August 7, 2014

Summer's Journey into Twilight and Wonder

I begin my twilight foray, at Great Meadows, in search of groundnut blossoms (Apios americana) and am greeted by backlit strands all along the beginning of the Dike Trail.  Groundnut, which is prolific along moist edge habitats in Concord, is a native vine that produces both edible beans and starchy tubers and was a prized food of indigenous inhabitants for millennia.

In the evening light, showy tick-trefoil flowers have given way to thousands of velcroed seed pods, which catch the light and our clothes, if we pass too near.

The vastness of sky always captures my attention in this place, and in August this expanse is met by a great carpet of American lotuses.  Tonight's raking light illuminates passing thunderheads and the creamy blossoms below, the two joined in communion by gray, showery curtains.

Further down the Dike Trail, our native wild rice (Zizania aquatica) is coming into seed and only reveals itself boldly in spotlighted moments such as these.  These grassy sprays are highlighted by this year's unusual abundance of purple loosestrife, which revels in these cooler summer temperatures.

Also abundant this summer, is one of Great Meadows' rarest plants...milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre).  A relative of Queen Anne's lace and other members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), milk parsley was introduced to North America from northern Europe more than a century ago and is known now only to grow at Great Meadows and two other Mass. locations.

Tumble of milk parley under tumbling clouds
As the sun sinks below the horizon, I step into the shadows of the floodplain forest seeking late summer's most brilliant blooms. Tucked away in these darkest corners along the river, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) seem to glow from within, especially as daylight fades.

Rain starts falling gently on the river, and as I emerge from the forest canopy, there the gibbous moon shines high over the marsh veiled by showery curtains that suddenly catch the steep rays of the setting sun.  Another celestial miracle at Great Meadows unfolds as a rainbow appears, arching just over the ripening moon.  I walk by a visitor silently gazing up and holding her heart.

Chasing the rainbow down the trail, I come to the inlet channel in time to behold this perfect Bierstadt vision of the marshes just as the rain passes away.

Lotus leaves are left bejeweled...and all is washed and radiant for the night.

May 21, 2014

Gnatty Plumes

Swarms of chironomid gnats in synchronous movement over the marsh

During last evening's sunset, the most amazing choreography unfolded just above the cattails, all along the Great Meadows dike trail to the river.  Golden plumes of hatching Chironomid gnats (tiny non-biting flies) were pulsing upward into the air, then swaying, bending, diving, and rising if to an accompaniment that only they could hear.  It was quite magical to watch for all of us taking one last stroll of the day.

April 16, 2014

Unexpectedly Rare Appearances

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), an introduced and sometimes overzealous harbinger of spring, brightens the monochromatic April landscape with brilliant, sunny blossoms on leafless stems that hug the ground.  And though their presence is officially unwelcome in four states, they remain one of my favorite "naturalized" spring wildflowers.

Until 1984, Concord had no official record of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing within the town.  Introduced to North America several centuries ago for its profound medicinal effect on lung afflictions, Tussilago may grow and spread vigorously in early successional areas that are disturbed, sunny, moist, and alkaline.  It is listed as a "noxious" or invasive weed in Massachusetts, where its sale and distribution is prohibited.

While intensively studying Concord's historic and still extant flora, Ray Angelo found the first recorded patch of Tussilago in 1984, alongside the long abandoned Reformatory Branch RR bed.  Minot Pratt recorded having introduced the plant back in the mid-1800's, but no traces were recorded by any of the local botanists who followed him.  In October 2013, I found the hoof-shaped leaves of the small patch shown, growing in oak-pine woods on a leaf-carpeted shoreline near the same abandoned RR bed further east in Concord.  This month, I set out with my homeschool students to look for the flowers.  Each of these small colonies may have been seeded some 40-50 years ago when trains still ran this line through town from Cambridge and the surrounding habitat was more open and freshly disturbed. These two locations are now densely covered with second growth forest and are undisturbed and densely shaded in the summer.  Coltsfoot is no longer apparent in the vicinity of the 1985 colony and it is quite possible that the mature habitat around this year's discovered colony will discourage further spread.

