Saturday, February 27, 2010

Drippy Woods, Snowy Mountain

I had to drag myself outdoors today. The sky was gray, the snow was sloppy, and the cats were curled on the couch most invitingly. Wouldn't I rather curl up, too, maybe take a nice nap? Well, yes, but I hadn't been to the woods since Monday, and I needed to feed my blog (not to mention lift my spirits). So off to Spier Falls Road I went, grumbling every slushy mile, bundled against the snow that was turning to mush as soon as it touched the ground.

But then I got out of the car. "Hey, it's not so bad out here!" I conceded, snug in my Gore-tex gear. The river was running dark and full, the mountains that rise across the river were veiled with a snowy mist, and each little twig of the riverside trees was dripping with crystal drops.

Though the sky was gray, the sun appeared like a big yellow pearl behind the general cloud cover, and that subtle glimmer caused the dripping trees to shine as if they were strung with lights.

The effect was especially striking when the twigs were as scarlet as these of Red Osier Dogwood.

With days as gray as they've been all week, such spots of color are really welcome. See how Witch Hazel just seems to glow, its dry leaves colored so rich and warm even when soaking wet.

The bracts of its long-gone flowers are pretty, too, like tiny four-petaled blooms.

I found quite a bit of Wood Ear fungus growing on branches the wind had knocked down from the trees. I have read that this fungus not only tastes good (it's similar to the kind we find in many Chinese dishes), but it's also very health-promoting, containing a substance that protects the heart. I should have brought along a bag to take some home. At least now I know where some grows.

Heading home over Mount McGregor, I experienced the effect of altitude on air temperature. Down along the river, the snow was melting as soon as it hit the ground, and none collected in the trees (See top photo, above). But up on the mountain, the air was white, the trees were snow-covered and so was the road. A very steep curvy road. Luckily, the snow started melting again when I reached that steep curvy stretch.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Smiles of a Monday Morning

Yeah. Okay. Sure. We got some snow. Two days of it. But what a mess! Gloppy, sloppy, heavy as mud. And tonight we're supposed to get rain. Not the kind of stuff it's fun to play in. I started to get kind of grumpy today, but then I remembered Monday. Here's what it looked like on Monday. Bright sun, blue river, little woodland streams dancing and singing in the sunlight.

What a perfect day it was to take my friend for a drive. Due to progressive illness, he doesn't get out on his own anymore, but I thought he might enjoy driving along the Hudson in search of eagles. So that's what we did. We even got out of the car and walked for a while in the woods. He seemed to enjoy that. Like me, he spent as much time in the woods as he could, as a kid. Even now, we felt just a little bit younger, walking beside a sweet little brook, seeing the sunlight sparkle on the snow-covered ground, hearing the chickadees call to each other high in the hemlock trees.

When my friend was younger and in good health, we would never have walked together through the woods like this. His idea of fun was to push himself to his limit, riding his bike up the highest hills, skiing faster than anyone else, seeking the challenge of climbing mountain peaks. It would have driven him nuts to walk at my pace, spending an hour to amble a quarter mile, poking about in the weeds to see who lived there, or standing silent for minutes on end to hear the sounds of the forest. But on Monday, we got along fine.

We even saw an eagle! And just when we'd given up. We had walked along the river until my friend grew tired and suggested we'd better return to the car. At that very moment I noticed the shadow of a very large bird moving across the snow. Oh look! I said, and we both looked up, and there was our eagle, wings outspread, soaring just 20 feet or so above our heads. Wow! That made our day! And my friend's big grin has kept me glowing since then. When the weather threatens to make me grumpy, I just remember that smile.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Slow Walk in the Wintry Woods

Some say that there's not much to see on a walk in the woods this time of year. That may be because they have never walked in a winter woods with my friend Sue. Like me, she is perfectly happy to take four hours to cover a half a mile or so, as we did today, hiking up the Red Oak Ridge Trail in Moreau Lake State Park. We went looking for porcupines up there (because we know that that's where they den), but just because we didn't see any, doesn't mean we didn't have fun. When Sue's along, we always find lots of interesting things, thanks to her powers of perception, especially her really good eyesight.

As for me, my eyesight's so bad that even my feet are out of focus, so I would miss all kinds of great stuff if Sue didn't point it out to me. Like this tree stump, for instance, covered with mosses and lichens.

From a standing height, it was just a green blur to me. But down on my knees I discovered a ravishing garden of Powderhorn lichen.

On moss-covered rocks along a stream, I found the spikes and swirls and fronds of the various mosses delightful.

And just look at all the bounty on this square foot of forest floor! I would have walked right on by it if Sue hadn't pointed out the Hepatica leaf. Then a closer look revealed all kinds of good stuff. See how the Blue-Stain Fungus has colored the interior of that White Birch twig while its bark remained unstained. There's a tiny bunch of grapes, shriveled now, but still grapey (if also a little bit winey) to the taste. A dried birch fruit has scattered its seeds, and oh look! there's a single seed pod from the fruit of a Hop Hornbeam tree. Plus various leaves from surrounding trees and seeds and stems of stuff I don't recognize.

