Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hey! Who's Eating Our First Flower of Spring?

I confess:  I've hunkered down in a sulk much of this week, hardly venturing outdoors at all, so I haven't had much to blog about.  Darn this icy snow and continued cold!  Not a single sign of spring seems to be budging in the woods.  But at last we've had a few days (and even nights!) above freezing, so some of the snow has started to go.  Many woodland trails, though, are still icy and uninviting, as this photo of Bog Meadow Nature Trail reveals.

I went to Bog Meadow today, in desperate need of finding at least ONE blooming plant of Skunk Cabbage.  There's a tiny stream that follows the trail, and I figured its banks would be teeming with the bulging spathes of our very first flower of spring.  They've always been there in years past.

Well, I searched and searched and finally spied the tell-tale red of some mottled spathes right in the middle of the stream.  Peering closer to see if the spadices within had ripened enough to bear pollen, I was disappointed to discover that the spathes had been ripped apart, with no sign of any spadices within.

I continued my search for Skunk Cabbage in a springy section of woods, and again and again discovered the spathes bitten open, the spadices long gone.

Whoever was eating the flowers, was also devouring the unfurling leaves.

The likely culprit seemed to be deer, especially since the surrounding snow was thoroughly trodden by the deers' signature two-toed hooves.

But how can deer manage to eat Skunk Cabbage?  If I were to take a bite of one, my mouth would burn for hours, lips and tongue stabbed by the calcium oxalate crystals this plant contains.  I might more comfortably eat a piece of prickly cactus.

Curious to know how deer get away with it, I searched the internet and found a site from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,  informing me that deer do indeed eat a LOT of Skunk Cabbage, especially in spring when they crave the protein-rich spadices, after the meager diet they've subsisted on all winter.  According to a wildlife biologist quoted at this site, deer somehow manage to eat many plants that other animals would find chemically or physically noxious, including such intimidatingly prickly plants as Devil's Club.  Apparently, they manage to do this because they eat a huge variety of plants, so that the noxious plants are in effect diluted.

I don't know.  It seems the deer at Bog Meadow were eating an awful lot of Skunk Cabbage.  I could not find a single plant that hadn't been opened and eaten.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Snow Just Won't GO!

 Ye gods, look at all that SNOW!!!  I went up to Moreau Lake State Park this afternoon, hoping to find some trails that might be free from snow for hiking, but no such luck.  And with nights that still hover near zero and days that barely get out of the 20s, it's going to take a long time yet for even that strong almost-April sun to coax all that snow away.

Ah well, at least this cold weather has kept the ice on the lake from melting, so it was still safe to hoof around the perimeter out on the frozen lake, where an inch or so of crusty snow on top of the ice provided non-slip footing.  I could move right along, swinging arms and legs and breathing deeply that sweet cold air, under a wide blue sky.

Ah, but when I reached the north shore, where the sun sheds its strongest warmth for the longest part of the day, look what bliss awaited:   Soft warm sand, yielding beneath my feet!  I almost felt like removing my boots and wriggling my toes in the sand.  I did move up under the shoreline trees and kick up some rustling dry leaves, just to remember what woodland walks could sound like, without the crunch, crunch, crunch of heavy snowshoes.

Here I lingered, basking in warmth where Spring seemed a genuine possibility, reluctant to re-enter Winter's chill along the western shore, which lay in the shade of the mountains.  The kindergarten-kid in me came out to play.  I poked at the open water with sticks, disturbing the basking minnows, and crouched by the shore, seeing if I could make out any message in the runic trails the snails had traced in the underwater sand.

I've been driving all over the county this week, looking for places a winter-weary soul might walk without showshoes, and one of my routes took me past horse farms in the hills above Saratoga Lake.  Several pastures held many mares and their foals, beautiful creatures whose presence certainly speaks of new life in Spring.  Even when Spring is taking its time to arrive.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

River Roads

Another not-very-springlike day.  But at least the sun came out in the afternoon, after a cold and briefly snowy morning.  Longing to feel bare earth beneath my feet, I drove south to where the Mohawk River forms the southern boundary of Saratoga County.  I was hoping to find the trails at Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve free of snow and ice.  Well, they weren't.  But I took a walk on them anyway.

