Thursday, November 26, 2015

I thank You God for most this amazing day

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky: and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

e. e. cummings


Wishing all my friends and family a blessed Thanksgiving Day, filled with love and joy and thankfulness.  And if you are lucky, a walk outdoors  among the "leaping greenly spirits of trees" and beneath a "blue true dream of sky."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

My Park, My Pleasure, My Peace

Every now and then I conduct a personal inventory of some of the things I'm most grateful for,  and after family and friends and health, one of the first things I think of is Moreau Lake State Park.  How did I manage to be so lucky as to end up in life just a short drive from one of the most beautiful and diverse nature preserves in New York State? Over 5,000 acres of forest, mountains, lake and ponds and river and marsh, and it all belongs to me!  (As well as all other citizens of New York State.)

Mud Pond
 I certainly took advantage of some of those habitats these past balmy days, beginning a week ago last Tuesday, when my friend and fellow nature nut Sue Pierce happened to have a day off from work for nature adventures.  Mud Pond was our choice for a leisurely walk, stopping often to observe the waterfowl winging in to rest on the water as we made our way completely around the pond.

There's not an awful lot of water in the pond this fall, nor has there been most of the summer.  But somehow the Canada Geese and the odd pair of Hooded Mergansers managed to find enough water to feed and float on, keeping up a noisy conversation as they did so.  Every time a new vee of geese came skidding in, the volume of honks increased considerably, as if the birds were greeting old friends.

Most of the trees had shed their leaves by now, but the glorious colors of autumn foliage still swirled around our feet.  What a pretty rosy pink are the backs of the Red Maple leaves!

When we're at Mud Pond, Sue and I always look for the evergreen leaves of Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata), a native orchid that bears small white flowers in summer.  Some of the plants still held the dried flower stalks, but as when in bloom, the prettily patterned leaves were the showiest parts of the plants.  Still, we often had to brush aside pine needles to discover them.

On the other side of the pond, where the hardwood trees outnumber the pines, Sue discovered an abundant patch of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) last summer, another native orchid that has even showier leaves than its sister Goodyera.  The leaves of G. pubescens are also evergreen,  and they put on quite a stunning display against the tawny beech leaves that we brushed aside to find them.

Back Bay of Moreau Lake
My husband rarely assents to a nature walk with me (and I do understand why!), but the day was so gorgeous last Sunday he just could not resist my invitation to walk around the back bay of Moreau Lake.  The air was balmy and soft and fragrant with the scent of oak and pine, and the water in the bay was so low we could walk along the water's edge instead of keeping to the woodland trails on higher ground.

Even with the muted colors of late fall, the landscape is beautiful here.

Especially against the muted colors of late fall, these translucent and vividly ruby-red Bittersweet Nightshade berries (Solanum dulcamara) glowed like Christmas lights.

This first-year rosette of Evening Primrose leaves (Oenothera biennis) displayed a more subtle beauty with its green and purple leaves, but a beauty nonetheless.

The Red Oak Ridge Trail
All summer long, I have kept to the flatter parts of Moreau Lake State Park, trying to coddle my shattered kneecap while it healed, but on Wednesday this week I decided to try my strength on the Red Oak Ridge Trail.  This trail ascends to a ridge about half way up the mountains that rise beyond the west shore of Moreau Lake, and when I reached the trailhead near the south shore, I was almost tempted to continue along the beach, the lake lay so temptingly blue and lovely beneath a sunny sky.

But no, I had come here to challenge my strength a little, and so I entered the forest and began the ascent, discovering in the first steep climb exactly how out of shape I had grown over a mostly sedentary summer.  But soon the trail leveled off, and I was able to move at a pleasant pace along the leaf-strewn path.

I particularly love the curving stretch of trail pictured above, for here I find all our evergreen ferns that hold their lovely fronds all winter long.  Along this bank, I can even find all of them within the frame of one photo.  The fern at top left is Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis), while the fern at right and bottom with its more intricately cut leaflets (pinnae) is Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia).  The darker green fern in the middle is Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), distinctive for the Christmas-stocking shape of its individual pinnae.

I soon came to my favorite spot , where the trail crosses a creek via a wooden bridge.  Last time I was here, there was no water at all in the creek, but today a small but musical amount of water was tumbling and trickling over moss-covered rocks and collecting in sky-reflecting pools below where I leant on the railing of the bridge.

The damp rocks lining the waterfall's course are covered with a fascinating variety of mosses, liverworts, and evergreen plants.  I was particularly charmed by this cluster of Herb Robert leaves (Geranium robertianum) sharing a mossy stone with some violet leaves worn nearly translucent by weather and time.

