Friday, January 30, 2009

Blood on the Snow



De-e-e-p snow.  Huff, puff!  More a snowshoe trudge than a hike to the river today through heaps and mounds of new-fallen snow.  I pity the poor deer trying to make their way through this.  I did see a deer trail today as I humphed through the woods to Rippled Rocks point, the first I've seen in this particular area this winter.    But the most prominent trail in the woods today was, I believe, a bobcat:    a four-toed, nearly circular paw print showing no claws, nearly as wide across as the back of my hand, made by a lightweight animal on big, soft feet, depressing the new snow by less than an inch.  What else could it be? 

Closer to the river I found mustelid tracks, about two inches wide, fisher, I'd guess; too big to be mink, too small to be otter, and leading down to the river where, oh my! some fresh drops of blood!  Then ooh! look at that! a chunk of something covered with hair!  Then Oh my God! as I raised my eyes to the ice-covered river to see this ravaged carcass,  splayed out in the middle of the bay.

At first I thought, hmm, must be coyotes brought this deer down.  But I didn't see any signs of a chase and attack.  What I did see was a human snowshoe trail and the imprint of a laden sled being hauled to the site, and then I remembered.  Naturalists from Moreau Lake State Park had told me they'd hauled a deer carcass out on the ice to attract bald eagles (the park keeps a count of these wintering raptors).  Sure enough, there were signs of huge birds landing on the snow-covered ice.  Lots of other tracks, too.  Here was a smorgasbord laid out for all the carnivores that haunt this always amazing stretch of woods and water. 

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Winter Dreams of Summer Sex



Okay.  That's enough.  I know we've not reached the record yet (120 inches, winter of 1970-71), but jeez! there's just nowhere to put it!  That's my husband in the photo, standing on the sidewalk reaching up behind the snowbank in front of our house.  And he's a pretty tall guy.

I guess I wouldn't mind so much, but all the shoveling and the scraping of windshields and the digging out cars from the snowplow heavings has worn me out.  It's a perfect day for snowshoeing -- blue sky, moderate temp, not too windy -- but I need a nap.

While drifting and dreaming away on the sofa I thought about drifting and dreaming last summer while paddling the Hudson River.  Ah, lazy summer day, warm sun, gentle current, trailing my fingers in cool blue water, and hmmm, what the heck are those plants streaming along beside me?  Little white flowers just kissing the surface, shiny curlicue stems, long eel-like leaves translucent as Jello.  And nowhere to be found in my Newcomb's guide.  Then I remembered a piece Ed Miller wrote for Adirondac magazine some years back:  that must be wild celery (Vallisneria americana).

This is a truly fascinating plant.  What you see are the female flowers, and their corkscrew stems can coil looser or tighter to keep them exactly at the water's surface, creating a little dimple in the surface tension.  The much tinier male flowers grow at the base of separate plants, down at the bottom of the river (sometimes as deep as 20 feet but usually much shallower), and when ripe, rise to the surface and float along until they literally "fall for the ladies."  That is, the staminate flower slides into the dimple created by the pistillate flower and guess what happens next?  Well, yes, ahem, that, but then after the deed is done the corkscrew stem curls and contracts, yanking the new family down, down, down to where baby will grow in the nice soft mud. 

Now here's the irony.  Despite having evolved this complex and fascinating reproductive process, wild celery doesn't need to do it this way.  In fact, it more often reproduces itself not by seed but by cloning,  creating new plants from the tuberous tips of its spreading rhizomes.  Oh, well, even if they don't have to do it for babies, at least they still get to do it for fun. 

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Few Good Words for Weeds



     I want to put in a good word for weeds.  I'm looking at one right now right outside my kitchen window:  the box elder tree (acer negundo) that is wildlife Grand Central Station all winter long.  Of course, that could be because of the seed and suet feeders we hang from its boughs, and the discarded Christmas trees we cluster around the trunk, and the heated birdbath providing liquid water through 25-below-zero nights.  But I've also read that -- even without our additions -- the  box elder tree is ranked among those with the highest value to wildlife.

     That ranking is probably because of its seeds that, unlike those of other members of the  maple genus, hang onto the boughs until well into the winter, providing food for squirrels and birds when most other seeds are gone.  Another positive attribute is its ability to spring up from seedling to tree in a hurry, or as some might say, "grow like a weed."   That's what our neighbor (who actually owns the ground this box elder grows from) said about this tree when he wanted to cut it down.  "And just look at the mess it makes -- bugs in the summer, seeds all over the place, leaves plugging up the gutters."   Well, we begged and pleaded and pointed out how its boughs provide privacy for his tenants, and he relented.  Sort of.  He cut down about half of it, but what do you know, it grew right back to its original height in just about a year. Ha!

