New Year's Day 2009, new snow, blue sky, and cold, cold, cold -- cold enough to keep that new snow fluffy and dry, perfect for a walk in the woods at my favorite place on earth: the forested banks of the Hudson River at Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, New York.
But many creatures have walked on the ice today or last night when the snow was new-laid -- mostly coyotes I'm guessing, leaving prints like those of large dogs. There are places in the woods where many prints all lead in the same direction, and we follow those to a large hole in a pile of rocks that appears to be a den. [I later learned that this was an otter den.] More prints lead through the woods to a promontory I call Rippled Rocks Point that juts out into the river, a sun-washed spot where Lowbush Blueberry and Black Chokeberry thrive in the summer. Today the rocks are covered with snow, revealing the path of the creatures who apparently congregated here today or last night, on this high open platform of ice and stone, exposed to the sky and the profile of mountains rising above the far shore. Do coyotes howl at the moon? There was a beautiful crescent moon last night, sharing the early evening sky with a brilliant Venus.
Other prints we found were those of a mouse, like trapunto stitching across the snow as it wandered about a bit before scurrying to safety beneath a fallen log. Also, Red Squirrel prints. I had hoped to find signs of otter here, near open areas of water near the shore. I had seen their scat on rocks out in the water last summer and their tobogganing trails through the snow in winters past, but today I didn't. We did see a hunter, though, hoping to bag a coyote. Why? He said he wanted to make himself a coyote suit to wear while hunting. I didn't tell him where we had found the den.
Prominent across the snowy ice are these tracks (see photo above), which at first, all excited, I thought must be otter, this bound-and-slide so typical of that animal's track. But no, the slides are too narrow, barely three inches across, and the pawprints as small as those of a cat. Must be mink. A couple of them, it seems, making a beeline across the bay, into the marsh all the way to an open stream that forms this marsh's boundary, where they disappear into the water.
First mention has to go to my friend Ellen Rathbone, once the nature educator at the Adirondack Visitors' Interpretive Center in Newcomb whose own blog, Adirondack Naturalist, inspired me to consider starting my own. After some months communicating through each other's blogs, we finally got together in the woods and on the waters for many fun adventures.
Sad to say, the VIC in Newcomb eventually closed, and Ellen had to leave her beloved Adirondacks to move to my own home state of Michigan, where she now serves to educate Michiganders about the wonders of their own woods and waterways. I miss her companionship dearly, but I also enjoy following her adventures in Michigan, both through her continued personal blog (now called An Adirondack Naturalist in Michigan) and also through the informative blog she maintains for the Dahlem Nature Center where she now works.
Evelyn also introduced me to her good friend Bob Duncan, another nature enthusiast and font of knowledge about all kinds of plants, including knowledge about where to find the rarest of the rare. Bob's knowledge is matched by his genial willingness to escort me to lay my own eyes on these rare plants, including the almost extirpated Hooker's Orchid Bob is photographing here.
Another habitat I had never experienced before I started this blog was the alpine habitat above the treeline of the high peaks of the Adirondacks. Because of my blog, I came to know Steve Young, chief botanist with the New York Natural Heritage Program, who led botanical excursions to the summit of Whiteface Mountain and invited me to join them.
Each time I went, I was able to add many species of rare plants to my life list. These trips also helped to cement my friendship with Steve, who has granted me permission to collect specimens of plants that have not been recorded for Saratoga County, thus updating the botanical record. Steve is also my go-to guy when I find a plant I can't identify. Just this past year, he confirmed that an unusual Mountain Mint I had found on the shore at Moreau Lake was indeed one of New York's most endangered plants, Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum (Whorled Mountain Mint), with only four other populations currently known to exist in all of New York State. Quite an exciting find for me, an amateur wildflower hobbyist!
I have gained quite a number of botanical go-to guys and gals during the course of my keeping this blog, and the ones topping that list would be my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, especially Ed Miller and Ruth Schottman, both of them walking encyclopedias of botanical information. Not to mention, darn good company on a nature walk.
