Monday, April 21, 2014

The Week in Flowers

Ah, with this warm sunny weather, the spring ephemerals are coming fast.  In addition to the Carolina Spring Beauties (Claytonia caroliniana) I mentioned in the last post, here's a list of the flowers I found in bloom this past week.

Hepatica (Hepatica nobilus var. acuta); Skidmore Woods

English Violet (Viola odorata var. alba); Skidmore Woods

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris); Skidmore Woods

Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia): Orra Phelps Nature Preserve

Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum); Orra Phelps Nature Preserve

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media); Yaddo

Pennsylvania Sedge? (Carex pensylvanicum?); Bog Meadow Nature Trail

Field Horsetail Reed (Equisetum arvense); fertile (tan) and sterile (green) stalks; Bog Meadow Nature Trail

Boys in the Woods

Whew!  It was a very busy week, what with Easter festivities and family visits and a birthday celebration for my eldest son.  No time to blog, since my youngest son, Peter, and his family arrived last Wednesday night to stay with us through the Easter holiday.  We were lucky the weather turned sunny and warm, so Peter and his little boys Alex and Sean could enjoy a walk in the woods with me at the Ballston Creek Preserve last Thursday afternoon.  I wanted to show them the great big birds -- Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, and a Great Horned Owl -- that were all nesting in the swamp at the edge of this preserve.

Here, Sean tries out the binoculars to get a better view of a squirrel's nest.  Little brother Alex waits his turn.

I had visited this very same swamp just a little more than a week before, which is when I took this photo of what I thought were all herons' nests.  But friends had since visited this site and discovered that one of the nests had been taken over by a Great Horned Owl.  When I looked again, more closely, at my photo, sure enough, there it was: a pointy-eared head emerging from one of the large shaggy nests (to the left, in this photo).

Our visit this week revealed that the owl was still right there, sitting deep in the nest.  This is a sight we don't get to see very often.

Over to the other side of the swamp, the Ospreys were busy tending to their own nest, a former heron's nest that they have been enlarging over the years they have returned to this same site.  At one point, one of the pair flew up and stood on the other's back, with a great show of flapping its wings.  I suppose the pair might have been mating, but the position did not seem quite right.  At any rate, this was behavior I had not witnessed before.

In the meantime, a large number of herons had congregated in the branches of neighboring trees, and I did observe some of them engaging in building new nests.  I wonder if these are young herons returning to their natal swamp?  Let's hope they all -- herons, ospreys, and owls -- are able to live here in peace.

I'm not sure the little boys were all that impressed by the avian goings-on, but they sure were excited to see the pretty little pink-striped flowers growing all over the forest floor.  I was, too.  No matter how many times I have seen Carolina Spring Beauties, I am always delighted to see them anew, one of the very first flowers of spring.

Before I could stop him, Alex had picked a couple of the flowers and held them to his nose.  His enthusiasm for all the woodland plants delighted me, but it was hard to convince him to let them remain where they grow.  At least there were hundreds of these Spring Beauties, so I guess one or two could be sacrificed to a three-year-old's excitement.

It was truly a pleasure to witness how the little boys enjoyed exploring the woods,  exclaiming over the bright red Partridgeberries they found, or hopping over the tiny creeks on stepping tones, or gathering pocketsful of goldenrod stem galls we later cut open to find tiny worms pupating inside.  Here, Alex has found something to fascinate him in the creek.  I truly believe little boys (and girls!) and little creeks are made for each other.

I had to restrain myself when I saw the bright green leaves of Ramps.  For one thing, I had been trying to impress on my grandsons the importance of leaving woodland plants where we found them.  For another, these were growing in a nature preserve, where removing plants is forbidden.  But oh, I sure do love the taste of these little wild onions sauteed in olive oil!    I hope I can find another patch somewhere in a non-protected site.  I promise I will dig no more than 10 percent of the patch.  Or maybe I will just remain contented with the memory of how they taste.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Roiling River

SNOW!  We had about four inches of it last night, following a day-long rain.  Today, despite cold temperatures, a bright sun made short work of that snow, adding the snowmelt to an already close-to-overflowing Hudson River.  I drove along Spier Falls Road at Moreau today and discovered my favorite little island was well submerged beneath roiling, rushing water.

Here's a photo of that same little island in calmer waters.  (I took this photo on January 17 this year.)

The river was powerfully plunging over Spier Falls Dam, pounding with explosive force and a mighty roar on the rocks below.  The juxtaposition of all this raging water next to the No Swimming sign gave me a bit of a chuckle.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Floral Explosion Begins!

Remember my visit to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve just 5 days ago?  Here's what the woods looked like then:

Now see what a stretch of warm sunny days and a few rainy nights can do.  This is that same trail as in the photo above, although from the opposite direction, taken today.  Every single bit of that snow and hard-packed ice is now gone!

