Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Riverside Rambles

We actually had some sun on Sunday!  And although the thermometer said it was still below freezing, that sun felt soothinglywarm on our backs as my friend Sue and I stood on a bluff overlooking Cohoes Falls on the Mohawk River, listening to the roar of the second largest waterfall in New York State (after Niagara Falls).

Sue had never seen Cohoes Falls, so I invited her to drive down with me to the Albany County town of Cohoes, just across the Mohawk River from the southern boundary of Saratoga County.  Sue is very knowledgable about Native American history and lore, and she was able to tell me many stories about the role this majestic waterfall played in bringing peace to the once-warring native peoples of this region.

According to native lore, the Cohoes Falls is sacred to members of the Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee), for it was here many centuries ago that a prophet called The Peacemaker suffered a plunge into the turbulent river and somehow survived.  Impressed by this seemingly miraculous feat, the once-warring nations of Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Senecas attended to The Peacemaker's pleas to cease their warring, and they joined together to form the Iroquois Confederacy, a confederacy that persists to this day.  Unfortunately, over the centuries following the European invasion of North America, the native peoples lost their right to freely access this site. But just a few years ago, in 2011, the current owner, Brookfield Renewable Power Company, recognizing the sacredness of this site to native peoples, ceded title of a portion of the Saratoga County banks to the Iroquois Confederacy. Plans are in the works to establish a research center here and to build a traditional longhouse where visitors can stay and learn about the Iroquois Confederacy.

As we stood on a parapet overlooking the river, we could see across the Mohawk to the lands once occupied by these native peoples.

I had hoped we might walk closer to the falls by visiting Falls View Park, but we found it was closed to the public until May first, due to the hazard along the walkways caused by ice and snow.  At least we could read the informative signs at the entrance of this very nice park offering dramatic views of the falls.

We also enjoyed walking past these handsome 19th-century buildings that once provided housing for the factory workers who labored in the nearby fabric mills that once thrived in this riverside community.

The huge Harmony Mills, five stories high and stretching for several blocks, was the largest cotton mill complex in the world when completed in 1872.  The main building, now converted into hundreds of high-end residential units, is included in the National Register of Historic Places.  The statue in the niche is a rendering of Thomas Garner, one of the founding owners of Harmony Mills.

The Mohawk River pours into the Hudson River near Cohoes, and we returned home to Saratoga Springs by following the Hudson north through the river towns of Waterford, Mechanicville, Stillwater, Victory, and Schuylerville.  What a treat it was to see wide stretches of open water reflecting the blue of a radiant clear sky!  When we reached Stillwater, we stopped to observe small flocks of migrating waterfowl from a pleasant waterside park.

The afternoon was so delightfully spring-like by now, we celebrated by enjoying some ice-cream cones as we marveled at the mating displays of Hooded Mergansers and Goldeneyes out on the sparkling water.  High in the sky, a flock of Snow Geese winged their way north.  Their confidence that spring is truly here was heartening to us as we basked in the warming sun, blithely unaware as yet of the snow that would cover the ground again by the next morning.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Spring Flowers Are Up -- on the Newsstand!

 An unusual color pattern of Hepatica (Hepatica nobilus var. acuta), 
one of our earliest  spring wildflowers

Getting desperate to see some spring flowers?  Well, it's going to be a while yet before we find them out in our local woods, since our nighttime temperatures still fall below freezing.  But the newest issue of Saratoga Living magazine features an article I wrote, "The Wildflower Bounty of Saratoga County," and it's on the newsstands now.  Saratoga Living is a glossy local history/lifestyles magazine that is sold at Saratoga-area bookstores, drugstores, supermarkets, and other venues where magazines are sold.  But if you can't find it where you live, you can access the online issue, which includes even more of my flower photos than could be included in the print version.  (There's lots of other good stuff in this issue, too.) I'm pretty proud of this article and pleased as punch to be able to share it with my readers.  I share here, too, a few of the photos included in the magazine article.

Hopes this helps us all hold on until the real thing comes along.

Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia) carpets the forest floor in early spring.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) holds bright-yellow sunbursts within its snowy petals.

The brilliant Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is set off to 
stunning advantage by a sea of delicate Miterworts (Mitella diphylla).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Thank Heaven for Small Warm Spots

OK, I've given up looking for signs of spring.  'Taint gonna happen with overnight temperatures still in the single digits.  It was eight degrees above zero this morning in Saratoga Springs.  That's eight degrees FAHRENHEIT!  But, hey, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the wind was minimal, so I made up my mind to go out.  But where could I walk without post-holing through still-deep snow?  I decided to try the eastern shore of Moreau Lake, which would be bathed in sunlight all afternoon.

The lake was still solidly frozen and now mostly clear of snow.  I took one step out there and nearly upended on the slick bumpy ice.  Darn!  I should have worn Yaktrax.  Guess I'd better stick to the shore, I decided.

The shore was snow covered, but that snow was dense and crusted, so I could walk on top of it without poking through.  It felt good to just stride along without the crunch, crunch, crunch of snowshoes.  The air was sweet and the silence was profound, except for an occasional groan from the ice and the calling of crows from somewhere up on the mountain.

I was pleased to visit a patch of rare Whorled Mountain Mint and see that its seed heads had now emerged from the deep snowcover.  I plucked a few and breathed their intense minty fragrance, undiminished, it seemed, by being buried all winter under the snow.

When I rounded the bend to reach the northernmost shore, I was delighted to find whole stretches of terrain free of snow, just perfect for easy walking, with the softening earth yielding beneath my feet.

Oh, how delightful to hear the rustling of crisp dry leaves as I joyfully kicked my way through them!

The sand was as soft as on a summer's day, and so warm I could feel the heat even through the insulated soles of my boots.

And lo!  A bench!  There, I could bask for a while in the sun, bury my feet in warm sand,  and let the dream of spring waken in me again.  Aah!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Hurray for Frogs!

Did you know that yesterday (March 20) was not only the first day of spring but also World Frog Day?  Well, neither did I, or I wouldn't have spent the day futilely looking for signs of spring in my winter-gripped environment.  Instead, I would have been combing my archives for photos of these amazing creatures.  It's way too early yet this year to start hearing the shrill calls of Spring Peepers or the croaks of Wood Frogs, but the memories of these delightful events attach themselves to my photos of them.  I found a few of those photos, so I'm sharing them now on my blog.  It's never too late -- or early! -- to celebrate our froggy friends!

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

This photo is at least three times the actual size of this wee little frog, which may have been about an inch long, in a generous estimate.  Makes you wonder how such itty-bitty creatures can make such enormous sounds, as you can attest if you stop by a woodland pond shortly after ice-out and be nearly deafened by their shrill cries.  This racket is one of the of the sure signs of spring, so head out to any pools you know of and listen for their chorus.  Any day now, we hope.  The cross-like mark on this frog's back is a distinguishing feature.

Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)
(Note:  the genus of many frog species has been changed from Rana to Lithobates)

Another sure sign of spring is the duck-like quacking of Wood Frogs as they convene for their mating orgies in vernal pools.  Due to their distinctive body chemistry, these frogs are particularly tolerant of freezing temperatures and are among the first to stir out of terrestrial hibernation and head to pools that may still be edged with ice.  After their passion is spent,  this will be the last time this frog inhabits water but will spend the rest of the year on the forest floor.  Hence the name "Wood" Frog.  Their dead-grass-brown color and black bandit's mask are distinguishing physical features.

Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor)

We call this cryptically colored frog a "gray" frog, but (true to its species name)  it can also turn green to better camouflage its presence among the leaves of trees.  My friends and I were lucky to see this little fellow one spring, since these frogs spend most of their lives high in the trees and only come to ground to find a mate and lay eggs in vernal pools.  One of the ways it finds likely mates is to flash a bright patch of yellow on the inside of its rear legs.  "Hey, girl . . ."

