Monday, April 29, 2013

Sunday in the Park With Sue

What a day it was on Sunday:  shirtsleeve warm, cloudless sky, a wonderful park full of mountains and woods and waterways, and a grand companion to explore its wonders with.  Sue and I met in the morning at Moreau Lake State Park and spent many hours wandering lakeshore and pondside and forest and streambed and finding many delights along the way.

One of the sites that delighted us was the shore of Mud Pond, where we found all kinds of fascinations that deserved a closer look. In this photo, Sue is trying to capture of photo of one of the myriad little black spiders scurrying about on the mud.  I didn't even try, they were running so fast.

I was focused instead on these clouds of green stuff floating in the water close to shore.  From where I stood, the stuff didn't look quite right to be duckweed.

Venturing out onto the shoe-sucking mud, I leaned out and gathered a handful, so that I could take a closer look.   I was right!  It sure wasn't duckweed, but rather the aquatic liverwort called Purple-fringed Riccia (Ricciocarpa natans).  I have found this chubby little paw-shaped liverwort at this site before, but never quite this small.  These babies will have some growing to do, once they float free.  But for them to do that, we will need some drenching rains to raise the level of Mud Pond.  Our spring has been not only cold, but also very dry, with little rain.  The pond is much lower than it usually is this time of year, which is why these masses of Riccia got stranded on the mud.

The little pink buds sharing the Riccia's mud pie are baby plants of Dwarf St. Johnswort.

After a sun-warmed picnic on the shore of Moreau Lake, Sue and I took to the forest trails, choosing one called the Turkey Trail, which traces a ridge above a stream that babbled along in the valley below.

Sunlight pouring down through the still-bare tall trees got caught by the just-opened leaves of young Red Maples.  These saplings looked as if they were strung with glowing Japanese lanterns.

The bright-copper buds of American Beech glistened in the sun, forming graceful arcs as they lengthened and swelled, their tightly packed leaves just about to break free of their confines.

Here and there in the woods we would come across patches strewn with many pretty Hepaticas, all of them fully open on this comfortably warm sunny day.

Most of the Hepaticas we saw were uniformly purple, but we did find a plant or two with flowers of a deep and lovely magenta.

After a nice leg-stretching course along the top of the ridge, the Turkey Trail descends to the valley and crosses a bridge that spans this pretty creek.   Rather than follow the trail to where it begins to climb into the mountains, we decided to follow the creek as it tumbled along on its way to Mud Pond, where we would pick up another trail to take us home.

I'm sure that this creek has an official recorded name,  but we decided to call it Dutchman's Creek, in honor of the hundreds and hundreds of Dutchman's Breeches that proliferate in the woods along its course.

But we also could have named the creek for the myriad plants of Plantain-leaved Sedge that cling to its banks.  Most were fully in bloom with both male (yellow puffs) and female (white threads) flowers.

This was such a delightful little creek, crystal-clear water burbling and tumbling over rocks and charming us with its music.  But all of a sudden it stopped.  Just stopped.  Within a stretch of about 50 feet, it petered out from splashing and dancing to lying quietly in diminishing still pools.

And then there was none.  From where I took the photo above, I turned around on the same spot and saw that the creekbed from here on down to the pond was completely dry.  Not even damp.

Where did the water go?   Did it move underground to some hidden stream that we can't see?  It sure is a puzzle.  I wonder who would know the answer to it.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Buds Are Biding Their Time

Well, Wednesday was so sunny and warm, I got my hopes up that buds would soon burst into bloom and leaf.  But then came Thursday and Friday with their cold gray mornings, and if the flowers and trees had started to open their buds, they quickly retreated.  On Thursday, I was out in the Skidmore Woods with the Thursday Naturalists, and on Friday I hiked the Denton Preserve near Ft. Miller with my friend Sue.  Disappointed both days by the scarcity of blooms, we amused ourselves by admiring the many buds that are biding their time.  And truth to tell, many of the buds are worthy of plenty of admiration in their own right.  Here are a few of those we found.

First, the tree buds. This elegantly slender bud of deeply pleated leaves, erect as a candle flame and tipped with rose, was a mystery to me until Ruth Schottman examined it and suggested Alternate-leaved Dogwood.  We were lucky to find a shrub in such good health, since this species is one of the native dogwoods currently being devastated by a blight throughout the northeast.

Another dogwood, this one Panicled Dogwood.  Its baby leaves were so brightly colored, the shrub looked as if it were populated by a flock of tropical birds.

