Cooper’s hawk watching for prey

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
William Blake

Getting outside in the winter can take some serious nudging if the cold is a factor, but when prodding has done its work, expect to find things of interest as you walk, hike or even drive along. A backyard or a hiking trail can provide more interesting viewing than television programs offer and things we see will probably pique our curiosity as well.  

Cladonia arbuscula lichen

Cladonia arbuscula is a fruticose lichen, that is, its shape resembles a tiny shrub. Highly branched, it occurs on the ground in open acidic areas, sometimes forming large areas of tufted mats. It is one of many lichens commonly referred to as reindeer lichens. It is light gray-green or cream and has a puffy appearance.

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, a flat-branched species of club moss, is a  common forest understory plant  of North America. It is actually neither a low- growing conifer nor a moss but is instead  closely related to ferns and horsetails. They have green scale-like leaves and yellow to tan sporophylls on branch tips that produce spores.  

Princess pine covering the ground in the Connecticut woods
Princess pine sporophylls

Sometimes when hiking in New England woods you come across stone walls. In the past, these were probably erected as borders along the edge of woods on farmland. Over the years, as farms are abandoned or fields are no longer cultivated, the land cleared for fields has returned its original woodland habitat. Robert Thorson, a landscape geologist at the University of Connecticut, estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of these old stone walls which could circle the globe 4 times.

Stone wall in the deep woods

On a recent trip to the shoreline in Old Lyme, right after a strong winter storm, there were tons (probably!) of shells washed up above the normal high-tide mark. If you find a tan, spiral string of cases, check this out. These are the egg casings of a whelk and contain a bunch of tiny whelks in each case. Sometimes people open one up and think it is just sand inside, but if you look carefully you may see any remaining whelks inside.

Spiral egg cases of a whelk

Broomsedge bluestem Andorpogon virginicus is a native grass that turns bright orange in late fall and remains upright throughout much of the winter season, often standing tall above snow cover. Seeds are a source of food for birds and small animals. This plant also supports various Skipper butterfly larva and small butterflies obtain nectar from the flowers.

Broomsedge in winter

Telling the difference between red and pitch pines has become easier as I have learned that red pine needles are in bundles of two, and pitch pine needles are in bundles of three, and are often twisted. Red pine has smaller cones and lack the stout spines on individual scales that characterizes those of pitch pines. Also, red pine bark peels away on upper trunk and branches revealing a nice red color.

Pitch pine cone has stout spines on the scales
Image of red pine- cone has no spines on the scales and needles are in bundles of two
Peeling red pine bark on older tree

Other things I came across recently include melted snow where deer had bedded down, a red-shouldered hawk in the neighborhood and a Cooper’s hawk perched on a dead tree looking for prey, a trunk of a small tree damaged by a deer rubbing its antlers, interesting cloud formations and a Promethea moth cocoon dangling from a spicebush twig. As my nephew, Ben, once stated when observing nature as a small boy, “the excitement never ends”.

Red shouldered hawk in a landscape tree
Promethea moth cocoon structure
Tree with bark rubbed off by a buck rubbing its antlers
Clouds lined up in a winter sky

Pamm Cooper- UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Trees and shrubs are showing signs of life as they swell in preparation of budding out. Let’s hope that they have survived the extreme cold that followed some unseasonably warm weather in February when they started to appear. Although we are still weeks away from seeing canopies of leaves and flowering shrubs the weather is becoming nice enough to enjoy a walk through the landscape. And without leaves and flowers to attract our attention our sight is drawn to other details that might normally go unnoticed.

As I was walking around the yard looking at the pussywillows and the lilac buds I noticed lichen growing along the side of the lilac trunk. We get many calls at the Home & Garden Education Center regarding grey-green growths along trunks and limbs of woody ornamentals. Most lichen are so unworldly-looking that the common misconception is that they must be causing harm to the host plant, especially since they are commonly first noticed when a tree is in distress. But a sparse canopy simply lets in more sunlight which is beneficial to the lichen.

Lichen on lichen

The truth is so different. In fact, lichen may be a benefit to the host plant by bringing extra moisture and environmental protection as the lichen take root. Further, removal of lichen may damage the underlying bark may create open wounds that would allow pathogens to enter. It is best left alone.

What are lichen, then? They not only live symbiotically with host plants, they can be found on soil and on rocks. Lichen are composite organisms and although they sometimes appear plant-like, they are not plants. They are algae (or cyanobacteria, a name that reflects their blue-green hues) that live among the filaments of fungi. They do not have roots to absorb water and nutrients but they can produce food through photosynthesis by the algae component. Lichen are sometimes called moss and may grow amongst them but they are not related. This image shows them on the same tree:

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Lichen can be correctly called an epiphyte though. Epiphytes grow harmlessly on other plants, only relying on the physical support for its structure and getting moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids are a beautiful example of an epiphytic plant and more can be read about them in the Ladybug Blog: A Visit to the Bahamas.

As lichen grow the forms that the thallus take determine the grouping that they fall within. The thallus are the obvious vegetative body parts and they can grow in a variety of ways and colors. On the left is the Parmotrema sp. in a foliose growth form. On the right is the Caloplaca sp. in a crustose growth form.

Lichen are long-lived but can have slow growth rate, as little as 2/100” in a year although there are varieties that can measured at 1 ½’ per anum. Lichen can be the first species to colonize freshly exposed rocks and can survive under the harshest conditions, such as arctic tundra and desert. It can survive a complete loss of water and then rehydrate when it becomes available. This moss has been growing on this rock for years. The cup-like structures are the apothecia, the fungal reproductive structure that produces the spores. While these spores will produce new fungi it won’t lead to new lichen. New lichen are formed when soredia are dispersed. Soredia are  clusters of algal cells wrapped in fungal filaments.

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So there is no need to panic when you see lichen. If the host plant does seem to be in decline, look for another cause. It could be due to an insect infestation (have Gypsy Moth caterpillars defoliated the canopy?), a vascular disease that has caused a general decline in vigor, or uneven watering practices. Check with the UConn Home & Garden Education for verification of any of these possibilities.

Susan Pelton