Friday, March 27, 2015

Spring Flowers Are Up -- on the Newsstand!

 An unusual color pattern of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilus var. acuta), 
one of our earliest  spring wildflowers

Getting desperate to see some spring flowers?  Well, it's going to be a while yet before we find them out in our local woods, since our nighttime temperatures still fall below freezing.  But the newest issue of Saratoga Living magazine features an article I wrote, "The Wildflower Bounty of Saratoga County," and it's on the newsstands now.  Saratoga Living is a glossy local history/lifestyles magazine that is sold at Saratoga-area bookstores, drugstores, supermarkets, and other venues where magazines are sold.  But if you can't find it where you live, you can access the online issue, which includes even more of my flower photos than could be included in the print version.  (There's lots of other good stuff in this issue, too.) I'm pretty proud of this article and pleased as punch to be able to share it with my readers.  I share here, too, a few of the photos included in the magazine article.

Hopes this helps us all hold on until the real thing comes along.

Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia) carpets the forest floor in early spring.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) holds bright-yellow sunbursts within its snowy petals.

The brilliant Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is set off to 
stunning advantage by a sea of delicate Miterworts (Mitella diphylla).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thank Heaven for Small Warm Spots

OK, I've given up looking for signs of spring.  'Taint gonna happen with overnight temperatures still in the single digits.  It was eight degrees above zero this morning in Saratoga Springs.  That's eight degrees FAHRENHEIT!  But, hey, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the wind was minimal, so I made up my mind to go out.  But where could I walk without post-holing through still-deep snow?  I decided to try the eastern shore of Moreau Lake, which would be bathed in sunlight all afternoon.

The lake was still solidly frozen and now mostly clear of snow.  I took one step out there and nearly upended on the slick bumpy ice.  Darn!  I should have worn Yaktrax.  Guess I'd better stick to the shore, I decided.

The shore was snow covered, but that snow was dense and crusted, so I could walk on top of it without poking through.  It felt good to just stride along without the crunch, crunch, crunch of snowshoes.  The air was sweet and the silence was profound, except for an occasional groan from the ice and the calling of crows from somewhere up on the mountain.

I was pleased to visit a patch of rare Whorled Mountain Mint and see that its seed heads had now emerged from the deep snowcover.  I plucked a few and breathed their intense minty fragrance, undiminished, it seemed, by being buried all winter under the snow.

When I rounded the bend to reach the northernmost shore, I was delighted to find whole stretches of terrain free of snow, just perfect for easy walking, with the softening earth yielding beneath my feet.

Oh, how delightful to hear the rustling of crisp dry leaves as I joyfully kicked my way through them!

The sand was as soft as on a summer's day, and so warm I could feel the heat even through the insulated soles of my boots.

And lo!  A bench!  There, I could bask for a while in the sun, bury my feet in warm sand,  and let the dream of spring waken in me again.  Aah!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hurray for Frogs!

Did you know that yesterday (March 20) was not only the first day of spring but also World Frog Day?  Well, neither did I, or I wouldn't have spent the day futilely looking for signs of spring in my winter-gripped environment.  Instead, I would have been combing my archives for photos of these amazing creatures.  It's way too early yet this year to start hearing the shrill calls of Spring Peepers or the croaks of Wood Frogs, but the memories of these delightful events attach themselves to my photos of them.  I found a few of those photos, so I'm sharing them now on my blog.  It's never too late -- or early! -- to celebrate our froggy friends!

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

This photo is at least three times the actual size of this wee little frog, which may have been about an inch long, in a generous estimate.  Makes you wonder how such itty-bitty creatures can make such enormous sounds, as you can attest if you stop by a woodland pond shortly after ice-out and be nearly deafened by their shrill cries.  This racket is one of the of the sure signs of spring, so head out to any pools you know of and listen for their chorus.  Any day now, we hope.  The cross-like mark on this frog's back is a distinguishing feature.

Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)
(Note:  the genus of many frog species has been changed from Rana to Lithobates)

Another sure sign of spring is the duck-like quacking of Wood Frogs as they convene for their mating orgies in vernal pools.  Due to their distinctive body chemistry, these frogs are particularly tolerant of freezing temperatures and are among the first to stir out of terrestrial hibernation and head to pools that may still be edged with ice.  After their passion is spent,  this will be the last time this frog inhabits water but will spend the rest of the year on the forest floor.  Hence the name "Wood" Frog.  Their dead-grass-brown color and black bandit's mask are distinguishing physical features.

Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor)

We call this cryptically colored frog a "gray" frog, but (true to its species name)  it can also turn green to better camouflage its presence among the leaves of trees.  My friends and I were lucky to see this little fellow one spring, since these frogs spend most of their lives high in the trees and only come to ground to find a mate and lay eggs in vernal pools.  One of the ways it finds likely mates is to flash a bright patch of yellow on the inside of its rear legs.  "Hey, girl . . ."

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

This isn't my most diagnostic photo of a Pickerel Frog, since it doesn't very clearly show the rectangular spots that distinguish it from the Leopard Frog, which has circular ones.  But this is my favorite photo of it for other reasons.  I'd been chasing this particular frog along the river bank, taking photos as I ran, but the frog blended in so completely with the mud I could hardly make it out. Then, wonder of wonders, it leapt onto this floating Red Maple leaf, which provided a perfect foil.  It's a good thing I didn't try to grab it with my hands, since this frog's skin is known to produce poisonous secretions, useful for discouraging predators but also irritating to human skin.

OK, here's a clearer photo of a Pickerel Frog.  Here's lookin' at you, kid!

Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

Leopard Frogs can be brown or as green as this one is -- just a gorgeous emerald green!  Note the circular, rather than rectangular, spots.  (Well, sorta!) The Leopard Frog's skin does not secrete a poisonous substance, as the Pickerel Frog's does, but it does contain certain enzymes that have shown some potential for the treatment of certain cancers.  Just one more reason to celebrate frogs. And work to protect their habitat.  They like CLEAN WATER!

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

Oh Froggy, what big ears you have!  Meaning, those circles behind the eyes, which are called tympani.  This frog tends to be bigger all over than any of the frogs I have named so far, with only the Bull Frog being any bigger.  I suppose it gets the name Green Frog from the color of its upper face, since the rest of its body tends to be browner than greener, except for the yellow chin.  There's a similar-looking frog called a Mink Frog, but the Green Frog is distinguished by the black bands that encircle its legs.  The Green Frog's mating call sounds like a plucked banjo string.

Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

OK, here's the BIG GUY of the froggy universe, at least around these parts (meaning northeastern New York).  In coloration, it resembles the Green Frog, but even if you put similar sizes of the two species next to each other, you'd recognize the Bull Frog immediately by its enormous mouth.  Its mouth is so big, it pushes the tympani up towards the top of the head.  Its mouth is so big it can stuff a rat in there, believe it or not, using its two hands to shove it in.  The Bull Frog eats other frogs, too, so we are not likely to see a Green Frog sitting next to a Bull Frog.  But if we did, we could note that the Green Frog has ridges (called dorsolateral folds) that extend the length of its body (see the photo above).  The Bull Frog's dorsolateral folds stop just behind its tympani.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring, Schpring!

Here's the first day of Spring, but we're still held tight in Winter's grip here in Saratoga County.  It warmed up a bit last week, enough to start the sap running in maples, but now it's turned so cold again that the sap freezes solid as it drips from the trees.  It was down around 20 degrees this morning, thick snow still covers the ground, and it hadn't warmed up much by afternoon, when I forced myself grumpily outdoors.  If you're a nature blogger, ya gotta get out on the first day of Spring, right?  So I took myself off to the Bog Meadow Trail just outside of town.  Maybe I'd find some Skunk Cabbage there.  Maybe some migrating ducks.

The trail didn't look too promising, bumpy and slippery with icy snow, but at least it was packed down hard enough I could walk it with only grippers instead of snowhoes.  And soon I heard the sound of rushing water.  Yes!!!  The creeks have started to flow!  Last time I was here they were covered with solid ice.  Now there was just a bit of filigree ice at the edges.

