Moose Walking

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One July evening, in this 50th anniversary summer of the Apollo 11 moon walk, I found myself more interested in a moose walking through a wetland near our house than I was in rehashing 1969 glory. Mind you, in epochal 1969, the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated 37th president and the Beatles played on a London rooftop and 11,616 American soldiers (plus tens of thousands of others) died in Vietnam and tennis great Rod Laver won the Grand Slam for the 2nd time, no one was more keenly interested in moon walking than I was. I was twelve that summer and on a cross-country trip to San Diego and back with my family. But times change. And I’ve changed. Today, I find a real live moose far more captivating than the cold, dry dusty surface of our lone natural satellite.

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There had been reports of a moose glimpsed, and sometimes seen in plain view, along a state highway a few miles from our house. So I went to investigate. The animal was there, all right, but it was hard to spot. It looked like somebody’s lost horse peeking out of the bushes.

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It’s amazing how a creature as big as a moose can be hard to see. But a moose is dark, and dark things blend into shadows. When a big, dark thing stands still, it can be very nearly invisible.

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A horse is a horse, of course, and it tends to behave like a horse. But what does a moose do? Much of the time it eats, perhaps forty pounds or more of plant matter each day. Between bouts of snatching up fresh food, it ruminates. I watched the moose, a young bull, walk up to a patch of cinnamon fern. Whitetail deer don’t seem much interested in this tall, handsome non-flowering plant. Would the moose feel differently? I waited for an answer.

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The fern seemed to please the moose. It helped itself to several mouthfuls. Alas, soon it was time to go home. Supper—-my own—-called. “Goodbye, moose,” I called out. With a handsome blank stare, the moose watched me go. It had made my day.

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On Tasmania, At Last A Platypus

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Recently, for the ninth time, I had the privilege of traveling to Australia. My wife, children, and I arrived at Montreal airport early in the morning to board our first plane, to Chicago, but after we passed through security and arrived at the gate, Air Canada canceled the flight. As things played out, we passed a long and tedious day at the airport, caught an overnight flight on British Airways to London, killed three hours at Heathrow Airport, then boarded a seventeen-hour nonstop flight over Europe, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Sri Lanka to Perth, Western Australia. But there was more to come. A ninety-minute decompression stop at the Perth airport led to us climbing back on the same plane and flying another three and a half hours to Melbourne. And we still weren’t there. We rented a car, navigated and drove an hour in the dark on the left side of the road through the city, and at long last came to blissful rest in the welcoming arms of our dear friend Beris. She had a delicious dinner ready, a bottle of fine Australian red breathing, and air mattresses ready to soften our falls when we crashed.

For me, a chief goal of the trip, aside from renewing acquaintances with friends from the DownUnderWorld and savoring another adventure in one of the most fabulous places on earth, was to shoot good photographs of a platypus—-not one in a tank at a zoo, but a real, live, free-range, egg-laying, venomous platypus with fur like a mole’s and a mouth like a duck’s . My best chance would come in the Tasmanian river pictured above.

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The afternoon we arrived at our rental cabin near the river, we went for a walk. Sure enough, a platypus joined us, surfacing near the riverbank on the far side and cruising upstream. I took keen interest in the fact that the platypus nosed into a brook that trickled into the river. It dove repeatedly, did some masticating on the surface, and then continued back into the main channel and on its way. I thought to myself: that platypus will be back, perhaps the following morning. When it returns, I’ll be standing there, camera ready, waiting.

At first light, I skipped breakfast, bid the rest of our crew goodbye, and set off for a spot on the riverbank I figured might give me a good angle—- if the platypus materialized. I reached the spot by treading carefully through a wetland crowded with sedge hummocks. The terrain offered promising habitat for Tasmania’s most dangerous reptile, the tiger snake, so I found a big stick and prodded the route ahead of me. I love snakes, but I wasn’t keen on stepping on one, especially one with venom more toxic than a cobra’s. At last, I reached the spot and commenced my vigil. I waited one hour, shivering. I waited another hour as the air slowly warmed. I was still waiting, halfway through a third hour, when my wife, Debbie, appeared on the far shore. Above, you can see a photo I took of her at the time. She asked if I’d seen anything. I was launching into a resigned and disappointed reply when I heard something stirring the water behind me.

