Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spring Signals

Wow! Is that sun getting hot!  I sat out on a high rocky bank of the Hudson today, and after about 15 minutes I sought the shade.  On south-facing banks, the ground is beginning to show.  Today was still below freezing, but it reached 50 yesterday, with a steady rain all day.  March starts tomorrow.  It won't be long until the woods and the waterways become nearly unreachable: the water not open for paddling but the ice unsafe to walk on, the ground not bare but the snow too porous to support snowshoes.  Even today, I was punching through if I left the trodden packed trail. And then comes the dreaded MUD season.  But hey!  That's the price we have to pay to get from here to there: SPRING! 

The signs are definitely there:  this beautiful red maple bud is so rosy and plump it seems about to burst into bloom.

Here's the first sapling of spring to be felled by a beaver.  I haven't seen any sign of new beaver activity all winter until today.  Their winter cache of underwater treetops must be running low.
(I just hope they stick to birch and poplar and leave the few remaining tupelos alone.)

And here -- not a sign of spring, exactly, but a sign that my hope of spotting otter may yet spring eternal -- are definite, couldn't-possibly-be-anything-else-but OTTER tracks.  I've found the five-toed, bunched-up paw-prints before, but this time they came with a tail attached, plus now and then a lovely, and positively diagnostic,  slide.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Birds and More Birds

Three Pine Island: the dead deer lies on the other side

Roark! Roark!  Caw, Caw! Caw, Caw!  Skreeeee!  Raven, crow, eagle: I heard them but didn't see them at the dead deer site today.  Wait, I did see one -- a juvenile bald eagle, all brown with pale streaks on his head, like he'd been to the beauty parlor for blond highlights.  He briefly circled the site, then must have spied me and split.  I thought I was pretty well hidden among hemlocks, but they don't call them eagle-eyed for nothing.

Anyhow, there's always something to see in the woods, even if you don't find what you set out to see.  Today, it was a pileated woodpecker -- no, make that two pileated woodpeckers, and both in the same tree.  And hitching along around the trunk up there as if they were pals, no riotous cackles or flapping of wings in challenge.  Must have been mates.  (Sorry I don't have a photo; distance, branches, and constant motion impeded my getting a clear shot.)

These woodpeckers sure have been busy.  I keep coming across piles of woodchips at the bases of trees,  look up, and sure enough, there's the tell-tale oblong cavity.   And some of these cavities are really huge!  I've seen them three or four feet long by one foot wide by six or eight inches deep.  Are they excavating holes for nesting?  Are they just finding lots of bugs all in the same spot?  Or are they just like guys of all species:  "Hey, look at me!  I'm bigger and better than all the rest."  (Do female woodpeckers dig big cavities, too?) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Avian Evidence

We went back to the Hudson today to spy on the carcass, and once again, we scared off the carrion eaters before we could see them,  although we certainly heard them!  And we found their prints all over the snow around what was left of the deer: ravens, crows, eagles, coyotes, and (possibly) fisher.  A friend had been watching the scene before we arrived and told us an eagle had been fighting with several ravens.  We just missed them!  At midday, the feasters are mostly birds; the four-legged critters won't come out until night.  Most of the bird prints were too trampled or windblown to come out well in photos, but I did find this one that shows a bird landing and hopping (I'm guessing a crow by the size).

My best bird sighting today came at home, outside my kitchen window.  This sharp-shinned hawk stopped by for lunch, and apparently went away hungry.  I watched him (her?) sneak into the balsam propped up by the birdfeeders, rustle around in there a bit, and hop out empty handed (empty taloned?). Too bad.  I wouldn't mind thinning out our resident flock of English sparrows.  It's not that rare for sharpies to visit us, although we live on one of the busiest streets in Saratoga.  I guess it's because our feeders are probably the busiest for blocks around.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tree Tumors

Winter days don't come much better: dazzling blue sky, glittering fresh snow, air as clear and sweet and sparkly as ice-cold gingerale.  My friend Laurie Williams invited me for a walk and I didn't need much convincing.  Laurie lives near Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, so I asked her to take me to some of her favorite spots.  She showed me where springs keep the pond's edge unfrozen, where birds and bobcats lurk to snatch bullheads and tadpoles out of the water.  She showed me where a stream tumbles into the pond, its flow interrupted by terraces built by beavers. And lots of spots where she and her kids like to slide on sleds and skis.

