Friday, December 31, 2010

Up to the Porcupine Boulders, Down to the Lake

What better way to end the year than with a walk in the woods? Especially when that walk in the woods is with my good nature buddy Sue, and the sky is blue and the air is warm and there's just enough snow on the ground to preserve all the woodland creatures' footprints. We met at Moreau Lake State Park today and set off on the Red Oak Ridge Trail, climbing up and up to where porcupines make their dens among boulders and hemlocks high on the ridge.

There were ample signs (and scents!) of porky's presence, with well-trodden trails connecting the odiferous dens to twig-littered feeding grounds under the hemlock trees. We searched and searched those hemlock treetops, hoping to spy the porcupine's shaggy bulk up among the branches, but no such luck. We did find some porcupine paw prints, though, clear and distinct, showing its fat flat feet and long sharp claws.

Usually, this animal's trail is so well-trodden that no distinct paw prints are visible. Unlike foxes or fishers or deer, which are constantly wandering the woods in their search for food (and whose trails we found all over the ridge today), the porcupine finds a tree with bark that will serve as a food source for quite some time. Every day it returns to that very same tree, ploughing a trough with its low-slung wide body and packing the snow beneath with its fat flat feet. The porcupine also pees at it waddles along, so there's often a squiggly yellow line down the center of its trail.

Here's another trail we found today, with footprints no bigger than those of a tiny mouse. But the footprint pattern shows that the creature was walking or running, not hopping. Mice always hop through snow, and usually you can see the imprint of a tail. But this creature was just as small and light as a mouse. Perhaps it was a shrew.

If it weren't for all these tracks preserved in the snow, we would never know how well-trafficked with critters these forests are, since we hardly ever see them in the flesh. What really surprised us today, though, was seeing flying insects catching the sunlight in the air around the porcupine dens near a rushing stream. Some of the gnat-like insects were landing on the snow, and Sue took some incredible photos of them, including a mating pair. Insects mating in the dead of winter? That's a new one on me. I, too, tried to take photos of one tiny insect crawling on the snow, but to my surprise, what I photographed was not a gnat, but a tiny stonefly.

How odd! I know to look for stoneflies as soon as the ice begins to recede in the spring, but I never imagined they would be crawling about on the snow in late December. Update: I went and checked, where I discovered that this is a Small Winter Stonefly in the family Capniidae, commonly called a Snowfly. According to BugGuide's Eric Eaton, "the defining need of winter stonefly nymphs is for very high levels of oxygen in the water. Warm temperatures, excessive organic matter, and many pollutants all reduce oxygen levels. The result: they're only active in the coldest part of the year and are very sensitive to pollution. Their main interest to humans is as an indicator species: you can tell that water is unpolluted if stoneflies live there. "

While wandering around up there on the ridge, we came across piles of logs that looked as if they had been cut long, long ago, when the trees up here were harvested for timber. The ends of the logs were covered with this taupe-colored cracked-crust stuff I've never seen before. My guess is that it is some kind of crustose lichen, but I don't know which one.

After a couple of hours on the ridge, we made our way back down the trail to the newly opened warming hut, where we had our lunch while enjoying a crackling fire as we gazed through the big picture window at the lake. Then out on the lake we went, taking a shortcut across the ice to return to our cars. It wasn't yet three o'clock, but already the mountain's shadow was reaching across the frozen expanse.

We stopped to look into the augured holes ice fishermen had bored through the ice, which appeared to be at least six inches thick. We were saddened to see some unwanted fish had been abandoned on the ice, rather than returned to the lake. Here Sue takes a photo of a beautiful green-speckled pickerel. Looking closely, we saw that its mouth was moving as if it were attempting to breathe, so we quickly placed it into the water, hoping it might revive.

