Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Winter's Day Reading

What a lazy day for me! My only outdoor experience today was the quarter-mile walk across Congress Park to St. Peter's Church and back. Since today is my husband's and my 47th wedding anniversary and we're going out to dinner tonight, I didn't feel like changing out of my Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes to put on my snowpants and longjohns for just a couple of hours. Instead, I curled on the couch with my cats and caught up with my favorite magazine, Northern Woodlands. Intended to promote forest stewardship, this quarterly magazine published in Vermont is chock full of articles that would interest all kinds of nature lovers, not just those in the timber industry.

One of my favorite features is a three-month nature calendar, called "A Look at the Season's Main Events," detailing what might be happening each week in the natural world. For example, here's what to look for outdoors in the coming first week of February:

Hawthorn fruits are nobody's favorite, but they stay on the tree and are valuable emergency food/ With body temperatures now near 40 degrees, woodchucks awaken in their burrows every few days, raise their temperature to over 94 degrees and urinate/ Beginning of the nesting season for great horned owls, our earliest nesters/ The viburnums, such as nannyberry and hobblebush, have naked buds, with no bud scales. You can see their miniature leaves all winter

And that's just one of 12 entries included for the winter season. What an incredible amount of information, and a handy guide for those of us who build our days around what's happening out in the woods!

In another section called "Knots and Bolts," I learned some fascinating facts about the sex lives of springtails, those tiny bugs (also called snowfleas) we find crawling over the snow on sunny days in February. (My photo above was taken as they crawled on dry leaves in December.) Springtails have no external genitalia and employ "a fastidiously impersonal method" of reproduction, according to Alan Pistorius, author of the article. He describes how they go about it:

A male secretes a viscous material which, by raising his posterior, is drawn up into a stalk, on top of which he deposits a spherical packet of sperm . . . called a spermatophore. . . . If a receptive female happens by, she takes the sperm packet up through her genital slit. Liquids inside her body cause the packet tissue to swell and burst, releasing the sperm for egg-fertilization duty.
If this system for combining precious genetic material seems to us haphazard, it apparently strikes a few springtails that way as well. Males of certain species build a fence of spermatophores around a likely female, a strategy presumably designed to ensure reproductive success by prompting the "eenie-meenie-miney-moe" response.

And that's not all. Lots and lots of articles about birds and bugs, critters and plants, beautiful photos and thoughtful essays, with an emphasis on caring for the environment. If you'd like a subscription, click on their website to sign up for one. You can also sign up there for a free weekly newsletter, even if you don't subscribe to the magazine. Check it out.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Walking Fern in Winter

I took a quick walk around Skidmore Woods today, just to get out in the sun and fresh air for an hour. And I do mean fresh! Maybe 12 degrees by early afternoon, after a 12-below-zero night. Brrrr! In this bitter cold, I didn't expect to find much green out there (except for the conifers), so a swath of leafy green like this patch of Walking Fern really stood out. For all its toughness for enduring hard winters, this quite un-fernlike fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) has become quite rare in most northeastern states and Canada and is now protected as "exploitably vulnerable" in New York State. So I feel pretty pleased that I know where two discrete patches grow, about ten miles apart. And I was happy to see it looking so well, peeking out of the snow, snug on its moss-covered boulder.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wolf Moon Rising

All circumstances worked together tonight to create the biggest and most brilliant full moon I have ever seen.

First of all, the moon is in perigee right now -- that is, at the point in its elliptical orbit when it's the closest to earth. Some 31,000 miles closer, in fact, than at its furthest point. I read on Yahoo today that this makes the moon 14% wider and 30% brighter than other full moons of the year. Indeed, it really knocks your eyes out tonight.

Second, the moon is full. Only once or twice a year does perigee correspond with a full moon, and that's what's happening tonight. And this full moon, the first one of the year, has a wonderful name -- the Wolf Moon -- to match its brilliance.

Third, it's as clear as clear can be tonight. Not only is there not a cloud in the sky, there's not a jot of humidity in the air, with the temperature somewhere around zero degrees F., last time I looked. Such bitter cold has turned the air to crystal, sharpening the focus of all the lights in the sky, including the planet Mars, which was shining brightly right up there close to the moon. My camera couldn't capture it without a tripod and time exposure, but the naked eye can see it clearly, a bright reddish "star" just a little to the left of the moon.

