then a review of our local salamanders (given that I was seeing them this week).

Some Current Seasonal Happenings:

The Grey Tree Frogs are calling away, on a warm day you can hear their short trills from just about anywhere in the Valley.

These photographs were taken in the Valley, albeit a few years ago. This is an adult Grey Tree Frog. They are a small, compact frog with a dry, rumpled back.

This fellow was calling from beside the swim pond. They make their loud trill by inflating their throat pouch.

This Tree Frog was swimming in the Fire Pond. Note the bright yellow on the back of its hind legs.

This photograph was taken just this week from off the bridge that crosses from the Dairy Field into the Main Field (by the pump house). This is a breeding cluster of Common Shiners. For much of the year, this species is the plain, silver-grey of most minnows. At breeding, the males put on fiery red fins and grow bumps on their faces. Are the fins really this bright? They're at least close. Because this shot was taken through slightly muddy water, I had to adjust the colors to get rid of the grey fog, the red may have become a bit too strong, but strong and eye-catching it is. There is one of these fish in the tank in the Store. Its fins are not currently as red, but a look at him will give you a better idea of how these fish appear.

The Tiger Beetles are also out. This is the Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle. These beetles are largely found (like this one) along sandy/rocky water edges, where they are roaming, day-time hunters. No uncertain color adjustment here - these creatures are emerald green.

Our Salamanders:

For convenience, one can classify our salamanders into three general groups based upon where they breed: The Stream Salamanders, The Upland Salamanders, and The Pond Salamanders.

Two species of salamanders can commonly be found along our streams – the nearly-ubiquitous Two-Lined Salamander and the somewhat more regionally rare Dusky Salamander. I saw both of these species this week.

This was the Two-Lined Salamander which I found along below the Creek House this week. It has the typical pair of yellow lines on a brown background.

Two-Lines like this one tend to be long and skinny creatures. The adults are most commonly found under rocks where the ground is still moistened by the adjacent stream.

Dusky Salamanders, like this one I just found close by the Farm Creek, are stockier, greyer animals. Note the large hind legs that would befit a miniature Brontosaurus. Like Two-Lines, the Dusky adults are often found under rocks relatively close to, or even partially in, the creeks.

The larvae of these species, like this gob (so what would you call a pile of larval salamanders?) of juvenile Two-Lines are usually found under rocks in the water.

Our main Forest Salamander is the Red-Backed. In the right habitat, there almost seems to be a Red-Backed under every stone. This species does not come to the water to lay its eggs, instead it guards a cluster of eggs in some moist upland shelter. Look for them under rocks in the forest. While you probably won’t find them on totally dry ground, they can often find a damp spot under rocks or other debris.

Red-Backs come in two flavors: Red (left) and Lead (right). This is, so far as anybody knows, one species with two color morphs. There is some suggestion that color differences may reflect differences in cold tolerance. You can find both forms on Phudd Hill.

Our Pond Salamanders include the Red-Spotted Newt, the Spotted Salamander, and the Jefferson Salamander. All three of these breed in standing water. However, the first is often found in permanent ponds, where its skin poison seems to protect it somewhat from predatory fish. The last two however are so-called vernal-pool amphibians: they rely on finding temporary pools where seasonal drying excludes some predators such as fish.

All three of these species spend a substantial portion of their life-cycle in the upland forest: the Newt’s ‘punk teenager’ stage (aka, the Red Eft) is often seen wandering through the woodlands. Adults of the other two salamanders spend all but a week or so of the year in upland forest. However, much of that is spent out of sight in the litter and below ground.

This adult Red-Spotted Newt is cruising beside what appear to be Jefferson Salamander eggs; Newts are predators, and we have watched them try to butt their way into an egg mass like this in order to eat the enclosed eggs or larvae.

There's nothing subtle about Red Efts - they are bright orange and crawl about on the surface of the ground in broad daylight. Not surprisingly, this strategy is only wise because they are apparently a distasteful or even down-right poisonous mouthful. This is the juvenile dispersing stage of the Red-Spotted Newt. After having been born in a pond, the larva metamorphose into these headliners which wander the woods for a year or more before settling into a pond and going through a second set of morphological changes to become the more aquatic stage we call the Red-Spotted Newt.

Spotted Salamanders are dramatic but rarely seen outside of the early-April breeding season. They can be up to seven or more inches long.

The Jefferson Salamander has much the same shape and habits as the Spotted, but is notably drabber and a tad smaller. There is a good deal of confusion about the taxonomy of this group, but we'll call this a Jefferson's for now.

For more on our regional amphibians, please see this file which we put together a several years ago… you’ll recognize a few of the pictures.

If you come across any frogs or salamanders you’re curious about, don’t hesitate to send us a photograph!

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Posted by on May 21, 2011 in Uncategorized


Click here for sketch map of walk.

Keywords: butterfly, ant, ground beetles,

The Valley Field is looking verdant; a dry summer will leave it looking browner and more 'dog-eared', but at least for now it's in its glory.

Wolf spiders scurrying across the ground in search of prey. This one probably spent the winter beneath the snow, and one sometimes even sees them out and about atop the snow on warmer winter days.

