Friday, February 16, 2018

Nancy's Backyard Botanical Bounty

Imagine stepping out your back door to enter your very own nature preserve!  That's the case for my friend Nancy Slack, whose Schenectady County "backyard" consists of several hundred acres of forest and wetlands.  This week, Nancy invited all of us in the Thursday Naturalists to come enjoy a snowshoe hike through her backyard preserve, our going made easy along snow-covered trails that were already nicely packed.

We first realized our trails were passing through wetlands when we encountered extensive patches of Sensitive Fern, their green fronds long gone but their location marked by abundant spore stalks poking stiffly out of the snow.

I was puzzled at first by some of the stalks that appeared more open and lacy,  compared to the typical stalks that are packed tightly with dark-brown "beads" containing the spores.  But one of our exceedingly knowledgeable companions, Ruth Schottman, explained that the lacier stalks were what remains after the spores had been shed.  This was news to me!  For many years I have passed by these spore stalks, and never had I noticed the stalks whose spores were gone!

These twigs presented more evidence that we were passing through wetlands, for what other conifer beside the Larch has peg-like needle buds like these?  And Larches like it wet.

But here was another puzzle:  these cones were way too large to be those of the American Larch (Larix laricina).  That's when I learned that there are two introduced species of Larch that occasionally can be found in our wetlands, one originally from Europe (L. decidua) and the other one from Japan (L. kaempferi).  I'm not sure which one this is.  Both introduced species have cones that are larger than those of our native species.

It's always fun to come upon plants that we would immediately recognize in summer, but which present puzzling ID challenges to us when we encounter their remains in winter.  At first, I thought these spiky clusters were what was left of the fruits of Bristly Sarsaparilla.  But I was wrong.  There was nothing bristly about this plant.  Hmmm . . . . What else could this be?

Nancy was the one who first suggested Carrion Flower (Smilax herbacea), and then it clicked:  of course!  What other vining plant produces such perfectly spherical umbels of dark blue fruits?

Here were some other clusters of dark-blue fruits,  but these were not held in spherical umbels like those of the Carrion Flower, and they were growing on a woody shrub instead of a herbaceous vine.   What else could these be but the fruits of Maple Leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolia)?

Our major puzzle of the day was this vine containing multiple clusters of tiny ruddy-brown dried leaves.  Laurie and Ruth are here taking a closer look, acknowledging that neither of them had ever encountered a plant that looked quite like this.  Neither had I.

Here's a closer look at one of the leafy clusters.  I suggested it could be some kind of "witches' broom" -- a plant deformity caused by a pathogen that produces a great proliferation of leafy shoots -- and both Laurie and Ruth agreed.  But what species was the host plant?

Uh oh!  When we saw that the vine was covered with these tiny hair-like rootlets,  we surmised it could hardly be anything else but Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).  Luckily, I long ago outgrew my sensitivity to the toxins of Poison Ivy, since I had been examining these leafy clusters with my bare hands.  (So far, no rash has developed.  Whew!)

When I got home, I searched on my computer for "witches brooms on Poison Ivy" and discovered this photo posted by a man named Karl Hilliq.  I hope he doesn't mind that I borrowed his photo to reveal what our dried-up clusters of leaves would have looked like when they were green.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Heavy Snow, Hard Going

 Finally, after several days of freezing rain that drenched and then ossified what had been a lovely base of fluffy snow, the sky cleared and the sun shown warm on what still LOOKED like a lovely landscape.  As I strapped on my snowshoes, I couldn't wait to start moving across the surface of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park yesterday.  With the pond still solidly frozen with thick ice, I hoped to explore some areas of shoreline that in warmer times are way too muddy to walk on, as well as being thick with skin-clawing plants that can slice bare shins to a bloody mess.  My legs now armored with sturdy snowpants, I set off across the frozen expanse. 

But I didn't get far.  That deep snow had been honeycombed by the rain, and then coated with a thick icy crust.  My snowshoes plunged deep down through the weakened snow, and the icy crust prevented me from pushing ahead.  I had to lift my feet clear of each footprint to proceed.  I soldiered on for about 50 yards, huffing and puffing from the effort, and then my sore knee hollered at me:  NO MORE!  So I headed back the way I had come, the effort a little easier, now that I'd already broken trail.

