Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Some Things New Under the Sun

What a difference the sun makes!  Here's a photo of the sunny side of Mud Pond three days ago:  all warm and dry, the ice receded far from shore (today it was all gone, except for a little bay at the shaded south end).  Nice!

And here's a photo of the shady side of Moreau Lake today:  shin-deep in snow, with ice still gripping the shore.  Brrrrr!  So where do you think I decided to walk today?  That's right, I headed right back to Mud Pond.

What a change in the shoreline from three days ago!  Instead of clear water that let me take photos of suspended newts and bottom-basking tadpoles, the surface near shore was coated with foamy brown scum and awash with heaps of dead plant matter.  The wriggling newts set the whole mess a-roil as I passed, although I couldn't really see them through the murk.  A massive turnover must have occurred, the sun-warmed top layer of water mixing with the icy-cold layers below, bringing up all the gunk that had lain on the bottom all winter.  I wonder how long it will take to clear up again?

All kinds of seasonal stuff is going on right now.  Walking a sunny, sandy path, I was startled by clouds of bees at my feet.  Yikes! I thought, am I about to get stung?  But the bees paid me no attention.  Looking more closely, I noticed that many were busy digging holes in the soft sand. Ah yes, these must be the ground bees Curt Stager wrote about in his book Field Notes from the Northern Forest. These are solitary, rather than hive-dwelling social bees.  There's no queen to defend, so no soldier bees try to sting you in her defense.  Each female digs her own nest, which she coats with a substance that looks like brown cellophane (it's actually polyester!).  She spends the summer packing this pouch with pollen, lays her own egg in there, then seals it all up in a little packet.  At some point the egg hatches, the larva eats the pollen, then pupates, and when spring arrives, the adult digs its way to the surface.  The bees buzzing around my feet must have been the newly emerging generation. (Sorry.  They wouldn't sit still for a picture.)

Who says there's nothing new under the sun?  I'd never seen these bees before.  Nor noticed a pond turn over.  I've often been asked why I visit the same places day after day.  Don't I ever get bored?  No, I don't. Because they're never the same.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

This Berry Has Two Mothers

Rained all day today, temp close to 50, washing away the winter's grime, softening what's left of the snow.  It's amazing how much remains in the woods, even after several days of summery weather.  I walked the entire way around Mud Pond yesterday, and found myself knee-deep in snow in a shaded gully.  And of course, I was wearing sneakers, not boots. Brrr!

In a sunnier spot, I found this patch of partridge berry, the berries a bit shriveled from a winter under the snow, but the leaves as fresh and green as they were last fall.  Take a close look at that berry's little red owl face: see what looks like two eyes?  This here is one berry with two blossom ends -- you might say it had two mothers.

And here they are, in bloom last June.  Tiny white waxy twin trumpets with furry tops.  These are females (pistil packin' mamas) just waiting for pollen from stamen-equipped male blossoms nearby.  The girls' gotta have it, and when they get it, both twins put all they've got into one ovary -- the two flowers work together to make one berry.  One berry with two blossom ends.  Are there any other fruits that form this way?  Not that I know of. 

To complete the family portrait, here's a photo of the Daddy, the staminate blooms.

Actually, each flower contains both sexes: stamens and pistils.  In one form the pistils protrude, in another form, the stamens do.  This prevents self-fertilization.  In each case, both flowers of the twin trumpet arrangement must be fertilized to produce the berry.  Complications, complications!  But what a cute little baby!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thrills at Rockwell Falls

Rockwell Falls on the Hudson River at Hadley/Lake Luzerne

It was such a gorgeous day yesterday, so warm and summery, it inspired sweet thoughts of the old swimming hole I haven't swum in for several years.  So I drove upstream, about ten miles north, to Hadley/Lake Luzerne.  Here the Hudson River plunges through a gorge at a place called Rockwell Falls.  You can't quite step across the river here, but you could easily toss a rock across -- maybe 15, 20 feet when the water's low.  The water was a bit high yesterday, but not as high as I thought it might be, spring runoff and all.

Some daredevils jump in the Hudson right here below the falls and get a great ride downstream. But some die trying, too: caught in the roiling aerated water that gives them no purchase to pull against (try swimming in a cloud!), or pounded into jagged rocks underwater, or sucked by currents against undercut banks and they can't get out.  But I can't think of any other place I'd rather swim.

Of course, I go downstream a ways, beyond the bridge, to where the river calms down a bit, but where the current is still swift enough to give me a little thrill.  There are quieter pools, for floating and dreaming, and flat rocks to climb out onto and lie in the sun.  And cliffs of various heights for diving off of.  Kids like to show off by jumping off the bridge.  Enough of them died doing this that the town has fenced and NO TRESSPASSed the access, but still many kids (and grown-ups) congregate here. 