Of more subtle, but equally beautiful coloration, was this trident of Striped Maple,  its pillowy green-velvet leaf buds blushed with pink..

These Red Maple sprouts were confetti-bright, the yellow-green baby leaves erupting from bud scales the color of bubblegum.

The glossy green bud scales and deep-red clusters of Norway Maple's baby leaves are beautiful, but they are far from being a welcome sight.  Unfortunately, this handsome introduced species is proving to be quite invasive.

I wasn't sure if these lop-sided leaf buds were those of American Basswood, whose heart-shaped leaves will be equally lop-sided.  So I looked on the internet, where I found basswood buds described as looking like "mice wearing red motorcycle helmets."  Yeah, that works.  I also learned that the buds are quite tasty and sweet.  I'll be sure to try them next time I find them.

I love the deep-red spiky flower buds of Ash, clustered on the twig like a litter of baby hedgehogs.

As I mentioned, we found very few open flowers, but the buds are there, just waiting for a few warm days in a row to summon them into bloom.  The pretty little snowflake-like flowers of Miterwort are always worth waiting for.

On our Thursday walk, we were quite surprised to see Large-flowered White Trillium already breaking bud, since this species usually doesn't bloom until after the Red Trilliums are waning, and the Reds are just beginning to flower themselves.  Even if we hadn't spotted the white petals folded within this bud, we would have known it was the large-flowered species because the bud was borne erect on a short petiole, not drooping on a long petiole as the red-flowered buds would be.

This is the Red Trillium, with its long-stalked flower trying to hide beneath its broad green leaves.  This photo was taken the same day as the one above.  Last year, the blooming time of both reds and whites overlapped because of extraordinary warmth pushing the whites ahead, and this year they may do the same, but because of extraordinary cold delaying the blooming time of the reds.

Shortly after they first push up from the ground, the single shiny round buds of the May Apple flowers peek out from the shelter of their twin green leaves.  As the plant matures and before it produces its single large white flower, the bud will recede beneath the overspreading shade of its umbrella-like leaves.

It won't be long before these Columbine buds open to reveal the brilliant red and yellow of their dangling blooms.  In the meantime, the silvery, ruffly leaves and pink stems and sepals offer their own kind of beauty.

An open flower at last!  On Thursday, we searched and searched for violets of any species in the Skidmore Woods.  It wasn't until the very last moments of our wanderings there that we found this single bloom of Long-spurred Violet.   With the stretch of warm days now predicted for the coming week, the forest floor should soon be all abloom with these and many other spring wildflowers.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Home Sweet Hudson

 Not only was it sunny today, it was actually warm!  When I stepped out the door this morning and felt that sweet soft air on my face, I heard my canoe calling to me from under the porch where I'd stored it over the winter:  Hey, girl, get me out of here and let's get back to the river.

How could I resist?

There's nothing quite like it, that very first paddle on the Hudson each spring.  Wearing rubber boots, I wade out into the cold, cold water and feel the current tug at my ankles, imagining the river is greeting me like a happy puppy playing around my feet.  Then I plop my bottom down in my boat, hang my feet on the gunwales to let the water drain from my boots, fold my legs and dip my paddle, and with just one stroke that sends me gliding across the silken surface, I'm back on the river once more, back to my Home Sweet Hudson.

Although I've been paddling this stretch between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams for at least 20 years, a changed riverbank greets me each spring.  Some years, raging floods have scoured the banks, hanging flotsam high in the riverside trees, and in recent years, beavers have taken up residence, toppling trees and chopping the shrubbery down to mere stubs.  I had hoped to find Sweet Gale in bloom today, its female flowers lit up like flaming torches when backlit by the sun.  But no Sweet Gale could I find.  Nor any overhanging shrub.

Just off the boat launch site lie three little islands that make for perfect picnic sites in summer, and I pulled my boat up on the middle one, just to walk around and say hello again.   I sat on the rocks and basked in the sun and marveled at that sapphire sky made even more deeply blue by the river's reflection.

These little islands used to be covered with Early Azalea, a beautiful native wild azalea as lovely as any garden variety and far more fragrant as well.  Last spring, the beavers had harvested nearly every one of the shrubs, but I saw today that some had managed to survive to bloom, judging by the bracts that still clung to the twigs.

A similar fate had befallen the Silky Dogwood that covered a neighboring island, but these vivid red shoots reveal that the shrubs are definitely making a comeback.

