Saturday, February 23, 2019

Just a Nice Walk Along the Road

It wasn't ten below nor pouring rain nor blowing a gale.  It was just a nice winter day yesterday, with a little sun and temps in the 40s, and I wanted to go for a walk.  Not a mountain hike nor a snowshoe trek, just a swing-my-legs-easy kind of walk where my feet didn't crash through frozen crust nor slip on glassy ice.  So I headed over to Spier Falls Road at Moreau, where the Hudson River runs close by one side of the road and mountains rise sharply from the other,  and the shoulders are wide enough that I can safely ease off the road when huge lumber trucks come barreling by. And it's really quite beautiful there.





Thanks to springs and snowmelt that constantly water the mountainside rocks, massive mounds of ice build up over the winter.





Some of the cascading icicles turn the most beautiful tinge of blue.





Where this mountainside was quarried back in the early 1900s to provide material to build the Spier Falls Dam across the road, tier upon tier of cascading ice has transformed the site into a majestic fairy castle. Or ice-climbing challenge, depending on your perspective!





A warming late-February sun has loosened winter's grip on this little rill.  I stood a while just to hear the splash and tinkle of water dancing from rock to rock -- a sound that signals that Spring will soon be here!


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Back to Bonita (for Ed)

What the heck is WRONG with me?  Days and days go by, and I don't even WANT to go outdoors.  Yeah, I've got  old-lady aches and pains, and yeah, the weather this winter has been decidedly icky. But those used to be just minor impediments I'd quickly brush aside as I tore out the door to snowshoe up mountains or wander around ice-bound swamps or climb up the course of a frozen waterfall. I guess I'm a little depressed. A really sad thing has happened to my dear friend and fellow nature enthusiast Ed Miller, who had a stroke almost two weeks ago and appears to be fading from us more and more as the days go by. Damn! We've had so many adventures together.  Just type his name into this blog's search bar and prepare to be amazed! Even though Ed is now 94 years old,  I'd still hoped we could explore more places  together.  Sadly, I never did manage to get him to Lake Bonita.

Well, I carried Ed with me in my heart yesterday when I walked down the snow-laden trail to the ice-covered water of Lake Bonita, a beautiful little pristine lake high up in the Palmertown Mountains of Moreau Lake State Park.


We'd had several inches of new soft snow overnight, which lay in cottony puffs on the boughs of hemlocks and hushed even the crunch of my snowshoes as I descended the trail that leads to the lake.  When I stopped to catch my breath, the silence of the forest was palpable.  There aren't many other places where I could find such absolute quiet.  I lingered in that silence, clearing my mind of all but thoughts of Ed and offering prayers that he find comfort and peace, whether he be leaving this life or else on the road to healing.




Aside from this little lake's unspoiled beauty (the only signs of human encroachment being a small stone pumphouse at one end and a concrete dam at the other), the most remarkable feature of the lake is the presence of tiny shrub-covered islands dotting its surface.  Since the state park prohibits the presence of boats on this lake, winter becomes the only time we can investigate what plants inhabit these islands.

 With the snow so deep on the ice, the underlying carpets of sphagnum moss covering these islands were not visible now, but the species of shrubs thriving here are certain indicators of a peatland habitat.  The most abundant shrub is called Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), which, true to its name, still clings to many of its thick leathery leaves throughout the winter.  And even now, its flower buds are already evident, waiting for the earliest warmth of spring to dangle tiny white bell-shaped florets.




The remnants of last fall's seedpods can still be found among the Leatherleaf twigs, looking themselves like tiny two-toned blooms.






The second-most abundant shrub out here is called Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), another common denizen of acidic peatlands.  This shrub earns the "sweet" part of its name from the aromatic quality of its leaves and fruits.  In winter, its flower buds look like tiny glossy-brown cones, each scale prettily outlined in white.




Here and there, I found a Sweet Gale shrub with its fruits still attached.  These fruits are highly aromatic, and a pinch of them will not only scatter the seeds on the snow but will also perfume your finger tips with a beautiful lingering scent.




A third shrub, Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), is almost as abundant on these islands, and it also can be found along the shore.  In late June, this shrub bears clusters of vividly pink blooms, and even now, in the dead of winter, its leaves seem to glow with a ruddy cast.