I approached the open marsh as covertly and quietly as I could, hoping to spot whatever waterfowl might be swimming in there among what little bit of open water there was.  But nope, not quiet enough!   First, a pair of quacking Mallards took off (no big deal; they're here all year), and then I saw and heard about six other ducks take flight, making the high-pitched hoo-ee, hoo-ee, hoo-ee sound I associate with Wood Ducks.  Darn!  Wood Ducks are so beautiful, and I missed my chance to see them.

Since the ground is still frozen solid, I could venture out into the swamp where in warmer weather I'd sink to my shins in muck.  But today I could follow the running creek well back into the swamp, walking on solidly frozen snow instead of teetering along atop mounds of Tussock Sedge.

I was hoping to find the masses of Skunk Cabbage plants that crowd the banks of this stream, but most of them were still buried deep under snow.  I did spy a few in the muddy shallows, but the spathes had only just begun to emerge, still tightly closed, no sign yet of the pollen-bearing spadices within.

Those reddening Skunk Cabbage spathes, the deep-red branches of Red Osier Dogwood, and the gray-green disks of Green Shield Lichen adorning the trees were just about the only spots of color in this winter-dreary landscape today.

Ah, but look what a sign of hope for Spring I found!  Although it looks like another dry dead leaf, I recognized the cocoon of a Cecropia Moth, one of our more spectacular moths, brightly colored and as big as your hand.  I reached to break off the twig it was attached to, planning to bring it home to my screened porch, where I could watch it emerge in late May before I returned it to the wild.

But oh dear, someone else appears to have found this cocoon, and has drilled a hole to get inside and . . .  what?  Eat the caterpillar?  Or lay eggs that will eat the caterpillar when they hatch?  It doesn't bode well for this Cecropia Moth.  I brought the cocoon home anyway.  It might be interesting to see if other creatures emerge.

The day grew dimmer and dimmer as the afternoon wore on.   And colder and colder, too.   I'd had enough of the great outdoors today.  And then it began to snow!  Aaargh!!!  Time to go home.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Some Wildlife Favorites

In honor of National Wildlife Week, I wanted to post photos of some of my favorite wildlife.  Maybe not EVERYbody's favorites, though!  Furry mammals and pretty birds and colorful butterflies are easy to love, but I have a special fondness for spiders.  I've combed through my photo files and come up with a few I especially love.

First, we have the crab spiders, which spin no webs to capture their prey.  Rather, they lurk among the flowers, waiting for pollinators to land, when they pounce and paralyze their prey, then suck their prey's juices out.

The Goldenrod Crab Spider can change its color to match the color of the flower it's hiding in.  This yellow one with its jaws in the neck of a Pearl Crescent Butterfly must have recently arrived in this Boneset bloom and had not yet had time to change from yellow to white.

Here's one that has matched its colors to those of the pink-and-white Spreading Dogbane blooms.

This is the White-banded Crab Spider, which looks quite a bit like the Goldenrod Crab Spider, except for the white stripes across its face.  It lurks in similar flowers and captures its prey the same way.

Here's a baby crab spider, very tiny and as fuzzy as a new puppy!

Next, we have some orb weavers, all of which spin the kind of disk-shaped webs we associate with spiders, in which flying insects become trapped in the sticky filaments, after which the spider wraps them tightly in silk to save them for supper.

This is the Marbled Orbweaver, with its beautifully patterned abdomen and tiger-striped legs.  Very colorful!

Here's a Long-jawed Orbweaver, which has a habit of stretching out its long legs fore and aft.

The Hump-backed Orbweaver does look like a hunchback, with its sharply angled carapace.  I love the gray-green color of this spider, patterned with black.  Very pretty.

Here are two big beautiful spiders, the Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) and the Banded Garden Spider (Argiope trifasciata), both of which are remarkable for their size and bright coloration. The web of A. aurantia is notable for the zig-zag pattern woven into the filaments.

