March stormed onto the winter scene this past weekend with strong winds, toppling trees and knocking branches down throughout the area. The winds finally cleared out leaving a blue sky day. It seemed safe to venture out again.
The woods looked a bit disheveled. The wind had uprooted several tall trees and one had fallen across the path. Broken branches had been hurled across the forest floor or tangled and suspended from the trees.
The early tuft of snowdrops had dropped its petals, while the grove of snowdrops had blossomed into spectacular meadows of white and green. The pristine snowy flowers gracefully bowed over the dried leaves from autumn.
A bright red male cardinal perched on a branch overlooking the trail singing to the sky. Further along the trail, a pileated woodpecker flew to a nearby tree and inspected the trunk before flying away. A pair of hawks soared in the distance.
With the past couple of weeks below freezing, Winter has certainly made its presence known, blasting into the region with icy temperatures and light snow showers. Temperatures during the day have been in the low 20s but feel like single digits with the wind chill factored in. The river has mostly frozen over leaving just a ribbon of moving water winding down the center. A mid-week dusting of snowfall was still trimming the sidewalks and grounds yesterday frozen in places where hurrying footsteps had not worn them down.
Finally yesterday presented a chance to visit the woods on one of these frosty cold days. Bundling in layers is the best way to avoid feeling the cold, and a wool first layer against the skin will continue to retain heat even if it gets wet. Three layers of pants including a fleece lined first layer; two shirts and two long wool sweaters and then a fleece and outer shell. Two kinds of gloves, one that allows finger movement and one set that doesn’t but keeps the wind out. A thick hat, and a fleece “turtleneck” which can be brought up over the face and ears. Once walking, this is quite warm!
The woods were clear and cold, and the whole landscape had settled into a kind of quiet winter rest. Part of the trail was a mix of snow ground together with leaves and wedged frozen between stones and pebbles. The sun was shining through the branches and gave a warm glow in the late afternoon despite the frostiness of the air and ground.
The tree branches were starkly bare! Some beech and oak leaves remained dried on the branches, but the tall trees were all twisting branches and contrasting bark tones. The edges of the woods are also visible. Affluent homes line these woods, and in the winter the houses and new construction is visible. During the rest of the year the leaves and undergrowth provide blinds and colors to give the illusion of thick woods and allow us to briefly escape these visual reminders of urban pressures and disparity.
There were many lively birds in the woods yesterday, flitting and flying from branch to branch, and singing! The woods practically echoed with bird songs. It was so easy to watch them because their flight paths and landing places were all exposed in the bare winter branches. There were a variety of birds and woodpeckers flying around and searching for food including what looked like a Red-bellied woodpecker, and a bright red male Cardinal. Viewed through the camera zoom (if they sat still long enough) they were as fluffed out as could be, rounded into little balls of downy feathers on their cold perches.
In a small meadow area, tall grasses had yellowed into dry stalks. Fluffy brown sparrows flew and hid in the stalks, perhaps pulling seeds from the delicate curling seed heads.
Further on, dense brushy patches were safe haven for many fluffy birds searching for food on the ground, more sparrows and Eastern towhee. They were quickly able to fly into the low branches. Black and grey squirrels searched among the fallen leaves and ran back to tree trunks at the slightest sound.
As for green plants, evergreen holly bushes were standing by in the cold with cheerful green spiky leaves. A small holly bush looked like it had suffered a shock due to the sudden cold weather. And several young pines appeared damaged perhaps by deer.
The wind picked up in various places throughout the woods. Along one stretch of trail the trees swayed as the wind rushed through their branches. Creaks and cracks! came from the swaying trees, sounding like they were straining to stay upright in the cold.
A short ways uphill from the frozen creek, a male wood duck flew along the trail and landed on a fallen tree trunk. He sat for a few moments in his handsome feather coat.
Fallen tree trunks held sugary snow crystals in their bark. One fallen tree had several large ruffled fungi frozen in place.
The evening was setting in and it was the sunset and not the cold temperatures which cut this walk short.
Wood ducks (Aix sponsa), according to Cornell’s All About Birds online Bird Guide, live in wooded swamps, where they nest in holes in trees or in nest boxes around lakes. They are one of the few duck species equipped with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches.
Post script. For this walker, the month of December included a move out of the city and across the river. The high cost of renting cramped and dysfunctional housing was too absurd to stay another year. But the irony of moving to a suburban location is that there is no comparable wooded reserve. Visiting this wooded park now means a long travel time to and from. But how important it is to be able to visit a natural area!
Late Summer has been unbelievably cool. During the past week (first week of September) the temperature barely reached the 80s. With various happenings to attend at the end of summer, this weekend was the first available for a walk in a few weeks. New construction on the access roads to the park blocked some of the pedestrian walkways but people found a way in to enjoy the weekend trails.