Which is great.  I love it that kids (and old ladies like me) can still find places to frolic without adult supervision, where the danger is just enough to heighten your senses, and nobody's yelling "No running!" and blowing whistles.  But I do wish that folks could have fun here without getting drunk.  That's when they do stupid things that injure themselves and get the authorities hot for fences and fines.  And that's when they break their god damned bottles all over the place and turn a spot that I used to call Heaven into a garbage dump.

I just remembered why I don't swim here any more. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

A Superfine Spring Day


So many things today said SPRING!  First, it was actually HOT!  Seventy degrees, no clouds, no wind.  No jacket.  Not even a sweater.  And then I found the first flower of spring that actually looks like a flower: COLTSFOOT! (No, that is not a dandelion.)  Then I rolled down my window while passing a marsh and what did I hear?  SPRING PEEPERS!  Oh man, could it get any better than this?

Yes it could.  I went to Mud Pond where the ice has retreated from shore and walked along close to the water.  Every footfall of mine caused quite a commotion in the shallows close to shore.  What looked at first like a bunch of eels wriggling into the muck turned out to be NEWTS!  Thousands of them, floating just under the water, taking a sunbath,  then taking a dive as my shadow passed over them. 
A floating newt

 Peering a little closer, I also saw TADPOLES!  Big fat green ones like the one in the photo and lots of itsy bitsy black ones, too. At least I thought they were tadpoles. The wee ones moved so fast my eyes couldn't quite glom on to them.  There were MINNOWS! too, and FLIES! and other BUGS! --  some in the air, some on top of and under the water.

A big fat tadpole

 And then there was this lovely SPIDER! who was resting on a floating leaf on the water.  Now, that is one gorgeous blonde!  Could she be a fishing spider?  Could she be eating those little black rice-shaped things on the leaf?  What are those little black rice-shaped things on the leaf?  I don't know.

There's so much I don't know.  But this I do:  there sure were a lot of critters enjoying this fine Spring day along with me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hello, Mr. Chips

Here's another sure sign that Spring is definitely here: the chipmunk is up and about and scurrying about the stone walls and shrubby edges of the park.  This is probably a male, since the males emerge first.  I don't know why.  It's not like the birds, where the males arrive early to find and defend nesting sites.  Female chipmunks already have their own burrows.  Maybe, as with us humans, the females carry more body fat and so last out the winter longer in their underground boudoirs.  But soon it will be rise and shine for the girls as well.  Then they'll find the right fellow and spend the next couple of months tending babies (the males don't hang around to help).  Here up north, the chipmunks will often breed only once a year, with two to five young at a time. Further south, where the summers last longer, they often raise two litters.

Do chipmunks hibernate?  Well, kind of.  But not deeply.  They do go into a kind of torpor, with heart rate slowed and body temperature fallen and consequent sleepiness.  But they rouse themselves from time to time during the winter to pee and poop and feed on the stores of food they stashed away last fall in their many-chambered burrows.  True hibernation is when the animal lives on nothing all winter but its own stored fat.

At any rate, I'm always glad to see them: one of the prettiest little creatures Nature ever came up with.  I'd sacrifice a few flower bulbs and tolerate a few holes in my yard just to have them around.  I suppose the serious gardeners and groundskeepers welcome them the same way they do dandelions.  But I love dandelions, too.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Just a Nice Walk In the Woods

Deep snow on one bank, dry leaves on the other, a new beaver dam upstream

A bright clear day, kind of chilly, brisk wind.  A nice day for a nice walk through a nice woods around a nice pond; nothing strenuous nor spectacular; no  calendar-picture landscapes nor exotic animal sightings.  You might say kind of boring.  And I'd say yes, about as boring as breathing.  And for me, just about as necessary for health and happiness.

I feel very fortunate to not need much in the way of excitement.  A cheap date, you might say. Sweet clean air: I feel it fill my lungs and remember some folks I cared for who could barely breathe.  Soft earth underfoot: how grateful I am I can walk unencumbered (so far) by age or arthritis.  A sheltered spot to bask in the sun, the sighing of pines as the wind passes through, the sparkle of water newly unburdened of winter's ice: I can feel it, hear it, see it, be struck dumb with bliss by the wonder of it all.  Could a billion dollars buy me more joy than this?  And none of it cost me a penny.

