Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Back to My Woods and Waterways

For the past three days, the only outdoor activity I've been engaged in was playing with my grandkids in my own backyard. Lots of fun. Maya and Sean are cute and smart and funny and adorable, and so is their baby brother Alex and their teen-age sister Tayla, all of them here for the long weekend with their mom and dad. So I was busy. Delighted to be with my family. But busy. So I'm not going to pretend I wasn't happy to have this absolutely gorgeous day today all to myself, just me and my little canoe, taking our first paddle this spring on my beloved stretch of the Hudson River between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams.

The river's been so rowdy this spring, with floods and torrential downpours roiling the waters and drowning the islands, I haven't been out to survey what damage was done to "my" little island just off the Sherman Island boat launch along Spier Falls Road. The river was still plenty high and the current strong, so I really had to paddle hard to make it out to the island, which only a couple of weeks ago was completely under raging torrents of water.

Well, the shrubbery looked a bit battered, a few trees were toppled, and every bush was festooned with flotsam, most of it shreds of plastic that I unwound from branches and gathered into bags, restoring my pretty island to its natural beauty. And oh, it was beautiful! Just look at this splendid Early Azalea, as fragrant as it is lovely. And tough. A real survivor. The island was covered with it, looking only a little worse for wear.

The masses of Black Huckleberry also survived the floods, putting forth their pretty rosy-red flowers right on schedule.

The island's trees were alive with birds, mostly Tree Swallows but also Song Sparrows and some bird that must have been a warbler because it warbled its loud sweet song over and over again. And always out of sight. This mother American Merganser could also have stayed out of sight, hiding among the coves. I would never have seen her and her plentiful brood if they hadn't torn off in a flurry and much commotion, the little ones actually running on the surface of the water as fast as their little webbed feet could carry them. Of course, by the time I could open my camera, the family was far across the river, and my camera's zoom only stretches so far.

The current was strong and my paddling muscles not yet conditioned, so I didn't paddle far from the boat launch, and soon I decided to continue my nature adventures today on dry land. Well, damp land, anyway. With so much rain this season, the vernal pools are now summer ponds, producing clouds of mosquitoes. But the woodland plants are loving it. Indian Cucumber Root was looking lush and lovely today. I was entranced by how this bit of sunlight lit up the ruby-red styles of its pendant, spidery flowers.

The humid air was heavy with the delicious fragrance of grape flowers. It really amazes me how such minute and inconspicuous flowers can put out so much scent. (Carrion Flower does the same, but not such a pleasant odor!)

I crossed the road from the boat launch site to visit a flat open area I'd last explored in autumn, when I'd discovered willow shrubs heavily infested with pine-cone galls. The galls were still there. I wonder if the larvae (or the metamorphosed insects) pushed their way out through the overlapping scales.

I don't know what kind of willows these are, but I have never seen such fluffy catkins on any other willows. If this were a Pussy Willow, I'd have to call it an Angora Pussy Willow.

Almost every blade of grass or stem of clover in this sandy, rocky field bore the tell-tale froth that indicated a Spittlebug had taken up residence.

Yup. There he is. Running away as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. I put him back on the stem, hoping he could manage to create a new frothy abode. I wonder how he does that?

That Spittlebug was yellow. Most of the time they are green. Like this one. Is this not the cutest bug you have ever seen?

Update: I read up a little about Spittlebugs and learned that they are the nymph form of Froghoppers, an insect similar to Leafhoppers. They create that froth by piercing the stem of the plant so that it releases liquid, which the Spittlebug mixes with glandular secretions of its own, and then whips the mix into a froth by blowing air from the sides of its body. The froth provides protection from predators (it hides the bug and it also tastes bad), insulation from heat and cold, and keeps the bug's body from drying out. Some species of Spittlebugs are harmful to trees or crops, but most do minimal damage and are easily controlled in the home garden by spraying with a hose. If you absolutely HAVE to.

On my way home I stopped off at the Lake Lonely Nature Trail just east of Saratoga Springs, only to find a sign announcing the trail was closed. Of course, I had to investigate, and I soon discovered a bridge had been dislocated by the spring floods. But the damage wasn't so dire that I couldn't make my way across and proceed down the trail. Due to the lack of foot traffic or mowing, the trail was delightfully overgrown with greenery.

