Friday, February 26, 2016

Folks, I had a feeling we were not in New York anymore.

 No, indeed, we were in Winter Park, Florida!  But to tell the truth, if we hadn't gone to a lush and incredibly beautiful botanical garden there, it would have been hard to locate exactly where we were on the planet.  Of course, the vegetation told me we were definitely in the tropics:

There were Live Oaks draped with Spanish Moss.

I saw palm trees with orchids of many colors sprouting from the tree trunks.

Glossy-leaved shrubs were loaded with heavy blooms of lovely camellias.

The irises came in colors I had never laid eyes on before.

Yes, the botanical beauties certainly told me we must be somewhere "Down South."  And the homes and hotels in Winter Park quite often displayed a distinctive Spanish-style architecture, built mostly of masonry and ornamented with elaborate wrought iron.  But I was struck by how much is just the same as anywhere else in America, with the same Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks and IHOPs and other American chains lining the boulevards.  I couldn't find any place where I could get a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and here we were in the heart of Orange County, where most of America's Minute Maid or Florida Natural OJ comes from.

But that's OK.  We were here to visit dear family members, all of us more and more aware that the opportunities to be together are growing rarer and more difficult as age and disability encroach. And we did have a wonderful time, just being together, enjoying my brother-in-law's terrific cooking, and watching a smile spread across my sweet sister-in-law's face as she recognized someone who loves her.  We also got to meet the newest member of the Donnelly clan, a cheerful chubby little guy who delighted in shouting for joy.  And of course, the soft balmy Florida air certainly added to our pleasure.

I hadn't been to Florida in many years, and each time I visit I recall how my family came  every winter when I was just a small girl, back in the 1940s and early 50s, driving down to St. Petersburg Beach from southern Michigan, where my father was a Chris-Craft dealer.  Occasionally, he'd be hauling a motor yacht (Chris-Craft used to build their big boats in Algonac, Michigan) to deliver to a customer in Florida.  We would then stay in Florida for some weeks, since my father's marina didn't have much business during a Michigan winter.

We'd head south out of Michigan through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia before reaching Florida,  a three-day trip traveling two-lane blacktops that took us through every town and hamlet along the way.  This was long before interstate highways or chain restaurants or motels, and we spent the nights in tourist homes or roadside cabins that I, a small child, found delightfully cute but which often horrified my mom with their inadequate housekeeping.

In pre-McDonald's America, local food was definitely distinctive to each region. There was country ham in Kentucky, hard and salty, with red-eye gravy for sopping your breakfast biscuits.  We definitely knew we'd arrived "down south" when grits appeared with our breakfast eggs even though we'd not ordered them.  My dad couldn't wait to hit Tennessee, when we'd all have to keep alert for signs advertising "Genuine Pit Bar-B-Q!"  Georgia meant roadside pecan stands, where we could find coconut candy and peach preserves as well as pecan pralines, and Florida brought citrus groves where we would get fresh-squeezed OJ as well as sticky hands and faces from gorging on sweet Temple oranges.

My dad would launch the yacht at a marina on Tampa Bay, and I recall docks encrusted with barnacles and sentried by pelicans perching on every pier post.  There were mud flats aswarm with fiddler crabs that disappeared down their holes in a flash at the slightest footfall, and dockside cats that actually went in the water after fish, so their fur was stiff with salt.  We could get fish fry or shrimp and hush puppies at lots of dockside shacks, and my grown-up palate still longs for those sweet crispy shrimp that I have never been able to find again.  I also recall that Tampa was then the center of Cuban life in America, and we feasted there on Garbanzo-bean soup, Cuban sandwiches, and coconut ice cream.

Yes, it definitely seemed back then that Florida was far away from home.  I'm glad we can get there much more quickly now, but the fast-food stands in the airport sure can't match the culinary adventures of driving there in the 1940s on local roads through every town and eating at local diners with local folks.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

See Saw, Freeze and Thaw

A week ago it was 20 below.  Yesterday, the temperature edged toward 60.  Today it was in the 40s. What a see-saw winter this has been!  Ah well, at least the brittle-crusted snow is mostly gone, although many trails are still covered with hard-packed ice.  Or water.  Or mud.  This is what the trails along the Kayaderosseras Creek looked like yesterday:  a combination of all three.

Although the day was gray and threatening rain, the air was actually soft and balmy, inviting me to venture out.  Allowing myself to dream of spring, I headed over to the Burl Trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa, hoping to hear a gentle rippling stream.   Well, I didn't.  It wasn't a raging flood, either, as one might expect with snowmelt, but just an icy, muddy mess.  Hardly picturesque!