The temperature was perfect for walking. Gentle cool air and sun. There were still signs of the heavy thunderstorms. There were still traces of cascading water on a steep bank of soil facing the trail. Here and there small mushrooms burst out from under the carpet of leaves or peeped out from between tree roots.
Trees have been forming seeds. A birch tree next to a small meadow had beechnuts just starting to open among the leaves. Ripening seed pods looked like strips of brown crinkled paper. Oak leaves and new acorns had fallen to the trail. Leaves were still green, but looking worn with browned edges or transformed by insect damage. Here and there just a few leaves have changed from green into various colors, and late cooling summer had scattered just a handful of green, red or yellow leaves onto the ground and graced the green undergrowth with golden yellow flowers. Bold red berries hung in clusters.
Trees that had fallen during the summer have been cut and removed from the trail. The tangles of brown branches and brown dead leaves look strikingly dark against a backdrop of living green leaves. One large tangle of dead branches and leaves had become the framework for beautiful silky spiderwebs. The webs created a spectacular show of shimmering geometric patterns as sunlight and playful breezes bounced off the delicate webs.
Chipmunks sprinted along logs and shuffled through the dead leaves, stopping to nibble on snacks and eye the trail.
The heavy rains during August had a significant impact on the woods. Visiting one week later, the impacts were visible along the trails. Down along the creek, where it had appeared after the latest storm that the creek had swept onto the trail, the creek bank had completely collapsed into the creek taking large sections of the trail with it. Metal culverts to carrying stream runoff underneath the trail were fully exposed and the sand and soil had eroded from around them. Many more exposed roots, rocks, and loose debris changed the formerly smooth well-trodden path into an obstacle course. The leafy carpet was looking ragged after so many months and so much rain. But mosses and small mushrooms appeared fresh.
Trimming the open trail were starry white flowers framed by three leaves, and sprays of pink flowers. Sunny yellow petals decorated a leafy plant growing in the understory. Tree pods continued to develop and round seed balls had fallen onto the trail.
There were no chipmunks in the woods at that time. Had their ground homes been flooded? Some songbirds could be heard, and of course the ever-present robins hopped and flew along the path.
Bursts of rain a week back carved deep channels into the trail, and formed neatly terraced patterns of debris where the torrents of water found paths of least resistance.
Muddy patches were stamped with foot and paw prints. The sandy trail along the creek was damp, and there were smoothed areas where either the creek had overflowed onto the trail or large amounts of water had washed across the trail into the creek. The creek water was brown and swiftly flowing.
New trees had split and splintered, brought down possibly due to rain or unstable soil.
After the downpours and through the mugginess industrious spiders attended to their webs.
A few weedy ground covers were decorated with tiny flowers.
New green items have appeared on the trees and bushes: nuts, acorns, green balloons, and seed pods. A beech tree had formed brown spiky beechnuts, and an oak had already dropped several green acorns along the path. On trail and branch other green seedy things could be found. The mimosa tree over the creek had lost its pink pompoms and was all green with copious bunches of wide green seed pods maturing among the leaf fronds.
The vines along the creek had traded clusters of tiny white flowers for small green berries transitioning into purple and blue. The berries identify the vine as porcelain-berry.
A few stray yellow and red leaves had dropped onto the trail.
On trail and branch other green seedy things could be found
Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is described by the Virginia Native Plant Society online as an invasive exotic vine which can overgrow and block sunlight from other species. The berries on the porcelain berry vine stick upwards unlike native grape species on which the grape berries droop downward.
This week’s walk found the woods very damp and waterlogged after heavy rains. The summer has produced a series of surprise thunderstorms, with torrential rain, thunder and lightening. After the storms, the air outside may be cool and breezy, but within the woods the air was completely still, very humid and moldy smelling. These conditions were the delight of all kinds of mushrooms which sprouted and conjured themselves from beneath the leaf litter. This visitor had never seen so many mushrooms. The mushrooms stood tall and short, alone, in clusters, in pairs or trios, with caps of gleaming white, or yellow, red, orange, or purple. So many mushrooms, some appeared to be tiny lanterns colorfully lighting the woods while others arrived as guests for a mid-summer party.
The mushroom tops varied from circular caps to flat or rounded umbrellas. While some were new and round, others had ragged edges or holes chewed in. One set had pointy edges giving them the appearance of sunflowers. One type of mushroom had a puffy white patterned cap like a toasted marshmallow. One small orange capped mushroom appeared to have tiny white stars stamped into its cap. A set of round mushrooms with holes in their center looked like rounded jars nestled into the forest floor. Bright colonies of tiny orange disks crowded inside an old hollowed tree trunk. Along the trail there were also mushrooms which had turned green with mold and appeared to be overtaken by another fungus as the mushroom cap collapsed. Other larger fungus thrived on the damp conditions; a large leafy looking fungus was growing around the base of a tree. The yellow shelves of fungus found a few weeks ago had grown and matured. Tree trunks had populations of fungus growing on them, white scaley fungus growing on the bark, or a black slimy blob fungus clinging to a fallen trunk.