This moon will still be big and brilliant tomorrow. Be sure to bundle up and get out to see it. In fact, there's a "full moon hike" at Moreau Lake State Park on Saturday night, if you want to join a party of moonwatchers. Sometimes I am just amazed by how dazzled I feel, each time I see a full moon. Unlike us aging human ladies, she never loses her charm. I am almost 68 years old, so I've seen lots of moons in my life, and still, each month (if I'm lucky enough to see her), I gaze, mesmerized, to watch her clear the horizon and sail across the sky.

My husband's mother, Dorothy Donnelly, wrote a poem about walking out to look at the moon. I thought of it tonight, so I'll share it with my readers.

To Three Old Ladies

Two old ladies, lured
by the velvet night, leave
the lee of their porch and go,

for a change of scene, abroad,
a block from home. They wade
through shadows past the black

catalpa's cataract
to the corner, their ultima Thule,
where clear of the cliffs of leaf

and the tall waterfall elm,
they sight the sky and, in it,
in perfect view a quarter

million miles from the eye,
a face more famous than Helen's --
worth a walk in the dark, to see

that lily-stately and ancient
queen, dazzling in astral
white, throned in the heavens,

reigning over the night.
The travelers stare, unaware
that the silver light which comes

so fast from so far has fallen
onto their hair and sprinkled
their hands with spangles. They linger,

like talkative tourists in front of
the Mona Lisa, to praise her.
Eloquently, with the ardor

of competing ciceroni
extolling a masterpiece,
they show each other the moon.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Snowy Woods, with Eagles

"Whose woods these are I think I know . . . ." With the deepest sense of gratitude, I sometimes can't believe my good fortune that these beautiful woods are mine. And yours. In fact, they belong to anyone who chooses to wander them, because they are part of Moreau Lake State Park and thus they are open to all.

These particular woods are near the Sherman Island boat launch, where I stopped today to see what was happening on the river. The Hudson here is still wide open, and a group of ducks was paddling around over by the far shore. They were way too far away for me to ID, except to make a guess that they might have been male Mergansers, because of the quantity of white on their sides. At first I thought they were chunks of floating ice, but then one of them took to the air!

What a day it was to be wandering the woods, with fresh soft snow falling gently and silently all around, the downy flakes resting on every needle and twig, tingling my cheeks when I raised my face to catch them on my tongue. Here they have caught on a web hanging over the water, creating what looks like a necklace strung with diamonds and stars.

The snow gods must have heard my prayers, for the snow kept falling thicker and faster, until the very air was white. I tried again and again to capture a photo of the air filled with flakes, but all I could get were some streaks. Then I hit the flash button quite by mistake and Lo! the photo was spangled with all these white dots. They don't look exactly like snowflakes, but I thought they looked kind of nice, especially with the beautiful forest behind.

I next drove over to park headquarters, passing Mud Pond on the way, and almost skidded on the snow-covered road when I noticed a dark shape perched on the deer carcass out on the pond. It was too far away (and obscured by falling snow) to clearly discern with my naked eyes, but I aimed my camera at the dark spot and zoomed the lens as far as it would go. Here's what the camera saw. Looks like a Bald Eagle to me. (This underlining appeared without my bidding, and I can't figure out how to get rid of it.)

And here's a cropped shot of the carcass and bird. Pretty blurry, I know, but at least it leaves no doubt as to what we are looking at.

And hey, here comes another eagle!

The new arrival just stands there, and the first bird seems not to take notice.

Eh! Not worth the squabble. Maybe that's what the interloper thought as it flew off again without joining the feast.

As I said before, sometimes I just can't believe how blessed I am, that these beautiful woods and the marvelous creatures who live here are there for us all to enjoy. I didn't even have to get out of my car to witness this amazing scene.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

North to Riparius

My friend Linda owns a small cottage on the Hudson River up in Warren County in the tiny hamlet of Riparius. Concerned that Monday's flooding might have caused some damage, she wanted to check on her place today, and would I like to come along? Well, sure I would! I'm always happy to spend a few hours wandering the Adirondacks with a good friend. Especially since she wanted to visit the Ice Meadows along the way. This is an area along the Hudson north of Warrensburg where the river ice piles up in particularly dramatic ways, and it was certainly doing that today.

When we got to Riparius, the river was flowing free and fast, with hardly any ice at all, except where it had built up a bit atop the boulders that fill the riverbed here.