Ah well, the excursion wasn't a total loss, since I managed to amuse myself by admiring the remains of last summer's plants, still possessing their own kind of beauty or interest.  These dense tapering clusters are the remaining flower heads of Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa).

These spindly stalks rhythmically dotted with tufts of floral bracts could be either of two  species of Lycopus, either L. uniflorus (Northern Bugleweed) or L. americanus (Water Horehound), two Mint-family plants that are difficult to tell apart even when in bloom and in possession of their leaves.

I was surprised to still find clusters of Hazelnuts (Corylus americana) dotting the shoreline shrubs, since these nuts are a favorite wildlife food.  Perhaps they were wormy or moldy.  Or maybe the squirrels are saving them for later?

I think it's funny how wormy these Hazelnut catkins look, as if the shrubs were infested with crawling larvae.  But these are the immature male flowers, formed last fall, that will open in spring to shed their ripened pollen on the April air.

The persistent seedheads of Round-headed Bushclover (Lespedeza capitata) are easy to spot against the white snow, looking like clusters of baby hedgehogs atop their tall stalks.

The flaring bracts of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) were easy to spot protruding from the snow.  These stalks will not yield new flowers come summer, for they have completed their reproductive role by shedding their seed.  New plants will emerge from basal rosettes of leaves that are wintering under the snow.

Along the powerline clearcut that runs across the top of Mud Pond, many Bear Oaks (Quercus ilicifolia) had been toppled by the power company last year, a completely useless operation in my opinion, since this shrubby species of oak never would grow tall enough to interfere with the overhead wires.  The felled branches shed their acorns long ago, but the acorn caps still cling to the twigs.  I love how they resemble intricate Native American basketwork.

I love everything about Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), and in every season.  It's actually a woody shrub and not a fern, although its marvelously fragrant leaves do have a ferny look when green.  These leaves retain much of their fragrance even when the leaves have completely dried and become gracefully curled.   Those fuzzy nubbins are the male catkins, which will open to shed their pollen in the spring.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Glad I Got Out When I Did

Oh joy.  It's raining today, making a mess of the beautiful snow that fell earlier this week.  Now I'm extra glad I joined my friends in the Thursday Naturalists to snowshoe through the new fluffy stuff that filled the woods at the Anchor Diamond Park south of Ballston Spa two days ago.

This nearly 250-acre, heavily wooded park, the site of an 18th-century mansion now fallen to ruins, has miles of hiking trails through mixed forest and wetlands.  Only recently opened to the public for "passive recreation," the park has become a popular destination for snow-shoers and cross-country skiers, who already had nicely packed the trails to make it easier for us to make our way.  I must say that these cheerful and knowledgeable women who joined us today, some past 90 years of age, certainly do inspire me to keep getting out there, even on days when I might be more inclined to stay indoors.

But this day was one that truly invited me to get outdoors, so fresh and clean-scented was the air, so bright and blue was the sky, so delightful was the company, and so diamond-sparkly was the pristine snow that carpeted the forest floor. 

That lovely carpet of snow was criss-crossed this morning by the tracks of many mice, the marks of their tiny hopping feet connected by the impression of their tails as they scurried here and there.  Their trails always remind me of trapunto stitching on a quilt. 

We Thursday Naturalists have visited this park on other occasions, conducting surveys of the woody and herbaceous plants that grow here.  This time of year, we have to satisfy our botanical curiosity by observing plants in their winter forms.  Here, for example, is a very hairy Poison Ivy vine climbing a White Ash tree.  This is certainly a plant that people should learn to identify in every season!  The toxic oils that can cause a skin rash are present even in the dead of winter.   (One of our members described the bark of this tree as resembling wide-wale corduroy.  Very apt!)

Without their leaves, some trees are difficult to identify in winter, but that's not the case for Black Cherry, with its distinctive shaggy black bark that has been described as "burnt potato chips."  I have also heard the Black Cherry referred to as the "cornflake tree."  There are many mature cherry trees in the woods at Anchor Diamond Park, some of considerable size.

One tree with thick, corky bark had us puzzled for a while, but then I broke off the chunk of that bark and noted the alternating layers of dark and light, a distinctive feature of American Elm.  This reminds me of those crispy wafer cookies filled with chocolate cream.

When we arrived at this section of the woods, where Sugar Maple trees were aligned in straight rows, we surmised we had come upon a sugar bush, where these maples had been planted with the intention of tapping them for their sweet sap.