A Chlaenius Ground Beetle - this is a photograph from a previous spring and may be a different species, but this is the general model: shiny, green, with lots of scurry in its legs.

These ants were apparently out harvesting nectar from the dandelion flowers; there were many dandelions and many ants.

Ant mound - this may have been the home-base for the ants which were out amongst the flowers. Many of the Formica ants are mound builders; one tends to find their nests in open, drier areas that are rarely mowed... a somewhat uncommon habitat, especially off farms.

Ants weren't the only ones on the Dandelions. This Spotted Lady Beetle was probably snacking on pollen. Unlike the Lady Beetles which, on warm, early spring days, seem to appear in our houses via spontaneous generation, this is a native species.

A botanical interlude - a pale form of the Marsh Violet, future food of Meadow Fritillaries?

This is a Spring Azure... Now Spring Azures and Summer Azures are difficult to tell apart, so how does one know the one from t'other? You look at the date: while early-flying Summer Azures might overlap with late-flying Spring Azures, during the first half of May, Spring Azure seems a safe bet.

Pearl Crescents can become very common later in the year. This is a 'fresh' individual (i.e., newly hatched) - notice the bright colors and untattered wings. We used to have another species of Crescent in the area, the Tawny Crescent, but it is apparently now regionally extinct.

Red Admiral - a frequent migrant. And no, the fleabane aren't yet flowering, this is an autumn shot from the files, but it gives you a good idea of what this species looks like. This particular individual may have even hatched in our area, but reportedly they don't overwinter with us, and so the first progenitors of each season (the ones we're seeing now) must arrive from elsewhere.

This is called an Anteater Scarab Beetle or, more scientifically, a species of Cremastocheilus. I found it being hauled over the grass by a pair of ants. I picked it up expecting it to be 'dead meat' that the ants had scavanged. Surprisingly, it seemed to be healthy. It turns out that these beetles lay their eggs in ant nests, where the larva develop and eventually begin to prey upon the ants themselves. Their mode of entry into the nest? It seems the ants mistake them for food and haul them back to their nest themselves. This one may have thus been a mother getting a lift by some unsuspecting future hosts. Thanks to Harry Zirlin and for the ID.

What could say "Spring" more than a Yellow Warbler singing away in a blooming Apple tree? These warblers are common in our hedge rows and brushy pastures; learn their song, and you'll find you hear it almost everywhere about the Farm.

Click on the picture to hear the song recorded from this individual… “Sweet, Sweet, Sweet, Sweeter-than-Sweet!”


Posted by on May 13, 2011 in Nature


Click here for sketch map of outing.

(Pictures relating to the text appear at the end of the notes.)

keywords: flicker, pasture, rocks

The Flicker's breast feathers.

Back of the head.

This male's black mustache.

The underside of the tail.

Top of the tail. Flickers are woodpeckers and have stiff tail feathers that support them while pecking on trunks (although they are often also seen in fields).

Underside of the wing.

Top of the characteristic white rump.

And yet this is the general impression one usually gets - the body's speckled, brown feathers which fade easily into the natural background.

An eager Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Blue Cohosh flowers.

A Baltimore Oriole. My tip for recognizing the song (and you won't get many of these - I'm a poor by-ear birder) is to listen for the beat - Orioles have rhythm.

An old pasture is a grassland with woodland tendencies...

Pears are in bloom. While not as thorny as some plants, the tips of Pear twigs tend to have a spur.

Hawthorn, our partial namesake (Henry Barnes said the Valley was named after both Nathanial Hawthorne & the plant); these plants are well-equipped to deter browsing and seem to do relatively well in and around pastures.

An Eleagnus (probably Autumn Olive), note spine.

The ubiquitous, at least in our pastures, Multiflora Rose. This plant was originally propagated by the USDA as a living fence. It's a rather 'wandering' fence however.

Red Cedar is actually a Juniper, but, in any case, the spiny version of its foliage could prove painful to the lips of potential browsers.

The Red Cedar in the center background as finally escaped browse pressure (at least until we start raising giraffes), but note that its lower branches are gone until just about the height that a cow can easily reach. This is called a 'browse line', and is also seen where deer are particularly active.

One interesting feature of Red Cedar is that once its foliage escapes browse pressure, it becomes wider, softer and more feathery - not as good at protecting the plant, but perhaps better at gathering sunlight. Is the change in foliage solely a matter of height on the plant or does the plant somehow sense browsing?

A relatively tasty tree has managed to grow up inside of a thorny, spiny nursery. It's now tall enough to avoid most browsing and might eventually start shading out the once-protective brush at its base.

This little White Pine is trying to survive browsing by huddling at the base of a better-protected plant; judging by it already chewn state, it may not make it.

Cattle traffic can wear away soils that cover bedrock near the surface, especially during wet weather. The result can be a pasture like this with protruding rocks. Of course, sometimes rock outcrops were there before the forest became pasture.

Here's some evidence for exploration: 1948 (top) and 2004 (bottom) aerial images of the pasture we visited. Does it seem more or less rocky today? What other changes do you see? (Click on each image for an enlarged view.)


Posted by on May 6, 2011 in Nature