There were a few little frissons of amusement.  I found a newly begun beaver dam on a little stream, with a beaver footprint squished in the mud.  I puzzled over a skinny, shaggy-barked tree, its twigs polka-dotted with little round bumps, before I figured out it must be a larch.  And the most amusing of all: I came to a snag that was portaled with numerous holes and I knocked on the trunk.  Anybody home? I called, and of course no one answered.  I turned to go when a small round head with large round eyes popped out of the topmost hole. Well hello there, I said as I reached for my camera, but the flying squirrel went back inside to continue its midday nap.  Sorry I woke you, little guy.  Hope to see you again.

A Forest Pilgrimage

Eight hundred years agrowing: An ancient black tupelo towers over the swamp

I went to visit some ancestors yesterday.  Vince Walsh, founder of Kawing Crow Nature Awareness Center and owner of hundreds of acres of Greenfield forest and swamp, led me through his land to adjoining state forest, where ancient black tupelos grow. And I mean really old!  At least 800 years old, according to core samples.  Just imagine: 800 years ago, when these trees first sprouted, the Crusades were going on across the Atlantic. (Christians and Moslems hacking each other to bits. Some things never change.)  How can it be, through all those centuries, these trees just kept on growing?

I suspect terrain was a factor: the swampy ground would have made lumbering laborious.  Plus the trees' own growth pattern could have saved them: by the time they reached a height that would have attracted Europeans' axes, their boles began to hollow out, making them useless for ships' masts or building lumber.  And so they grew.  And grew and grew.  Still very much alive, they tower above all other trees around them, their limbs and branches twisted into fantastic bends and arches.   And yesterday I saw them.  Touched them.  Sat on the trunk of a fallen giant and pondered the passing of time.

I feel an almost mystical relationship with these trees.  I had never seen them before I started paddling the Hudson about 15 years ago.  I recognized maple and oak, hickory, beech, hemlock and pine, but what was this tree with gorgeous green glossy leaves, that bore blue-black berries each fall, and turned the most spectacular red in autumn?  My desire to find a name for this tree sparked my passion to know the names of all its neighbors -- a passion that still sends me off to the woods and the river whenever I can.  I trace the start of this, the most serene time of my life,  to finding those tupelos.  Next to getting my Hornbeck canoe, that is.

So it felt like a pilgrimage yesterday, a difficult passage at times through the melting marsh, but worth the wet feet for sure.  And we also had another grand experience.  Passing through open marsh, where at least a dozen herons' nests topped the standing snags, Vince spied a great horned owl, perched on the edge of a nest.  And another one, down in the nest! Because of my bad eyes, I couldn't see it, even through Vince's binoculars.  But he showed me where to point my camera,  and look what the camera saw.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Down the Hudson to Hudson

Here's another view of my beloved Hudson River, this one from about 80 miles and two counties south of Saratoga.  My husband and I went to the town of Hudson, N.Y., today to visit Olana, the Persian-inspired mansion of the 19th-century landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church.  Church, along with his teacher Thomas Cole and a number of others, were originators of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.  This was a style of painting that featured dramatic skies and idealized landscapes, and it's easy to see, when you visit here, how the actual landscape of the mid-Hudson valley inspired this kind of painting. There's a luminous quality to the air near the river and a grandeur lent by the looming mountains that inspires a sense of awe.

The mansion Church built for himself and his family also inspires a kind of awe (if also a sense of gratefulness that I live in a simpler home).  The interiors are every bit as elaborate as what you can see from outside.

I was happy to go down river for a day (spring is at least a week advanced down there), and happy to come back home. My stretch of the Hudson, while far more intimate, is, to my eyes, just as lovely.  And to me more beloved, because I can call all that lives here and grows here by name. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Time, and the Walkin' is Easy

At last!  A woodland path with no snow!

It's official: Spring is here!  A bright sunny day, temperature in the mid-40s.  But a brisk wind made it feel like winter was coming back.  Okay.  I confess.  I'm weary of winter.  And I'm really tired of crunching through snow when I go for a walk in the woods.  How I long to hear the rustle of crisp dry leaves underfoot instead.

So I went to Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park, to walk the east shore where open, sloping banks hold the sunshine all afternoon, and the snow is at last all gone.  And what a treat it was!  No great plant finds or spectacular animal sightings,  just a lovely, easy walk on yielding ground, shielded from the wind, bathed in sunlight and warmth.  I saw a hawk soaring over the hills, heard songs of birds I couldn't name in the trees, and noticed the beavers were getting really busy -- a couple of big trees were newly toppled.  I found two of my favorite evergreen plants: pipsissewa and striped wintergreen.  These plants love sandy, acid soil, the same as do pink lady's slipper and rattlesnake plantain.  I'll be back to look for these lovely orchids in May and June.