     Here's the thing: if you love the birds and butterflies and want to have them around, you just have to learn to love bugs and weeds.  Some people think I'm kind of a nut about that.  Two years ago, I led a wildflower walk in downtown Saratoga's Congress Park, a park more known for its Olmsted-designed formal gardens than for anything allowed to grow wild.  But (oh happy fault!) there are geologic faults that run right through Congress Park, creating the springs that Saratoga is famous for, as well as steep banks and marshy spots where the mowers just can't mow.  And there's where the wildflowers grow, dozens and dozens of beauties most often overlooked: birdseye speedwell, Canada anemone, willow herbs northern and hairy, buttercups, forget-me-nots, cuckoo flowers, cattails . . . I could go on and on.

     And I was going on and on, extolling at length the virtues of one particular plant that spreads through the grass, ground ivy.  I had read in a wonderful book by Hannah Holmes (Suburban Safari: a year on the lawn) that patches of this lovely little flower (see its photo above, as pretty as any orchid) are sought out by crows in molting, when their new feathers are poking through skin and causing them pain.  Apparently, this mint-family plant has both analgesic and antiseptic qualities that soothe the pain and prevent infection.  Now, I found that pretty fascinating and was sharing my enthusiasm for ground ivy when I was interrupted by "Ugh! That's  Creeping Charlie! [Another name for ground ivy]  I can't get rid of it in my lawn!  That's a weed!" 

     Well, yes.  It is.  But such a nice one.  I don't think she thought I was nice when I responded to her revulsion:  "Why would you want to get rid of it?  Get rid of the grass instead."  Because, you see, that really is my ideal:  why would anyone prefer plain old grass to deliciously herby ground ivy (what a pungent, minty scent it emits when mowed).  Or to speedwells of every kind, dainty little striped blooms in shades of blue from royal to mist.  Or to violets, white or purple or yellow.  Or to strawberries, buttercups, daisies, clover. . . good lord, even dandelions!  All carpet the ground no taller than ankle-high, so they don't need frequent mowing.  All grow without needing to poison the soil with pesticides or fertilizers.  All provide food for butterflies, birds, and bees.  All are as pretty as pretty can be.  And every single last one of them is a weed.

     Let's hear it for weeds.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Here Today. But Tomorrow?



     Where'd all these pine siskins come from?  From what I've read, they're common winter visitors to backyard feeders, but in all the 40-plus years I've been feeding birds, they've never visited mine.  Until about two weeks ago.  Then this squabbling mob arrived by the dozen, driving off most of the milder-mannered goldfinches and emptying the nyjer-seed feeder in a single day.

     Who knows why certain birds come to others' backyards but not to mine?  A friend in a town just ten miles away gets American tree sparrows and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Lucky her.  Another friend in a town even closer gets redpolls all winter long.  I've never seen one here.  But that doesn't mean I never will -- as the siskins' arrival shows. 

     My wildflower hunts are also full of surprises.  I keep a journal of flower finds, noting date and place of discovery so I can return each year to renew our acquaintance.  In the case of most of the flowers it's usually a happy reunion.  But sometimes I'm disappointed.  For three straight years I visited an odd little ghost of a plant called one-flowered cancerroot,  just off the path in the woods at Skidmore College.  Five years ago it disappeared.  Haven't seen it since.  Anywhere.  I grieve the loss. 

      Another loss is a whole island full of purple-fringed orchis, in the middle of a little stream in the middle of the little village of Lake Luzerne:  about 25 of these beautiful state-protected orchids in the space of an average living room.  I returned a few days later to find some fool had mowed them all down!   I returned the next year and found one, the following year none at all.  Sic transit gloria florae.  (Apologies for bad Latin)

     Luckily, the happy surprises outnumber the losses:  a cluster of tiny bright-pink centaury (above) thriving in the hard-packed gravel on the side of a road; a scarlet pimpernel peeking out from a crack in a downtown sidewalk; a native glaucous honeysuckle  almost lost in a  hedge of the alien invasive kind.   Like the siskins mentioned above, none of these is considered gorgeous or rare.  Just kind of pretty, and I'd  never seen them before.   Happy to make your acquaintance, little birds.  Just leave some seed for the others.
 


Friday, January 23, 2009

Up to the Bog




     Almost balmy today, temp in the mid-20s as I joined a group led by Moreau Lake State Park naturalists for a hike up into the mountains to Lake Ann.  It's a very tiny lake, up about as high as you can climb in this Palmertown Range, and remarkable for a shore that qualifies as a genuine sphagnum bog.  This kind of wetland is quite rare in Saratoga County.  We have lots of swamps and marshes, but bogs -- with their particular acidic conditions -- are hard to come by.