Gall-laden crown

Then she showed me these trees, a whole bunch of them, all infected with something that causes all these tumors.  What a sight!  I wonder how these growths (are they galls?) will affect the trees' health come summer.  I wish I knew trees by their bark better than I do.  What are they?  What's causing this blight?  Will it spread through the rest of the forest?  If any of this blog's readers  know, I  hope you will leave a comment.  Both Laurie and I would really like to know.

Looking up the trunk

A growth close up

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Dad at Pyramid Lake

I tried to creep up on whatever might be feeding on the dead deer I found two days ago, but ravens blew my cover before I was halfway through the woods: Roark! Roark! Roark!  No birds were there by the time I arrived at the scene, but it was obvious from their tracks that many had been.  And only birds, dropping down from the air and hopping on both feet to reach the carcass.  No canine or feline or mustelid tracks led out onto the ice from the woods.  I'm not going to post a photo of what the deer looked like.  It's pretty scary to see what beaks can do.

I wish I had a photo of the little kid I saw walking out on the ice with a grown-up (probably his dad) on Saturday.  The two were several  hundred yards downstream from me, and the kid was a picture of absolute delight: running circles around his dad, skipping and dancing, his arms windmilling, literally jumping for joy.  I felt a surge of happiness, then regret.  I wish I'd had a dad I could have been that happy with.

When I was a kid, my dad was the kind of guy you'd run to hide from:  a driven perfectionist with a violent temper and ready swats.  All my life I kept as careful a distance from him as I could.  Until just a few years ago, when he was in his late 80s, I in my late 50s.  My mom had died and I felt kind of sorry for my dad, so I asked his much younger brother (my favorite uncle) to drive him out from Michigan.  

Dawn at Pyramid Lake

It was late September and we went to Pyramid Lake in the Adirondacks,  staying in a rustic lodge at a retreat center where I volunteer.  The lake is surrounded by the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area, the shoreline completely wild, with forested islands and sheer rocky cliffs rising up from the water's edge.  We had the place to ourselves. We hiked, we paddled, we found wild mushrooms we cooked in the center's kitchen. We marveled at the silence at night, woke to loons' calls in the morning.  My dad recounted adventures from his youth: building a log cabin in the woods all by himself at 16, visiting his trap line on the long walk to school each morning.  He grew absolutely relaxed and happy.  And for the very first time in all my life, I had a good time with my dad.

Here's an image from that occasion:  My dad and I were paddling across the lake.  A hummingbird came and landed on my hand.  He sat right there for several paddle strokes, I could see his ruby-red little bib, look into his bright black eye.  Now, when hummingbirds migrate, they fly thousands of miles without resting.  Why did this one come and rest on my hand?  That tiny bird seemed a symbol of great blessing.

My dad never stopped talking about that trip.  A year ago last September I went out to Michigan to care for him as he was dying.  I was privileged to care for him in the ways I had cared for my Hospice patients, to bathe him and shave him, to ease his pain, to hold his hand as he drew his last breath, and to close his eyes when he died.  Resentment and fear were replaced with overwhelming love.  I wonder if that could have happened if we hadn't had our retreat at Pyramid Lake.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fungus Redux

Here's a close-up of the green-stained fungus I posted a photo of on February 20.  See all those little trumpet-shaped things growing on the fungus?  I wonder if they're some kind of  lichen.  So the food chain continues:  fungus feeding on tree, algae feeding on fungus, lichen fed by both of them.  I wonder what eats the lichen?  Probably something too small for me to see.

Matters of Life and Death

There's a new dead deer on the ice.  Moreau Park naturalists must have dragged it there, to serve as a feeding station for area carnivores, especially bald eagles.  (The park keeps a count of these wintering raptors.)  I'll be trying to creep up on this scene in the days to come, hoping to actually lay eyes on some of the animals whose tracks and/or wingprints I've been finding in the snow all winter.  But it's not easy to creep up on anything in snowshoes: CRUNCH!!! CRUNCH!!! CRUNCH!!!  It's snowing like crazy today, so maybe the new soft stuff will muffle my footsteps a little.