Striped wintergreen

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My Own Little Madagascar

Mountain azalea thrives on Woodcock Island

Yesterday, I posted a photo of a pretty little river island and mentioned by name a few of the plants that grow there.  Today,  I'm posting the names of all the plants I've ever found there.  So far.  My point is to show the incredible diversity of flora to be found on just this one little spot of rock in the Hudson River a few short miles from my home.  As the header up there at the top of this blog implies:  For nature discoveries, who needs to go all the way to Madagascar?

Trees:  White pine, swamp white oak, chestnut oak, red oak, red maple, white birch, sassafras (maybe more)

Shrubs: Alder, witch hazel, highbush blueberry, lowbush blueberry, black huckleberry, black chokeberry, red osier dogwood, silky dogwood, mountain azalea, sweet fern, meadowsweet, steeplebush, wild rose

Flowers:  Trailing arbutus, bluets, strawberry, dewberry, cinquefoil, small sundrop, blue vervain, marsh St. Johnswort, pale St. Johnswort, dwarf St. Johnswort, Canada St. Johnswort,  common St. Johnswort, golden hedge hyssop, clammy hedge hyssop, false pimpernel, low cudweed, common arrowhead, grass leaved arrowhead, slender arrowhead, wild mint, water horehound, northern bugleweed, wild celery, pipewort, cardinal flower, sneezeweed, Joe Pye weed, boneset, monkeyflower, turtlehead, narrow leaved gentian, calico aster, small-flowered aster, silverrod

I'm sure I've left some out, and I haven't listed any of the grasses, mosses, lichens, ferns, and such I don't know the names of yet.  Tree club moss grows there, as do other lycopodia.  And the prettiest little gall: a blueberry stem gall that looks like a bright red kidney bean attached to the twigs of lowbush blueberry plants.

I realize that lists like these can be pretty boring to folks who aren't obsessed nature nuts like me.  More than one person has told me what a pain in the ass I am to walk in the woods with, always stopping to ID plants, scribbling in notebooks, hauling my Newcomb's out, or lying right down in the dirt to take a photo.  I read somewhere that most people couldn't name ten plants that grow on the block where they live.  It's kind of a mystery to me why I crave to know the name of everything that grows.  What do I get out of it (besides Lyme Disease from the tick bites in my eyebrows and behind my ears)?

I think that by trying to name the plants, I come to really see them.  For sure, I have to look really close in order to learn their names.  Then when I go for a walk, it's like visiting my old friends. ("Ah, there you are!  So nice to see you again!") And if I find a new one? It's like finding a hidden treasure.  It makes my day.  I don't need diamonds or furs or trips to Paris to make me happy.  But if I were ever to find a showy lady's slipper, I'd walk on air.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Misty River

A soft, warm day with intermittent sun and showers: perfect for misty conditions on the river.  I call this island Woodcock Island because I've flushed a woodcock here several times.  It's a favorite spot for a picnic and swim, and in May it's ablaze with sweet-scented mountain azalea.  Trailing arbutus grows here, too, and so do cardinal flower and narrow-leaved gentian.  It's simply a beautiful spot whatever the season.  Including today.

Today, the easiest way through the woods was to walk along (or in) the beds of streams.  My boots got a little muddy but it spared my shins from being skinned on the crusty snow when my feet punched through.  I found lots more green stuff newly freed from the weight of winter snow: Christmas fern, wood fern, yellow-flowered grass, common speedwell,  partridge berry, horsetail rush, lycopodia, liverwort.  (Which I like to call "lizardwort."  Doesn't this photo  look  sort of like a pile of writhing lizards?) 

And here it is, folks, the first flower of spring: skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).  The spathe has opened, the spadix inside is dotted with puffs of pollen.  I opened one up for a closer look and spilled what looked like yellow flour all over my front.  With this plant in bloom I can now start a brand new notebook for the year: Wildflowers 2009.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

One Intact Tupelo

A lone black tupelo (the smaller trunk) remains ungirdled by beavers

Three balmy days in a row have softened the snowpack.  My snowshoes punch through, making a hike exhausting.  So I went to Moreau Lake to walk on the beach. The lake normally has a nice sandy beach, very pleasant to walk on.  No beach today.  Ice all the way up to the woods, and the ice near shore has turned to mush.  But about ten feet out it was still firm, so I walked out there.  I figured that even if I went through, it was maybe shin deep.  Big deal.  Wet feet.  So what. 