     This one was a little hard to come to today, what with deep snow, a trail untrodden in places, and some pretty steep climbs at times.  Our group, being mostly retirees (and not everyone in great shape), kept up a slow pace, so we hardly had time to explore the bog before we had to start back.  Anyway, most of the interesting plants that signify bog conditions were buried deep, deep down in the snow; exceptions were highbush blueberry shrubs, black spruce and tamarack trees. 

     I've hiked several times to Lake Ann during the spring and summer, so I do have these photos of some of the bog plants there: sphagnum moss, cranberry, and leatherleaf.  I once tried walking around Lake Ann to see what else might be growing there, but encountered signs posted by McGregor State Prison warning me not to proceed.  I think they might even have said intruders could  be shot on sight.  But probably not.   Today we could have just strolled around the lake on ice. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I've Been to the Mountaintop



     Tuesday, January 20, was a glorious day in more ways than one.  First, we welcomed a new President who (we hope) will take better care of our planet.  And  second, the sky was blue, the sun bright, and the air cold enough to keep our abundant snow soft and dry, perfect for a celebratory walk in the woods.  Perfect, in fact (for reasons both practical and symbolic), for a climb to the mountaintop.

     Up, up I went, snowshoeing to a favorite overlook, looking down on the Hudson River where it makes a sharp bend to the northeast after flowing in a mostly southeasterly  direction from its source in the Adirondacks.  Because I had waited to hear our  new President's inaugural speech before setting out, I was still up on the mountaintop as the sun started going down.  A light snow began to move in from the northwest, spangling the air with hexagonal plate crystals, the declining sunlight glinting on diamond facets.  And that's when I saw the phenomenon pictured above, a sun pillar descending from the sun to the earth, as if in a blessing.   Please, God, may that be so!


Strange Fruit



     I was just enjoying one of my favorite blogs,  adknaturalist.blogspot.com, where "Nature Girl" posted photos and an account of coming across strange growths on a birch tree.  I  came across the same fungus ( inonotus obliquus) a couple of years ago on a beech tree, and mine had a fruiting body:  those light brown balls growing out of what looks like  a coal clinker.  Hence it's common name "clinker" polypore.  (Be sure to click on the photo to see the texture of these things up close.)

     Of course, I didn't know the name of it then, but I did know the name of a biologist whose specialty was fungi,  Sue Van Hook, and took her to see this thing.  She was quite excited, since it's not that common to find these clinkers in fruit.  Sue took some tissue and has succeeded in culturing the spores in her lab at Skidmore  College.  Apparently, this fungus may have some therapeutic use in treating cancer. 

     So you just never know what you might come across in the woods.  I  guess you can tell from my sidebar photos that I take great delight in fungi.   I just wish I could find a field guide for fungi as good as is Newcomb's for wildflowers.  Any suggestions?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Welcome President Obama


     Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty we're free at last of George W. Bush, who spent his last days in power trying to undo as many environmental protections as he could.  The woods and waterways all over the world are safer today, thanks to President Obama, who appears to be open to allowing science to actually inform his decisions.  Won't that be something?

     I have even more personal reasons for celebrating today, Inauguration Day 2009.  See those darling children with their beautiful mom in the photo above?  Those are my son Peter's kids and my grandchildren.  It is now a new era for black and mixed-race children, thanks to the election of Barack Obama.  Wow! What a role model!

     Yeah, yeah, I know, don't count your chickens and all that.  But today I just feel happy and blessed to be living in this grand country.  To celebrate, I'm off to the woods.  See you later.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Girls All Alone in the Night



     These are photos of my granddaughter Jenny, taken on a camp-out a couple of Septembers ago when she was nine.  I had taken her older sister camping a few times, and now it was Jenny's turn. 

      There are a number of primitive campsites along the Hudson both above and below Spier Falls dam, simple pee-in-the-woods kinds of sites with no facilities beyond a metal fire ring, accessible either by boat or on foot, but not by car.  We chose a site directly across the river from the Sherman Island boat launch and paddled across in an 18' tandem canoe, loaded with tent and sleeping bags and a cooler full of food.  Plus matches for starting a campfire and the fixings for lots of s'mores.

     We also brought my son Philip along, a full-grown man, mostly because he wanted to come but also to mollify Jenny's parents, who maybe share some of society's fears about girls all alone in the woods.  As for me, I prefer being alone on the trail or in my canoe.  With others along there's always chit-chat and we can't creep up on critters unawares; or somebody in the party thinks that the goal is to get to the top and chafes if I stop to identify a plant or listen to a bird.  But I'm glad to have my granddaughters along. I love to take them camping and show them  "See?  We're all alone in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, and there's nothing to be afraid of." 