I'm sure there will be some people who won't like to look at this photo.  And I agree, it's kind of sad.  I see those little teats on her belly and wonder if she was pregnant (this is a doe, isn't it?).  By the injuries I can see, I'd guess she was hit by a car.  At least that seems a quicker way to go than being run down by coyotes or slowly starving to death this long snowy winter.  And now she'll be food for other creatures skirting the edge of starvation.   As so we all are (or will be): food for somebody else.  When I start to feel bad about Nature's bloodier side, I stop and think about all the lives -- animal, vegetable, microbiotic -- that have died to sustain my life all these many decades.  The count must be in the billions.  Trillions.  Gazillions!

When I ponder what will be done with my corpse, I think it's a shame how state laws make it difficult to return our bodies to Nature, requiring chemicals, caskets, vaults, and other cemetery regulations.  Even cremation requires a rigid container and causes pollution with smoke and burning fuel.  There are some green cemeteries I've heard of, where you can be laid directly in the earth, wrapped in a simple shroud of cotton or linen.  Then, as the soil is filled in around you, a tree is planted over you, and that tree will be your grave marker.  Native grasses and wildflowers fill the spaces between the graves and only the paths are mowed.  Now that's the way I'd like to be laid to rest.  Unfortunately, the closest green cemetery is several hundred miles away from my home.  So barring that, I'd almost rather be laid out on the river ice for all the coyotes and eagles to feast on.  Although my surviving family members probably wouldn't approve.  

No, I'm not depressed, really I'm not.  During all my years with Hospice, death was my daily companion, and I early learned to come to terms with it.  Sooner or later, we all gotta go.  Others' lives depend on it.  And it is Ash Wednesday this week : "Remember that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return."  For the moment, though, I'm really glad to be alive, in this beautiful world so full of life that even death will be subsumed by it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Walk in the Wintry Wind

Iseemed like a great day for tracking: not too cold, some occasional sun, and new snow the night before last.  But ooh!  What a cruel wind!  It wormed down into my ears and clawed its way up my parka.  And worst of all, it knocked down all those heaps of snow that had coated every bough and twig, pocking the forest floor until it looked like cottage cheese.  Or as if all the forest creatures had hopped about on pogo sticks.  If there were tracks through the woods today, they were very well camouflaged.  Out on the ice by the river, whatever faint trails I found were filled in with blowing snow.  Hard to tell who made them.  Oh well.  Lots of other wonders await in the woods, even on cold windy days.  

For example, I wonder what these berries are.  I'd say they were winterberries with not just their guts but also their color sucked out of them.  Just a month or so ago they were a brilliant red and nothing would eat them.  As winter went on, either the freezing made them sweeter or someone grew desperately hungry.

Here's something red: the topmost twigs of a highbush blueberry bush.  I'd never noticed this rosy color on blueberry twigs before, although I had seen their buds as red as rubies.  And speaking of buds, I found some on flowering dogwood:  they look like little turnips.

Now for something a little green, a tree just covered with this fungus.  I wonder if the green color could be an algal or mossy growth on top of the fungus?  I noticed teensy tiny trumpets like some kind of lichen napping the tops of some. (You can't see that in this photo.) 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Squirrel Strategies

A day without Nature is like . . . well, there is no such thing as a day without Nature.  Our nature event today was snow.  Not a lot. Yet. But soft and wet, clinging to every twig.  Pretty.  Especially from inside looking out.  Like the creatures of the forest, I stayed snug in my den today, happy to have a cache of food so I didn't need to go out.

I was wondering how squirrels find their acorns buried under all this snow.  So I turned to Hannah Holmes's Suburban Safari, which has a fascinating chapter about the nut-burying habits of American tree squirrels.  According to the squirrel experts she cites, they use both memory and smell, and they don't lose all that many.  But the truly amazing thing about squirrels is that they know exactly which kind of acorns to bury and which kind to eat on the spot: they eat the acorns from white oak trees in the fall and bury ones from red oak trees for winter.   Why? White-oak acorns germinate the same autumn they fall from the tree, so if buried, they'd promptly sprout. By January, there'd be no nut left to find.  But red-oak acorns don't germinate until the following year, which makes them perfect for winter storage.  How can the squirrels tell the difference?  Apparently, a squirrel can smell if an acorn is preparing to sprout.  If given access only to white-oak acorns, the squirrel will bite out the embryo that causes the acorn to sprout, and bury the now-sterile nut.  Isn't Nature something?

