A Bog in Autumn

Recently, I decided to visit a small bog to search for colorful, detailed landscapes and perhaps bring closure to the fall foliage season. The field trip was a success. I found several species of plants that characterize bog sites in this region, and only went in over my 18-inch rubber boots once (my excuse: the small, bottomless pool of water near the edge of the bog was camouflaged by a layer of fallen leaves!).

Tamarack, a deciduous conifer found locally in swamps and at the edges of bogs, has peak color now. Characteristic of this tree, clusters of deciduous needles occur on spurs (stunted twigs), adding to its appeal.

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Tamarack (American Larch)

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Tamarack (American Larch)

Sphagnum moss, the dominant ground cover in the bog, absorbs and holds water like a sponge. Over time, Sphagnum forms peat, hence the term “peat bog”.

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Sphagnum moss

More than two dozen species of Cottongrass are found in the acid bogs of the North. Actually sedges, these herbaceous perennials produce fluffy, cotton-like seed heads that really stand out, in sharp contrast with the more drab colors of a bog in October.

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Cottongrass (Bog Cotton)

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Cottongrass (Bog Cotton)

Typically found in peat bogs, Pitcher Plant is one of several insectivorous plant species that occupy these saturated, acidic, nutrient-poor habitats. The hollow, pitcher-like leaves have downward-pointing hairs and trapped rainwater in the base, adaptations for capturing small insects. Enzymes, tiny invertebrates and bacteria in the water-filled pitfall will aid in the digestion of the “prey” to provide essential nutrients for the plant.  

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Pitcher Plant (the hollow, water-filled leaf)

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Pitcher Plant (the hollow, water-filled leaf and downward-pointing hairs)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Rainy Day Treat

Unusual weather often leads to unusual observations. Warm, rainy weather at a time when a good killing frost is more the norm resulted in a surprise encounter this morning with a species that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation categorizes as “pool-breeding wildlife”. Walking in the rain, I discovered a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) in a Goldenrod meadow. These are large salamanders and this one, a modest 6 inches or so in total length, was stretched out in full view on a clump of matted grass. By the time I returned with my camera, it had moved a few inches but, fortunately, was still cooperative!

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Spotted Salamander

Considered a sign of spring due to their mass migrations to woodland pools and ponds to breed, Spotted Salamanders are rather common but rarely seen at other times of the year. They spend most of their time beneath the forest floor (sometimes logs, rocks, etc.) feeding on worms, insects, and other invertebrates. The current weather pattern, with 70-degree days and warm rains, is very spring-like and undoubtedly was a stimulus for the behavior I observed today.

I’m mindful of reptiles and amphibians when managing my property, leaving portions of fallen trees on the ground and maintaining intermittent streams and associated riparian habitats. This intermittent drainage, fed by the recent rains, lies about 200 feet from where the salamander was discovered and could well be the reason for its presence.

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Intermittent stream

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Stalking the Mudflats and Shallows – Part 2

Large wading birds have broad appeal and a huge following. They have it all – visibility, beauty of form and color, wings spanning several feet in flight, etc. A sighting is an event, even more so when the species in question is uncommon to the area.

Such is the case with the Great Egret (Ardea alba) in Central New York. Its summer range is extensive, including the Mississippi River drainage and the east coast of the U.S., but typically does not include inland regions like ours. We’re not far from several large wetland and lake ecosystems, including Lake Ontario, so are more likely than most to see one of these lovely birds drifting through. 

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I had the good fortune to observe and photograph a lone Great Egret from a ground blind at a reasonable distance, on the same morning that I captured the Great Blue Herons that were featured in the previous post. These two posts represent one of my most rewarding – and challenging – photographic adventures to date. Needless to say, my head was, at times, spinning, as were my camera dials!

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The large size (about 3 feet tall), yellow beak and black legs are diagnostic.

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The feeding behavior of Great Egrets is much like that of Great Blue Herons. They stalk and spear a variety of food items, including small fish, frogs and aquatic invertebrates. The fully extended body that precedes a lunge is a beautiful sight and seems, like the routines of Olympic gymnasts, physically impossible!

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In addition to the Great Egret, there were three Great Blue Herons, a dozen or so Canada Geese on this site in close proximity to one another. I saw some antagonism between the egret and herons initially but, for the most part, they seemed tolerant of one another.

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Great Egrets were nearly exterminated in the late 19th century due to market hunting for their breeding plumage. Fortunately, they’re adaptable to a variety or wetland habitats, both saltwater and freshwater, and responded well to protection and conservation practices. That said, any species that relies on wetland habitats and some degree of seclusion from people and predators should be on our watch list. I for one have had my eyes opened in terms of the importance of a relatively small wetland site with a few pools and open mudflats. 20 or 30 wetland birds, perhaps a dozen species in all, frequent it daily at this time of year.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

At Water’s Edge: Great Blue Herons

Lately I’ve been visiting nearby wetlands in the morning, before chores (prior to getting serious about photography, I worked in the cool of the morning – much smarter, but also much less interesting!). I’ve had some good sightings which I must share via several posts.

