Monday, March 27, 2017

Grumble, grumble . . .

Geese on the Hudson at Ft. Miller, March  31,  2014
Sorry.  I'm feeling my age and old injuries this spring.  And the weather has been so dark and dreary and cold, I just haven't forced my aching bones out to the woods this past week, and so I've had no adventures to blog about.  Wondering if this spring was especially late in warming this year, I went back into my blog archives to see what the weather was like in late March on other years.  And guess what?  Except for a couple of remarkably warm years, this lingering cold and snow and ice is actually quite typical.  That barn in the photo above, for example, was the only spot of color on an otherwise dreary March 31 three years ago.  I very much enjoyed seeing it again, so I'm posting the photo here once more.  You can revisit this blog post to see what else I saw that day (there were ospreys!), on another year when winter seemed reluctant to loosen its grip.


Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River, March 29, 2015
It wasn't much warmer the end of March in 2015, when my pal Sue and I drove down to Cohoes at the southern boundary of Saratoga County to witness the majestic Cohoes Falls, with the Mohawk River in its full spring fury.  At least the sun was shining that day, illuminating some of the other splendors of this old mill town, which you can see, too, by clicking here.




Spring Beauty blooms in the woods along Bog Meadow Nature Trail, March 29, 2012.
In contrast, late March of 2012 brought summer-like temperatures that melted all the snow and ice and pushed many wildflowers into blooming much earlier than usual.  When I revisited this post from that year, I was amazed to see how far spring had advanced.  It sure gave me hope to look on those beautiful blooms and know that it really won't be long before we see them again.  I've already found Skunk Cabbage in bloom, and the American Hazelnut catkins are lengthening in preparation for spilling their pollen.  This week, the forecast calls for warming temps and light rains, so I'm going to start looking for that first flower of spring that actually looks like the flower, the sunny Coltsfoot. What a welcome sight that will be!


Monday, March 20, 2017

Here Comes SPRING! Sort of.

Now it's official: Spring is here!  That's according to celestial reckoning, anyway.  Here on earth, however, the deep snow on the ground and the ice on the lakes would almost seem to belie it.  But yes, the sun's beams are higher and stronger, making today so warm I had to shed all my tops but my undershirt as I trudged through foot-deep snow at the Ballston Creek Preserve.



Most folks think of robins or bluebirds as the harbingers of spring, but since those two birds hang around here all winter now, I was in search of another bird to signal the warming season.  That bird was the Great Horned Owl that has nested here in the Ballston Creek Swamp for several years, commandeering one of the Great Blue Heron nests that dot many of the standing snags in the swamp.  This species of owl is known to start nesting even before winter is over.  Here's a photo of the owl (her "horns," anyway) that I took exactly one year ago in this swamp, on the first day of spring, 2016.





As I approached the Ballston Creek Swamp today, I could plainly see a cluster of trees still dotted with the large heron nests.  But would I find herons here already?  I rather doubted it, since the water beneath the trees was still solidly frozen, offering herons no opportunity to wade here in search of fish or frogs.  And oh dear, the nest where the owl once raised her young was nowhere to be seen!  Many of the nests that used to dot these snags are gone, probably blown away by some of the fierce windstorms we've had of late.  I wonder if the owls will go somewhere else to nest this year.  I sure couldn't find any owl on a nest today.





Here was the same heronry on March 20, 2016, a flurry of heron mating behavior as the big birds laid claim to the same nests they'd occupied the year before.  On this date just a year ago, the waters of the swamp were all wide open.




Not a single heron could be sighted today.  And they probably won't return for a while, since forecasts are for continued cold weather that will keep the swamp frozen hard.





The same goes for the Osprey pair that nests in this swamp each year.  They won't return until they find open water for fishing in.  They will have their work cut out for them when they arrive, since it appears our fierce winds of late have blown their usual nest apart, leaving only a few disheveled sticks.





