Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No Snow Here

Oh, those poor folks out in Buffalo!  Five feet of snow in one day, and up to three feet more to come!  But here in Saratoga County, the inch or so we got on Monday was promptly washed away by rain, so that now we have just a few traces left in spots where the sun never shines.  Well, the sun shone all day today (Wednesday), tempting me up to Moreau Lake State Park to walk the broad sandy beaches around the lake.   We've had so little precipitation this fall, the beaches are broader than ever I've seen them before.

As the above photo shows, there was no ice at all out on the main body of the lake, despite temps in the 20s the last few nights.  But back in the coves and quiet bays, a thin sheet of ice has covered the surface from shore to shore.

The southern shore of the cove was still covered with a thin layer of snow, which captured these prints of a beaver heading out onto the ice.  I'm always astounded by how big the beaver's hind feet are, as big as my hand, and I'm also curious why I can't make out the webbing between the toes.

Despite a cold wind, my walk was quite pleasant, as I kept up a brisk pace that took me all the way around the lake (although not the back bay).  I love this stretch of sandy trail that passes under towering White Pines and Pitch Pines, with views of the lake and back bay to either side.

The vast blue sky over the lake was in constant motion as flocks of Canada Geese came winging in or taking off.

I am always astounded to see the Shadblow shrubs opening buds of tiny green leaves this time of year.  The tender little leaves will surely freeze and drop to the ground in the wintry blasts to come.  And yet they do this every year.    What purpose could this possibly serve? Is it simply the organism's response to light levels equal to those that awaken new growth in the spring?

The Striped Maples have also formed their buds, elegant scepters of scarlet atop emerald twigs circled with gold.  But those waxy red bud scales will stay tightly closed until spring, when they'll then fall away to reveal tightly folded leaves of velvety pink.

Most of the Witch Hazel flowers have dropped their flowers, but here and there I still find a few long ribbon-shaped petals unfurled. The yellow bracts will remain on the twigs all winter, causing the shrub to appear to still be in bloom throughout the darkest, coldest time of year.

Those darkest, coldest days are fast approaching, as the sun sinks earlier and earlier every day.  It was not yet four in the afternoon when the lowering sun cast this golden light on the frozen surface of the cove.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Frost(weed)y Morning

One look at the shriveled dogwood leaves in my backyard garden this morning revealed that frost had happened at last.  It's certainly not the latest date for first frost around here, but somehow it seemed a long time coming this year. Eager to see if the Frostweed (Helianthemum canadense) had sent out its curls of frozen vapor,   I hurried up to Mud Pond at Moreau to try to see these frosty "petals"  before the rising sun could cause them to vanish into thin air.

The morning was cold and clear, and the sun had already cleared the hills to the east when I arrived at Mud Pond.  A thin sheet of ice extended out from the shore, leaving just a small patch of open water for two pairs of Hooded Mergansers to paddle around on.

A dusting of crystalline snow lay over all, spangling the fuzzy leaves of this small Common Mullein rosette.

When frost comes this late, the leaves of the young oaks have already turned brown and fallen to the ground.

Last year, when frost first arrived in mid-October, the leaves of the Bear Oak babies still displayed the brilliant colors of autumn, made especially vivid when outlined in silvery frost.  No such brilliance could I find this year.

But I sure did find lots of Frostweed!  Frostweed prefers an open, dry, sandy habitat, exactly the conditions that exist under the powerlines that cut across the northern end of Mud Pond.  That's where I found cluster after cluster of Frostweed stems, each exhibiting curling clouds of frozen vapor at its base.

The curls are created when freezing temperatures cause the stems to split along their length.  As the plants' internal moisture escapes through these split stems, it freezes solid in the frigid air.

The frozen mist has a frothy texture and is so delicate it breaks at a touch and quickly melts as the sun begins to warm the air around it.   It looks like puffs of frozen smoke.  The Frostweed plants will continue to exude these vaporous curls during freezing temperatures until the plants are completely depleted of their moisture.