I stopped here specifically to see if the Water Buttercups were blooming in the water-filled ditches some distance from the trail's entrance. It was clear that other buttercups were fully in bloom, including this Tall Buttercup, so bright and shiny against the dark green of its foliage.

Sure enough, the Water Buttercup had started to bloom. Just a few, so far. Lucky for me, one was blooming close to the edge. I would not have wanted to wade out into the muck it was growing in.

With the bridge out, mowers have not been able to reach the far stretches of the trail, so flowers like this Ragged Robin can grow right out into the middle of the trail. It was full of butterflies, some kind of orange Skipper, but I could not get a photo. This is an introduced species and not a native. But it sure is pretty, and butterflies really love it.

Another raggedy plant whose homely name belies the beauty of its flower is Golden Ragwort, which was also blooming right in the middle of the trail. This wildflower is a native.

Common Fleabane is also a native plant, and a pretty little weed, with its pale lavender eyelashes.

This species of Forget-me-nots is an introduced garden plant, with flowers quite a bit larger than our very small native species. But it still grows wild in damp spots like the Lake Lonely Trail.

Wild Geranium and Blunt-leaved Sandwort made for a very pretty combination.

These starry spikes of some kind of sedge made me think of sparklers.

There were many Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies fluttering about the shrubbery on coal-black wings, the sunlight glinting off their iridescent blue-green bodies. They torment me as I try to capture their beauty with my camera, never staying in one place long enough for me to get them in focus. This female (her wing has one white dot) did stop to stare at me, but darted away when I tried to get her in profile.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Stormy Weather at Pyramid Lake

Earlier in the week, the forecast was for clearing skies in the Adirondacks. But the weatherman sure got it wrong. I went up to Pyramid Lake on Friday to help open camp at Pyramid Life Center, and it seemed we had another storm pass through about every half hour. Ah well, at least it made for beautiful atmospherics, with post-storm mists rising from the forest and shrouding the surrounding mountains.

When I rose at 6 on Saturday morning, the lake was blanketed in mist, but at least it wasn't pouring, as it had been off and on all night.

That soft pearly light was great for taking shadowless photographs. I'd never been able to get such a clear shot of the flowers of Mountain Maple, which, unlike the more pendant flowers of other maples, stand straight up, and thus help to distinguish this small, sprawling tree from other understory trees.

I had time for a paddle before breakfast (or the next downpour), so I headed down to a cedar swamp at the eastern end of the lake, accompanied by the calls of loons, carrying clearly across the misty water. Unfurling Royal Ferns glowed a rich red against the deep green forest.

Rotting logs that have fallen across this shallow end of the lake form nursery beds for all kinds of interesting plants. I thought these tiny Sweet White Violets looked especially beautiful backed by the glistening garnet drops of Round-leaved Sundew.

When the morning fog cleared, the sun broke through for a while, but by that time I was busy sweeping and dusting and making up beds in the guest bedrooms, so I could enjoy that sunshine only by looking through the windows. Ah, but what a view! And then, by the time I was ready to take a break from my work, it was raining hard again.

Because of the drenching rains, I never made my annual forays into the forest and around the shore to seek out the flowers that should be blooming this time of year. But never mind, some of the loveliest flowers grow right along the entrance road to the camp, where the presence of these Broad Beech Ferns indicate a lime-rich woods.

Although I may not have been so lucky regarding the weekend weather, I sure was lucky to find Purple Virgin's Bower in bloom, and abundantly so. I hunt for it every year among the boulders that line the entrance road, but I often do not find it. Its blooming period is very short, so it's easy to miss. These blooms could be gone tomorrow, in fact. When I touched one to try to peer inside its close-cupping flower head, the purple petals fell off in my hand.

Here's a closer view of that flower. Are those translucent purple parts petals? Or are they sepals? I confess I do not know.

Here are some of the other beauties blooming along the road: Foamflower and Fringed Polygala, and a little bit of Miterwort, too.

