Press-Republican

July 7, 2013

Forest friends lend color to wet weather trips

By Elizabeth Lee
Press-Republican

---- — This week I hiked Cheney Mountain with a group of young explorers. We found 20 red efts. Not a record for this group of observant youngsters but nonetheless a good day.

When the forest is wet — and then wetter — many plants blend into the lush green background. Dark skies and wet canopies shade most trails.

Damp soil and dark pools camouflage the wildlife on the forest floor but a few special, bright orange species show like blaze-orange clothing in the fall. The children I hiked with this week picked up on the red efts. I was excited to see a half-dozen wood lilies.

Red efts are a thrill for every child I know. They are juvenile Eastern newts, also referred to as red-spotted newts. These newts can live 10 or more years. 

Newts are born in water and spend about 2 to 3 months in a larval stage. They soon grow into the red juveniles called efts and leave the water. For 2 to 7 years, efts migrate through moist places foraging for food and overwintering. When mature they return to woodland pools, ponds and streams to breed. As breeding adults they turn green and their tails develop a more fin-like shape.

Many efts migrate back to the pond where they first hatched. They apparently have homing capabilities that are attributed to a “magnetoreception system,” according to researchers Phillips and Borland in 1994 (AmphibiaWeb.org).

Red efts are thriving this year as they appreciate the mud the rest of us are pretty tired of. Children’s stories that have red efts having parties underneath toadstools are not far from the truth. Although they don’t need shelter from the rain they may gather under toadstools to eat the microorganisms that are attracted to fungus.

Efts’ skin contains toxins that warn predators not to eat them although some fish, snakes and raccoons prey on them without harm. Another danger to efts is poisoning. Like all amphibians their skin is highly sensitive — being handled by people with insect repellent or sunscreen on their hands can be fatal.

The other bright orange specimens that caught my attention this week were the wood lilies (Lilium philadelphicum). They stood out like beacons at the edges of the grassy glades on Cheney. There was a nice patch at the overlook toward the Champlain Bridge. 

These lilies resemble Asiatic tiger lilies in my garden but are a simpler, shorter version. They have scattered leaves up a single stem with a single flower at the top. The flowers are super-bright orange with maroon spots on lighter orange patches at the base of the petals.

One of nature’s nice pairings is that wood lilies are pollinated by Eastern tiger swallowtails. Eflora.org explains that, “Hummingbirds occasionally visit the flowers but are unlikely to be equally effective pollinators due to a flower morphology that forces butterfly forewings to contact reproductive structures but probably allows birds ready nectar access without such contact.”

On dark days like those we’ve had this week, the wood lily has the advantage of great visibility in the wet foliage.

The renowned botanist Jerry Jenkins notes in his report on the Champlain Hills that wood lilies are among the “specialized species that are here only because the Champlain Hills are specialized as well.”

This is a year to get out and see wood lilies. It’s hard to know when and where these uncommon plants will show again.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at lakeside5047@gmail.com.