Here's something else I would have missed if Sue hadn't seen it first: a little dark spider clinging to the underside of a branch. I wonder what spiders find to eat this time of year, with so few bugs flying around. Maybe they hunt through the cracks and crannies of bark, devouring whatever insects might be wintering over in there.

As I said before, we did not see any porcupines up on the ridge. We did find their trails and tracked them to their dens, and all we had to do was sniff the air to know they had been around. We even found little nubbins of porcupine poo.

We also found several spots where lots of quills were lying around. Do they naturally shed their quills now and then, or do they have to get agitated to release them?

Driving home from Moreau, I stopped at the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton. Since we haven't had much of a winter, I thought, why not start looking for signs of spring? And there they were: fat buds of Skunk Cabbage pushing up through the sheathes that had covered them through the winter.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Wandering Along the Rocks

Snow? What snow? We had some two days ago, but the ground is bare again. Oh well. At least the walking is easier without it. I headed out to Skidmore today, to where the paved part of Broadway ends and the deeply rutted remains of an old dirt road continues on through a woods. There are steep rocky banks both above and below this road, and the rocks are covered with lichens and mosses and all kinds of limestone-loving plants in the spring and summer. I wondered what I might find growing there in winter.

All kinds of cool stuff, it turned out. First of all, there's the moss itself, in various shades of lovely green, and viewed up close, in many different shapes. Here's feathery and spiky.

Here's some that looks like tiny green dahlias. In all the expanse I searched, maybe a quarter mile of mossy rocks, I found this flower-like form in only two locations. (Update: My moss-loving friend, Evelyn Greene, has identified this as Rhodobryum roseum. )

There was one small patch, about three inches across, of this bright orange fuzzy stuff. Is it a moss? A fungus? A lichen? A slime mold? I just have no idea. But it certainly caught my eye. You can see it in the first photo above, down near the lower right corner of that rock wall.

Tucked in the crevices of the mossy rocks were many plants of Maidenhair Spleenwort. This evergreen fern is considered "exploitably vulnerable" in New York and is thus protected by state law. It seems to have made itself quite happily at home among these rocks.

There were other evergreen plants, as well, including this clump of Plantain-leaf Sedge. It looks like new growth is sprouting up there in the center, getting a jump on spring.

Likewise, this Herb Robert looks to have put out little new leaves, ready to start making food for the plant when warm weather comes. See how its stems and leaves are covered with fuzz, as if they were wearing warm woolies to protect them from winter's cold.

The rocks where I found all these plants are pretty interesting in their own right. Here's a boulder that appears to have been sheered off, revealing the complex and convoluted texture of its makeup. Some parts are rough and gritty and much eroded, others smooth and hard and shiny, including those parts that are colored a steely blue.

I found a bagel-sized slice of that rock lying along a ledge, so I brought it home to examine it further. Now I've got to find a geologist who can tell me this mineral's story. I'll bet it's a good one.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Visiting Critters Along the Betar

Snow! Hooray! Only a couple of inches yesterday, but enough to cover the bare brown ground and pretty up the landscape a little. Even these shriveled old apples took on a rosier look with caps of nice fresh snow.

I had a date today to walk the Betar Byway, a lovely woodsy, watery walk along the Hudson in South Glens Falls. My friend Sue had seen a beautiful snow-white squirrel there a few days ago, and we hoped to find it again. As it happened, we didn't (the snow made for good camouflage for the critter), but we had a good time anyway. For one thing, a Carolina Wren was singing its tiny heart out in the shrubbery along the path and delighted us with its song. I could not see this little brown bird, but Sue did. Here she is, taking a photo of it with her great zoom lens. She'll be posting that photo soon on her blog Water Lily, where you already can see her splendid photos of that rare white squirrel.

Sue also led me into a honeysuckle thicket along a small stream, where we found fresh evidence of some wild critter's ambling habits. The first sign we found was this hole in the ground with tracks leading in and out, and a well-trampled trail leading away.

That trail led to another much visited hole in the ground. This critter either has a very friendly neighbor, or several entrances to its own burrow. Both holes reeked of something pretty funky (skunky?), and the entryways appeared to be dusted with a fine brown spray. Could it be that the animal shook its dirt-covered fur each time it emerged from its den?

The trails were so packed down by frequent travel that it was hard to discern individual footprints. We did find a few, however, and they measured only an inch or so wide and less than two inches long. Small feet with long nails and a low-slung body that pushed the snow aside as it walked -- we could almost picture it ambling along, down a bank and across a small stream, then up a rise in a direct route toward a group of garbage cans behind an apartment building. We couldn't actually see white stripes down a broad black back, but imagination filled in those details. Those apartment dwellers better be careful when they take out the garbage at night.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

More Finds in the Marsh

I went back to the banks of the Hudson today, hoping to find more clues to the tracks that had me so puzzled yesterday. It was not so sunny today, but pleasant enough, and beautiful driving along Spier Falls Road, where the open river reflected the mountains and islands.

In the bays and marsh behind Three Pine Island, the ice is still frozen solid. In the woods that surround the marsh, the snow is frozen solid enough to walk on without snowshoes, and it's covered with just a dusting of softer snow that reveals the animals' footprints pretty clearly. I promptly found the trail of prints that puzzled me yesterday (are they otter or fisher?), and followed them further into the woods. I did find this trough in the snow that looks like the kind of slide that otters make.

