Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exploring the Porcupine Caves

The weather this week was not conducive to outdoor adventuring:  rainy and mild most days, with temperatures reaching into the 50s, first making a mess of all our nice snow, then washing it all away.  But a raging wind moved in last night, issuing in blasts of frigid air that kept blowing ever colder as the day wore on.  The forecast this morning was hardly promising for a walk in the woods, with wind gusts predicted to reach 50 miles per hour or more.  I wondered if my friends in the Thursday Naturalists would cancel their plans to climb up the mountains in Moreau Lake State Park to explore some caves where porcupines make their dens.  But not THIS group of hardy folks!  No sir!  This group of passionate nature lovers came dressed for the weather with warm coats and hats and with spikes on their feet for climbing icy trails.

Led by park naturalist Gary Hill, we set off up the Red Oak Ridge Trail, stopping briefly to enjoy the beauty of a tumbling stream rushing full from the week of rain and snowmelt.  Once we entered the woods in the shelter of the mountain, we hardly noticed the wind and enjoyed a very pleasant hike.

After following the Red Oak Ridge Trail for a while, we detoured along a spur trail that took us ever higher up the mountainside until we came to an area where the bedrock was hollowed out with caves.  Surrounding the caves was a hemlock forest where generations of porcupines had feasted on the bark and also had made their dens inside the caves.   When snow covers the ground, the porcupine trails from the trees to their dens is obvious.  Today, though,  we had to look for other signs of their residence.  In this photo, some members of our group were examining a few of the numerous quills we found shed around the entrance to a cave.

Here's the entrance to one of the caves, certainly large enough for an adult person to climb down into, although the odor from generations of porcupines who are not too tidy about their housekeeping would tend to deter one from doing so.

Some people have suggested that these caves are the remains of old graphite mines,  but I tend to believe they were formed by underground streams hollowing out the limestone bedrock.  To me, they just don't look as if they were made by human excavation.  The presence of lime in the rocks is evident by much of the vegetation growing on them, including this splendid patch of moss called Rhodobryum roseum, a leafy moss that prefers a limestone base.

And here's another limestone lover, the uncommon fern called Walking Fern, which spreads across the face of the moss-covered boulder by creating new plants wherever the tip of each pointed frond makes contact with the moss.  This cluster of Walking Fern decorated the entrance to one of Porky's dens.

I've been visiting these caves for several years (type "porcupine" into my blog's search bar to read about some of our previous visits), but never have I seen an actual porcupine in the trees or in its den (although I did hear one, once).  I have glimpsed them waddling away in the distance too far away for a photo, or lying dead by the side of the road for far too many times.  Since they believe their quills make them invulnerable,  I guess they feel there's no need to hurry away from any speeding car.  There is only one predator who can kill a porcupine, and that is a Fisher.  This large fierce weasel is clever and strong enough to exhaust a defending porcupine, then flip it quickly over and slash its throat, thus gaining access to the porcupine's quill-free underside.  I have heard that a Fisher can pull the hide off in one piece, quills intact, and that would explain this tidy heap of quills I found in the woods one spring.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Watery Shores

We've had a cold, cold week, with temperatures well below zero every night.  On Sunday, I thought I might go for a walk on the river ice; it would surely be thick enough if I stayed close to shore.  Well, I had to think again.

I'm sure the ice was very thick under all the liquid water that overlay it close to shore, but I wasn't going to risk walking out on it.  This stretch of the Hudson River at Moreau is a catchment between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams, and the water level rises and falls each day according to the operation of the dams.  Consequently, the ice at the edges is constantly breaking open, allowing the water to pour out over the surface of the ice.  Sometimes, if you're careful, you can step over the broken edge-ice to walk safely further away from the shore.  But not this day.

I checked at several locations along the river's course, but at every point,  wide swaths of liquid water were shimmering over the ice.

So I didn't walk on the ice as I had planned, but made my way along the shore through the woods, enjoying the sparkling air and the sky-blue beauty of the day.   Every walk in the woods offers something to surprise and delight me, and today it was this delicate, feathery frost that had formed on the edge of a stream where it entered the river.

Here was another sight that I paused to marvel at, the sun lighting up the ruby-red branches of a thicket of Striped Maple trees.

The closer I drew, the more brilliantly red the twigs appeared, glowing like embers against the dark shade of the woods behind.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Cold Weather Friends

 Cold today?  Well, yes, kind of.  It was 12 below when I peered out my frosty windows this morning at a sky so clear you could see all the way to heaven.  Most people hate the weather this cold.  Lucky for me, I have some friends who love it as much as I do.  And even luckier,  we were able to get together today to watch the amazing transformation of the Hudson River as it filled with frazil ice.