Here's a photo of Linda's little cottage. Isn't it cute? And just big enough for her as a quiet place of retreat, with the river rushing over rocks just beyond her porch.

It belongs to a small community of cottages that were built as a Methodist summer camp many years ago. Many of the current residents are descendants of the original founders of the community, but today they do allow folks who aren't Methodist to purchase the cottages. The community, however, still holds the ownership of the land the cottages stand on.

After making sure no flooding or ice had damaged her place, we headed off to nearby Chestertown for lunch. Chestertown is a very, very small town, but it has a great place to eat lunch: the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor. Good food, indeed (I had a very tasty homemade cream of chicken soup), and housed in a handsome building.

We could have hopped on the interstate there at Chestertown and headed straight home, but what fun would that be? Linda knows all the backroads and scenic byways between her place and Saratoga, so we went home the long way 'round. We followed the Schroon River through gorgeous forest scenery until we found another road that followed the Hudson to where it met the Sacandaga River. Then along dirt roads that followed the rushing river, and over an ear-popping mountain road that brought us out on Route 9N not far from Saratoga. The many roads home reminded us how blessed we are to live amid such beauty.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Icy Hiking

After yesterday's pouring rain and a temperature in the mid-50s, most of our snow has disappeared for sure. But freezing temps returned last night and today, and I wondered what the ice was like on Moreau Lake. So I drove to the park, stopping off at the office to check with the staff, who assured me the ice, although mushy in spots, was safe to walk on. Safe in the sense of thickness, that is, but slippery as . . . well, as ice! Yesterday's rain and warmth had melted the snow cover, and last night's and today's freezing temps had created a new glaze of ice that was slick and glassy.

Time to put on the Yaktrax. But even though I could then safely walk on the ice without slipping, the experience was really unnerving. In spots the new ice was very thin over a layer of water or mush, and each step went through this thin layer with sharp cracking sounds.

I also came across these dark shapes in the ice where it looked like it had melted all the way through. I kept a careful distance. I thought they were kind of cool to look at, anyway.

I don't think I would have dared to go out on the lake at all, if I hadn't seen this fellow way out there ice-fishing. His name is Dave, a fellow friend of the park, and he knows these woods and waters well. He reassured me the ice was thick enough to hold us up.

I still felt mighty uneasy out there, and soon headed in to walk along close to the shore. That's where I saw this disheveled heap among the phragmites and cattails. If this was a muskrat lodge, some critter -- coyote or bobcat? -- has rudely interrupted the muskrat's nap.

What a surprise to find these little mushrooms growing out of a rotten log! Is it possible they sprouted just yesterday, when the weather turned so warm?

Their flesh was tender and delicate, not woody or leathery like that of shelf fungi or Wood Ears, which I often find in winter. If they had sprouted last fall, how could they have stayed so intact through sub-zero temperatures?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Crazy Weather, Lovely Mist

Over 50 degrees today and pouring rain. All day. On the radio, the weather service was posting flood warnings, due to the heavy rains and rapidly melting snow. So I set off to look for one. I guess I'm just one of those crazy people who love crazy weather: blizzards, windstorms, thunder and lightning, floods. So long as nobody gets hurt.

I drove around Saratoga Lake and up into the hills between the lake and Saratoga Battlefield, revisiting spots that I know have flooded before. I didn't find any major flooding, just a few creeks that had overflowed their banks in low-lying areas.

The most interesting weather phenomenon today was the fog overlying the frozen lake. The hills and trees on the opposite shore took on a dreamlike quality, emerging from the mist like some far-off Bali Ha'i.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Dull Day's Surprise

Some days are just really dull, and today was one of those days. Or so I thought. With the temperature just above freezing, the snow had turned soggy and heavy, and the sky was a low dark overcast that robbed the landscape of any shred of color. (Believe it or not, these photos are all full color!) This is really boring, I said to myself as I traipsed around Mud Pond, hoping to spot ravens or eagles dining on the dead deer that someone had hauled out on the ice. Not even a crow could be seen. And the mushy snow made for hard going, either wearing snowshoes or without. So I headed up to South Glens Falls and the Betar Byway, a paved and plowed path along the Hudson, where the walking is easy and my friends Sue and Lindsey often have pretty good luck spotting eagles.

And today was my lucky day! It didn't seem so at first, as I scanned the dark river, rimmed with ice along the banks but wide open out in the middle. All was quiet out on the water. No avian action at all, not even a duck or a goose. Then I noticed a faint blob of white, high in a tree, on the other side of a bay. Here's a photo of what I saw, with the blob outlined and arrowed. Can you see an eagle there?

