Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lichens at the Well

Crustose lichens on granite
Consider for a moment, the harsh physical conditions that plants must contend with on a bare slab of granite. How do they get water? How do they anchor themselves? How do they secure nutrients? In combination these factors create a formidable array of conditions, so tough in fact that only one group of plants in the entire world - the crustose lichens - have been able to overcome them....Tom Wessels, The Granite Landscape

Relatively simple pioneers
Once their 'spores' attach to new terrain it takes at least a decade of growth before crustose lichens become visible to the naked eye. A succession of colonization may ensue that after half a century creates conditions capable of supporting  foliose lichens. When  primordial soil with sufficient water-holding and nutrient capacity accumulates, fruticose lichens may follow.

Lichens on the old well
The old well harbored the greatest variety of species that Martha Finta and I encountered on our lichen expedition around Halibut Point State Park.

Examining lichens on granite
With a field guide we were usually able to place our discoveries within a genus, but exact identification proved more elusive because of close similarities among species. In a later visit to Harvard University's Farlow Herbarium Martha reviewed my photographs with associate curator Michaela Schmull. They decided that precise identification would require further testing in situ or bringing tissue samples to the lab. So my captions offer will refer to probabilities rather than certainties.

Foliose lichens succeeding crustose lichens
Nevertheless - the progressive colonizations form a landscape in miniature as beautiful as the broader surroundings.

'Maritime sunburst lichen' xanthoria parietina harmonizing with minerals
Martha recognized that the roof over the well would make for prosperous lichen hunting.
Martha Finta follows a hunch
At the edge of the roof a fleshy light green growth demonstrated how luxuriantly foliose lichens can grow on a substrate that holds moisture.

Foliose lichens on woody substrate
The shingled  medium radically condensed colonizing time and presented a gallery of ornaments from the lichen world.

Various foliose lichens
Conditions favored fruticose lichens in hospitable crevices.

Cladonia cristatella, 'British soldiers'

Another cladonia lichen, on the grotesque side

British soldiers adjacent to probable flavoparmelia species
Each type of lichen evolved as members of the ascomycetes group of fungi developed the ability to grow around photosynthesizing cells of various cyanobacteria or algae - which although usually regarded as different primitive plant types, may actually be a continuum of single-celled green plants. The lichen propagates itself by 'fruiting' as miniscule balls of fungal tissue surrounding a few of those green plant cells, carried to new surfaces by wind, water, or animated energies.

Crustose lichen, fruiting
The lichen partnerships colonize sites on every continent where the component plant groups cannot take hold by themselves. They extend the biosphere to areas of extreme exposure too barren to sustain 'higher' life. Like very few other organisms they endure drought in extended dormancy until precious water revitalizes their organic pulse.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Looking at Lichens

There are grand panoramas to be had on hands and knees at Halibut Point, especially on misty days.

Two crustose lichens, commingled
I sometimes fantasize about being sub-Lilliputian, ant-size, to wander through the microcosm growing on bare ledge, looking up at and admiring botanical creations that could stimulate other-worldly imaginations at George Lucas's film studio.

A lichen fruiting
Savannahs and multi-canopied forests would stretch to the horizon, composed of towering plants that in my ordinary life escape notice under foot.

As an obtainable but definitely second-best passport to the Terrain of the Tiny I coax my camera into macro focus and consult new guidebooks. The predominant vegetation consists of mosses and lichens.
Lichens subordinate, mosses fruiting
Up close, mosses are a weird-looking set but they're definitely plants. Generally they depend on at least rudimentary soil and water supplies to prosper. Some kinds can make it at the margins of the ledge, or in shallow depressions. In the photo above two types of mosses are fruiting.

Mosses subordinate, lichens fruiting
You might think of  a lichens as a partnership formed by two different plant groups combining to make a living where no single entity could survive. In this sense a lichen is not a plant per se. I called on Martha Finta to shed light on how this works.
Martha Finta examining lichens on an oak tree
As we head into Halibut Point State Park Martha points out four different lichens growing on a tree we. The lichens find anchorage on the bark but otherwise seem to draw no sustenance from the host. Not a hint of the parasite about them.