Here's a closer look at that pickerel, which was much too small to make a meal of, so it should have been thrown back in by the person who caught it. He probably thinks of himself as a "sportsman," but I don't think it's very sporting to leave a helpless creature to die on the ice.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

No Snow Emergency Here

No fair!! While I was down at my daughter's in Westchester County for Christmas, the snow fell fast and furious, nearly two feet of it, drifting to giant heaps that stopped trains in their tracks and stranded buses at the curbs in New York City. A great big mess down there. The gift of all that snow is lost on them, while up here in Saratoga County, where we would know what to do with all that downy gorgeousness, we got only about three inches. Hardly enough to bother shoveling.

Unfortunately though, that was enough for Saratoga Springs to declare a snow emergency and tow any car that wasn't moved after 24 hours. And I was away for four days. Here's the sight that met my eyes when I went to drive my car this morning. Gone! By the time I pay the parking tickets and all the towing fees, I'll have paid about $200. As I said before, no fair! That little dribble of slush on the street doesn't look like any snow emergency to me.

Ah well, at least we had enough snow to capture animal tracks, so off to the woods I went today (once I got my car back and stopped fuming). When I reached the river by Three Pine Island, I was pleased to see the water was frozen over and covered with snow -- perfect tracking conditions.

The ice is not thick enough for me to walk on yet, but other creatures have. This little mink has found access to open water where a stream enters the marsh. Looks like he went right in.

It looks like a fisher (or several of them) has been using this frozen bay as a shortcut between sections of forest. But I could be wrong. Each winter I have to relearn my tracking skills.

Also, this winter I hope to gain more skill in identifying non-flowering plants, such as fungi and ferns, mosses and liverworts, many of which can be found all winter long. For example, here is a rotting stump I found today that was covered quite prettily with two colorful fungi and one bright green liverwort. Might be a little moss mixed in there, too. I'm not sure what that ruffly shelf fungus is (there are several look-alikes in my mushroom books), but I'm pretty certain those little yellow dots are a sac fungus called Bisporella citrina, or Lemondrops.

That patch of bright green I might have assumed was a moss, but my friend Evelyn Greene has been teaching me to take a closer look. And a closer look at this growth revealed the overlapping leaves of a leafy liverwort. An even closer look reveals that each of those leaves is tipped with three teeth, a sure sign that this particular liverwort is Bazzania trilobata.

I learned about Bazzania trilobata and its three-toothed leaves in a book I received as a Christmas present from my husband, Outstanding Mosses & Liverworts of Pennsylvania & Nearby States by Susan Munch. He also gave me a Golden Guide to Non-flowering Plants, which covers fungi, ferns, lichens, algae, slime molds, and other plants in addition to mosses and liverworts. Oh my! I sure have a lot to learn. Lots of stuff to make a winter's walk even more fascinating.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Here Comes Christmas

Despite signs clearly stating DANGER, Thin Ice, Keep Off, these fishermen took their chances on Moreau Lake. I was up at the lake yesterday, trying to fit in some outdoor time before the Christmas holiday keeps me indoors now for days on end. (We're off to our daughter's downstate tomorrow, and will spend some time in NYC before coming home next Tuesday.) I was glad to see that the lake was so solidly frozen, since that means the park naturalists will soon start hauling deer carcasses out on the ice to serve as feeding stations for eagles and other carnivores. Makes for exciting bird watching. I just hope these fishermen don't experience some exciting cold-water dunking.

Today was a gorgeous blue-sky day, but I could only enjoy it through my kitchen window while I was finishing up my Christmas baking: two cherry pies, one mincemeat pie, four kinds of cookies, cinnamon rolls, a white sheet cake, and a chocolate rum cake. Whew! My daughter expects to feed about 40 guests tomorrow, so I expect some of this will get eaten. (Somebody already snitched a cinnamon roll.)

I meant to come up with some meditation about the spiritual meaning of Christmas, but my busyness today has made it difficult to find the silence and solitude such a meditation requires. I do, however, remember and like what I posted a year ago, and so I'm inviting my readers to revisit that post by clicking here.