There are miles and miles of trails at Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve, but because the wind was piercing and the footing was slippery, I did not venture far into the preserve to approach the Mohawk River, but rather took the nearer trails that led along portions of the old Erie Canal and towpaths.  These wetlands provide valuable sanctuary for migrating and resident waterfowl, but since they are still frozen over from shore to shore, no ducks or geese were evident today.

The trails are lined with many kinds of shrubs, including American Hazelnut, Silky Dogwood, Northern Prickly Ash, and at least two species of alder.  One of the alders was much larger than the shrubby Speckled Alders I am used to finding along the Hudson, this one growing almost as large as a full-grown maple tree.  I only recognized it as an alder because of the catkins and cones that dangled from its high branches.  Could this be a Green Alder?

The fat thorns on these twigs make it obvious that this is Northern Prickly Ash, the only species of citrus tree that grows this far north.  I was intrigued by the little red growths atop the bud scars.  Are they new spring growth or something left over from where the fruits grew last year?  I confess I do not know.

Annoyed by the slippery and muddy footing, as well as by a roaring wind that kept blowing my hat away,  I walked but a mile or so at Vischer Ferry before hurrying back to the shelter of my car.  I then spent the rest of the afternoon slowly driving the roads that followed the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.  Although the Mohawk was solidly frozen over below the Rte. 9 bridge at Crescent, by the time the river reached Cohoes it was open from shore to shore and roaring over the falls.

After crossing the Mohawk from Cohoes to Waterford, I then followed the Hudson River north through the towns of Mechanicville and Stillwater before turning west toward Saratoga and home.  I was intrigued by how for some stretches the rivers would be completely covered by ice, while a few miles further up or downstream the water would be wide open and sparkling in the sun.

The view of the Hudson at Stillwater was especially pleasant, with the sun-sparkled water alive with ducks and geese and gulls.  Since I did not have binoculars with me, I couldn't see which species of waterfowl were enjoying this open water, but I'll bet this would be a wonderful spot for observing many migrants.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Winter Hangs On

Sure, we've had colder, snowier winters than this one.  But gosh, this winter seems to be hanging on longer than others I remember.  The vernal equinox came and went and still it continues cold, with a thick layer of snow that hasn't budged from the woods.  It even snowed a little, early today.  By afternoon, I could see small patches of blue in an otherwise leaden sky, and I dearly wanted to go for a walk, but where could I go that wasn't still knee deep in that icy white stuff?  Ah yes, there's the Spring Run Trail near Excelsior Avenue in Saratoga Springs.  That's a paved trail that runs for about a mile along a pretty wooded creek, and I was delighted to discover that its paved surface had even been plowed.

The creek that runs along the trail was free from ice and was splashing and dancing, filling the air with the music of tumbling water.  Here, at least, it was starting to SOUND a little bit like spring.

Ah, but just a bit further along, the REAL sounds of spring truly rang out.  I couldn't catch a glimpse of them out there among the phragmites and cattails, but I sure could hear the buzzing, chunking calls of male Redwinged Blackbirds.  This is not the prettiest of birdsongs, I admit, but boy, it sure is among the most welcome!

No swelling buds or new green leaves could yet be seen, but the willows were certainly brightening up their yellow branches.

I arrived at a tiny rill where I'd always found Skunk Cabbage growing before, and I'd hoped I might find some swelling spathes poking out of the snow.  This is a plant that can make its own heat, even enough heat to sometimes melt the snow around it.  But I doubt it could melt the foot or more that was piled on top today.

Aha!  I found one! But only one.  It looks like the plant has melted a circle of snow around itself, but the tight green shoots are no more advanced than they appeared last fall.  Looks like we'll have to keep waiting a bit longer to welcome our first flower of spring.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Hudson is Open!