I was amazed to find these big floes of thick ice lying in broken plates across the low-lying areas along the creek.  I found it hard to believe that we've had enough precipitation of ANY kind this winter to cause the creek to flood so high.  But there was the evidence that it had!  Strange!

I come to this creek bank often in summer, especially late in the season when the banks are adorned with an amazing array of gorgeous wildflowers.  This was the image I held in my mind as I made my way along the icy, muddy banks, dreaming of summer while slipping and squishing and splashing in micro-spiked waterproof boots, and wondering if I might recognize the remains of some of these gorgeous wildflowers.

The first ones I recognized were these puffy taupe balls, the remains of Wild Bergamot that in summer bear abundant blooms of pale purple.  To confirm the ID, I plucked one of the dry flower heads and breathed in the still-pungent minty fragrance.

Always easy to recognize by the candelabra shape of its flower head, Blue Vervain was still easily spotted protruding above the jumble of grasses.

I'm going to assume that these scraggly puffs were once the vividly colored blooms of New England Aster, one of the most abundant of the wildflowers that bloom here in late summer and early autumn.

I know for sure that these tall stalks with multiple blooms on curving stems are the remains of Maximilian Sunflowers, the only multi-flowered sunflower we have that displays this distinctive shape.

A few pods of Wild Cucumber still clung to the vines.  When green, those spikes that cover the pods are soft and malleable, but they felt much more prickly now.

The spent flowerheads of Tall Goldenrod, growing in masses along the stream, almost looked as if they were still in bloom when backlit by the sun.

Thickets of Red Osier Dogwood crowd the edge of the creek, their deep-red branches even more evident now, when bare, than when they are covered with leaves and flowers in spring.  The shrubs provide a welcome splash of color to an otherwise rather drab landscape.

Ah, but they sure can't compare to what these banks will look like come next summer!

I'm holding this image of vividly colored flowers in my mind as I climb on the airplane tomorrow that will fly me to Winter Park, Florida.  We're off to visit family there for most of the rest of this week.  I expect I will find some flowers in bloom down there, so watch for my next post from sunny Florida.  I won't have my computer down there, though, so it might be most of a week before I can blog again.  I wonder what kind of crazy weather we'll have up here while I'm gone.  Lord only knows!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Finally! One Nice Day!

It wasn't 20 below.  Nor was rain coming down in buckets.  No raging wind was tearing the limbs from trees.  In fact, yesterday was a pretty nice day: temps in the 20s, bright sun, blue sky, and just a bit of a breeze. Yes, there was lots of ice everywhere, making for slippery, noisy walking on brittle snow, but, donning my microspikes, I ventured outdoors after what seemed an awfully long time hiding out at home.  And the Hudson River along Spier Falls Road seemed a promising destination. It certainly was a beautiful one.

As I approached Spier Falls Dam, coming down Spier Falls Road from Corinth Mountain Road, I was surprised to see the catchment above the dam completely covered with ice.  Usually, the current here will keep at least the center of the river open.

Driving along, watching the river for perching Bald Eagles (we often see them here), I noticed this array of converging animal tracks, all leading to one point on the river bank.  Hmm, I mused, I'll bet there's something attracting coyotes down there.

Pulling over to the side of the road, I got out of my car and looked over the bank.  Sure enough, there it was -- a deer carcass, nearly consumed.  Most likely, naturalists from Moreau Lake State Park had deposited a road-killed deer there, as a feeding station for Bald Eagles, whose winter population the park monitors each winter.  And of course, other carnivores join the feast as well.  It would be interesting to hide here at night and see how many animals still arrive.

When I reached the Sherman Island Boat Launching Site, I parked my car and walked down to the river.  Here below the dam, the center of the river was wide open, with only a shelf of ice lining the Saratoga County shore.

Again, I could see the traces of animal tracks on the ice, and just for a moment or two I thought about walking out there myself.  But knowing how deceiving river ice can be, I thought better of it and headed into the woods instead.  I weigh a whole lot more than a fox or coyote.

I didn't walk through the woods for long, for the constant crashing through icy crust was tiring, as well as painful to my still-recovering knee.   But it was very pretty back here, the snow still deep beneath the trees and around the huge moss-carpeted boulders.

By this time of the winter, we often can find the seeds of Paper Birch scattered across the snow, their fleur-de-lis shapes appearing like the tracks of a a flock of miniature turkeys.

