Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Walking the Winter Away

What a crazy winter!  We finally had some snow -- nearly a foot of the soft sparkly stuff that makes bearing winter's discomforts worth while.  But there's not much left of it now, as temperatures have climbed up toward 60 for nearly a week. But at least I had a couple of days that merited hauling my snowshoes down from the attic,  including the day two of my Thursday Naturalist friends joined me to explore the little islands out on iced-over Lake Bonita.  Here, Kathy (left) and Nancy stand near one of the islands where we found a few remnants of the interesting plants that grow there.

The Sphagnum Islands of Lake Bonita

Several species of low-growing sphagnum mosses cover these little islands, creating an acidic habitat that supports the presence of plants we usually associate with bogs or fens, such as pitcher plants and cranberries.  While the sphagnum and smaller plants are now hidden beneath snow and ice, a few stalks of the Northern Pitcher Plant flowers (Sarracenia purpurea) still stand tall enough for us to identify them.

We could also find most of the shrubs that thickly cover the islands, predominantly Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, and Sheep Laurel.  This single branch of Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) protruding from the snow still bore its leaves and the remnants of its flower cluster.

Although Waterwillow (Decodon verticillatus) drops its leaves before winter, the remains of its axillary flower clusters wreathing its graceful stems were still quite evident.

Kathy, Nancy, and I had a marvelous time exploring this beautiful site, as these smiling faces attest.

Spring Run Trail, Saratoga Springs

Although I love the freedom my snowshoes give me to wander untracked snowy woods and frozen lakes, my bum knee wishes I'd find less strenuous places to walk in winter, and I'm lucky to have such a place but a few blocks from my home. The Spring Run Trail, accessed from East Avenue in Saratoga, offers about a mile (one way) of a plowed asphalt walkway that follows an old railroad right-of-way through woods and a swamp and along a little stream.

This trail offers a very pleasant woodsy experience, even though it is never far from neighborhood streets and houses.  This lovely pink stucco house, one of the few houses visible from the trail, reminds me of one that could be found in the countryside of France.


Along much of the trail, a rushing stream can be heard or seen, adding to the bucolic experience.

I spied these Skunk Cabbage shoots protruding from the stream, but they did not cause me to imagine that spring is already on the way.  Skunk Cabbage sends up these shoots in autumn, and they persist throughout the winter, preparing to produce our first flowers of spring, usually in March or April.

A good part of the Spring Run Trail runs through a section of open marsh, an area that ardent birders acclaim for being excellent bird habitat throughout the year.

Since I was walking here in late afternoon, the woods and marsh were extremely quiet.  Birding is best in early morning.  Even the few Black-capped Chickadees I saw teetering through twigs in a thicket barely let out a peep. But then I saw this large bird perched atop a snag in the marsh.  Before I could focus my camera's zoom, however, the bird took flight.  Not a great photo, but good enough to detect a striped tail and horizontal rusty breast bars.  Since this hawk appeared to be bigger than a pigeon, I would guess it was a Cooper's Hawk, rather than its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Saratoga Spa State Park, the pine-forest pathway

For those times when knee pain dissuades me from slogging through snowdrifts, another nearby place to walk on plowed pathways is a 2.6-mile circuit through the pine woods of Saratoga Spa State Park.  I can park my car near the Lincoln Bathhouse and make my way to where this broad well-traveled path begins its loop near the Rte. 9 entrance to the Avenue of Pines.

Where I enter the stretch of this trail that leads past a state tree nursery, the boughs of pine trees nearly meet overhead.

A remarkable feature of the White Pines that line this section is that almost every single one of them splits into multiple trunks about nine feet above the ground.  Normally, the trunks of White Pine grow singly and as straight as the masts on a ship.   But I have been told that when we find pines that look like this, the malformation is almost always caused by an infestation of Pine Weevils when the trees were young.  The weevils feed on the growing tip of the young tree, causing multiple trunks to form.

When the loop path merges into the walkway that borders the Avenue of Pines, we can see the more typical growth habit of the healthy White Pines that tower majestically over our heads.  I suppose it's possible those multi-trunk pines are some cultivar that is bred to split like that, since every tree along that stretch is branched in the same way.  I just don't know.  Something to ponder.

