As anyone who lives in the Northeast is well aware, a long, cold winter has been followed by a cool early spring, and the growing season is off to a very slow and patchy start. Nevertheless, the region's ephemeral wildflowers have been blooming nicely over the past couple weeks, offering welcome color to the leafless forests.
The spring ephemerals bloom in the mid-spring window between the last deep frosts and snowmelt and leafout on the trees. During this time, they take advantage of the light that reaches the forest floor through leafless woods. The various species each have distinctive flowering times and habitats. Knowing where and when to look is especially important with spring wildflowers, as the viewing season can be as short as a matter of days locally. You're not likely to find a colony of lady's slippers in mid-April, or bloodroot flowering in June. It's impossible to provide specific dates given New England's topographic and climactic diversity and highly variable spring temperatures, but below is a quick guide to some of the favorite early-season species.
The blooms of round-lobed hepatica, which can vary from purple to deep lavender blue to pale blue to nearly white, are a favorite of many naturalists and a welcome early sign of spring. The flowers close at night and on heavily overcast days to protect pollen stores. Flowering time is generally from mid-late April into early May. Areas with rich soils fed by limestone and marble are the best places to check for hepatica, which can be elusive to find even in suitable habitats.
Also known as "purple trillium," "wake robin," or the rather unflattering "stinking Benjamim," this member of the lily family thrives in rich, moist woods. It blooms from late April to as late as late May or early June in highest elevations, such as the summit of Mount Greylock in western Massachusetts. Red trilliums often grow along streams and brooks, which can make for a nice photo opportunity. As its name suggests, each flower has three dark red/maroon leaves. Uncommon white or yellow variants may also be seen locally (below).
This photogenic member of the poppy family features a white-petaled flower and a large leaf that grow on separate stems. The leaf initially envelopes and protects the flower bud. After emerging, the flowers, which have 7-12 petals, open in full sunlight and close at night. Habitats include floodplains, stream banks, talus slopes, and moist, rich woods. Dense colonies may also be seen growing in association with active abandoned garden sites. Blooming time in the Northeast is generally the last two weeks of April, though they may continue into early May in late years such as 2014.
The bright yellow blooms of trout lilies can be found in moist hardwood forests, especially along river and stream banks, and in rocky areas such as cliffs, ledges, and balds. It is one of the first flowers to emerge in late April. It often, though not always grows in colonies or clusters.
These attractive flowers, with reddish or purple-lined petals, thrive in a variety of habitats in eastern deciduous forests, including rocky mountain slopes, bluffs, ravines, wetland edges, and even gardens and parks. Bloom time is late April and May.
The next installment will feature the next round of mid-spring species, including painted trillium, fringed polygala, and columbine.
New Hampshire's Mount Monadnock is well-known as one of the world's most-climbed mountains. Although its elevation is relatively modest at 3166 feet (roughly half the size of Mount Washington in the White Mountains), its isolation and barren summit give it the feel of a much larger eminence. And that's the reason for it's appeal - it offers the experience of a big mountain, accessible via relatively short trails that can be completed in a few hours.
Unlike the highest summits in New England such as the Presidential Range, Katahdin, and Mount Mansfield that have naturally open alpine zones, Monadnock's summit was cleared during the 19th century by a combination of human-set fires (possibly to eradicate wolves) and storms.
With an estimated 100,000 visitors annually, the popular Monadnock trails can be quite crowded at times, especially on warm-weather weekends. However, the reservation's 35-mile trail network offers a variety of options. Here are some highlights removed from the well-beaten paths.
Pumpelly Trail/East Ridge: At roughly 8 miles round-trip, the Pumpelly Trail is much longer than the other popular trails. However, while not to be underestimated the climbing is mostly easy to moderate, with just one or two short steep sections. What makes this route worthwhile are the numerous open viewpoints along the ridge. There are fine views across the countryside to the nearby Wapack Mountains, as well as Monadnock's summit, seen here from one of the junctions.