Well, I couldn't. Despite two surgeries this year, my eyesight is still messed up, so I can't quite resolve one clear image out of what my two eyes see. But I just had a hunch that that might be old baldy perched there, so I pointed my camera at the spot and zoomed my lens as far as it would go. I took the shot, then zoomed in again on the image on the camera's display. And here's what the camera saw. My hunch was correct. Hooray! An eagle photo at last!

Here's an even closer view, made from cropping the image with my computer. Yes, the image is beginning to pixillate, but hey, not bad for a little pocket camera! It sure can see better than I can.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Winter Riverside Stroll

Another bright sunny day with temperatures just below freezing. No ambitious adventures today, just an easy stroll along the open river below Spier Falls Dam to the boat launch a mile or so downstream. Or at least as easy as a stroll can be, with snowshoes punching through the icy crust and tangling in bittersweet vines. I parked at the dam and followed a flock of turkey tracks down to the riverside and along the bank, as close to the flowing water as I could go. Only a week ago this water was frozen all the way across, but today the river flowed freely, with just thin sheets of ice here and there close to shore.

The sun felt warm on my back, and my eyes were dazzled by sunlight gleaming on the Yellow Birch trunks leaning over the river. The bark almost looks as if it were hammered gold leaf.

Flowerstalks in winter have their own kind of beauty, like pen-and-ink drawings rendered in sepia ink. I found two kinds of spirea shrubs that are often confused in summer when both have tiny pink blossoms clustered on stalks, but in winter their differences become more obvious. Here's Steeplebush first, with its dried flower parts clustered tight to the stalk.

And here's Meadowsweet, with its flower parts arrayed in much more open clusters.

And here are Beechdrops, which always grow under beeches and look about the same in winter as they do when they bloom in the fall.

When I reached the boat launch and turned around to walk back to my car, the sun had sunk behind the hills on the opposite side of the river, casting my bank in shadow but lighting the mountain ridge that rose above me.

I looked at my watch and noted the time was 4:30 and it was not yet dark. It's a month past Solstice today, and yes, indeed, the sun is returning to us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Back to My Home Woods and Waterways

Oh what a joy to be back on my home turf again, especially on such a beautiful day! The sun was warm, but the snow-covered ice of the quiet bays of the river was still solidly frozen, allowing for easy exploring. My friend Sue and I strapped on our snowshoes and crunched through the Potter Point woods to the Hudson River, stopping every few yards or so to examine whatever treasures lay around us. There were critter tracks everywhere in the crusty snow: fox, coyote, fisher, squirrel (all the usual suspects), and today we found scads of turkey tracks where hemlock cones and birch fruits littered the ground.

For years I have noticed the tiny fleur-de-lis-shaped scales of the birch fruits scattered about on the snow and assumed they were hemlock seeds, since I always find them where hemlocks grow. Sue set me straight today, pulling apart one of the birch fruits to prove her point.

Everywhere we looked we found something of interest. I thought these small shelf fungi were as pretty as Japanese fans.

While Sue was taking her time exploring some nook of the river bank, I moved alone through a stand of tall hemlocks and just stood and listened. At first all was motionless and silent. Then I began to notice -- now here! now there! -- flitting shapes in the tops of the trees, and I heard the peek! peek! peek! of a flock of chickadees dashing about in the branches above. Such dear little birds! I do believe they come to check us out.

We wanted to check out the otter den I found last week, so we made our way toward the marsh behind Three Pine Island, with a detour to see what was left of the snapping turtle I'd found on the bank a couple of weeks ago. Carrion-eaters have picked away at the flesh they could access outside the shell, revealing the bones that give the snapper its serrated tail, almost like that of a stegosaurus.

Then we noticed another carcass out on the ice of the bay. Here's all that was left of what was once a deer. (We later found other pieces of flesh and hair that coyotes had carried back into the woods.)

I wonder if all the ruckus around the deer carcass caused the otter clan to move somewhere else? The den I found last week was just across the bay from the feasting site, and today we could find no sign of any recent otter activity, neither near the den entrance nor along the stream nor anywhere else in the marsh or the woods. But we did find these fresh raccoon tracks. The weather got so warm this past week, I'll bet the raccoons woke up and left their winter bedchambers to go get a snack. Or is it time for them to go looking for love?

