Sunday, February 27, 2011

Making the Best of It

Egad! MORE snow! Another 4 or 5 inches last night, after more than a foot on Friday. My friend Sue and I are agreed that, despite being real winter lovers, we're getting pretty tired of it. Ah well, at least it was a little sunny today with the temperature climbing to almost balmy by noon. Let's make the best of it, Sue, I said, inviting her to meet me at the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls. The byway is paved and plowed so the going would be easy, and with lots of berry-laden thickets there along the path and flowing streams running into the Hudson, the chances were good we might see some interesting wildlife.

For sure, I did see a very interesting old barn, near the parking area at the north end of the byway. Such a handsome structure. How could I not have noticed it before?

There were lots and lots of birds in the trees and thickets today. Flocks of robins and English sparrows flew from treetop to treetop, while somewhere off in the woods we could hear the purring call of a wren. Tufted Titmice were filling the air with their loud three-note whistles, and the high pique! pique! pique! of a male cardinal drew our attention to him poking about among the bittersweet vines, even before we saw his brilliant red plumage. I think Sue managed to get a photo of him but I could not. Most of the birds did a very good job of hiding among the shrubbery, where our cameras always focused on the twigs instead of the birds.

So wasn't it nice of this mockingbird to hop right out into the open?

We didn't wear snowshoes today, planning to mostly stick to the path, but of course we had to wander into the woods to check on some skunk dens Sue found last year. She had seen some activity around the dens just lately, so we wondered if we would find footprints in this fresh snow. Nope. We found the holes, but Mr. Skunk seems to be waiting for better weather before he comes out again. He would probably find it hard going in this knee-deep snow. We certainly did.

But the difficulty of wading through snow was just part of the fun. And how else could we have made it out to the riverside where the bluebirds were hanging out?

Because of poor eyesight, I would never see these birds if Sue didn't point them out to me, which is only one of the many reasons I cherish her companionship. But I am ever so grateful to her for lending me her eyes. For sure, I would have missed seeing this tiny feather today, just a faint blur on the snow to me, until I saw Sue bend to take a photo of it. Then the macro lens of my camera helped me to see it too.

I don't know what kind of bird this feather is from. What strikes me is how fine and downy it is, almost like fur. I'm glad the birds have these downy feathers to keep them warm, but I'll bet that they, like us, are growing weary of winter and are looking forward to spring.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

OK. That's Enough!

A foot and a half yesterday. More predicted tonight. And as I recall, some of our biggest accumulations have come in March snowstorms. I love snowy winters, yeah, but O.K., that's enough.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Silent River, Babbling Brook

A stunningly lovely day today: cold clear air, no wind, not a cloud in the sky, the sun now high enough to shed real warmth. And because that sun felt so warm on my face as I walked through the woods to the river, I was surprised to find the water still frozen over with thin, black, glassy ice.

I stood on the bank and marveled at the silence. No rustling of dry leaves in the trees nor lapping of wavelets at the shore. Not even a raven's croak nor a chickadee's chirp. All was still, without sound or motion, except for the flow of my breath in and out as I savored the cold sweet air in my lungs and the comforting warmth of the sun on my back.

I stood there for quite some time, unwilling to break the silence with the crashing footfalls of snowshoes. Then, in all that silence I heard the slithering sounds of sheets of ice slipping over each other out on a section of open water near the opposite bank. When I looked in that direction, I saw shining plates of ice rear up out of the current, catch the glint of the sun for a moment, then sink back into black water. One could almost imagine a school of dolphins frolicking over there.

When I walk in the winter woods, I like to try to identify the dried husks of summer's flowers. I believe this spike of tulip-shaped pods that was standing at the water's edge is Turtlehead.

I followed a little stream back into the woods. Although the stream was frozen solid and silent where it widened to join the river, further into the woods where it tumbled over rocks, it was dancing and singing as if it were glad to be freeing itself from the ice. I stood for a long, long time just to listen to its music.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Winter Beauty at Bog Meadow

Another beautiful, cold clear day. Where shall I go for my walk today? I hadn't visited the Bog Meadow Nature Trail since the snow fell, so I decided to go see how winter had transformed it.

I visit this trail frequently during the green seasons, since its forested wetlands and open marsh provide rich habitat for lots of interesting and uncommon plants, and it's only a couple of miles from my home. It's great for birding, too, especially in spring. But I rarely come here in winter, although many skiers and dogwalkers do. But not many folks had come into the trail from the Meadowbrook entrance this winter. I found this spur of the trail post-holed but not packed, which made for awkward maneuvering on snowshoes.