 The sun shone bright today, but darn, it still was COLD!  I don't think it rose out of the 20s all day, and here it is, mid March.  But despite the continuing sub-freezing temperatures, the Hudson River is running wide open along some stretches, including most of way between Schuylerville and Ft. Edward.  And reports are coming in that flocks of migrating ducks have been seen on these open waters. So that's where my friend Sue and I went today,  hoping to catch a glimpse of our visitors.

Our first stop was the Hudson Crossing Park near Lock 5 at Schuylervile, where we pulled on our studded grippers to walk the icy trails along the river.  We didn't see any migrating ducks along these banks, but we were amused by a number of metal sculptures of birds that are situated along the trail.

Our disappointment at not finding ducks at this site (aside from some resident Mallards) did not prevent us from thoroughly enjoying our walk.  As our longtime blog readers probably know well, Sue and I are very easily amused, and today we delighted in finding some really enormous Cottonwood trees.

We also rejoiced in discovering many Hackberry trees growing along the river.  I don't come across this species of tree very often, but it's always immediately recognized by its remarkably furrowed bark.

Sue was the first to spot this interesting pod that was tumbling across the surface of the snow, but I was the first to recognize it as the hollow fruit of American Bladdernut.

We searched and searched for the source of the pod, and it was Sue who spotted this shrub with many bladders still dangling from its branches.  This is only the second place I have found this native shrub in northern Saratoga County, so we were quite excited to find it here.

American Bladdernut has a distinctive stripey bark, which allowed us to locate a number of the shrubs along the trail, although we found no other that still held on to the fruit.  We shall have to return in late May to look for its distinctive clusters of white bell-shaped flowers.

 Thoroughly chilled by a brisk wind that pushed the cold under our coats, we were glad to continue our search for waterfowl from the comfort of a heated car.  We next headed north toward Ft. Edward, taking the West River Road from Bacon Hill.  With the afternoon sun at our backs, we could easily search the sky-blue surface of the open river.  Very light traffic along this road allowed us to inch along at a bird-watcher's pace.

 And our search was well rewarded!  I know you can't tell from this photo, but there are lots of ducks out there, splashing and diving and always, always moving out of reach of my camera's zoom.  Luckily, we could see them quite clearly with Sue's binoculars.  One group we saw included Goldeneyes, American Mergansers, Canvasbacks, Red-headed Ducks, and Scaups.  Sue also saw some Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Hooded Mergansers.

We ended our search for migrating ducks at the boat basin in Ft. Edward, a very nice riverside park that would certainly be worth revisiting when the weather warms and the grass grows green.

Ah yes.  Some day the weather WILL warm and the grass grow green.  Dear Lord, may it be soon.  I am growing very weary of this snowy cold.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Winter's Last Gasp (I hope!)

 Oh man, it just doesn't get much worse than this: sleet and slush and freezing rain that soaks through your coat.  And now (tonight) the wind has started to roar through the ice-dripping trees.
I hope the weather improves by the weekend, when I'm planning to attend a women's retreat at Pyramid Lake in the Adirondacks.  I hear predictions for over a foot of new snow up there, but at least it should be snow, not sleet and slush and freezing rain.  Or so I hope.

Yes, we are certainly growing weary of winter, but I was reminded today of some of winter's more welcome charms when a friend sent me the following photos of patterns in ice.   They were taken by Ray Bouchard, who was one of our party of five exploring the tupelo swamp in the Palmertown Mountains on Saturday.  Readers can scroll down to my last blogpost to read my account of our adventure.  I included there a photo of a frozen puddle,  covered with maybe 8 incles of glass-clear ice containing marvelous fissures and bubble traces.  Well, Ray was equally enchanted by that puddle (as well as by the tupelos), so he returned to the site this week, toting his camera and tripod, and took these beautiful photos of that intriguing ice.  I share them with his permission.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Late-Winter Wanderings

Today's weather gave us quite a tease, with a bright hot sun beating down on the snowbanks,  sending rushing rivulets into the melting Bog Meadow swamp, pushing temperatures well into the upper 50s.  I was sure to get out and enjoy this sweet day, knowing that new snow and cold is due to arrive tomorrow.  Ah well, we've had many mid-March snowstorms before,  sometimes heavier than any we've had all winter.  But that snow will meet its match in the strong March sun, and before we know it, Winter will slink away as Spring parades in triumph.  The Red Osier Dogwood and the Pussy Willows are already waving their banners.