Was I disappointed the otters had gone? Well, sure. I'd hoped to be able to see them in action someday. But there's always plenty to delight me out here along the river. This marshy area near the otters' den just teems with Black Tupelo trees, which are beautiful in every season. Today I noticed a few fruits still clung to the branches. I'm surprised the turkeys haven't gobbled them up by now.

Winterberry thrives in this marsh, as well. Their bright berries have lost just a bit of their color, so they now look more orange than red, but they sure looked splendid today against that blue, blue sky.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Where's Winter?

Hey, where'd our winter go? I've been gone a week down to Westchester County to care for my grandkids and came home today to find most of our lovely snow disappeared. And I just got new snowshoes, too! Oh well. We're sure to get more.

Anyway, we should still have ice. At least, where the water is still. There was plenty on Moreau Lake last Sunday when I brought my granddaughters (ages 16, 12, and 9) back to Saratoga for a little outdoor adventuring. I think it was their first time ever walking on a frozen lake. I wonder if when I saw them thumbing their cellphones, they were texting their friends back home about how cool it all was?

They look pretty happy, don't they? And they have a genuine affection for one another that's wonderful to see among sisters.

The girls and I joined my friends Sue and Jackie C. to tromp around on the lake ice, trying to ID the tracks in the snow. Mostly ice fishermen and their dogs. But we did have a moment's excitement when we found some huge tracks that we thought might be MOOSE! But nah, they were probably horse tracks. (There were moose seen at Moreau last fall, so hey, it wasn't impossible, was it?)

My daughter and her husband returned from their five-day vacation last night, and today my daughter could sense my hunger to get back out into the woods. So before I started the long drive home, she took me to visit a small marshy preserve just a couple of miles from their house.

That's my girl!

I was delighted to spend a little more time with my daughter, as well as to get outdoors. The weather was sunny and the place was very pretty, with a singing brook, a steep path to a high overlook, and a whole bunch of deer, who bounded away at our approach, white tails flashing. We also watched several Turkey Vultures soaring over the hills, a bird that we won't see again here in Saratoga County until spring. It's amazing how many woodsy, watery, rocky spots there are all over Westchester, despite the density of the population there. Now I know another place for a nature fix next time I return.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Icy Odyssey Along the Hudson

After my otter adventure yesterday, I stopped by the boat launch below Spier Falls on the chance I might see eagles feeding in the open water there. But guess what? No open water! The river was frozen all the way across -- an unusual occurrence here where the current runs swift.

Well, I thought, if the Hudson is frozen here, I'll bet the "frazil" ice is forming up north of Warrensburg. This is a special kind of fluid ice that forms where the water is turbulent. When it collects and dams up the river's flow, the flooding water lifts the ice and deposits it along the banks, creating a riverside grassland called the Ice Meadows. Time to go check it out. So I followed the river north about 30 miles to a place called The Glen, where I could stand out on a bridge and take the photos below. (These are all color photos, but today was a very gray day!)

Here's the view looking upstream. You can see that a channel of water still runs freely, while the frazil ice is beginning to pile up along the shores.

Here's a view looking straight down from the bridge, showing the fluid course of the ice itself.

This view looks downstream from the bridge to where the river begins to widen.

Heading south, the road runs close to the river where the ice spreads out to create the Ice Meadows. By late winter, the ice deposits here can be eight to ten feet thick, their weight suppressing the growth of tall trees and creating a distinctive habitat for many unusual plants, including rare species found in few other places.

I took a detour to Hadley on my way home. Between Hadley and Lake Luzerne, the Hudson drops through a narrow gorge at a place called Rockwell Falls. The river was running freely here today.

At Hadley, the Sacandaga River joins the Hudson, coursing with turbulent vigor under the historic Bow Bridge.

Below Hadley a few miles is the town of Corinth. The Hudson here was barely covered with thin sheets of moving ice.

By the time I reached the Hudson again where the river takes a sharp turn just above Spier Falls at Moreau, the ice was once again solidly frozen all the way across. The ice fishermen should be happy, but the eagles will have fewer places to fish for a while.

At least there's still open water for some distance below the dam. But every day the river changes. What's frozen today could be open tomorrow, and vice versa. I'm heading to Westchester County tomorrow to care for my grandkids for a few days, planning to bring them back here for the weekend. My hope is to bring them hiking along the river. Can't wait to see what the ice is up to by then.