Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Another Day, Another Bunch of Wildflowers

Another sunny warm day in Saratoga County!  So off I sped to both the North Woods at Skidmore College here in Saratoga Springs, and then a few miles north to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton. I was betting new flowers would be blooming today, and I was not mistaken!

North Woods at Skidmore College

Could Trout Lilies be blooming already?  I was here just a few days ago and saw only a few of the mottled leaves protruding above the leaf litter.  But rain and warmth had worked their magic, and today, the forest floor was teeming with these lovely yellow lilies (Erythronium americanum):

Unfortunately, the Red-necked False Blister Beetles had discovered the Trout Lilies' pollen-rich anthers almost as soon as the flowers had opened their buds, and the beetles were gorging on the pollen already. 

Within a day or two, all those velvety red anthers will be turned into wrinkled black threads. Luckily, though, Trout Lilies don't depend to any great extent on sexual reproduction, relying mostly on vegetative cloning to create their extensive patches of plants. Although many of the plants that thrive on this and other forest floors never bloom, there certainly was no dearth of flowers to be found in the Skidmore woods today.

Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) is another of the early spring bloomers at Skidmore, and many of this plant's slender purple-leaved stalks were standing tall above the leaf litter today.  

The above photo demonstrates two of the traits that distinguish the C. giganteum species of Blue Cohosh from the daintier, later-blooming species, C. thalictroides.  These flowers are a dark purple, for one thing,  and they are already fully in bloom while the leaves are not yet unfurling.  The greenish-yellow flowers of C. thalictroides do not open before their leaves do.

The buds of these tiny Dwarf Ginsengs (Panax trifolius) had not yet opened to reveal their spherical clusters of starry white flowers, but their soft-green, reddish-stemmed leaves made them easy to find, tucked in among the sheltering roots of a tree trunk.

In all of the Skidmore woods I walked today, I found only this one single violet of any species.  The Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata) is quite common in this lime-rich woods, so I would expect to see many more of them in the days ahead. But most will not be this mottled purple/white pattern. This violet is typically a pale lavender color that darkens toward its throat. But all will have the distinctive long spur.

Whoa! Now, this Hepatica flower is PURPLE!  Quite a rich, deep purple, too, while most of the other examples thriving now in this woods were much paler shades, as well as pure white. Both the Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) and the Round-lobed Hepatica (H. americana) can be found in this lime-rich habitat.

I'm not sure how many people would recognize these tousled yellow threads and twisting white threads on these grass-fine stalks as genuine flowers, but that is indeed what they are: the yellow threads are the staminate males of a species of sedge (Carex sp.), and the white threads lower on the stems are the pistillate female ones.  But as to what species of sedge this is, I confess I don't know, since I am woefully ignorant in how to tell one sedge from another.

Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, Wilton

How interesting, that the first blooming flowers that greeted me when I reached the Orra Phelps Preserve belonged to another species of sedge.  And this sedge species I DO know! Or, I think I do.  The wide, slightly rumpled leaves are a clue that this is the Broad-leaved Sedge (Carex platyphylla). Again, yellow staminate flowers surmount stems that sprout with tiny white pistillate ones.

Those tousle-headed sedges are fun, but this is the flower I really came to Orra Phelps to see today: the lemon-yellow, basal-leaved violet known as the Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia).  A nice cluster of these short-stemmed violets stars a section of a dark-green-moss-covered bank along the stream that runs through this preserve. I believe that this is the earliest of our native violets to bloom, and I always count on finding them here at the same spot every year.  I was not disappointed today!

Another native early-blooming wildflower I can count on finding at Orra Phelps is the Sessile-leaved Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), and again, I was not disappointed.  There were many still tightly in bud along the creek bank, but a few were dangling their dainty pale-yellow bells with slightly flaring petals.

Did I say slightly flaring? Well, that's usually the case, so these few specimens with sharply retracted petals were quite an unexpected surprise.