But only one. And not a very long one. (See my blog post for January 21 for really clear evidence of otter slides.) There weren't any fresh tracks today, so whoever was here yesterday has apparently moved on. And I'm still as unsure as ever.

There were lots of coyote tracks in the woods, and they left me with no doubt about what they were up to. Especially when they make such a mess where they're eating.

Not all the puzzles are animal ones. I found this stalk of dried seed pods today and wondered what it might be the remains of. Looks like a bunch of little PacMen, with mouths wide open. And also like the bracts of Turtlehead, which I know grows back here in the marsh. I'll bet that's what it is.

I don't know the name of this moss whose spore stalks were poking above the snow. I have a friend who is trying to teach me the names of mosses and liverworts and lichens, but I haven't progressed very far in my education. Whatever its name, I thought it was really pretty.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Puzzles in the Snow

Today's bright sun and warmish temperatures softened the inch or so of snow we got yesterday, which made for great tracking conditions. I headed over to the Hudson banks and the marsh behind Three Pine Island and found all kinds of tracks all over the place: Hundreds of Red Squirrels hop, hop, hopping from trees to pine-cone caches; big flocks of turkeys dragging their three-toed feet as they wandered the woods; single-minded foxes trotting in straight-line trails up and down the hills and right under low-lying branches without breaking stride. So many, many tracks recording so much activity, it amazes me I never lay eyes on the critters.

When I found this fisher trail, so fresh and crisp, I decided to follow it on the chance I might find where it lived. It looked like it came to a sudden stop and then turned to go in another direction. I wonder if it heard me coming and took off through the woods away from me.

I followed that trail for a few hundred yards, when it joined what looked like a super highway of tracks, some coming, some going, all leading down to a stream, where it looked like they entered the water.

Wait a minute, I thought, am I following fisher or otter? They're both in the weasel family, their sizes can overlap, and their footprints look very much alike. The behavior here was a puzzle. I think of fishers as solitary, while this trail looks like it was made by a whole tribe of critters. Otters often travel in groups. But they also tend to slide as much as they walk, and I found no slides on this trail.

The trail continued on to the river, then straight across to where the ice met open water. Huh! That behavior sure says otter. Maybe I lost that first trail I followed when this busier one overlapped it. All kinds of puzzles.

And here's another puzzle: three hops and you're out! Some little mouse-sized critter was hopping along when oof! it looks like it got pressed into the snow, imprinting its tail along with its feet, and then nothing more. No more mouse-like tracks. I wonder if an owl could have pounced on it and carried it off with no more disturbance to the snow than this. Not even a wing print.

Here's another mouse trail that caught my eye. It looked so elegant zippering across the clean snow, so bravely crossing this open space before wising up and digging down into a tunnel. (If you click on this photo, you can see that the trail continues far beyond the big tree.)

Correction: These tiny footprints, as expert tracker Vince Walsh has told me, are not made by a mouse. Mice hop, and these tracks are of some critter walking. (My friend Sue makes the same point in her comment to this post.) Vince thinks they are likely to be that of a shrew, an animal with a reputation for boldness. As in boldly going where no mouse would dare to go, so openly across such an expanse.

This slender weed poking up from the snow made an elegant shadow to match the delicacy of the tiny prints.

Here's another pretty, dainty weed and its equally pretty shadow. Could be Northern Bugleweed or Water Horehound or maybe Wild Mint. They all have whorls of tiny flowers that circle their squarish stems.

Driving home, I noticed the late afternoon sun lighting up the pine woods along Potter Road.

That golden light made the Striped Maple branches glow a brilliant red.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bright Spots in a Monochrome Marsh

The big storm that's supposed to dump lots of snow to the south of Saratoga has given us maybe an inch today. Sigh! We sure could use more of that snow up here. When I walked around Bog Meadow Marsh yesterday, much of the ground was bare.

At least that ground was frozen solid, which allowed me to wander around in areas where my shoes would be sucked off in summer. I followed a stream well into the marsh, hoping to maybe find otters or owls, maybe even a mouse's home in a roofed-over old bird's nest. Nope. Not a creature was stirring (although I did see a few snow tunnels made by mice). All was quiet, and all was brown. Unrelentingly brown.

Some of the brown stuff was pretty. Like what's left of these Flat-top Asters, sort of fluffy, like feather dusters.

Or the umbels of Great Angelica, reminding me of sparklers frozen in the air.

And Virgin's Bower is lovely whatever the season. This time of year, it goes by the name of Old Man's Beard. We could also call it Dame's Powder Puff, couldn't we?

In all of that monochrome marsh, this orange shelf fungus certainly caught my eye.

And Red Osier Dogwood branches glowed bright against deep green moss.

And here's a tree that always takes me by surprise each winter. Does Striped Maple have these hot pink twigs during the other three seasons? Maybe I only notice this brilliant color when it stands out against the drab of a winter landscape bereft of snow.

I love, too, those bright little coppery buds of American Beech in the background.