Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Braving the Soggy Cold at Ballston Creek

When the heck is it gonna warm UP?  I've been hunkered down inside all week, keeping out of the sleet and snow and miserably cold rain.  It wasn't that much better this Tuesday-- cold and dark and damp -- but I felt like I just HAD to get outdoors.  So I headed down to the Ballston Creek Preserve south of Ballston Spa.  Maybe this site was far enough south of Saratoga for spring to have progressed a bit more along its forested trails. 

It sure didn't look that promising in the soggy woods, aside from the fact that all the snow was gone.

At least the vernal pools were free of ice down here, but not a peep nor a croak from any sex-crazed Spring Peepers or Wood Frogs emerged from these silent waters.

I did see lots of Carolina Spring Beauty leaves poking up from among the leaf litter.

And some of those plants were sporting buds that had opened just a wee bit.  When warm weather finally hits, this forest floor will be carpeted with thousands of these beautiful pink-striped flowers.

Lots of Round-leaved Hepatica will be blooming here, too, with the first warm days.  I ran to examine this plant when I saw a glimpse of purple, only to be disappointed when I found that purple was just the underside of a leaf.  Not even a furry bud was hiding down at the base of those stems.

I was happy to find some interesting patches of green in the woods, like this burgeoning clump of Porella liverwort at the base of a tree.  Gotta love those liverworts.  At least they stay green all year.

I was quite amused by this moss-covered rock, which looked like a green-furred hedgehog.

A Red Maple twig with swelling buds had fallen to the ground, contributing a punch of color to the forest floor.  But see how tight those buds are still.  Most years by this date, they would be open and wafting their pollen on the warm spring winds.

Oh wow!  Talk about a punch of color!  Here was a fallen limb just covered with an amazing mix of colorful fungi and lichens.  The fungi are Red Tree Brain (Peniophora rufa), Black Jelly (Exidia nigricans), and Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina), and the pale gray-green lichens are possibly a species of Physcia.

A tiny tuft of the moss Ulota crispa was sprouting from the other side, as was a lovely greenish clump of lichen, possibly a species of Phaeophyscia.  I do believe this is the most beautiful mix of lichens, fungi, and moss I have ever seen!  And bless their pretty little hearts, all of these organisms can be found throughout the year. Even in the dead of winter or in dark, cold springs.

In addition to searching for plants, I had come to the Ballston Creek Preserve to observe the heron nests in the marsh that lies at the end of the trail.  Sure enough, when I reached the marsh I could see some of the huge rough nests out in the standing snags, although many fewer this year than in some years past.

At first, I could see only one Great Blue Heron standing on a nest and I wondered where all the others might be.  Then my camera zoom showed me what looked like birds settled down in the nests.  No doubt there were eggs in those nests that needed a parent bird's warmth and protection from the rain on this drizzly day.

This little bird I was able to observe more closely, since it kept hopping on the forest floor and fluttering up into the shrubs only a few feet away from me.  Since it had a rather ruddy coloration and spent much time on the ground, I was thinking it might be a Veery.  But my photo revealed features like white eye rings and a darkly striped breast that seem more consistent with a Hermit Thrush.  I have a hard time telling thrushes apart, so I'm hoping some more expert birders might weigh in on this ID.  I could certainly tell the thrushes apart by their songs, but this little thrush was quiet as a mouse.

I ended my outdoor adventures today with a visit to the Orra Phelps Preserve up in Wilton.  I was scheduled to lead a wildflower walk there this coming Thursday, but except for this one Snow Trillium in bloom, not a single other wildflower (not counting Skunk Cabbage) has yet even broken the ground.  And with more cold temperatures predicted, along with the possibility of snow,  nothing much will change in the next few days.  So I canceled the walk, hoping to return when warmer weather releases the floral floodgates.  I was glad, anyway, to have seen this darling little trillium, a very rare find this far out of its natural range.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


At last!  The snow is ALL gone from most of the forest floor.  And the temps have been above freezing for several days in a row.  Time to go looking for Hepaticas (Anemone acutiloba and A. americana) in the Skidmore woods.  The  mottled green or red wintered-over leaves are easy to find where they rest atop mossy limestone rocks, the plants only partially hidden by fallen oak and beech and maple leaves.  I lifted the dry tree-leaves up to peer at the base of the plants, and here I found the first trace of the flowers, just a tiny bit of pink peeking out of its furry buds.

On another plant, these pale-purple sepals had made their way out a little bit further, and if it hadn't been dark and rainy today, this flower might well have been wide open.  Since it was so dark and rainy, I surmised that this was all I would find today, and I gave up my search.