    Well, yeah, I talk a good line.  For in fact, on this  particular night in the middle of the woods with Jenny, I had quite a scare.  Our tent was about 20 yards from where we had left all our food, and I startled awake in the very darkest hour of the night to a very loud scra-a-a-a-pe and thud!   "Oh, crap!" I thought.   "A bear's in our food.  And here we lie in the same smoky clothes we wore roasting wienies last night, smelling like a stash of Slim Jims!  What on earth should I do?"  I'm not usually afraid of bears; I'm sure they hide when they hear me coming.   But now I was with my granddaughter!  And what could my son do to help us?

     I lay there listening, terrified that the next noise I heard would be claws ripping our tent apart.  But the only sound I heard was my pounding heart.  For a long, long time.  Then I had to pee.  Oh God! did I have to pee.   Silently, silently I crawled out of my bag and shined my flashlight out the tent flap.  Nothing there.  The food cooler still stood, undisturbed, on the rock where we'd left it.  Huh?  Well, what was that sound I heard? 
 
     So I looked around, checking to see if our canoe was still there where we'd left it, tied to a tree and floating on the river.  The canoe was still there, still tied to a tree, but no longer floating on the river.  During the night the downstream dam had opened, the water level had lowered, and our canoe now rested, atilt, on the river bottom.  The paddles had slid across the thwarts and slammed hard onto the gunwales.  So that was the source of the scrape and thud that woke me in terror during the night.

     So I still can tell my granddaughters, "See?  We're all alone in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, and there's nothing to be afraid of."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tupelos: Trees for all seasons




     The sun's brought the temp up to two by noon.  And a breeze has the  birdfeeders swinging.  I could pile on the polarfleece and keep my body warm enough.  But aargh!  My face!  If I wrap it in scarves my glasses frost up, and the frames freeze to my cheeks.  Think I'll settle for a virtual walk in the woods instead.

     I'll go back to Rippled Rocks Point and the marsh around Three Pine Island (see last post), where I took these pictures of a black tupelo tree, one last October and the same tree three days ago.  I had never seen a black tupelo until I began paddling this area on the Hudson, and I don't find them very often anywhere else.   I met a forester a few years back who told me that tupelos are usually found farther south, but a moderated microclimate that extends up the Hudson and on up the Champlain valley allows them to thrive this far north.  At least locally.  They're never as common as maples.  They love to have their feet wet, so they grow in marshes and drainage ditches and on river banks where the water rises up into the woods from time to time.  Like the Hudson River here between two dams.  And apparently -- so this forester said --in a swamp in the nearby Lincoln Mountain state forest, where some specimens have been found to be over 600 years old.  I guess they've been here long enough we can call them natives.

     I have no idea how old this tree is.  Just because it's kind of spindly doesn't mean it's young, I've been told.  I do know, though, that it's one gorgeous tree,  with green glossy leaves in summer that come into their glory in autumn, turning a brilliant cranberry red and much earlier than its neighbors.   This one's a female tree that has nearly invisible blossoms in summer that turn into blue-black berries in the fall -- favorites of  turkeys and grouse.  There are male trees nearby with staminate flowers.  Last summer, I took this photo of a ladybug exploring one of these flowers.  On a cold, cold day like this, I like to remember summer.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Minks in the Marsh



Across a bay from Rippled Rocks Point on the Hudson River at Moreau stands this lovely little rocky mound of an island, crowned by three white pines.  I call it Three Pine Island although it is also forested with smaller pines, hemlocks, chestnut oaks, black tupelo, birch, and one small, very crooked white ash growing out of a crack in a boulder.  It is surrounded by a marshy area that runs a hundred yards or so back into the woods.  Both the bay and the marsh are frozen solid today, allowing me to explore on snowshoes an area I can barely creep into by canoe in the summer.

Prominent across the snowy ice are these tracks (see photo above),  which at first, all excited, I thought must be otter, this bound and slide so typical of that animal's track.  But no, the slides are too narrow, barely 3 inches across, and the pawprints as small as those of a cat.   Must be mink.  A couple of them, it seems, making a beeline across the bay, into the marsh all the way to an open stream that forms this marsh's boundary, where they disappear into the water.

