Thursday, February 17, 2011

Once More, Up the Ridge

What?! Up the porcupine ridge AGAIN?! Yes, I know, I was up there just yesterday with Sue and Pat, but today I had Ed and Ruth along. It may have been the same trail to the same destination, but today was a different day with different companions looking with different eyes, so the trek was a brand new experience. And what a gorgeous day it was! Sunny and warm, with the snow growing soft underfoot, so our snowshoes went a quieter shush, shush, shush instead of the crashing crunch, crunch, crunch of our footfalls yesterday.

Both Ed and Ruth are expert and passionate botanists, so we stopped frequently to examine the plants along the trail. Here, Ruth studies the bark of an understory tree with dangling seeds to determine if the tree was a Striped Maple. Which it was.

What a delight it was for me to witness these two extremely knowledgeable botanists puzzle over the trailside flora with such enthusiasm and curiosity. I always learn a lot when I walk with them.

Happily, though, Ruth's and Ed's curiosity extends to more than just plants. I had tempted them to Moreau Lake State Park today with the promise that I would show them the caves up high on the ridge where porcupines denned. I'm sorry to report we saw no porcupines, but we sure saw a bunch of trashed hemlocks (see yesterday's blog post), as well as the well-trodden trails that run from the dens to the feeding trees.

Surveying the littered forest floor, we all wondered why porcupines chew off branches to fall to the ground, while the animal itself remains up in the tree, feeding on the bark. Ruth said she knows a mammalogist she can ask about this, so I hope we may soon get an answer.

Update: Sure enough, Ruth got back to me with lots of information about porcupines. She wrote to tell me that porcupines are mainly nocturnal, and that while the summer diet is greatly varied (grasses, leaves, nuts, fruits, roots, etc.), in winter they depend on the cambium and phloem layers of tree bark. Branches are clipped off feeding trees if they obstruct the porcupine's progress, and this can benefit such ground-feeding animals as deer. A large porcupine's winter meal would be a piece of bark the size of a sheet of typing paper. This animal has 25 feet of intestine and possesses an outsize liver, possibly to store vitamins and fats from the fall eating spree of fruits and nuts. By spring, all the stored fat has been used up, and the animals wander.

Ruth had even more facts: The newborns (usually just one to a litter) are precocious, soon eating alder and willow catkins. Mating occurs in the fall. Males are larger than females, usually between 5 and 13 pounds, although giants as big as 28 pounds have been caught. Dens are rarely used after winter has passed. Porcupines love salty things and the glue used in plywood. When relaxed, their quills are kept beneath the guard hairs. When excited, the quills stand erect, the tail thrashes, and the teeth chatter. They have five clawed toes on their hind feet, four on the front. Their sounds are grunts, whines, and murmurs. Anything else we may want to know about porcupines we could probably find in a book called World of the Porcupine by David Costello, or in Mammals of North America by R.W. Kays and D.E. Wilson.

It took me a while to figure out what made this purple stain in the snow, but it sure looks like grape juice to me. Who would have thought there was this much juice left in the shriveled grapes we find occasionally still hanging from the vines?

I had seen these winged insects before when I was exploring these caves with my friend Sue in December. Whole clouds of them were flying around the mouths of the caves today, and one obliged me by landing on the snow so I could get a clear photograph.

This insect was slightly larger than a mosquito, and Ed suggested it might be a cranefly, so I explored that possibility when I got home to my computer. Sure enough, what we have here is a Winter Cranefly, one of the few insects we have that actually emerge from their larvae and mate in winter. I wonder what they find to eat in the frozen environment? Perhaps they don't eat at all, but simply find mates and breed and die.

That may also be true for the Winter Stoneflies we saw crawling on the snow by a rushing stream. These are very small insects, and my photo shows it about twice the size that it actually is.

I have never gotten a satisfactory answer as to the make-up of the cave-riddled boulders up here on the ridge overlooking Moreau Lake. Are they naturally occurring caves carved out by the streams that flow under and around them, or were they created by humans excavating for minerals? I've heard them called graphite mines, but a geologist friend questioned that. Certainly, there are garnets here, because I have seen their ruby-colored chunks embedded in the boulders. Also, we find plants such as Walking Fern and Ebony Spleenwort here, plants that have to have a calcarious substrate to thrive, so that's a clue. Here, Ed examines a chunk of rock that appeared quite crystalline. Now I can't remember what he thought it was: marble or quartzite?

Ed got back to me to tell me that the rock was quartzite, which is metamorphosed sandstone. Its fractured surface looks glassy, usually white to clear. Marble, he told me, is metamorphosed limestone and, here in the Adirondacks, usually has flat crystalline fracture surfaces .

On this sun-warmed day, the little streams were dancing and singing and flowing freely. I noticed this emerald-green moss flowing along with the current and lifted a piece to examine it more closely. I hadn't brought my moss field guide along today, but I didn't need it, with Ruth and Ed at hand to tell me exactly what it was. It's Fontinalis, or Water Moss, and can be distinguished by the way its leaves grow in three rows. Very pretty.

After we descended from the ridge, we had intended to eat our lunches in the warming hut at the edge of the lake, but the sun was beating down so intensely, we decided to clear the snow from a bench and picnic out on the beach. A beautiful day, indeed! And while we sat there enjoying the warmth of the sun and each other's company, a chickadee started singing its sweet spring song: Pee dee-dee. Perfect.

1 comment:

Ellen Rathbone said...

Wow - lots of great info packed into that blog! Love the moss at the end, although I'm not sure I see the three rows of leaves.