Martha refers to the botanical complexity of lichens as 'mutualism.' A certain group of fungi - which have no chlorophyll and cannot directly convert the sun's energy into organic energy - has gained the ability to enmesh certain green-celled algae or cyanobacteria to draw on their capability to photosynthesize. The fungal component adds sponginess as a water reservoir for the pair, and no doubt other biochemical benefits.
These lichen arrangements have developed many different forms, and the ability to reproduce as a unit. Their life history makes very interesting investigation. Like Martha you can go on field trips by joining the Friends of Harvard University's Farlow Library and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany - the lichen, moss, and fungus people.
Lichens on ledge
With a magnifying glass and field guide we start trying to identify diverse lichens in the Park. Some of the common names are Zen-like. The science is demanding, on the eye and on the tongue.

Lichens on concrete
Martha's discovery tour included moments like these:

"That's not the 'maple dust lichen,' but another one. I wonder if it's not this.... Nope, not nine-tenths of a millimeter. Did it look like this under the glass?... Oh, it's this family. Dimelaena oreina. It could be confused with another one. Hah!...Oh great. 'Golden moonglow lichen.' But it doesn't really have yellowish lobes. I saw some black dots but I don't know if they're level with the surface."
Lichens on granite bench
"I think it could be porpidia, but it's nothing concentric. The ones I have seen of porpidia are usually crustose like this, very fine."

"This is one with the black discs. No, wait, they're brown discs. We have a small mystery, at least for the moment. Probably it's an aspicilia. Here we go! 'Cumberland rock shield,' Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia.

I ask Martha what keeps her at it. "What's the draw?"

Martha - "It's like being one with your surroundings, to know what it is. It goes hand in hand with Nature. It's instinctual."
Me - "You had to take a bus to come over here."
Martha - "You called. Someone wants to learn more about it. Let's see what happens. It's an adventure."
Rock surface
Rock surface, detail
Recommended reading
Lichens of the North Woods, by Joe Walewski
Common Lichens of Northeastern North America: A Field Guide, by Troy McMullin and Frances Anderson
The Granite Landscape, by Tom Wessels

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Bird-a-thon, Saturday

The varied geography of Halibut Point presents an ideal starting place for Bird-a-thon's Big Day. The suffused light at dawn is all Chris Leahy needs to take stock  of the diversity of birds between shore and horizon.

Halibut Point, dawn
Seasonal adjustments are still in progress. Bird-a-thon contestants want to find winter stragglers as well as summer vanguards. Waterfowl are moving up the coast. Migrating land birds reaching the Ipswich Bay cluster nervously before crossing miles of open ocean.

Blue jays contemplating an ocean crossing
Spotted sandpipers and laughing gulls sit within my sight range. Chris reports on scoters, loons and gannets further out to sea. Without glancing up he notes a bobolink overhead. Towhees call around us. They're nesting reliably in our coastal heathlands despite declining numbers elsewhere.

Black-and-white warbler
When Chris's friend Elizabeth Heide joins us the birding conversations becomes richer and more probing. We amble up a road into the woods. Another pair of trained eyes and ears helps identify warblers in the treetops. For my benefit they call into view a least flycatcher with a combination of pishing imitations and screech owl alerts. They're amused that I forgo the aid of binoculars. I'm amused (sometimes) with tantalizing subjects for my camera.

Great crested flycatcher
As a matter of routine they 'get' a great crested flycatcher when it calls from a distant perch. I try to distinguish it from a red-bellied woodpecker, which perplexes Chris. "I never thought of them being similar, but you're right, they are. Hmm. The flycatcher is more musical. The trill of it is a little more distinct, whereas the woodpecker runs his together. It's also a different sound. Great cresteds always strike me as if they're shouting. Wheet. Wheet.  Something's going on. The woodpecker's more like, Hey. Yeah. I know that makes no sense at all." I'm all ears.

Chris and Elizabeth at Seaside Cemetery
We leave Halibut Point for open habitat with intermittent trees - a graveyard. We find satisfying additions to the day's bird  list. The inhabitants understand the serenity of a May morning.

Black-crowned night heron
A black-crowned night heron presides at the adjacent pond.

Red-necked grebe among common eiders
Chris has a knack for picking the unusual out of the usual.  At Gloucester Harbor he spots a red-necked grebe among the eiders. It's a bird not often seen here at this time of year, in breeding plumage.

Elizabeth produces the brown creeper call on her Smartphone
At Ravenswood Park we supplement the tally with birds of another habitat. The cognoscenti point out a northern water thrush but can't manage to draw it out of the brush for a photograph. Chris thinks he hears a brown creeper but hesitates on ascertaining it for the list until Elizabeth confirms the vocalization 'on line.'