May you all have a wonderful holiday season, full of peace and joy and the love of your family and friends. May God grant that the new year brings greater peace to the world.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Miniature Marvels

Darn that Evelyn! I used to be able to go for a walk in winter just to get some exercise. But ever since Evelyn Greene, a moss and liverwort expert, showed me all the cool stuff that grows on rocks and trees all year around, my winter walks have become just as halting as my spring wildflower ones, when it sometimes takes me an hour to progress a hundred yards. Such was the case today when I ran out to the Skidmore woods, hoping to burn off a few Christmas cookie calories. No sooner had I set foot on the trail than I was stopped dead in my tracks: There I was, surrounded by trees just covered with big dark splotches that demanded a closer look.

The very first splotch I examined with my hand lens yielded several miniature marvels. There was liverwort, sure, these dark brown braided structures branching out across the bark. I think it's a kind of Frullania. The fluffy green stuff is doubtless a moss, but one I don't know the name of.

The real surprise, though, was these teeny tiny tan fungi, scattered by the hundreds among the cracks of the bark. They look like fungi, anyway, like little stemmed mushrooms, although they're now hard and dry.

Not all the tree splotches were dark. Here are some that are whitish and shaggy. Is this a lichen or a fungus? I can't find anything quite like it in my books, so I will have to ask some experts.

Here's a closer look at those shaggy structures. They remind me of Bear's Head, a toothed fungus, except that these teeth are dry and papery, not soft and fleshy.

The Skidmore woods offers another impediment to my maintaining a brisk walking pace, and that's the profusion of marvelous rock formations that call to me to stop and explore every cranny. There's a geologic fault line that runs north-south along the eastern edge of the college campus, and here expansive walls of calcareous rock are exposed, providing a rich habitat for many lime-loving mosses and ferns.

Here's a closer look at some of that rock, with its deeply pitted surface, a combination of crumbly, grainy stuff interspersed with hard, translucent chunks that are glassy and almost blue.

Update: My friend Ed Miller wrote to tell me that "the bluish component of the Skidmore limestone is likely chert, a poor grade of flint. It can be flaked for small arrow points, but seldom is suitable for larger points or stone knives. We used it for our flint and steel fire-starting kits when we were in scouts. Good enough for that purpose. Flint nodules are uncommon enough to have been valuable for primitive peoples. In Britain there was a brisk trade in those that were formed in the chalk cliffs of Dover."

Today, these rock walls were hung with icicles, as if decorated for Christmas.

And because it's Christmas, I will look kindly upon this bright red Burning Bush berry, so prettily snuggled into the snow-encrusted moss, as if posing for a Christmas card photo.

There's a wonderful variety of mosses that grow on these craggy rocks, and I thought at first this was one of them. But a closer inspection revealed that no, this is a liverwort. Could it be Porella, a mossy-looking liverwort that Evelyn showed me growing on a tree just a week or so ago? Does Porella grow on limey rocks as well as on trees? I'll have to ask her.

I'll also have to ask her if this pretty moss is Rhodobryum rosea, a moss that in summer looks like tiny dahlias. This growth is certainly fresh and green, but I did see some dead brown parts among it that looked like dried dahlias.

This Maidenhair Spleenwort was also still green, and it will stay that way all winter, since it's one of our evergreen ferns. There were dozens of these spleenworts sprouting out of the cracks of one mossy boulder, a sure sign that there's limestone here, since that's the kind of habitat this spleenwort favors.

The same goes for Walking Fern, another limestone lover. I thought to myself, if there's spleenwort here, I bet I'll find Walking Fern. And so I did. Quite a bit of it, in fact. This is just one little plant. On the right side of this photo you can see the fronds of other ferns reaching out across the moss to bury their tips and start new plants. The ferns will eventually "walk" across the face of the boulder.

I wonder how long it would take one fern to cover the face of a rock. I think I may have found a walker that's even slower than I am.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Recalling Some Good Times

The Solstice, a full moon, and an eclipse -- all in a single event. It's been 372 years since these three came together, and I slept right through it. How could I? Well, it's been that kind of week. Fraught. I hardly got outdoors at all this week, which to a nature addict like me is mighty distressing. There were all the demands of holiday preparations -- baking, shopping, wrapping, decorating, etc. -- and then my computer started acting up, which required an 80-mile round trip to (horrors!) a major shopping mall the week before Christmas. Then my long-haired cat got diarrhea, which required me to grab him each time he left the litter box so I could wash his behind before he jumped on the sofa. And sometimes I failed to do that. As I said, not a good week.