I always delight in finding these frost curls, no matter how many times I have seen them before.  I also delight in how Little Bluestem Grass, which abounds in the same open habitat as the Frostweed, catches the light in the feathery inflorescences along the stems.  Enchanting!  Looks like tiny fairies flitting through a miniature forest.  This was a lovely morning to be up with the rising sun.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

While the Sun Shines

I keep hearing dire predictions that terrible wintry blasts will soon come upon us, so I've been sure to get out this week to enjoy the continued balmy weather.  Gotta take those walks while the sun shines.

We were actually hoping, my friend Sue and I, that Saturday morning would be a frosty one.  We arranged to meet early that morning at Cole's Woods in Glens Falls, where we know some Frostweed (Helianthum canadense) grows, and we were planning to get some photos of the curls of frozen vapor this plant is named for.  But no such luck.  It didn't get cold enough to freeze, although it was chilly enough that we dug out our winter hats and gloves to keep us warm while we crouched on the ground taking photos.

Since we didn't find any Frostweed curls, we went looking for another interesting plant that grows in Cole's Woods, one we had found in flower last summer and hoped to find in seed, now.  We were positive we remembered where to find One-sided Pyrola (Orthilia secunda), and sure enough, after only a bit of confusion we found the spot.

Although the Orthilia was growing amid other low-growing evergreen plants like Shinleaf and Pipsissewa, Sue promptly spotted the whorls of distinctive green leaves, more pointed than those of other Pyrola species.  It took some searching to find the flower stalks with their brown seed pods, and a great deal of difficulty to photograph them against the busy background of the forest floor.

In the same area grow many Pipsissewa plants (Chimaphila umbellata), with their glossy green leaves and brown dried fruits.  And interspersed among the Pipsissewa we found the thread-fine stems of Starflower (Trientalis borealis) bearing tiny globe-shaped seeds of chalky white.  Long after their flowers have faded, many plants continue to offer aspects of interest, as well as beauty.

What a pleasant surprise it was, Sunday morning, to get a call from our son Steve that he was on the train heading to Saratoga Springs from Brooklyn.  And how lucky we were, to have such a pleasant sun-warmed day for a walk along the Hudson River at Moreau.  Although Steve is definitely a big-city enthusiast, he also loves the out-of-doors and looks forward to getting out to the woods when he comes home to visit.  Yes, he looks happy, here.

While most of the trees have shed their vivid autumn foliage, the Highbush Blueberry shrubs still held onto theirs, adding to the beauty of the riverscape.

The late afternoon sun made the mountainsides glow, and the quiet water amplified that glow in the reflections.

Today was another balmy day, the warmest of them all.  It was definitely a lovely day for a walk around Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park.  The water in the pond was so low I could walk on shores that would normally be under water and discern what plants might be growing there.

On a wide flat delta where a stream enters the pond,  the mud was carpeted with the shiny red leaves of Water Purslane (Ludwigia palustris), punctuated by the powdery-green leaves of Low Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum).  I could also detect some baby plants of Dwarf St. Johnswort (Hypericum mutilum), rosettes of tiny pink leaves.

In past years, late in the fall when the water is low, I have found masses of the floating liverwort called Riccia (Ricciocarpus natans) stranded on these mud flats.  Sure enough, there they were today, although I nearly missed seeing them, they were so tiny.  I have seen them in other years much bigger than these, but there was no mistaking their chubby little cat's-paw shape.  I wonder if they will grow in size as they rest here on the mud.  I will have to come back in a week or so to see.

The normal habitat of Riccia is floating in the water, and I've never discovered how such masses of them come to be stranded on the mud while water remains in the pond.  When I was here about two weeks ago I found no sign of them, but here they are today.  How did they get here?  Will they stay onshore all winter and float away when spring rains and snowmelt raise the water level?

Here's a photo of Riccia that I took a year ago last June, when I found masses of it floating on the surface of Mud Pond.  It was quite a bit larger then, and its underside was covered with dangling purple structures called "rhizoids."   Although liverworts, technically speaking, do not have roots the way vascular plants do, these rhizoids do help the liverwort absorb water and nutrients and sometimes serve to anchor the plants.

