Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Sea Lion, Mosses and Lichens at Sleeping Giant

While visiting Alex in Thunder Bay we decided to make a day trip to the Sleeping Giant, the Sibley peninsula jutting into Lake Superior which you see from town.
The Sleeping Giant as seen from Hillcrest Park
It was a bright and sunny day with spring run-off at full tilt.
Spring run-off headed for Lake Superior

We decided on a relatively unambitious hike to the Sea Lion, a rock arch jutting into Lake Superior.  It is always so much fun to take a walk in the woods with Alex since she can animate what we are seeing with so much information.
 The Sea Lion
Thea, Alex's dog, loved the snow left in the shade of the path through the woods.
Thea, the snow dog!

As we scrambled up the rocky path to the higher elevation we came across a patch of reindeer lichen right next to an outcropping of cauliflower lichen. They are both silver and strikingly similar. To my untrained eye I would have assumed they were the same species. However, they are two different species of the same genus, Cladina. This nitrogen-rich lichen is the preferred food of the woodland caribou.
Reindeer lichen
Cauliflower lichen

In addition to lichen there were lots of mosses. Alex explained that while they weren't restricted to the boreal forest the role they had to play in the nitrogen deficient, mainly coniferous woods was important to the overall health of the forest. Coniferous forests, without the benefit of the rich leaf litter found on the floor of a mixed or deciduous forest, have few sources of nitrogen. But, as limiting to nitrogen, is the cold climate and short growing season of the boreal forest. This restricts the ability of trees to photosynthesize which is one of the main mechanisms by which they accumulate nitrogen.  Nitrogen is also scarce because of the youth of the recently (geologically) glaciated soil of the northern forest.

Unlike trees, mosses don't require photosynthesis to fix nitrogen from the air. Nitrogen is the most abundant gas in the earth's atmosphere. Mosses have the ability to store nitrogen in their tissues. This stored nitrogen becomes a source for trees and plants in times of scarcity. Feather mosses are very common and the only mosses to fix nitrogen. There are many types of feather mosses. Below are three of the most common examples.
Schreiber's Moss
Stair-step Moss
Plume Moss

We had a picnic lunch overlooking the Sea Lion. There was a beautiful moss, a type of Dicranum moss, which caught the sunlight at ground level. From above it was barely noticeable but the direction and height of the sun when we were seated made it appear to be on fire. It came as no surprise that it is called Fire Moss. These mosses can colonize after fire and on exposed rocks with little soil.
Fire Moss

Christopher noticed an amazing spruce tree. From a distance it just seemed to be growing on the edge of the cliff. But closer examination revealed it's roots cantilevered over the water below after having been exposed by erosion on the cliffside.
Spruce overlooking the pristine Lake Superior

Upon closer inspection the roots on cliffside are exposed 

A closer view of the spruce's roots with the beautifully clear green water below

Thinking about shared gene pools made me notice some other distinct similarities when we got back to Alex's place and I was able to get a closer look at our photos.
Alex and Christopher

Me and Alex

This blog is dedicated and completely informed by Alex who has taught me so much; most importantly to see when I look - and has also saved me hours of research!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

April Fool's comes one day late

Today dawned grey and drizzling but that soon became an April blizzard.
Looking east at about 8 this morning. Crows in the trees.

The last time Avo and I had been cross country skiing we had come across a trail I hadn't seen before. Ever since I had wanted to explore it. So inclement weather or not, today was the day. Expecting that spring run-off would make access through the woods near our house impossible, I decided to drive and park just north of where I knew we could catch the new trail.
The swollen marsh across the road from the woods

The first stumbling block was deep water on the trail where it joined the road. But Scylla and I walked along the road until we could scramble through the woods to hook up with the trail.
The trail is tantalizingly clear. Just not navigable..

It became beautiful after awhile; sunny, with the sound of grouse in the background and melting snow falling from above. While this trail is new to me and exploring it felt like an adventure, it really is impossible to escape to genuine wilderness. This woods is somewhat managed - there are trails cut through the forest and a certain amount of logging throughout the woods. But there are venerable old stumps and snags left to rot on the ground. Both provide welcome homes for inhabitants of the forest.
A stump with cavities carved out
A birch stump with vertical housing
This stump has much larger cavities

Occasionally when the trail turns 90 degrees surveyor's tape marks the change of direction.
Surveyor's tape marking a change in the trail direction 

And sometimes the signs of human activity are a little less benign (at least to me, essentially an urbanite).
Target practice?