Then suddenly there!  Right by the path.  A beautiful bunch of glossy green leaves exploding with pale lavender blooms.  Hepatica season has opened for sure!  Every day now, for the next two weeks or so, these beautiful flowers will adorn the forest floor with blooms that range from purest white through lilac and pink to deepest purple and -- rarely -- a vivid magenta.

So lovely!  I just can't help but feel blessed when Hepatica season begins.

I found two other treats in the woods today, although neither is a sign that spring has sprung, since both can be found in every season, including the dead of winter.  The first was a lush and lovely emerald-green patch of Atrichum moss, like a miniature forest of minuscule pine trees spreading across the ground.  I sometimes confuse this spiky moss with Polytrichum moss, so to confirm the identity, I pluck a few sprigs and hold them in my hand for a minute or so.  If they are Atrichum, the leaves will promptly shrivel, but only to just as promptly return to lush fullness if they are quickly rehydrated.  Here in my hand are the shriveled sprigs next to a freshly plucked one on the left.

The second find was a cluster of Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune) sprouting from a dead fallen tree limb.  A remarkable feature about this little white, shell-shaped fungus is that it can shrivel and dry up again and again, and then return to full reproductive power each time, once it becomes rehydrated.  These particular specimens appear to be rather dry, but that doesn't mean they can't spring back to vigor once again.

There are many other small white stalkless fungi we might find on dead limbs, but we only need to turn these over to see the distinguishing feature that gives the Split-gill fungus its name, the obviously split gills.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Birding and Botanizing Along Bog Meadow Trail

My pal Sue will be leading a bird walk along Bog Meadow Trail on April 22, so she wanted to scout out a route beforehand, and she asked me to come along with her on Sunday afternoon.  If not for her invitation, I probably wouldn't have ventured out on this blustery, gray, cold day, strafed by intermittent snow squalls and only momentarily warmed by brief flashes of sunshine as clouds tore across the sky.  The birds seemed to be hunkered down out of the cold, but we did hear a tree-full of Rusty Blackbirds squeaking away across the marsh, and a mini-flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets fluttered about the surrounding thickets, frustrating our efforts to grab their photos by darting away as soon as we raised our cameras.  I can't believe I actually managed to capture this blurry image of one lighting for a microsecond on the side of a tree trunk.  Such adorable little birds, even if they do personify the word "flighty"!

If we were frustrated by our failure to find many birds, we were even more disappointed in our search for spring wildflowers, although thousands of blooming Skunk Cabbage spathes (Symplocarpus foetidus) could be seen everywhere  in the wetlands that line this trail.

Not just the Skunk Cabbage flowers, either.  Their gigantic green leaves were beginning to unfurl in some of the muddy swales.

We also saw a few examples of False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) beginning to open their clusters of pleated green leaves.

Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris), too, was showing patches of green in the swales, with swelling flower buds tucked in among the leaves.  It won't be long now, if the weather would only warm, before every roadside ditch and wetland explodes with their golden blooms.

We had hoped we might see some migrating waterfowl, and maybe hear some calling frogs, when we reached the boardwalk that crosses an open marsh.  Unfortunately, that marsh was not yet open.  The ice was thin, but it covered the water from shore to shore.

Okay.  Few birds, and fewer wildflowers.  What else could we find of interest, as long as we're already here?  How about these vivid red twigs of Silky Dogwood  (Cornus amomum) filling the swamp with color?

These rosy wintered-over Foamflower leaves (Tiarella cordifolia) certainly added their beauty to an already beautiful moss-covered log.

Between the tight curls of Yellow Birch bark, the liverwort called Frullania traced delicate lacy arrays.

And here was a botanical surprise, a lovely patch of ruddy-leaved Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) growing where we had never noticed any laurel growing before.  I look forward now to finding their clusters of bright-pink blooms in mid to late June.

Look at these very pointy, lipstick-red buds on this berry bush. The bush was about 7 feet high and was hung with clusters of shriveled dark fruits.  Any guesses what species of bush it could be?  Possibly Alternate-leaved Dogwood?  One of the Chokeberries? I just cannot place it.

At least we didn't have any trouble recognizing the lovely evergreen leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) where they peeked out from their cover of dead leaves.  I couldn't find one patch I was looking for, but Sue kept finding more and more of these beautiful plants wherever she noticed thick layers of pine needles.

We found a few of this orchid's flower stalks, too, their clustered seed pods persisting along the stem.

