Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Frogs and Flowers and Frazil Ice

Does Sue look like a big blue frog to you? Nope, not to me, either. But she sure must have sounded like one to the mess of Wood Frogs congregated in the pool beneath where she sits. The frogs all ceased their quacking calls as we approached this site, but after we sat there awhile and then started quacking ourselves, the frogs started up again with more vigor than ever. We must have made quite a sight for passersby: two dames squatting frog-style by the side of the ditch, quacking away like mad! We got the idea from naturalist Gerry Wykes's blog Naturespeak, where he posted a video of a frog coming after him when he imitated the territorial quacks of mating Wood Frogs. Go check it out if you want a big laugh. And learn stuff from him, too.


Following our froggy conversation, Sue just had time for a quick walk along the Warren County Bike Path. She wanted to check some Hepatica plants she knew of, and we were delighted to find one just emerging from its furry bud. It won't be long now before Hepatica carpets the woods with its beautiful blooms.

Sue had to go to work after lunch, but since I was already halfway there, I drove on up to the Hudson Ice Meadows just north of Warrensburg. We had a mild winter with much less snow than usual, so I wondered how much "frazil ice" would remain along the banks by now. Frazil ice is formed when rushing water forms frozen drops in the air, creating fluid slushy ice that dams up the river and collects on the banks, sometime rising to heights of eight feet or more. What was left today was between three and four feet thick.

With so much of the ice already gone, I'm betting the spring wildflowers here will emerge well ahead of schedule. This Early Saxifrage was already fat with buds.

And that looks like the leaves of Rock Sandwort starting to green up, just to the left of the saxifrage. Because of the ice deposits and their effect on habitat, this area is home to many plants rarely found in other parts of New York. I can't wait to come back to find some in bloom.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Out to Play on a Rainy Day

The pond at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve on a drizzly day

Today was the kind of day when I used to say, "Oh Ma, I don't wanna go out and play 'cause it's raining!" and she'd reply: "You have a nice raincoat." So out I would have to go. In retrospect, I feel grateful to her, for no matter how grudgingly I ventured out, I always found something to amuse or amaze me out there. And that's still the case today, some 60 years later. Venturing out into the rain today, I had two destinations: first, to Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa to see if the Beaked Hazelnut was in bloom (it was), and then out to Skidmore to see if a patch of purple English Violets were blooming (and yes, to my great surprise, they were).

I'd found American Hazelnut shrubs in bloom last week and was curious to see if the Beaked Hazelnut was blooming, too, and the only place I know where it grows is the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve. Sure enough, there they were, but you have to look sharp to see them, despite their brilliant red color. Talk about tiny! I'm sure a botanist could explain how these flowers differ in appearance from those of their American cousins. Their catkins look different, and their fruits would never be confused, but the female flowers sure look alike to me.

I hadn't been out to Woods Hollow since late last fall, when this bright baby Beech looked about the same as it did today: a glowing presence in the middle of the dark forest.

My next stop was the Skidmore woods to confirm the identity of the mystery violet I've been puzzling over for years. Thanks to some super assistance from Steve Young of the NY Natural Heritage Program, who enlisted the expertise of foremost violet authority Harvey Ballard, I now have a name for that fragrant, pure-white, early blooming violet I found just about to bloom last week: Viola odorata alba. Here's a photo I took of it last April when it was in full bloom.

With the common name of Sweet or English Violet, this is the white variety of a violet prized by Victorian ladies for its exquisite fragrance. Native to Europe but not to America, it was probably planted by the Victorian-era ladies (or their gardeners!) who lived in the long-gone mansions where Skidmore College now stands. Last year I found a patch of the more-common purple variety of this violet on the opposite side of the campus from where I found the patch of white ones. I stopped there today to see if these purple ones were blooming. And indeed they were! Or would be, if it hadn't been rainy and cold. Even so, I could detect their delightful scent.

According to Mr. Ballard, the style of this species has a "characteristic long-conic hook on it." So I peeled back the petals to take a peek at the style. Et voila! That looks like a long-conic style with a hook on it to me! (Look closely at the white blossoms above and you can see the same shape of style.)

