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Dawn treaders?

Some passages are made in the wee hours; others are revealed in waxing sun and rising breeze. Here a family of raccoons went out a-foraging after dark from their brushpile den,

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while smaller mammals (including meadow vole, lower right) left lighter tracks before daybreak. Then the pattern was made noisier as warmed lumps of snow fell from the tree above.

Here, a vole nest is revealed when snow concealing its access maze sublimes in extremely cold but sunny weather:

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Graupel above freezing records a fair impression of an evening departure; a prominence decorated from the west with later-deposited rime ice is illuminated at sunrise:

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Following similar weather, but in early spring rather than midwinter, this line of exclamation points appeared:

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Though the squirrel offered no testimony, the scribe was eventually revealed as a curved twig rolled along the impressionable surface by high winds.

A coyote seeking breakfast (but not, apparently, fish) left tracks in powdery snow that melted smooth by sunset:

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And trails can render in the negative. Here a light fall of new snow over hard ice was selectively packed by another (or the same) canid; channeled winds then stripped the un-packed surrounding areas:

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And a similar result may obtain when humans skate the gelid pond:

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Fall out

 

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Last rays back-lighting a vigilant osprey, the solar orb settles quickly: autumnal equinox marks (among other seasonal evolutions) the south-fleeing sun’s most rapid decline. So while thermal hysteresis—”seasonal lag”—delays the steepest drop in temperature, day-length dwindles apace. This time around, an over-wrought summer broke suddenly, disappointing delinquent beachgoers but relieving students in un-air-conditioned classrooms. For gardeners, naturalists and nature, however, a brutal drought persists.

Mean precipitation here approximates to four inches per month, varying only 10~20% throughout the year. But rainfall since the end of last winter has fallen far short of that: between a quarter and a third of normal, depending on which personal or official tabulations are credited. (Many of the most productive storms blew by just a few miles north or south of Farrar Pond, or petered out slightly west of here, so weather stations in Bedford and elsewhere have over-reported for this location. In addition, many light rainfalls indicated by weather radar evaporated on their way earthward, never even moistening the ground.)

This is not (yet) the worst persistent drought on record; that happened here in the mid-1960s. (By way of New England contrasts, it was punctuated by a severe flood in March of 1968, with extreme rainfall adding to and accelerating snow-melt. The Sudbury River overflowed not only the Farrar Pond dam, which often occurs in spring, but also the stretch of South Great Road whose elevation helped to create the pond in the first place. From Beaver Brook to well past Nashawtuc, all was awash for several days, with just the top of Lee’s Bridge visible. Sherman Bridge having earlier submerged, classes at LSRHS had to be canceled.) The present drought is somewhat more localized, and has also not yet depleted reservoirs of waters sequestered in and under the earth. With broad marshes and high hills upstream, Farrar Pond remains a pond. But plant life around it, the various creatures dependent on that vegetation, and in less critical degree the people who enjoy cultivated and natural landscapes around the pond are all suffering.

Though specifics vary widely, the loamy sand/sandy loam/silt loam glacial outwash topsoils hereabouts can hold about 1-2″ of water per foot of depth. (More than that quickly leaks out through porous sand and bank-gravel subsoils.) Organic-rich duff and humus layers may, like sponges, retain much more. But when all is been extracted by evaporation, percolation, and consumption by plants and fungi, it can be difficult to get water back down to where it is needed. Whatever dirt, leaves, etc. lie at the surface will quickly be rendered hydrophobic—water repellent—by terpenes and other oily drippings and vapors from trees and shrubs. Then whatever water does makes it down through the leafy canopy may largely run right off. (Lighter rainfalls may never penetrate at all, and be largely lost to evaporation.) This “glazing” problem becomes yet more serious when duff is blown or raked away by overzealous or ignorant landscapers. Bare ground under rhododendrons, for example, ensures needless plant damage when rains are infrequent. A puzzler: why do people who dislike brush and leaf move to a town so heavily forested and conserved?

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This foot-deep test pit was dug one day after a recent 1.2″ rainfall. Top to bottom, the soil is powdery-dry, the duff layer like tinder except for a hint of damp in the zone just below the covering leaves. (Note slightly darker areas in photo.) Per the mean-precipitation figure cited above, this condition reflects a deficit of perhaps 16″ of rainwater in the past few months.

How do plants survive? Some don’t. Many annuals and tender perennials in sunny locations have been killed outright. Since some losses occurred before seed production, there may be a noticeable change in both absolute and relative wildflower abundances next year. Worse, some of the most aggressive invasives—mugwort, e.g.—are well-adapted to this challenge, and will gain ground at the expense of more desirable native species.