Not that my backyard squirrels have to worry about any of this.  I'd sure hate to add up the cost of all the bags of birdseed they've gobbled up this winter.  And winter sure ain't over yet!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Riverbank Ramble

Another perfect winter day, so back to the Hudson I went.  Today, to the Sherman Island boat launch and a quarter mile or so through the woods along the shore.  The river was a study in blue and white, with ice floes floating lazily along, nudging against each other, piling up in the shallows, turning and flowing back upstream for awhile.  I sat and watched, mesmerized, like staring into the flames and coals of a fire.  Heading back, I noticed these witch hazel bracts, like little yellow flowers shining in the sun.  This bush was in bloom as late as early December.

I found these critter tracks on the ice shelf along the river.  I could visualize a big weasel-like animal inch-worming along, making clusters of five-toed pawprints about 18 inches apart.  I placed the beech leaf in the photo to provide scale;  before the tip broke off it was about four and a half inches long.  I'm guessing otter.  Anyone else want to offer an opinion? 

Monday, February 16, 2009

Signs of Spring

Oh, I haven't seen a crocus or a rosebud . . . but I have seen a bud of skunk cabbage, so Spring can't be far behind.  The purplish bulb in the photo is the emerging spathe, a hollow chamber that encloses the flowering spadix, an egg-shaped club covered with tiny yellowish flowers that many flower books say stink like rotting meat. Maybe they do to pollinating flies, but not to me (and I've stuck my nose right in there and taken a good sniff).  They smell just a little garlicky, like the rest of the plant.  At any rate, the flowers won't bloom for a month or so, when the spathe opens up, but in the meantime this plant is generating heat all on its own, enough to even start melting the snow around it.  It's definitely the first flower of Spring, but you won't find many songs or poems written about it.

I found this bud in the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, an 18-acre wooded preserve off Parkhurst Road in Wilton.  Orra Phelps (1895-1986) was a pioneering Adirondack naturalist and mountaineer (a true nature girl) who lived across the road from this lovely patch of woods, which was opened to the public in 1998, thanks to a gift from Orra's heirs. The preserve has woodsy paths and babbling brooks and, best of all, an old sand pit -- perfect habitat for fringed gentian, which grows here abundantly come September.  It's also a fern-lover's paradise, supporting about 30 of the 40 fern varieties native to New York State. 

 I didn't find any ferns today.  Even the evergreen kind were buried under about 18 inches of snow.  But I did find some fern-shaped ice crystals glittering by the side of a brook.   The brooks were in full-throated babble today:  another sign of approaching Spring.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Death in the Marsh

My first day back on snowshoes since my eye operation, and it was a gorgeous one: radiant blue sky, no wind, mild temperatures.  And the snow crust was so hard, the hiking was easy going.  I headed -- where else? -- to my favorite place on the river around Rippled Rocks Point and ambled about the marsh behind Three Pine Island.  The bloody carcass I posted a photo of two weeks ago is now mostly picked to bare bones, with pieces of skeleton and hide scattered over the surface of the ice.  A hairy woodpecker was poking around in one chunk of it.

Unfortunately, this scene of death was too portentous.  I went to the marsh to visit my friends the black tupelos, only to discover that just about every single one of them has been girdled by beavers -- certain death for the trees. It looks like the damage was done some time ago, but I just noticed it now, now that I can walk around in the marsh on ice.   The odd thing is, not a single one of these trees was toppled.  Is the heartwood just too hard for even a beaver's teeth?  Or are the beavers deliberately killing these trees so ones they like better will replace them?  I would find that hard to believe.

At any rate, it's all very sad.  These trees are so beautiful in all seasons (see the twin beauties above as well as my post for January 16) and seldom found in this part of the country. This marsh had provided a happy home for them.  And unfortunately, a home for the beavers as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Big Kiss for Valentine's Day

One trunk, two trunks, growing from one tree.
Walking through the woods, I spied this white pine,
Thought it would make a great valentine.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Which Are Scarier: Spiders or Bees?