One last test would confirm it. Mr. Ballard mentioned that individual plants of this species are connected by "(sub)surficial thick cordlike stolons." So, crossing the campus to conduct this test on the patch of white violets, I then brushed back the leaves and soil from around the base of the plants. Well, look at that! Thick cords connecting the plants.

So I guess that clinches it. Viola odorata alba it is. Many thanks, Steve Young and Harvey Ballard. You guys are like superheroes to amateur wildflower nerds like me.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Frozen Morning, Sun-warmed Afternoon

Brrrr! Fifteen degrees this morning! Myself, I'd have frozen solid if I'd had to spend the night bare naked in the woods. So how did my sweet little new baby trillium fare, the one that I found in bud two days ago? I had to find out, so off to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve I tore, making my way along rushing brooks now sparkling with ice, and up to the wooded ridge where I found the Snow Trillium patch. And wonder of wonders! Not only did that bud survive unscathed, a second plant was now very close to blooming. Isn't Nature amazing?

By then, the sun was melting the snow in the woods, and I thought that a walk around Mud Pond would be a nice way to spend a few hours outdoors. And so it was, with the quiet water reflecting a clear blue sky.

I made my way from Mud Pond to Moreau Lake, where I sat on a hillside watching a pair of ducks way out on the water. I could not figure out what kind they were, for each time I tried to zoom in on them with my camera, they'd dive beneath the surface. Well, that put them in the "diving duck" category. The drake had lots of white on his body, as well as almost half of his dark head, so I thought he might be a Hooded Merganser. But the hen had a round darkish head with white patches on her cheeks, not Merganser-like at all. They might have been Buffleheads. Too bad I couldn't get a photo of them, but nevertheless, the water and trees sure looked pretty.

Walking back to my car, I passed many Hazelnut shrubs. Today, the shrubs were festooned with dangling catkins of staminate flowers that looked about ready to shed their pollen on the wind.

Okay, I thought, if the boy-flowers are here, the girls are around as well. But where could they be? At first glance I sure couldn't see them. That's because they are so tiny -- maybe an eighth of an inch across. And sure enough, there they were, all up and down the twigs. Dark red bushy little things sprouting out of scale-covered knobs. Very hard to photograph (when I got close enough, the camera blocked the light), but this one didn't come out too bad.

Considering that these are wind-pollinated flowers, you wouldn't expect them to be so brightly colored, since they don't need to attract pollinators. So I think of their pretty color as a generous gift from the gods. According to John Eastman, author of The Book of Forest and Thicket, the ancient Irish people regarded the Hazelnut as "a tree of knowledge, repository of spiritual favors and good luck." Well, I'm Irish only by marriage, but yes, I have to agree.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Storing Up Spring

What crazy weather! I heard today we'll have snow by morning, and then the temperature will plummet down into the teens tomorrow night. Oh dear! What will happen to those fragile new flowers I found just yesterday? Not to worry, I'm certain the plants will survive somehow, even if the flowers freeze off. It's not as if we've never had snow and freezing temps this late in March before. At least it was still nice today, so I ran out to Bog Meadow Nature Trail to store up a little more springtime before winter returns tonight.

At first glance it still looked like winter out there, all brown and grey unless you peered close to see how the buds are swelling. And of course there was lots of Skunk Cabbage. Dear old Skunk Cabbage, whose beauty is so often disparaged! And yet it can be quite exquisite. Just look at the luminous frosted green of the sheathes around this spathe: the color of opals, or maybe chalcedony.

And what a rich ruby red these two spathes are! And of elegant, curvaceous shape, with a texture like fine leather.

The Bog Meadow pond was full to overflowing today, thanks to a dam constructed by beavers along the entire south side. I don't know how long these willows will live if their roots stay immersed in deep water, but today they were looking quite springlike, with silky little catkins shining in the sun. Look how the fur of these catkins is spotted, just like the tummy fur of a tabby cat.

A small wooden bridge led over a tiny stream, providing a dry spot to kneel and peer into the water. Aha! Look what's scooting about today: Water Striders zipping across the water, dimpling the surface with legs made waterproof by minute hairs.