Continuing on, I reached steeper parts of the trail that were lined with large boulders.  I was happy to have made it up this far, but I found that the rocks were providing footing that was a bit more unsteady than my weakened knee found safe.  So I parked myself here for a little rest before reluctantly turning back the way I had come.  So pretty up here, with views through the winter trees of lake and distant mountains.  I hope when this trail becomes cushioned with a few feet of snow I can come back here and continue on in snowshoes.

In the meantime, I looked around at the massive boulders lining the trail and delighted in the tiny mosses thriving among them.  I'm guessing that this may be Atrichum undulatum, although it seems a bit small for that species.  And I had never seen that species in fruit, as it was this day.  Whatever it is, it was lovely!

This moss I did confidently recognize as Rhizomnium punctatum, looking like a carpet of tiny green posies.  The "posies" are actually the male splash cups holding the sperm until rain can splash it out on the ground to seek its female counterparts.

Update: Actually, the sperm in these moss cups is still green and not yet ready to be splashed out.  I found a photo in my files that shows the sperm when black and ripe and ready.

I found the descent more difficult than the ascent, inching my way sideways down the steeper parts of the trail while I supported myself with my cane.  But I made it down safely in time to catch this panorama of mountain, sky, sun-warmed shoreline, and the perfect silhouette of two horseback riders slowly passing along the beach.  For several days, since the terrible killings in Paris and Beirut and who knows where else, I'd been suffering anger and anguish and arguments about what we should do next.  How calming it was to stand here and gaze at this serene scene, to breathe deeply the sweet clean air and to rest in a silence broken only by the sound of a breeze in the trees.  As I said before, how grateful I am to have such a beautiful park!

This poem by Wendell Berry appeared on my Facebook page this week.   For obvious reasons, the poem speaks my heart.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things" from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Copyright © 1998. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Back and Forth to Schuylerville

While my son Philip was touring this past week with the spontaneous music group Chalaque, I've been daily driving back and forth the ten miles to his home in Schuylerville to care for his three cats. Schuylerville is a small village on the banks of the Hudson River, and it once figured prominently in significant battles of the American Revolution.  In fact, the village is named after one of the major generals of that war, General Philip Schuyler, and his former home just south of the business district is now maintained as a museum.  Even though the Schuyler Mansion (as it's now called) is closed to the public on weekdays this time of year, I stopped by there early last week after I'd done my duty for Phil's cats.  (Phil Donnelly's cats, not Phil Schuyler's cats.)

I wasn't there to see the mansion anyway, but rather to use the museum's parking lot while I explored a newly designated trail, called the  Saratoga Siege Trail, that starts directly across the highway from the Schuyler house.   Only recently developed by the land conservation organization Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land And Nature), this flat walking trail follows the south bank of Fish Creek for about a half mile  through a mixed hardwood/conifer woods.

Here's what the Saratoga PLAN website has to say about the historical significance of this trail:

"In addition to being a pleasant woods walk, the trail also possesses great historical significance. In fact, the area surrounding the Saratoga Siege Trail marks the location of a strategic American victory against the British Army during the Revolutionary War.
"In the fall of 1777, American soldiers pursued British forces north and across Fish Creek, following a decisive victory at the Battles of Saratoga. It was here that the Continental soldiers surrounded the British,  destroyed their provisions, outnumbered them three to one, and left them no option for escape. Trapped by superior American forces, British general John Burgoyne surrendered his entire army on October 17, 1777. This battle is often attributed as being particularly influential in the acquisition of foreign aid, swaying the French to enter the war."
One of the pleasantest aspects of this trail are the views through the woods of Fish Creek flowing below steep banks.

Returning to the parking lot after my excursion on the Saratoga Siege Trail, I was struck by the majestic presence of this giant Hackberry tree on the lawn of the Schuyler Mansion.  This is a tree we don't see very often in the "inland" city where I live, for it is more commonly found along river bottoms and creek banks.  After wandering the lawn, I found several other Hackberry trees, distinctive this time of year by the way it holds onto its shriveled leaves, as well as by its multitudinous blue-black fruits dangling from long stems.

The Hudson River is only a few hundred yards behind the mansion, and the Fish Creek runs very close to the house,  flowing over some rapids and under a bridge before joining the river.  This is a view of Fish Creek from the bridge looking upstream.