Tall flower-stalks of Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) hold the globular remnants of their blooms  all winter long.  If the snow at the base of the stalks had not been so deep, I would also have been able to find the hollow pitcher-shaped basal leaves this peatland plant is noted for.






I remember puzzling over these spent seedpods a couple of years ago, and a blog-reader from Michigan helped me put a name to the flower that made them. During the summer, the pretty yellow flowers of Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) rise on these slender stems, with the sparkling, ruby-red leaves of Spatulate Sundew carpeting the mud-flats beneath their feet.






The steep, rocky, north-facing banks of Lake Bonita are forested mostly with Hemlocks and Red Oaks, but down closer to the shore, where more light can penetrate, I find a few American Beeches and Red Maples. How odd, though, to see so many beechnut husks still clinging to this tree's branches. Perhaps because the branches were hanging over the water, wildlife foragers ignored them in search of finds with easier access.






A few scattered snowflakes began to prickle my wind-chilled cheeks, and the lightly overcast sky began to darken with roiling clouds.


 By the time I reached the steep trail that would lead me huffing and puffing back to my car, snow was falling in earnest.   But this snow felt more like a blessing than a threat.   The flakes were big and fluffy and I could catch them on my tongue.  They collected on the brim of my hat so that when I shook my head they cascaded down like a bridal veil around my head.  I could easily see their six-sided starry crystals where the fuzzy threads of my scarf held them aloft.  For weeks, I'd felt nothing but grudging complaints about this winter, but suddenly here, I felt a surge of joy.  Must be because I'd brought Ed along in my heart.  I'd never NOT had a great time when I hiked with my pal.

P.S.: To see photos of this pretty lake and its tiny islands in their full summer glory, click HERE.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Rare and Protected Plants of Moreau Lake State Park


Every February, the Friends of Moreau Lake State Park hold a chili dinner to raise funds to support the park.   This year, when we met to discuss a speaker for this year’s event, it was decided that there was so much good news to convey about the park, we should have our own people talk about it, instead of hiring an outside speaker.  So Alan Trepper, our new park supervisor, and Rebecca Mullins, the park’s nature educator, volunteered to report on some of the many amazing park programs and additions.  Then they said to me, Jackie, could you maybe talk for about 10 minutes on the plants that grow in the park?  Ten MINUTES!!!?  Man, I’ve been wandering this park for more than 25 years, documenting every plant I could find, which now add up to about 400 species – and that’s just wildflowers, not counting trees, mosses, ferns, lichens, liverworts, etc., etc., etc.  Heck, I could talk for ten HOURS and still not shut up! (As some of my friends already know.)  But then I relented.  How about I talk about just the rare and protected plants I’ve found in the park?  So that’s what I did at the chili dinner.

Here’s the text of my talk, along with the photos I shared.

Moreau Lake State Park really IS a treasure house of native and rare species.  When I visit nature preserves in other parts of our state, I feel lucky if I can find any native plants besides Skunk Cabbage and Poison Ivy, due to deer overpopulation and rampant invasive species.  But Moreau is remarkable for offering within its nearly 6,000 acres many different, virtually pristine habitats that support a huge variety of native plant species. Among those native plants are three that are classified by our state as Endangered, one that is rated as Threatened, two that are rated as Rare. And we also can find in this park a dozen orchids, all of them protected species and included in the classification of Exploitably Vulnerable.

Many folks, when they think of Moreau Lake State Park, think the park consists of the beach and the campgrounds and that’s about all. But the park contains a heck of a lot more than that! Here's a recent map of the park that reveals its extensive holdings.  (And doesn't yet show the thousand MORE acres the park is due to acquire, thanks to recent acquisitions.)



We have a big chunk of a the Palmertown mountain range and miles of both banks of the Hudson River banks.  Here's a view from one of our mountain heights, looking over the Hudson River and including some of the park's forested acreage across the river into Warren County.



We have pine woods and hardwood forests; lakeshore, streambanks, swamp and bog; soils that are basic and others that are acidic; rocky heights and soggy lowlands.  We even have THREE lakes: Lake Moreau, of course, but also Lake Ann way up in the mountains, as well as the beautiful Lake Bonita, shown below, which we acquired along with the former Mt. McGregor Prison lands.  


So it’s really not too surprising that I’ve found some really rare species here, and I’m here to tell you about them.


