Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Nature Year in Review

Today, a full year of recording my nature adventures comes to a close. On New Year's Day, 2009, I started this blog, intending to document some of the wonderful natural sites we have right here in Saratoga County, and as I look back over the year's posts, I confess I am thrilled by the many wonders I encountered as I followed the year through its seasonal changes.

I always loved winter, but keeping this blog sent me out on many days when I might have stayed snug and warm at home. The banks and bays of the Hudson River at Moreau were the focus of most of my snowshoe tramps, especially after Moreau Park staffers placed road-kill deer carcasses out on the ice to serve as feeding stations for wildlife. Every day I could read new stories from the footprints and wingprints left in the snow, until all that was left of the deer was a rack of ribs. (Maybe this coming year I will finally get a photo of a Bald Eagle.)

When I couldn't get out to the woods or the river, there were always adventures around the birdfeeders at home, including visits from Sharp-shinned Hawks, who stopped by to dine on the sparrows.

The Hudson River, lovely in every season, was even more so shrouded in mist as the ice receded and the water warmed toward spring.

Oh Spring! How lovely were the mountainsides when the Shadblow came into flower!

The Skidmore Woods soon burst into bloom, with Hepatica leading the way.

The river islands were soon ablaze with fragrant Mountain Azalea.

Late summer brought Mother Nature's garden into full glory along the Hudson banks.

Autumn arrived with its splendid colors.

As autumn waned, the young Beeches held their coppery leaves.

Soon frost was spangling every blade and leaf.

And so we come full circle, as ice and snow cover the Hudson once again.

What wonderful adventures I had! And what a lot I learned! I added about 30 new flowers to my life list, including one that is not supposed to grow in Saratoga County, the diminutive Snow Trillium. A nice patch of them was growing in the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton. I wonder if Orra planted them?

I followed wilderness guide Vince Walsh through a frozen Greenfield swamp to find a stand of ancient Black Tupelo trees. Eight-hundred-year-oldBlack Tupelo trees! Astounding!

I stood and watched for nearly an hour as a Goldenrod Crab Spider captured and killed a wasp.

I visited Strawberry Fields Forever, a nature preserve where thousands of Fringed Gentians grow.

I saw a bird we rarely see down here, a pretty Snow Bunting flitting about the beach at Moreau Lake State Park.

I explored the amazing Hudson River Ice Meadows with Evelyn Greene, the most expert guide to this site imaginable, who also took me bog-hopping and lost-pond paddling to places I had never seen.

I met Evelyn through a mutual friend, Ellen Rathbone, who writes Adirondack Naturalist, the delightfully informative blog that inspired me to start my own, and so began a friendship with Ellen that continues to bring me joy. In fact, I would say that the very best part of this blogging business is the way it connects us with others who share our love of nature. I'm thinking of Sue and Lindsey and Jackie C., dear friends and knowledgeable companions on the trail who also publish fascinating blogs. I also met the chief botanist of New York's Natural Heritage Program, Steve Young, who continues to graciously help me out whenever I have a plant question.

How grateful I am to all my blog's followers! Some of you, like Ellen and Swamp4me and catharus and Jens and Allan and Carolyn H. and Tom Arbour, have been loyally with me almost from the beginning. More recent followers like Squirrel and Diesel and desertnutmeg and Woodswoman Extraordinaire are also generous with their comments, and nearly every week I am pleased to discover new friends. I'm always excited to find your comments, and eager to see what you've had to say on your own blogs, as well. Your interest continues to encourage me, and the sense of connection I feel with you is why I have decided to continue my blog. So here's to a brand new year of adventuring, both out on the trails and here on the internet.

Happy New Year to All!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Icy Beauty

Okay. Today was a much better day to be outdoors. Sure, it was zero this morning, but it warmed up a bit by noon and there wasn't much wind, so I headed up to Moreau Lake State Park to see if I could find a porcupine. Ever since Laurie and I found that porcupine den up on the Red Oak Ridge, I've been eager to get back up there to see if I could see one.