If I had continued north over that bridge, I would have come shortly to Canal Towpath Park, which runs between the Hudson and the old barge canal, where barges were once towed by donkeys to avoid the rapids on the open river.  It's a lovely walk between these two waterways, and I visited there the next day following my kitty caregiver duties.  The day was cold, but bright and still, and a lowering sun shed a golden light across the landscape.

On the third day of my cat-care duties, I arrived too late to visit other area attractions, but I got there just in time to witness one of the most spectacular sunsets I'd seen in a long, long while.

I quickly headed west on Burgoyne Road, a country road that moves through open farm fields, hoping to get some wider views of this glorious sky than I could observe from the heart of the village. By the time I reached open country, the fire was beginning to dim, but its embers still glowed from within the darkening clouds.

Yesterday, I didn't even bother to take the state highway to and from Schuylerville and Saratoga Springs, choosing instead to drive the entire way on country roads.  And my reward was another spectacular sunset, viewed across wide-open fields that offered unimpeded vast views of the sky.  The sky had been dark and cloud-covered all day, but just as the sun was going down, rain clouds rolled away to the south and captured the setting sunbeams on their billowing tops.  When I spied this cloud like a mountaintop made out of gold, I pulled my car over and got out to stand in awe of such gorgeousness.  (I recommend clicking on these photos to enlarge them and increase their impact.)

Yeah, it was kind of a pain to schlep 20 miles to and from Schuylerville every day, but the trips had their pleasures, too, as I hope this blogpost conveys.  Also, Phil's kitties are sweet, and I was happy to see to their needs.

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Woods Hollow Wander

 Chilly, windy, dark and damp:  no, it wasn't the nicest of days to visit Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa this Thursday.  But I sure had the best of companions, four of my friends from my nature-exploration group called The Thursday Naturalists.  One of the things that's really great about these friends is that they are able to find all kinds of fascinating stuff in a place and on a day that would seem completely devoid of interest to most other folks.  Look at all that drab dull landscape of mostly dead plants.  That's what most people would see.  But my friends waded right in to take a closer look,  and oh, the things we found!

We hadn't gone 20 yards before Ed Miller pounced on this patch of Selaginella apoda, commonly known as Meadow Spike-moss, hiding among the dead grasses.  Yes, it looks like a moss, but it's really more closely related to ferns, a category of plants that Ed is very knowledgable about.  I certainly would not have been able to distinguish this plant from the other green mossy-looking stuff at my feet, but I will be on the look-out for it now, especially in wet meadows like the one we were there exploring and which are this fern ally's favored habitat.

We next entered a part of the preserve that is mostly dry and sandy, a habitat that could be called oak-pine savanna, with nearly sterile soils that support only a few pine-barrens plants like Wild Lupine and Sweet Fern, and a few mosses and lichens that thrive in dry conditions.  At first glance, it appeared there was not much to see here this time of year, but nearly an hour later we were still kicking aside dry leaves and exclaiming joyfully over some new treasure we had just found.

As widely and deeply knowledgable as my naturalist friends are, not a one of us could identify this feathery growth we found growing on the back of a dry oak leaf.  Whatever it is, we found it truly amazing!  I can't recall seeing anything like this in any of my fungus guides, so I will be sending this photo to some mycology experts I know and hope they can clue us in.  Stay tuned for an update.

I suppose it's possible that those frail feathery sprouts are the beginning of this much stouter feathery fungus we found on another downed oak leaf.  But none of us knew for sure.  A mystery to be solved!

At least I was pleased to be able to name THIS fungus, called Green-headed Jelly Baby (Leotia viscosa), one I had found on other occasions in habitat similar to this.  Once we found the first clump of these hiding under the leaves, we kept finding more and more.

We also found an abundance of these charming Earthstar fungi (Astraeus hygrometricus) scattered across a sandy expanse. This fungus resembles a spherical puffball when young, but in maturity the outer layer of the fruit body splits open to form this star-like pattern.

A third fungus we found thriving in this dry sandy area was this deep-reddish-brown gilled mushroom with a distinctive club-like stalk.  I'm still looking through my guides to see if I can find a name for it.

Update:  Kathie Hodge, a mycologist at Cornell University, has kindly responded to my query about these fungi and has identified this brown mushroom as Laccaria trullissata,  a denizen of sandy areas that is mycorrhizal on pine.  Her jury is still out on the white feathery and the lumpy white stuff growing on oak leaves, but she has a lot of mushroom expert friends, so we may yet learn what they are.

I'm not sure of the name for this lichen, either, although many call it British Soldiers because of its bright-red fruiting bodies.  I do know it's a fruticose lichen of the Cladonia genus, but there are many species that look alike to the naked eye.  Whatever its name, it certainly is pretty!

