Thursday, March 31, 2011

You Never Know

You never know where Nature may grant you a big surprise, as my friend Sue discovered while walking past this industrial site in Queensbury yesterday. She was poking about in a trail-side ditch, listening hard for the mating quacks of Wood Frogs known to reside there, when a raven's odd croak sounded from somewhere in the neighborhood. Searching the tree line, she soon discovered the bird perched on its nest in one of those power-line pylons.

Before long, the raven's mate arrived with a mouthful of sticks to add to the construction. Of course, she had her camera with her and sent me photos last night, inviting me to come out with her today to see how the nest was proceeding. (Actually, I invited myself and she consented. I promised I wouldn't scoop her by posting raven photos on my blog before she posted hers -- which she said she would do very soon. So keep checking her blog Water Lily to see those big birds building their home.)

I didn't get any raven photos anyway, since they weren't at the nest this morning. But I did manage to see the nest. We're hoping the birds soon return. Sue lives nearby, which gives her a ringside seat for observing raven family behavior.

Even though we didn't get to see ravens, we weren't going to let the morning go by without further adventures and so headed up to the Warren County Bikeway north of Glen Lake.

We had some fun flirting with chickadees, but our biggest adventure there was post-holing deep in the snow.

The forecasts are for another foot of snow to fall tonight and tomorrow. Aaargh!!! I hope that forecast turns out to be just an April Fool's joke.

Update, April 1: April Fools! No snow! Hooray!!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Signs of Spring at the Spa

Yes! Yes! YES! Despite the forecast for heavy snow by Friday, this sunny little Coltsfoot tells us that Spring has sprung at last! I found it blooming along a stream in the Saratoga Spa State Park, where I went today to stretch my legs -- which wasn't so easy to do, what with lots of snow still carpeting the woods and sheets of slippery ice where trails climbed the hills.

But along the streams there was open ground, just right for easy strolling and lingering along sun-warmed banks.

I heard Phoebes calling in a Cottonwood tree by a bridge that crossed the stream. A common nickname for Phoebes is "Bridge Bird," since these birds like to nest under bridges. I searched that Cottonwood but could not see that little bark-colored bird, although I did spy these fat glossy buds, all shiny and fragrant with sticky resin.

There were benches along the stream, which would have been pleasant to sit on if they weren't still buried in snow. Oh look, there's a little plaque on the back of the bench.

Somebody must have spent a lot of good times here with Ginger.

I had seen lots of canine footprints in the snow along here, and I wonder if some of them could have been those of coyotes. Something brought down this deer and subsequently ate it.

After seeing those bloody bones in the grass, I was startled to come upon this scene, which looked like gallons of blood had spilled out of the earth.

But that gore-colored stuff was only rust that formed when this iron-rich spring spilled over the bank. If you click on this photo, you can see the drops of spring water arcing out of the spigot.

The Saratoga Spa State Park has many mineral springs (that's why Saratoga Springs has that name), and I tasted all that I came across. Except for this one, called the Geyser. Many summers ago, I used to wade across to climb up on its heavily mineral-encrusted rock, but the water was still too cold to do that today.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Home Turf Search for Spring

My hunger for signs of spring has sent me driving far afield this week, and, what with the price of gas, it was getting kind of expensive. So today I stuck close to home and stayed on foot, hoofing it up North Broadway to the Skidmore Woods and what I call The Violet Path. Here's where a very early white violet grows, one whose species had me mystified for years until just last year, when New York's Chief Botanist Steve Young put me in touch with the nation's foremost violet authority, who promptly identified it as Viola odorata alba, or White English Violet. I wrote a post about this violet exactly one year ago today (see it here), so I wanted to check its progress, even though I know that this cold snowy weather has put spring flowers on hold. As this photo shows, the woods is still mostly covered, but at least the side of the path where the violets grow is now open to the sun.

Oh brave little beauties! See, they are putting forth buds. Note, too, how the leaves and stems are all furry, which seems to be a common trait among early-blooming plants. Perhaps these warm woolies protect them from the cold. Maybe we'll even have blossoms by next week.

The Skidmore Woods provides a remarkable habitat for many rare species of flowers because of its limestone substrate. Evidence of this limestone is everywhere, including in this old stone wall that encircles one of the college's buildings.

Making a home for itself in that wall was this fuzzy orange stuff called Trentepohlia aurea, a green alga that is known to love limey rocks. I know it's odd that an orange organism would be called a green alga, but this alga contains a chemical that masks the green chlorophyll.

Walking home, I found a few more signs that spring is on the way. This patch of sidewalk was wet not with rain nor with melting snow, but rather with sap dripping from the maple branches above.

Yes, I know we've had robins all winter, flocks of them foraging in crabapple trees and berry thickets. But this one was running across the grass, cocking its head to spy for worms, and actually grabbing some. Definitely springtime behavior!

And then I found Snowdrops and Crocuses. Normally, I would consider them beneath my notice, since they are garden plants and not true wildflowers. But this year, I am really starving to see ANY flowers at all.

This, too, was a garden plant. I don't know the name of it (some kind of anemone?), but I do know I was pleased to see its sunny yellow bloom.