Well, I'll tell you right now, I didn't -- even though I saw (and smelled!) that the den has been well used. But the trip up the ridge was well worth the effort, just to see all the beautiful ice formations in and along the stream that tumbles down the mountain along that trail. Here are just a few examples (Be sure to click on the photos to see the exquisite ways that ice and water can mix.):

When I got to the top of the ridge I found porcupine trails everywhere, and lots of hemlock twigs were littering the snow -- a sure sign that Porky has been up in those hemlocks having his lunch. One trail seemed more well-trodden than the others and marked with dribbles of pee down the middle.

I followed that trail to what was surely a porcupine den in the rocks.

Hanging over the opening to the den was this mossy boulder draped with festoons of frost. Looks like Porky has strung some Christmas garlands to honor the season.

I peered in that den and searched in all those hemlock trees, but I never laid eyes on that critter. No matter. Someday I will. One thing I did see was this patch of frost on an iced-over pool that looked like someone had cast down a handful of stars.

Here's a close-up view of those frosty shards:

So many beautiful compensations for the discomforts of bitter cold!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

B-r-r-r-r-ding along the Betar

They don't call us nature nuts for nothing! You had to be crazy to go birding today, with the temperature down around three above, and the wind chill somewhere around 30 below. I wondered how that river could possibly still be open, as I drove into the parking area for the Betar Path along the Hudson in South Glens Falls today. But because it was, guess what Sue and Lindsey saw flying over the open water looking for fish? A bald eagle! (But rats! I got there a minute too late to see it.)

Since those two had already found the big birding prize, we didn't stay long out there in the cold, but promptly headed for the Peppermill Restaurant for hot food and good conversation. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to chat when your lips and cheeks are frozen? Or so bundled up behind scarves and hats and hoods that the words can hardly be heard?

Once we were thawed, we did return to the Betar Path for just a little more birding. Lindsey and Sue saw some kind of thrush -- an odd sight around these parts this time of year -- and we all noticed a small group of black ducks paddling and feeding in an area of open water. But that was it. Birds may have tiny birdy brains, but they were smarter than we were today, and stayed snuggled somewhere under cover.

On my way home I took a little detour to follow the Hudson along Spier Falls Road, turning off at the Sherman Island boat launch to check on the ice along that shore. The river was still wide open and wind-whipped there. I hiked a bit back in the sheltering woods and came to this little stream with snow-covered branches fallen across it. I love how these ice formations have grown on the underside of the branches. (Be sure to click on this photo to see the bubbly texture of the rushing water.)

For another account of our bird walk along the Betar today (plus amazing accounts of bird-finding in general), go visit Lindsey's blog Migration Station. That woman knows her birds!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Welcome Back, Winter

Yesterday, it was 50 degrees. Tomorrow's supposed to be zero. And today I woke to the world all covered with snow. What perfect timing, since at last I am free to enjoy my dear outdoors to my heart's content, with all my holiday obligations and celebrations over and done. Not that I don't enjoy the holidays. It's just that all those events take place indoors, and many require me to dress like a lady in kind of uncomfortable clothes, so I was really itching to put on my longjohns and snowboots and get outside. Especially on such a spectacular day, with a brisk wind lifting the snow from branches and filling the sunlit air with spangles. Here's the road to Moreau Lake State Park.

And here's the lake, completely iced over and covered with snow. I checked with park staffers, who told me the ice was now thick enough to be safe to walk on, so off I went to walk around the lake. I didn't expect to see many animal tracks yet, since most critters hunker down when it snows and don't come out for a day or more. Today I just planned on breathing the sweet cold air and enjoying the contrast of brilliant white snow against a mostly blue sky.

Well, that sky didn't stay blue for long, as clouds moved in from the west, bringing even stiffer winds and gusts of blowing snow.

Before long, the very air was white, as the snow came thick and fast.

I pulled up the hood on my coat to keep the snow off the back of my neck, wound my scarf tighter to keep the icy wind out of my ears, and just kept walking along on the snow-covered ice. It turned out that hood and scarf protected my head against more than the cold. For all of a sudden, whoooops! and SLAM! My feet flew out and down I went, hard, landing first on my back, then my head slamming down with a big thunk on the ice. I didn't pass out, but I did "see stars" -- and they weren't just blowing snowflakes. I lay there for quite some time, dazed and hoping I hadn't fractured my skull, since my head was hurting bad where it hit the ice. But after a while I slowly, slowly sat up. I didn't throw up or pass out, so I figured I would live, got up and made my way back to my car, walking this time on the beach instead of the ice. I did check with a doctor, who said I would be OK, no fracture or internal bleeding that he could tell. Whew! My lucky day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Was a Baby Jesus

Christmas Eve. The time has arrived to deck the halls and light the lights and arrange the creche sets in their places of honor. What a beautiful story they tell, even to those who cannot believe that Jesus was divine, or even to those Christians (like me) who turn to these infancy narratives more for their symbolic truth than for any historical fact.