I remember visiting this very same woods just exactly a year ago, and the air was filled then with the croaking calls of Wood Frogs and the shrill chorus of Spring Peepers from each of the vernal pools that dot this woodland.  Here is a photo I took of the Wood Frogs in their mating frenzy, with at least three males clinging to the larger female.




Today, those pools were still mostly frozen, and not a single frog could be heard anywhere.  In fact, the forest was absolutely silent, except for an isolated thunk! thunk! thunk! from a Pileated Woodpecker working on a tree.  It may be quiet now, but it won't be long before these woods will resound with a froggy chorus.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

It Snowed!

Well, the forecast was right.  We got slammed with heaps of snow.  The official count for Saratoga Springs was 18 inches, and after shoveling our walks and digging out our cars, I was too pooped for outdoor adventures, except for a walk through Congress Park, just a block from our house.

Despite the city's efforts to spur the resident ducks into migrating away for the winter, plenty hang on to beg for food and swim in the little bit of water that remains in the park's half-drained pond.  The Silver Maples that lean over the water had begun to open their flowers during the recent stretch of warm weather. I'm sure those flowers did not survive when the temperatures next dropped to the single digits.




Our beautiful Spirit of Life statue looked pretty cold in her thin clinging gown, with a patch of snow on one shoulder.  This figure was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the same sculptor who created the majestic figure of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  I thought there'd be more heaps of snow atop the balustrade, but the 50-mile-an-hour winds accompanying our storm had blown it all away.


(Here's a closer view of our beautiful Spirit of Life:)




I'd hoped to walk along this pretty little spring-fed stream, but crews had yet to clear the shin-deep snow that covered the streamside path.  I was grateful for the paths that HAD been cleared.





This splendid brick building that sits in the center of Congress Park was a casino during Saratoga's 19th-century heyday as a gambling mecca, when Diamond Jim Brady and Lillian Russell ("Diamond Lil") frequented the gaming tables.  The building now hosts wedding receptions and fund-raising galas in its elegant ballroom, and it also contains a historical museum. One of the items in the museum's collection is a corset that once belonged to Diamond Lil, a lady of ample proportions.




This building houses a wonderful merry-go-round, now closed for the winter but a favorite stop for my younger grandchildren when they visit here in warmer weather.


The merry-go-round's horses are quite spectacular, carved by one of the foremost sculptors of carousel steeds, M.C. Illions, back in 1904.  This carousel once delighted children at an amusement park on Saratoga Lake, but when that park closed to make room for a townhouse development, the city of Saratoga Springs purchased the machine and placed it in Congress Park.





Across Spring Street from the carousel is one of the springs that made Saratoga famous.  This Hathorn Spring is touted as containing more minerals than any other in the town. Not everyone finds the taste of its water delightful, but I enjoy its salty effervescence, so I crossed the street to take a sip.



Too bad!  No sipping from THIS spring today!  Yes, it was cold and growing colder as snow began to fall and be driven into my frigid cheeks by a rising wind.  Time to head for home.




Halfway home from the park stands this charming cottage containing a really fine bakery.  I stopped in to warm my face and breathe those delicious bakery aromas.




OK, those aromas overcame my resistance.  I'll have one blueberry scone and one sticky bun, please. And believe it or not, they both made it home uneaten.  But not for long!


Monday, March 13, 2017

Winter Returns

Did I say I was missing winter?  Well, we got some winter, after all: a whole string of days with morning temps around zero (F.).  And now we're about to get slammed with more snow than we've had in years. Forecasts are calling for up to two feet, and with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour. Tomorrow.  I think I'll stay home tomorrow.

But I did go for a walk in the Skidmore woods today.  Folks not too far south of Saratoga had been reporting they heard Spring Peepers already, but I don't think they've been singing here yet. Especially now that the woodland ponds have frozen over again.  This Skidmore pond is a hotbed for froggy amours (both Wood Frogs and Peepers), but the action sure hasn't started here yet.





