Saturday, January 18, 2020

Waiting for Snow

It's Saturday afternoon, and our predicted snow has just begun to fall. Since I have been sick all week, I am hoping I feel well enough by the time this storm is over that I can get out to revel in its beauty and share images of that beauty here on my blog. In the meantime, and on just one day past the first anniversary of the poet Mary Oliver's death, I have steeped myself in the beauty of her poem about pending snowfall.  I  share that poem here.

Walking Home From Oak-Head
by Mary Oliver

There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in winter
in the late afternoon
that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
of time.
Whenever I get home -- whenever --
somebody loves me there.
I stand in the same dark peace
as any pine tree,
or wander on slowly
like the still unhurried wind,
as for a gift,
for the snow to begin
which it does
at first casually,
then, irrepressibly.
Wherever else I live --
in music, in words,
in the fires of the heart,
I abide just as deeply
in this nameless, indivisible place,
this world,
which is falling apart now,
which is white and wild,
which is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith,
our deepest prayers.
Don't worry, sooner or later I'll be home.
Red-cheeked from the roused wind,
I'll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
my shoulders
covered with stars.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Odd Finds in a Once Off-limits Woods

Since our so-far snowless winter has deprived me of most of my usual winter fun, like snow-shoeing and animal tracking, I've been feeling a little desperate for SOME kind of woodland adventures. So I decided to do a little trespassing today, and headed over to the former Finch Pruyn lumberlands that will soon become part of Moreau Lake State Park.  Last time I went there, the property was surrounded by high chain-link fences posted with No Trespassing signs.  But today, I didn't have to be sneaky at all about entering these lands.  A gate stood wide open, and an obvious lane led me right to an old cemetery in the middle of the woods.  And I mean a REALLY old cemetery!

Even if the date had not been posted on that sign, it was obvious from the state of the gravestones that they were very old. Most were tilted, some were broken or fallen over, and all were weathered or covered with lichens sufficiently to obscure the names and pertinent dates of those whose bones lay beneath them. I certainly could not read a word on these two stones.

Ah!  If I looked at the other side of those stones, I COULD see some names inscribed.  But they were too obscured by lichens and weathering for me to read them.  Perhaps if one made rubbings from these stones, the inscriptions would be clearer.

Of all the stones in this graveyard, the only one that had a clearly legible name was this one.  And poor Jane doesn't even get a last name of her own, only the notice that she was the wife of E.H. Wood.  At least she was able to live to a ripe old age of 65, pretty old for a woman of her time.

This stone, too, had a semi-legible inscription, but I wasn't able to make it out through the dark stains.

Mother Nature had inscribed these next two stones with some beautiful lichenous growths.

I felt an odd peacefulness, gazing at these stones made lovely in -- and by -- their decrepitude.  No one alive today would remember either the good or unpleasant things that characterized the folks whose flesh once surrounded the bones that now lay beneath my feet.  Perhaps it is right that our names disappear from our gravestones as the details of our lives disappear from living memory and our mortal bodies return their elements to the soil that embraces them.

I had last entered these woods back in July, when the shrubby undergrowth was in full leaf and the woods closed in densely around us.  I remember we had to push our way through bushes to reach the creek where we'd come to assess a population of rare wildflowers, and we weren't sure which direction would take us there most directly. But today, with the bushes bare and sightlines clear, I could see the creek from where I stood in the graveyard, and promptly walked right to its banks.

With the temperature approaching 60 degrees F. today, most of the snow was gone from the woods, as was the ice from the creek.  A gentle rain began to fall, decorating the surface of the creek with dancing circles.

It surprises me how much green remains in the winter woods, with so many evergreen ferns and mosses retaining their vivid color.  What could be prettier than the starry sprouts of Haircap Moss poking up from the brown leaf litter?

The rare wildflowers my friends and I had come here to assess last summer were still in evidence today. Called Great St. Johnswort (Hypericum ascyron), the plant lives up to its name by being of considerable stature.  It holds its large bright-yellow flowers on erect stems that stand over four feet tall, and the dry seedpods of those flowers were as evident today as those flowers had been last July.

I think these large tulip-shaped seedpods are almost as handsome as the flowers were when in bloom.  And this particular cluster held a mid-winter surprise today, with the presence of an active spider hiding among the seedpod's segments.