Update: One of the commenters to this post has correctly identified this flower as Eranthus hyemalis (Winter Aconite), a buttercup relative native to Europe that is one of the earliest flowers to bloom. It's also a very aggressive spreader and hard to control once it escapes from gardens.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I Head South

Despite a long stretch of bright sunny days, it remains unseasonably cold here in Saratoga Springs: down into the teens at night, with daytime temps barely making it out of the 30s. So today I decided to head south to seek a landscape free of snow. I went as far as the southern boundary of Saratoga County, to the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve, which runs through wetlands that border the Mohawk River. Miles of old towpath trails run along a canal, and today they were all completely snow free. Hooray!

I was desperate to spy something green, but the only color to relieve the general mud brown of the landscape was the rich red of these alder catkins.

There were other catkins too, such as these tawny hazelnut catkins, dangling down like windchimes. These are the male flowers of the American Hazelnut, and lo and behold, I spied a tiny female flower, that minuscule (and out of focus) red tuft just above the rightmost cluster of catkins.

Here's a closer look. What a beautiful ruby red! Such an unexpectedly brilliant color for a flower that, being wind-pollinated, doesn't depend on attracting pollinating insects by the color of its bloom. It is pretty tiny, though.

After stretching my legs for an hour or so along those snow-free but still wind-chilled paths, I got back into my sun-warmed car and headed east along the Mohawk until I reached Waterford, where I crossed the river into Cohoes. Here's where the Mohawk River flows over some pretty impressive falls before it joins the Hudson.

Cohoes was a thriving mill town in the early years of its existence, and its streets are lined with handsome apartment buildings that once housed the factory workers.

One of the old mills, with its imposing towers and elaborate facade, has been converted to living units (with, apparently, a swimming pool as one of its attractions). How wonderful to see these beautiful old buildings repurposed and so painstakingly restored.

Returning across the Mohawk into Waterford, I next passed over a section of the Erie Canal, which, later in the season, will be filled with water diverted from the Mohawk River. It's here at Waterford that the Erie Canal connects with the Champlain Canal (and Hudson River), carrying barges along a series of locks that are the highest in the world.

I continued north toward home along the Hudson, watching for waterfowl on the water and enjoying views of a landscape now unburdened by snow. I lingered a while in Stillwater, where I even detected a tinge of green in the grass.

Approaching Saratoga Springs along Route 29, I thought I might stop for a quick stroll on the Bog Meadow Nature Trail just east of town. But I soon changed my mind. I hadn't brought my snowshoes.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Snow Won't Go!

Inspired by all that open ground at the Saratoga Battlefield yesterday, I thought I'd try some of my other favorite haunts for a walk today, wondering if maybe the snow had retreated some. Ha! Dream on! That stuff is still up to my knees!

If I kept to the woods, there was usually crust enough to walk on with only occasional post-holes, so I went to one of my favorite woods at the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve. The streams there were running fast and free, but deep snow still heaped the banks.

Despite ample sunshine, it hasn't warmed up enough these past days to melt the ice that forms along the creeks in the sub-freezing nights.

The sunshine doesn't seem able to melt all that snow, but Skunk Cabbage does the job OK. This plant can generate its own heat, which helps to attract early pollinators to the flowers that hide out inside those purple spathes.

Here's a pretty good shot of that blooming spadix tucked away in its protective hood. I love the elegant curves of those spathes, and also their gorgeous color.

My next stop was Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, where the snow had retreated along its west-facing banks. The snow still lay deep in the woods, however, which made walking difficult, and ice still hugged most of the shore. Poking about in the few little patches of open water, I could find not a single sign of life: no newts or tadpoles or spiders or water bugs -- not even a minnow!

Looking back into my archives for last March, I discovered quite a different scene just over a year ago. Click here to see the comparison.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Over the Meadows, Through the Woods

Unseasonably cold. That's what it was today and what it will be for days to come, according to weather reports. At least we didn't get the snow that was predicted for last night and today. Lord knows, we have enough still on the ground, shin-deep in the woods and heaped high on north-facing slopes. The land is so packed in ice, I wonder how it can ever get warm. Craving to feel yielding earth beneath my feet, I headed over to the Saratoga National Historical Park in Stillwater, where I guessed the wide-open fields would be bare of snow. And so they were.

I chose the Wilkinson Trail, a 4.2-mile loop that follows the supply road the American army used in their battle against the British in the Revolutionary War. Where the trail ran across open meadows, it felt terrific to feel that wide blue sky over my head and to swing my feet without crunching through icy snow.

There was still lots of snow, however, where the trail ran through shady woods.

I was glad to see that deep in the woods the vernal pools were forming, although they were eerily silent. A year ago around this date, the woods were ringing with the shrill calls of Spring Peepers and the urgent quacks of mating Wood Frogs, who use these fish-free waters as safe places to lay their eggs. (For proof, see my blog post from last year by clicking here.)

I took a short detour off the main trail to explore this pretty little brook. The smooth surface of its pooled waters remained unmarked by any sign of Water Striders, which just a year ago were darting here and there on their spindly waterproof legs. (See my blog post for March 25, 2010.)

I love how ripples form as the brook takes a plunge through a rocky chute, ripples that cast sunlit streaks of gold on the underlying rock.

I could find no signs of new spring greenery, so I had to content myself with enjoying the lovely remains of last fall's flowers, including these tiny fluted trumpets that once held the disc flowers of Black-eyed Susan. (You have to click on this photo to see those pretty flutings.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011


A pair of Buffleheads finds open water on Lake George, first day of Spring, 2011.