On days like this and in places like this, I feel like a 12-year-old kid, like a kid in a candy store with a hundred bucks in my pocket.  Most people I know love to travel to foreign places and visit exotic sights.  I've done some of that.  But all  the time I was passing through it felt like I was only looking at places through glass.  I didn't know how to truly inhabit them.  But here . . . . Here on this river . . . .  I've  been here at least fifty, sixty, maybe more than a hundred times, in all seasons, weathers, times of day;  I know the names of just about everything that grows and lives here, flora and fauna;  I know what plants are good to eat and where the orchids grow; and yet,  every time I visit, it all seems terra incognita. 

I never know what I  might find.  One spring morning I nearly stepped on a tiny brand-new fawn curled in the grass at my feet, so close I could sense its breath pass in and out of its nostrils.  One autumn evening I watched a young beaver drag a twig to the water's edge and heard him gnaw on it.  One cold but brilliant January afternoon I saw a pair of bluebirds high in a tree,  their rosy breasts the only color in the winter landscape.   And one day . . . .  Some day . . . .   Just one of these days I know I will see an otter. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Turkeys and Murder



What makes for a perfect winter day?  Fresh cold snow, bright blue sky, temp in the mid-20s, and gorgeous terrain for an afternoon snowshoe  hike.  That's what we had today.  My husband and I bushwhacked up into the mountains above the Spier Falls dam, struggling along the steep bouldered slopes as the soft fresh snow slid off the icier crust underneath.  A great workout!

Few critter trails today.  The snow didn't stop until midmorning so most forest dwellers won't venture out of their dens until tonight.  One exception:  turkey trails all over the place.  I never saw a turkey until spring of 1970, our first trip to Saratoga from Ann Arbor, Mich., and I glimpsed one in the woods along the NY Throughway and couldn't believe my eyes.  Now, I'm surprised if I don't see them once a week (although I was startled when one crossed my path in downtown Congress Park).  I guess the DEC's restoration program succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

My best wildlife experience today occurred back at home, with a hawk pouncing on a mourning dove beneath our feeder.  I saw horizontal rusty stripes and assumed it was a sharp-shinned hawk, ran to get my camera, but too late, it flew off to dine on the dove on a high branch in a backyard black locust.  Wait a minute!  That hawk's too big to be a sharp-shinned, at least twice the size of that dead dove.  Maybe it was a Cooper's.  I couldn't get a picture because of dimming light.   One terrified squirrel was plastered to the bird-feeder tree like he'd been wallpapered on.  A witness to murder most fowl!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dreaming of summer -- again



Brrr!  Ten above zero at  noon.  I must be getting old; I don't want to go out today.  My last blog post set me to revisiting my photos of Juniper Point last summer.  Here are a couple that represent something of the amazing floral profusion I wrote about.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hiking on ice to Juniper Point


Cold and clear after two days of wintry mix.  I hiked down to the river above the Sherman Island dam, to a promontory I call Juniper Point because of what grows there, and today I actually made it out onto the ice.   How could the shoreline change so much in just two days? The water level had risen until it flowed right back into the woods, then a hard freeze, so it was easy to just stroll on out from shore.  Easy, that is, thanks to the cleats on the snowshoes:  the fresh ice was really slick.

With a thin layer of fine new snow on top of  a frozen rained-on crust, the forest floor looked as if it were piled with meringue, white curves and swirls that appeared soft but crunched underfoot, all sequined by tiny crystalline shards blown down from ice-covered twigs.  A high-bush blueberry still had its glaze, the bright red buds glowing through like rubies.
 
There's a marshy bay that runs behind Juniper Point, and ten years ago it was studded with purple loosestrife, not overwhelmed yet, just a dozen or so plants.  I pulled them all out, and each year I pull a few more.  This area -- the marsh, the point, and surrounding woods -- is like a Garden of Eden of native flowers: cardinal flower, jewelweed, sneezeweed, tall coneflower, monkey flower, Joe Pye weed, boneset, closed gentian, sweet flag, meadowsweet, steeplebush, marsh speedwell, lance-leaved goldenrod, bur marigold, blue vervain, golden hedge hyssop, clammy hedge hyssop, false pimpernel, marsh blue violet, bluets, blue flag, blue marsh bellflower, forget-me-not, smooth rose, star toadflax, cowwheat, early saxifrage, fringed loosestrife, yellow loosestrife, sessile bellwort, pink lady's slipper, small purple fringed orchis, slender ladies' tresses,  ditch stonecrop  . . .  that's all I can think of without consulting my flower journals.  All in an area of about one acre.  I wonder how many of them would still be here if the purple loosestrife had taken over.

Funny  how this post started out with a hike on ice and got lost in dreams of summer.  Come, come, Jackie.  Lots of lovely winter left.