Three ENDANGERED  Species
Keep in mind, now, that rare doesn’t necessarily mean gorgeous.  This rather weedy- looking Whorled Mountain Mint, for example, is among the rarest plants in the state.


In fact, Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum) is classified by the New York Natural Heritage Program as an ENDANGERED plant (meaning it occurs in no more than 5 sites throughout the state).  Well, Moreau Park has the healthiest and most abundant population of all, almost 300 flowering plants concentrated on one sandy shore of a cove.

 Now, I think you’d agree that a bouquet of these probably wouldn’t impress a lady on your first date -- unless she was maybe a rare-plant botanist!  Or if she had a magnifier and could get a really close look at the tiny white, purple polka-dotted florets.


(Of course, if she really WERE a rare-plant botanist, she’ be pretty irked with you for picking this endangered plant!) 

Which reminds me to advise you here:  ALL plants in the park, whether rare or common,  are NOT to be picked, EVER!



Here’s another flower that thrives at Moreau but almost nowhere else in the state, the Large-leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum var. macrophyllum).


Although it may look like just another weed, the Large-leaved Avens is actually an ENDANGERED species in our state, according to the New York Natural Heritage Program.  Well, it sure isn’t endangered here in THIS park!


When the Natural Heritage Program's rare-plant monitor Rich Ring (above, left) joined park staff member Maranda Welch and our former park manager Peter Iskenderian to search for more Large-leaved Avens after my pal Sue Pierce and I had found a few specimens, we stopped counting after we’d found over a hundred healthy specimens along one of the park’s sunny trails.



Here’s one more plant Rich Ring and I found at Moreau that is classified as ENDANGERED in the state, and I still can’t believe we managed to find it, it’s so tiny.  Called Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), it’s so small we could have covered this entire plant with a single 50-cent piece! 


But we found THOUSANDS of this wee little flatsedge, all along the sandy or pebbly shore of the lake.  I was told this plant hadn’t been reported at Moreau since 1961 – that’s 57 years ago!  And we wouldn’t have found it now, if the lake level hadn’t fallen so low. These plants were growing on shores that had been underwater until about 3 or 4 years ago.  Apparently, the seeds had survived underwater all those years and only now, exposed to the air, did they grow and bloom once more. We were really lucky we went looking for them this past early September.  After all the rain we’ve had since then, the shore where we found them is once again under water.  It may take another 50-plus years before we find them again.


One THREATENED Species
So.  That’s THREE Endangered species we have, the rarest category of all.  And we also have at least one plant that’s classified as THREATENED, the next rarest class of plants, known to exist in more than 6 and up to 20 sites in New York State. This is the Small Floating Bladderwort (Utricularia radiata).


You won’t find this plant while hiking the trails or walking the beach, but you might if you paddle the river,where this plant goes floating along on the river’s current.  It’s held erect in the water by those swollen “pontoons” that radiate from its leafless stem.  Because it has no green leaves to photosynthesize, this plant has to obtain its nutrients by other means, which it does through the masses of tiny bladders that it trails along underwater.  Each of those tiny sacs can suck in even tinier aquatic animals, which the plant then digests and feeds on.



Two RARE Species
The next, still rare but somewhat more abundant category of unusual plants is called, simply, RARE.  Plants in this category are known to exist in between 21 to 100 extant sites.  One of those sites is our own Moreau Lake State Park, where I have found two species that fall within that classification.  First is the spectacularly beautiful Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum).  


Of all the state-listed plants we have in the park, this is perhaps the showiest, with blooms as big as two inches across, and standing on stems almost 4 feet high.  I’d found a few of these plants for years on one of the Hudson islands, but the biggest patch I’ve ever seen is one I found in the property that’s soon to be among the park’s newest land acquisitions, the Smith Farm Parcel.


A second plant we have in the RARE category is this pretty little thing called Small-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis paupercula).  


Actually, when you see how abundantly this flower grows on the sandy shores of Moreau Lake, it’s hard to believe it could ever have been considered a rare plant, but that’s how it had been listed in the New York Flora Association’s Plant Atlas.  I did learn that it was recently moved from the RARE to the WATCH list, which means it’s becoming more abundant in the state, but its populations will still be monitored.   At any rate, it’s certainly not a rare plant in Moreau Lake State Park and hasn’t been for many years!  Start looking for it along the lakeshore in early September.