This photo shows Ruth and Ed on the Ice Meadows along the Hudson River during a field meeting of the American Botanical Society (Northeast Section) organized by Ed last summer. I would have to write a book to explain the wealth of knowledge Ed and Ruth have shared with me on our many excursions together, all of that knowledge imparted with generosity and delight. Any amateur wildflower lover would be blessed to have either of these two as a teacher, and I can't believe how lucky I am that they have invited me to join them on their weekly explorations of nature preserves throughout the region.
Also topping that list of gracious botanical experts I can always call on is Nancy Slack, ecologist, professor, and author of several books on plant-related subjects. She is also a member of the Thursday Naturalists, and we can always count on her to answer any questions about mosses, lichens, and liverworts, an area of special interest to her. But she knows a lot about a lot of things, including how to tell one aster from another, as she is demonstrating during a nature walk last fall.
When I started this blog, I thought I might gain a few readers among the nature lovers of Saratoga County, since this was the area I planned to focus on. I was absolutely astounded then, when, a month or two later, I discovered my blog had attracted readers from all over the world. I soon found myself connecting with other nature writers through their own blogs, and before long, we started communicating through comments and emails, and friendships began to grow. One of the strongest of these friendships occurred with a young botanist from Ohio, Andrew Gibson, whose own blog, The Natural Treasures of Ohio, showcases his home state through splendid photography and enthusiastic, deeply informed writing.
I soon learned of Andrew's passion for orchids when I posted an entry about finding large numbers of White Fringed Orchids in a bog I had visited. Andrew's excitement about that find was so intense (this orchid is very, very rare in Ohio), I just had to invite him to come out the following year to go orchid-hunting with me in person. Well, we had such a wonderful time, finding every single orchid on his wanted list plus many other flowers, that we agreed he would have to come back the next spring, to look for some earlier blooming species. What amazing, marathon sessions of botanizing we had both times! I've recorded some of our adventures in blogs I wrote about Andrew's visits, one in 2012 and again in 2013. I revisit these posts often, not only to recall the great time we had together, but also to remind myself once again of the amazing variety of botanical treasures that surround us here in northeastern New York.
Although most of my new friends have been wildflower enthusiasts like myself, I also count myself truly blessed to have come to know Vince Walsh, wilderness guide, expert animal tracker, and all-round nature guru. Proprietor of the nature education center Kawing Crow, Vince has enhanced the winter woods for me forever by teaching me how to identify the tracks of many of our forest inhabitants. And not just to know their names, but also to read of their fascinating dramas in the snow. (Vince also led me on a pilgrimage to Black Tupelo trees that have been dated to 800 years old!)
If I've saved this final tribute for last, it's because I'm afraid that once I start talking about my almost constant nature companion, Sue Pierce, I won't be able to stop. Every nature lover should have such a friend to walk with, one who can really SEE all the wonders that surround us, who knows how to really look, and most importantly, how to linger and pay close attention. I can't count all the treasures I would have missed if Sue had not pointed them out to me. In this photo she is holding that rare Mountain Mint I mentioned above, a treasure I just had to share with her. When I first found it, I counted about 15 plants, but with Sue and her gift for discovery along, we located more than 50!
Sue is a longtime and dedicated student of Henry David Thoreau, and she brings a Thoreauovian sensibility to all she observes in nature, a sensibility she also brings to her own beautiful blog, Water-Lily.
Such wonderful friends, so many amazing adventures, a burgeoning store of nature knowledge, connections to nature lovers and gifted bloggers all over the world: all these I would never have acquired if I had not started my blog five years ago. I think I'll continue to keep it for another year.
To all my friends and loyal readers and fellow bloggers, I wish you health and happiness as we start the new year, and for many years to come. Be sure to let nature contribute to your sense of wonder in life.