December 11, 2015

Embracing December Fog

Each year, I look forward to December, with its frosty mornings, the glazing over of rivers and marshes, the return of winter water birds, and expectations of first snowflakes.  But with El NiƱo blowing his warm breath our way, we've been feeling the heat more than not this month.  This morning we rose to a thick blanket of fog shrouding the landscape.  Off to Great Meadows I went, to savor the view where the fog hung heaviest over the marsh and river, arriving just in time for daily departures of geese to nearby fields.

The spiderlings have been working overtime these last few weeks, weaving and feasting while the days are calm and comfortable.  Overnight they festooned trailside flowery remains with gossamer, now bejeweled by the fog's misty touch.

Milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre) drapery
Festooned goldenrod
Bejeweled love grass
Down by the river, all is still.  The refuge's newest beaver lodge stands sentry where Buttrick's and Ball's Hills converge at the water's edge.  A mud-packed dome, well fortified, has clear views upstream and down.  The meticulous line of freshly cut branches, carefully rooted in the mud below, extends some ten feet beyond the lodge, an ample larder for the iced over months ahead.

Peace and promise.

December 8, 2015

December Walk at Great Meadows

Sunday, December 13, 2:30-4:30 pm

Great Meadows NWR - Concord (off Rte. 62 and Monsen Road)
Donations gratefully accepted

Take time to stretch your legs and breathe in the season this Sunday with a pre-winter, sunset walk through the refuge.  Eagles have been daily visitors these last few weeks.  Coot, pintail and wood ducks, and hundreds of geese fill the marsh on the shoulders of each day.  Inspired by the unusually warm days, spiders are still ballooning and leaving their glistening gossamer trails.  Beaver are stockpiling fresh cuttings for their winter food supplies.  Juncos, white-throated and swamp sparrows, bluebirds, titmice, goldfinches, chickadees, and woodpeckers are busy gleaning the trail edges.  With the low-angled light of the season, the entire landscape is revealed in more dramatic ways and sunsets can be most sublime.

The forecast promises an unusually warm and delicious afternoon which should stir-up additional surprises.  I hope you'll join me!

For some photo highlights from this month, see

December 7, 2015

Cherished Neighbors

Up early today to chase the dawn light and frosty fog at Great Meadows, but a series of mishaps with my camera and poor early light prompted me to abandon my initial plan.  As the sky brightened, I decided instead to visit some of my favorite neighbors.  These highlanders graze the rocky fields around the old Brooks Tavern, a beautiful hilltop acreage that now belongs to Minuteman National Historic National Park.  These slow, lumbering beauties always seem intent on chewing and sleeping, but their soulful gaze reveal the distinct spark inside of each of them.  I've yet to be formally introduced, though we've had several portrait sessions together.  Usually, it's nearly impossible to capture their richly textured light and dark coats and all the details of eyes, noses, and mouths within them.  But today's low mid-morning light, softened by sheer clouds, offered a rare opportunity to capture their essence.  And who couldn't love these soft faces.

Browsing the brambles
A conical cow-pruned tree, as Thoreau wonderfully describes in his essay Wild Apples

November 24, 2015

In Thanksgiving

Up early on the coldest morning of the season, so far, hoping for a frosty etching of the marshscape at Great Meadows and a colorful sunrise.  Seeing that neither will be offered today, I suspend my expectations, in time to share in greater gifts.  As I walk into the open on the cross-dike trail, in the quiet darkness, a shiver of sound moves through the ice as geese awaken and push their breasts through the water's light crust.  The sky brightens and small groups of geese arise (from the 250+ sleeping there) to preen in the frigid morning air.

A few attempt a bit more exercise, but have trouble on the icy runway.

Three mute swans swimming in the distance, take to the air for a long, breathtaking flight around the full circumference of the refuge's floodplain.  Their bright bodies catch the earliest sunlight and the beating of their powerful wings fills the air with a loud, rhythmic sound like the turning of some mighty 19th c. engine.  No matter one's feelings about the impact that these introduced birds might have on the natural order of our wetlands - their beauty, grace, and awesome power is humbling to behold.

Anticipating an early morning exodus, I wait patiently on the observation deck as the sun rises slowly higher.  The swans' morning exercise stirs more of the geese awake and slowly small groups commence to honking and taking flight.  Finally, the moment comes when the largest assembly directly in front of me bursts into cocophonous trumpeting and takes to the sky en masse, flying directly toward me...glowing in the dawn's warm light.