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

This isn't my most diagnostic photo of a Pickerel Frog, since it doesn't very clearly show the rectangular spots that distinguish it from the Leopard Frog, which has circular ones.  But this is my favorite photo of it for other reasons.  I'd been chasing this particular frog along the river bank, taking photos as I ran, but the frog blended in so completely with the mud I could hardly make it out. Then, wonder of wonders, it leapt onto this floating Red Maple leaf, which provided a perfect foil.  It's a good thing I didn't try to grab it with my hands, since this frog's skin is known to produce poisonous secretions, useful for discouraging predators but also irritating to human skin.

OK, here's a clearer photo of a Pickerel Frog.  Here's lookin' at you, kid!

Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

Leopard Frogs can be brown or as green as this one is -- just a gorgeous emerald green!  Note the circular, rather than rectangular, spots.  (Well, sorta!) The Leopard Frog's skin does not secrete a poisonous substance, as the Pickerel Frog's does, but it does contain certain enzymes that have shown some potential for the treatment of certain cancers.  Just one more reason to celebrate frogs. And work to protect their habitat.  They like CLEAN WATER!

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

Oh Froggy, what big ears you have!  Meaning, those circles behind the eyes, which are called tympani.  This frog tends to be bigger all over than any of the frogs I have named so far, with only the Bull Frog being any bigger.  I suppose it gets the name Green Frog from the color of its upper face, since the rest of its body tends to be browner than greener, except for the yellow chin.  There's a similar-looking frog called a Mink Frog, but the Green Frog is distinguished by the black bands that encircle its legs.  The Green Frog's mating call sounds like a plucked banjo string.

Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

OK, here's the BIG GUY of the froggy universe, at least around these parts (meaning northeastern New York).  In coloration, it resembles the Green Frog, but even if you put similar sizes of the two species next to each other, you'd recognize the Bull Frog immediately by its enormous mouth.  Its mouth is so big, it pushes the tympani up towards the top of the head.  Its mouth is so big it can stuff a rat in there, believe it or not, using its two hands to shove it in.  The Bull Frog eats other frogs, too, so we are not likely to see a Green Frog sitting next to a Bull Frog.  But if we did, we could note that the Green Frog has ridges (called dorsolateral folds) that extend the length of its body (see the photo above).  The Bull Frog's dorsolateral folds stop just behind its tympani.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Spring, Schpring!

Here's the first day of Spring, but we're still held tight in Winter's grip here in Saratoga County.  It warmed up a bit last week, enough to start the sap running in maples, but now it's turned so cold again that the sap freezes solid as it drips from the trees.  It was down around 20 degrees this morning, thick snow still covers the ground, and it hadn't warmed up much by afternoon, when I forced myself grumpily outdoors.  If you're a nature blogger, ya gotta get out on the first day of Spring, right?  So I took myself off to the Bog Meadow Trail just outside of town.  Maybe I'd find some Skunk Cabbage there.  Maybe some migrating ducks.

The trail didn't look too promising, bumpy and slippery with icy snow, but at least it was packed down hard enough I could walk it with only grippers instead of snowhoes.  And soon I heard the sound of rushing water.  Yes!!!  The creeks have started to flow!  Last time I was here they were covered with solid ice.  Now there was just a bit of filigree ice at the edges.

I approached the open marsh as covertly and quietly as I could, hoping to spot whatever waterfowl might be swimming in there among what little bit of open water there was.  But nope, not quiet enough!   First, a pair of quacking Mallards took off (no big deal; they're here all year), and then I saw and heard about six other ducks take flight, making the high-pitched hoo-ee, hoo-ee, hoo-ee sound I associate with Wood Ducks.  Darn!  Wood Ducks are so beautiful, and I missed my chance to see them.

Since the ground is still frozen solid, I could venture out into the swamp where in warmer weather I'd sink to my shins in muck.  But today I could follow the running creek well back into the swamp, walking on solidly frozen snow instead of teetering along atop mounds of Tussock Sedge.

