I love this towpath between the old barge canal and the Hudson River, offering clear views of both waterways. The canal was still solidly frozen along this stretch, but the river was wide open and shining as blue as the reflected sky. There were many waterfowl on the river, mostly Canada Geese but also small flocks of ducks too far away for me to ID as to species. Wish I'd brought my binoculars!
One of the best features of this path is the presence of many Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis), immediately identifiable in any season by their distinctively ridged bark. I never find this tree in upland mixed hardwood forests, but here along the Hudson they are one of the most common trees, along with Cottonwoods.
I enjoy trying to identify the winter remnants of last year's blooming plants, and there's never any difficulty naming the vine that produced these prickly orbs that were entwined among riverside shrubbery. This is the dried-up fruit of Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata). Those spines might look quite daunting, but they're actually not prickly at all, being rather firm but also flexible. You can safely handle these fruits without fear of being scratched. It's interesting to take them apart and see how much they resemble the common bath accessory called a loofah, which comes from a related plant.
Another notable leftover fruit I find along the river here is that of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), with its clusters of pretty red berries. Although these loosely clustered smooth berries are distinctly different from the tightly compacted fuzzy berries of Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina), I'm not sure I could distinguish them this time of year from the fruits of Shining Sumac (R. coppallinum), which appear quite similar. Since I have seen this particular sumac thicket when it bore its distinctive non-winged leaves, I can confidently claim that these are the fruits of Smooth Sumac.
I was thinking those sumac berries were the only colorful clusters I would be likely to see this time of year, when I noticed this Silver Maple bough hanging over the canal and bearing clusters of buds just as red as those sumac fruits.
A closer look revealed that these were the buds of the tree's female flowers, their ruby-red pistils already protruding from the bud scales. The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) usually bears male and female flowers on separate trees. So I began to see if I could find a Silver Maple bearing male flowers.
And so I did! Here are the male (staminate) Silver Maple flowers just peeking out of their buds, the anthers still clustered tightly together and not yet shedding the pollen that will waft on the air to unite with the pistillate flowers that are blooming on separate trees. I thought they looked like tiny nosegays. Tree flowers are usually small and not very showy, but they often deserve a closer look to note their own kind of beauty.
I was staring up into the branches of a tall Cottonwood, watching a small flock of very flighty Red-winged Blackbirds that would not hold still for the picture-taking and listening to their raucous calls, when I heard a loud buck-buck-buck! right at my feet. Oh my lord! What kind of bird is THIS? !
Well, it's obviously a chicken, but it sure didn't look like any chicken I had ever seen, with that fountain of feathers erupting atop its head and obscuring its eyes, and those black-and-white feathers that looked like a complicated ink drawing. Wow! Somebody's pet fancy-chicken, I assumed, and quite a friendly bird at that. It kept running up to me as if it wanted to be pet. When I got home, I googled "black-and-white chickens" and found photos of Silver-laced Polish chickens that matched. I also learned that they were a strictly ornamental breed, in that they weren't very meaty for eating, as well as being unreliable egg-layers who, if they did manage to hatch a brood, would often eat the chicks. Just goes to show: good looks aren't everything!
Boy, I never know what I'm going to find when I go on a walk! Or what I will learn when I turn to Google for information about what I find.