Trees like pines that lack sophisticated vascular systems are less able to support themselves with what water they can find, and may sacrifice branches to survive. Some vines, like Oriental bittersweet (bad) and  trumpetvine (good, mostly)

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root both deeply and broadly, and are flowering and fruiting without apparent handicap. Rooted broadly if not so deeply, a hard-wooded sixty-year-old rhododendron shrugs off most such vicissitudes, signaling defiance with a late re-bloom:

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Smooth sumac ripens apace, decorated (or defaced) by characteristic galls,

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and the small native persimmon droops with sweetening promise:

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Others fare less well. Some seed-cones of this native cucumber magnolia have prematurely dried, split and offered unready berries to hungry birds and squirrels,

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while elsewhere on the same tree, predators could not wait for peak nutritional value:

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By contrast, whatever attacked this (likewise native) bigleaf magnolia apparently did not find the fruit to its liking:

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This moonlit hydrangea,

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previously an object of affection and sometimes even awe, would normally be showing off moist, fluffy pom-poms up to a foot long. This year, less than half that, and crinkled brown two months before their time. Older  and better-rooted,  native dogwood in background is doing much better.

Brown may be the operative color this fall. Brown dirt showing through except where lawn sprinklers run full-bore. Brown vegetation dead or gone dormant. And brown foliage: even if heavy rains come soon, some of our most palette-enriching trees and shrubs have taken the protective step of choking off leaves early to conserve water. Many have already shed heavily, the fallen adorning the floating:

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Deeply shaded, a sycamore was able to stage a relatively graceful exit:

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Note the bit of residual green. When leaves are shed prematurely, the parent plant forgoes the progressive withdrawal of various valuable materials—minerals, nutrients, complex compounds like chlorophyll—whose sequencing gives rise to the renowned play of color. This maple, in full sun, was less fortunate:

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Unable to maintain turgor pressure and osmotic lift, the highest reaches are sacrificed in favor of lower (and shaded) branches. And where brown is the color of gentle decay, black signals sudden death due to collapse of a local vascular branch, or in some cases insect attack invited by weakened defenses.

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For some species and specimens, it may take years to recoup such a loss.

Decay is growth, too, for the agents thereof. The birch bracket (or “razor strop”) fungus is a common sight in these woods, especially as birches are fast-growing, short-lived and—with their canoe-tough bark—leave persistent carcasses. This example, extruded last year, was apparently used recently as a picnic table by a squirrel with its black walnut:

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This year’s crop has not been so successful. That same rain triggered the efflorescence of fruiting bodies from numerous dead trees here. But in most cases, continuing drought nipped them in bud

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like gum bubbles frozen in mid-blow:

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This incomplete effort will never ripen to release the spores of new life: for the mycelial structure that is the main body of the fungus, a dead waste of energy and chitin.

Such sudden desiccation, or perhaps the inclement brevity of temporary reprieves from same, has other victims. This ill-starred (green?) frog

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was found as shown on egg-frying noonday pavement. Absent any obvious injury, the presumptive cause of death could be simple overheating, skin dehydration (equivalent to lung obstruction for a mammal), or perhaps both. RIP, and may better fortune embrace other refugees in their quest for safe haven.

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Prudent poikilotherms stay closer to relief, like these dwellers in, under the eaves of and beneath shading grasses around one small pond:

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With their presence, crickets are largely absent from around said pool, and where tadpoles lately teemed

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(the blurry background is an algae-tinted mass of thousands of hatched eggs), now only a few sharp-toothed and perhaps nasty-tasting bugs cruise beneath exceptionally late lily blossoms:

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(For a gustatory rather than aesthetic perspective on nymphaea, see this video.)

Arthropods often take well to dry conditions. For bumblebees and late-appearing (and very welcome) honeybees, goldenrod is a preferred feed in the run-up to winter:

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(Note pollen-laden panniers.) But bees do not make eco-ethical distinctions, and non-native buddleia is always a favorite.

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And often a last supper: frozen bumblebees on frosted buddleia is a November-morning commonplace here. Butterflies, too, favor their eponymous bush;

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tattered veterans in their final days largely disdain solidago when buddleia is available:

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These same bright, sweet and fragrant flower clusters attract smaller nectar-seekers, which in turn draw the persistent attention of a whole order (Odonata) of Jägermeisters:

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Some insects take more than the freely offered ichor of flowers. Katydids reappear annually in the giant bell of Hibiscus moscheutos, for some reason preferring the ‘Lady Baltimore’ cultivar:

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It will spend hours, apparently in rapt adoration of the calyx

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but possibly nibbling at the reddest bits:

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Whatever the sky delivers, the dance ever and always goes on,

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and each season and year, in its own way, sets the seed of the next.