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A platypus! It was not swimming up the brook, as I’d anticipated, but coming down it. I could hardly believe my good fortune. The photo above shows the platypus at the moment I first spied it. The photo below shows it doing what I’d hoped it would do: cruising in my direction.

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And on it came, on and on until it was gazing up into my eyes and nosing into muck within inches of my feet. The platypus was untroubled by my presence. It rummaged the creek bottom for edible tidbits (insect nymphs, crustaceans, I expect) using electroreceptors on its bill to detect muscle movements. Back on the surface, the platypus did its chewing, leaving circles on the water’s surface. You can see the circles in some of the following photos. Finally, when the platypus was done exploring my little patch of water, it entered the main channel, dove into the murky depths, and sent me home for my own breakfast. The following morning, I returned to the same spot at the same time. No platypus appeared. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t. But I got lucky once, and that’s all it took. Hope you enjoy the photos.

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My Favorite Marten

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My favorite marten is the one I photographed yesterday. It was my second attempt. The last time I’d made an effort to chase down a reported American marten, I spent hours tromping around in subzero temperatures, in a stiff wind, seeing exactly none. Then came yesterday. All my troubles seemed not so far away as my daughter, Tasman, and I slogged around in the cold, warmed up inside a building, slogged around some more, warmed up inside the car, slogged around some more, and saw a good deal more of nothing at all. But perseverance has a way of eventually rewarding the nature photographer. Knowing that to be true, when Tasman retreated to the snug interior of the car for the last time, I made a final circuit through the snowy patch of forest generously dotted with marten tracks. Again, nothing. I was working hard to accept defeat stoically yet again as I turned back toward our Toyota. Just then, at the last possible moment, I saw something—-just a glimpse out of the corner of an eye. A rusty, fluffy tail, too long and long-haired to be a red-squirrel’s, was disappearing up a tree.

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I knew what I’d seen. It had to be that cutest and most nimble of all mammals of the North Woods, the arboreal American marten. American martens are often called “pine martens,” the name of a European cousin, Martes martes. But Adirondack martens are not pine martens. Members of the weasel family, they belong to a North American species, Martes americana, known to those who care to tell one marten from the next as American martens. The selfish side of me wanted to charge into the woods and pursue the creature that had been eluding me, and in whose pursuit I had suffered chattering teeth and twenty cold fingers and toes. But my daughter had worked hard for this marten, too. So I ran and got her. Together, we plodded through deep snow to the bottom of the tree. We looked up. Nothing. We looked in surrounding trees. More nothing. Then we saw movement, and for the next hour, we exulted in the marten’s company. To our surprise, it seemed to have no fear of us. During that hour, the only thing that seemed to rattle it was a circling, squawking raven. Here are a few of the rakish poses the marten struck for us. What a face!

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Muskrat Love

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Passing the long, cold winter in the Adirondacks often calls for a little creative reinvention. I’ve been amusing myself of late spending time with a muskrat. Whether it’s Muskrat Suzie or Muskrat Sam (if you remember the corny Captain and Tenille song “Muskrat Love”) I’m not sure. But this much I know. A handsome individual of this species, gender uncertain, has been swimming, diving, and perching on the ice along the Saranac River lately, and I’ve had the pleasure of spending a few hours with it, shooting photos now and again. Above, here’s the muskrat walking the brink, getting up the nerve to take its next cold plunge. And below, here it is, just about to submerge.

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And here it is again, below, fresh up from a dive. The muskrat looks quite satisfied, as well it should.

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And here is the muskrat again, gnawing a sturdy stem.

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And here it is again, the big pieces gone, nibbling something small.

