Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Another Week Forward Into Spring

A lovely spring day today, soft and warm with bright sunshine, and boy was I ready for it!  I'd been laid up sick in bed since last Saturday, and I was truly eager to hit the trails.  Still feeling a little wobbly, though, I stuck to some local trails, first stopping right here in Saratoga at Skidmore College's woods.  And I certainly found my reward:  the English Violets were up!

Our earliest violet, the English Violet (Viola odorata) manages to make it through our sub-zero winters despite not being native to these shores.  As the above photo shows, its wintering-over leaves suffered quite a bit this year because of lack of snow protection, but its pure-white blossoms came through as unscathed as ever.  Note that its petals are not striped with purple veining as are most of our native violets, although it does have a purple-tinged spur.  It's also a deliciously fragrant violet, and it comes in a rich purple variety as well as this pristine white.

The Sharp-lobed Hepaticas were also just starting to bloom at Skidmore,  although I had to search and search to find a very few that had opened their furry buds.

Oh Hepatica!  One of the sweetest blessings of spring!  So pretty!

I next made my way out to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton to see how the Snow Trillium had survived the few freezing nights we'd had since I found the first blooms last Friday.  Well, I'm happy to report that they are flourishing unscathed by the cold.  This diminutive trillium surely lives up to its name!

Unfortunately, I took a skidding fall on some slippery leaves out there, landing with my leg folded into a Z beneath my full weight.  I knew right away that I'd been hurt, but after checking to see if I could still bear my weight, I did manage to hobble back to my car and drive safely home.  Guess I'll be laid up again for a while with what seems to be a sprained ankle, swollen and painful.  Same leg as my shattered kneecap, but I hope recovery is faster.  Darn!  Just as the wildflower floodgates are starting to open!

Friday, March 25, 2016

Happy Easter!

It's almost Easter, and as Christians prepare to rejoice that the Lord is risen, we wildflower lovers also rejoice that the first REAL flower of spring -- one that actually looks like a flower -- has risen as well.  Alleluia!  The Coltsfoot is up!  The season of blooming is here!  These dear little sunny blooms, bursting forth in glory from out of the cold dead leaves, speak to me of resurrection far more than any pampered, florist-bred Easter Lily could.  Like God's love, they are freely given, they spring forth unbidden, there's not a thing we had to do to deserve them, nor a penny we have to spend to enjoy them.  Also, like the Incarnate One who dwelt among the lowly, they make their home among the poorest soils, brightening desolate roadsides where nothing else will grow.  Supposedly, they even have healing powers.  So bless you, dear little Coltsfoot.  It gives me great joy to welcome you once more.

Another little flower has risen today as well, and it surely seems like a miracle that such a dainty little flower as Snow Trillium would dare the freezing temperatures we are still having at night.  But it's also nearly miraculous that this aptly named flower, which may bloom while snow still lies in the shaded woods, can be found in our local woods.  Saratoga County is far north of Snow Trillium's native range, but thanks to the late noted naturalist Orra Phelps, we can find them where she must have planted them on the land that was once her home, now the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve on Parkhurst Road in Wilton.  Who cares about chocolate bunnies or candy eggs?  I found my Easter treat today, as sweet as any bon-bon.  (You can see how tiny this flower is, by noting the acorn cap next to it.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

New Access in the Works for Bog Meadow Trail

 A bright sunny day today, but blustery cold, after another freezing night.  It was nice enough, anyway, for a walk at Bog Meadow Nature Trail, but I wasn't surprised to find the pond skimmed over with ice again.  The sight of that ice dimmed my hopes that I might find Skunk Cabbage at last in bloom, but then I found one, with spathe fully opened and spadix studded with pollen-bearing anthers.  Ta da!  There it is, folks -- the first Skunk Cabbage flower of spring!

That was the only flowering one I found, however, with all the others around it still closed up tight.  Nevertheless, while it may be true that one swallow does not make a summer, one blooming Skunk Cabbage flower sure does mean that spring is truly here.  And there was also another spring thing going on today along Bog Meadow Trail, and that was a chorus of Wood Frogs croaking away in a hidden pond way off in the swamp.  I couldn't see them, but I could hear them.

Here was another great find today at Bog Meadow:  the hardest working trail steward you could imagine, Geoff Bournemann.  He just never stops finding ways to improve this already marvelous trail, and today he was working to improve the drainage in a stubbornly swampy spot.  Hard work, wielding a mattock and shoveling mud, but Geoff just seems to thrive on it.