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Transitional tanager

Though scarlet tanagers favor the kind of oak-rich mixed forest that prevails around Farrar Pond, they hang about in treetops and—despite dramatic coloration—are not often seen. This male

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Piranga olivacea

was apparently driven into view by extreme local drought and perhaps itchy feather mites

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(note eye-protecting nictitating membrane here and below), two inconveniences with a common relief: a solar-powered shower bath:

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Many so-called bird-baths are too deep to be useful except for drinking. Most guests at this spa appear to prefer just a fraction of an inch of immersion, perhaps in common with dust baths (which also get much use here in dry weather).

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This does, however, require some contortions

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to get deeper cleansing than the overhead spray produces.

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Changing over to winter plumage in mid-August: a woolly bear warning of chills to come?

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Spotted

Lone adult white-tailed deer tend to be fairly accepting of human presence, especially in full daylight

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Odocoileus virginianus

and when we move slowly and smoothly (predictably?). Well-defended with hoofs and sometimes antlers, not expecting hereabouts to be shot from afar, and easily able to outrun us, they often tolerate fairly close approach;

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Albizia julibrissin, cropped

even when chastised for grazing on valuable specimen plantings, they are more likely to amble away

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than to bound. Their young seem even more fearless/tolerant, perhaps at this age due less to confidence than to a common prey-animal survival strategy of freezing in place

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when sighted, as many predators have difficulty focusing on motionless subjects.

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But fawns seem more quick to ignore (or become less overtly wary toward) observers than do their parents.

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–Except, as with foxes and some others, when generations commingle. Then the doe is likely to initiate stampeding flight, where a carnivorous matron will approach a stalker in attack posture and make warning sounds.

As to the artifacts of humans, deer seem largely indifferent, so long as these also move (if at all) slowly and smoothly. And while their motivations are unknowable, hence making perilous any anthropomorphic projection, browsing deer may seem only a little less curious about intrusions into the “natural” environment than are gatherers like chipmunks and squirrels,

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appear comfortable with uncategorizable objects,

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and may even participate in random acts of surreal performance art:

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Incomplete closure

~ ~ ~ DISTURBING IMAGE WARNING ~ ~ ~

Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) are not always gray. Genes can mix to produce “melanistic” individuals that are jet-back, or—as seen here dining on seed regurgitated by a bluejay—tinged golden-brown:

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Rarer combinations seen hereabouts include gray with black tail, gray with white tail, and all-white (not albino but “leucistic”). Those of mixed color do not seem to persist long, perhaps due to enhanced visibility to predators. And while melanistic squirrels are not common here, they are believed to have been more so—even predominant—in earlier, shadier climax-forest condtions.

An unfortunate example of the type was (or may still be) this youngster, appearing normal in profile

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and ominously less so in quarter-view:

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Up close:

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One inference might be unsuccessful attack by a raptor; birds may aim for a quick kill in this way. But the odds seem low of a squirrel escaping from that point at all, much less with apparently undiminished capacities. And the precise positioning of the wound just above the orbits on the sagittal suture, apparent here [click through for larger images],

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suggests instead an organic cause: incompletely knit skull-bones. Humans are normally born with this condition, enabling harmless deformation during constrained birth; the soft “fontanelles” persist for months. Mammalian skulls tend to share—with modification—many structural features, including multiple skull plates that grow together, as with this local flying squirrel (Glaucomys volans or possibly G. sabrinus):

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These sutures are delicate works even under normal circumstances,

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and our subject’s may have been disrupted by illness of parent or infant, chemical toxin, or an unfortunate transcription error. Whatever the case, the animal was not long in residence here; given the species’ potential life-span of a decade (seen locally more than once) or even longer, we may hope that it found timely healing rather than untimely transfiguration.

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… a fellow of infinite jest …

 

Chromatic aberrations

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Arc-en-ciel

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Primary, secondary and teriary colors

They went thataway

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Downfall and outflow

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Sharper than needles: post-solstice sunset over Norwegian sea

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Consumed walnut, outgrown collar

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Lotus leaf in distress

 

The inconstant weed

       Life is Juicy

Life begins in the waters—
Not the deep, but the borders of land:
The stagnants that nourish the sterile earth
Like a juicy gland.