But the worst thing of all was that our friend Warren died. That sure kicked the stuffing out of the week. When a friend of 40 years is just . . . well, gone, 40 years of his memories of you disappear as well. We were all young when we met, our children grew up together, his wife and I worked together at Skidmore, he and my husband were avid intellectual companions, all our years here in Saratoga were spent with him as our friend. And now we are old, and one by one we disappear. Sad.

To console myself, I've been remembering some happy times we had together this year, starting last February when we went out to the river to look for eagles. And wonder of wonders, we saw one!

Because Warren had always been such an avid outdoorsman, we tried to get out for a nature adventure each week after that, although there were times when his illness interfered. Luckily, I wrote a blog post about many of our trips, so I have a partial record of some of the places we went. (Just click on the colored word to revisit the original posts.) In early March, we crossed the Hudson to follow the river roads to Ft. Miller and Ft. Edward, inching along the river banks, windows rolled down, binoculars scanning the water to look for waterfowl. Warren was excited when he spied these Goldeneyes.

A couple of weeks later, we drove through the Saratoga Battlefield, walking out to the top of a hill to enjoy the view of the mountains beyond the river. Warren was an accomplished cyclist who had cycled the battlefield roads many times. But today we walked, and at a slow pace, which allowed us to stand and study a bluebird flitting about in a thicket.

That same day, we continued south along the Hudson until it met the Mohawk River at Cohoes, where we stopped to marvel at the majestic Cohoes Falls.

In April, we walked through a nature preserve adjoining Ballston Creek, where the forest floor was carpeted with more Spring Beauties than I've ever seen in my life.

Our goal at Ballston Creek was to spy on a heronry with a number of occupied nests. When a muddy path impeded our approach through the woods, we drove around to an industrial area on the other side of the creek, where we caught a great view (thanks to great binoculars!) of a Great Blue Heron perched over its nest.

On May 17, a gorgeous spring day, we drove up to Lake George and had lunch at a lakeside restaurant in Bolton Landing, where the food was so-so but the view was magnificent. We then continued north to Hague, where we walked in the woods to view a lovely little waterfall. I cannot find the photos of these events in my hard drive files, but the photos are there on my blog for that day, which can be accessed by clicking here.

I know that on June 7 we went for a walk along Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa, because the evidence is there on my blog for that date. But I don't remember where I stored my photos of that day's excursion. I do remember, though, that Warren was entranced by swooping swallows, while I was puzzled by odd little snails all over the vegetation.

At this point my blog posts about our adventures stop. I know we went out several times more during the summer and fall, but I also remember that Warren was hospitalized a couple of times during these seasons because he had fallen and injured himself. It could be, too, that after those falls I did not take photos during our outings because we either stayed in the car or I had to assist him while walking. One summer outing I do remember was driving up into the hills above Saratoga Lake, passing by horse farms where mares and their foals were grazing in emerald-green meadows. I also wanted to show Warren this barnyard with its amazing floral display -- all weeds! -- where I had taken this photo the summer before. But we were disappointed to find that the flowers had already faded. All the flowers bloomed a few weeks early this summer.

Almost every time we went out, we stopped for something to eat. Sometimes a whole lunch, other times just some ice cream at Stewarts. I guessed that Warren's health was truly fading when he said no, he didn't want ice cream. He really loved his ice cream. And I really loved my friend. How lucky I am that we had these good times together.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Merry Christmas to All My Blog Friends

My computer is so sick the Apple techs can't help it over the phone, so it's off to the computer hospital until I don't know when. In case I don't get it back before Christmas, I want to wish everybody the happiest holiday season, with lots of merriment, sweet and reflective silences, and many happy hikes.