I remembered a few more flowers that grow in this amazing place: water purslane, water carpet, watercress, water horehound, dwarf St. Johnswort, northern bugleweed, marsh marigold, swamp milkweed, arrowhead, false hellebore . . . .  Plus flowering  trees and shrubs: spicebush, leatherwood, shadblow, winterberry, buttonbush, elderberry, witch hazel, striped maple . . . .  Not to mention a myriad mosses, sedges, grasses, lichens, ferns, and reeds I don't know the names of yet.  But give me time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Needing Nature


Freezing rain.  Stuck in the house.  Had to get my  nature fix today by enjoying two wonderfully illustrated books that inspire sweet thoughts of spring:  "The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the spirit of the deciduous forest" by Rick Darke, and "Native Plants of the Northeast: A guide for gardening and conservation" by Donald Leopold.  Lots of ideas here for enhancing my own backyard nature preserve.  And just looking at the photos I can smell the woods.

Where comes this craving to be out in the woods in all weathers (except freezing rain)?   It started when I was just a small kid, maybe 8 or 9, growing up in a boatyard on a lake in Michigan, with a dad who had lots of chores for me and who wasn't all that nice about getting me to do them.  But he had taught me how to paddle.  And there was a creek that ran between our lake and another, the banks lined with marshes and forest.  And canoes were there for the taking.  I soon learned that two turns of the creek carried me beyond the sound of my dad shouting about unfinished work.   So the woods and the waterways became my refuge, my place to get lost on purpose.

And so they still are.   For 15 years I worked as a nursing assistant for Hospice, traveling the county to care for people in their own homes, people dying of every illness the human flesh can fail by.  And I couldn't fix it.  Each day I had to walk into the heart of suffering.  And stay there.   Friends asked me, "How can you stand it?"  One way was to go to the river, push off in my little canoe (a 10' Hornbeck  Black Jack, weighing 12 pounds), and as soon as I felt that smooth silken water beneath me and smelled the sweet scent of mossy banks, I sensed that all was well, that all was well indeed.   I felt like I could just lie back in the palm of God's hand, that death and change were just part of the plan, and that all would be well, indeed. 

It's funny.  I thought I'd enjoy such nature magazines as "Outside" and "Backpacker," but when I leafed  through a few issues, I found the articles were mostly about surviving nature -- enduring thousands of mosquito bites, falling off cliffs, freezing in the mountains, struggling across deserts, that sort of thing: Nature as something that had to be challenged or overcome.  
Not for  me. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Listening to ice



Sun's out!  And so am I: out the door and down to the river once more.  I enter the woods at the Sherman Island boat launch and head to the shore, hoping to hike on a usually reliable ice shelf that runs from the boat launch site to the first bend of the river downstream.  Not today, though.  Although the river appears solidly frozen over from shore to shore, there's no way to get out on it; at the edge the rising and falling water levels have created either a slick  sloping ramp that would send me right on my butt as soon as I stepped on it, or a crazy jumble of broken shards.  Ouch!  So instead, I  hiked in the woods.

Lots of critter tracks everywhere, including in and out of the water: mink, I assume, although I can't make out any distinct paw prints in the clumped up tracks.  I keep peering up and down the river and scanning the trees on the far shore, searching for bald eagles, which I have seen on this stretch of the river many times, both winter and summer.  Not today.

I find a quiet spot and just sit and listen.  What a racket!  In addition to the usual groans and pings of any ice-covered body of water,  I hear creaking and cracking and even outright crashing of slabs and shards as the whole surface of the river rises and breaks open the seam joining water to shore. 
 
The river creates a constantly changing exhibit of the possible variations on floating, moving ice.   When open water moves down the middle, large sheets as big as plate glass windows slither across each other, sometimes heaving straight up, then toppling and crashing into a thousand pieces of crystal.  One early winter day when thin ice had formed near shore and a blustery wind sent waves moving under the still-flexible sheet,  I could hear a twittering and chirping as if from dozens of birds. 

I did hear birds today:  ravens, from somewhere up on the far mountainside, and then a sweet, high, almost imperceptible note, right in front of my nose -- a golden crowned kinglet right there in a bush.  At this range I could really see how tiny it was.  How can such a wee spot of feather and fat endure our winter nights?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Habitat close to home


Ugh!  Freezing rain!  Guess I'll stay home today to observe my own nature preserve.  For  real.  My back yard is only about 40 feet by 12 and located in the busy heart of Saratoga Springs, but it's officially certified by the  National Wildlife Federation as a  wildlife habitat.  Check out the NWF website for particulars, but basically here's  what you need to qualify:  food, water, nesting sites, no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and a focus on native species when landscaping and gardening.