Life is the seed of the marriage
Of liquid and solid events.
In the coves, in the swamps, in mysterious pools …

–Leonard Bernstein 1947

 

Sluggish currents and lazy winds mold a soft carpet into fantastical forms…

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A great part of the surface water feeding Farrar Pond enters through what some call Beaver Brook (or Beaver Dam Brook), which drains the wide marshes south and east of Baker Bridge, skirts the Fields of St. Anne’s and Mount Misery, and empties due south of Fairhaven Bay. En route, it rests in two small ponds excavated and dammed by the DeNormandie family in the 1950s. As relatively (and sometimes very) fast-moving water

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slows into sunlight,

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a seasonal dusting of duckweed (of which there are several genera and species) emerges. Where nutrients are concentrated (as here, draining eutrophic marshes and fertile farmland), wind or water may pile the tiny plants into a dense mat inches deep on the surface,

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from which dipping branch-tips emerge festooned:

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Nutrients are the key. Just fifty steps away, this isolated pool—wet most of most years, but perhaps still best described as “vernal”—exhibits  peripheral and submerged mosses, several kinds of algae and other aquatic or water-loving plants, but no duckweed:

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Seeding (via actual seeds or, more commonly, vegetative propagation) by one or more duckweed species seems inevitable; though the pool may be too small and tree-bound for ducks to land, despite vigilant oversight

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diverse mammals, reptiles and amphibians undoubtedly traverse the intervening ridge. But this is a glacial outwash plain, highly permeable and only lightly capped with fertile soil even ten millennia post-glacier. So absent a nutrient-rich inflow, soluble minerals needed for plant life are quickly lost to sub-surface outflows, and replaced only slowly by rotting vegetation and occasional imports:

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The visible life-cycle of duckweeds differs from that of most pond plants. This rootless drifter overwinters at the bottom as seeds or free dormant buds (turions). Developing sprouts from either contain air pockets (aerenchyma) that loft them to the surface for the duration of the growing season. As winter looms, new seeds and turions are sent below for safekeeping.

In between though, propagation largely takes a somewhat unusual path. Each tiny plant has a region of meristematic tissue, which generates daughter cells asexually. These grow and detach to create new adult plants. As with aphids that are born pregnant, this enables rapid and efficient reproduction; numbers can double in just a couple of days. In a small artificial pool, inoculated from the big pond years ago by both bucket and carapace,

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the first new plants begin to float up amid the tangled algae of a desiccated mid-spring:

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May 10th

In a few weeks, larger patches

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June 2nd

spread and thicken

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enough to provide open concealment for amphibians,

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June 4th

while clearings persist to encourage bottom-rooted plants to emerge:

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June 5th

The carpet continues to expand sideways until coverage is complete, except where disturbed by rain gathered into larger drops by overhanging branches (left side of this image),

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June 15th

sweeping by lilies when their stems or pads are disturbed by wind and indelicate swimmers,

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or the plashing entry of frogs from their perches on pad or bank, whether chasing airborne bugs, startled by approaching humans or just moving efficiently from place to place,

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(detail)

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while lighter

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(note pendant roots)

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“But we came to skate, not to hike!”

or more lissome creatures leave smaller footprints:

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When the single layer  can expand no further laterally, and subsurface light remains adequate, the mat thickens, still floating high enough not to clog the intake of this important piece of hydraulic equipment

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and spilling over to the disadvantage of other floating plants (some of which shed it more easily than others):

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Yet as the tiny hordes poise to overcome all, their glory begins to dim. First in occasional spots,

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July 3rd

then in larger patches, the plants bleach and die:

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July 5th

Parallel decline of the larger genera

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July 5th

bespeaks temporary challenge to the pond’s health, occasioned by intense light and heat around solstice-time, and lack of rainfall to cool and stir the water, bringing needed nutrients down and up to the vital surface. Some of the corpses sink or decay; others serve as softened food for still-herbivorous tadpoles

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July 12th

until almost none remain:

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No unnatural catastrophe, this disappearance is the natural result of genetic programming. Unlike species (periodic cicadas and synchronous bamboos, e.g.) that flourish and disappear on a precise clock to achieve sequential predator satiation and starvation and ensure their own survival, duckweeds simply have a limited potential for asexual budding—in the range of a dozen generations. (Our own somatic cells, by contrast, are about four times as durable.) The heavy mats in the Beaver Brook feeder pond represent not only multiple populations that may have evolved divergently over hundreds or thousands of years, but also multiple species. So they will expand in overlapping cycles and without visible interruption. But like rare blood types on Pacific Islands settled by single canoe voyages—or, more dramatically, achromatopsia on Pingelap—the duckweeds in this one little pool have suffered a genetic bottleneck: just a handful of cultivars to start, most died off or eaten or otherwise extinguished over the years, leaving just a few lineages with limited coverage. A salutary warning to proponents of crop, livestock or human monoculture…

But not all those who wander are lost, and in just a couple of weeks, the cycle begins again, to be repeated perhaps twice more before deep autumn

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July 26th

—and again, with variations, in seasons to follow.