I wanted to visit a place on the far shore where a lone black tupelo grows, to see if it had escaped being girdled by beavers.  The tree grows in a marshy area that's usually hard to get to, but I thought it would be easy to approach it on ice.  And it was.  I could see it fine, it's distinctive sloping branches spiked with short twigs.  But phragmites obscured the base of its trunk from view.  Okay, I thought, I'll just wade through some ankle-deep water there and get up on shore.  I headed in and flooomp!  Right up to my waist in ice water.  Stinky-poo mucky marsh water with icky marsh mud underfoot.  I slogged ashore and sat dripping on the  sunny bank.  Dang! I thought. It's at least a mile to my car. Oh well.  At least my camera's okay. There was no one to see, so I stripped to my undies and wrung the water out of my corduroy pants and my polar fleece socks and the felt liners to my rubber boots and warmed myself in the sun.  The bank was bare of snow, the oak leaves littering the ground were crispy dry.  Mmmm.  So nice.  And I'm still alive to enjoy it.

The worst part of the whole adventure was pulling those cold wet clothes back on.   And the best part (aside from not drowning) was that I found that tupelo trunk unscathed.  Hooray!                                                

Monday, March 16, 2009

Musings and Monuments

"The Spirit of Life" by Daniel Chester French stands in Saratoga's Congress Park

Another lovely balmy day.  Chores kept me out of the woods, but I did take a turn around Congress Park.  There's a big patch of coltsfoot there, and I wanted to see if any sprouts had emerged.  These flowers, which many mistake for dandelions, bloom early, long before the plant sprouts leaves.  Or any other flowers are up (except skunk cabbage).

The only thing that had sprouted up in the park was another war monument.  Let's see, how many war monuments does that make now, just in Congress Park?  American Revolution, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, plus a flower bed to honor Medal of Honor winners.  And now this new one, erected not to honor a particular war, but all American warriors, in all branches of the military.  There's also a walkway paved with bricks that carry the names of soldiers. Then there's a flagpole and flower planter a block away to honor those who "defended our liberties" in that turkey shoot called Operation Desert Storm.  I mean no disrespect.  I truly honor those who would lay down their lives in defense of our country.  It's just that I can't remember a war (and I'm almost 67 years old) that had anything to do with defending my liberties.  It's been my experience that each time Americans start waving their flags, other people start burying their dead.  And the more inane, illegal, or immoral the conflict, the bigger the flags.  And the more the monuments.

Where are the monuments to those who are healers?  When do we hold parades for those who make peace?  How do we recognize the bravery of those who refuse to take up arms, despite the contempt of their fellows?  At least there's one monument in Congress Park that's not about war.  It's "The Spirit of Life" by Daniel Chester French (the same sculptor who created the Lincoln Memorial), dedicated to the memory of Spencer Trask (1844-1909).  Trask was a philanthropist who supported scientific invention, education, the arts, and humanitarian causes.  His mansion at the edge of Saratoga Springs is now a famous artists' retreat called Yaddo.  And his monument in Congress Park is the most beautiful one of all.

Postscript:  My son said, "Mom, what's this post got to do with nature?" I guess I could write a page or two about what war does to the forests, the land, the wildlife, the rivers. The farms, the gardens, the livestock, the house pets -- I could go on and on.  But I won't.  Instead,  I'll just point to that lovely winged figure in the photo: she's holding a sprig of white pine in one hand, a bowl overflowing with water in the other.  There you have it: woods and waterways.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


SIXTY DEGREES!!! No wind and nothing but sun.  Man, it felt like Florida here today!  Shirtsleeves and sunglasses:  that's all the gear we needed to go outdoors.  Plus waterproof boots.  The snow's still plenty deep in the woods, but we could walk on top of it without snowshoes.  Most of the time.

Here's a photo of my son Philip, standing on the banks of the Hudson River at Moreau.  We hiked along the river and through the woods, enjoying the water music of trickling streams.  We poked at ice floes, basked in the sun, were dazzled by dancing light off the open water.  We found a patch of wintergreen, bright red berries so plump and tasty it's hard to believe they spent the winter beneath two feet of snow.

And here's another creature out for a stroll on this lovely day:  a coal-black spider walking across the snow.  I wonder what she will find to eat.  Do spiders stock a larder to last all winter?  Do spiders sleep all winter?  Was this one hatched last September, when the autumn air was streaked with hundreds of shining strands of silk, a wee little baby spider attached to each?  So many things I don't know.  I asked for a spider book for my birthday, but that won't be until May.  Maybe someone reading this blog knows the answers.  Hmmm?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Good Word About Wood-Ears

Oops!  I forgot to include this photo with my post about today's walk.  This cluster of rubbery brown shiny things is the Tree-Ear fungus, also called Wood-Ear (Auriculariaceae auricula).  It's kind of obvious, isn't it, how it got its name.  Although they've been frozen all winter, these  Tree-Ears were as soft and jelly-like today as they were when they first emerged last fall.  I could have brought them home and cooked them up for supper.