I was actually glad for continuing cold this past week, because it allowed my friends and me to venture up into a frozen swamp in the Palmertown Mountains at Moreau Lake State Park last Saturday.  We were off to visit some big old Black Tupelo trees in that swamp, but on the way, we took a bit of a detour to enjoy a splendid view of the Hudson Valley from one of the high overlooks along the trail.

Once we entered the swamp, it didn't take us long to locate the tupelos, which towered over all the other trees that grew around them.   My friend Sue (looking up) and I were eager to show these trees to our new friend Andrew (red pack),  an intern with Saratoga PLAN who the week before had led us to visit some ancient Black Tupelos in the nearby Lincoln Mountain State Forest.  The Lincoln Mountain tupelos have been core-sampled and dated to over 500 years old, and it's possible our Moreau tupelos could be equally as ancient, just judging from their size and gnarly appearance.

 Thanks to several below-zero nights during the week preceding our hike, the swamp was solidly frozen, allowing us access to every part of the area, which we explored to search for more tupelos.   We found only three of the huge old trees, and not a single one that was less mature.  Glassy puddles like this one made it clear that we were definitely walking on a wetland that would be very difficult to explore when the weather gets warmer.

This puddle was as fascinating as it was beautiful.  A solid 6 or 8 inches thick, the ice was as clear as glass and had captured not only the stacks of coin-shaped bubbles, but also vertical strings of tiny bubbles like those that form in champagne.  There were also cascading ripples held within the clear ice, as lovely as the organdy ruffles on a petticoat.

Sunday dawned as cold as Saturday, although a bright sun shed a kindly warmth by the afternoon, when my friend Nancy joined me for a snowshoe hike along the Hudson River at Moreau.  We entered the woods at the end of Potter Road and made our way down to a series of rocky promontories jutting out into the frozen river.

The snow-covered bays were still iced over, as was the main river, which we could glimpse behind the island that lay across a frozen expanse.  A snowy West Mountain rose against a blue sky, over beyond the opposite banks of the Hudson.

We tromped on softening snow through the woods until we came to a second bay, beyond which the river ran into a swamp that was ringed with Black Tupelos, but much smaller ones than those we had found on the mountain.  Sadly, almost every single tupelo that grows in this riverside swamp has been girdled by beavers and will surely die.  An exception is this group of small-trunked trees that have grown in a cluster together.  I don't know why the beavers have spared these particular trees, but I am very glad they have.  These specimens demonstrate the typical growth habit of this tree when young, with horizontal limbs that sweep gracefully down, the branches covered with short twigs.

Another distinguishing feature of this species of tree is the spectacular color of its fall foliage,  and it starts to turn this brilliant scarlet earlier than any other trees.   Here's a photo of that same cluster of tupelos above, taken several years ago in autumn.

 At the time I took this photo of the tupelo in its blazing fall foliage, I did not know what it was, for I had never seen one until I started paddling this stretch of the Hudson between the Sherman Island and Spier Falls dams.  Since then, I have happened upon them in other places, but not very often, and always close to water, if not actually standing in swamps.  A tree more typically at home in southern forests, the Black Tupelo thrives in the north only in swamps or along river valleys where the climate is somewhat moderated by humidity.

It's hard to think of Saratoga County's weather as being moderated, since our winters can bring us bitter cold as low as 30 below zero, but we certainly do have Black Tupelos not only surviving, but thriving.  As Nancy and I climbed the river bank back to our car, I showed her another tupelo tree, this one growing deep in the woods.  Note that it has no low branches sweeping down, unlike the ones that grow along the river.  Is this because it is much older than those, or because it grew up crowded by hemlocks on every side?  Hmmm. . . .  Another question to ponder.