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Above, the muskrat was looking waterlogged. I suspect it was and preferred to be dry. From time to time, this is how it resolved the issue (below).

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Below is the last image I offer. It shows my muskrat friend, dusted with snow, looking pensive. It has good reason to be pensive. The river is freezing over, open water is disappearing, and a big snowstorm looms. Unlike the beaver, which builds a lodge and stores great quantities of food and prepares for such conditions, the muskrat improvises its way through winter. Why not? The muskrat’s success at living life moment by moment demonstrates that for aquatic rodents, as for people, there’s more than one way to live.

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It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Winter

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According to a calendar that hangs on our pantry door, winter begins on December 21. Here in the interior Adirondacks, that’s hogwash. Since mid-October, one snowfall after another has fluttered down upon us and, in most places, the ground has frozen to the consistency of concrete. Step into the woods and you lose your feet— unless, of course, you’re wearing snowshoes.

A few days ago, I made a trek on boreal footwear to a beaver pond two or three miles deep in the woods. My friend, neighbor, and partner in Curiously Adirondack video production Josh Clement was with me. When he and I meet to discuss business and make creative decisions, we often hold a meeting on the move. This time of year, that usually involves skis or snowshoes. Here’s Josh, on the shore of the pond the beavers created. A moment before, he saw one of the rodents grooming itself, but before he could pop a photo, it plunked into open water and disappeared.

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When you point a camera at someone, the favor (if one can call it that) is often returned. Below you’ll find a shot Josh took of me. One of the troublesome bindings on my LL Bean snowshoes had let loose yet again, and I was in the process of digging out the shoe and strapping it back on, all while trying not to tumble. If I look a bit tense, it’s because I was a bit tense. In the deep, wet snow, the going was challenging. Earlier, I’d taken a fall when one of my snowshoes plunged into a watery hole between sedge hummocks. Wind had blown the snow in that spot three and four feet deep, and righting myself hadn’t been easy.

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Still, oh my, it was magnificent out there. The weather was mild, with no wind and the temperature just below freezing. A recent snow had come down on a warm night, and wet flakes had piled up thick and fleecy on the limbs of conifers. With so much fluffy powder everywhere, absorbing sound, there was hardly a peep to be heard until something like rolling thunder reached our ears from the direction of Moose Mountain. An avalanche! We heard one blast, then a second. It made us glad we were far from the nearest steep slope. Safety is critical in the back country at all times of year, but especially in winter.

I’ll close with five photos. The first shows a black-capped chickadee, the only bird we saw during our outing. The second and third show a beaver lodge, in winter and in June. The fourth and fifth show the pond the beavers built, again, in winter and in June. It’s a fabulous thing about the Adirondacks: you can come to the same spot month after month, and it’s never, ever quite the same. Which is why a forthcoming book of mine will feature this same pond, contemplated over the course of a year.

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Every One Is One Of A Kind

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The more time I spend among my fellow species, and among my own, too, for that matter, I marvel at the individual nature of us all. Yes, humans have more in common with each other than they do with chimps, and red maples share more with each other than they do with sugar maples. Yet look closely, and you’ll find variations not only between species but within them.

I illustrate the point with a red maple tree, neither large nor small, that grows beside a pond near our home in the Adirondacks. You see this tree in the photo above and in the two immediately below. Every year, this tree glows a juicier, more vibrant shade of red than the other red maples in the neighborhood. Why? At heart it’s a matter of biochemistry, biochemistry that varies from one tree to the next thanks in large part to the gene-scrambling sexual reproduction of maple trees. Male red maples broadcast pollen into the air (see an earlier post here about distinguishing the genders of red maples). Some of it, with luck, lands on female red maple flowers. Genes mix, and voila! Diversity is born, a diversity that helps the trees survive and flourish in ever-changing times.

Whether I look at this especially handsome red maple from a distance, up close, or reflected in the pond, I’m inclined to think it’s the most glamorous I know. We’re pleased to have it as a neighbor.