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And having writ…

 

 

Shocks that phloem is heir to

The sap that sweetens our pancakes, preserves dinosaur blood in resined insects, and provides chewing gum, optical cement and incense evolved to serve many of the same purposes as our own blood and lymph, and a few besides. Injuries to bark and deeper layers lead to spillage of the vital fluid which (as with us) acts to flush away contaminants before “clotting” by various mechanisms to close the wound. (–Except in case of the most extreme literal shocks, which can leave perfectly dry wood scattered all about or aflame.)

The assaults that lead to grievous trunkily harm are diverse, including all sorts of mechanical impacts, incision, abrasion, avulsion, snow load and other bark-biting events, here wind flexion from nor’easters

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Albizia julibrissin, north side

and sun-scald/frost cracking from winter thaws

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Prunus (subhirtella?), southwest side

(here shown in cross-section after felling a year later due to excessively healthy growth despite the damage),

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not to mention collision with cars and lawnmowers, and attacks from bucks rubbing terrain- and status-marking scent from scalp glands

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Juniperus virginiana

(a particular issue with fragrant-wrapped magnolias), diverse smaller nibblings and peckings, down to micro-invaders like the dread phytophthora family. Our native Eastern red cedar, shown above and here,

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Not good for gin

provides not only berries for the cedar waxwing, but a higher-calorie food for sapsuckers that drill, depart, and return in time to harvest the amber ooze,

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leaving dry holes in sometimes-neat array:

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Thin-skinned species, including many within the lovely and fruitful genus Prunus, often exhibit a gelatinous “gummosis”

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Prunus virginiana

—recovery from which depends on both nature and depth of attack: in this case minor cambium scrapes that will heal, in others the result of and/or entry point for fungal infection. P. spinosa (blackthorn, or sloe), for example, is prone to this nasty-looking gall,

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Good for gin, if the plums survive

which the prudent will prune and burn or discard where it cannot release millions of spores to infect other specimens. A more menacing ’50s B-movie view of the same blob:

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Both economic and ecologic consequences can be significant. Where a desirable (hence oft-planted) species hosts—in obligate sequence or facultative dispersion—a disease fatal to an even more-valuable species, the former may be banned by statute:

White pine blister rust is not a serious disease of currants and gooseberries; however, it is a very serious disease of white pines (Pinus strobus). Currants and gooseberries serve as an alternate host for the rust fungus that causes white pine blister rust. Therefore, planting currants and gooseberries in areas where white pines are present can lead to serious losses of white pines. … White pine blister rust causes significant damage in pine forests by forming cankers on the branches of white pines. These cankers ultimately kill the trees. … To protect white pine forests, several states have enacted laws concerning planting of black currants.

This restriction does not apply equally to all Ribes species and cultivars, or in all parts of all states. (For an interesting resume of the relevant history in Massachusetts, including a list of towns with active bans, see this article.) It is a salutary reminder of interdependence and co-origination generally, and in particular of the risks we engender through inattention to an ever-so-broadly shared genetic heritage.

Some cankers may appear benign, and even attractive, in their earlier stages, like cedar apple rust, Gymnosporangium juniperivirginianae. With our area rich in both cultivated and “wild” apples, this pest finds an ample supply of both its alternately required hosts, and produces more or less harmless perennial galls like this:

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When spring rains arrive, spore-bearing “telial horns” are produced, of size, shape and profusion scaled to the originating gall: from minute

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to cute

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to monstrous:

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Here depleted, having killed twig but not tree,

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and apparently nibbled by creatures unknown:

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They live among us…

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Study in aqua, maroon, green and orange

Bugs and buds

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hazelnut

 

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magnolia

 

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Under-valued and now rare

Indian cigars

Of our many fine native trees, only a few exhibit really stunning floral displays. Of these, most offer their charms en masse, rather than in detail. An exceptional genus that in single-twig closeup can equal almost any native wildflower is the catalpa or catawba, Catalpa bignonioides and Catalpa speciosa. (The cousins are almost identical in appearance, with overlapping ranges due to extensive landscape planting.) This juvenile specimen, flowering for the first time, may not produce its characteristic seed pods for a few years yet. meanwhile, it presents an entirely satisfactory display of dinner plate-sized leaves—

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rendered even more impressive by transilluminating sunset—

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and complementary-hued blossoms:

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When you prune us

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… do we not bleed?

Sloe shadblow sunset

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Amelanchier canadensis

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Prunus spinosa