 The Orchids of Moreau Lake State Park
OK, those are all the plants I have found in the park (so far!) that are classified by the state as truly rare species.  But we have another category of protected plants that are classified as EXPLOITABLY VULNERABLE.  These are plants that, even if they’re abundant now, are likely to become threatened in the future and so are protected by law. Within that category are many of our state’s native orchids – all those that aren’t already classified as Endangered, Threatened, or Rare -- and Moreau Lake State Park has LOTS of orchids.  Many folks are surprised to learn that New York is home to at least 60 species of native orchid. And 12 of those species grow right here in our favorite park.

The Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is probably our showiest – and certainly the most abundant – of all our orchids in the park.  



When this lovely orchid finds a habitat it likes, it can thrive by dozens at a site. It is happiest in sandy soil under pines, a habitat that is quite common at Moreau.




Our next two orchids are among our least showy, requiring a close look at their blooms to appreciate their “orchid-ness.”  I’m talking about our two Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera spp.), both of which bear tiny white florets along an erect central stalk.  The florets of both species look very much alike, and here is a close-up photo of one of them.  (I believe this floret belongs to the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, due to its furry hairs.)



What really sets these two species apart are their leaves, which lie in basal rosettes close to the ground.  Here are the dark-green, boldly patterned, curvaceous leaves of the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens).  



And here are the paler, more subtly patterned leaves of the Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (G. tesselata).




And here’s a photo of the entire plant. 



As the leaves reveal, this happens to be the Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain, but the Downy ones look very similar.




Our next two orchid species – the Ladies’ Tresses Orchids -- are not very showy either, although their flowers are marginally larger.  Much like the Rattlesnake Plantains, the Ladies’ Tresses bear spikes of small white flowers on erect central stalks.  Of the two, our more abundant species is the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua), with pure white florets that have gracefully downward-curving lower lips. 


I find abundant numbers of these pretty orchids along the lake shore in early September.


A much earlier bloomer, the Shining Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes lucida) is a somewhat smaller plant with florets that have a distinctly yellow lower lip. 


I find the Shining Ladies' Tresses much less frequently.  If I’m lucky, I might find one or two plants along the Hudson riverbanks in June.




Speaking of yellow, this next orchid has a scientific name (Platanthera flava) that translates as “yellow orchid.”  


And yes, this orchid is rather yellowish, but its common name, Tubercled Orchid, is descriptive of another aspect of the plant.  Note the little bump (called a tubercle) on the floret’s lower lip.  Again, not a very showy orchid, but an orchid, nonetheless. This orchid likes its feet wet, so look for it along the river. I have found a large patch of 20 or more on one of the river islands.



At last, here’s a really flashy-looking orchid, the Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes)


Not only is the Smaller Purple Fringed Orchid a gorgeous flower, it’s also relatively common orchid.  Sometimes, that is. Orchids can be frustratingly fickle, failing to bloom where you found them last year. Sometimes, if their flowers get pollinated and they set seed, they may not re-bloom for many years.  But happily, if you keep looking around the same area, you might find some blooming near where you found them before.  I often find this Purple Fringed Orchid while paddling the Hudson in July (but rarely in the exact same location).




Ah, here’s another lovely one, an orchid that almost looks like the kind our moms pinned to their prom dresses back in their high school days. This is the Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).


Rose Pogonia is a wetland orchid that prefers an acidic habitat. Happily, Moreau Park acquired just such a habitat when the park gained ownership of Lake Bonita. If you go looking for it there in early July, better bring your binoculars, since it grows most abundantly out on the little islands that boaters are not allowed to approach, since paddling is forbidden on this little pristine lake.




Here’s one more rather showy orchid that grows in Moreau Lake State Park.  In fact, its name is actually Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)


I don’t find the Showy Orchis very often though, because to look for it again, I would have to risk scraping the undercarriage off my car on the rocky Hawk Road lane that leads to the parking area for our Warren County holdings on the other side of the Hudson. The soil over there is calcareous (limey), which is what this orchid requires. At least I did find it once, or I wouldn’t have this photo to prove it.



I’m really lucky to have this clear a photo of my next orchid, the Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata).  


This little orchid is not only very small, it is also very greenish -- the same color as its swampy surroundings -- and it also grows in deep shade.  All factors my camera hates!  Trying to focus under these conditions can be quite frustrating.  And I also have to squat in the mud to photograph it, which can make my camera hand shake. (Not to  mention, making my fanny damp, as well!)