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Three Frogs Green

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So you're nosing around near water in the North American Northeast, and you see a frog that's green. Is it a green frog? That depends on what you mean. Green frog could mean nothing more or less than a frog whose color is green. Or it could mean a species of frog, the green frog, Lithobates clamitans, which may not be the only green frog in the neighborhood.

Let's consider the green frog, Lithobates clamitans, first. See the photo of one below. 

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As you can see, it has some dark speckling on the torso and a crease running down the side of its back. (It has another crease on the far side of the back that doesn't show in this photo.) These are good indications this is a green frog. To clinch the i.d., note the dark bars crossing the hind legs. Green frogs have these. The other two green-colored frogs we'll be talking about, the bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana) and the mink frog (Lithobates septentrionalis) do not. When a male green frog speaks, it utters a sound something like the plucking of a banjo string. The frog in the first photo is a green frog, too. Look carefully, and you'll see the creases running down its back.

Now let's consider the bullfrog. This biggest of our northeastern frogs is known to eat, at least on occasion, not only insects but birds, rodents, snakes, and other frogs. Let's take a look at one.

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Note that the bullfrog is mostly all green, with some dark spotting on the legs but no crossways barring on the hind legs. The creases we saw on the green frog are missing. A dramatic thing about the particular bullfrog in the photo immediately above is its ear, the disk-like circle behind its eye. The fact that the ear is much larger than the eye tells us this bullfrog is a male. The green frog shown in the second photo above has an ear not quite the size of the eye. This makes it a female.

In breeding season, a male bullfrog speaks in a deep bass voice, saying, Jug-o-rum, Jug-o-rum, Jug-o-rum

Now let's meet the mink frog, a frog of the Far North that ranges south into the cold lakes of the interior Adirondacks. It is named after the member of the weasel family named mink. Mink stink. So do mink frogs if you get really close. It's hard to describe the odor other than to say it's unpleasant and will probably make your nose wrinkle. Sniff one sometime. Let me know what you think. The frog below is a mink frog.

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As you can see, the mink frog looks something like a green frog. I don't know that I've ever seen a green frog perched on top of a lily pad. As you can see, this mink frog is in just such a place. Most of the Adirondack mink frogs I see are on top of lily pads when I find them. Some mink frogs have a fold of skin running down each side of the back, as green frogs do. Most of the mink frogs I see in the Adirondacks lack these folds. Or, like the individual in the photo above, they have only a hint of them. A clincher for the frog above is that it lacks horizontal bars on the hind legs. It has irregular dark blotches all over its back and all over its legs. A mink frog. This individual, with an ear slightly smaller than the eye, is a female. Males, when they call to a court females and announce their presence to rival males, suggest the beginning of a knock-knock joke. Knock-knock, the mink frog may say. Knock-knock-knock.

Of our three green-colored frogs, I find the mink frog the most handsome. Here's another one to admire.

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One of my favorite photos of a mink frog shows an individual far out on a pond, perched on a lily pad, with a glow of sunset adding a touch of pink to blue water. I'm inclined to title it "Monet, with mink frog."

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You never know where and when you'll find frogs, but when you do (and we often do on guided trips during late spring, summer, and early fall in the Adirondacks), they're fun and fascinating to meet. The latest molecular evidence suggests frogs, as a group, may have been around for 265 million years. Impressive!

 

 

Loon Family Time

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Summer is loon time in the Adirondacks. These signature diving birds of clear northern lakes return to us in spring, having spent the winter dining on East Coast seafood. When the ice goes out, the loons come in. In short order they're hooting and yodeling and renewing bonds with old mates or forging new ones with paramours.

I vowed to get to know loons better this year, and to expand my archive of photos of them. Approaching near-tame birds on a lake where they're accustomed to seeing people and boats, I managed to win their trust and spend several happy hours among them. My loon companions were a family of three: a male, a female, and a chick not many days out of the egg. 