This one seems to be chomping down on some prey. If the photo were better in focus we might tell what it's eating. I'm guessing maybe a red ant.

To see more really beautiful photos of Water Striders (and other great stuff), scoot on over to my friend Sue's blog, Water Lily, where she matches what's happening out there in the woods and waters with marvelous quotes from Thoreau.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Good Day for Frogs. And Flowers

Well, the weather predictions were right: rainy and cold starting Sunday night. But you won't hear me complain, because we really needed the water. Anyway, Mondays are when I take my ill friend for a drive, and it was toasty and dry in the car, despite the weather outside. We did get out for a short walk near a marsh, where we heard lots of Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows singing away and caught a glimpse of a Great Blue Heron flying overhead, long legs stretched out behind. We then drove along the Hudson River until we crossed the Mohawk River at Waterford/Cohoes. Here's where the Mohawk forms the southern boundary of Saratoga County, roaring over the wide Cohoes Falls shortly before joining the Hudson at Troy. In a week or so, much of the Mohawk's water will be diverted into the Erie Canal, and the falls will shrink to a trickle. So to see the falls in all their glory, we had to catch them now. And they were spectacular.

Today started chilly and damp as well, but by noon the sun was shining brightly. The better to see all the Wood Frogs by! My friend Sue took me to a wet spot along the Warren County Bike Trail where she'd seen many frogs last year, but we'd thought it was much too early and weren't expecting to see them. But soon we heard their quacking calls and wow! they were there in abundance!

How many frogs can you count in this picture? Can you see the bluish puddles of eggs floating just under the water?

I managed to catch one frog in mid-croak, his cheeks puffed out, and the water set to quivering around him.

Love was in the air. And under the water, too!

On my way back to Saratoga I stopped at the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, wondering if maybe Snow Trillium shoots could be found. This is a trillium that's not supposed to be found this far north, but I found it here last year. And yes, it's back, right where I found it before, many tiny plants hardly bigger than my fingertip.

And I'll be darned! Here's one almost ready to bloom. No wonder they call it "Snow" Trillium. It seems to start blooming as soon as the snow is gone.

Next stop was the Skidmore Woods, where Spring Peepers were calling shrilly in one pond and Wood Frogs quacking away in another. My quest was to check on Hepaticas, since so many other spring things are occurring early. But I found no flowers yet, just itsy bitsy buds like this one, all snug in its furry bunting.

Well, I did find one flower, and I hope this year I will find out what to call it. A violet, yes, and a very early blooming one, pure white with no purple veins on its lower lip, unlike other early white violets like the Sweet White and Northern species. There was just one half-open bloom today, but even at this early stage it was deliciously fragrant.

Here's another distinctive feature: a purple spur on an otherwise snowy blossom.

I've never found any other violet quite like this one, nor can I find one like this in all my flower guides. Anybody have any suggestions?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Winter is Over. No Matter What.

Cloudy and colder. Rain, probably. Possibly, snow. Those are the weather predictions for the week to come. But who cares? This last week was absolutely gorgeous, with sunny days and warm temperatures that have broken winter's grip for sure. See the mountain and trees reflected in Moreau Lake? Just yesterday, this lake was still covered with ice, except for some open areas close to the land. But today it was wide, wide open from shore to shore.

There were several groups of ducks enjoying the open water. This group was too far away for me to get a focus on, so I can't tell what they are. Maybe some kind of Scaup?

Most years at this date, we wouldn't be able to walk around Moreau Lake on the beach, because the spring water levels are usually way up into the woods. Not this year. Today I could walk completely around the lake, staying close to the edge, enjoying the sound and the feel of stones scrunching the sand beneath my feet.

The water was clear as glass. See how beautiful the pebbles look, lying there on the bottom, their colors intensified by the water.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Here Comes the Coltsfoot!

Ta da! The Coltsfoot is up! It's as if the sun had called for his little sister to rise and shine. And up she popped, so sunny and bright, the very first flower of the spring. (Not counting Skunk Cabbage, which actually melts the snow with its self-generated heat in order to bloom during winter.)