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Bullfrog on lily pad

Yesterday was my third visit to a tiny pond bordered by a cattail marsh to observe and photograph a family of Moorhens. Sitting in muck at water’s edge, partially concealed by vegetation, I was immersed in the moment and unaware of what was going on beyond the viewfinder. At some point I lowered the camera to look around and discovered a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched atop a snag, 50 or 60 meters in front of me. I took some portrait shots (labeled bird #1), then captured a breath-taking sequence that I have presented in a gallery.

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

While intensely focused on the perched heron, my viewfinder was suddenly and unexpectedly filled with a large bird with huge, dark wings. Because of my limited field of view, I had no idea what was happening as I pulled the trigger. The event was over in three seconds. Only when the mystery bird flew to a nearby perch did I realize that it too was a Great Blue Heron, an immature bird (bird #2).

The gallery shows the the arrival and departure of the immature heron, the response of the perched adult, and the immature bird pausing briefly on a nearby snag before leaving.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Sidetracked

Yesterday I had a six-hour window to haul firewood from my woodlot to the house before a week of rainy weather would make the old wagon trail too soft for truck access. I had my camera on the front seat of the truck and allowed myself to get sidetracked a few times and capture a bit of the activity around me.

At this time of year, many of the wet, open places in my woodlot are dominated by a coarse, two- to five- foot tall herbaceous plant called Hellebore. (Veratum viride). It has a sturdy stalk and huge leaves but the terminal flower clusters aren’t much to look at. They’re small, yellow-green flowers that rarely seem to attract a lot of insects. Yesterday was an exception: I spotted a White Admiral butterfly working the flowers on a patch of Hellebore next to my work area and captured the moment.

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White Admiral butterfly on Hellebore flowers

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When turning my truck around in a damp, weedy opening, I happened to notice movement just beyond the front wheel. I had disturbed a Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), which leaped up from the wet ground cover, landed on a stump and posed briefly for a photo. This amphibian, common in the U.S. and Canada, is easily identified by its dark mask (a “robber’s mask”). Most of my close encounters with Wood Frogs occur in early spring, when they create quite a spectacle, moving to vernal pools as soon as the ice is gone to call, breed and lay eggs.

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Wood Frog

The humid, 90-degree weather took its toll – coming down the hill to the house with my 5th load of wood, I was desperately in need of a diversion. I walked into a brushy field, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Crested Flycatchers feeding their young, but instead found a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) perched in a Balsam Fir tree, singing. Just the break I needed!

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Song Sparrow

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Mute Swan

Sometimes it’s important to just sit and observe nature with no particular purpose. A familiar bird, the local Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), joined me today in that pursuit. I often photograph this individual in winter or early spring (“Ice and Open Water”, 2/18/13), but not at this time of year. I suppose that’s because there are hundreds of options in spring, and an exotic (European origin), semi-tame species isn’t supposed to be a high priority for a nature enthusiast. That said, a Mute Swan hanging out in a natural wetland setting is a beautiful scene worthy of capture.

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Slow Down for Turtles

What does a nature photographer do when faced with three weeks of rain, and sunshine as fleeting as a colorful sunset? To confound the issue, assume that this particular photographer is neither experienced with, or geared up for, capturing quality images under dark, rainy conditions…………..Look for turtles!

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I had been seeing turtles, dead and alive, on my travels in and around wetlands and decided to make the most of the opportunity. My featured species are the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys spp.) and Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both very common and widespread.

Prime turtle habitat generally consists of quiet, shallow surface waters with soft, muddy bottoms and an abundance of aquatic vegetation. These diverse wetland habitats are rich in aquatic life of all sorts and provide the key ingredients for turtle success: animal (and plant) life to eat; places to hide or bask in the sun; and a soft, subsurface medium to burrow into and hibernate for the winter.

The four photos that follow illustrate the aquatic life typically associated with turtle habitat.

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Yellow Pond Lily (also Bullhead Lily; Nuphar variegatum)

I had to slip into about 10 inches of muck and water to confirm the identity of this White Water Buttercup. Just as my boot entered the water, a huge Snapper slowly backed away into deeper water. Had I known it was there, I would have waited for it to poke its nose up in between the flowers!

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White Water Buttercup (Ranunculus trichophyllus). This small plant has clusters of feathery, threadlike leaves below the surface.

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Leaf of a Water Lily

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Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), usually found in the same habitats as Painted and Snapping Turtles

The Painted Turtle is  the most widely distributed turtle in North America, and probably the species that is most often seen by the viewing public. Flourishing in spite of human disturbance, and in some cases because of it, they are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats. These include drainage ditches and farm ponds as well as natural wetlands and surface waters.