These monumentally large, ancient Black Locust trees appeared to also have been planted along the old roadway, possibly to serve as a source of fence posts.  The wood of Black Locust is known to be especially resistant to rot.  But as this photo reveals, this species does eventually succumb to the ravages of age.

The palatial mansion that once stood at the center of this forested site has long ago fallen to ruins, but its location can still be detected by the presence of old stone walls.  Mesh fencing surrounds much of the site where the mansion, called Hawkwood, once stood, both to prevent injury to hikers who might fall into old pits, as well as to discourage intrusion into a site considered archaeologically significant.

Here we are, heading home. We could hear the noon whistles from nearby fire stations, and also the grumbles from stomachs hungering for lunch.  There's nothing quite like a walk through a snowy woods on a clear cold day to whip up an appetite.  And what a lovely way to earn our calories!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Winter Woods

I hate to admit it, but I have not been enjoying this winter the way I used to.  Various ailments are exacerbated by the cold, so I haven't been out climbing mountains or snowshoeing through the woods the way I had in previous years. I confess my couch has been calling to me more than has the great outdoors.  But yesterday, a bright blue sky, moderate temps, and fresh sparkly snow did tempt me out for a walk through the nearby Skidmore woods.  I didn't even need snowshoes to kick through the few inches of fluffy stuff as I approached the frozen pond.  Aha!  Here was my chance to explore the pond's shore, which is way too mucky for exploring in warmer weather.

From a distance, there seemed to be nothing very colorful among the pondside shrubs, but a closer look revealed that the Winterberry bushes still retained their glossy fruits, although they were more a wine-red now than the brilliant scarlet they had displayed in autumn.

The chubby round buds of young Red Maples also added a rosy hue to the branches hanging over the pond's frozen waters.

There were Highbush Blueberry shrubs as well, with twigs as ruby-red as their small shiny buds.

The spindle-shaped buds of American Beech gleamed with a coppery glow when lit by the low winter sun.

A couple of dried birch fruits had been caught among the twigs of a pondside shrub, looking like smallish pinecones.

The birch fruits shattered at my touch, filling my hand with little winged seeds and miniature fleurs-de-lis.

As a lowering sun cast long shadows through the woods, the sunbeams turned the leaves of young American Beech trees to glowing amber.

The most colorful surprise of all on this mid-winter day were the vividly hot-pink twigs of Striped Maple, their spectacular color set off against a background of emerald-green White Pine saplings.

Monday, January 29, 2018

See-saw Temps Bring Impressive Ice

Freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw!  That's what the weather has been of late.  On Thursday, my friends and I nearly froze when we faced frigid winds and icy footing along the Spring Run Trail (see my previous post).  Then yesterday, I had to take off my coat before it got drenched with sweat as I walked along Spier Falls Road, which follows the Hudson River at the northern boundary of Saratoga County.

I had come to walk along Spier Falls Road, first, because it offers beautiful vistas along the mountainous river banks, and second, because walking on crusted snow in the woods was awkward, even painful.  And I also thought I might see some spectacular splashing water in the rushing cataract that tumbles down the mountain across from the Spier Falls Dam.

Well, despite several days above freezing, the waterfall was still hidden under a thick ice cover.

I could hear the water's music as it splashed and rumbled from boulder to boulder, but I could not see it under this wedding-cake-frosting of ice.

There was lots of impressive ice to be seen along the road, where the mountains rise steeply right at  the road's edge, and constantly dripping springs have created fantastic ice formations among the boulders.

But the most impressive ice of all was to be seen on the spring-watered cliffs that line the road, in areas where the mountain's bedrock was blasted out to create material to build the Spier Falls Dam, which lies directly across the road from these cliffs.

I could see by their trails to approach these cliffs that ice-climbers had been testing their skills on these ice formations.  Their well-packed trails made it easy for me to make my way to the bottom of the cliff, where I could really sense the dramatic effect of this massive ice buildup.

Back on the road, I was sad to find this porcupine lying dead by the roadside.  Poor Porky!  He thinks his quills will ward off attackers, so he moves along slowly as if he had no enemies.  Porcupines haven't yet evolved to be afraid of hurtling cars.