Those same factors also made it hard to photograph this Early Coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida), which is only a little less greenish than the Green Wood Orchid and not any bigger, either. 


Those two orchids actually grow in the very same swamp, within a few yards of each other.  But because the Early Coralroot blooms earlier in the year before the tree canopy closes in completely, a bit more daylight penetrated the swampy gloom when I took this shot, so it was easier to get a focused photo.




OK, here's the last flower of this presentation, the Autumn Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. odontorhiza)


I’m guessing this photo might offer a hint as to how I got to be called a total wildflower nerd. Who else but an absolutely obsessed wildflower hunter would look hard enough to discover this almost invisible plant?  Not only is it very small and skinny, but also its reddish stems and yellowish bracts are almost exactly the same colors as the forest floor in autumn. 

Even when it’s in full bloom, it’s not much easier to see! That single wee little purple-dotted petal is all you get with this orchid, if indeed you even get that!



The Autumn Coralroot is actually a rather abundant orchid of the autumn woods at Moreau, especially along the Red Oak Ridge Trail.  A whole bunch of them used to grow in a wooded area by the beach parking lot, but then the park’s grounds crews blew several feet of fallen leaves over them.  I haven’t found them there again for a couple of years.  But you can bet I’ll still keep searching for them.

And if anyone wants to come along as I search for plants, I’d be happy to have you join me.  Just be aware, though, that it sometimes takes me an hour or more to cover a hundred yards!  But who knows?  We might just find some more rare species.  I hope it’s obvious, from what we’ve seen here, that Moreau lake State Park sure is a great place to look for them.





Monday, February 4, 2019

Through the Woods, Down to the River

Sunday, February 3:  Finally, a day that was truly pleasant for a walk in the woods!  Mild temperatures, no wind, and deep, soft snow inspired me to head toward Potter Point on the Hudson River at Moreau, a beautiful stretch of forest, islands, rocky promontories, and quiet coves that lie just upstream of the Sherman Island Dam.  Parking at the end of Potter Road, I strapped on my snowshoes and headed down through the woods to the banks of the river.





High, thin clouds let just a bit of the sun's golden light wash over the frozen expanse of the quiet backwaters, where I could hear no other sound but the croaking calls of ravens from the mountains that rise across the river.





Back here in this cove, the frozen surface of the river was covered with a much thinner layer of snow than what lay in the woods. I could see from their tracks that many wild animals had saved their energy by traveling along the frozen river, rather than struggling through the deep drifts in the woods. Although the prints in the trail pictured below were too obscured for positive identification, it seemed likely to me, judging from the length of the stride,  that several coyotes had passed this way, and not too long ago.






I, too, would have preferred to save my energy by walking on the ice, but I know how uncertain that ice can be, here where dam operations, as well as the river's current, can dangerously weaken the ice.  So off I went through the woods, making my way through pillowy heaps of snow.





Even with snowshoes on, my feet plunged down a foot or more through the soft snow.  Although the soft snow muffled the whumps of my footsteps, my huffing and puffing surely would have alerted any wildlife in the area that I was coming their way.  I heard what sounded like the scream of a Bald Eagle, but I never laid my eyes on one, nor any other creature.






I emerged from the woods to stand on the shore of a cove, where the river runs back between Potter Point and Three Pine Island to enter a quiet marsh.





I walked out to the end of Potter Point, where I could see that even the main course of the Hudson was frozen over completely from shore to shore.  I love how the rolling contours of the hills are revealed in winter, no longer hidden by the forest in full leaf.





This area of the river's shore is populated with many Black Tupelo trees, whose twiggy, horizontal  limbs can be immediately distinguished from those of the Red Maples and Chestnut Oaks that also line the banks.





Unfortunately, beavers have girdled the bark of most of the Black Tupelos here, causing the population to dwindle.  I noticed that this tree was among their latest victims.  Too bad!





I was struck by the stark beauty of this Meadowsweet shrub, its dark seed heads arrayed like a pen-and-ink drawing against the pure white of the snow.






Against the otherwise muted colors of this winter landscape, the ruby-red twigs and leaf buds of an American Basswood tree certainly announced their vivid presence.