Another object of interest out on this mud flat was the presence of several mounds of mud, probably deposited by  Star-nosed Moles as they excavated the tunnels they use to hunt for underground, and also under water, prey.  I find it hard to believe that a furry little creature would want to live in such a soggy, muddy place, but this is exactly the kind of habitat that Star-nosed Moles love.  There were quite a number of these mounds, causing me to wonder if they were the work of a single very busy mole, or does a whole colony of them inhabit this shore?  The chances are extremely slim that I will ever see one, so my curiosity will probably never be satisfied.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Two Wetlands

One wetland is called Bog Meadow (although technically it's a swamp not a bog), and the other wetland I explored this week was the genuine thing, a real sphagnum bog.  Each offered its own delights.

Most of the leaves are down now, along Bog Meadow Nature Trail, but it was still a pleasant walk on Monday along the Gray Birch-lined path that leads through a forested wetland.

Tawny browns and silvery grays predominate in this landscape,  but I still found a few bright points of color, especially among the dogwoods.  Out in the swamp, the twigs of Red Osier Dogwood were living up to their name, and along the trail, the pedicels of Panicled Dogwood glowed a brilliant rose, now that their berries have dropped.  This bright sprig has caught a puff of milkweed silk in its branchings.

No shrub rivals the Winterberry for adding jolts of color to the late-autumn woods.

In summer, no other flower that grows here outshines the bright showiness of Canada Lilies, with their large dangling bells in shades of orange, yellow and red. Their flowers have long ago faded and fallen, but their erect seed pods offer us another, more subtle, beauty.

Compared to the muted neutrals dominating the woods along Bog Meadow trail,  the landscape of the northern bog I visited Tuesday was truly an explosion of bright color.  Here in this acidic habitat, underlaid by millennia of Sphagnum Moss, the American Larches were glowing gold as they towered over the ruby-leaved Huckleberries and other heath shrubs.

White puffs of Cottongrass were swaying on long slender stems throughout the bog, each one seeming to dance to its very own music.

The Bog Rosemary plants appeared to be dressed for Christmas with their narrow leaves of emerald and scarlet.

Big shiny Cranberries rested on soft beds of deep-red Sphagnum Moss.

A small Red Russula mushroom had sprouted up amid the moss.

Even though the Highbush Blueberries had shed their leaves, their twigs and next-year's buds still added quite a bit of color to the scene.

In the midst of all this exuberant beauty, which plant delighted my friend Bob and me the most today?  Well, it was very tiny, as well as faded to tan, which made it nearly invisible among the dying grasses.  Can you see the plant that Bob is trying to focus his camera on?  I very much doubt it.  I can hardly believe we managed to see it, ourselves.

Here it is, lit by a brief ray of sunlight against a dark background.  This is Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), a plant not considered rare in New York, but one that is doubtless much overlooked because of its tiny size and pale color, even when flowering.  This one has gone to seed, but it really doesn't look much different than it did last summer, when its straw-colored, bell-shaped flowers were in full bloom.

Every time my friends and I come to this bog (sorry, it must remain nameless), we challenge ourselves to see if we can find the Bartonia.  Even though we are SURE we remember exactly where we found it last, it often eludes us completely.  Today, Bob and I were able to see it in four separate places.  Hurray!  It doesn't take much to make wildflower nerds like us happy.

But then, who could ever be unhappy, wandering such a beautiful bog as this?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Scenes from an Autumn Afternoon

 The weather was so beautiful last Friday afternoon, I managed to coax my husband to walk around Moreau Lake with me.  Usually, he won't come out with me, because of my habit of stopping every few yards to photograph something that's caught my eye, but this day I promised I'd keep up with him as he strode along on the wide sandy beach.  And I almost DID keep that promise.

Who could blame me, though, for wanting to document this Daisy Fleabane exploding into bloom as if it were spring?  I had seen a few straggling blooms on other, mostly withering plants,  but this was a vigorous plant freshly abloom, with even more buds to come.

I also drew to a halt when this splendid dragonfly landed before me on a sprig of Pitch Pine, and wonder of wonders, stayed put!  I was even able to creep in close for the shot, and the pretty creature never budged.  I believe this is one of the Darners, a group of dragonflies even the experts have difficulty identifying.

Again, I just had to stop to take in the brilliance of a whole shore of Black Huckleberry bushes, their scarlet leaves set ablaze by a lowering sun.

That low sun was also working miracles on the Lespedezas, transforming the dull, weedy-brown Round-headed Bushclovers into flaming torches, exploding with light.