Here's a tale about how God comes to us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Whether Mary actually gave birth in a stable or not, it doesn't matter. We who have endured the duress of childbirth can imagine how terribly stressful that would have been. My creche sets show Mary all clean and combed, with her flowing robes pristine. How was she able to take a bath in that barn? Our hearts go out to her -- and to all who suffer, frightened and filthy and far from home. And what does the image of baby Jesus, lying there where the animals feed, tell us about where God can be found? Right there (right here!) among the earthiest of all God's creatures, in whatever kind of shelter we can find.

Religion and its accretions have prettied up this narrative so, that I think we forget what low-lifes most shepherds were at the time when Jesus was born. Pretty much the dregs of society, no doubt, and they probably smelled bad, too. (Like the homeless guys who hang out in the library, getting warm.) The notion that God would send angels to them, that they would be the first to know about such a miraculous thing -- it's just too unlikely, isn't it, to be believed!? Unless God was trying to tell us something about the least of our brethren.

And what about those Three Kings? Can you imagine how surprised they must have been, to find not a prince in a palace but a little babe in a humble home? They came all that way for this? And what use could the infant Jesus have possibly had for gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Could it be they were symbols of the wealth and power and pomp that the grown-up Jesus had no use for, either?

As I said before, it's a wonderful story -- even better, I think, than the one about Santa Claus, the Santa that one little girl named Virginia was once reassured was real. Well, I love the story about Santa, too. So I have a little shrine set up for him -- albeit with a few accretions that reflect my own heart's desires: note his lightweight canoe and abundant woodland friends.

Merry Christmas to all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Preparations

Because we're going to our daughter's for Christmas, I hadn't intended to bake any Christmas cookies. But then I saw my son's face when I told him that. "Aww Mom!" he groaned, "But you make the best! Our Christmas is just getting lamer and lamer. (Sigh!)"

Oh jeez! What's a mother to do? The older I get, the more and more simple I crave my Christmas to be. But I can't forget that the younger folks still crave things the way they once were. So okay, okay, I made some cookies. Four batches. Guess what everyone's getting for Christmas from me?

Since all this baking has kept me inside, I don't have any woodsy scenes to post on my blog and won't until several days after Christmas. So I'm posting a photo of the cookies.

Clockwise from the bottom, I made bar cookies with a chocolate-cream cheese filling, butter drops with Zante currants, Russian teacakes, and a cookie I don't know the name of but boy, are they yummy, with a crispy, sandy texture that melts in your mouth. I got the recipe from a German lady who was the wife of one of my Hospice patients. They are made with lard, not butter, which sounds awful, but they sure taste good! And every time I make them I think of her.

It's too late to do it now, but I was thinking I could make Christmas cards from some of my nature photos. I looked through my files and chose a few that might do for another year, but I'm posting them here as a Christmas greeting for all my blog readers. May your holidays be filled with joy and love and peace. Plus time to get outdoors to enjoy the beauties of nature in winter.

British Soldiers among evergreen moss: talk about Christmas colors!

Fresh snow on Winterberries

Frosty Cinquefoil leaves, among British Soldiers

Hoarfrost on bittersweet vines

Reindeer Lichen and evergreen Common Polypody

So, readers, which one of these photos would make the best Christmas card?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Solstice Celebration

Okay darkness, you've done your worst. After today, the light slowly gains on you. And as if to celebrate Solstice, the sun shone clear and bright today. I'm busy, busy, busy now, getting ready for Christmas and all, but the day demanded I spend just a little time outdoors, and so I did. I wanted to check on the river ice, since we've had several days with nights around zero, and I'm getting eager to explore the frozen marshes and river banks on foot.