I'm always glad to meet Geoff along this trail, and today he told me some excellent news about some new improvements for the future.    Parking for Bog Meadow occurs at either end of this approximately two-mile-long trail, but the parking for the Meadowbrook Road trailhead has always presented a bit of a problem.  The parking area, pictured here, is at least a hundred yards from the trailhead, requiring hikers to walk on the narrow shoulder of this rather busy road before they could start onto the trail.  But Geoff told me today that an old railway line has been located in the swamp just adjacent to the parking area, and that once permits have been obtained, trailwork can begin to create a new entrance to Bog Meadow Trail directly off this parking area.  This will be much safer for walkers, and will also grant some of us access to heretofore unexplored areas of the swamp.  Hurray!

Geoff told me that the trail path had already been flagged, so of course I had to explore this new route for myself.  As this photo reveals, the going was rough, for no clearing or grooming can occur until the proper permits have been obtained.  But I was able to push my way through scrub and scramble over fallen logs until I reached the swampy wet area that will be traversed by a boardwalk in the future.  I was exhilarated!  This will be so great!  A whole new swampy spot to explore!  Who knows what fascinating plants might be hiding back here?  I can't wait to find out.

Speaking of fascinating plants, I next returned to the spot on Bog Meadow Trail where last week Sue and I found the seed capsules of some kind of orchid.  (Our friend and orchid expert Andrew Gibson has guessed that this is most likely a Yellow Wide-lipped Twayblade.)  I wanted to see if I could find it again (I could!) and then to mark its location so that I might find it again when it blooms next summer.  I also wanted to mark its location clearly enough so that workers clearing that new access trail wouldn't damage the plants in the process.  Some pink tape on a nearby tree and a red twist-tie on a plant-stem adjacent to the orchid should do the trick.  Or at least, I hope so.  On my way back along the trail, I met Geoff again, told him how I had marked the plant, and asked him to do what he could to safeguard it during the trail-clearing process.  I know he will.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Spring is Here! Well, Sorta

Yes, it's official:  today is the first day of Spring.  But with temperatures below freezing at night and barely making it into the 40s during the day, it feels as if the season has taken a step backwards.  Tree buds had started to swell,  Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs had begun their noisy courtship, and even some flowers had opened their blooms, because of unseasonable warmth.  But they'd better just hold their horses!

I went looking for Hepatica buds in the Skidmore woods yesterday.  It's easy to find the plants because their green and maroon leaves winter over unchanged, making them quite visible on the otherwise brown forest floor .  But pushing aside the leaves and peering down at the bases of dozens of plants, I found only this one, with its furry buds peeking up from the warming earth.  I'm glad they are wearing their warm wooly coats, because they're going to need them these next few days.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Signs of Spring

Spring seems a bit out of whack this year.  That's not surprising, considering that we hardly had any winter to speak of. But since it's been so unseasonably warm, why the heck isn't the Skunk Cabbage blooming?  In all my years of wildflower hunting, I've always thought of Skunk Cabbage as the very first flower of spring.  But not this year.  For example, I've already found the sprightly red tufts of the female flowers of American Hazelnut.

And the dangling male catkins of Speckled Alder are already shedding their pollen on the slightest breeze.

And sun-warmed sandy banks are spangled with bright-yellow blooms of Coltsfoot, offering their treasures to visiting bees.

But so far, I've not yet found a single spadix of Skunk Cabbage tufted with anthers spilling their pollen.  And I've been all over, looking for them.  On Monday I went to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, where in other years the muddy swales would be covered with gaping spathes, welcoming the earliest pollinators to their self-warmed interiors.  I found some swelling speckled spathes, but all were tightly closed.   On Tuesday I visited Bog Meadow Nature Trail, where Skunk Cabbage abounds in the swamp and along the trailside creek.  Same story: Closed-tight spathes.  No pollen.  Then on Wednesday, a sunny warm day that surely would tempt those Skunk Cabbage spathes to open wide their windows, I visited the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga Springs.  It sure was a lovely walk.

And look!  The Skunk Cabbage spathes were opening up, just a bit.  Were the spadices within those Morocco-red bulbous wrappings ready to welcome the flies that would be drawn to those rather odiferous interiors?

Nope.  Not yet. Another walker had stepped on a nearby plant, so I picked up the half-crushed spathe and broke off a portion, wanting to check on the ripeness of the spadix within.  Still very immature.  How strange!  I guess I can't call this the first flower of spring THIS year!

Ah well, I was glad to have walked this very pleasant Spring Run Trail, which follows an old railway right-of-way through wetlands on both sides.  This very handsome Mallard pair were also enjoying this sun-warmed day as they dabbled busily in a trailside flooded ditch and allowed me to gaze at length on their gorgeous colorful feathers.

Well, there are certainly other signs of spring to celebrate, and today, my friends in the Thursday Naturalists and I set off through the woods of the Ballston Creek Preserve in Malta, hoping to see if the Great Blue Herons had returned to their giant nests in tall tree snags along the creek.

And so they HAD! LOTS of them!