I found out about this program last spring.  Perfect timing, for I had just retired and had time to pay attention to my "garden" -- a weed patch, really, since for the past dozen years I had preferred paddling and woodswalking to any kind of work at home, inside or out.  Wild nature, after all, is so beautiful,  and I  didn't have to lift a finger to  make it that  way.  But  now I had time for both.

First, I cut  back a euonymus vine to the chain link fence, leaving just enough of this evergreen alien plant to provide winter cover.  During the summer a native Virginia creeper  swamps this vine and climbs the surrounding black locusts, where we installed houses for wrens and bluebirds.  Existing plants included lilacs, shadblow,  crabapple, arbor vitae, white pine, box elder, blue violets, lily of the valley, rugosa roses, hostas, and pale sunflower -- plus masses of tall white asters and other lovely weeds in a side section of our lawn where I never mow.

I found several sources of  plants native to the  northeast and added flowering dogwood, highbush cranberry, Oswego tea, mountain laurel, Jacob's Ladder, sweet pepperbush, red chokeberry, trumpet honeysuckle, crested iris, wild geranium, great lobelia, New England aster, star false solomon's seal, and something else I can't for the life of me remember (a spring surprise awaits, I hope).  I salvaged some giant purple hyssop from a parking lot about to be mowed, and helped myself to seeds from spent plants in the Yaddo shade garden:  black cohosh and celandine poppy.  All these plants should provide lots of food for bugs, caterpillars, birds, and butterflies,  plus cover and sustenance for rabbits, mice, possums, and squirrels.  I wonder what will come up again next summer.

Now, the wildlife mostly rely on our feeders.  Today, my  husband and I collected three discarded Christmas trees from the curb on our street and propped them against the box elder where we hang seed feeders and suet cakes.  We gather these balsams each year to provide shelter for the birds.  We also have a heated birdbath, so we have lots of visitors all winter long -- the usual suspects :  squirrels en masse, juncos, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, and now and then a sharp-shinned hawk, who arrives to feast on English sparrows.  This beautiful little hawk doesn't appear to pounce on its prey from the air.  I watched it one day as it sidled into the balsam thicket, disappearing among the boughs.  A shudder in the limbs occurred, and the hawk hopped out with his small brown lunch, which he sat on the ground and ate.  The birds stayed away the rest of the day.

One day a much bigger hawk surprised our roiling mob of squirrels, who plastered themselves against tree limbs, immobile as burls, while the  hawk (not a red-tailed, but about that size) alit in the box elder and bided its time in the branches.  For what seemed a long, long time.  Then one of the squirrels, very brave, must have assessed that the hawk couldn't maneuver for a kill among the network of branches, and broke his cover, scurrying right out on the limb where the hawk was perched,  barking his little head off and switching his tail in fury.  Startled, the  hawk took stock, lifted its wings, and soared off into the sky.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A snowy trail to the top



     Another splendid day for the woods, the snow still fresh and cold, the sun bright.  Today I climbed a mountain trail in Moreau Lake State Park, snowshoeing up, up, up to a view of the Hudson River valley way below, the Spier Falls catchment shining in the sunlit distance.  Across the river, I could see the foothills of the Adirondacks start their climb to the north. 
     The mountains in Moreau Park are called the Palmertown Range.  Are they part of the Adirondacks?  At any rate, they are lovely mountains, possessing a genuine sense of rugged wilderness, and only a few minutes from  home.  
     I was hoping today to find a porcupine trail, but I didn't.  I did a few years ago up here, and it puzzled me much:   no footprints that I could see, just a well-packed trough about 10 inches  across and drizzled down the middle with yellow, the whole length, like  someone had traced the trail with a squirt bottle full of pee.  No, just a porcupine full of pee.  I traced the trail to a den in a pile of rocks, quite smelly with porky poop all around the entrance and here and there a tell-tale quill.  Porcupines don't wander all around looking for food;  they find a tree to feed in and that's where they return to every day.  So their trail gets well packed down by their wide waddly feet and their even wider bodies.  

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coyote Highways





January 3, 2009

     I returned to my favorite place today, this time with a group of 15 or 20 on an organized hike led by Moreau Park naturalist Gary Hill.  Another gorgeous blue-sky day, much milder, temp in the high 20s.  It was fun  joining a group of fellow woodswalkers, and I learned a few things from our guide, who led us through the woods as far upstream as the intake site for the county water line -- a terrible disfigurement of the river bank, but today blessedly blanketed with snow.  I hope as the ground sprouts new plants this summer the site will not be so brazenly awful.

