Last weekend, the weather was unseasonably warm for mid-March, with afternoon temperatures in the 60s. It was a great day to wander through the Catskills adding additional peaks to the list of completions. Rounding a bend on the trail between Balsam Lake and Graham mountains, I glanced to the right and spotted a marvelous moss tumbling down the side of an embankment, a cascade of silver feathery fronds.
According to my field guide, this is Hylocomium splendens, also know as stair step moss, glittering woodmoss, splendid feather moss, or mountain fern moss. It is common in boreal forests of the US Northeast, as well as Canada, Russia, Alaska, and the Caledonian forests of Scotland.
I used to think all moss was the same green spongy carpet, but when you look closely, it’s very different. At the top of the photo above, I notice that the stair step moss is growing out of a bed of dark green moss with stalks and capsules (for dispersing spores). At the bottom of the photo, the whispy leaves look like windswept broom moss. At the time I hadn’t noticed the other mosses, so taken was I with the stair step moss.
A few minutes later, continuing on the same trail, I noticed an interesting mix of moss and lichens battling it out on the branch of a dead tree. Some of the mosses appear to have burst through the lichen, which otherwise cover almost every inch of the dying wood.
The round mosses are tree cushion moss (Ulota crispa), as best I can tell, which grows on trees and has leaves that curl inward when dry and capsules on short stalks. The light green lichen on the lower left is common greenshield (Flavoparmelia carperata). I’m having trouble identifying the grey lichen: it might be a form of Parmelia or Physcia.
To appreciate lichen properly, a magnification is helpful. When you look really close, what seems like a smooth surface is covered in bumps or depressions, which may contain spores or other reproductive structures.