This photo is especially for Nature Girl, author of the wonderful blog Adirondack Naturalist (  In her comment to my post about beautiful bugs, she let on that in the past she had a great fear of bees.  Turnabout's fair play, so here's a photo of something the bee should be afraid of: a goldenrod crab spider, with jaws sunk into the bee. The murder scene is a shining sumac bush. Be sure to click on this photo to get all the (not so) gory details.  (Just think how close I had to get to take this picture!)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

River Reflections

Fifty degrees today!  I had to go out.  My  husband and I went over to Spier Falls Road and walked a mile or so on the road along the Hudson River.  We always hope to spot bald eagles here, since they feed in the open water below Spier Falls Dam and we've spied them here before.  But not today.  We did see turkeys, but they flew off before I could take their picture.  Such galumphy-looking birds, its hard to believe they could get air-borne.  But indeed they do: leaping up into the air and wheeling off to hide in the treetops.

The main show today was the river.  Smooth as glass, with each reflection more beautiful than the last.  I've posted two views, the first looking upstream, the second down.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mother Nature's Jewel Box

I'd hoped to get back to the woods this week, but doctor says No Go,  not until my retina stops bleeding.  Darn!  I'm afraid that by then, with this warm weather, the snow will be too porous to support my snowshoes.  Oh well.  I can't see to focus my camera yet, anyway.

When I was a little girl home sick from school, I'd go through my mom's jewelry box, delighting in all the beautiful shapes and colors.  So today I went through Mother Nature's jewelry box, delighting in all the beauties of hers I've managed to capture in photos.  Of course, I've got hundreds and hundreds of flower pictures, since wildflowers have been the major focus of most of my nature ventures.  I've got lots of butterflies, too, and mushrooms of every shape and color.  But I'm going to show you some bugs:  one beetle, one adult moth, two caterpillars, and one spectacular dragonfly.

First up, a Six-spotted Green Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexgutata).  Some jeweler should make a pretty pin out of this one.  The photo doesn't do its actual radiance justice.   My bug book (Audubon's) says this: "3-5 (commonly 4) white spots."  So  that's why it's called "six-spotted."  Go figure.

Next is Eight-spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata).  Yes, I know, you can only count four in the photo, but when he spreads his wings all eight appear.  But who's counting spots?  Check out those furry orange armbands!  And those ermine epaulets!  And those spangled antennae!  This is one handsome moth.  I read that its caterpillar likes to eat grape leaves, so it's probably considered a pest by vintners.  But not by me.

Here's a Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillar (Euchaetias egle).  And yes, I found it on milkweed.  It's sometimes called a Harlequin caterpillar, for obvious reasons: such a colorful guy.  It's color alerts predators that its flesh is toxic.  But who'd want to eat all those hairs?  I read that it uses those hairs to make a nice warm felt for its cocoon.  The adult moth is really drab.  But such a pretty baby!

Another caterpillar: the Brown-hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis).  Can you believe this is not included in Audubon's insect guide?  What a beauty!  Stripes of yellow, red, white, orange, black, all shiny as if enameled.  And once again, the moth is just a mousy brown little thing. 
I identified this caterpillar with the help of David L. Wagner's Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Wow! The most amazing critters you've ever seen in that comprehensive book. I  highly recommend it.

Finally, here's a Blue Dasher Dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis).  I found him (yes, it's a male) along the Bog Meadow Nature Trail outside Saratoga, and I couldn't believe how still he sat while I shot his photo.  Move over, Frankie; this is the real Mr. Blue Eyes.  I didn't manage to capture the cool blue of his tail, but look at that tiger-striped jacket he's got on.  And the lovely amber stained-glass panes in his wings.  I've been showing a smaller photo of him (the Eight-spotted Forester, too) over there in my blog's sidebar gallery, but I wanted to let you see him up close. 

You can see all these bugs up really close if you click your mouse on the image.  Enjoy!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Animal Romance

Love is in the air . . .  and it's driving the critters crazy. 

 Our resident mob of backyard squirrels has been acting really, well, squirrely lately.  One guy (I think it was a guy; anyone know how to tell?) was going nuts in the lilac bush, tearing up and down the trunk, somersaulting among the boughs, tearing off twigs, leaping to the ground, spinning around, then starting all over again.  Like a show-off kid (Hey guys! Look at me!) in the playground monkey-bars.  Was he having fun? Was he working off steam?  Was he getting in shape for the annual mating race? 