Returning home along Butler Road, I pulled over to observe the extent of logging now taking place within this large parcel of land that will eventually become part of Moreau Lake State Park.  This particular plot is being groomed to become open land planted with Wild Lupine, Horsemint, New Jersey Tea, and other pine-barren plants that support many beneficial insects, including the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly.  The transformation of the land is being conducted by the Open Space Institute, which currently owns the land and can sell the timber as it is harvested. Once the timber is cleared, the park is expected to take ownership of the land and begin planning trails throughout the hundreds of acres, with access to the adjacent Hudson River.

I continued home along the river, where fog lay thick over the water, transforming the landscape into a marvel of beauty on this most unseasonably warm January day.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Waiting for Winter

Where the heck did our winter go?  We had some wintry weather a couple of weeks ago, but now we've got rain and fog instead of ice and snow.  Ah well, I'm trying to make the best of it.  It was rather beautiful along the foggy Hudson River today.

Because of a fine mist in the air, every twig of the riverside trees held shining droplets that resembled  twinkling Christmas lights.

The lush emerald hue of this Green Velvet Moss (Dicranum montanum) seemed to glow in the dim light of this damp misty afternoon.

Beavers are causing some serious deforestation along the river banks near the Sherman Island Boat Launch.

It will be interesting to see what vegetation takes over, now that the banks are exposed to direct sunlight.

Walking along Spier Falls Road, I was surprised to see how this oak leaf had left its profile on the painted strip at the edge of the pavement.

That leaf reminded me of one I had come across just one year ago, embedded within a frosty escutcheon on the frozen surface of Moreau Lake.  This was what winter looked like about this same time last year.  When I searched for this photo in my blog archives, I discovered that winter came late last January, too.  But it did come,  eventually.  This post from January 14, 2019, reassures me that winter may yet arrive this year, too.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Year of Floral Rarities!

For a wildflower enthusiast like me, 2019 was one terrific year. After nearly 30 years of stalking wild plants, I don't discover many new ones anymore. But this year, eleven new plants joined my life list, and wonder of wonders, three of those new discoveries turned out to be quite rare.   To add to the surprise, at the time I first saw these rarities, I assumed they were common ordinary plants, ones I had seen many times before. But thanks to the help of some friends who are far more expert than I am, I now know differently.

The New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae):
When I first saw the violet pictured below, I nearly passed it by as just another Common Blue, a denizen of every suburban lawn and city alley.  Ho hum, dime-a-dozen . . . .

But wait a minute!  The vivid reddish-blue of the flowers, those tapered leaves, and the overall furriness of leaves, stem, and flowers drew me in to take a closer look. Intrigued by these characteristics that seemed quite odd for a Common Blue, I took photos of the salient points and sent them to Steve Young, chief botanist for the New York Natural Heritage Program.  It was he who informed me that I had happened upon the truly rare New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae) in the only place it has ever been found in all of New York State, along the banks of the Hudson River in Warren County. That's right.  This violet has never been found at any other site but this in all of New York State! For obvious reasons, it is ranked as an Endangered species in New York.  (You can click on this link to visit the post where I recount the day I found these and other unusual violets.)

Pringle's Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. pringlei):
There's a tiny orchid called Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) that grows abundantly in the woods of Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, NY.  As a species, Autumn Coralroot is not considered a rare orchid, and I have been taking photographs of it for many years. Here's just one of my photos:

My friend Dan Wall is an orchid enthusiast and also an artist who paints careful renderings of all the orchids that grow in New York State.  He had seen my photos of these orchids, and it was he who first wondered if some of the ones I had photographed might be the rare variety called Pringle's Autumn Coralroot (C. odontorhiza var. pringlei). He based his suspicion on the open florets that revealed the pollen bundles within, as well as the broad lower lip of the floret. The standard variety of Autumn Coralroot produces closed florets that possess narrower lower petals, if they possess any petals at all.

Dan sent some of my photos to our leading state botanist, Steve Young, who sent them on to "the" expert in this taxon, a Professor John Freudenstein at Ohio State University. Noting the open-throated floret and the shape of the petal, Professor Freudenstein judged it to be the exceedingly rare variety, Corallorhiza  odontorhiza var. pringlei, last reported from only one New York county (Monroe) way back in 1903 and never found again there or in any other county in the state.  By now, this plant is  actually rated as Extirpated from New York. Well, I guess a plant can't be rated any rarer than that!  State-ranked SX!  I'm happy to report that a secure population is now known to be thriving at Moreau Lake State Park.  (You can click on this link to read my post about finding new populations of this super-rare orchid at the park.)

Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis):
Most Mustard-family plants look rather weedy. That's certainly the case for Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis), whose small white flowers don't exactly call attention to themselves, hidden as they are among other trailside greenery at Moreau Lake State Park. I'm sure I had ignored them for years, if I even noticed them at all.

But when Green Rock Cress goes to seed, the plant is pretty hard to ignore, with its long, slender, shiny siliques arching away from its tall stems, arrayed like water falling from a fountain.  I had definitely noticed this plant for a number of years, searching my wildflower guidebooks in vain for its identity, and finally giving up.  Hey, it's only one of those uncountable number of no'count mustards, I thought, and thought no more of it.  For a while, anyway.

But this year, my curiosity ruled.  I just HAD to know the name of this plant with its distinctively cascading siliques. So I posted several  photos of it on Facebook, including close-ups of leaves, stem, and basal rosette, and tagged some of my Facebook friends who are far more expert than I when it comes to plants. It didn't take long for a number of friends to chime in, and after some challenging back-and-forth among them, the consensus was that this is Green Rock Cress (Borodinia missouriensis), formerly called by the scientific name Boechera missouriensis. Thanks need to go to my dear friend Andrew Lane Gibson, a rare-plant monitor for the state of Ohio, for helping to bring this consensus about.
Once I learned the name of this plant, just imagine my surprise when I also learned that it was not just some no'count little weed, but rather a Threatened species in New York State, occurring in only 6 to 20 locations throughout the state. Now knowing that Green Rock Cress was considered a very vulnerable species, I asked Rich Ring, a rare-plant monitor for the state, to visit the park and assess the extent of the population. I'm happy to report that we found around 200 specimens at two different locations in the park.  Here's a link to my post recounting our several rare-plant searches at Moreau Lake State Park last July.

Remembering my friend Ed:
I'm sure most folks can imagine how happy I am to have found such super-rarities in my personal hunting grounds, as well as how lucky I feel to have such super-expert friends who are always willing to help me identify each find.  But I'm also feeling sad that I can't share my excitement about these finds with the man who more than anyone else helped to feed my passion for plants.  That man is Ed Miller, my dear friend, fellow wildflower nut, and mentor extraordinaire, who died this past March at the age of 94. I hope this photo below conveys some of the joy we found in each other's company.  To understand why I loved this man so much, here's a link to the blog post I wrote as a tribute to him on the occasion of his 90th birthday. I'm happy to report that he maintained his vigor of mind and spirit as well as his marvelous delight in the natural world until a very short time before he died, at peace, without pain, and surrounded by those he loved and who loved him.  May we all live and die so well.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Springlike Day Along Spring Run Trail

I know that for many folks, Christmas is over by now.  But for me, the best part of the Christmas Season has just begun.  The work part -- shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, traveling, etc. -- is all done, but the fun part is all still here.  Since we don't put up our Christmas tree or deck our halls until Advent draws to a close, the tree is still fresh and the creches and colorful lights still delight us, and now we can just relax and enjoy the festivities.  We still are singing our favorite carols in church, and in just a few days our son and his family will arrive to celebrate the New Year with us.  It's all fun from here on out!

Even though it's still the Christmas season, the weather sure hasn't felt very wintry of late.  Most of our snow is gone, and temperatures have stayed above freezing most afternoons.  In fact, it felt more like spring than winter when I walked on the Spring Run Trail yesterday, starting from the east end, where a very convenient boardwalk crosses an open marsh.

This Saratoga city trail runs from East Avenue to where it ends at the interstate highway, following an old railroad bed that is wooded on either side.  The trail crosses a rushing creek at several bridges, and the walkway is plowed to allow easy access for bikers and walkers all winter long. In this photo below, the walkway passes under a bridge that allows city traffic to pass unimpeded overhead.

The woodlands and marshes that line both sides of the trail provide a perfect habitat for many bird species and other wildlife.  Although the invasive Phragmites fills more of the wetlands than I would like, this introduced graminoid does provide food and shelter to many creatures, and on this sunlit day, it looked quite beautiful as its waving plumes caught the light.

Despite the abundance of non-native and invasive plant species that dominate this habitat, some native plants hold their own along the trail.  The native viburnum called Highbush Cranberry is one that does, and its translucent ruby-red fruits are at their most beautiful this time of year.

Our native Staghorn Sumac also thrives here, providing food for flocks of American Robins, who see no reason to migrate south when such sustenance is so readily available.