Those Garden Spiders are pretty big, but they have nothing on this Fishing Spider when it comes to size.  These are truly gigantic, the larger females as much as three inches across.  I usually see them clinging to the sides of boulders that hang over the water, but this one was perched atop a Joe-Pye Weed bloom, waiting to dive into the creek and capture a small fish.  Imagine that!  A spider that can capture a fish!

Oh, how I wish I had more photos of Jumping Spiders, dear little creatures with four pairs of shiny black eyes, including one big pair that looks straight back at you.  Most are small, some are quite hairy, and all are really cute.  But boy, do they move fast!  Very hard to take photos of.  I did manage to capture a photo of this female Whitman's Jumping Spider before she leapt away in a flash.  I hope someday I may see her mate, for the males are quite colorful, with bright-red head and abdomen.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Searching for Wildlife

According to my wall calendar, this is National Wildlife Week, so my friend Sue and I went searching for wildlife on Sunday afternoon, despite the threat of rain and a cold blustery wind.   The Hudson River seemed the most likely spot for spotting migrating waterfowl, but it took some searching to find any open water on the still-mostly-frozen river.  We found some at Hudson Crossing Park in Schuylerville, and made our way down to the waterside by post-holing through packed snow.

Oh look, there's a Great Blue Heron!  Ha ha!  I think it will be quite a few weeks yet before we see this majestic bird wading the shallows, although his cast-iron image stands guard all year along the trail at Hudson Crossing Park.

We made our way to this refurbished bridge, closed to automobiles but open to pedestrians, bikers, and snowmobiles.  This was a good spot to survey both the sky and the river, searching for any signs of animal life.

Sue spotted at least one Bald Eagle soaring over the treeline, as well as a pair of Common Mergansers disappearing downstream before I could notice them.  And then she pointed out a big bunch of ducks milling about upstream. Although they were just black specks on the water to me, Sue immediately identified them as a flock of Goldeneyes.  And so they were, my binoculars confirmed. The males were doing their "Look at Me!" thing, throwing their heads way back and then sharply forward, and we could hear them  "peenting" at the same time.  I didn't know a Goldeneye could sound like a Nighthawk!  I do know they kind of whistle when they fly.

The zoom on my little camera is woefully inadequate for capturing distant creatures, but at least you can see the broad white sides of these Goldeneyes, even if you can't see the white cheek spot or anything like a golden eye.

As a frigid wind kept whipping our reddened cheeks and dripping noses, we decided we'd seen enough wildlife for the day.  But at least we know the migration season is now upon us, and soon these waters will open wide to welcome more and more migrating flocks of waterfowl.  And we'll be back!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Hang On! Hope for Spring!

Maybe you've heard me say, "Oh, I just love winter!"  Maybe I even said it several times.  And usually, I do.  But I sure didn't love THIS winter!  Sub-zero mornings all through February.  Wind that drove that cold right down into my bones.  No thaws at all, so snow and ice just kept building up on the roof, and icicles almost reached the ground (like these on my neighbor's shed).

And then there were the leaks.  This mess is AFTER we paid a crew $400 to break up the ice dams along our eaves.  A day later, another snowstorm piled another heap on our roof that just wouldn't budge, despite the steep pitch and slippery slates.  Snowmelt water kept backing up under the slates and pouring down through our upstairs ceilings.

Ah well, no sense calling those guys back for another $400.  The damage has already been done.

Yeah, I've been feeling kinda grumpy.  I couldn't even bring myself to post a blog.  And then TODAY arrived!  Sunny and warm!  Almost 50!  Blue sky from horizon to horizon!  Hope returns!

To celebrate, I headed up to the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls.  No snowshoes for me, today.  No sir!  I wanted to swing my legs and feel clear pavement beneath my feet, and this wide plowed walkway that follows the Hudson River was just the ticket.

The river was still mostly frozen over here from shore to shore, but here and there I could see open water, dancing and sparkling as if in joy to be free at last!

Little streamlets, too, had cast off their ice and had carved meandering courses through the still-deep snow, splashing a happy music as they rushed along.

And oh, just look! The first flower of spring is getting ready to bloom, as the spathes of Skunk Cabbage start rounding out and coloring up.  Any day now, folks.   The Equinox is on its way!  Hooray!