I was grumbling to myself about folks who ruin trails by hiking without snowshoes or skis, when I noticed the post-holes were made not by boots, but rather by sharp two-toed hooves. Looking around, I could see that this whole section of woods was riddled with deer trails and trampled feeding yards. I've seen very few signs of deer all winter in other places I hike. To judge from the looks of this woods, perhaps all the deer in the county are holed up in here.

I didn't see any actual deer on my hike today, but I did finds lots of other wonders that made it worth the trip. The yo-yo weather of late, with alternate freezing and thawing, has made for some really beautiful patterns in the ice that has formed on this tiny stream.

Oh, look, look! There, in the right foreground -- the first flower of spring is lurking within those green spathes. Well, maybe it's not really a sign of spring. I remember seeing the green shoots of Skunk Cabbage late last fall, so these are probably not newly arisen.

I had never seemed to notice before how prolifically Yellow Birch grows along this trail. Now, with all the surrounding greenery out of the way, I could really notice its curly-haired golden bark, shining in the sun. It was almost as bright as if the trunk had been covered in gold leaf.

Speaking of brightly colored bark, can anything match the vivid red of Red Osier Dogwood?
(My husband looked at this photo and said it could be a painting by Jackson Pollock.)

That dogwood was growing in an open marshy area crossed by a boardwalk that's furnished with an observation platform. Oh man, just look at that blue, blue sky! How lucky we are to have such places to walk out under that sky.

The alder shrubs are ready for spring, when these dangling male catkins will spill their pollen. The much smaller female flowers are perched on the twigs above the males. This position makes it likely they will be fertilized by wind-blown pollen from another shrub, rather than have the pollen from the same shrub spill directly upon them.

Here's the remains of a Swamp Thistle, dangling down like a little bell. I can tell it's this particular species of thistle by the veil of webbing that covers the bracts. If you click on this photo, you might be able to see what I'm talking about.

You can still find cattails here in this marsh, despite masses of phragmites that threaten to take over. I loved how the fluff was backlit by the sun.

Of course, now that I know how explosive cattail fluff can be, I had to go over and squeeze a few and watch the down go sailing away on the breeze. What fun! Yes, I know. I am probably too easily amused. But squeezing cattails really is quite delightful.

Here, take a look for yourself:

Monday, February 21, 2011

Yo-Yo Weather

What strange yo-yo weather we're having! One day it was close to 65 (Friday) and by Sunday it was close to zero. Today was cold but beautiful, with fresh new snow and brilliant sun, and I was very glad to get out for a walk at last. My son's family, including four children ages 13 years to 4 months, were here for a long weekend, and we had a marvelous time, but mostly indoors. Teen-aged Tayla was happy to read for hours on end, Baby Alex was all-smiles for anyone who just looked at him, while four-year-old Maya and two-year-old Sean had a grand time playing with Grandma's toys.

Friday was so spectacularly warm I just had to get outside, but there was so much water on the sidewalks, I knew the children would soak their shoes if we stayed outside for long. So a quick trip downtown was in order, to buy Sean and Maya some rubber boots for stomping in all those puddles. Which they did with great gusto!

Everyone went home to New Jersey yesterday, and today I was really ready to go stomping outside myself. Especially with several inches of fluffy, sparkly new snow.

Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park was my destination, and my plan was to snowshoe around the pond on the ice near shore, where the snow was not so deep. (Some creature -- my guess is a fox -- had made a beeline straight across the pond today.)

I soon discovered, though, that it was not safe to walk close to shore, since bank-dwelling beavers have been keeping patches of water open throughout the winter. These open areas then freeze over with thin sheets of ice, which today were camouflaged with newly fallen snow. I was lucky I didn't fall through.

So I headed up into the woods instead and followed a nicely-packed trail through the trees. The branches held lots of fresh snow, which fell gently and silently in feathery clumps and shimmering clouds when touched by the breeze. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the woods, setting the air asparkle. You'd think I'd be weary of winter by now, but on days like today, the season's charms are definitely renewed.

As I climbed the bank to where I had parked my car, I was struck by the look of these Bear Oak branches against the blue sky. They certainly have a distinctive bristly twigginess that sets them apart from other oaks, a distinction made all the more evident by the lack of leaves in winter. Another name for this small pretty tree is Scrub Oak, but I prefer the name that seems less derogatory.

