Saturday, October 25, 2014

Autumn 5: After the Storm

A nor'easter blew through Wednesday night and through Thursday, filling the coffee mug* I keep in the garden to overflowing.  A roughly straight-sided and flat-bottomed bucket nearby collected four-and-a-quarter inches of rain.  This was stunning: I hadn't seen much more than an inch in twenty-four hours this entire growing season.  A nor'easter is an extratropical cyclone that moves up the Atlantic coast, bringing strong north-easterly winds (and rain, snow, etc) to coastal regions--hence the name.  Next day's Boston Globe reported that Brockton had the 3rd highest rainfall total at 5.03 inches--showing that my bucket did not exaggerate.

Towns getting the highest sustained winds (30mph and higher), and the highest gusts (49mph and higher), were all more coastal than Brockton (which is about half an hour's drive from big water).  Even so, The wind brought down a few medium-sized limbs, and countless twigs.  I decided to see how much it had hastened leaf-fall, and whether it had dulled the reds noticeably.  (Why rain affects some fall colors more than others I discussed in "Why Do Leaves Change in Fall?")

Here are some before-and-after shots of the same trees.

Big silver maple down the street four days ago, and this morning.

Big white ash that held its leaves longer than any other I know, four days ago, and this morning.

Trio of sugar maples I've been watching, four days ago, and this morning.

The neighbor's big red maple four days ago, and this morning.

The weather clearly speeded the leaf loss, but not enormously.  Color differences--if there are any--are probably obscurred  by the difference in lighting: the earlier photos were made late in the afternoon.

A drive down the highway this afternoon permitted a general survey of leaf color.  It seems the predictions that last weekend would be "peak color" were correct: we seem to be past the half-way point.

The big rain did one very good thing, by raising groundwater levels a bit.  Here are photos of the shoreline of Nippenicket back on September 6th, and this afternoon.  There's still along way to go: nearly all that level sand (and its vegetation) was once under water.

September 6th

October 25th

*Who needs a store-bought rain gauge?  Any straight-sided, flat-bottomed container will give you a highly-local rainfall estimate.  Put out two or three to see any variation.  For best results, put each in a place with open sky above in all directions out to about 45 degrees.  Rain varies from place to place even within the same town--especially in summer showers--so your container will be more trustworthy for your own yard than the "official" numbers. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fruit "Strategies"

One of the amazing things I learned from my encounter with the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests concerns fruiting strategies.  From the plant's point of view, fruit is the way to give the kids (inside the seeds) the best chance possible for survival.  Among those plants which produce edible fruit in order to recruit animals to help with this, there are at least three different strategies in operation. 

The first is to get out front with a sweet fruit to attract resident birds and mammals, who will seek out this fruit for its sweetness, poop out the seeds probably some distance from the parent plant, and thereby "plant" the babies with a helpful accompaniment of fertilizer.  These fruits attract us, as well, so you can probably name a few: blackberries and raspberries (Rubus), and cherries and their relatives (Prunus).

Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis): a sweet, early season fruit.

A second strategy is to produce a fruit high in fat that will be valued by migrating birds because of its high energy density.  Instead of sweet, these fruits are typically sour or pungent.  Such "high quality fruit" fruit is more expensive for the plant to produce, but recruiting migratory birds insures that, whatever the future holds, your children will at least be well-traveled!  Because migrating birds will often be in unfamiliar territory, many of these "high quality fruit" bearers have leaves that turn earlier in the fall, providing visual "foliar flags" that announce, "here's the good stuff!" to all comers.  Most of the "comers" are thrushes of one sort or another, catbirds and waxwings.  Around here, the high quality fruit-producers are spicebush, flowering and gray dogwoods, Virginia creeper, sassafras, and magnolia. 

I didn't think to take a closer look at the dogwood above at the time, so can't say what it is.
The one below is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), which bears a high-fat fruit.

 Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia
is displaying its foliar flag, but has no fruit to advertise.

A third strategy is a miserly one that relies on animals' need for food in the lean months of winter and early spring, when better food is scarce.  This fruit is neither sweet nor high in fat, so is cheaper for the plants to produce.  Low quality fruit is the last chosen, often remaining on the plant into the spring.  Besides starving residents, these fruits will help migrating birds on their way back north.  Around here, the low-quality fruits are hawthorns, sumacs, chokecherry, greenbriars, roses, maple-leaved viburnum, foxgrape, poison ivy, hollies, redcedar, and bayberry.  

 The rose hips of this multiflora rose are low in boh sugar and fat,
and so may be hanging around for a loonng time.

Since reading the Field Guide to Eastern Forests, I have waited for fall to see if I could discern the high-fat fruit strategy, in particular.*  But I'm afraid migratory birds aren't keen on landing here in the urb: the flowering dogwood I've been able to reach has seen the fruit falling uneaten, or fattening squirrels.  I will have to visit Ponkapoag and its nice spice bush and sassafras populations and see if they're getting much traffic.

*Yes, strategy is a confusing word here, since it makes it seem that plants can make plans!  In reality, what looks like conscious planning is really the cumulative effect of variation and differential reproductive success: these modes of life diverged from common ancestors by mutations, and developed and still exist because the plants that have them succeeded and are still in the game. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Autumn 4

Wandered around the high school campus again on a foggy-dewy morning while my son refereed.  Lots is going on, some new since I was here two weeks ago, and I took over 200 photos in less than two hours.  Don't worry: I DID edit them down, a little!

 Things fall apart....

..but there can be beauty in decay and death
Red maple (Acer rubrum) can be the brightest of fall trees, but they vary tremendously. 

 The progression by which leaves change varies.
This European buckthorn has red veins, and red around a wound.

Here, I think, is a little scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) living up to its name.

Black cherry is one of the earliest trees to leaf out in spring, 
but doesn't really get going turning until now.

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) puts on a vivid display, with all its anthocyanin.
It is the brightest of the trees in the lowest image.

This is either flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), or a close relative.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus tomentosa).

 Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a native vine 
that begins turning a little early, attracting migrating birds to its fatty berries.
Alas, this vine lies: the berries are low-quality rose hips of neighboring multiflora rose.

 From one side the leaf shines in the morning sun,
from the other side it glows.

 Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is a noxious alien vine 
that nevertheless puts on a display in fall, as the yellow exterior of the fruit 
peels back to uncover the bright red interior, which birds gobble up.

Bullbriar turns a soft yellow that gives no hint of the harm its stout thorns do
to any who wade through it.

 Silverberry (Eleagnus umbellata) is an alien, but still a favorite of mine:
its leaves and fruit are covered with tiny umbrella-tipped hairs that give the entire plant
a silvery sheet.  Its leaves turn yellow before they fall.

Some plants linger to photosynthesize a little longer.  Here are gray birch
(Betula populifolia), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), speckled alder 
(Alnus racemosa), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and the alien invasive
European buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula).

Not only are some plants still green, a few are even in flower.
Besides the buckthorn immediately above, a lot of weedy little
Aster vimineus (peeking between deer tongue leaves) 
are still blooming, as well as scattered rough goldenrod
(Solidago rugosa) and the odd chicory (Chicorium intybus).

The stream and pond wwere my last stops.  Colored leaves
drifting downstream dress-up even an urban brook like this one.  

Some aliens are obvious in their disregard of seaons.

A good camera angle obscures the fact that this pond lies close between
a large parking lot and the high school football stadium.

Both mallards and Canada geese call the pond home.  
Overhead, a honking flock of geese head southward.