Update: the Apple techs say I need a new hard drive, which luckily was still under warranty. In the meantime, while I wait for the hard drive to arrive, I can limp along using this one and thank you all for your kind wishes and holiday greetings.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Winter Returns

Close to zero this morning. Snow has fallen, enough to turn the ground white. It looks like Winter really means it, now. And I'm glad. With frozen lakes and rivers, and snowy fields and woods, my outdoor adventures take on a different focus. The rest of the year, woodland creatures hide from sight, but now I can follow their tracks in the snow and try to decipher their stories. I can't go out in my boat anymore, but I can still delight in water and the icy forms it assumes. So I went to the river today and walked about in the woods.

While I walked, I thought about my friend Warren, who used to come out with me. He died this week, finally succumbing to the Parkinson's Disease that slowly depleted his strength and robbed him of his agility. While he still could walk and enjoy an outing, I brought him, an avid birder, here to the Hudson to look for eagles. And wonder of wonders, the eagle gods rewarded us! (I wrote about that outing in my post for February 24.) We enjoyed several other adventures as the spring and summer wore on, but eventually the disease took its toll, until the effort outweighed the pleasure of going out, and now my friend is gone. He would have been 80 tomorrow. We were friends for 40 years, and I will miss him. He was a good man.

I wish I could have showed him today the majestic fountains of ice that had formed on the cliffs along Spier Falls Road.

Or the dainty feathers of frost that had formed on the moss-covered rocks.

Long before he became a college professor, my friend was a woodsman and trapper. I'll bet he could have figured out what this critter was up to, dancing about in the snow. Would he have noticed that yellow spot where the animal crouched to pee? I wish I could ask him.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nature Friends Brave the Cold

The temperature was somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees this morning when I met the Thursday Naturalists at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa. This is a group of professional and amateur nature lovers who meet weekly to explore various natural areas of the region, and just this fall they have invited me to join them on their excursions, to my great delight. True, my delight was tempered by shivers when I first stepped out of my car and stood stamping the ground while waiting for the rest of the members to arrive. But then that delight was promptly revived as we set out past fields turned into enchanted landscapes by glittering diamond-dust frost.

Our group was led by noted botanist Ruth Schottman, who had planned to use this opportunity to practice some "forest forensics," looking for signs in the land and the vegetation that would offer clues to the social as well as natural history of the area. However, since such careful observation and analysis would likely involve a good deal of standing and looking around, Ruth thought it better that we just keep moving at a pace brisk enough to keep us from freezing. So off we went, through a wooded section of the preserve I had never explored before.

But of course we did stop. And frequently. No matter what the season or how cold, there is always something to puzzle over or be amazed by in the woods.

One of our fascinating finds was this spiraling outbreak of aberrant growths called "witch's brooms" on a birch tree. None of us had ever seen such a thing on birch before.

Here was another form of witch's broom we found, this one on a willow shrub. Its vivid red color stood out against the grey-brown of the surrounding vegetation.

Is this a sapcicle? It was oozing out of a scar in the bark of a White Pine, and neither Ruth (on the left) nor Win was quite sure what it was. Win poked at it with his knife and determined it was frozen solid all the way through. I tasted a bit and found it lacking in any distinguishing taste, although it had a distinctive smell that reminded me a bit of honey.

Walking past the pond that lies in the center of the preserve, we found it frozen solid, with the ice several inches thick already. I couldn't resist stopping to photograph these bubbles captured in the ice. Are they trapped air or methane gas released by rotting underwater vegetation?

Throughout the Woods Hollow preserve, nature interpretive signs are nailed to trees or mounted on posts, a wonderfully informative addition to any trail walk. I found it a little mystifying, however, that this very informative paragraph about our native White Pine was nailed to another native conifer that is prolific throughout the preserve, a Pitch Pine.

As Ruth pointed out while we moved through the woods, there are many, many signs to be read in the trees and the landscape themselves that will provide us with lots of information about what lies around us. She recommended a book by Tom Wessels called Reading the Forested Landscape, and she lent me a generously illustrated field guide, Forest Forensics, that relates to Wessels's book. I shall have to study up on this, an area of study that can be pursued in any season. Could make for an interesting blog post or two, as well.