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Basking Painted Turtles

Generally, when a small turtle (4-10 inches long) is seen basking on a rock, stump or fallen tree in a shallow water body, it is a Painted Turtle. Close inspection reveals a striking mix of vivid red, yellow and dark markings that gave rise to the common name.

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Basking Painted Turtles; one just slipped back into the water, perhaps to feed after getting warmed up

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Painted Turtle; this was one of four turtles on a secondary road bisecting a marsh, three Painted Turtles and one Snapper. I believe they were searching for nest-building and egg-laying sites.

Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles have much in common in terms of food and habitat preferences and reproductive behavior. However, Snapping Turtles are much larger (15-20 inches long and up to 35 pounds or more in weight), have economic importance as a source of food and, as stated in my Peterson field guide “Reptiles and Amphibians”, they are “Ugly in both appearance and disposition…..”.

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Snapper on her nest, laying eggs

One of my references says that Snappers, unlike other turtles, rarely bask in the sun. This snapper is climbing a downed tree in the middle of a small farm pond to bask!

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Snapper climbing a snag in a pond, looking for a place to bask in the sun (1 of 2)

After photographing the basking Snapper, I spotted this hen Merganser along the far shoreline. She speared a frog, gulped it down and headed toward the downed tree. I assumed she was going to drift in among the limbs and rest on the water, but to my delight she hopped up on to the snag. I don’t think she knew she wasn’t alone!

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Hen Merganser preening and resting, in the company of a basking Snapper

Snappers can be nasty when cornered and disturbed on land. They have to be – they’re too massive to withdraw into the protection of their shell. However, if they have access to water when disturbed, they will often float with just their eyes and nostrils showing. The dorsal position of the nostrils allows them to “snorkel” and evaluate the nature of the threat.

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Disturbed Snapper in a deep puddle on a poorly drained hiking trail

Both Painted Turtles and Snapping Turtles leave the comfort and security of water to build nests and lay eggs. This snapper has just emerged from its watery home to search for a nest site.

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Snapping Turtle searching for a nest site.

The preferred nest site is an open, sunny spot with coarse-textured soil. Old railroad beds bordering wetlands and, in the following sequence, the coarse surface of a canal towpath, are examples.

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Snapping Turtle preparing to lay eggs in its nest.

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Claws of a road-killed Snapping Turtle, well adapted for digging

At a glance the nest appears to be a shallow excavation, but a deeper hole lies within to receive the eggs. Several dozen eggs, somewhat like small ping pong balls, will be deposited in the hole, then covered. Incubation is 9 to 18 weeks, depending on the geographic location. In the cold North, hatchlings might remain in the nest until spring (amazing!).

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Snapping Turtle laying an egg in her nest

PRESERVE WETLANDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

Northern White Cedar Swamps, Late May

Northern White-cedar swamps are one of the most interesting natural resources that I’ve explored in northeastern U.S. I’m fortunate to live near two in central New York, one about 1500 acres and largely State-owned, the other about 700 acres. Both are federally protected wetlands. These sites are low and poorly drained, with saturated soils that are fed and enriched by springs and mineral-rich groundwater. Wet, organic muck soils, downed trees in various stages of decomposition and scattered hummocks characterize the forest floor. Northern White Cedar is the dominant tree. Common associates include Red Maple, Tamarack, Balsam Fir, Black Ash, Eastern Hemlock, Yellow Birch and White Pine trees.

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Forest understory site in a protected Northern White Cedar swamp

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Large wetlands like these are mysterious, pristine, biologically rich places that afford unique opportunities for observing and photographing nature through the seasons. I usually hike into a cedar swamp looking for something in particular, perhaps an orchid in bloom, but end up on a “discovery walk”, investigating everything that catches my eye, ranging from fungi to rotting logs and ancient White Pines.

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Old growth White Pine tree (double-stem), hundreds of years old, growing on a hummock

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Goldthread (Coptis), a common wildflower in cedar swamps

My knowledge of non-flowering plants – fungi, ferns, etc. – is not nearly as impressive as my reference library, so in many cases I leave those images unlabeled.

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Mushroom; Wild Lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum) leaf in front

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Royal Fern (Osmunda) fiddlehead

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Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema)

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Horsetail (Equisetum)

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Fern fiddleheads

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Bracket fungus (1 of 2)

 

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Photos by NB Hunter   ©All Rights Reserved

Early Spring Wildflowers – Marsh Marigold

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Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), a member of the buttercup family, is a familiar sign of spring, blanketing wet places with clumps of bright yellow flowers. Now in full bloom, it can be found along streams, in marshes, on the borders of wet, roadside ditches and similar places. If you get your hiking boots covered in wet muck soil, perhaps see a frog or two, you’re in marigold habitat.

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Marsh Marigolds in full bloom along a small stream

Small, round flower buds produce flowers with vivid yellow sepals (not petals).

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The nectar of early spring flowers is a critical food source for bees, flies and other insects. Marsh Marigolds are especially important in this regard due to their abundance and profuse blooming habit.

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All photos by NB Hunter.