The Latin name for this shrubby tree is Quercus ilicifolia, which also sounds kind of negative (as in "illicit"), except that the word ilicifolia actually means "holly leaved." And yes, the leaves are indeed holly-like, being quite leathery and shiny and resembling in shape the leaves of that Christmas greenery. I have heard that the tree is called "Bear Oak" because reportedly only bears have a taste for the very bitter acorns.

Unfortunately, it appears that beavers have acquired a taste for the Bear Oak's bark. Just this year, the beavers that make Mud Pond their home have discovered these trees high on the northern bank. I hope they soon find some trees they like better, before the entire stand is eliminated.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Once More, Up the Ridge

What?! Up the porcupine ridge AGAIN?! Yes, I know, I was up there just yesterday with Sue and Pat, but today I had Ed and Ruth along. It may have been the same trail to the same destination, but today was a different day with different companions looking with different eyes, so the trek was a brand new experience. And what a gorgeous day it was! Sunny and warm, with the snow growing soft underfoot, so our snowshoes went a quieter shush, shush, shush instead of the crashing crunch, crunch, crunch of our footfalls yesterday.

Both Ed and Ruth are expert and passionate botanists, so we stopped frequently to examine the plants along the trail. Here, Ruth studies the bark of an understory tree with dangling seeds to determine if the tree was a Striped Maple. Which it was.

What a delight it was for me to witness these two extremely knowledgeable botanists puzzle over the trailside flora with such enthusiasm and curiosity. I always learn a lot when I walk with them.

Happily, though, Ruth's and Ed's curiosity extends to more than just plants. I had tempted them to Moreau Lake State Park today with the promise that I would show them the caves up high on the ridge where porcupines denned. I'm sorry to report we saw no porcupines, but we sure saw a bunch of trashed hemlocks (see yesterday's blog post), as well as the well-trodden trails that run from the dens to the feeding trees.

Surveying the littered forest floor, we all wondered why porcupines chew off branches to fall to the ground, while the animal itself remains up in the tree, feeding on the bark. Ruth said she knows a mammalogist she can ask about this, so I hope we may soon get an answer.

Update: Sure enough, Ruth got back to me with lots of information about porcupines. She wrote to tell me that porcupines are mainly nocturnal, and that while the summer diet is greatly varied (grasses, leaves, nuts, fruits, roots, etc.), in winter they depend on the cambium and phloem layers of tree bark. Branches are clipped off feeding trees if they obstruct the porcupine's progress, and this can benefit such ground-feeding animals as deer. A large porcupine's winter meal would be a piece of bark the size of a sheet of typing paper. This animal has 25 feet of intestine and possesses an outsize liver, possibly to store vitamins and fats from the fall eating spree of fruits and nuts. By spring, all the stored fat has been used up, and the animals wander.

Ruth had even more facts: The newborns (usually just one to a litter) are precocious, soon eating alder and willow catkins. Mating occurs in the fall. Males are larger than females, usually between 5 and 13 pounds, although giants as big as 28 pounds have been caught. Dens are rarely used after winter has passed. Porcupines love salty things and the glue used in plywood. When relaxed, their quills are kept beneath the guard hairs. When excited, the quills stand erect, the tail thrashes, and the teeth chatter. They have five clawed toes on their hind feet, four on the front. Their sounds are grunts, whines, and murmurs. Anything else we may want to know about porcupines we could probably find in a book called World of the Porcupine by David Costello, or in Mammals of North America by R.W. Kays and D.E. Wilson.

It took me a while to figure out what made this purple stain in the snow, but it sure looks like grape juice to me. Who would have thought there was this much juice left in the shriveled grapes we find occasionally still hanging from the vines?

I had seen these winged insects before when I was exploring these caves with my friend Sue in December. Whole clouds of them were flying around the mouths of the caves today, and one obliged me by landing on the snow so I could get a clear photograph.

This insect was slightly larger than a mosquito, and Ed suggested it might be a cranefly, so I explored that possibility when I got home to my computer. Sure enough, what we have here is a Winter Cranefly, one of the few insects we have that actually emerge from their larvae and mate in winter. I wonder what they find to eat in the frozen environment? Perhaps they don't eat at all, but simply find mates and breed and die.