While I watch them fly west, off to their morning's grazing fields, I hear the warning calls of several crows behind me, and turn to see a young bald eagle entering the airspace above the marsh and circling ever closer toward a small flotilla of coots in the lower impoundment.  After several unsuccessful attacks, it finally catches one of its favorite prey for breakfast.

With the privilege of all of these encounters warming me, I meet another early-rising refuge visitor and we finish walking the full circuit of the trail together.  Then as I drive out the refuge road at 8:50 am, a fox turns out in front of me from the old rail trail and lopes up toward Monsen Road. Stopping to grab my camera, I then drive slowly behind him as he turns the corner and proceeds to sniff out all the neighborhood dog markings on mailbox posts and street trees.  He trots, unfazed, down the middle of the road for half its length before turning off.

Another morning that reminds me to enter each day open, attentive, and ready to receive the gifts that are offered.  In thanksgiving...

November 13, 2015

Changing Landscapes and Flora: From Thoreau's Time to Today

Sunday, November 15, 2:30 pm
Wayland Public Library
12 Cochituate Road, Wayland, MA

In recent years, much scholarly attention and press have been given to Concord's historic botanical record.  Thoreau's descriptive and detailed accounts of his town's flora and landscapes inspired generations of lay botanists, naturalists, and scholars to revisit, expand, document, and analyze this dynamic and changing landscape for more than 170 years.  How has the landscape and flora changed and what has influenced these changes?  Who are some of the principal explorers, record-keepers, and scientists - past and present - who have played a role in creating and maintaining this botanical legacy?  How can Concord's historically deep botanical record inform us today?  Naturalist and photographer, Cherrie Corey, has been working at the heart of this story for the past several years. She will share with us her field explorations and observations, collaborations, and intimate photographs that reveal an at once historic and living landscape that is, at once, both rapidly changing yet enduring...that relies on our deeper understanding and careful stewardship.

Co-sponsored by the Wayland Historical Society and Wayland Public Library.
Free and open to the public.  Refreshments will be served following the talk.

November 7, 2015

Gossamer Days Return

Over the years, walking the cross-dike trail at Great Meadows has deepened my appreciation for the unseen wonders that reveal themselves in the backlight of the sun. One of the most magical revelations has been the discovery of gossamer days that occur each year during the first half of November.  When the blazing maples have shed their leaves, oaks are glowing with earthen tones, restless geese fill the sky, a light breeze stirs from the WNW, and fluffy cattail seeds just sprung from their brown, velvety wands are floating like snow squalls over the marshes...I now know to watch for spiderlings making their autumn exodus.

Last week brought a perfect string of such days.  Here are some images from one of my late afternoon walks from the parking lot to the river and back, in search of gossamer. I've coupled these with such perfect descriptions from Thoreau's Journal that it leaves me breathless to know that we experienced the same ineffable qualities of this seasonal moment across 160 years of time.

[Thoreau, Journal.  Nov. 1, 1851] It is a remarkable day for fine gossamer... They have the effect of a shimmer in the air.  This shimmer, moving along them as they are waved by the wind, gives the effect of a drifting storm of light.  It is more like a fine snowstorm which drifts athwart your path than anything else.  What is the peculiar condition of the atmosphere, to call forth this activity.  If there were no sunshine, I should never find out that they existed, I should not know that I was bursting a myriad barriers.

[Thoreau. Journal.  Oct. 31, 1853]  I slowly discover that this is a gossamer day.  I first see the fine lines stretching from one weed or grass stem or rush to another, sometimes seven or eight feet distant, horizontally and only four or five inches above the water.  

When I look further, I find that they are everywhere and on everything, sometimes forming conspicuous fine white gossamer webs on the heads of grasses, or suggesting an Indian bat [lacrosse stick].  They are so abundant that they seem to have been suddenly produced in the atmosphere by some chemistry, -- spun out of air, -- I know not for what purpose.

...I see myriads of spiders on the water, making some kind of progress, and one at least wth a line attached to him.  True they do not appear to walk well, but they stand up high and dry on the tips of their toes, and are blown along quite fast.  They are of various sizes and colors, though mostly a greenish-brown or else black; some very small.  These gossamer lines are not visible unless between you and the sun.

...We pass some black willows, now of course quite leafless, and when they are between us an the sun, they are so completely covered with these fine cobwebs or lines, mainly parallel to one another, that they make one solid woof, a misty woof against the sun.  They are not drawn taut, but curved downward in the middle, like the rigging of vessels, -- the ropes which stretch from mast to mast, -- as if the fleets of a thousand Lilliputian nations were collected one behind another under bare poles.  