Some of the birches appeared to have streams of bright-red blood running down the bark,

but a closer look revealed that that "blood" was instead a fungus called Wrinkled Crust ( Phlebia radiata).

I walked along the course of a little stream, much of it frozen over completely, but here and there, where the water swirled with extra vigor, I could see and hear its rushing water and enjoy the lovely crystalline ice hanging over the turbulence.

Here was LOTS more crystalline ice, falling in tier upon tier of icicles coating the spring-watered boulders along Spier Falls Road.  I was on my way home, but I decided to park and walk along the road for a closer view.

At one spot a tiny flowing rill had cut through the ice to drip and tinkle and splash with the musical sounds of Spring into a roadside pool. Enhancing that springlike effect were the cushions of bright-green mid-stream moss and the snowless banks covered with the wintering-over green leaves of Trailing Arbutus.

Yes, spring will come.  And it might as well do so soon, since this winter has been such a bust.  No sledding, no skiing, no snowshoeing, no animal tracking, no reliable lake ice,  no fun at all.  No matter how I try to make the best of it.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Good Time (and Temperature!) for Cherry Pie

Twenty-two below!!!  Valentine's Day was a good day to snuggle up with someone you love.  Maybe turn up the furnace a little, too?

 Or turn up the oven to 425 and bake a cherry pie.  Cherry pie is good any day, but it made a good valentine for my hubby.  (And me!)

Cherry pie is also a good thing to eat on Presidents' Day.  Happy Birthday George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  And happy eating to us.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Yearning for Summer? Come Visit Mother Nature's Riverside Garden.

Winter still rages out there today, with temps in the low teens and a howling wind making things even worse.  I'm sitting here snug and warm, though, immersed in visions of gorgeous spring and summer wildflowers as I work on my presentation for this coming Wednesday, February 17, at 7 pm, at the Crandall Library in downtown Glens Falls.  It's called "Mother Nature's Waterside Garden."

 Title photo by Sue Pierce

Sponsored by the Southern Adirondack Chapter of the Audubon Society, with assistance from the Adirondack Mountain Club, my slide show/talk is offered free of charge to all who dream of warmer days or to those who just might be curious to know what grows along our  Hudson River.  Believe me,  there sure are some beauties!  (Cardinal Flower and Pickerelweed among them)

And some are among the rarest of New York wildflowers, such as this Small Floating Bladderwort, ranked as Threatened in the state but abounding at South Glens Falls:

And of course, since this is an Audubon event, we will have a photo or two of some birds, such as this regal Great Blue Heron:

We'll also acknowledge the beauty of some of our insect friends, such as this spectacular Calico Pennant Dragonfly.  (What a great poster boy he'd make for Valentine's Day, with all those hearts on his abdomen!)

Even though our focus will be on the flowers of spring and summer, we'll visit the river  in every season.

We'll even visit the river in the coldest days of winter, when frazil ice mounts high on the banks to create the remarkable habitat called the Ice Meadows.

Because, of course, we would not have the glorious flowers of summer without their time of rest during winter.  Here's that same stretch of Ice Meadows pictured above, but now in all its summer glory.

So while we shiver and shake this week as temperatures plummet way below zero, just remember that winter is all part of Mother Nature's gardening strategy.  And then make plans to come to my talk and enjoy some visions of her marvelous yield.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Wow!  We finally got some snow!  Not a lot, but enough to transform the woods from a muddy brown mess to a sparkly winter wonderland -- at least for an hour or so before the snow was shrugged from the trees by wind and a warming sun.  What a welcome sight while it lasted!

There was just enough snow to beautify the woods, but not enough to warrant snowshoes when I joined my friend Evelyn and others to walk a seasonal road to Crane Mountain in the Adirondacks on Wednesday.  We did need our microspikes, however, since the road beneath that white dusting was still thick with slick, hard ice.

Evelyn knows this road and its surroundings very well, since she and her husband and son once lived in a cabin tucked back in the woods near here.  I was thinking it would have been a long walk for her son to reach the schoolbus stop a mile or so away, but Evelyn admitted that the family moved to another house closer to the highway once the road to their cabin became impassable in winter.  Impassable to cars, of course, but just perfect for a lovely winter's hike on skis or snowshoes.  Or microspikes, as the case might be.

The road moved high along the edge of a deep ravine for much of our mile-long walk, and then tapered down to follow the course of a rushing stream.  At one point, we could see that a beaver dam had been breached, reportedly to prevent the backed-up pond from flooding the road.