Bald Rock: You don't have to climb to the summit to enjoy great views. The mostly open shoulder known as Bald Rock on the south slopes offers a very interesting perspective, including long panoramic views and a good look at the summit above to the north. There are several options for reaching it. When I took this winter sunset, I followed the old Toll Road past the Halfway House, then took the Side Foot and Hedgehog paths to Bald Rock. The Toll Road and White Arrow Trails offer a fairly straightforward climb (an easy ascent on the road, then a steeper climb below the summit) from the parking area on Route 124.
Gilson Pond/Birchtoft Trail: Tucked at the base of the east slopes, Gilson Pond offers scenic views of Monadnock's looming profile and is also home to a state park campground. A pleasant and easy nature trail, excellent for families, circles the pond, with views of a beaver lodge and concrete dam. The Birchtoft Trail branches off the pond loop and offers a moderately difficult 3.5-mile route to the summit.
If you're interested in learning more about Monadnock and its rich history, Rabbit Ear Films is in the process of producing the first documentary of the mountain, Monadnock: The Mountain that Stands Alone. Check out their website for more infor: http://www.monadnockfilm.com/
The recent months have truly been the winter of the Snowy Owl. These Arctic visitors have been seen in unusually high numbers in many areas of North America, drawing countless bird watchers, naturalists, photographers, and families alike. Here in New England, sightings have been very common throughout much of the coastal region, and individuals have also been regularly reported inland in areas such as the Champlain and Connecticut River Valleys. At Boston's Logan Airport, as of late February a record number of more than 80 birds had been relocated to prevent collisions with airplanes (for context, the average winter sees just 6-8 relocations). Individuals have also made appearances in unusual places such as the summit of Wachusett Mountain in central Massachusetts, urban neighborhoods in the city of Springfield, and fields in mostly wooded hilltowns. On a broader scale, snowys have also turned up in unusual southern destinations such as Bermuda, the North Carolina Outer Banks, Florida, and Kansas.
Snowy owl populations and migrations are intricately linked with the population dynamics of small rodents called lemmings in their Arctic home region. When lemming numbers are high, snowy owls can be prolific breeders raising as many as a dozen hatchlings. However, when numbers are low, they may not even attempt to breed. Fluctuations in their prey along with weather result in periodic movements south during the winter months. Several similar movements have occurred in recent winters such as 2011-12, when snowys were also highly visible in New England and other areas (though not quite to the extent of this year). These migrations are known as 'irruptions,' or irregular seasonal movements of species that are dictated by food availability and other factors. Other species that have irruptions include winter finches such as crossbills and pine siskens, short eared owls, green darner dragonflies, and red admiral and painted lady butterflies (both of which were unusually common in the Northeast during the warm year of 2012).
During winter irruptions, snowy owls favor open areas that bear some resemblance to their Arctic tundra homes. These include coastal barrier beaches, airports, frozen tidal rivers and wetlands, and agricultural fields. They often perch atop places that allow them to survey the terrain for potential prey, such as dunes, fence posts, building roofs, telephone poles, barns, and even picnic tables (above)! Their prey includes small mammals and birds such as ducks. The farmlands of the Connecticut Valley in northwest Massachusetts, seen below from Mount Sugarloaf, are an example of an inland habitat where snowy owls have been reported this winter.
Salisbury Beach on the MA-NH border has been one of many reliable coastal locations. The owls frequent both the beach and dunes and the tidal marshes. Look carefully for the owl on the post right of center.
The female below (as indicated by dark markings, males are much whiter) was flying over dunes at Salisbury Beach.
Lunch grab for a patient hunter on the New Hampshire coast. After sighting this mouse and starting to fly from its perch, this owl held back at the last instant and waited several minutes for the perfect opportunity.
While it's easy to take sightings for granted during winters such as 2013-2014, by March the owls will again be northbound for their Arctic homes, and it's hard to predict when the next significant migration might occur (though nothing is certain, a repeat of this year would be unlikely). So if you have the opportunity in the next few weeks, keep your eye out for this possibly historic natural spectacle.