Just a day or so before, one of our friends had visited this heronry and had reported no residents as yet.  But this was our lucky day!  We not only were privileged to see many of these giant birds perched on the nests, but we also witnessed them pairing off, making what looked like affectionate gestures and actual matings as they once again laid claim to their breeding homes.

We also delighted in sighting the two pointy "horns" of a Great Horned Owl snuggled down in her nest, one she had usurped from the herons before they returned from their winter migration.  These owls, permanent local residents, start breeding as early as February, and they will be sitting on eggs even before winter's snowy cold and icy winds have ceased.  (We also spied in this same swamp the huge nest that is annually occupied by an Osprey pair, but we saw no signs of them today.)

On every side of us, wherever water had collected in vernal pools, we could hear the loud "quacks" of mating Wood Frogs, one of the earliest sounds of spring.  I crept closer to one of these pools and happened upon this froggy orgy, three males (the smaller frogs) all fiercely clinging to one female.

It didn't seem to matter to these fellows which end of their prize they were gripping.  And the truth is, it doesn't much matter, since froggy sex doesn't include penetration of the female by a male sex organ.  She will expel her eggs in the water and the males will release their sperm in the water to fertilize them.  But the sex drive still compels the males to strenuously grasp the female. The poor girl had to struggle to get her nose above the water!  In fact, females do occasionally drown in mating season.  Since they've already released their eggs in the water, Nature doesn't care if she lives or dies. But I do.  Taking pity on this poor creature, I lifted her (swains attached) to the bank, hoping she might just catch her breath, but she vigorously made every effort to get back into the water.  She had eggs to lay and she sure wasn't going to waste them on dry ground!

We happened upon another little critter of the spring woods, a Red Eft, first one we'd seen this year.  These adorably cute creatures are the terrestrial form of the Spotted Newt, which lives and breeds in water.

Just as red as that little Red Eft was this fungal growth on a rotting log that lay on the forest floor.  None of us knew what to call it, but I later learned (try googling "wrinkly red fungus") that its name is Peniofora rufa.  Or Red Tree Brain.  (Yeah, I can see how it came by that name.)  I couldn't call it a sign of spring, since it had been lying on the ground all winter, but it gave us naturalists a little jolt of joy to come upon something we'd not seen before and didn't know the name of.  Something new!  Nothing better for feeling young than learning something new.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Around the Ice-free Pond

The sun returned to us Friday, and the balmy temperatures persisted.  Not as crazy as that 80-above on Wednesday, but into the nice mid-50s -- perfect for a walk around Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park.  And look:  all the ice is gone from the pond!  I wonder if this sets some record for the earliest day for ice-out.

I'll bet it's close to the earliest date for American Hazelnut flowers.  I do have  in my files one photo of these tiny red female flowers dated 3/12/12, but most of my photos are dated later in March or early April.  I usually think of this as the second flower of spring, after Skunk Cabbage.  But when we looked for Skunk Cabbage on Wednesday this week, its spathes were still tightly closed, and the muddy ground where they grew was still quite frozen.

As I walked around the pond today, I did not expect to find any other flowers starting to bloom, but I did enjoy revisiting many of the flowers I'd enjoyed in bloom last summer, trying to recognize them from their wintered-over remains.  Maleberry was one of those, easily recognized by its little hard fruits that always remind me of miniature hot-cross buns.

It's also easy to recognize the remains of Marsh St. Johnswort from the cinnamon color and tulip shape of its seed capsules.

The puffy little seed pods of Ditch Stonecrop persist through the winter virtually unchanged, other than blanching from rosy pink to almost white by the time spring arrives.

Beautiful Wintergreen always looks the same, spring, summer, winter, or fall, with glossy green leaves and plump red berries that can persist even when the plants come into flower in the summer. Oh look what else shares this mossy patch with the Wintergreen:  A seed capsule of Starflower, chalk-white and centered within a star, held on a fine wiry stem.

One bank of Mud Pond was almost completely carpeted with the leathery green leaves of Trailing Arbutus, and a closer look revealed an abundance of flower buds just waiting to bloom.  This is one of our earliest spring flowers, and one of our prettiest, too, with waxy white or pink blooms that are as fragrant as they are beautiful.

Here was a lovely mound of Haircap Moss, with its tiny splash cups starting to form.  Soon, they will be filled with sperm to be splashed out by spring rains and washed to waiting females.  Moss sex!

As I completed my circuit of the pond, the sun was spreading a warm golden light on the eastern bank, where flocks of geese and ducks were paddling about on the mirror-still water, filling the air with their clamor.

I took the long way home, taking Spier Falls Road over the mountain and along the Hudson River, stopping at the Spier Falls Dam to examine the boulders that line the road there.   In just a few weeks these rosettes of Early Saxifrage leaves will produce masses of white flowers, sprouting from mounds of lovely multi-colored mosses.  It will be a gorgeous sight.  But so are these rosy leaves and plump mosses, still fresh even after spending the winter under coatings of ice.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eighty Degrees in Early March!