And back to my present-day ramble, I turn away from the sun, the gossamer disappears from sight and a last shimmer of cattail leaves and seedy froth close the day.

October 20, 2015

Election-cake Fungus Mystery

This isn't a commentary on the state of the current presidential campaign, but a puzzle posed by Thoreau's Journal entry of October 20, 1856:

"Amid the young pitch pines in the pasture behind I notice, as elsewhere of late, a great many brownish-yellow (and some pink) election-cake fungi, eaten by crickets; about 3" in diameter.  Some of those spread chocolate-colored ones have many grubs in them, though dry and dusty."

Previously, on July 29, 1853 he wrote:  I also see some small, umbrella-shaped (with sharp cones), shining and glossy yellow fungi, like an election cake atop, also some dead yellow and orange.

After reading that, I set off today to photograph Fairyland Pond (once called Hubbard's Close) and Brister's Spring and to seek the likeness of Henry's election-cake fungi in the pitch pine barrens atop Brister's Hill.  No luck as yet, but I encountered some other outstanding late October mushrooms.

Earth-star fungus (Astraeus hygrometricus), a form of puffball, grows in association with young pitch pines groves, enjoying the sunny open spaces around the trees.

Cinnabar polypore (Pycnoporus cinnabarinus) was growing nearby on a dark, fallen cherry log.

I spotted this next one as I followed the trail back down Brister's Hill.  This was growing in the crotch of a dying white oak tree that clung to the steep slope of the hill and looked like chicken-of-the-woods fungus from a distance.  I clambored down for a closer look and discovered these delicate fangs of the Milk-white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus), unfortunately but understandably in the shadows on the north side of the tree.

Still curious about the election-cake fungus, however, which Thoreau describes twice in his Journal in separate late October entries.  What is it and does it's name coincide with election season or is it one of Thoreau's playful sarcasms. 

I welcome any leads on the election-cake fungus's true identity.

October 17, 2015

Autumn Perspective

I grew up near the shoulder of Mt. Wachusett. Knowing that I can still climb a hill in tree-covered Concord and find my bearings in its undulating profile feels inexplicably grounding and thrilling.  While photographing Elm Brook today along a Concord Land Conservation Trust trail, not far from home, I took a short detour up the clearcut slopes of Pine Hill and found the perspective I was seeking, framed in autumn color.  Later, I went looking for visual profiles of Wachusett on line, without success.  Then I returned to Thoreau's Journal, knowing he kept chronicles of his viewings from various tree-cleared high points in town - Fairhaven Hill, Emerson's Cliff, Lee's Cliff hill facing west.  Low and behold, just what I was seeking, a simple but perfectly rendered silhouette as only he could do...

Elm Brook - the glowing shoreline beneath the view

September 21, 2015

Monarchs on the Wing

Male monarch feeding on Tithonia at East Quarter Farms Community Garden in Concord
 For the first time in several years, monarchs have again been actively feeding and moving south through our area as their late season migration back to Mexico gets underway.  The plight of monarchs and their precipitous decline over the past 10-20 years has been widely discussed by scientists, the media, and conservation organizations.  It's now clear that increasing habitat destruction (particularly old fields where milkweed is most abundant), large-scale use of herbicides (particularly Roundup or glyphosates), the precipitous spread of black swallowwort ,and the rise of more severe weather events during their migratory seasons are having devastating effects on the global population of these magnificent butterflies.

Citizen reports of sightings (at all life stages) provide invaluable data for tracking the health of the monarch population throughout its range.  A wonderfully informative website (and App) are available to make reporting easy and provides seasonal news, natural history information and real time, animated maps to keep everyone informed of the monarchs' annual movements and activities.  Go to Monarch Joint Venture for a wealth of news and information on Monarch conservation efforts across the continent.  To record your sightings and follow the timing and movement of Monarchs annually, go to Journey North/Monarch Butterfly.

Underwing of butterfly above
What can we do to help?  Help disperse and propagate more milkweed in our communities.  Remove and destroy any black swallow-wort (Cynanchum louiseae) invasions on our property and help in community efforts to do the same.  Plant gardens with late season flowers (milkweeds, tithonia, zinnias, blazing star and others) to attract and nourish maturing and migrating butterflies.  Faithfully report monarch observations (at any lifecycle state) through the Journey North website.