That may also be true for the Winter Stoneflies we saw crawling on the snow by a rushing stream. These are very small insects, and my photo shows it about twice the size that it actually is.

I have never gotten a satisfactory answer as to the make-up of the cave-riddled boulders up here on the ridge overlooking Moreau Lake. Are they naturally occurring caves carved out by the streams that flow under and around them, or were they created by humans excavating for minerals? I've heard them called graphite mines, but a geologist friend questioned that. Certainly, there are garnets here, because I have seen their ruby-colored chunks embedded in the boulders. Also, we find plants such as Walking Fern and Ebony Spleenwort here, plants that have to have a calcarious substrate to thrive, so that's a clue. Here, Ed examines a chunk of rock that appeared quite crystalline. Now I can't remember what he thought it was: marble or quartzite?

Ed got back to me to tell me that the rock was quartzite, which is metamorphosed sandstone. Its fractured surface looks glassy, usually white to clear. Marble, he told me, is metamorphosed limestone and, here in the Adirondacks, usually has flat crystalline fracture surfaces .

On this sun-warmed day, the little streams were dancing and singing and flowing freely. I noticed this emerald-green moss flowing along with the current and lifted a piece to examine it more closely. I hadn't brought my moss field guide along today, but I didn't need it, with Ruth and Ed at hand to tell me exactly what it was. It's Fontinalis, or Water Moss, and can be distinguished by the way its leaves grow in three rows. Very pretty.

After we descended from the ridge, we had intended to eat our lunches in the warming hut at the edge of the lake, but the sun was beating down so intensely, we decided to clear the snow from a bench and picnic out on the beach. A beautiful day, indeed! And while we sat there enjoying the warmth of the sun and each other's company, a chickadee started singing its sweet spring song: Pee dee-dee. Perfect.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Return to Porcupine Ridge

One of the things I love about my friend Sue is her willingness -- nay, eagerness! -- to return to the same nature sites again and again. As we are agreed, there's always something new to see in ever-changing nature, and our delight is only intensified when we have a new friend to show our favorite sites to. Today we brought our new friend Pat to the porcupine dens high in a ridge above Moreau Lake. Pat's a frequent hiker in Moreau Lake State Park and knows most of the trails there very well, but she had never visited this particular location.

It was a great day for a hike, not too cold, no wind at all, and with a moment or two of sun now and then. The snow was nicely packed as we started up the Red Oak Ridge Trail, although we definitely needed snowshoes when we left the official trail and headed higher up to where the porcupines den among enormous boulders. Our first sign that we were approaching the site was this mess of hemlock boughs littering the snow. I've placed an arrow in the photo to show the well-trodden trough the porcupine takes to its feeding site in these trees every day.

We promptly found the cave where we knew that porcupines had denned in the past, and it was evident from the packed and pee-stained trail leading in and out that Porky was still living here.

I was going to approach the mouth of this cave and peer in with a flashlight to see how far down and back the cave extends (and also to see if Porky was home, since we couldn't see any in the trees). But the snow was quite slippery here, and I sure didn't want to go sliding down, down, down, down to where I would land, God only knows. Plus the smell was quite a deterrent. So I backed away without peering in.

There were lots of signs all over the site revealing Porky's recent passage. I didn't find any quills today, but lots of hairs and woody poo pellets.

Other creatures had left signs throughout the woods. We found many tracks left by fishers, the porcupine's only predator, as well as numerous holes in the snow surrounded by acorn shells. The squirrels must have eaten all their nest-cached nuts by now and are beginning to dig up their buried treasures. Looks like this squirrel had secreted quite a hoard!

Isn't it some kind of miracle that a squirrel can find a cache that was buried months ago and is now covered over with at least two feet of snow? Amazing!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Balmy Day, Brief Outing

Nearly 50 today and windy. The breezes felt almost balmy. I could have spent the whole day outdoors, but I had things to do at home. A great place to go for a brief outing is the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, just a few miles from my home, so that's where I went just to stretch my legs and breathe deep lungfuls of that springlike air. There are lots of trails to choose from at WWPP -- through deep woods or across meadows or along streams and ponds -- and all of those trails are so hard-packed now, you hardly even need snowshoes. (I did wear my snowshoes, though, to avoid post-holing the trails, and also to allow myself a little off-trail exploration.)

I was startled to discover this structure looming up in the woods -- a fire tower that wasn't here the last time I came by late last fall.