Sure enough, there was lots of ice. In fact, the entire river was frozen over, all the way across, where the water approached the Sherman Island Dam. Here's the view from the end of Rippled Rocks Point:

That dark ice on the main course of the river was still very thin, while in the coves and bays, the white ice in the center was probably plenty thick enough to support my weight, but I still didn't dare to test it. As the river's water level rises and falls with the opening and closing of the dams, the ice at the edges cracks and breaks again and again, creating open water near the banks. This water refreezes, but it's very thin in spots, so a foot -- or more! -- could plunge through. No fun. In a couple of weeks the ice will be thick enough close to shore to allow me to venture out on the bays (never on the open river). I'll wait.

I walked around in the woods a bit, trying to ID some animal tracks, but the snow is old and crusty (we didn't get any of that big snow storm that buried the state south of Albany), and my tracking skills are rusty. I did find a Red Squirrel's dining room, where the squirrel obviously sat on the logs and stripped the pine cones to get at the tasty seeds. From the looks of this site, I could almost imagine the squirrels were having a banquet.

On the way home, I stopped at the boat launch site below Spier Falls Dam, and here where the current runs swift, the river is still wide open, except for a shelf of thin ice near the shore. As the winter progresses, this ice shelf will thicken and become a superhighway for animal travel. A couple of days after a snowfall, it's amazing to see the variety and abundance of tracks along this stretch: coyote, fox, fisher, mink, otter, bobcat, possibly others. It's less work for the forest creatures to walk on the wind-swept river ice than to trudge through the deep snow under the trees. As I know very well myself.

I think of Solstice as kind of the sun's birthday, and so it was lovely to see these sunbeams dancing on the water as if in celebration. Welcome back, lengthening days. We here in the north are very glad to see you.

Time to pull out those old dead ferns from my front porch planters and replace them with living cedars strung with stars. Time to drape evergreens over the door, spangled with tiny lights. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Frosty Morning

I know, I know, I asked for it. Winter is here, for sure. But with the thermometer reading five below zero this morning, I almost canceled the hike I had planned to take with Laurie today. But when I called to beg off, she sounded so eager to go, I couldn't back out. And I am so glad I didn't. What a glorious blue-sky morning it was, the air so clean and fresh and cold you could feel it hit the bottom of your lungs (even if you couldn't feel your face after only five minutes). My lungs got quite a workout today, as we trudged up the mountains overlooking the Spier Falls Dam, our destination a series of waterfalls at the top of the ridge. (That's a photo of one up there.)

What's great about cold, cold days this early in the season is that the mountain streams are still full of flowing water. Mist rises at night from the stream and freezes immediately on every blade and twig and berry and boulder along its borders. Everywhere we looked we found feathers and needles of frost.

On clumps of moss:

On bittersweet berries:

On fronds of evergreen ferns:

Creating ferns of frost along blades of dry grass:

Coating the undersides of boulders with shaggy carpets:

Creating spangled garlands on old spider webs:

In spots where the water had slowed and pooled, it had frozen hard and clear overnight, the dark surface littered with shards and stars of pure white:

We even found needles of frost had formed at the bottom of deer's hoofprints:

The higher we climbed, the more the snow was criss-crossed with dozens of deer trails. We found where they'd pawed the snow away to hunt acorns among the oak trees, and other spots where it looked like they'd bedded down among the hemlocks. The deer always know the best way to get up a mountain, so we followed their trails all along the streams and across the faces of slopes. At last we reached a place of gigantic heaped-up boulders, now covered with cascading icicles as ornate as wedding cakes. We stopped to listen to the music of water rushing and gurgling and splashing and plunking around and under and over those ice-covered boulders.

Laurie explored the boulder heap, hoping to find a way to climb above them. But the going got really rugged up there, and we decided to turn back.

Sometimes climbing UP a snowy slope is far easier than climbing down. In this photo I look like I've fallen, but I've just gone down on my bottom to slide down an icy patch. Wheeeee!!!

The whole morning our hike had been shadowed by the mountains above us, so when we reached a part of the trail where the sun beat down, we turned our faces to take in its welcome warmth. The little bit of warmth that there was. Now, in the waning days just before the Solstice, the sun is as low as it's going to get. Here's a photo of our shadows at mid-day.

Only a couple more days, and those shadows will start to shorten. Then, no matter how cold it may get, the sun will grow stronger each day. Hurray!

But we'll still have lots more winter for lots more frosty morning hikes. Again, I say: Hurray!