Sunday, July 31, 2011

Swimming Upstream

My son and some of his friends were visiting from New York City this weekend, and they went to "The Rocks" today for a swim. Would I like to join them there? Oh boy, would I! It's a beautiful spot on the Hudson, upstream from the Spier Falls Dam. Here the water is deep and cool right off some of the rocks, shallow and warm off others. Perfect for swimmers of every ability. And species.

Laddie, a Bernese Mountain Dog-Great Pyrenees mix with a thick warm coat, had spent the hot morning climbing in the mountains above the river. He was very glad to immerse himself in that nice cool water. As was my son Steve, who'd been climbing those mountains with Laddie and Laddie's family.

I didn't climb the mountain, but chose instead to paddle about on the river before I met the young folks on the rocks. One of the flowers I found blooming along the banks was this Virgin's Bower. As a flower, it's pretty enough, but its beauty paled in comparison to that of these cobalt-winged, jet-bodied wasps that were busily feeding on the flowers.

I usually feel a kind of aversion regarding wasps (too many nasty experiences while painting under the eaves!), but these wasps were so amazing I moved in close for a better look. How docile they were, and as beautiful as they were huge!

After searching the web for "blue-winged black-bodied wasps," I think I found a match in one called the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus), also known as Katydid Wasp, for its habit of killing katydids to feed its larvae. The adults, I read, are not aggressive and they feed on flower pollen, so there's no need to call the exterminator if you find them around your home. Just enjoy!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hot Walking, Cool Wading

Okay. I have to admit it, even if grudgingly: Purple Loosestrife is a gorgeous wildflower. It made quite a beautiful sight, nearly filling a field at the Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa. The trouble is, I'd come here to this oak/pine sandplain habitat to try to find a native flower called Seedbox, which, by all rights, should be filling this field with its yellow primrose-like blooms. But no such luck. Quite likely, the alien invasive loosestrife has supplanted the Seedbox , if, indeed, it ever did grow here.

It was rather too hot a day to be trudging around a sunny sandplain, filling my shoes with loose grit and getting prickly sandburs stuck in the laces. And then getting disappointed not to find the flower I was seeking.

Oh well, I thought, as long as I'm here, let's see what else might be blooming.

I was kind of surprised to find Horsemint in full bloom. I've found it as late as September in other years, but never earlier than the second week of August. But oh, gosh, August starts the day after tomorrow! Where did the summer go?

The pinky-purple bracts of Horsemint are showier than its actual flowers, but those flowers also have a charm of their own, so buttery yellow with purple polka-dots.

The royal-blue blooms of Blue Vervain were making their way up the wand-like spikes arrayed like candelabra.

Scurrying across the hot noontime sand was this Tiger Beetle, Cicindela formosa generosa (thanks,, a large handsome species that likes to hang out in sandpits. I thought that its boldly patterned elytra were striking enough, but then I noticed the iridescence of its antennae and legs. When I flipped it over, I saw that the whole of its underside was beautifully iridescent.

Well, this little scene had me scratching my head, puzzling over the odd juxtaposition of its elements. To see a mushroom sprouting out of dry sand was unusual in itself. But where did that tiny broken toy car come from? Or those little chunks of blue glass? It would be fun to make up a story to explain their happenstance.

A couple more mushrooms, pretty and pink, like a matched pair of . . . um . . . headlights! Obviously, these were not growing out in the hot dry sand, but back in the woods on a damp mossy bank, where I'd sought refuge from the midday glaring sun.

I soon had enough of walking around in that heat and headed next to Kelly Park, a nice little municipal park in downtown Ballston Spa that offers a shady nature trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek. It was very cool and pleasant here, especially when I left the trail to wade right out into the water.

Lining the trail in the deepest shade were tall stalks of American Germander, a Mint Family plant with typical mint-family-plant-looking flowers, but distinguished by their lack of an upper lip.

Out on the sun-lit banks, Joe-Pye Weed was a popular landing spot for lots of Skipper butterflies.

I was startled to find one flowerhead of Joe-Pye Weed almost completely covered by this enormous spider. I believe it's a fishing spider, who catches its prey by dropping right down into the water, although it had wound its resident flowerhead round and round with its web.

Ooh! Looking close, I spy something small and red in there around its mouth. Could this spider have red fangs? Does that up its creepiness factor? (Perhaps, but only to those who find spiders creepy in the first place. I think they are beautiful!)

I think that everyone would agree that Groundnut flowers are beautiful, especially when viewed from this angle. From other angles, they can appear brownish and dull. There might be disagreement, too, about whether their fragrance is delightful or cloying. I often can detect their odor before I see them hiding among the stalks of the host plants their vines have climbed up on.

Even along the shadiest sections of trail, Pale-leaved Sunflowers caught the sun and glowed like lamps.

The insignificant green flowers of Great Ragweed are easily ignored (except for allergy sufferers when the flowers mature), but their leaves have a very distinctive shape and their stalks will astound when they grow to 15 feet tall or more, with a correspondingly impressive girth.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Up a Lazy River

Click on this photo so it fills the screen and just gaze at it a while. Can you feel the warm sun on your back? Do you feel the sweet cool water as you trail your hand over the side of your canoe? Can you smell the fragrance of pine needles as your boat slips close to the bank? Do you hear the laughing kingfisher as he swoops from tree to tree, always just out of camera range? Can you feel the gentle breeze lift your hair as you rest your paddle and drift along with the current, marveling at a sky so blue you can see all the way to heaven? Today was that kind of day for me: the epitome of riparian paddling perfection.