I spied some trash washed up on the shore of this island, so I beached my boat and thrashed around in the thickets, picking up whatever pieces of paper, bait boxes, cans, or bottles I could find.  My reward -- aside from enjoying the sight of "my" pretty island made pristine -- was stumbling across a patch of dainty Bluets hiding among the shrubs.

  These lovely little flowers will stay with us now all spring and summer and even into late fall, although they'll put forth their largest rush of bloom in May and June.  But I have seen individual Bluets blooming away as late as December.  (I find they are really hard to photograph.  My camera absolutely refuses to focus on those blue petals, no matter what tricks I try. It's as if I were trying to make it focus on air.  I also have to reduce the exposure dramatically, in order to capture any trace of blue in the petals.)

The island's trees were all aflutter and atwitter with flocks of Tree Swallows, swooping out over the water to feast on insects, then flying back to land on the branches.  One sat still long enough for me to snap its photo.  Just look at that glossy blue head against that blue, blue sky!

I paddled downstream to where a tiny bay carves a pocket out of the riverbank and one can idle out of the current for a while.  I was quite surprised to find a cluster of Leatherwood shrubs along the bank here.  In all my years of paddling this stretch, how had I managed to miss them?

Wherever one finds Leatherwood, the chances are good that other woodland flowers will be blooming nearby.  So I pulled my boat up on the bank and set out on foot to see what I could find.  Not far away was a mossy rock ledge that was crowned with masses of Red Trillium, just about to break bud.

Nearby were a few Hepatica plants, including one with flowers of a rich deep purple.

How can it be, with all the beauty surrounding us here on this river, that people could even THINK to despoil it by throwing their trash around?   This is a typical haul in my boat for every first paddle each spring.  The plastic bag is full of the trash I picked up in the parking lot.  Let's hope that once the banks and the launch site are tidied up, fewer people will feel inclined to litter.   We can always dream!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spring Progress Report, 4/23

Spring sure is taking its own sweet time to warm up this year.  We get a little teaser of a sunny warm day now and then, then back to chilly and gray again.  But one by one, the spring wildflowers are making their annual appearances, even if a little delayed.  Here are a few that arrived this week, just in time to celebrate Earth Day.

At Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, the Round-leaved Violets popped up overnight.  No sign of them on Saturday, but on Sunday afternoon, there they were, bright lemon-yellow in a bed of emerald moss. (A couple of bright-red mites add their startling dots of color to the composition.)

It sure would have been easy to miss this tiny Northern White Violet on Monday, when my friend Sue and I celebrated Earth Day on Monday with a walk at Moreau Lake and Mud Pond.

Along the same sandy shore, we also found the Trailing Arbutus in bloom at last, including this vivid pink variety.

Today, I went to Bog Meadow Nature Trail to see if I could find the Spring Beauty I know grows there.  I did, but because it was chilly and dark today, most of the flowers were closed up tight.   Not so for this first of the Marsh Marigold flowers, whose golden glow seemed to provide its own heat.

Sharing that same Bog Meadow marsh were several shrubs of Spice Bush, their fluffy tufts of yellow flowers fully open now.


Here's an update regarding those puzzling tree flower buds I found at Ballston Creek last Friday, buds we decided were most likely Sassafras, due to the tree's green bark and aromatic wood.  But I had never seen Sassafras flowers with such red anthers on its staminate flowers.

I broke off a twig and brought it home to place in a vase of water, and now those stamens have grown to remarkable lengths.  I wonder, would they have grown that long if left on the tree?  I'll have to go back and check them out.

For comparison, here's a more typical Sassafras flower.  I'm wondering now if our mystery buds are not Sassafras after all.

Update:  All the experts are now in agreement.  Our mystery tree is Box Elder and not Sassafras.  Once Ed Miller saw my photo of those elongated stamens, he recognized Box Elder and sent me a note.  Also,  be sure to check A.L. Gibson's comment to this post to read his explanation for why this couldn't be Sassafras.  Thank you, dear friends, for my continuing education.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wildflowers Arise!

What a shock to open my front door yesterday morning and feel warm air rush in.  All this warmth -- it reached the mid-70s on Friday -- was sure to awaken the overdue flowers, I thought, and I headed down to the Ballston Creek Preserve to see if those Spring Beauty buds I saw last week had finally opened.  They certainly had, scattering their pretty striped blooms by the hundreds all over the forest floor.

 And they weren't the only flowers to burst their buds on this balmy day.   I only had to walk a few feet from my car to see dozens of snowy-white Bloodroot decorating a roadside ditch.