My Audubon mushroom guide informs me that lovers of Chinese food have probably eaten their cousin, the closely related Mo-Ehr (A. polytricha), which is widely cultivated and sold at Chinese markets.  Some studies have shown that this fungus can affect blood coagulation and is possibly a factor in the low incidence of coronary artery disease in China.

Darn!  I knew I should have cooked them for supper.

Winter's Greens

Official Spring is less than a week away, but the temperature still flirts with zero at night.  The days, however, are warming up nicely.  Well over 40 today.  This alternate melting and freezing has hardened the snowpack so I could walk through the woods without snowshoes today.  But I don't kid myself that the snow will be gone very soon.  The few times I postholed through, I still went in up to mid-shin.  At least the roadsides and some open fields are bare.  I expect to see bright yellow coltsfoot any day now.

The ice in mid-river has opened up, then closed again with thin, transparent sheets, but the coves and bays and marshes are still white with a foot or more of solid stuff, criss-crossed with cracks and open holes where it looks like the otters went in.  Or out.  I found their tobogganing trails in the woods today.  Out on an ice-covered bay, the dead deer that fed the raptors for weeks has been reduced to a rack of ribs.

On south-facing banks I find surviving evergreen plants, appearing remarkably uncrushed by the heavy snows this winter.  Of course, that snow served as protection against drying wind and cold.  Even though I know their green is left over from fall,  I love the illusion of new life they bring to the woods as we wait and wait and wait and wait for spring.


Trailing arbutus


Some of the dead flower heads are pretty, too.  Here's meadowsweet, growing beside a kettle hole in the rocks my kids and I call Bear's Bathtub.   Speaking of bears, when will they start waking up?  My friend Laurie said she has seen their tracks in the past right across the river from where I took this photo.  We once had one run right down our street in Saratoga Springs, then climb a tree in Congress Park, just a block from my home.

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Am Curious About Yellow

I went for a quick walk today just to get out of the house for a bit, and I came to a quick halt when I spotted this shrub.  Whoa!  That's some kind of  yellow!  It certainly stood out from the lilacs and sumac and dogwood shrubs that surround it.  I haven't a clue what it is.  Maybe some kind of willow?  I know weeping willows turn bright yellow about this time of year.  Any dendrologists out there?  If you don't ID this shrub in a comment here, I'll try to ID it myself when its leaves (maybe flowers?) pop out.  For the moment, at least, it's a bright spot of color in this drab late winter landscape.

(Here's another thing I find curious.  This purple underlining of all the text in this post.  I can't seem to get rid of it.  Oh well.  Just another spot of color.)

Window Watching

Some days I just have to stay home to do chores and can't run off to the woods.  But I can look out the window.  Here's what I saw today.

Here's a crow trying to hog all the scrambled egg I threw outside for the squirrels.  A crow.  Big deal.  Sure, I see them all the time: picking at road kill while daring each car to hit them, or cawing their heads off in the black locust trees that surround my yard.   And once I saw a whole river of them, thousands and thousands of crows from horizon to horizon flowing in one direction across the sky, heading home to their nightly roost.  But I hardly ever see them approach my bird feeders.   Actually, I wish they would.  They're so smart and funny and really quite lovely, their ebony feathers gleaming in the sun.  I read recently that all the birds are getting hungry now, what with most of last fall's bounty gobbled up.  This crow was certainly making a pig of himself, snagging as many bits as he could until they started to drop from his beak.  The squirrels would dart at him now and then, trying to scare him off.  As if! 

Sometimes I'm amazed at the bravery of squirrels.  I've seen them scurry right up to a hawk sitting on the branch of a tree, acting as if they were daring the hawk to catch them.  Like this one here in the photo.  

A few minutes earlier, the hawk had snagged a bird and was sitting on the ground devouring it.  I took these photos through screens, so they're not very sharp.  When I went outside to get better shots, the hawk flew up to a branch of this mulberry tree.  With its prey.  I was watching and couldn't believe my eyes when this squirrel just ambled down the trunk and stared the hawk in the eye.  The hawk just stared back for a while.  Then it lifted its wings and soared off to enjoy its meal in peace.