 It looks like it might be time.  Streams of squirrels flow across the lawn, all in hot pursuit of one  (the girl?) who appears to be annoyed by this tail-gating horde. Eventually, one will outrun the others, catch her and manage to do the deed.  In the meantime the boys are being really nasty to one another:  I see gashed flanks, shredded ears, and tails with chunks bitten off of them.

Now, squirrel sex is kind of interesting.  I've read that the male's ejaculate hardens into a "copulatory plug," which blocks her vagina so none of the other guys can get theirs in there too.  But the little vixen!  As soon as first-guy-in looks away, she grooms herself, pulls out the plug, and she's back in the game again.  Maybe two or three or four times more.  So I guess her litter could be the product of multiple fathers.  None of whom, of course, sticks around to help her raise the kids.  But then, some daddy squirrels will actually die from all this mating effort.

Our rabbit, too,  appears to be defying death in pursuit of reproduction.  I thought we had just one, who, so far this winter, has sneaked about the edge of the yard, taking shelter under a neighbor's shed, emerging to nibble the leaves of our evergreen hedge, not venturing into the open.  But lately, some rabbity someone's been scampering all over the open lawn, owls be damned, and leaving piles of poop and puddles of pee for all to see (and smell).  And it looks like the word has gone forth. Tonight, by the light of a silvery moon, a gorgeous full moon that lit up the yard like day, I saw there were two of them out there.  And they weren't ignoring each other. And you know what that means:  baby bunnies come the spring.  

That's why I keep my cats inside.  

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Two Treasures at Skidmore Woods

While poking around in my Skidmore files, I came across two other plants that you don't find very often. (See last post.)  In fact, while searching the web for information about these plants, I discovered they're considered either endangered or of special concern (or even extinct)  in several neighboring states.  Makes me feel very grateful to have such a treasure as the Skidmore woods close to home.

Both of these plants are violets, but I bet you wouldn't have guessed that about the first one pictured above (unless you're a botanist).  It took me a long time to figure out what it was, because at first I didn't see any flowers.  Then I lifted a leaf, and there they were:  tiny little green bud-like things hanging down from the axils.  It's called green violet (Hybanthus concolor -- meaning hump-backed flowers the same color as the leaves).  It sure doesn't look like any other violet I know.  The plant stands about knee high, with long-pointed elliptical leaves alternating on the stout hairy stalk.  The only thing violet-like about it (to a non-botanist like me) is its tripartite seed pod that splits open when ripe, spreading its seeds all over the place.  In fact, when you see how it grows in the Skidmore woods -- just hundreds and hundreds of plants -- you'll wonder how it could be considered rare.  It sure has found its niche in that special place. 

The other violet looks like what we think a violet should look like.  And isn't it pretty?  Snow white on its face,  with a deep yellow throat, dark purple stripes on its lower lips.  But approach it from behind and you wouldn't think it was the same flower:  it's a lovely purple back there.  Viola tricolor (three-colored violet) would be a likely name for this plant.  But it isn't.  This is Viola canadensis, or Canada violet.   I don't know how it fares in Canada.  In some of our neighboring states it's considered threatened.  But aren't we lucky?  It grows like a weed all over the Skidmore woods.

Or, it will, when spring gets here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Rare Finds in the Local Forest

Since I can't go out to the woods until my left eye heals, I moseyed about in my photo files to see what caught my right eye.  There I found these pix of two plants hardly ever found on an everyday walk through an ordinary woods. (And certainly not in February!) 

First is goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), which flowers in May and fruits in July.   This patch was being threatened by garlic mustard with its allelopathic roots.  I cleared an area ten feet all around of this alien aggressor, but I know it'll  just grow back.  So I'll be back as well.  One photo shows the plant in flower; another shows it in fruit.

Next is ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), which flowers in June and fruits in August.  This plant is growing dangerously near a pedestrian/bike path, but is kind of disguised by surrounding Virginia creeper's similar leaves, so it might escape detection by foragers.  Apparently this plant's roots bring hundreds of dollars a pound.  The flowers are so nondescript I didn't post their photo (plus they grow in such deep shade it's hard to get a clear shot).  The fruits are pretty, though.