Aside from a couple of robins in a sumac thicket and a single Brown Creeper inching its way up and down a White Pine's trunk, I saw few birds on this late afternoon walk.  But I did hear crows making a racket off in the woods, alerting me that a hawk could be near.  Sure enough, this Cooper's Hawk soon came winging in to take up its perch atop a standing snag.

Although I had intended to keep up an aerobic pace as I walked on the pavement, this foot trail leading off into the trailside woods lured me into following it.  What might be the attraction here, I wondered.

The trail led right to what looked like a campsite right on the bank of the creek.  But I doubt anyone has been sleeping here that recently.  I didn't look too carefully to see what might be under that tarp. Whatever it was, I wish the former occupant had been more tidy and not left all this trash behind.

But I was happy to be back in the woods and along the creek.  What better place could there be to poke about on a spring-like day, with the water rushing and tumbling along?

At one point, I became mesmerized by the shapes and colors of reflected trees and sky where the creekwater swirled and plunged over some mid-stream rocks. (Do click on these next two photos for full effect.)

Here was a creekside boulder covered with the speckled evergreen leaves of Creeping Buttercup. Such a welcome pop of green in the otherwise brown landscape.

I was intrigued by this cluster of tiny globules attached to a spent flower stalk.  At first I wondered if it might be some kind of gall, but then I noticed the slender vining stem that twisted around the flower stalk.  Aha!  This must be what Dodder looks like when it has gone to seed!

Here was one more punch of bright color, this example on one of the many fallen logs that lay across the forest floor back here along the creek.  These translucent globs of vivid orange are called Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus),  a gelatinous fungus that is common on decaying pine logs. It often persists throughout the winter.

Orange Jelly Fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus) is often mis-identified as Witch's Butter (Tremella mesenterica), another member of the group called the Jelly Fungi (Basidiomycota) that is less commonly found in our eastern regions. Although quite similar in appearance, the two can be easily distinguished by microscopic examination of their basidia (the spore-producing structures of members of the Jelly Fungi group), for Orange Jelly has basidia shaped like tuning forks.  Also, Orange Jelly is found only on rotting conifer logs, while Witch's Butter grows on hardwoods.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Outdoors At Last!

Well, I took my own advice (as stated in my last post) and got out at last to enjoy some of those delights found only in winter. Did I mention those deep-blue skies of a clear cold day?  The sky over Moreau Lake sure lived up to that description when I braved the single-digit cold to visit there on Saturday.

I was happy to see that the lake had frozen over, but Thin Ice signs warned me not to venture out to the middle just yet.  I was able to walk on the ice close to shore, but even there, my feet punched through a few times.  I look forward to when I can freely amble about on the lake, checking to see what the ice fishermen have caught.

I enjoyed my visit to Moreau Lake on Sunday even more, because this time I had my pal Sue to play with.  Although most of the lake ice was rough and clouded, I told her of where I had found some smooth and crystal-clear ice where a stream entered the lake, and this is the kind of ice we dream of finding each year. Sue was happy to visit that ice with me.

That clear black ice held stacks of silvery bubbles, and the super-slick surface was starred with spiky crystals of hoarfrost. Beautiful!

To add to our excitement, we found tracks and trails of otters all around the stream bed, and we also found this hole in the bank, its entryway adorned with icy crystals.  Could this be where an otter denned, the spikes of hoarfrost resulting from the warm breath of a creature within?  At least I felt pretty certain it was SOME critter's hidey hole.

Here's the otter trail, a long smooth trench intermittently punched with footprints as the otter kicked along, sliding on its belly.  A deer trail crossed the otter's at this point.

We followed the otter trail through the woods and along an ice-covered stream, to where the trail led up the steep hills.  I wondered if the otter was heading over the mountain ridge to the river, now that ice was closing off its access to the lake.

The ice on the surface of the stream had assumed many beautiful shapes and patterns.

These bubbles were still in liquid form, but I have seen them frozen into solid plates.

As the stream climbed the mountainside, the ice on its surface looked like molten glass.

As the grade grew steeper, the water's splashing became more energetic and the ice formations grew ever more elaborate and lovely.

I'm so glad we ventured out on these cold, cold days, to witness how frigid air and both rushing and still water work their wonders.  Today was  surprisingly balmy, with  bright sun and temperatures edging toward 50 degrees -- a lovely day for a winter walk. But so were those single-digit days when our cheeks grew numb but our eyes grew wide with delight.