Sometimes, even while winter still lingers,  I find the fur-covered flower buds of Hepatica peeking out from a nest of last year's leaves.  But not a trace of them did I find today.  The leaves were pretty, though.  It's amazing how well they winter over, even when not protected by deep snow.




I hurried along to the part of the trail I know to be edged with Leatherwood shrubs, wondering if the deer had decimated them once again.  But look!  New budding twigs have sprouted from last year's browsing damage.  Maybe because we had so little snow this year (so far!), the deer didn't have to come in from the country to browse in the Skidmore woods.


Leatherwood is just about our earliest shrub to flower, but I don't think that this year it's going to bloom as early as the one in the photo below, taken on March 21, 2012.  Its typical bloomtime is mid-April, in most years.





Examining twigs of other shrubs and understory trees, I didn't find many with buds beginning to swell.  Well, maybe these Striped Maple buds are a little bit bigger than they were in January.  I love the color of Striped Maple buds and the pale narrow bracelets circling the ruddy twigs.





Maybe this Basswood bud is a wee bit bigger than it was last fall.  Basswood twigs can be quite rosy, and its buds are a bit lop-sided, just as its almost-but-not-quite-heart-shaped leaves will be.




Aha!  I did find ONE shrub that a week of unseasonably warm weather had tricked into sprouting. These are the unfolding compound leaves of Red-berried Elder.  With their slightly shriveled leaves, they look as if they might be regretting trying to jump the season.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The First Flower of . . . What?


In other years, I've waxed all excited when I first find Skunk Cabbage swelling its spathes in area wetlands.  Well, I found some today along Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just outside Saratoga Springs, but I wasn't really all that happy to see them.  Now, why would I not be happy to find the first flower of spring?  Maybe it's because I'm still waiting for winter to happen.  It's kind of hard to feel joy about the end of winter when we never really had any winter to speak of.  Oh, we had a few sub-freezing days, but they were interspersed with long stretches of other days well above freezing.  Yeah, we had a little snow.  Maybe a foot?  I mean, ONLY a foot, perhaps 12 inches, the whole winter long.  And now it's long gone, as this view of Bog Meadow trail today reveals.




Those red-speckled bulbous spathes were not just the early shoots, either.  A peek inside revealed the spadices already ripe and spilling pollen.

 

I had planned to walk a good portion of Bog Meadow Trail today, looking for other signs of spring like pussy willow catkins or mole mudpiles.  It was a mild, sunny day when I started out, but I hadn't walked more than a quarter mile when the sky grew super dark and the wind came up with a roar, tossing the treetops around and breaking off branches that came thudding down to the ground around me.  It was pretty scary, surrounded as I was by trees that could kill me.  So I hurried back to my car.  And no sooner did I reach the safety of my car, but the wind stopped blowing and the sky cleared.  Did I mention we're having some crazy weather this year?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Bye Bye, Bebert

 We are feeling very sad this week, since we had to say good-bye to our dear furry friend, Bebert.  He was not even six years old, and he hadn't shown any signs of illness until about two weeks ago, when he started walking away from his favorite food, which he left completely uneaten.  As the days went by, he continued to refuse food and began to cry beseechingly as he looked at his food and could not eat it.  So of course, he had to visit the veterinarian, causing him a terrible ordeal as he fought like a wildcat to avoid being placed in the carrier, and he moaned and growled all the way there.  He even had to be sedated in order for the vet to examine him.  Our worst fears were realized when the blood tests revealed that both his kidneys and liver were failing, and we were told that any treatment would be difficult and painful and probably ineffective. So we made the decision to euthanize him, and, still sedated, he died in my arms.  I loved this sweet guy, and it hurt like hell to feel his heart stop beating.


I remember the day we found him and his two sisters, born of a feral mom who had brought her babies to our back yard, perhaps to show them where they could always find food.  We'd been feeding the feral parents for many months. The tiny kittens, only about four weeks old, were hiding in the bushes when I walked by, and they revealed their presence by their loud hissing and spitting, trying to scare me away.  My husband and I managed to capture them and quiet their struggles with soothing words and gentle caresses.  Here's little Bebert on the day we found him, still frightened but tolerating our handling him.




