Small Farms and Cultivated Fields: Priceless

In late spring patches and ribbons of vivid colors are dominant in open landscapes. The spectacular, multi-colored bloom is Dame’s Rocket, a garden escapee gone wild.

Invariably, my interest in this wildflower opens my eyes to the visual resources beyond the bloom. Fields, mostly cultivated fields on local dairy farms, become a subject of interest.

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Dame’s Rocket in full bloom 

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Front to back: Dame’s Rocket, grain fields and woodlands (8June2017)

The appeal of cultivated fields is much more than the dynamic beauty of line, color and texture through the seasons. They’re wildlife magnets, providing critical habitat for a host of opportunistic birds and mammals.

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Buck in velvet, foraging on new growth following the first cutting of hay (27June2017)

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Hen turkey foraging in a hay field; there might be youngsters underfoot, chasing hoppers {1July2017)

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Lingering storm clouds after days of torrential rains and damaging flood waters (1July2017)

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Red-winged blackbird foraging in a field of barley (1July2017)

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A hay field colonized by wild black mustard (30June2017)

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Orchard grass, a common forage plant in hay fields (27June2017)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The White Admiral

I often encounter White Admiral butterflies in late spring and summer because we frequent the same habitats: woodlands and associated openings, edges and wet places. The caterpillars feed on willows and aspens, common woody plants in the region.

They’re a difficult target: adults rarely settle, fluttering and gliding every which way, in an unpredictable manner. This one fluttered from flower to flower for a minute or so, then, with no warning, just disappeared over the tree tops! Appearing black and white in flight, their brilliant coloration can’t be fully appreciated unless they pause for nourishment and the underside of a wing becomes visible.

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White Admiral nectaring on Dame’s Rocket

Photo by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Late Spring Scenes, 2016

Becoming immersed in the continuum of spring scenes from March to June is a bit like viewing a blog post that features an endless gallery of world-class images. Each phase of spring has exceptional, defining visual qualities and it’s virtually impossible to pick favorites.

Young Red Squirrels are maturing rapidly, but still show the fearless curiosity of a juvenile.

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Buttercups are in full bloom…

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As are the Dame’s Rockets…..

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Tiger Swallowtails, our most common, large butterfly, liven up the June landscape as they follow the sequence of bloom.

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Tiger Swallowtail on hawkweed

And it’s not all about youngsters and flowers: large herbivores seize the moment, feasting on succulent new plant growth (throughout the day if undisturbed).

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A young doe (yearling) foraging in a brushy meadow

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Dame’s Rocket

It seems that whenever I search for flowering plants to photograph I find myself having to “man up” and admit that I’m fond of aliens. The blooms of Wild Domestic Apple, Autumn Olive, Black Locust and, now, Dame’s Rocket, have all been impressive — and not one of these plants is native to this area.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis; Mustard family) is everywhere now, especially on disturbed sites with moist soils – abandoned fields, forest openings and edges, the neglected borders of lawns, etc. Native to Eurasia and introduced over 200 years ago, it is now widely distributed across most of North America. Extensive, nearly pure stands are common and, in late spring, a dominant landscape feature.

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A naturalized stand of Dame’s Rocket, showing the wide range of flower colors typical of the species

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A nearly pure stand of Dame’s Rocket on the moist floodplain of a small stream

Dame’s Rocket is easily mistaken for a garden Phlox. An alternate leaf arrangement and 4 petals distinguish it from this plant group, which has opposite leaves and 5 petals.

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The Forest Invasive Plants Resource Center is keeping a watchful eye on the spreading Dame’s Rocket, monitoring the “invasion” to determine threats to native flora and fauna.  I monitor Dame’s Rocket for it’s natural beauty and, more importantly, the impressive array of colorful wildlife species that are attracted to the prolific, fragrant bloom.

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Giant Swallowtail nectaring on Dame’s Rocket, 9June14; an unusual, if not rare, sighting in the Northeast

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Flower Spider, an ambush predator, on Dame’s Rocket

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Tiger Swallowtail nectaring on Dame’s Rocket

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

A Canal Towpath/Trail Walk

Late this morning I decided to battle cabin fever (its been raining for days) and investigate a local wetland and historic, canal waterway. The canal and towpath date back to the middle of the 19th century. Thanks to an active, volunteer conservation group, they are now an important wildlife sanctuary and recreation resource.

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Chenango Canal and towpath/trail

Two “alien” or non-native plants are in full bloom now, both of which were growing at the edge of the canal.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a native of Europe and Asia, has escaped from gardens and become naturalized. It prefers moist soils, but isn’t too site-sensitive and groups of plants are blooming everywhere – roadsides, field edges, vacant lots, etc. This tall wildflower looks like Phlox, but unlike that common garden plant, has just four petals and an alternate leaf arrangement. I like its colorful floral display and the fact that the small, tubular flowers attract butterflies and other insects.

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Dame’s Rocket in a damp, uncultivated area next to active farmland

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Dame’s Rocket

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Crescent butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

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White Admiral butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), of European origin, is another species that has successfully escaped from cultivation. It is a wet site plant and extensive stands are locally common in marshes, on floodplains and along stream banks. In some areas Yellow Iris has received the status of “invasive”. The plants occur in large clumps, 2 to 3 feet tall, and are vigorous and sturdy. I often see large, expanding colonies along stream banks that seem immune to severe flooding and fluctuating water levels.

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Yellow Iris

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Yellow iris

I visited the canal hoping to see waterfowl, perhaps a family of Wood Ducks. A feather was the best I could do, but I had some great turtle sightings that offset the disappointment!

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Waterfowl feather lodged against a cattail stalk

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are active now. I saw a road-killed female on my way to the canal and thought of a recent warning in the local newspaper: “slow down for turtles when driving near wetlands”.

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Snapping Turtle swimming in the fertile, slow-moving water of the canal

Of the nearly 20 species of turtles native to New York State, the Snapping Turtle and smaller Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) are the most common. Painted Turtles are often seen sunning on logs and rocks in the shallow, sluggish waters of swamps, marshes and ponds.

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Eastern Painted Turtle at rest

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.