     I learned that what I  thought was a coyote den was more likely an otter den, and the coyote prints all around probably meant the coyote was trying to snag the otter.  Otter sign included several piles of otter poop near the den, thinner than coyote scat and containing no fur.
     Coyote tracks were everywhere; I could imagine the forest just teeming with them at night.  When I camped near here a few years back, I could hear them barking during the night.  And one winter day some years ago I saw one out on the ice-covered marsh in bright mid-day -- a large golden-grey animal (a dog, I thought at first), very wolf-like, not like the scrawny little western coyotes caricatured by Wiley in the cartoons.  I have since learned that genetic testing has shown that our eastern coyotes contain the DNA of red wolves and are strong enough to actually bring down deer.  Gary told us that the coyotes sometimes chase the deer out onto the ice, where they lose their footing and go into a split -- literally:  splitting their bodies as their legs splay out to the sides, making them easy prey.
     Other tracks our guides identified for us today included fisher and mink.  I have seen mink as I paddled here in the summer, slipping silently close to the water's edge and Whoa!  There was this little black weasel face quite surprised to see me and Whoosh! up the bank it sped, carrying its black furry tail straight out behind.
   We also found lots of red squirrel and mouse tracks, just one grey squirrel trail, and then, as we bushwhacked through a stand of baby white pines, there were piles of rabbit scat and many tracks meandering about under the saplings and leading to a den.   It was rabbit happy hunting ground here:  lots of baby trees to graze and the greenery protecting them from descending owls or hawks.  

Near this stand of little pines was a thicket of striped maple trees, branches and twigs colored a bright pink-red, lit up by the lowering sun's golden light.  This radiant pink of the striped maple twigs is one of the marvels to me of the winter woods.  Are they this color only in winter?  Or do I just notice it then, blazing against the white of the snow?  

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Snowy Day on the River



 January 1, 2009

   New Year's Day 2009, new snow, blue sky, and cold, cold, cold -- cold enough to keep that new snow fluffy and dry, perfect for a walk in the woods at my favorite place on earth:  the forested banks of the Hudson River at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York.
    I've been exploring this stretch of the river for over ten years, by canoe and on foot, in all seasons and weathers, keeping a journal of all the plants I could name and animals I have seen (or found signs of by their tracks and scats and calls), and I've learned that there's always the chance I will find something new each time I visit. 
     For one thing, the terrain is always changing.  This section of river lies between two dams,  Spier Falls upstream and Sherman Island downstream ( a stretch of about three miles), and the water level changes several times a day, creating a shoreline that is sometimes a mud flat, sometimes completely  immersed up to steep rocky banks or flooding back into the woods.  Both banks of the river are forested mountains that come straight down to the shore, the trees overhanging the water.  Approaching the Sherman Island dam, the shoreline grows ever more interesting, as the river runs around islands and past rocky promontories and into quiet coves and occasional marshes watered by tiny rills that trickle down from surrounding hills.  
     It's that stretch of the river I'm visiting today on snowshoes, to start this record of a year in the woods and on the water.

    We enter the woods at the  end of Potter Road in Moreau,  taking a path down to the river and a rocky point I have named Bear's Bathtub for its large depression about ten feet across and six feet deep that fills up with water from time to time.  No water today with the temperature around 15 degrees (F) and the river here completely frozen over.  But it's not safe to walk on today.  With the rising and falling of the water levels, the ice breaks at the edge and water comes over the top.  Also, ice is formed at varying water levels so the shoreline is a jumble of broken shards and  plates -- not a pleasant place for a walk on the ice.   
    But many creatures have walked on the ice today or last night when the snow was new-laid -- mostly coyotes I'm guessing, leaving prints like those of large dogs.  There are places in the woods where many prints all lead in the same direction,  and we follow those to a large hole in a pile of rocks that appears to be a den.  More prints lead through the woods to a promontory I call Rippled Rocks Point that juts out into the river, a sun-washed spot where lowbush blueberry and black chokeberry thrive in the summer.  Today the rocks are covered with snow, revealing the path of the creatures who apparently congregated here today or last night, on this high open platform of ice and stone, exposed to the sky and the profile of mountains rising above the far shore.  Do coyotes howl at the moon?  There was a beautiful crescent moon last night, sharing the early evening sky with a brilliant Venus.
     Other prints we found were those of a mouse, like trapunto stitching across the snow as it wandered about a bit before scurrying to safety beneath a fallen log.  Also, red squirrel prints.   I had hoped to find signs of otter here, near open areas of water near the shore.  I had seen their scat on rocks out in the water last summer and their tobogganing trails through the snow in winters past,  but today I didn't.  We did see a hunter, though, hoping to bag a coyote.  Why? He said he wanted to make himself a coyote suit to wear while hunting.  I didn't tell  him where we had found the den.