Here's my friend Sue on the road that follows the Hudson north of Warrensburg, gazing at the vast expanse of snowy-white jumbled frazil that has packed the river from shore to shore and caused the river to rise well over its normal banks. We were on our way still further north to The Glen, where we would meet Evelyn Greene, who probably knows more about frazil ice and how it forms than any other person in New York State.

At The Glen, a bridge passes over the Hudson, and here we could stand and watch as loose mats of frothy frazil floated swiftly downstream.  From the other side of the bridge we could look upstream to patches of whitewater, where some of the frazil was no doubt forming as we watched.  This particular kind of ice requires both turbulent water that throws droplets into the air and a very cold temperature that freezes those droplets before they fall back into the river, where the droplets adhere to each other to form the slushy mats we see in this photo.  Conditions were certainly right for frazil formation today.

While the formation of this ice is interesting enough in its own right, what really interests those of us who are plant enthusiasts is how this frazil creates a habitat uniquely suited to many rare native plants, the kind of plants that thrive in a section of Hudson riverbank that is known as the Ice Meadows.  This section of the river is downstream from the bridge at The Glen, and that's where we proceeded next.

Here's Evelyn leading Sue and another friend named Mary down to the Ice Meadows shore.  At this point, the frazil had stalled and filled the river completely from shore to shore.  Over the course of the winter, continued formation of frazil can result in massive deposits of ice up to 15 feet thick along these banks, creating a habitat favorable only to plants that have evolved to tolerate such harsh conditions. (To see some of these plants, type "Ice Meadows" into this blog's search bar and visit my posts that featured them.)

Curious to see at what point the flowing ice had stalled and filled the river, we hiked back upstream for some distance until we located the juncture.  Even as we watched, we could see and hear the fast-moving frazil mats slow to a halt as they jammed against the buildup.  The relentless current, however, caused masses of ice to form wedges that shoved and plowed through the jam, only to stall again at another spot.  The whole dynamic process was fascinating to observe, and we might have stayed for much longer to watch it if we hadn't nearly frozen in place.  The afternoon temperatures barely reached the teens, and a brisk wind kept shoving that frigid air into any gap it could find in our cold-weather garments.  When stamping our feet no longer brought feeling back into our toes, it was time to head home.

Before we parted, we told Evelyn we would follow the river along the west bank and report back to her how far the solid frazil pack extended.  A few miles further south, the pack was still solidly filling the river, and the heaps of frazil were a truly impressive size.

It was not until we reached the bridge between Warrensburg and Thurman that we saw any open water.  It is at this point that the Schroon River joins the Hudson, and it appeared that the Schroon had come rushing in with great force to sweep all the ice away.   The Hudson continued open below the bridge and as far downstream as we could see.

Can you see the moon in the photo above, that pale translucent dot in the upper right corner?  That lovely moon riding that clear blue sky just seemed like the cherry on top of this beautiful day with delightful friends along this amazing river.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Up to the Ice Castles

All summer and fall, access to the mountainsides overlooking the Hudson along Spier Falls Road has been forbidden, due to work installing new powerlines up there.  But finally, the work seems to have halted for the winter, so I felt free to ignore the No Trespassing signs and barrier gates and head on up, without fear that I would be firmly escorted off-site (as I was once, last fall).

Well, as could be expected, the work site was appalling to behold, with the earth bulldozed bare and heaps of tangled brush and tree trunks shoved over the edge of the newly constructed road that terraces across the sloping rock face of the mountain.  Ah well, let a decade or so go by, and new greenery will start to heal over the scarred site.  Maybe too, we'll have a nice new trail for skiing and hiking that will offer great views of the river below.  My destination today, though, was higher up the forested mountainside, to a site that I call the Ice Castles.  I soon found the stream that would lead me up to where huge boulders had long ago tumbled down from cliffs above.

That same little stream cascades over those boulders in beautiful waterfalls, waterfalls that today were frozen into bridal veils of filigree ice.

The higher up the mountain I climbed, the more monumental the waterfalls became, creating tier upon tier of fantastic shapes, like fairytale castles.   I climbed as high as I dared, until the footing became too icy for me to safely proceed.

I found a bare rock and just sat for a while, enjoying the music of water singing and thrumming and splashing beneath the ice.

Where quiet pools had formed by the side of the stream, the water had frozen into other, equally interesting, shapes.

How happy I am to have access to these wonder-filled mountain slopes again!  I hope by next spring the powerline workers will have moved on and we can reclaim our trails to more beautiful sites like this.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Go Visit Sue at Waterlily

Dear friends who visit my blog,  do go visit my friend Sue's blog called Water-lily to see two amazing short videos of the glories of wind-blown snow (what Thoreau called "second snow"), one gentle and sparkly, the other like a raging storm.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Just a Nice Little Snowfall . . .

. . . And a really nice place to go walking in it!