What the heck kind of hawk is this?  Could it be a juvenile Cooper's?  We have adult Cooper's from time to time, but their breasts are barred with horizontal rusty stripes.  My hawk book shows the juveniles with browner vertical bars.  Please leave a comment if you think you know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Late-winter Ruminations

My blog has gotten a bit Hallmarky lately, waxing ecstatic about Nature's healing beauty and all that.  I think it's time for a visit to Nature's nastier side.  (The world outside today inspires dark thoughts: a cold rain, filthy snowbanks, and defrosting dog turds everywhere.  Even garbed in Goretex and shod in Sorels, I do not want to go out.)

I found this goldenrod ball gall yesterday.  The neat little hole in it indicates the larva inside was probably gobbled down by a downy woodpecker. (No, it's not the gall resident's exit  hole; that would be much tinier.)  Chickadees also rifle these galls, but make a real mess of them when they do.  And squirrels cut them off and carry them away.  I learned this from John Eastman's Book of Field and Roadside, which I turned to again to learn more about this gall. And its parasite. (Be warned!)

The gall is caused by a fruitfly, Eurosta solidaginis,  which lays a single egg on the stem of the goldenrod (almost exclusively tall goldenrod, Solidago altissima) just before the plant's leaves open. When the larva hatches, it eats its way inside the stem.  Nobody seems to know why the plant reacts the way it does, but a swelling ball of solid tissue forms around where the larva is feeding.  Come fall, the larva chews its way outward through this tissue, making an exit tunnel but leaving the door unopened.  It doesn't leave but retreats to the center, where it sleeps through winter, snug in its now-dead gall, pupating only a few weeks  before spring arrives.  Spring comes, the adult emerges inside the gall, crawls up the tunnel it bored last fall, and finds the door still closed.  Now, the adult fly doesn't have the chewing mouthparts its larva had, so how will it get outside?  Undaunted, it clamps itself to the door, pumps bodily fluids into a special part of its head, and this swelled head bursts the gall's external membrane.  The adult fly then pulls itself out.  Cool!

But that's only if all goes well.  And all will go terribly wrong if its parasite Eurytoma obtusiventris comes along.  This tiny wasp finds the fruitfly egg even before the fly hatches and starts forming its gall.  The wasp sticks its ovipositor into the fly egg and lays an even tinier wasp egg there.  The wasp larva bores into the fly larva and lurks there unnoticed until the latter is full grown.  It then proceeds to devour its host from the inside out.  Eewww! (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

Actually, I think it's pretty neat how all god's chillun get fed.  In nature, that is.  I don't think our factory farms that knowingly torture livestock are fine at all.

Goldenrod ball galls in sunnier days

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Off the Couch, Out the Door

Nature brings healing, even to patients' sunset days.

A few posts back, I wrote about the healing power of nature in my own life.  During my years as a nursing assistant for Hospice, I witnessed this power in the lives of others, as well.  Let me tell you about two of these folks.  While it's true they both eventually died, I know that their final days were enriched by getting them off the couch and out the door.

Dan, a Polish-American retired paper mill worker, wanted nothing to do with me.  No, he didn't need a shave.  No, he could shower without my help.  No, he didn't want to chit-chat.  "Just siddown and be quiet.  I wanna watch 'The Price is Right'."  Now, to spend an hour doing nothing was bad enough.  But to have to spend it watching "The Price is Right" -- torture!  So I busied myself making his bed and nosing about for something to read.  And there on his bookshelf were several field guides for mushrooms.  I interrupted his program: "Dan, do you like to hunt mushrooms?  You know, we could go look for some."  It was late autumn.  There might be a few late fruiters.  Click!  The TV turned off.  "Could you really take me?"

Indeed I could.  We drove to a site where he knew some oyster mushrooms might be found. While he sat in the car, he sent me off into the woods.  It must have been angels (plus Dan's good directions) that led me right to them.  A whole bunch.  I gathered a gallon or so, and you know, it might have been gold I laid in his lap, he was so delighted.  And after that adventure, off we would go nearly every day until the day he died.  He'd sit in the car with his oxygen tank (he had terminal heart failure), and we'd drive along the Hudson and Hoosick Rivers, visiting all the haunts of his youth. We found where he used to hide his canoe.  We found where wild asparagus grew.  He recalled how his father was gassed in the war.  He remembered his mother's struggles to run their tavern.  He confessed how he started drinking young, and how mean he had been to his wife when he was drunk.  And he found at last the courage to ask for his wife's forgiveness before he died.  And he died in her loving arms.

* * *
Then there was Eleanor.  I'm not sure what Eleanor's illness was.  Terminal crankiness, probably.  She lived in an assisted living facility, very nice, lots of social events, classes, good meals.  She never left her room.  She wanted her meals sent up.  She wanted her shades pulled down.  The one pleasure she allowed herself was to sit on the porch  in her wheelchair on pleasant days.  One day I rolled her down the ramp: "Some blue-eyed grass is blooming near the parking lot," I told her.  She reluctantly consented.  She had never seen (nor ever cared to see) blue-eyed grass, but that day her eyes were opened.  A sea of radiant blue covered a vacant lot, studded with bright yellow sundrops and snowy wild strawberry.  "Oh my! How pretty," she said (in spite of herself). 