When I was here last Wednesday, I searched for some sign of Snow Trilliums, and found nothing but cold bare ground where I knew they grew, not even the tiniest shoot.   But look what I found today!  Boy, these flowers don't waste any time once they break through the soil.

It's such a privilege to find these dainty little flowers here at Orra Phelps, since Saratoga County is far from this trillium's native range.  It's believed that Orra herself must have planted them, and they have certainly thrived at this spot.  I counted nine plants blooming today, with many more plants that had no flowers.  Each year I am surprised anew by how tiny they are.  This photo is about life-size.  Note the maple seed for comparison.

So the floral explosion begins!  Every day now, new flowers will burst into bloom, making haste to set seed before the tree canopy closes in and limits the light that reaches the forest floor.  Among our earliest bloomers is the lovely Hepatica, and sure enough, I found this pristine white one blooming today at Orra Phelps.

I was not at all surprised to find these sunny yellow Coltsfoot flowers blooming today in downtown Saratoga's Congress Park.  I always think of them as the first spring flower that really LOOKS like a flower -- meaning one that has petals -- unlike the club-shaped Skunk Cabbage that does bloom even earlier. 

Many people mistake Coltsfoot flowers for Dandelions, but unlike Dandelions, whose flower stalks rise from a rosette of sharply toothed leaves, the Coltsfoot flowers bloom well before the leaves emerge.  The Coltsfoot also has a central disk of fertile flowers that look like tiny five-petaled lilies.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Look! The Ground is Bare in the Woods!

And the mountain streams are rushing with snowmelt!

All that's left of the ice on Mud Pond is a raft of rapidly melting slush!

The American Hazelnut shrubs have at last put forth their tiny red female flowers!

The hazel's male catkins are now exploding with pollen!

And the solitary bees are building their nests and packing them full of that pollen, preparing a nursery for the baby bees.

Isn't it just amazing what a few warm days can do?  The Spring was just waiting, waiting, waiting, and now it's starting to make up for lost time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Little Night Music

There is no sweeter sound of Spring than the high shrill calls of Spring Peepers from every woodland pool and roadside ditch.  Tonight, while driving the back-country roads through the dark rolling hills between Saratoga and Schuylerville,  I stopped to stand, enchanted, along the banks of a roadside marsh and thrill to this piercing music.  (Note that some Canada Geese were adding their notes to this evening chorus.)


It's hard to believe that all that sound can come out of a tiny frog that's only a little bit bigger than a cricket!  This photo is about life size.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Butterflies! Bugs! Blooms!

Butterflies!  Bugs!  Blooms!  It must be Spring!  It was certainly warm enough today to call it springlike.  Up to 70 degrees at least, according to the thermometer in my friend Sue's car as we drove together to the Skidmore woods, hoping to find some of the season's surprises.

"I bet we'll see a Mourning Cloak," I said to Sue as we started off into the sunlit woods, and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than this exquisite butterfly with its deep-brown velvet wings trimmed with cobalt and gold came wafting by.  And then, to our hearts' joy, this lovely creature lit on a rock and spread its wings and stayed right there for the longest time, allowing us to capture its beauty in clear and close-up photos.

Just a few moments before, Sue had spotted a flash of emerald green on the air, as this Green Shield Bug came flitting by before landing on a tree trunk.  Like the Mourning Cloak Butterfly, the Green Shield Bug also winters over as an adult and is one the first insects we are likely to see as the weather warms.

(Here's another photo, taken a few years ago, of the Green Shield Bug's funny face with its black beady eyes and tiger-striped antennae.)

We did not expect to see any flowers yet, since it's only a few days since the snow cover finally melted away in the woods.   So imagine our surprise when we spied this opening Hepatica bloom emerging from its furry bud amid its cluster of bright-green leaves.   Like the two insects we had seen, Hepatica leaves also winter over, the leathery three-lobed leaves looking as fresh as before they were buried under the snow.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

First Critters of Spring

Unfortunately, the first of spring's critters I've found as yet (aside from migrating birds), was the Deer Tick I found embedded in my arm this morning.  I must have picked it up on one of my forays this week in search of signs of spring.  Not fair!  Everything else is weeks late in arriving. Ah well, the warmer weather due these next few days should start things stirring in the woods.  But it's going to take quite a blast of warmth to melt all the snow and ice still chilling the ground at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, as I discovered yesterday.

 I had gone to Orra Phelps on the slimmest chance I might find Snow Trillium coming up, a tiny flower that lives up to its name by blooming even while snow remains on the ground.  Saratoga County is way north and east of this pretty little trillium's native range, but Orra herself must have planted these in her woods, and they have thrived here ever since.  I'm assuming I will find them again this spring, but as yet there was no sign of them.