Two different Toothworts (Cardamine spp.) grow in the mucky, moss-covered soils at Orra Phelps, and I was once told that the sharply toothed leaf on the left in this photo belonged to the Large Toothwort (Cardamine maxima), while the bluntly toothed leaf on the right belonged to the Two-leaved Toothwort (C. diphylla). Now that I'm reading various guides to try to confirm these IDs, I realize I have to look at how each of these divided leaves is attached to the main stem of the plant.  So I'll have to go back to examine the entire plants more carefully.  In the meantime, it's obvious that the leaves do look quite different, no matter what species they are.  And they do both have 4-parted whitish or purple-tinged flowers, so I do know they are certainly Toothworts!

UPDATE:   OK, I found the two species of Toothwort today and photographed the number of compound leaves attached to the stems of each species.  Here's my photo of C. maxima showing the 3 compound leaves:

And here is my photo showing the 2 compound leaves attached to the stem of C. diphylla:

Uh oh!  I DO know exactly what species of plant THIS is, and I sure wish I hadn't found it here! For this is Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna), one of the most aggressively invasive species around, and I found some extensive patches of it growing along the creek at the Orra Phelps Preserve. I have seen acres and acres of this yellow-flowered plant along other creeks downstate, supplanting any native plants that once made those creekbanks their home.

Over the past five years, I occasionally had found single specimens of this alien invader along this creek and promptly dug them out, hoping never to see them here again.  And I never did, until now. And this wasn't a single specimen, but several rather extensive patches. Darn!

Luckily, I keep a sharp-pointed weed-digger in my car (I use it in winter to knock snow out of my car's wheel wells). I quickly retrieved that long-shafted digger and started digging.  It took me about half an hour and several broken fingernails to fill a garbage bag with what I hoped was every trace of these nasty plants. But I'm sure enough little pieces remain to regenerate over time, so I alerted the volunteer stewards of this preserve to watch for any resurgence.  And of course, I'll be watching, too! This small nature preserve contains so many beautiful native creekside flowers, it sure would be a shame to lose them to this horrid weed.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Whoa! Spring Races Forward!

Hold on there, heat! It was over 80 degrees, yesterday! I can't keep up with all the wildflowers a whole string of over-warm days have pushed into blooming this past week.  Here's a brief report, just for the record.

Tuesday, April 6: Lake Bonita at Moreau Lake State Park

Last Tuesday, I joined my friends Sue and Nadine to continue an inspection of the Eastern Hemlock trees (Tsuga canadensis) that constitute much of the forest along the shore of this pretty little lake atop Mt. McGregor in the Palmertown Mountains.  Both Sue and Nadine have been trained in how to identify Hemlock Woolly Adelgids, the white woolly insects that pose a truly dire threat to our northern forests, and I came along to assist.  I am very happy to report that we found not a single sign of these insects or their damage on any of the representative sample of trees we inspected.  We did find this pretty little object dangling from a hemlock twig, however.  Some insect-expert friends have suggested it could be the pupal case of one of the Geometridae moths.

We found no blooming wildflowers in the parts of the lakeshore deeply shaded by hemlocks, but when we reached a sunlit stretch along the south-facing northern shore, we were delighted to find some snowy-white blooms of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) newly emerged from their buds.

We also found some animal life along the way, including a number of Red-backed Salamanders hiding out under fallen logs that littered the forest floor. I replaced this one to its hiding spot after momentarily placing it on some dry oak leaves, the better to photograph it.

The Spotted Newts certainly weren't hiding!  At least, not successfully.  There were such astounding numbers of them basking in shallow water close to the sun-warmed shore, that even when they quickly wriggled into the leafy muck on the lake bottom, their thrashing roiled the water so, we easily detected them.  The one in this photo was quite the exception, floating quietly along, unmoving, as if mesmerized by the warmth of the sun's rays and seemingly unconcerned about the camera lenses pointed in its direction.

Thursday, April 8, North Woods at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

The hepatica explosion is upon us now, for sure! And the limestone underlaid woods at Skidmore College provides habitat for both the lime-loving Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) pictured above, and the more habitat-tolerant Round-lobed Hepatica (H. americana), pictured below. I found abundant numbers of specimens in nearly all the pretty colors this early-blooming native wildflower comes in, from sparkling white through pale lavenders and pinks to deep purple.

I found no other herbaceous flowers this day, but the bare twigs of Northern Spicebush shrubs (Lindera benzoin) were brightened by tufts of yellow flowers bursting into bloom.