I was hoping to find the masses of Skunk Cabbage plants that crowd the banks of this stream, but most of them were still buried deep under snow.  I did spy a few in the muddy shallows, but the spathes had only just begun to emerge, still tightly closed, no sign yet of the pollen-bearing spadices within.

Those reddening Skunk Cabbage spathes, the deep-red branches of Red Osier Dogwood, and the gray-green disks of Green Shield Lichen adorning the trees were just about the only spots of color in this winter-dreary landscape today.

Ah, but look what a sign of hope for Spring I found!  Although it looks like another dry dead leaf, I recognized the cocoon of a Cecropia Moth, one of our more spectacular moths, brightly colored and as big as your hand.  I reached to break off the twig it was attached to, planning to bring it home to my screened porch, where I could watch it emerge in late May before I returned it to the wild.

But oh dear, someone else appears to have found this cocoon, and has drilled a hole to get inside and . . .  what?  Eat the caterpillar?  Or lay eggs that will eat the caterpillar when they hatch?  It doesn't bode well for this Cecropia Moth.  I brought the cocoon home anyway.  It might be interesting to see if other creatures emerge.

The day grew dimmer and dimmer as the afternoon wore on.   And colder and colder, too.   I'd had enough of the great outdoors today.  And then it began to snow!  Aaargh!!!  Time to go home.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Some Wildlife Favorites

In honor of National Wildlife Week, I wanted to post photos of some of my favorite wildlife.  Maybe not EVERYbody's favorites, though!  Furry mammals and pretty birds and colorful butterflies are easy to love, but I have a special fondness for spiders.  I've combed through my photo files and come up with a few I especially love.

First, we have the crab spiders, which spin no webs to capture their prey.  Rather, they lurk among the flowers, waiting for pollinators to land, when they pounce and paralyze their prey, then suck their prey's juices out.

The Goldenrod Crab Spider can change its color to match the color of the flower it's hiding in.  This yellow one with its jaws in the neck of a Pearl Crescent Butterfly must have recently arrived in this Boneset bloom and had not yet had time to change from yellow to white.

Here's one that has matched its colors to those of the pink-and-white Spreading Dogbane blooms.

This is the White-banded Crab Spider, which looks quite a bit like the Goldenrod Crab Spider, except for the white stripes across its face.  It lurks in similar flowers and captures its prey the same way.

Here's a baby crab spider, very tiny and as fuzzy as a new puppy!

Next, we have some orb weavers, all of which spin the kind of disk-shaped webs we associate with spiders, in which flying insects become trapped in the sticky filaments, after which the spider wraps them tightly in silk to save them for supper.

This is the Marbled Orbweaver, with its beautifully patterned abdomen and tiger-striped legs.  Very colorful!

Here's a Long-jawed Orbweaver, which has a habit of stretching out its long legs fore and aft.

The Hump-backed Orbweaver does look like a hunchback, with its sharply angled carapace.  I love the gray-green color of this spider, patterned with black.  Very pretty.

Here are two big beautiful spiders, the Yellow Garden Spider (Argiope aurantia) and the Banded Garden Spider (Argiope trifasciata), both of which are remarkable for their size and bright coloration. The web of A. aurantia is notable for the zig-zag pattern woven into the filaments.

Those Garden Spiders are pretty big, but they have nothing on this Fishing Spider when it comes to size.  These are truly gigantic, the larger females as much as three inches across.  I usually see them clinging to the sides of boulders that hang over the water, but this one was perched atop a Joe-Pye Weed bloom, waiting to dive into the creek and capture a small fish.  Imagine that!  A spider that can capture a fish!

Oh, how I wish I had more photos of Jumping Spiders, dear little creatures with four pairs of shiny black eyes, including one big pair that looks straight back at you.  Most are small, some are quite hairy, and all are really cute.  But boy, do they move fast!  Very hard to take photos of.  I did manage to capture a photo of this female Whitman's Jumping Spider before she leapt away in a flash.  I hope someday I may see her mate, for the males are quite colorful, with bright-red head and abdomen.