He and his sisters were quickly tamed and soon had the run of the house.  Of all the three, Bebert was the boldest, the most daring.  And as cute as a kitten could be.




Of course, little kittens can sure be rascals, and Bebert was no exception. He love spilling the napkin basket and sending the napkins flying.





We don't let any of our cats outdoors, and they never seemed to mind or try to escape.  But they certainly liked to watch what was happening out there, especially around the birdfeeders.





We decided to keep Bebert and his sister Cleo for our own, and the two were inseparable.  During playtime, they would fiercely scuffle, kicking and biting and leaping on one another, but then collapse in a tangled heap of warm and sleepy soft fur.






And they grew . . .




. . . and they grew!  It wasn't long before they outgrew this kitty bed, but they still snuggled in together.





The years went by, and Bebert and Cleo still happily hung out together.




Most visitors to our house never knew what a sweetie Bebert could be.  Although he was bold and friendly as a kitten, as Bebert matured he reverted some to his feral nature, acting terrified of humans other than us, and even running as if in fear from my husband and me at times.  The one time Bebert seemed completely at ease was during my breakfast, when I would sit at the table for quite some time, reading my morning newspapers.  Then he would sprawl among the papers, basking in the morning sun and accepting my caresses with loud purrs and friendly chirps.  Sometimes we would also be joined by big fuzzy Finn, our Maine Coon cat who also died recently, just a few weeks ago at the end of January.  Finn and Bebert were good pals, and I like to imagine them finding each other in some kitty heaven somewhere. That image helps soothe my loss a bit, as well as assuage my regret that I caused Bebert's last day to be spent under such duress.  We do what we can.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

No Snow, Weak Ice

What the heck kind of winter is THIS?  We've had a week or more of temperatures nearing 60 degrees in February!  Needless to say, all the snow is now gone, and the lake ice has weakened to the point it's unsafe to walk on.  I was going to lead a group out on frozen Lake Bonita tomorrow, but now we will have to keep to the shore instead of exploring the islands out in the middle.  But at least we won't have to wear snowshoes.  Here's what the trail to Lake Bonita looked like 10 days ago:



And here's what it looked like yesterday, when I went to Lake Bonita to check on trail conditions. No snowshoes will be needed, that's for sure, although we should certainly wear ice grippers to get us safely along parts of the trail still covered with slippery ice.



This week's walk to Lake Bonita was organized by the land-conservation organization Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land And Nature) as one of the ways to engage local communities in conserving a region of Saratoga County called the Palmertown Conservation Area.  This is a large area between Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park that has a high potential for conservation of working forests, stream headwaters, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation, based on the results of a recent landscape analysis carried out by PLAN to determine best use for various regions of Saratoga County.

I couldn't be happier that PLAN has asked me to participate in this conservation effort.  After all, the main focus of my blog since its inception on January 1, 2009,  has been to promote awareness of the amazing natural diversity to be found in exactly this area now referred to as the Palmertown Conservation Area.  This area includes the Palmertown mountain range along the Hudson River, all of the Saratoga County portions of Moreau Lake State Park, other state-owned forests that are managed for timber, and also lands owned by Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  Sounds like an index to most of the entries I've posted on Saratoga Woods and Waterways since it first went up on the internet eight years ago.  This is my home territory!  And it's a territory that continues to expand.