It snowed all day long today,  but not so much that I needed snowshoes to walk in Saratoga Spa State Park, where I spent a couple of hours enjoying the beauty of the day.

One of the glories of this park are the magnificent buildings that form a quadrangle around a reflecting pool.  The pool, of course, was drained for the winter, but the Hall of Springs looked mighty handsome framed by snow-laden trees.

I hardly think of Saratoga's various spring waters as "chrystal,"  since they're very rich in minerals that affect the taste and even the color.  Here's the Geyser Spring still spouting out of its island formed by years and years and years of mineral accretions.

This spring must have lots of iron in its water to create deposits as red as blood.

And I mean REALLY  red!

Speaking of red, I did see a few other bright splashes of color in an otherwise black-and-white afternoon.  See how plump and rosy are these Red Maple buds.

At first glance, I thought that a flock of cardinals had landed in this Staghorn Sumac tree.

As I was walking toward home along an allee beneath towering pines, the lamppost lights came on and cast a golden glow on the snowy path.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Walking on Ice

Sunny and colder today, with most of our snow now gone, after days of warmth and rain.  I drove up to Moreau Lake, planning to get some aerobic exercise striding along on the wide sandy beach, under a bright blue sky.

The ice on the lake looked really iffy, with whitish opaque ice close to shore and transparent blue ice out deeper that almost looked like open water.  I wasn't planning to venture out on it, but then I saw there were fishermen out in the middle.   So I decided it must be safe.   Sort of.

It did give me a queasy feeling, being able to see down to the bottom through the ice.  But I also could tell by the depth of the cracks that the ice was thick enough to support my weight.  Still, I stayed pretty close to shore.

The milky ice was starred with these spidery formations, the origins of which remain a mystery to me.  One of my very knowledgeable friends explains them as occurring when the weight of snow pushes the ice down and water wells up through weak spots.  But hey, we haven't had a heavy snowfall since the lake froze over.  So how did these form?  I sure don't know.  Maybe just from the weight of the ice itself?  Or the rainwater on the surface?

 Here are similarly shaped formations in the transparent ice, only these "spiders" are raised, as in relief, on the surface of the ice.  It certainly looks as if they were formed by upwelling water.

Here's another mystery.  What causes all these underwater plants (I think these are Pipewort) to be uprooted?  Toward the end of autumn we find masses of them washed up on shore, and today I found masses of them embedded in the ice.  It occurred to me that muskrats or beavers could be digging them up in their lodge-building excavations,  but why do we find this phenomenon only certain times of year.  And why now?  When we walked on the ice last week we did not see these masses of plants.

One thing is for sure:  ice does amazing things for which I have no explanation.  Although I sure do like to speculate!  For example, what is it about this particular stretch of beach that causes the ice here to always be filled with bubbles, and almost always melted close to the shore?   It's a muddy, marshy stretch of beach, rather than a hard sandy or rocky shore, so perhaps there's some kind of constant composting going on that produces heat and gas.  This photo shows a pock-marked surface to the ice, as if big bubbles formed as the water was freezing, leaving pits in the ice when the bubbles broke.  There are also lots of silvery bubbles embedded in the ice.

Here's one of those bubbles.  Looks a bit like a jellyfish.

One last mystery confronted me on my way home along Spier Falls Road.   What are all those red shrubs out there on this little island in the Hudson?  I often explore this island for wildflowers during the summer, so I should know what grows out there.  Both Red Osier and Silky Dogwood have bright red stems, but these shrubs seem too low-growing to be either dogwood.  Ah, but then I remembered what the beavers had done to all the azaleas on a neighboring island.  Perhaps these red stems are new growth from dogwood stumps that were gnawed to the ground last summer.  I'll have to test my theory next spring when I once again put in for a paddle.

Theoretically, I could paddle the Hudson right now, since most of the ice is gone from this section of the river.  But no, I think I'll wait.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Foggy River Walk

 Foggy and warm today.  Not the nicest kind of weather for a walk in the woods through soggy snow, so Sue and I met at the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls, where we could walk on cleared paved paths and watch for bird life along the Hudson River.  And as soon as we stepped from our cars, we scattered a flock of bluebirds, who flew too far away for us to take their photos.

When we heard some crows making a raucous din, we hoped we might find the eagle or hawk they could be scolding.   But no, no eagle or hawk that we could see.  Just lots of very vocal crows, all  congregating on a wooded island to share their news of the day as it darkened toward evening.

It wasn't raining, but the fog deposited droplets on the masses of tangled vegetation that lined the path.

In the dim misty light, the landscape seemed drained of all color, except for these splashes of brilliant red where woodland creatures had feasted on bittersweet berries.

No creatures had feasted as yet on the seeds of Basswood trees, whose branches silhouetted againt a gray sky appeared as elegant as Chinese ink drawings.