The blue-eyed grass that opened Eleanor's eyes

All summer we walked and rolled, on into the fall.  If the day was rainy, she waited for me in her raincoat.  She couldn't get over the beauty of blue vervain ("How can that be a weed?") or the tiny pink blossoms of northern willow herb ("Wouldn't they make a darling dollhouse bouquet?") We picked gorgeous bundles of panicled dogwood (burgundy leaves, waxy white berries on hot pink pedicels) mixed with the dark maroon seed sprays of curly dock.  Then we got in trouble for bringing in armloads of goldenrod.  Her daughter threw it all out: "Get those weeds out of here!  They're dropping pollen all over!"  I heard that cranky tone and marvelled: that's how Eleanor used to sound.  She didn't anymore. 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Blackbird Singin' in the Dead of Winter

It will be a long time yet before cattail clumps are sheltering baby red-wing blackbirds.  But I learned today that I wasn't deluded to go looking for daddy red-wings this early in March.  Bob Henke, outdoors columnist for the Glens Falls Post Star, reported in his column today that he saw his first red-wing on February 27, "singing to proclaim his territorial boundaries in a nasty snow flurry."  And that robin I saw yesterday?  According to Henke, robins (and bluebirds, too) were here a couple of weeks before the blackbird.  And all of them are males, "decked out in their finest battle dress."  The females are still down south, keeping warm and fattening up for the nesting rigors to come.  They won't arrive for maybe a month or more.

But what do these male birds find to eat up here while the ground is frozen, no buds are sprouting, no insects crawling or flying about, and all the dried fruits and seeds leftover from fall have pretty much been eaten up by winter residents? Well, they often don't eat anything. The only thing on their minds is finding good nesting sites to lure their mates when the females at last arrive, and in avian real estate battles, it's usually first come, first claimed.  As Henke explains, "Although male birds sometimes fight quite viciously over territories, studies show that in more than 95 percent of the conflicts, the male who was resident in the territory wins out over an interloper."  So the goal is to get here first, even if it means going unfed for a month or so.  And apparently we can't help them much by hanging extra feeders. As Henke writes, "no male will leave his turf unguarded to go looking for a snack."

Henke closes his column with this sobering statistic:  "Couple this stress with the demands of feeding a hungry brood or two over the summer and you will understand why less than 10 percent of passerine [migratory] males survive to make a second migration."  

So the early bird doesn't get the worm.  Let's hope he at least gets the girl.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Twigs and Tracks and a Big Wet Kiss

Well, it sure seemed like spring today:  over 50 degrees, and I saw a robin.  The truth is, I've seen robins off and on all winter, big flocks of them, feeding in crabapple trees and sumac.  But this was a solitary robin, running across a patch of bare grass.  Winter dead grass.  But still . . .grass!  Anyway, the true harbinger of spring for me is the red-winged blackbird, not robins.  Growing up as I did on a lake with a marsh in my backyard, that conk-a-reeee-ah bugling through cattails sounds to my ears like a reveille waking spring.  So off to a marsh I went, in hopes of hearing that call.

Nope.  I didn't hear any red-winged blackbirds.  Nor see them.  But I had a nice walk on Bog Meadow Trail, a flat track that runs for about two miles on an old railroad bed, passing through forested wetlands and a couple of open marshes (no bogs: the name's a misnomer).  I did flush a couple of mallards, but they hang around here all winter anyway, so that's nothing new. Aside from the trailside streams in full flow, the whole area still seemed all buttoned up for winter.  The red osier shrubs were certainly rosy, but I think they stay that color all year.  It's just that when all the leaves are gone we can see them better. Pretty.

Red osier dogwood twigs

There weren't many animal tracks anywhere, aside from a few deer trails.  And then I saw this BIG one.  Four toes, claws showing.  A canid.  "Holy mackerel!"  I thought, "that's one big coyote!"  I was kneeling down to take a photo when the monster ran right up to me and licked my face. How could I forget that this is a popular dog run?  Her name is Tess and she's a Bernese Mountain Dog,  just like my granddog Sampson.  Good girl!  What a good girl!  God, those dogs are great!

Big track

Big dog

 As I said before, I had a good walk.  But then, walks usually are.  And I often learn something, too.  Like not jumping to conclusions about coyotes.