Thursday, March 19, 2009

Porter's Creek hike

Yesterday I went hiking with my friends, Terri and Rod, up to Porter's Creek in the Greenbriar section of the Smokies. The trail is an easy 3.7 miles to the campsite at the end. There is a beautiful creek, a waterfall (Fern Falls), the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club cabin (built in 1936), an old cemetery, log bridges, rock walls, and lots of moss-covered boulders to enjoy along the trail.

It was the first time there for all of us. We had heard it is a spectacular trail for wildflowers, but I was afraid we were a little too early to see many. We saw some Spicebush, Round-leaf Violets, Carolina Spring Beauty and Bloodroot at the beginning of the trail. But a big surprise was waiting for us after we crossed the second log bridge and started climbing the hill! The entire area was carpeted in Sharp-lobed Hepatica (right), Carolina Spring Beauty, Trout Lily, yellow Round-leaf and Halberd-leaf Violets, a couple of early Fringed Phacelia, and even some Dutchman's Breeches! In a couple of weeks that area is going to explode in wildflowers! It will be a carpet of white with the phacelia, trillium, chickweed, and others.

One thing we were not happy to see were the Hemlock Wooly Adelgids! These tiny white insects drain the life out of even the largest Eastern Hemlock trees. It was sad to see so many skeletons of what were once majestic trees. The trees at the campsite had been treated with injected insecticide to prevent infestation, but it is impossible for the rangers to treat every tree in the park. Some other methods being used to kill these non-native insects are soap spray and tiny black beetles that have been introduced to eath them. The loss of these magnificent trees has been devastating in many parts of the park.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sunny St. Pat's Day

This was the first nice day we've had in a while, so I took advantage of it. I took off this morning to hunt wildflowers on one of the local greenway trails. The Northridge Trail goes nearly the entire length of the older residential area of Oak Ridge. I've only hiked sections of the 10-mile trail. Where I went today is great for wildflowers. The upper part of the trail is steep and dry. As it goes down to the creek below an amazing transformation takes place --- the ravine becomes green and loaded with wildflowers! The first one I saw was a Pachysandra (a.k.a. Allegheny Spurge). It is a very early bloomer, if you don't see it around the middle of March, you won't see it. The easiest way to find it is to look for the large, mottled leaves. The flowers are monoecious, meaning they have seperate male and female flowers on the same plant. Only the thick stamens of male flowers are visible in this photo. The female flowers are are pink and will develop on the lower part of the stalk.

When I got to the bottom of the ravine I saw several Virginia Spring Beauty plants in bloom. They have pretty, light pink petals on thin stems. There is also a Carolina Spring Beauty that blooms this time of the year. It is easy to tell the difference, it has larger, more rounded leaves. I think of a "V" (as in Virginia) being long and thin and a "C" (as in Carolina) being thick and round. Note the forked pistil and the yellow nectar guides on the close-up photo.

Next I saw a few Cut-leaf Toothwort (left) plants in bloom. They are another very common wildflower in the woods of east Tennessee. On the way down I saw carpets of Trout Lily leaves, but no flowers. I was surprised to see quite a few of them in bloom on the opposite side of the creek. Trout Lily (right) flowers are bright yellow with dark maroon stamens, they nod and often have upturned petals. When they bloom en masse, the lower hillside is covered in yellow. They get their common name from the mottled leaves that look somewhat like the skin of a trout.

I had hoped to find the tiny Harbinger-of-Spring (left) blooming on the east-facing side of the ravine. Sure enough, there they were! The plants are only about 3" - 4" tall with clusters of tiny white flowers with maroon stamens. They are related to carrots, parsley and Queen Anne's Lace. They get their name from the fact they are one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. As I was heading back up the trail to leave, I saw one last wildflower, the Rue Anemone. (right)

Later I went to the University of Tennessee Arboretum here in Oak Ridge. The Saucer and Star Magnolias are at their peak right now, so the lower valley is so pretty with the pink and white flowered trees. The arboretum is not especially well-endowed with wildflowers since most of the trails are south or west-facing (north-facing slopes are the best), but I did find some Bluets (below) in bloom. These pretty little blue flowers normally have 4 petals, so I was surprised to find one with 5 petals. The next few weeks will have lots of wildflowers to enjoy!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Cedar waxwings!

I couldn't believe my luck (and I'm not even Irish!), a flock of Cedar Waxwings landed in my yard this afternoon! Fortunately, one was cooperative enough to perch in the Crepe Myrtle bush so it wasn't backlit by the sky. I think they were eying the neighbors' holly tree so they could pick off the berries. However, the resident "bully" mockingbirds had other ideas and they kept chasing the waxwings away!

What a treat it was to see these beautiful birds! They will be flying north soon, so I may not get many more chances to enjoy them.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Strange "things" in my neighborhood!

After a day and a half of rain, I was ready to get out and see what had popped up. Boy, was I in for some surprises! I went to the cemetery down the street to photograph the lichens when they were wet. I noticed something odd about the cedar trees, some of them had a weird, orange, jelly-like growth on the ends of the branches. My first thought was maybe it was a stage of the Cedar-Apple Rust Gall Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae (right). I have never noticed this fungus before, perhaps it has to be wet to be easily visible. I have contacted a plant disease specialist by email, perhaps he / she will tell me what this is! This may be another species of Gymnosporangium.

***Update*** I heard from the Cornell Univ. researcher today (3/16) and she said the slimy growth is Quince Rust (caused by the Gymnosporangium clavipes fungus).

Then I heard the sound of Cedar Waxwings chirping in a tree in the schoolyard nearby. My one chance to get a fantastic shot of those beautiful birds and I had my macro lens on my camera! :( They are very skittish birds, so I tried to sneak up as close to them as possible. They were gorging themselves on old crab apples both on the ground and in the tree. I managed to get one shot, oh how I wish I had my telephoto lens! I did get an interesting shot of them flying away. Not the single robin in the upper left corner of the photo. Click on the photos to enlarge them to see the birds better.

The next thing to catch my attention was an old empty cooler that had probably been left by the soccer players. It was full of rainwater, but I noticed something that looked like specks of pepper floating on the surface. When I zoomed in on them with my macro lens, the specks moved! I realized they were Springtails. The large cluster had what appeared to be 2 larger (relatively speaking, they were only ~2mm!) adults and hundreds of smaller nymphs in various stages and colors. A few were scattered about on the water surface. As I was photographing one small cluster, I saw a tiny black spherical creature with neon-orange legs! It appeared to be feeding on the springtails. As I zoomed in closer, I could tell it was a predatory mite (right)! Two of the mites are visible in the cluster photo on the left. The two long brown insects are probably the adult stage of the springtails. Since there is such a huge number of nymphs and just 2 adults, I wonder if they reproduce by cloning like aphids do?

So, just when I think I've seen everything weird in my neighborhood that I possibly can, I have a day like this! Isn't it wonderful to still be able to have such interesting surprises!? :)