This week while out exploring vernal pools with my students, a spontaneous bushwack from one trail to another serendipitously brought us to a third small patch of coltsfoot, some 1000' from an active trainline. Due to the open characteristics of the site and potential for disturbance both by the elements and passers-by, this colony has the most conducive conditions for spreading.

Coltsfoot leaves distinctively resemble horses hooves, these photographed on 10.1.13.
Coltsfoot's hoof-shaped leaves emerge as the flowers go to seed creating a ground cover through to autumn.  Then the plants die back to the roots for winter.

Because coltsfoot's adventitious roots are brittle and extensive and spread more vigorously when broken or damaged, experienced habitat assessment and care should be exercised in its removal and management to avoid unintended consequences of promoting its expansion.  The plant appears to be a "weak competitor" as invasive species go and it has been found to be self-limiting in stable, shadier, later succession habitats that may grow up around an initial colony.

April Snow

A sigh, after our long harsh winter, co-mingles with relief for this cooler progression of spring that was the norm 25+ years ago.  Be glad that the shadbush, blueberry, and spicebush wait for the balmier breezes of May's debut to open, slowing the pace toward ever warming springtimes.
Red maple blossoms
Cottontail passing
Spring sparkle
Daylily promise

April 3, 2014

Ladybug Inundations

Native spotted lady beetles (Coleomegilla maculata) escape the rising water
On April 3rd, this year's rising rivers crested in Concord and Great Meadows experienced a double inundation, one of water and another of spotted lady beetles (Coleomegilla maculata).  As I was wading...calf, knee, and then thigh deep along the water-covered dike trail, I encountered a surprising spring spectacle.  In two separate locations thousands of pink lady had climbed en mass onto shrubs, tree trunks, cattail leaves, and even lotus pods to escape the rising waters.  Each spring these brilliant, native predators emerge as adults from their winter slumber in the leaf litter and disperse to lay eggs, several hundred per female, just as the earliest flowers and leaves begin to open.  Their voracious larvae feed on aphids and many other plant-eating insects and are tremendously beneficial to wild and agricultural plants alike.  The notable abundance of lady beetles at Great Meadows may be due, in part, to its riverside proximity to Hutchins Farm, who release these beetles seasonally as part of their organic farming cycle.

While Great Meadows NWR lies squarely in the Concord River floodplain, helping to absorb and divert seasonal river rises, wildlife and visitors must adapt to temporary inconveniences...and opportunities.

Inundated dike trail
Beaver surfaces and explores new territories
Beaver surprised to see me wading along...tail slap!

Great blue heron keeps one step ahead, sharing the trail
Final notes of the day

March 20, 2014

Spring's Subtler Signs

Though the vernal equinox is here, frigid temperatures and ice covered waters show this winter's reluctance to yield to warmth and renewed life.  But spring's subtle signs include more than warming temperatures.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing (32º F. / 0º C.) and the air temperature is below freezing.  These delicate ice crystals can found on the soil and plants late in the autumn AND around the vernal equinox, when both of these conditions come together overnight.

Needle ice found on oak leave and low clumps of grass at sunrise on 3/19/14 following above freezing daytime temps and an overnight dip into the low 20's.
Yesterday's sunrise cast its reflection across the solid icy surface of the marsh at Great Meadows NWR, but for those of us who have been watching it here year round, its position on the horizon announces spring's arrival.  On the vernal equinox, we note the sunrise comes half way between its most southerly position on the horizon on the winter solstice and it's most northerly position during the summer solstice.  These observances are famously marked by ancient astronomical monuments and structures identified throughout the world (eg., Stonehenge, pyramids of Giza, Chichen Itza, Orkney Is., Chaco Canyon, etc.)

Sunrise at Great Meadows on 3.19.14
Of course, the birds have been telling us since late February that spring is on the rise.  Chickadees and cardinals began singing their spring songs in mid-winter as the light shift became palpable.  Tufted titmice, song sparrows, and house finches broke their winter silence earlier this month.  And now the creaking choruses of returning red-winged blackbirds and grackles fill the air near every wetland in Concord.  At autumn's retreat and spring's approach, formations of Canada geese fill the air at dawn and dusk and red-wings swell and sway on weathered cattail heads around Great Meadows' marshy expanse.