What I did find, though, were long snaky piles of mud deposited on the leaf litter in several swampy spots.  It looks like the Star-nosed Mole is doing its spring house-cleaning.  It's hard to believe that a small furry creature would want to live in such mucky ground, but that's exactly the habitat this species of mole prefers.

There were still a few mucky spots on the trail at Ballston Creek Nature Preserve, which I visited today, but here in this sun-warmed woods the snow was completely gone, and the walking was easy.

If the weather stays warm, we will soon see this woods just carpeted with thousands of Carolina Spring Beauties.  As of yet, there was still no sign of any spring wildflowers.  But imagine my delight at seeing a fluttering flash of orange as a Comma Butterfly flitted about the woods.  Like the Mourning Cloak Butterfly, the Comma winters over as an adult, emerging the first barely warm days of spring to feed on dripping tree sap.

  Obviously, I did not take this photo today, since none of the woodland leaves are yet this green.  I tried and tried to stalk this butterfly and capture its image today, but every time it landed on the forest floor, it closed its wings, revealing underwings the same color as dead dry leaves, and it completely disappeared.   Again and again I lost sight of it, until once again it flew away, revealing its brilliant colors just out of camera range.

I came to this nature preserve today to see if the Great Blue Herons had returned to their nests in a swamp, and sure enough, they had.  Here are three of the seven nests I counted, most of them occupied by a sentinel or nesting heron.

Off to one side of the swamp was a solitary nest, much larger than those the herons were sitting in.  I assumed that this was the nest of a pair of Ospreys, who also return each year to this site to rear their young.  At first sight, though, no Osprey appeared to be near.

Soon enough, though, this pair came wheeling through the air, the one on the right with a bundle of sticks in its talons, which it deposited in the nest before flying away again.

While peering through my binoculars at all this avian activity, I slowly became aware of a distinctive croaking sound off in the woods a ways.  Hey, could that be Wood Frogs?!  I followed the sound through the woods to this half-frozen vernal pool, and there they were!  They seemed to be just warming up their mating calls, since I didn't observe the copulatory frenzy I have witnessed at other times.  Perhaps the ladies have yet to arrive.

When the ladies arrive, these guys will be waiting for them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blackbirds Singin' On a Dark Dank Day

Today was dark and dank and blustery, and I almost didn't go out.  But I felt the need to swing my legs, so I pulled on my boots, tugged a hat over my ears, and grudgingly set off to nearby Bog Meadow Nature Trail.  Maybe I'd see a bird or two, I grumbled, but I sure wasn't going to find any flowers. 

Well, I sure did see a bird or two -- or three or four or more than a dozen, thanks to a young man named Russ I happened to meet on the trail.

When I first spied Russ he was peering through his binoculars at a tree across the swamp, a tree that was all aflutter with twittering birds, hopping from limb to limb, and making a royal racket!  I might have mistaken them for Starlings, but Russ had better binoculars than I and could see the birds' yellow eyes, as well as their tails that were longer than Starlings' and shorter than Grackles' tails.  So what could they be but a treeful of Rusty Blackbirds?  Rusties are not all that common around these parts, so Russ and I were both excited to see them.

Russ came to Bog Meadow today because he had heard a report of seeing an American Coot on the marsh's open waters, a bird that would be a "lifer" for him.  He wasn't sure where to find this open water, so I told him to walk with me and I'd take him there.   When I was last here a week ago, the "open water" was still frozen over from shore to shore, but today we found it mostly free of ice and teeming with all kinds of waterfowl swimming back and forth amid its rolling wind-blown waves.

Sure enough, there was that Coot!  It's the dark bird with a pale bill, close to the center of this photo below.  When we first spied him, he was close to our side of the marsh, but as we approached, he made his way to the far side, where dozens of other water birds swam in and out of the sheltering tussocks.

I know my photos are inadequate to reveal the species of ducks we saw (I only have a tiny pocket camera with a limited zoom), but with binoculars we were able to see many Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Mallards, Canada Geese,  and a couple of Common Goldeneyes.  (Take my word for it, that is a Goldeneye in the photo below. ) One of my birder friends, Lindsey, reported today that she had seen Gadwall, Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, and Wood Ducks at this same location, in addition to the species we saw.  And they may have been there still, but hiding among the reeds.  I would say that Bog Meadow Nature Trail is truly a birding paradise!

Bog Meadow is also a botanizer's paradise, although it will still be some time before the spring wildflowers poke above the ground.  At least I could see the promise of things to come in the fresh green shoots topping a mound of Tussock Sedge.

I was also delighted to see the Skunk Cabbage making up for lost time, now that the heavy snow cover has melted at last.