What crazy weather!  Still in the 40s on Monday, but by Wednesday this week the temperature in Saratoga hit at least 80 degrees.  What a great day for my friend Sue to have off from work (it was her birthday!), so we could go for a nice walk along Bog Meadow Nature Trail.  I'm recovering from cataract surgery I had on Monday, so I'm not supposed to exert myself strenuously for a while, and Bog Meadow offers easy walking along a straight level trail.

Of course, we were looking for signs of spring, but the first thing that caught our eye was a plant left over from last year that had made it through the winter with its (empty!) seed pods intact.  Sue spotted it first (my vision is still quite blurry from the surgery), and noted that it seems to have grown from a bulb-like base.  Well, neither one of us recognized what its flowers might have been, but we're hoping maybe one of my blog readers might recognize it.  I can't believe I never noticed it when it was blooming.  The pods are kind of orchid-like.  Maybe Helleborine?

UPDATE:  This is an orchid, all right, but not Helleborine, as I wrongly surmised.  Our dear friend Andrew Gibson has suggested this is most likely Liparis loeselii, also known as the Yellow Wide-lipped Twayblade Orchid.  Orchids are Andrew's botanical passion, so if anyone would know, he sure would.  I've never seen this plant before, so I'll be careful to search for it when it's in bloom.  

For being such a warm sunny day, things were oddly quiet along Bog Meadow Trail.  The unseasonable warmth got our hopes up, but truly, we were not surprised to find the Skunk Cabbage spathes still tightly closed, nor did we hear any Wood Frogs or Spring Peepers.  The standing water remained quite solidly frozen in many places.  But if the temps stay above freezing this week, I bet it won't be long before spring things start to happen in a hurry.

Thursday, while balmy, was not as warm as Wednesday, and it also rained most of the day.  But just a nice misty rain, the kind that doesn't interfere with taking a pleasant walk through the park.  That's what Goretex is good for.   Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs looked rather pretty veiled in fog.

I noticed the boughs of a big Silver Maple were laden with swelling flower buds, so I pulled a branch down to take a closer look.

Oh yes, these are the stamen-loaded male flowers of Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), the anthers already protruding and preparing to bring misery to allergy sufferers everywhere.  Not to me, though, since I am not allergic to tree pollen.  I'm one of the lucky ones who can delight in the beauty of tree flowers, all of them deserving of a closer look.

This Robin Red-breast caught my eye just before I left the park.  We used to always think of the Robin's return as a sure sign of spring, but now these birds often stay around all winter, traveling in flocks among backyard crabapple trees.  But a solitary Robin, running across the grass and cocking his head to search for worms, still rings all kind of spring chimes for me, so I share his photo with you.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Big Falls, Little Falls

Another bright, cold, blue-sky day today, and I started out to visit Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton.  I was curious to see if any Skunk Cabbages had begun to swell their spathes in the muddy swales out there, but an even more compelling curiosity grabbed me as I passed the intersection of Parkhurst and Greenfield Roads, recalling a spectacular waterfall that plunged through a gorge nearby.  Sure, I told myself, let's go see if there's water plunging though it today.  And there sure was!  I could hear it roaring as I parked my car near Strakos Road, where the Snook Kill runs under the highway.  I could see it, too, as I clambered over the roadside barrier and started down the steep embankment.  Oh look!  Some thoughtful person has strung a rope down the precipitous slippery descent.  A very good idea!  Wouldn't want to slide into that freezing cataract today!

I actually did not use that rope to descend the bank, but carefully inched my way, clinging to trees as I went, to a small promontory that provided me with a good, clear view of the falls.  This is a gorgeous waterfall!  (Kind of a scary one, too!)

I was glad I had thought to stop to view the beautiful Snook Kill Falls, but I'm also glad I continued on to Orra Phelps, where I found another beautiful waterfall, only this one in miniature.  Coincidentally, this little stream that runs through the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve is called the Little Snook Kill.

At a point near the eastern border of the nature preserve, a second stream joins the Little Snook Kill. (I don't know the name of this second stream.)

I was struck today by the fact that this second stream appeared to be completely clear of ice.

While the Little Snook Kill was still thickly encrusted with white honeycombed ice.  I wonder why the difference?  Is the Little Snook shallower?  Is the second stream deeper and more rapid, so that ice never formed there this winter?  Just at a glance from where I stood on the bank, I could not see much difference. Hmmm . . . .  A new mystery to ponder.

I will ponder this mystery while I rest up for the next couple of days.  I've having cataract replacement surgery tomorrow (Monday) morning, and I'm supposed to take it easy for a little while.  So think good thoughts about my eyeballs, dear friends, so I can be back out again promptly, looking for signs of spring as the predicted warmer weather moves in on us.