We move on to an overlook at Poles Hill alongside the Annisquam River. The terrain produces updrafts for soaring birds, hawks, turkey vultures and gulls. It's one more niche of Cape Ann ecology and its adaptable bird world.
Common yellowthroat
Two of the warbler species we've encountered stay with us all summer, the common yellowthroat and the yellow warbler. Their familiarity does not diminish the marvel of a close portrait.
Yellow warbler
Chris says, "I love making lists, not because I think I'm accomplishing anything, necessarily, although today if we see 150 species that would be cool in that sport, competitive kind of way. I guess it's part of the curiosity ritual - something like that....
"There's no boundary between the nature and the art. The two things go together for me. If I can combine an artistic element with a natural history element, that's as good as it gets."

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bird-a-thon, Friday Night

In one of the Massachusetts Audubon Society's principal fundraisers, teams of birders scour the state to compete for the greatest variety of birds in a 24-hour count.  The clock starts ticking at 6:00pm on May 15.

Gloucester resident Chris Leahy limits his own version of the Bird-a-thon to Cape Ann. I join him with a travel mug of coffee at the Coolidge Reservation in Manchester. At the far edge of the Great Lawn he greets a gaggle of birders on the shoreline opposite Kettle Island, where marsh birds fly in nightly to roost.
Chris Leahy and Dave Weaver opposite Kettle Island
Chris and Dave Weaver exchange the jovial banter of comrades.
Chris - Okay, Weaver how're you doing? Poaching on my territory? What do you have for me?
Dave - Oh, everything. We've had a  pair of oystercatchers on the beach [half a mile away.] Now I don't see them....Wait. Here we go. Here we go! Right there on the water's edge, we've got them again. They've settled down. Something happened as you were approaching.
Laughter, and appreciation from the crowd for the glamour of the bird and for the repartée. I think about one champion golfer magnanimously allowing a 'gimme' putt to another in front of the faithful. But these chevaliers of The List want to raise their score rather than lower it.
Oystercatcher (Essex River)
Joel Ray photo
Chris - Dave, I shouldn't tell you this, but there's a....Do you know Black and White Beaches in Manchester? There's a bufflehead. Diving. I saw him twenty minutes ago.
Dave - That's out of the ordinary. So which was it, Black or White?
Chris - Black. Well, the beach. The bufflehead was black-and-white.
Bufflehead ducks (winter)
Most buffleheads, common winter residents in Cape Ann waters, departed weeks ago for northern nesting grounds. This stay-behind individual becomes 'the bird of the day' for the contest.
Glossy ibis
High overhead a flock of glossy ibis flies in to roost on the island. My friend Ellie Kanegis used to call them 'Nefertiti birds' from portrayals in Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Great egrets returning to Kettle Island at sundown
Kettle Island gives nesting sanctuary to wading birds from marshlands up and down the coast.
Great egret on the Ipswich River (earlier in May)
Great egret taking flight
The Bird-a-thon celebrates the  hunter's skill more than the splendors of any individual bird. That splendor is nevertheless at the core of my companions' passion. In this fast-moving contest they need only identify the presence of a species whether by flight rhythms or the arcane patterns of a speck in a scope. Thus are observed gannets, red-throated loons, and white-winged scoters out at sea. We move on.
Magnolia Woods
At Magnolia Woods Chris imitates owl calls to provoke hidden marsh dwellers into revealing their curiosity or antipathy. The sky darkens. Chris names invisible songsters. "That wood thrush has the most wonderful voice. Thoreau called it 'the swamp angel.' Its syrinx can produce several different melody lines simultaneously. You can actually hear the layers. The veery, another thrush, is more ethereal, giving a pipe organ sound."
Listening for woodcocks
"At the witching hour woodcocks will come fluttering out of the woods and start circling in the sky. There's a twittering thing they do up there. Then they dive-bomb, zigzagging down. Their primary feathers are very thin and narrow. They make a whistling sound as the wind goes past their feathers. It's not a vocalization."
We are soon rewarded with just that, from faint bat-like silhouettes above the tree line.
Calling whippoorwills
Our Friday night finale takes us to a spot in West Gloucester where re-growth after a forest fire has created the heathland conditions that whippoorwills prefer. Hardly anyone ever sees these night-flying birds that catch bugs on the wing with gaping mouths. But they have a beloved place in folklore and nocturnal magic. Chris elicits a whispering response from the darkness, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will.
He heads off to go owling on Eastern Point. We agree to meet at Halibut Point at six in the morning.