We are so weary of winter and hungry for flowers, we forgive pretty Coltsfoot for not being native, and we always rejoice when we find her, poking up from among the dead dry leaves of winter. The floral year has begun. Time for me to start a new wildflower journal. Looking back at last year's journal, I note that Coltsfoot is blooming this year a full week ahead of last year.

Coltsfoot probably came to these shores with the early Europeans, who found all kinds of medicinal uses for this plant. Its Latin name, Tussilago farfara, suggests what one of those uses was (think of Robitussin). You can make a cough syrup by steeping the plant in water, adding sugar, and boiling it down to a syrup consistency. You probably shouldn't do that, though. Recent research has found certain alkaloids in this plant can cause cancer. So just let it be. It will bloom for some weeks before the large hoof-shaped leaves that give it its common name grow up to overshadow the flowers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Evidence is Everywhere!

Oh, yes, yes, YES! This weather is more like it! Clear blue sky, brilliant sun, temperature in the mid 60s. Spring is in the air, no doubt about it -- and in the woods and along the waterways, as well. I've been making the rounds of some of my favorite nature haunts, gathering evidence of spring's imminent arrival. Here are some of my finds.

In the Skidmore Woods:

Little purple spears mark the spot where Wood Betony will bloom sometime in May.

These purple Hepatica leaves are left from last fall, but they're shielding tiny shoots of new growth down close to the soil. I just love the color and shape of these leaves, especially against that bed of soft green moss. Despite the fact that both moss and leaves are winter's leftovers, they add a bright springlike color to the otherwise dull brown forest.

The Mourning Cloak Butterflies were wafting about the woods today, having wintered over hidden among bark and leaves. They manage to survive freezing temperatures by increasing the sugar content of their blood until it becomes anti-freeze. I was lucky to catch one resting with outspread wings, absorbing the energy from the warming sun.

At Orra Phelps Nature Preserve:

The spathe of Skunk Cabbage has opened to reveal the first flower of spring tucked inside. See the yellow spadix peeking out from the shadowy interior. I know, I know, it's not such a beautiful flower, but it sure is welcome to early awakening insects looking for food. And on second thought, it is beautiful!

Near the Sherman Island Boat Launch on the Hudson:

At first glance, it appeared that the ice was all gone from the river. But this super-thin transparent sheet was floating near shore, revealing its presence only by the odd ripples. I'll bet that it melted as soon as the noon sun reached it. Bye bye, winter!

At Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park:

The ice has begun to recede from the shore, where the sun warms the shallows to revive all kinds of new life.

Hundreds of Newts wriggled into the underwater muck as I stepped near the shore. Mostly, I just got a glimpse of them as they disappeared. But one hung suspended in the murky water.

Here's a clearer photo I took last year. Note the dark mating pads on the hind foot, which help the male better clasp his slippery sweetheart.

These tiny (1/3 inch) spiders were darting all over the surface, looking as if they were flying, hardly touching the water. I could only see them during their moves, since they promptly disappeared among the camouflaging grasses. But this one landed on a leaf long enough for me to take its photo. If you click on this photo, you'll discover several other, even tinier, critters.

Here's another, paler, color of spider, just a wee bit bigger, but also able to scoot about on the water. Can you see the little dimples under its feet where they press on the surface? Note, too, all the tiny white dots all over the water. They were some kind of flea-like creature, hopping constantly, almost too small to see, but making the sunlight glitter in little specks on the surface.

Hundreds of dark, oval bugs were darting around like crazy under the water. Except for this pair, who crawled out onto a log to engage in more romantic business. Ben Snyder, an environmental educator at Moreau Lake State Park, believes that these are Predaceous Diving Beetles, a species that manages to stay under water for long periods by storing air under their wing covers. Scuba bugs. And by the way, as their name suggests, they do bite.

After all these signs of returning life, I was startled to find this heap of dead minnows lying in the shallows, with many more scattered across the bottom, glinting like little shards of silver. I wonder how they all died. Could they have been caught in ice when the water suddenly froze? Even more puzzling is why they haven't been eaten.