No mushrooms were touched, many varieties are poisonous and best left undisturbed.
The conditions so delightful to the mushroom are not the most comfortable for people, so a relatively short walk was enough to admire this summer fungus party.
May is a busy month in the woods. People too are suddenly busy in May. It’s more of a challenge to take regular walks and organize photos when the month is filled with travel, weddings, friends visiting. These May Chronicles entries are a look back at the walks throughout the month.
First week of May. Rain! A day with light rain can be a wonderful day to walk in the woods, after the springtime leafy canopy has grown in. The tree branches and leaves naturally reach to catch sun rays and fill open spaces at any height, providing incredible coverage over the ground below. The leaves and flower petals are positioned to catch just about every drop of sun, and catch every drop of rain as well. The gentle sounds of rain falling on so many leaves is soft and lovely to hear, instead of the noise of a crowded city. The light is low, not great for taking photos, but fine for a walk. The foliage surfaces are shiny and some bead with raindrops. The sounds of the birds are slightly amplified by all those rainy surfaces, or does it just seem that way?
There had been heavy rains the day before our walk, the trail was waterlogged, and run off had carved channels near the trails. After heavy rains the rivers and creeks turn brown, from erosion of soil from the urban yards and woods. There are a few muddy patches and small streams to cross as we go.
Ground covers have been growing under these conditions of rain, warmer weather, and filtered light.
A male and lady cardinal fly across the trail and were visible singing on a low branch. The ever present robin bobbed along over the wet leaves keeping an eye on us. A chipmunk is spotted running start and stop through the leaves too quickly and too well hidden for a photo.
Two groups of deer drifted through the darkness of the woods chewing mouthfuls of fresh green leaves. They were unhurried, but their eyes watched the trail as they chewed on leaves from fallen branches.
The Conopholis sentry have turned a rusty red color and shrunk back a bit, however still maintaining their posts! The leafy carpet takes on richer hues in this rainy weather, and ferns and moss are glowing green with all the moisture.
A final discovery before returning home, dozens of tiny orange spiders in a nursery web just next to the trail. The light was fading and the only way to get this cozy scene into focus was to use the flash, which created a black background.
A beautiful day in the woods today! Warm temperature, hardly any clouds or wind, and later in the day the warm sunlight backlit new green leaves as if they were jade charms dangling on delicate bracelets.
This week the purple violets and tiny white flowers were the most abundant flowers, decorating the trail’s edge and tucked in and around tree roots.
More green leaves and grasses have grown up since last week in some parts of the woods, and parts of the trail have become more defined as a soft brown suede path surrounded by light green growth.
I heard several woodpeckers and managed to glimpse a flying pileated woodpecker (possibly), and saw a smaller downy or hoary woodpecker through the trees, but they were too fast to be observed for long. Also there were mourning doves calling in the woods, and at one point along the trail I looked up to see a pair resting on a branch just above me, two fluffy doves on a narrow branch. I heard and caught sight of two bright red male cardinals moving about some branches making noise. And at the end of my trip, while wondering what had become of the barred owl we saw three weeks ago, I was searching the branches in the vicinity of that old owl tree, when I suddenly saw this fluffy little owlet perched quite calmly on a branch out in the open. What a cute owlet, casually snoozing as the sun was setting. I wondered if there had been plenty of woodland critters available to feed this owl. And there were still a few squirrels nearby going about their business.
Trout lily leaves have sprouted between the trees along the creek. A few yellow trout lilies have opened! The marsh marigold leaves provide a soft looking ground cover, and this week other plants have grown up through the cover to different shapes and heights.
A bright green iridescent beetle with a long body and bulgy eyes was crawling along the trail and stood still for a second as I peered down at it, then it flew away. Not a familiar sight, I wondered what this insect was doing in the woods (perhaps it wondered the same).
Sunlight shimmered throughout the woods today, spiderwebs outlined in the sun, a stream reflected golden sunlight off its surface, and translucent flowers and leaves gleamed as the sun set behind them. A folded leaf on a low growing plant caught my eye, although I nearly rushed right past. It turned out to be a lone jack in the pulpit, unassumingly growing right next to the trail! Discoveries every week.
If flowers could jump from behind a log and shout SURPRISE!
Tiny flowers call this root nook home
More photos to share throughout the week in separate posts.