This boulder was nearly covered with the miniature dogwood called Bunchberry.

On my way home Saturday afternoon, I stopped off at Eagle Lake for a quick paddle, wanting to explore a boggy shore that lines the bank of a stream feeding into the lake. I have never seen such a brilliantly scarlet variety of Royal Fern as the one that grows here. It will subside to an ordinary green in a week or so, but it certainly is brilliant when it first opens.
This boggy area is full of Bog Laurel and Bog Rosemary and Pitcher Plants just now coming into bloom, but I never saw them. I had to cut my paddle short as a light sprinkle soon turned into torrents of rain that threatened to fill my canoe even faster than I could bail it. There was no way I could risk my camera to take any photos, either.

Turns out, I was lucky to have cut my paddle short and headed home. As it was, I could barely drive 20 miles an hour, with a blinding rain slamming hard against my windshield, and my tires sloshing around on the water-drenched road. I heard today that a stretch of the Northway along the Schroon River was closed due to flooding shortly after I passed that area. Oh my, we have had a wet spring! But now it's officially summer. You hear that, rain? Time for you to call it a day and clear out.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hiking to Wildflower Heaven

For wildflower lovers, there are certain places on this planet that deserve a big star on the map. It was one of those very special places that Ed and Nan took the Thursday Naturalists to visit today: an old marble quarry high on a mountainside near Dorset, Vermont. Ed and Nan have been hiking this mountain for ten years or more, and so they knew what was in store for the rest of us on this splendid spring day. Aside from the spectacular view.

Lucky for those of us getting on in years, we were able to drive most of the way up the mountain, so our hike was probably less than a mile to reach the abandoned quarry. Our trail passed through a beautiful sunlit woods . . .

. . . and around some impressive cliffs.

The woods and cliffs were adorned with many species of lime-loving ferns, including this pretty clump of Slender Cliff Brake that had found a home in a seam of the rock. The short chubby fronds are sterile, and the long slender ones are the fertile fronds.

Canada Violets are a sure sign of a woods rich with lime, and the plants here had grown to a very healthy size.

Miterwort joined with those violets to grace the rocks with their beauty.

Showy Orchis was very happy here, too. These plants were growing high on a bank, so that we could see right into their beautiful throats.

Nan found this healthy clump of Yellow Lady's Slippers, the first of many we would see in the woods today.

The most abundant lady's slippers we found were these Smaller Yellow Lady's Slippers, which carpeted an area of the woods with their dainty blooms capped with dark purple petals. In one place, they were so thick on the ground, we had to walk very carefully to avoid trampling them.

Well, those lady's slippers were kind of small, but they sure were large in comparison with this really minute little orchid, Early Coral Root. I do not know how Nan ever managed to see it, especially since its green flowers blend in with the rest of the greenery.

We have almost reached our destination now, as we make our way around the walls of the long-abandoned quarry, being careful where we put our feet among the jumble of fallen rocks.

Just breathtaking! The quarry walls were corrugated by the drills used to break up the marble, and the tiers and striations are occupied now by a rich array of mosses and ferns. We felt like we were sitting in some ancient temple, with the flutes and trills of a Winter Wren echoing off the stone walls.

Click on this photo to see the bright red accents of Columbine growing out of the rock.

Near the edge of the quarry we found the dainty pink flowers of Rosybells (also called Rose Twisted Stalk or Rose Mandarin).

Here's more of that Columbine, glowing like little Japanese lanterns against the rich green moss.

We met some other botanists on the trail, who were very excited to have found these baby Moonworts of a very rare species, growing in an open area near the top of the mountain. They had marked the location with little flags, so we were able to find them when we arrived at the spot -- and avoid trampling them unknowing. This was one of the larger ones; some were barely in inch above the ground. How on earth did they find them? That's plant people for you: passionately single-sighted in pursuit of the rare. And these Moonworts are really rare: the botanists told us that is the only known site for them in the eastern United States.

A wonderful day to a wonderful place with wonderful folks, including Ruth Schottman, seen standing here looking over the landscape below.

Thanks, Nan and Ed, for sharing this remarkable place with us.