The clear blue sky made a lovely foil for the rising moon, on its way to becoming the Super Moon (a moon that is full at perigee)  that will brighten the sky Wednesday night -- although that brightness will be dimmed for a while during a lunar eclipse.  It will also be a "blue moon," a second full moon in a single month.  Let's hope for a sky as clear as this to make for great moon-watching!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Fine Place for a Winter Walk

 My friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I are always on the lookout for interesting places to walk outdoors in the winter.  But as the years go by and age- or accident-related injuries mount, we don't always want to challenge ourselves with long hikes through deep snow or up steep slopes.  So this week I offered to lead our group along the Spring Run Trail, which lies within the city of Saratoga Springs. Following an old railroad bed, this flat and well-plowed trail runs about a mile from East Avenue until it dead-ends near the Northway, passing beneath steep wooded banks and along a rushing stream before it terminates in a cattail swamp.

A brand-new feature of the Spring Run Trail this year is the construction of a beautiful boardwalk that crosses that cattail swamp, connecting the trail to an apartment complex that lies at the end of Excelsior Avenue.  I'm hoping our group might begin our walk here.

The boardwalk crosses the Spring Run Creek, which today was running full and fast, thanks to recent rains and melting temperatures.

This creek also runs close by many sections of the paved Spring Run Trail, so we can hear the sound of rushing water as we stroll along.

Although the Spring Run Trail passes through residential neighborhoods,

it definitely has a woodsy, rural feeling to it, offering an experience of nature right in the heart of the city.  With plentiful open water and much wooded and wetland cover, the trail is a favorite spot for birds, so I'm urging my friends to bring their binoculars along.  I did hear the sweet "Teakettle, teakettle, teakettle" song of a Carolina Wren in these woods today.

Since our naturalist group is primarily interested in plants, I imagine we will be testing our skills at identifying plants in their winter guises.  I remember this spot in the trail as burgeoning with beautiful Great Lobelias last summer, so I stopped here today to see if I could find any remnants of these flowers.

Sure enough, I did!

The winter remnants of Teasels are always easy to spot, towering as they do over all other vegetation.

There's no missing the fuzzy scarlet fruits of Staghorn Sumac, either.

Or the tousled blond curls of Northern Willow Herb.

I know that these burry button-shaped tufts belong to the very tall sunflowers I admired along here last summer, but I never did figure out which species of sunflower they belong to.

The leaves of Sweet Fern still retained their wonderful fragrance when I crushed a few between my fingers.  I love the elegant curves of their curling leaves and the furry little catkins that will open in spring to release their stores of pollen.

I'm not really happy to find the invasive Oriental Bittersweet climbing the trailside trees, but there's no denying those beautiful berries do add pleasing color to the winter landscape.  Supplying abundant fruit, they also are one of the reasons that many species of birds winter over along this trail.

Two species of dogwoods, Silky and Red Osier, also add some bright color to the swampy spots.  Both dogwoods shrubs have red twigs, but I can tell that this particular shrub is Silky Dogwood because of the vertical lenticels of its bark.  The lenticels of Red Osier Dogwood look like pin dots instead of stripes.

I'm sure my naturalist friends will find many other items of interest when we explore this trail on Thursday, and I will be sure to return to this post and report them if they do.

Update:  About 10 intrepid women showed up this clear, cold morning to brave the frigid wind and occasionally icy footing along the trail.  We parked cars at each end of the trail so we could walk the entire length without backtracking, and we kept up a brisk pace, much brisker than this group of observant naturalists usually walks when exploring a trail.  We didn't linger long over any of our plant finds.  Thawing out over lunch and hot tea at my house afterwards, we all agreed the hike was most enjoyable, despite the cold.  Here are a couple more photos from our walk along the Spring Run Trail.

I'm glad one of our group noticed the brilliant red fruits of Highbush Cranberry, which was growing in a swampy area well off the side of the trail.

I was surprised to see such plump, unwrinkled fruits, considering the many below-zero days we have had this winter and the multiple freezings the fruits would have undergone.  They look so tempting, but I know from experience that they are very bitter.  Best to leave them for the wildlife, who will eat them when little else remains.

As we neared the end of the trail, we came upon several clusters of Wild Bergamot, identifiable even now by the compactly bulbous seed heads and their minty scent when crushed.  I know they are this particular species (Monarda fistulosa) because I always stop at this spot on the trail to admire their pretty pale-purple flowers when they bloom in summer.