I stopped by the park's headquarters to ask the park's new director, Margo Olson, about that fire tower, and she told me it had only recently been erected. Originally built in 1924 for the protection of Luther Forest, a pine plantation in Malta, the tower had to be removed to make way for a huge electronic chip plant now being built in the middle of Luther Forest. The owner of the tower donated it to the Wilton park, where, after refurbishing and repairs, it was erected this past December. For the time being, it is fenced off and surrounded by No Trespassing signs to discourage climbers from falling to their deaths from ice-covered steps. I think the park staff are trying to come up with a plan that will allow limited and supervised access to the tower at minimal risk to all concerned.

Well, it's certainly an interesting and historic structure, but I wonder how it will contribute to the ecological purposes of Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park, a 2300-acre sandplain preserve dedicated to restoring the habitat of the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. At present, the WWPP hosts the most intact populations of Karner Blues in New York State. When the Wild Lupine blooms next spring, I hope to return to the park to see this tiny blue butterfly in its happy home.

As for me, I had to hurry back to my happy home to make a Valentine's Day treat for my sweetheart. We've been together now 50 years (48 as husband and wife), and I expect we'll have many more years together because my husband is very careful about his health. He won't eat butter but he will eat olive oil, so I made him these olive oil tortas, a Spanish pastry that is crisp and thin and not very sweet and my husband just loves them. And so do I.

Happy Valentine's Day, my dear readers. It's always a good thing to celebrate love.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Birds and Blood and Snow

Ten below zero at dawn yesterday. Kind of cold to stand around in the snowbanks, searching for eagles possibly perching in the trees on the far side of the river, but that was our plan for the day. I'm glad to say, though, that the bright sun brought the temperature up to bearable by the time I joined Sue and Pat at Moreau Lake State Park headquarters, where we met to share a car to the riverside.

Pat (foreground) is the newly elected president of the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and she wanted to see for herself the eagles that come down from Canada to fish this part of the Hudson in winter. Sue and I have seen eagles on numerous occasions along these banks, but I'm afraid we all came away disappointed yesterday. Since the river was frozen over from shore to shore except for a short open area just below Spier Falls Dam, the eagles were doubtless fishing somewhere else yesterday. We still had a good time, though, as nature nuts will, whenever we're out in nature and in good company.

Today was quite a bit warmer when I returned to the banks of the Hudson, this time by myself. Any hope I may have had of seeing any eagles was quickly dashed as soon as I stepped from my car at the end of Potter Road. Thousands of crows were cawing loudly as they congregated in tall pines along the road, and their clamor would have driven off any eagles for miles around. As so would the crashing crunch of my snowshoes through crusty snow as I made my way through the woods to the river. The radiant blue sky and snowy white clouds echoed the colors of the snow-covered blue-shad0wed frozen river below.

My destination today was a frozen marsh upstream, where stands of Black Tupelos bend their sweeping branches toward the ground. Tupelos have a distinctive twigginess to their branches that makes them instantly distinguishable from the surrounding birches and maples.

There were numerous animal trails on the ice in the marsh -- coyote, fox, and fisher. I have often found tracks of mink and otter here as well, but so far, not this winter. Nor have I seen many deer trails in the woods this year. I think the deer have established their trampled yards and are not roaming far afield through all this deep snow. But this hank of hair indicated that one had been by this area recently.

But as this bloody scene indicates, I don't think that deer came here by its own volition. It may have been killed elsewhere and then dragged to this site by its predator. Or predators other than the ones who killed it carried portions of the kill to this site. The tracks were too obscured by trampling and blown snow for me to determine which predator had been feasting here.

I don't usually like to look too closely at bloody corpses, but I was fascinated by the shape and color of this animal's teeth, so different in appearance from those of carnivores.

That blue sky darkened with clouds as I made my way back to my car, and by the time I reached the parking area I could hardly see the path before me for the thickening snow, which came on in a sudden rush. The air was almost solidly filled with flakes.

Here's the same scene as above, only this time I used the camera's flash to light up the individual snowflakes.

I could barely see to drive, so I inched along slowly, deciding to take the back roads home, rather than the highway. But I hadn't gone more than a mile when the snow stopped abruptly and the sun came shining through the clouds. When I reached Saratoga, it was obvious that no snow had fallen there at all. And it never did. Looking to the north, I could see the storm, with its steel-grey snow clouds, passing to the east. Quite a dramatic sky!