All the Leatherwood shrubs (Dirca palustris) were now festooned with dangling clusters of bright-yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. Last week, I had to search for a shrub that might have opened one or two buds, but today all I had to do was glance around to witness their floral abundance.

It will be a few more warm days before we begin to see the flowers of the hundreds of Yellow Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) that thrive in the Skidmore woods, but I could see many of their brown-mottled green leaves poking up from the leaf litter -- including the one pictured here, within the uncoiling length of an Eastern Garter Snake.

Friday, April 9, Denton Wildlife Sanctuary, Washington County

Another warm sunny day, and I joined my friend Sue Pierce for a shirt-sleeves-only walk through the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary, a Nature Conservancy preserve that lies along Route 4 between Schuylerville and Fort Edward. Deep gullies remain of what once was a site for shale mining, with the shale now overgrown with a forest of oaks and maples and conifers.  Sue and I know this preserve as THE place to visit each spring to witness uncountable numbers of Spring Beauties carpeting a portion of the forest, and our hopes were high we might find them here this day.

Well, we did find a few.  But only a few of the pretty pink-striped, pink-anthered Carolina Spring Beauties (Claytonia caroliniana) poked up from amid the dry leaves.  It will take a few days yet before their floral explosion occurs. At least we didn't miss it entirely.

As a kind of compensation, we found a Round-lobed Hepatica (H. americana) that displayed a remarkably vivid hue of purple.  Most other hepaticas we found were either white or very pale in color.

Lots of Red Maple trees (Acer rubrum) were blooming in this woods this day, and most of the trees held vividly red clusters of pistillate flowers, so striking against the deep blue of the sky. But here was a tree with clusters of yellow flowers, all of them the staminate flowers of Red Maple.

As we neared the end of what seemed like a very long up-and-down trail, we came upon a deep-shaded moss-carpeted swale that held pools of very shallow water. Carpeting the surface of that water were the small round leaves of the aptly named Water Carpet.  This native wetland plant is also called Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum), and today it was actually in bloom! You have to look very close, however, to see the tiny but bright-red anthers that constitute all the flower you will get from this interesting shady-wetland species.

Sharing that shady swale was this lovely clump of Tree Moss (Climacium americanum) sprouting from a patch of smaller moss called Atrichum undulatum. In the lower left quadrant of this photo, you can see some examples of how Atrichum moss shrivels up when cold or dry. It will open again when wetted or warmed.

I don't have a photo of what we saw later, while picnicking at a small park along the Champlain Canal near Fort Miller.  But I sure wish I did!   While following the antics of a pair of iridescently plumaged Tree Swallows guarding a nest box,  Sue looked skyward and chanced to see a pair of Bald Eagles directly overhead, swooping and swirling as if in a dance. It was quite a show, it lasted quite a while, and we were there to see it!  Lucky us!

Saturday, April 10, Shenantaha Creek Park, Ballston Spa

My thermometer in Saratoga read over 80 degrees when I left my house to drive about 10 miles south to Shenantaha Creek Park, so I was pretty certain I would find Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming there, where I've always found them. And I sure did!

But I certainly wasn't expecting to find Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) blooming yet, as I made my way along the bike path that runs through this park.  All of my previous photos of this native spring wildflower were taken toward the end of April. But seeing is believing!

When I saw the still-rolled-inward leaves of Wild Ginger in the verge along the bike path, I never dreamed these leaves would already be sheltering the fully-opened brownish flowers.  But I did take a peek, and this is what I found!

I also spied some Early Meadow Rue plants (Thalictrum dioicum) nearby and assumed they were still in bud, since I didn't see any slender anthers dangling down and shimmying in the breeze.  But a closer look revealed these were female plants, with buds fully open and already erupting with stubby, pinkish pistils.

OK, you native-plant purists and weedless-lawn obsessives, ignore this photo of a plant you may hate but I do love.  Or at least, I love it more than the useless and equally non-native turf grasses of the lawns that Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) usually invades, to the consternation of groundskeepers. As for me, I would rather my backyard were paved with these lovely blue flowers and ruffly aromatic leaves that never grow more than ankle high and --in the rare case they ever need mowing -- release their minty fragrance with every swath of the mower. This patch was blooming under spruces that lined the park's parking lot.

