Sunday, March 24, 2013

Out in the Snow, In Spite of Myself

SaturdayWith the Audubon folks at Moreau

I was in such a funk about all this snow that JUST WON'T GO that I didn't want to go outdoors at all until it just disappeared.  But then I learned that a whole bunch of expert birders -- leaders of Audubon chapters from all over the state -- were hiking at Moreau Lake State Park on Saturday, and I was invited to join them. Well, I couldn't pass up that chance!  I can't really bird by myself, because I have such poor eyesight, but I do love to tag along with folks who know what they're looking at through their binoculars.

I'm sure that when they planned this hike at Moreau, the Audubon folks were hoping for open water.   But not only did we have a lake that was frozen solid, we also had freezing temperatures and a biting wind.   So most of the birds in the park were hunkered down, and of course there were no waterfowl at all on the frozen lake.  One Turkey Vulture came soaring by, and I think someone in our group saw a Red-tailed Hawk, and another heard, but couldn't see, some Black-capped Chickadees, but that was just about all the avian life that showed itself this day at Moreau.  It turned out to be a lucky day for the birders, though, when a report came through of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on crabapple trees in nearby Queensbury.  So off went most of the folks in this group to feast their eyes on a rare winter visitor and, for many, a lifetime bird they're not likely to see again.

Sunday: Exploring the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary

My friend Sue Pierce serves on the board of the local Audubon chapter, and when members of that chapter asked her to lead a nature walk this coming May at the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary near Fort Miller in Washington County, she asked me if I could co-lead this walk with her.  Of course I could.  Except neither one of us knows this preserve very well.  I've been there once and Sue not at all, so on Sunday we went there together to become acquainted with the lay of the land and try to get some idea of what might be growing there come spring.  (Yes.  Come, Spring.  Please do. We're tired of all this snow.)

The first thing we noticed about the land was the presence of large deposits of shale, very black and flaky and containing minerals that are certain to influence the kinds of plants that grow here.  My homework now is to consult with experts who can tell me what those minerals are and what plants thrive on them. 

Of course, we didn't expect to find any plants newly growing today, but we did enjoy the beauty and color of mosses and lichens that grace the forest all winter long.  I love the contrasting textures and colors of Broom Moss and Cladonia lichens.

I believe that this moss, with its beautiful fern-like structure, is one of the Hypnum mosses, possibly Brocade Moss.

This Tree Moss (Climacium americanum) is one that is easy to remember the name of, since it looks like tiny trees.

Well, here's a promise of flowers to come, the wintering-over leaf of Hepatica.

The dark thready branches of Frullania liverwort are evident on tree trunks all winter long,  but we were struck by the vivid orange of the bark of this tree, and wondered if the color might be because of a fungal growth.

As for animal life in evidence today, we did hear a Barred Owl calling again and again as we started out, although it fell silent as we proceeded along the trails.   Then Sue, with her excellent eyesight, espied these Snow Fleas crawling and hopping all over the surface of the snow.

They're not really fleas, although they do hop, using a springlike appendage under their abdomens.  They don't bite like fleas, either, but suck up nutrients through  a kind of sipping apparatus on their bellies. In fact, they're not even insects, despite having six legs.  Because they are so uniquely equipped with parts no other insect has (their springtails, for example), some entomologists think they might belong in a class all their own.  Whatever they are, I think they are really cute.

Here's another bug we saw today. (Well, Sue saw it and pointed it out to me.  At maybe a third of an inch, it remained invisible to me until it landed on the snow.)  I think it might be a male Winter Cranefly, which was taking advantage of a day above freezing to fly about, hoping to capture the attention of some willing female hiding down in the leaf litter.

Uh oh.   This creature won't be flying around anymore.  We couldn't figure out how this Turkey met its end, since we didn't find any animal's tracks in the snow around it, other than deer prints.  Perhaps it was shot, either in the air or while perched in a tree, and fell to earth here, minus its head.

Poor Turkey, we're sorry you died, but what a chance this was to really get a good look at the beautiful iridescence of your feathers.

We walked for a couple of hours along the well-marked trails of the Denton preserve, moving through upland woods and lowland swamps and along a valley watered by running streams.  We look forward to returning in warmer days, to see which plants will flourish in each habitat.  Skunk Cabbage was certainly flourishing along this little stream, where Sue is trying to peer into a spathe to see if the spadix within is flowering with pollen.

 We passed two open swamps with standing snags of dead trees, which provide perfect nesting areas for creatures of many kinds.  It was here we heard the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds,  the males already in residence, competing to acquire and defend good nesting sites before the females arrive in warmer weather.

In one of these swamps, I was struck by these mounds of some kind of grass or sedge,  like green-haired gnomes poking up from the snow.  I don't recall seeing this particular plant, so different in appearance from the Tussock Sedge more commonly seen in such swamps.

Sue had been alerted by one of her Audubon friends to look for a scrubby little pine tree that her friend could not identify.  He said it had short needles that gave the little tree a spruce-like appearance.  We found a tree that met this description, only about four feet high, with bundles of two needles that were about two inches long and slightly spread, creating an acute angle between the needles in each bundle.

Sue had brought a tree guide along, and we decided that our little tree fit the description of Jack Pine contained in her book.  If our analysis is correct, our little tree was quite a find, since Jack Pine is listed as Rare in New York State.  We searched the open sandy area where we found this tree, and could not find another.


Carolyn H said...

A couple of non-human killers for your turkey come to mind. Raccoons will often eat just the head and then drink the blood. Also, birds of prey can kill a turkey but can't carry it off. They eat the head or take the head with them because they can carry that off. Looks like a nice turkey, too, so I doubt a hunter would have left it.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Thanks, Carolyn, for these suggestions regarding who killed the turkey. I never would have thought of these, but they sure make more sense than a hunter abandoning his kill.

suep said...

yes I was asking around about what might have happened with that bird,
and it was probably a predator --
although I don't recall having seen any tracks around the carcass...?
Well thanks Carolyn I learned something new about raccoons.
Wonder how one could take down such a big bird (ambush?)
There are plenty of owls and hawks around-- in fact we heard that barred owl along the trail.
And if it WAS a hunter, they were doubly bad, since 1.) it is not turkey season, and 2.) that property is designated as a wildlife sanctuary.