I was very much looking forward to leading folks out across the frozen surface of Lake Bonita to explore the remarkable habitat of the little islands that dot the lake.  Only recently acquired by the adjoining Moreau Lake State Park, this small lake presents an ecology quite different from other water bodies within the park. Unlike Moreau Lake, a sandy-shored kettle lake carved out by the retreating ice-age glacier, Lake Bonita is a higher-altitude rocky-shored lake, set among the granitic gneiss of the surrounding Mt. McGregor.  Its depths were achieved much more recently than the Ice Age, becoming a lake when one end of a stream was dammed to create a reservoir atop the mountain.  The tiny islands we can see from shore are probably the tops of rocky rises that have since become overgrown with mats of sphagnum moss and thickets of shrubs.  And growing atop that sphagnum and among those shrubs is a remarkable variety of plants we usually associate with bogs or fens, a kind of habitat that is only rarely encountered in Saratoga County.


One of the qualities that distinguishes plants of bog or fens is their tolerance of acidic conditions, to varying degrees.  While not as acidic as a true bog would be, the waters of Lake Bonita are acidic enough to support the growth of such bog plants as the Northern Pitcher Plant and Small Cranberry, as well as other fascinating wetland plants that are tolerant of more neutral conditions, such as Round-leaved and Spatulate-leaved Sundew, Horned and Humped Bladderworts, Yellow-eyed Grass, shrubs like Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, and Sheep Laurel, and orchids like Rose Pogonia.  Of course, we won't see any of these plants blooming tomorrow, but we certainly will find extensive mats of sphagnum moss, the source of much of the acidity of this mountain-lake habitat.  This sphagnum grows prolifically along the shore as well as atop the islands.





As we make our way along the shore, we are sure to notice  Highbush Blueberry shrubs, their colorful red twigs set off by the emerald green of the surrounding hemlock trees.  It's interesting to me that the steeply banked and rocky woods along the southern shore of Lake Bonita is populated almost exclusively by Red Oaks and Eastern Hemlocks, creating a forest that is largely devoid of any understory trees.  Or any other conifers.  Alternately, the forest along the western end of the lake contains dense stands of spruce,  while the woods along the northern shore supports mixed hardwoods and conifers, including many White Pines.





Even though we won't be able to risk braving the ice out to the islands, many of the same plants that grow out there can be found along the shore.  The shrub called Leatherleaf is easy to spot, since it keeps its ruddy-colored leaves throughout the winter.




If we look closely, we can see that the Leatherleaf flower buds have already formed.




We may also find a few twigs containing the Leatherleaf's spent seed pods, almost as pretty as the little white bell-shaped flowers were.





The glossy brown buds of Sweet Gale are still tightly closed, although they are among the earliest shrubs to burst into bloom.  Tawny-brown male and ruby-red female flowers are usually borne on separate shrubs, although both sexes are occasionally found on the same shrub.






I was so glad to find this beautiful clump of Pitcher Plant leaves growing along the shore.  Out on the islands, I had earlier this winter found the remains of many flower stalks, but the remarkably shaped leaves were then buried under snow and ice.




As we walk through the woods that is now bare of snow, we will be able to see many evergreen plants:  mosses, ferns, and liverworts of several kinds, as well as the leaves of plants that winter-over under the snow.  Here was a lovely patch of Trailing Arbutus, intermingled with the smaller glossy leaves of Wintergreen.





When I walked out onto a rocky outcropping along the shore, I was amazed to see the green leaves of Pale Corydalis sprouted from a crack in the rock and looking almost as fresh as when it bore its blooms last summer.





At the very eastern end of the lake, we will be able to rest and enjoy a spectacular view of this unspoiled lake, a genuine treasure of natural beauty once locked behind prison gates but now made accessible to the public.





While I sat there admiring the view and feeling grateful that a place of such marvelous beauty was mine to enjoy,  who should come striding out of the woods than my dear friend Ray Bouchard?  What a surprise to encounter this fellow lover of all things woodsy and watery!  But in some ways, not so surprising.  We have met on so many other trails and other lakes, quite spontaneously and completely unplanned, that I almost always expect we might meet each time I venture out.  And I am always very, very happy when we do.




I may see Ray again tomorrow when I lead the group for Saratoga PLAN.  Like me, Ray can't believe his lucky stars that we live among so much natural beauty and so many places of wonder, and neither of us can ever tire of exploring them.