If I feel the need to rest or warm up while completing this loop, I can stop off at the elegant Gideon Putnam Hotel at about the half-way point.

The hotel's lobby contains some very comfortable seating areas, and often there's a roaring fire in that beautiful fireplace.  The public restrooms are also nice, should another kind of nature call, aside from the one that called me outdoors in the first place.

Spring-watered boulders along Spier Falls Road

There's one more place I might head when I feel the need to be outdoors but my knee is trying to keep me reclined on the couch.  Hey leg, I say, let's take a walk along Spier Falls Road where it follows the Hudson above the dam.  We can get some blue sky over our head and watch for eagles along the river, and the effort won't tax that arthritis so much. And it's such a beautiful road!

Among the best features of this stretch are the sheer cliffs and jumbled boulders that rise on the mountainous side of the road.  Seeping springs and tiny rills constantly water these rocks, creating some fantastic ice formations throughout the winter.

Thanks to all the warm days of late, the seeps and rills are flowing with crystal rivulets dripping  and splashing over moss-covered rocks.

The rocks themselves are alive with mosses and lichens forming colorful patterns across their wet surfaces.

If I walk all the way to the Spier Falls Dam, I pass several areas where the mountains were quarried early in the 20th century to produce rock for building the dam.  This time of year, these quarries are festooned with cascading ice in a spectacular array.

And once in a while, I actually spy a Bald Eagle!

The porcupine caves at Moreau Lake State Park

I was so happy when my friend Sue told me she had Presidents' Day off from work, and could we go hiking together on this sunny warm day?  Oh boy, you betcha!  One of our favorite winter hikes is to an area of caves in the mountains above Moreau Lake, so that's where we headed this past Monday.

We started out on the Red Oak Ridge Trail, but soon took a detour off the official trail to an area higher up.  We were seeking out a series of caves in the bedrock where we have known porcupines to live, and it wasn't long before we found some well-traveled porcupine trails leading straight to their dens. Unlike many other animals that roam the forest seeking their prey, the bark-eating porcupines select a hemlock to feed in and return to the same tree each night.  Because of this propensity, their trails will be well packed down, and we often find trickles of urine and nuggets of feces scattered along the troughs, as well as scattered hairs and an occasional quill.

I have yet to see a porcupine up in a tree or moving about the woods up here, but there's really no doubt who lives in this cave, thanks to the pungent woody odor emanating from the depths, as well as the presence of all the other sign, such as tracks, hairs, and quills.

We presume that the bedrock surrounding the entrances to the caves must be calcareous, either limestone or marble, considering the presence of Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) that adorns the mossy surfaces.  Note, too, the little starbursts of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense) tucked in among the fern fronds.  Both Walking Fern and Rose Moss are known to prefer a lime-rich substrate.

We found many patches of the pretty Rose Moss, an aptly named moss that resembles tiny flowers.  A tuft of Broom Moss (Dicranum sp.) also adorns this patch of rock above one of the porcupine caves.

We never saw any porcupines this day, nor any of the deer or the fishers whose tracks criss-crossed the snow-covered forest up here on the mountainside.  But the air was alive with tiny winged insects.  We guessed they could have been either Winter Stoneflies or Winter Craneflies, since both these insects can often be seen stitching the air on warm winter days.  Finally, several of the dainty little creatures landed on the snow. Thanks to the macro lens of my camera , which can focus far closer than my eyes can, I was able to determine that these were indeed Winter Craneflies (Trichoceridae), an insect that is known to live in caves and animal burrows.  We were seeing swarms of these minute insects -- all males I have learned -- bobbing up and down with a bouncing mating dance.  Most of the time, the females remain on the ground, only briefly flying up to mate with the airborne males before returning to the forest floor to lay their fertilized eggs among the leaf litter.   By the way, that's a porcupine hair sharing the photo's frame.


Woody Meristem said...

Those certainly look like interesting areas in which to spend some time. Like you, we've not seen much of that white stuff this winter.

The Furry Gnome said...

Boy, what a lot of things to comment on! Some great easy-walking trails you have! I'd like the one with a hotel lounge and coffee to stop halfway for. Ice formations and then Walking Fern - wan't expecting that! I thought I saw a porcupine trail through the woods when I was out snowshoeing yesterday, but didn't think to look for quills. Interesting post.