Here was a second orchid seed-pod we found this day, and we were doubly delighted when we found a second specimen of it not far from the first one we found.  Actually, the pale wintered-over pods of Loesel's Twayblade (Liparis loeselii) are much easier to find in winter and early spring, than are the tiny greenish-yellow flowers when they bloom in mid-summer, hidden among the grasses and other green plants that tower over this little orchid.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Making the Best of the Long Wait for Spring

I was scheduled to lead a wildflower walk for my friends in the Thursday Naturalists at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve last Thursday.  Hah!  The trails in that small Wilton preserve were still covered with ice, and snow still lay deep in the hollows.  No wildflowers, not even the brave little Snow Trilliums, had yet ventured above the ground (not counting Skunk Cabbage, of course). So I moved on to Plan B:  Let's visit the mineral springs at Saratoga Spa State Park instead.  But the Tuesday I went out to preview our walk didn't look all that promising, either.

The cold rain that assaulted me when I stepped from my car near the Geyser Creek promptly turned to slushy snow.

The trail I had hoped to lead my friends along was so clogged with frozen spring water, I feared we could easily slide right off and plunge into the frigid creek.

Expecting this problem, I had brought my ice chopper along, and after more than an hour of pounding effort, I managed to clear a narrow footpath through the ice.  That one last chunk resisted my exhausted efforts, however.  But I figured my friends could just step over it.  As they did.

Some of them did, anyway.  We had a nice turnout of more than a dozen on this blustery, cold, but beautifully sunny Thursday.  Once we approached the icy spots, though, a few of our group found the slippery footing too daunting and turned to explore another part of the park, while the rest of us proceeded along Geyser Creek and carefully made our way around the enormous mound of mineral accretions deposited by the Orenda spring located high up on the bank.

This huge mound of mineral accretions, called a tufa, is remarkably fascinating to observe up close, noting the interesting texture of the deposits.

Here's a close-up view of those textured mineral deposits.

I had brought along drinking cups for everyone who wanted to taste the various spring waters we passed on our walk, and most of us did imbibe at least a taste of each, some of the waters saltier and more pungent than others, and all of them fizzy with carbon gas.  These are the supposedly health-giving springs that have made Saratoga Springs famous for over 200 years.  It is said that George Washington himself once came here to drink the healing waters.

The first spring we visited is called Tallulah, a native word that is said to mean "leaps from the earth." This little spring was doing just that.  I pointed out the red staining of the surroundings, the result of plenteous iron dissolved in the water, which, after exposure to air, produces iron oxide -- rust -- that stains the earth blood-red.

We could observe that the second spring we visited, the Polaris, also contained iron, due to the rust-colored accretions that line the spring's basin.

Our third spring, the Hayes, allowed only a tiny taste of its extremely pungent water, since only a few drops at a time were dribbling from the spigots.  Probably just as well, since this is a very strong-flavored water, thanks to the number and concentration of minerals dissolved in it.

Nearby was the famous Island Spouter, flinging its spray of water skyward atop its enormous build-up of mineral accretions.  In the past, this spring had been referred to as a geyser, which it is not, since geysers depend on a build-up of heat for their energetic spouting.  This spouter gets its energy from the force of built-up gasses.  Its waters are cold, not hot.

The last spring we visited today is called Orenda, a word that means a divine force believed by the Iroquois people to be the source of all positive human accomplishment.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the peoples of the world could be so transformed by drinking the waters of this spring?  One could only hope!

Well, on the chance that we might be so transformed, some of us did imbibe.  I was amazed by how clear all these waters are as they spring from the pipes, considering all the limey and rusty deposits that precipitate out when they spread across the earth.  They are also cold and sparkly and refreshing.  Even if just a little bit stinky, too.

Although we could find some sun-warmed locations here and there to ease the chill of the day, a brisk wind could just as quickly drive that warmth away, so we were most grateful to find the park's Creekside  Classroom open to us.  (Thanks, Alli Schweizer!)  There we could gather around a roaring wood stove and enjoy our lunches as well as talk about where we might walk next.  Our hope is that we might yet visit Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in two weeks.  We can only hope that the snow might be gone by then!

*  *  *

Our Spa Park walk was last Thursday.  Today, Saturday, I drove out to Wilton to check on spring's progress at Orra Phelps.  It still looked quite wintry as I started along the snow-covered trail from the parking lot.

But see what I found when I reached a high ridge where sunlight had reached the forest floor and melted all the snow.  The first little buds of Snow Trillium have arisen!  (Scientific name: Trillium nivale.) 

What an aptly named flower!  It truly does bloom while snow still blankets other parts of the woods.  We are lucky to find it, since Saratoga County is far from its native range to the south and west.  Orra Phelps herself must have planted it here on her land many years ago, where it has flourished to amaze and surprise us each spring.  I wonder what else will be in bloom when we come here for a visit 12 days from now?