Right across the road from the Ballston Creek Preserve is Shenantaha Creek Park, which contains long stretches of woodland trails that follow Ballston Creek as it tumbles past steep cliffs of shale. I visited this part of the park a year ago, and remembered a wealth of wildflowers growing there.  So off I went to explore those trails again.

Well, it was a lovely walk, accompanied by the constant sound of rushing water from the nearby creek, but I began to feel disappointed that I hadn't found a single woodland wildflower.  But then I came to this special place, where springs dripping down the face of the cliffs had enriched the soil along this little stream, creating a perfect habitat for some of our most beautiful spring blooms.

Blue Cohosh was the first one I saw, its bright-yellow anthers alerting me to take a closer look and find the rest of its purplish-green plant that was hiding in plain sight among the brown leaf litter. And once I saw one, I found them by the dozen.

You'd think such a bright crimson bloom as Red Trillium would be easy to spot on the forest floor, but since it hangs its head beneath its broad green leaves, I had to tip it up with a finger to see its lovely face.

 Another flower that hangs its head is the beautiful Trout Lily, but its bright-yellow petals curl up from between its equally colorful sepals, making it easy to spot where today it was pushing up from among its speckled leaves.

Exhilarated by the delight I felt in finding these flowers in bloom, I continued along the creek bed to areas I had not explored before.  After a bit, the steep banks leveled out to a flat open area that was studded with myriad clumps of Dutchman's Breeches, their feathery silvery-green  foliage topped by stems of plump little blossoms.

Lining the path were the fuzzy green heart-shaped leaves of Wild Ginger, and I never would have known that the plants were in flower if I hadn't knelt down to peer beneath those leaves, where its odd brown blooms clung close to the ground.

Where the land leveled off, the creek spread out to form marshy spots and shallow pools, some of which were carpeted with the bright-green leaves of Golden Saxifrage.  Another name for this tiny-flowered plant is Water Carpet, and it's easy to see how it came by that name.

Its flowers, however, are not that easy to see.  Or to recognize as flowers, once you do see them.  That circle of tiny red dots -- plus a few scarce dots of yellow here and there -- is all this plant comes up with for a blossom.

It sure wasn't hard to see this brilliant red fungus, called Scarlet Cup, possibly the earliest of our spring fungi.  Before I cleared the dead leaves away, this fungus was mostly covered, but just a glimpse of its vivid crimson announced its presence even to my poor eyesight.

I would not have seen this Garter Snake if it hadn't suddenly slithered away from the path.  I followed after, hoping to take its photo, when it stopped short and coiled into a strike position. And it actually did strike at the camera I poked too close to its face, hoping to capture the vivid red of its flickering tongue.  So if this photo's not perfectly in focus, perhaps you will understand why.  I'm not really afraid of a Garter Snake's bite, but that quick lunge of a strike did startle me a little.

Eventually, the lowland trail curved upward to take me to the top of a ridge, where dozens of Hepaticas in all the colors they come in were scattered across the forest floor.

I found this purple-edged variation particularly stunning.

The woodland trail ended at a broad paved path, the Zim Smith Trail that runs for many miles through Saratoga County.  As rain clouds threatened, I strode quickly along this trail, not expecting to find many plants that would cause me to pause.  But then I passed this tree, which was studded with big fat opening buds the likes of which I had never seen before.   Its green bark and aromatic wood reminded me of Sassafras, as did the shape of its bud cluster, but Sassafras flowers are yellow, not red.  Can anyone tell me what this tree could be?

Update:  I received a note from my friend and expert botanist Ruth Schottman, who tells me I am probably right about this being Sassafras.  Here's what she said: 
Quite sure your diagnosis is correct: smell, green twigs are diagnostic. You show a male flower cluster just opening, so the color of the anthers is dominant. In a while 4 valves will open on the anthers and the pollen will spill  out or be flung out by the opening valve doors. It is much the same on spice bush where I can watch it much better – at eye height. Both are mostly, but not always dioecious. The warty lenticels and linear leaf scars also look right. [I had also sent Ruth photos of the twigs and bark.]
UPDATE TO THE UPDATE:  Nope, we were wrong about this.  I took a twig of these flowers home and placed them in a vase, and as I watched the anthers elongate far beyond anything ever seen on a Sassafras, my botanist friends agreed that this is most likely Box Elder.

I did know this tree.  These are the staminate flowers of Red Maple, masses of which now color the hilllsides with that marvelous blush we only see in spring.  And spring is here at last.