These look like bullet holes

The rock outcroppings are beautiful and often dramatic.
Beautiful lichen on the side of the rock

Trees growing between the rocks
A lovely terraced rock outcropping
And some striking vertical rocks

While it may not be the Bleasdell Boulder, Scylla is suitably intrigued by this erratic. Erratics are rocks carried by glacial ice flow. Because they can have travelled hundreds of kilometres they are often different kind of rock from what is native to where they are sitting.
Scylla is captivated by this erratic

Scylla and I scrambled up a beautiful rock outcropping to an open sheltered area above. The sun shone and there was no wind. The perfect place to rest and soak up some rays. When we reached the top I saw that someone else had had the same idea. So while I rested on the lawn chair Scylla surveyed the domain.
Convenient seating 
Time to soak up some rays
Scylla keeps a watchful eye

Our walk was punctuated by overflowing creeks in many places.
A swollen creek floods out the trail
All these creeks are part of the Moira River watershed
The fast flowing water, especially over rocks and logs, is highly oxygenated
The marshy areas are temporary ponds, sometimes aided by beaver activity.

And farmers' fields also have vernal ponds in low lying areas.
Farmer's field with temporary pond
Back at home, our own Railway Creek is swollen and flowing quickly.
Railway Creek, another tributary of the Moira river

Monday, 28 March 2016

Allan Gardens on Easter Monday

When today dawned grey and with drizzle threatening there seemed a need for a cheerful and colourful antidote.
Looking west across the Don Valley to St. Jametown

I decided to take Scylla and walk over to Allan Gardens, Toronto's historic cast iron and glass domed Conservatory, the Palm House section built in 1910. The original 5 acre parcel of land was donated to the city by George Allan in 1858. A structure was erected and in 1864 the city, on the condition that the grounds were accessible to the public and admission was free, turned over the park to the Horticultural Society. In 1888 the park and its buildings were returned to the city. Today Allan Gardens remains one of the gems of the city, designated under the Ontario Heritage Act and open to the public, free of charge, 365 days a year!

The grounds surrounding the Conservatory look sad and inert at this time of year. The treasures are all under glass;  there are five different climatic zones, each with its own temperature and humidity. 
Allan Gardens with its central Palm House

The Palm House greets visitors with its still life of a floral jazz musician seated at the upright piano playing under a tree festooned with Easter eggs. There are hydrangeas everywhere, blue and pink, some with variegated foliage.
The pianist seated at the upright piano
Coloured Easter eggs dangling above the keyboard
Pink hydrangea with variegated foliage
And the blue version

The room to the left has lots of forced bulbs, schizanthus in various hues from cream to fuchsia and visiting Easter bunnies. Schizanthus is sometimes referred to as the poor man's orchid.
An antique iron urn filled with schizanthus and variegated ivy

Schizanthus close-up

Agapanthus, one of the true blue flowers
A pair of Easter bunnies

But for me today, the highlight is the bromeliad room. There are turtles in a little pond under a water wheel and orchids, still in their own pots, but submerged into the soil. But mainly it is the wonderfully varied bromeliads.

Bromeliads are a huge family, numbering up to 3000 named species and 56 genera. The poster bromeliad is the pineapple. But Spanish Moss (which is neither Spanish nor a moss) is also part of this vast family.
Spanish Moss
A close-up of a Spanish Moss flower 

Bromeliads can be terrestrial which means they grow in the ground. Habitat can include bright and sunny sandy beaches all the way through to the shaded humusy understory of a forest. Saxicolous species grow on rocks and epiphytes thrive on other plants or even non-organic supports like telephone poles and wires. Epiphytes have the ability to take moisture and nutrition from the atmosphere and so are sometimes referred to as "air plants".
A bromeliad "ball" in full bloom

Bromeliads have in common a spiral arrangement of leaves, in a single plane, called a rosette. The bases of the leaves may form a water reservoir, or catch basin, for moisture and nutrition like leaf litter. Terrestrial bromeliads which are lacking this water reservoir rely on their roots for water and nutrient absorption. The roots of epiphytic bromeliads harden off and are used to fasten the plant to its host. People sometimes refer to epiphytes as parasitic plants but this is an unjust allegation. Epiphytes do not steal from their host, merely use it as a support.  

There was a wall display of bromeliads all with their red flower stalks at exactly the same height. I asked one of the staff gardeners how they managed such amazing synchronicity. She replied, "We bought them." A welcome reminder that even the professionals take short cuts. 
The hanging display of beautifully coordinated bromeliads in bloom

By the time I left the skies had opened up and I wished Scylla and I could take a short cut home!
View looking east to Riverdale from Cabbagetown