Our destination was an open meadow at the foot of Crane Mountain, the mountain rising high against a sky where snow clouds were vying for dominance with occasional patches of blue.  My photos don't show this, but the air was continuously spangled with wafting flakes of snow, prickling our faces rosy and warm from our hiking efforts.

When we reached the meadow, the view of the steep rise of Crane Mountain was breathtaking!

A nearby stream was splashing into a little pool, where the constant spray created a large build-up of ice, with the prettiest fringe of icicles hanging over the open water.

Evelyn and most of our group continued along a ridge trail that would have proved too difficult for me with my weakened knee, but I was happy to return by the road we'd walked in on.  Especially since I had for company my good friend Bob Duncan.  Bob knows the mosses and liverworts well, a useful thing to know when bryophytes are the only green plants we could find on the boulders that line the road.  He was able to promptly correct me when I thought that this Scapania liverwort, pictured below, was a moss.  Darn!  I should have known!

At least I was able to recognize this ruffly green stuff as a moss, and we both could agree that it was Brocade Moss (Hypnum imponens).

I'm looking forward now to more winter adventures.  I understand winter will be back with a vengeance real soon, especially bitter cold temperatures.  At least that will harden up the ice on the lakes and ponds, another source of winter pleasures.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Coping Without Winter

Well, at least the sun was shining yesterday when I took the above photo of muddy trails in the Saratoga Spa State Park.  But the rest of last week was mostly gray and sodden, not very conducive to tempting this amateur naturalist outdoors.  We have no snow for skiing or snowshoeing or animal tracking, and rising temperatures are melting the ice on the lakes and streams.  I really had to push myself to get outdoors this past week, and once I got out, I really had to search to find anything of interest to photograph.  But Nature always rises to the occasion, doesn't she?

On the last cold day we had, I revisited Lake Bonita, stopping by the outlet stream to marvel at the as-yet-unmelted ice formations that hung over the rushing water.

Walking across the still-hard ice to visit the boggy islands offshore, I delighted in the tiny seedpods of the Leatherleaf shrubs, as dainty and pretty as when the flowers were blooming.

Carefully picking my way across slippery ice-hard remnants of snow in the woods, I stooped to admire this tiny baby fern peeking out from a hollow moss-covered log.

I also stopped to ponder how such a convoluted tree trunk could have formed.

On a warmer day, I made my way over to the Hudson River at Moreau, where the now ice-free water lay still as glass, reflecting the forested mountains along the shore.

Wearing microspikes to keep me from slipping on the hard icy snow, I clambered out onto some rocky promontories along the river, examining the bryophyte-covered boulders to see what mosses, lichens, and liverworts were wintering there, as green and fresh-looking as ever.

Here's a feathery moss (sorry, I don't know its name) overlying a nice patch of the shiny green liverwort called Bazzania trilobata.

This nice clump of Cladonia lichen stood out from the other greenery covering the boulder it grew on.

Here and there, some fungi still held onto their summer colors,  even though coated with icy snow.

In the woods near the Spier Falls Dam, the old quarries that once provided the rocks for building the dam were spectacular with cascading blue-tinged icicles.

After what seemed a long stretch of oppressively gray days, the sun finally came out yesterday, and the temperature rose into the 50s.  It seemed like a good day for a walk through the Ferndell Ravine at Saratoga Spa State Park.

A Pileated Woodpecker kept hooting at me as it flew from tree to tree, much too quickly for my camera to capture it.

Aha, it landed at last!  But much too far away for my little camera's inadequate zoom to get a clear photo, alas.  But at least it could capture the startling red of the woodpecker's crest.  What a gorgeous and sizable bird!

When I reached the brook that runs past the Island Spouter  and the stone structure housing the Hayes Spring, I stopped to chat with a mineral water enthusiast who showed me how I could sniff the vapors, in addition to drinking the waters of this extremely mineral-rich water. And boy, does that gas give a kick!  If you try this, be careful not to snort the vapors too deeply. My friend here told me that breathing the vapors was good for treating her sinusitis.  It does clear the pipes, I'll attest to that!

This enormous build-up of mineral accretions (called a "tufa") is the most spectacular feature of a walk through the Valley of Springs at the Saratoga Spa State Park.

Here's the spring that's the source of all those minerals that created the giant tufa that lies below it along the creek.  The blood-red accretions covering the ground here are a sign that this water contains significant amounts of iron.  It tastes quite salty and effervescent, too.  Some people like it, some people don't.  I'd call it an "interesting" taste.  Try it sometime.  Supposed to be good for you.