The previous four photos were flowers that were actually in bloom, but I also found some flowers showing buds that were close to opening.  The solitary bud of this Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) was already showing the deep-red petals of the flower within.

I believe it will be only a matter of a day or two before the white four-petaled flowers of both these species of toothwort (Cardamine spp.) emerge.  This first photo is of the Two-leaved Toothwort (C. diphylla).

And this is the aptly named Cut-leaved Toothwort (C. concatenata). Both toothwort species thrive in certain areas of this large park.

There were also many trees and shrubs with close-to-opening flower buds. In fact, I wonder if I could say that these ruddy-anthered male Box Elder flowers (Acer negundo) were already in bloom.  They were certainly quite showy!

Just starting to open their scales to release their floral parts, these Cottonwood flower buds (Populus deltoides) were already large and impressive, and the leaf buds were sticky and fragrant.

Very soon, every wooded hillside will be studded with snowy drifts of bloom from the various species of Shadblow (Amelanchier spp.) that are native to our region. I think I can see partly opened blooms among this furry cluster of buds.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Disappointment and Delight at Ballston Creek

I met a number of very disappointed birders at Ballston Creek Preserve today.  They had come to observe the nesting Great Blue Herons this preserve had grown famous for.  For quite a number of years, the standing snags in the Ballston Creek Swamp had held the nests of many Great Blue Herons, including two heron nests commandeered by mated pairs of Ospreys and Great Horned Owls. Dependably, this swamp was a most amazing site for observing the behavior of all three species of giant birds.  Here's my photo of what a few of those snags looked like just a few years ago (and this is just a small section of the heronry):

Sadly, here's what that same section of swamp looked like today. Not a heron, nor any shred of a nest could be seen, not to mention any sign of ospreys or owls:

Over the years, windstorms have toppled many snags, or torn the supportive branches from those that remained upright, or blown the large stick-composed nests completely or partially away.  But why haven't the herons returned to rebuild?  Have they found better fishing in some other swamp? Those are questions I can't answer.

I shared the visiting birders' disappointment, for I too had enjoyed observing these birds in their home habitat, and for several years.  But I was here today instead to see if any of the wildflowers that thrive in this preserve's woods had made an appearance yet.  I have rarely found any other site so thoroughly carpeted with Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), a very early bloomer in the spring woods.  Would I find any sign of it today?  Eventually, I certainly did:  many, many bud-bearing sprouts were made visible among the leaf litter by their tapering green leaves. Admittedly, it took some searching to find them.

After finding only leaves and buds after all that diligent searching, it was quite a treat to find just one single Spring Beauty plant that was actually in bloom.  These dainty pink-striped, pink-anthered flowers are such a delightful find, so early in spring, when so few other wildflowers are blooming. And I'll find them here by the thousands in just a couple of weeks.

My next quest was to see if any of the Round-lobed Hepaticas (Hepatica americana) that grew here down by the creek had put forth any flowers yet.  It was easy to find their rather bedraggled but beautifully rosy wintered-over leaves among the leaf litter.  Were any flowers hiding down there at the center of the leaves?

Searching among the many plants, again and again I found only the flower buds, none even close to blooming.  But what amazingly furry buds!  Like tiny bunnies!  Most appropriate for this Easter Sunday.

Then, just as I had given up my search, this pretty little purple flower caught my eye. One more delightful surprise!

Pleased that my wildflower search had been successful, I sat on the bench overlooking the swamp and observed the scene. As I sat there quietly, I soon became aware of an odd, putt-putting growl from across the water.  Pickerel Frogs! Sending their come-hither calls to one another.  Love was in the air!

Searching the water's surface for any sign of the frogs, my eyes lit on this hummock, the vegetation oddly flattened as if some critter had sat on it frequently.  And then I noticed the fish scales. Aha! A critter HAS sat on this hummock quite often, for this was an otter's latrine.

I don't know too many other folks who would be delighted to find an otter's poo.  But lucky for me, I know a few.  And I'm happy to share this find and this photo with them.