These are more of the fruticose lichens we found thriving in this sandy area where at first glance it looked like nothing could grow.  So cute and so colorful!

Here's another Cladonia lichen, common name of Reindeer Lichen, that made small islands of lovely pale green in the sea of brown oak leaves.  We didn't need to brush leaves aside to find this pretty thing.

One of the most common plants that persists in such sandy spots is the shrubby plant called Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), and the air around us was perfumed with its fragrance as we brushed against or trod upon its leaves.  Many of the plants had already shed their curling, fern-like aromatic leaves, but all contained the neat little clusters of catkins that will persist through the winter, opening in spring to shed their pollen as new female flowers develop.  Like the Wild Lupine that shares its habitat, Sweet Fern can capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and thus provide its own nutrients and thrive in sterile soils where other plants would fail.

Even though we suspected we had not exhausted the possibilities of finding more treasures in this sandy plain, we decided to move on to other areas of Woods Hollow Preserve, which include deep piney woods, a pond with a boggy shore,  and forested wetlands.  As we walked along, we challenged each other to name the leafless trees and spent flowers in their wintry garb, and we delighted in the many evergreen plants that still carpeted the forest floor and towered over our heads.   After a while, we picked up our "botanists' pace" to try and return to our cars before the rain that was starting to come down harder could drench us thoroughly.  But I had to stop for just one moment more to photograph these splendid Witch Hazel boughs, still bursting with yellow bloom and adding their bright note to this otherwise dark gray day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Going After the Foreign Invader

Veterans' Day seemed like a good day to go attack a foreign invader.  By this I mean the Japanese Hops I found along Bog Meadow Trail a couple of days ago.  In the meantime I received permission to dig it up from Saratoga PLAN, the land conservation organization that manages this trail and many others in Saratoga County.  Left to its own devices, this aggressive invasive species could overrun this wooded wetland that is home to many rare and interesting native plants.  It was easy for me to find the Japanese Hops today, because I remembered it was very near the small rustic bench set by the water, as shown in this photo below.

I was a little concerned that overnight rains might have beaten the tell-tale seed husks from the vine, but no, they were still there, and quite evident because of their ruddy color against the dull gray of the other vines and shrubs.

Carefully snipping the seedpods and collecting them in a trash bag to prevent spreading the seeds, I then began to dig around the base of the vine.  And dig and dig, using only the little trowel I'd brought with me and then my bare hands.  Oh boy, was this root thick!  I could not remove it all, for it ran for a considerable distance underground, but I tugged until I removed a good bit of it.

This is as much as I could remove with the tool I had and using only my hands and strength.  Obviously, I did not get it all, so we will have to be vigilant to watch for new growth when spring comes.

Considering how stout and well-established that root was, it seemed unlikely there would be only one specimen of Japanese Hops in all of this swamp.  I continued along the trail for another half mile or so, looking for the distinctive ruddy color and rough texture of the vines.  About a hundred yards from the original site, I did find two more vines emerging from the soil and twining around neighboring shrubs.  There were no seedpods on these vines, but their color announced their presence immediately.  Again, I removed these plants with some difficulty, sorry that I could not extricate the entire root system, but it was very sturdy and deeply buried.

These are the vines I removed from the second and third plants I found.  The first vine was already confined to the trash bag, including the seeds.  Let's hope we have at least discouraged its growth here where it doesn't belong.

My task completed, I was better able to enjoy my surroundings, delighting as the late-day sun broke through thick clouds and spread a golden light across the landscape.  Sounding their haunting calls, several skeins of Canada Geese came flying in at intervals, landing on the open water of the marsh to take their rest for the night.

Walking back to my car, I noticed many beautiful accents of color among the dull gray shrubbery.  See how rosy the pedicels of this Panicled Dogwood remain, even after the shrub has dropped its porcelain-white berries and burgundy leaves.

The seed pods of Canada Lily reveal nothing of the flower's glowing color, but I love the tiny stitches holding the parts of the pod together.  When in bloom, this lily dangles its flowers like bells, but as it goes to seed it turns the pods erect.

This rain-darkened tree trunk glowed emerald green from its coating of mosses and lichens.

And here was a rotting stump transformed into a thing of beauty by tufts of fluffy green moss and a sprinkling of the tiny vivid-yellow fungus called Lemon Drops.

More fungi, more subtle in color but no less lovely, these multi-striped layers of Turkey Tail decorated a truncated tree trunk.