An oh, just look at the jewels that were strewn at our feet when we passed beneath a Big-toothed Aspen tree!

As the sun sank lower and lower, shadows crept over the mountains and darkened the shore of the lake, while the reflected sky and the forested mountainsides still glowed with a brilliant light.  Just one last photo, Dear, I promise, OK?  Sure, OK, he said, and he, too, stopped to delight in this beautiful scene.

New Territories, Ancient Rocks

As an amateur naturalist, I couldn't be luckier than to have such friends as those in our group called the Thursday Naturalists.  Not only do they, both individually and as a group, possess an enormous amount of knowledge about the natural world, they also know how to get to some of the most interesting natural areas in the region, many of which I would never find on my own.  This past week we made our way through winding rural roads and pretty little lakeside villages to visit a fascinating area in central Rensselaer County called the Rensselaer Plateau.

This high rocky region of around 1,000- to 2,000-feet elevation is underlaid by ancient sandstone that was formed some hundreds of millions of years ago in the deepest ocean trenches, but which was forced up from those trenches  during continental drift to form mountainous ridges. Originally higher than the Himalayas, these mountains have eroded away over millions of years to what are now known as the Taconic Mountains and the Rensselaer Plateau.

The Rensselaer Plateau is distinguished by a particular kind of sandstone called Graywacke, which consists of crystalline and lithic fragments set in a compact clay-fine matrix.  Unlike typical sedimentary sandstone, which is formed by sand settling in undisturbed layers, Graywacke contains a jumble of both older and newer layers, formed when volcanic forces shuffled the older layers above the newer ones.

Because the chemistry of Graywacke tends to be acidic rather than basic,  we plant people in the Thursday Naturalists were curious about what flora flourished among such a substrate, and we chose to explore a small nature preserve near Stephentown called the Robert P. Ingalls  Nature Preserve.  Named for a noted expert on Rensselaer County flora, this preserve features an easy loop trail that follows a pretty creek through a mixed hardwood/conifer forest.

Lying about this woods were many examples of Graywacke, displaying streaks of crystalline rock mixed throughout rock of a finer texture.

A completely unexpected find was a patch of the pretty moss called Rhodobryum roseum growing on the bank of the creek.  Because this is a moss that prefers a basic, rather than acidic, substrate, we were quite surprised to find it here in this woodland underlaid by acidic rock.  But then we noted that the moss was growing on a tree root rather than on rock, so perhaps that was a factor.

Update:  I received a note from my friend Bob Duncan with some interesting information about this particular moss.  I quote him directly here  (and I also corrected my spelling!):

Hi, Jackie.  I decided to catch up on your blog today and enjoyed your last two.  Thought I should let you know Rhodobryum is spelled with a 'y' .  Also it appears the plant we have is actually R. ontariense.  I learned it as R. roseum but a paper published in 1972 established that there are actually two species with overlapping global ranges that are separable by very minor characters.  When Crum and Anderson published 'Mosses of Eastern North America' in 1981 they admitted that the plants in our area are R. ontariense but felt the differences were trivial and felt the subject needed more study so they continued using the name R. roseum.  I think maybe they also liked that name and didn't want to give up a name they had probably been using for fifty years!  

Another feature of the Ingalls Preserve was the presence of enormous White Pines, some with straight trunks of substantial girth, others with split trunks that indicated a long-ago infestation by Pine Weevils.  As our friend Kathy (shown here leaning against one double-trunked pine) explained to us, whenever we find a pine trunk the splits at just about nine feet above the ground, it is almost certain to be the result of the action of these weevils.  Kathy said she learned this on an outing led by noted terrestrial ecologist and forest historian Tom Wessels.

The trail through the Ingalls Preserve was short enough that we still had lots of time to visit another nearby site,  a State Forest Preserve tract adjoining the Cherry Plain State Park near the Massachusetts border.  Here, we walked a beautiful woodland trail along a tumbling creek until we reached the site of a splendid waterfall.

Although the day was chilly, the sun-warmed banks by the waterfall made for a wonderful spot for a streamside picnic.

Since we were still in the area of the Rensselaer Plateau, we expected to find more examples of Graywacke, and we were not disappointed.  This particular boulder had cracked open to reveal the presence of translucent crystalline fragments within the encasing fine-grained sandstone.