With more than 250 cascades, the Appalachian mountains and hills of western North Carolina are a waterfall lover's paradise. As a bonus, some of the state's largest and most distinctive waterfalls are easily accessed and viewed along the corridor of Route 64, a scenic highway (a 61-mile stretch is aptly known as the 'Mountain Waters Scenic Byway'). The following driving tour may completed in a full day or less, though you'll want to allow plenty of time to explore the area. While not especially dangerous, drivers should be prepared for tight curves as the highway snakes through the mountains.
The first stop is Looking Glass Falls which, though not as large or voluminous as some of the other waterfalls, is arguably the most picturesque. From the junction of Route 64 and 276 east of Brevard, follow 276 north for 5.9 miles to the entrance on the right. For those travelling on the Blue Ridge Parkway, Route 276 and the falls are easily accessed at milepost 412.2 just west of the Mount Pisgah area. A set of stairs offers a quick descent to a viewing area and the base of the falls.
After enjoying the falls (and other attractions of the Nantahala National Forest) backtrack to Route 64 and head west for roughly 32.5 miles to Cashiers. Turn south on Route 107 for 9.3 miles to the South Carolina state line, then left at a sign for Whitewater Falls and continue 2.3 miles to the junction with Route 130 (becomes Rt. 281 in North Carolina). At 411 feet, Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Rockies. A paved, universally accessible trail leads to two viewing areas with long-distance views of the falls across the high valley. A medium-range telephoto lens is helpful here to zoom in on the cascades.
Return to Route 107 and head back to Cashiers. From the town center, you can continue north on Route 107 to a right on Norton Road, which leads 0.5 miles to Hurricane Falls. This 30-40 foot falls is visible from the roadside.
From Cashiers, continue west on Route 64 for 10 miles to Highlands. Here you will find popular Bridal Veil Falls, a true 'roadside attraction' in that part of the pulloff runs directly below the falls (below, a family poses beneath the cascades)! Use caution parking around here.
Just 0.9 miles further along is 75-foot high Dry Falls, which, in spite of its name and in contrast to nearby Bridal Veil Falls, often thunders with a high volume. One unusual characteristic of this falls is the trail that runs behind the cascade, allowing visitors an unique perspective.
The final stop on this tour is Cullasaja Falls. From Dry Falls, continue west on Route 64 for 5.5 miles to a viewing area at a pullout on the south side of the highway. Those stopping here should continue past the falls, then turn around and return in the eastbound lane to the pullout (use caution as the highway is quite narrow and windy here, and trucks and buses need the full width of the road).
Cullasaja Falls marks the western end of this tour, but there are many more attractions in the area worth exploring. From Franklin, several highways lead north towards the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway.
75 years ago, the landscape of the Swift River Valley in central Massachusetts was in the midst of a remarkable transformation as four towns were discontinued, abandoned, and largely flooded during the creation of Quabbin Reservoir, the water supply for eastern Massachusetts. Since that time, the reservoir has become an "accidental wilderness," a 40 square mile haven for wildlife in the midst of one of the country's most populous regions. In addition, thousands of acres of lesser-known watershed lands to the east, including the Ware River and Wachusett Reservoirs, were also taken during the 20th century.
I'm pleased to announce the recent release of Quabbin Reservoir Through Time:, a new book in Fonthill Media's America Through Time series. The book features 90 historic images paired with recent color photographs taken from the same vantage, along with an introductory history of the water supply projects.
Though nature has largely reclaimed most of the Swift, Ware, and Wachusett watersheds, many historic sites remain visible today. Arguably the finest outing for those with an interest in history is the former road to Dana Common (Gate 40) in Petersham, where an old town road leads past several old farm sites to the former site of Dana. Interpretive signs with pictures of the old buildings were recently posted at many of the old foundation sites, allowing visitors to compare past and present views.
For images of Quabbin Reservoir, the Swift and Ware Rivers, Wachusett Reservoir, and other nearby places, feel free to check out my central Massachusetts galleryL http://johnburk.zenfolio.com/p1068073715