Both plants are sought after by herbalists and have mostly been rooted out of our Saratoga County forests.  Luckily, we have a woods right here in Saratoga Springs that provides a home for them:  the North Woods at Skidmore College.  It's actually two woods, with  different soil chemistries for each, supporting an astounding diversity of plants, including many rare and protected species.  Biologist Sue Van Hook and artist Jacqueline Callahan have produced a beautifully illustrated little book, Treasure in the North Woods:  A guide to the natural campus at Skidmore College, that collects all kinds of information about this distinctive place.  I found my copy at Border's in Saratoga Springs.  The book lists a website at   Check it out.  And don't pick anything that grows in that woods!                                                  

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Mid-winter Marvels

Six below zero this morning.  Hey winter, warm up!  It's February, already!  Oh well, I can't go out anyway.  I had eye surgery yesterday and doctor says no hiking for a week or more.  By then that sun should be a bit higher in the sky, and winter's edges will start to soften.  How I love that sensory contrast, of still cold snow and bright warm sun.  Exhilarating!

A few years ago I hiked out to the tip of Rippled Rocks, where the mid-February sun was beaming down on the snow-covered boulders, the chickadees in the surrounding hemlocks beginning their sweet spring songs: pee dee. pee dee.  The mid-river ice had opened up, setting the water out there free to dance in the sun with a sequin sparkle.   Bliss!  I lay back in the snow like a kid making angels, basking in warmth on top, icy cold beneath.  Ahhh.... 

 A little thirsty, I  reached for a handful of nice clean snow and nearly  had it in my mouth when I saw all the little black squirmies:  BUGS!  I lurched up and looked around:  Thousands of them, all around, like a giant pepper shaker had sprinkled the surface of the snow.   And when I poked them, they jumped.  Like fleas.  Aha! I thought.  These must be snow fleas.  And so they were. I had never seen them before, but probably because I just wasn't looking.  Now when I'm out on the snow in sunny mid-February I find them everywhere.  There's a wonderful book by Curt Stager, Field Notes from the Northern Forest, that has a whole chapter on these fascinating bugs, whose official name is springtails or, scientifically, collembola.  They're not fleas at all; they don't bite; they appear to suck up stuff through a kind of sipping straw on their bellies; they're so uniquely equipped with parts no other insect has (their springtails, for instance) that some entomologists think they might belong in a class all their own.  And they certainly had me amazed.  Whoever heard of a cold-blooded bug walking around on the snow?

Or a moth afloat on the frigid air of February?  Yep, I've seen those too, along that stretch of river bank.  Hunter's moths, the adult male form of the spring cankerworm that emerges long before other moths have left their snug winter beds. Little wisps of  papery-thin tan wings and black bare feet.  How on earth can they stand it?  Here I am in my longjohns, polar fleece, and goose down, enveloped in about 20 pounds of excess fat, with my own internal combustion engine burning away,  and I'd probably die if I tried to stay out here all night.

Actually, I do know how they do it.  I've read Bernd Heinrich's Winter World: The ingenuity of winter survival, and he explains it all:  hibernation, torpor, antifreeze for blood and other strategies.  But knowing the science doesn't erase the marvel.

Thirty years or more ago, scientists discovered a pink mite near the South Pole, closer to the  Pole than animal life had been known to exist.  Dorothy Donnelly, an award-winning poet and my husband's mother, wrote a poem about it:

The Pink Mite

Science abhors a fiction, its forte being fact.
For facts it will fly to the moon (a feat once restricted
to fiction); it will move a mountain to prove a mouse.
Its game, as old as man, is questions-and-answers --
"How far down the globe do signs of life, extinct
or extant, extend?  Are there tracks of its trek to the end?" 

With the zeal of merchants searching for peerless pearls,
scientists, searching for answers, pushed toward the perilous
Pole on the heels of life, and past the last penguin,
in a world of cold, they found it, warming the heart
of a mite -- a pinpoint of pink of whose ilk a herd
could have bivouacked beneath a snowflake.  But size aside, 

it was just as alive as a lion, and as much at home
on the adamant ice as a crocodile in plush mud
on the Nile.  Survivor of terrible airs, it proved
how far life would go to plant its seeds, hatching
at the planet's frigidest inch an infinitesimal,
pink, pedestrian mite with a liking for lichen.

And when, unattended, the infant steps from the snug
egg, with its eight bare feet and small bald head,
is it cold?  When it opens wide its mouth to be filled
in this wilderness, is it foiled?  Oh, it does not want!
Led like the flock to grass, the pink mite feeds
in polar pastures, replete as a sheep on the green.