Chickadee munches still tight flower buds on silver maples in the floodplain
Canada geese reposition themselves up and down the river as open water and ice shelves still compete for dominance
Perhaps THE harbinger of spring in our wetland-graced community

Have faith that warmer days and greener vistas aren't far behind.  Welcome, Spring!

February 22, 2014

Sugaring Off at Gaining Ground

In the teasing warmth of this afternoon, we visit the Gaining Ground sugar house for one of their first boils this season.  Like a bit of Vermont in our own neighborhood, the perfumed steam breathes out the door and roof vent, while visitors gather around the boiler to share stories of their sugaring memories and make acquaintances.  Gaining Ground currently taps 175 sugar maples on both public and private land in Concord and Carlisle. The finished syrup is distributed to local food pantries in the greater Boston area.  For more about Gaining Ground's farming mission and who they serve, see

With daughter Rosie and friend Sean Morris in the foreground

Farm coordinator, Kayleigh Boyle, stokes the fire and introduces us to the workings of their modern boiler.  Sugar boils are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons until mid-March, weather permitting, and are open to visitors.  The sugar house is located on the driveway into Gaining Ground and Thoreau Farm, at 341 Virginia Road.

Enjoying the steamy warmth while farmer Kayleigh Boyle gives us the story
Thoreau Farm in the background
Shafts of light, curls of smoke

Discussing maple syrup grades
Fetching wood
Stoking the fire
Completing the story...  The sap for the Gaining Ground sugaring operation is collected largely by community volunteers.  The trees that are tapped are mature individual, town-planted setback or park trees and small groupings of sugar maples on private property that were likely planted and nourished over the past century.  There is only one known location for a wild stand of sugar maples in Concord (see below).  The success of Gaining Ground's program should encourage the town to increase the inclusion of sugar maples in its municipal tree planting program to sustain Concord's maple sugar production long into the future.

Volunteers collect sap at our tree on March 9th this year
Stalking Concord's Rare, Wild Sugar Maples
Natural stands of sugar maples are a rare feature on the Concord landscape.  In 1851, Thoreau was alerted to the only natural stand that was known at that time, or since, behind Darius Miles' property near the "Corner" (Nine Acre Corner).  "Found a grove of young sugar maples (Acer saccharinum) behind what was Mile's.  How silently and yet startlingly the existence of these sugar maples was revealed to me... (Journal, Sept 24, 1851).  On November 8, 1860 he added, "The sugar maples occupy, together with oaks of the same size, about thirty rods, or say ten rods by three.  The largest about five inches diameter, but generally quite small.  They have sprung from quite small stumps, commonly not bigger than themselves at most."  Thoreau's description suggests that this copse of sugar maples, covering about .2 acres of woodland, had likely once been used as a woodlot.

These wild sugar maples predominately grow down the steep sides of a south facing ravine, and "silently and startlingly make themselves known" to the seeker, as Thoreau describes, especially prior to peak foliage time.
The colorful canopies of sugar maples rising out of the ravine
According to botanist Ray Angelo, an authority on Concord's historic flora, Thoreau's contemporary Minot Pratt also knew of this site and identifyed the distinctive Orange-fruited Horse-gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum) nearby.  Richard Eaton (Flora of Concord, 1974) never found the stand, nor the Triosteum.  In the 1970's, Angelo was able to relocate both the sugar maple grove and the Triosteum, confirming Thoreau and Pratt's original records. In 2013, directed by Ray Angelo, I relocated, photographed, and marked coordinates for this obscured and relatively inaccessible sugar maple stand.  Fortunately, it now falls almost completely within Concord Land Conservation Trust's Anderson Woods property where it can be permanently protected.

Fall color reveals the sugar maples' location, but many trees do not turn due to the dense shading in this forested area.
Thoreau, undeterred by the shortage of sugar maples, tapped various other trees - including black and yellow birch and red maple.  On March 21, 1856 (10 am) he wrote, "To my red maple sugar camp.  Found that after a pint and a half had run from a single tube [tap] after 3 p.m. yesterday, it had frozen about half an inch thick, and this morning a quarter of a pint more had run.  It is worth the while to know that there is all this sugar in our woods, much of which might be obtained by using the refuse wood lying about, without damage to the proprietor, who use neither the sugar nor the wood."