Interactions within the loom family seemed tender. The parents interacted gently, with one sometimes feeding the other. Males and females are all but identical, with the males being slightly larger. The chick, not much bigger than a tennis ball and similarly fuzzy, seemed to enjoy snuggling up to each parent equally.

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Fatigue seemed to come over the baby loon now and again. Sensitive to the situation, one of the parents (it seemed each time to be the smaller female) would edge up to the little one, lift a wing, and invite it to crawl up and underneath. Sometimes the chick would stay there, out of sight. Other times it would wriggle on top and either take a rumble seat in the back or smuggle up to the big bird's neck.

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Loons feed on aquatic life: fish, crustaceans such as crayfish, insects, and more. I watched the parent loons feed each other and feed (or attempt to feed) their chick small slender fish, crayfish, and water striders they plucked from the surface of the cove.

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While watching parent loons tend a chick or two is a thrill, a great part of the appeal of loons is their almost-too-good-to-be-true beauty. I've admired loons on Adirondack lakes for forty years. Still, each time I get a good look at one I'm astounded anew by its handsome shape, the intricacy of the black-and-white checking (the black turning to metallic green or purple in the right light), and the blazing red eyes. On top of all that, loons speak expressively. There can be few experiences more thrilling than standing on the shore of a wild northern lake at night and hearing the haunting wail of a loon rising and falling from a point unknown, somewhere far out in the darkness.

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Marsh Mellow

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My morning routine in recent weeks had consisted of hauling myself out of bed, pouring cups of coffee for the two senior members of the household, and helping get the kids ready for school. That, and listening to the news on the radio. 

With all that goes on to upset a lover of peace and nature these days, I counted myself lucky when a mother hooded merganser turned up near our house in a small pond, surrounded by marsh. She had a contingent of hatchlings keeping close to her, and if Mama Merganser had her way, you could tell nothing could keep them apart. This sweet scene, on offer every morning, offered an irresistible alternative to the news. So I began launching my days out in the marsh.

The following images were all captured there. In the gathering of them, I found my spirits rising, my blood pressure subsiding, and a welcome serenity---I began to think of it as marsh mellow---seeping into my soul. I should add that serenity was only achieved with the help of lemon eucalyptus insect repellent, and lots of it.

A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any  Carex  expert out there help me with identification?

A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any Carex expert out there help me with identification?

A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.   

A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.

 

A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

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Mama Hooded Merganser and her brood providing another morning of psychotherapy.

Spring "Ephemerals" Leave Lasting Impressions

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The wildflowers of our brief, blink-or-you-miss-it Adirondack spring have to work fast. They need energy to open blossoms made and tucked in cold storage the preceding year, and they need to produce nectar, pollen, and ovaries ready for seed-making. It's a race to get leaves up, flowers out, and pollen delivered before deep shade comes over the forest and slows things down. Because our spring flowers appear so briefly, they're sometimes called "ephemerals." You won't forget them. Here are images of ephemerals I photographed in our neck of the woods this spring. Can you identify the ones in the image above? You'll find a different photo of the same plant identified below. 

Bloodroot,  Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis

Red trillium,    Trillium erectum ,  also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

Foam-flower,  Tiarella cordifolia

Foam-flower, Tiarella cordifolia

Carolina spring beauty,  Claytonia caroliniana

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana

Painted trillium,  Trillium undulatum

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum

Dutchman's breeches,  Dicentra cucullaria  

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria 

Clintonia,  Clintonia borealis  , also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

Clintonia, Clintonia borealis, also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

Starflower,  Trientalis borealis

Starflower, Trientalis borealis

Canada mayflower,  Maianthemum canadense  , also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense, also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

Wild sarsaparilla,  Aralia nudicaulis

Wild sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis

Jack-in-the-pulpit,  Arisaema triphyllum

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum

Pink lady-slipper,  Cypripedium acaule  , also known as moccasin-flower

Pink lady-slipper, Cypripedium acaule, also known as moccasin-flower