And of course, there are always the flowers.

The showy star of the riverside flowers is, no contest, Cardinal Flower, set off here to great advantage by a mass of Fringed Loosestrife.

At the opposite end of the scale for showiness (but not prettiness) is eensy-weensy Clammy Hedge Hyssop, sharing the same damp muddy bank as Cardinal Flower but visible only to closely peering eyes.

In the warm shallows, perky white Pipewort pokes its puffy little heads above the water.

Oh, those Purple Fringed Orchids! You just never know where they might turn up. Not a one did I find in its usual spot this year, but here was one popping up where I'd never found one before.

Nothing can set me to drifting and dreaming like watching the leaves of Wild Celery, gleaming a golden green under the water and swaying gently with every surge of the current.

Never in my life has a Painted Turtle stopped to greet me, but this one did today. It had slipped from its log as I drifted close, but then, instead of scurrying off to hide in the mud, stopped in its tracks and turned to look me straight in the eye. And a good day to you, dear turtle!

This Green Frog, too, didn't seem the least bit disturbed by my near presence. Perhaps the lazy lovely river had cast its spell on Froggy, too. Or maybe he thought his coloration was hiding him in plain sight. At any rate, he never budged, though I poked my camera lens within a few inches of him.

Ah, Youth! These boys were having so much fun on a rope swing, I almost asked if I could have a turn. If there'd been a good place nearby to land my canoe, I think I would have.



Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some Bugs and Blooms of High Summer

High summer: the meadows are blooming and bugs are zooming. The woods now are dark and uniformly green, but out in the fields and along the roadsides, the sun-loving flowers are painting the countryside with gorgeous color. The flowers in this photo are nothing but common roadside weeds, but they have transformed this abandoned barnyard into a scene as lovely as any Monet painted of his gardens at Giverny.

Some seedheads, too, are taking on new beauty, such as these deep maroon stalks of Curly Dock, silhouetted against the misty pink of flowering grass.

I walked today in the Skidmore woods that lie north of Daniels Road, heading toward an open clearing where I hoped to find Wild Bergamot in bloom. And I was not disappointed.

Sharing that clearing with the Bergamot were masses of brilliant Early Goldenrod.

The season for Tick Trefoils is now full upon us. Here's Panicled Tick Trefoil with its narrow leaves and deep-pink flowers borne in widely-branched clusters called panicles.

Showy Tick Trefoil has wider leaves and bears its larger, more purplish flowers in a denser cluster called a raceme.

Huge stands of Teasel towered over my head, but I found a few blooms close enough to eye-level that I could examine their intricate structure. This plant was introduced to our continent by early Europeans, who used the prickly dried flowerheads to "tease" -- that is, to raise the nap -- of woolen fabrics. Some weavers still prefer to use this plant rather than metal brushes, because it is more gentle on the fabric.

Passing through the shadier woods, I did find a few spots of color amid the ubiquitous green. These rosy pink leaves of Early Meadow Rue were as pretty as any blossom -- far more colorful than the greenish-white flowers this plant puts forth in early spring.

And again, these hot-pink pedicels of Round-leaved Dogwood berries are far more colorful than the small white flowers of a month or so ago.

Unfortunately, these bright orange spots on the leaves and fruit of Hawthorn are indicative of disease.

This little Skipper butterfly is rather dull in its coloration, but the Swamp Milkweed it's feeding on is certainly brilliant. If you click on this photo, you can see the butterfly's hair-thin tongue plunged into a milkweed floret. And if you look really close, you may see a Jagged Ambush Bug hiding down lower in the flower cluster.

Here's a clearer look at a Jagged Ambush Bug atop a bud of Boneset, revealing the jagged edges of its . . . what? I see two folded wings laid in the bowl of its body, and a structure around its neck that looks like Dracula's cape. I wonder what those structures are called and what purpose they serve. This bug has a very odd anatomy!

Here's a profile view of the same bug, revealing its Popeye-muscled forearms used for grabbing prey much bigger than itself. I tried to get a better shot of its "rostrum," a piercing hollow tube that it uses to stab its prey and inject a substance that liquifies the victim's innards, allowing the Ambush Bug to suck them up as through a straw. That tube is tucked up against its "chest," and I didn't want to risk getting stabbed by it if I provoked the bug to jab it forward.

Here's another predator insect hanging out on a milkweed leaf. This is a juvenile Assassin Bug (species unknown), and it, too, has a piercing tube for liquifying and ingesting its victims' innards.

These Banded Net-winged Beetles were more interested in love than killing today. But I'm not sure if they are ever predacious, at least as adults. I believe they eat plant material and rotting vegetation. When they're not busy doing other things.

I made a quick trip to the Bog Meadow Trail, stopping to look again at those cute little Oleander Aphids I found a few days ago. Oh my, but they must have been popping out clones, since their population sure has burgeoned! I read that once they have sucked a plant dry, they will sprout wings to fly to a new one. You just can't make this stuff up!

I came to Bog Meadow to see if the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain was blooming yet. Not quite. But it won't be long. Such a nice healthy patch!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Aaah! That's Better!

Aah! A sweet cool morning at last! What better way to spend it than paddling with a friend on the beautiful Hudson?

I had promised to show Sue a Purple Fringed Orchis, and I also hoped to find that Great St. Johnswort in bloom. Our missions accomplished, we dawdled about for a couple of hours, just immersing ourselves in birdsong and water and rocks and flowers and trees.

Cardinal Flower has just begun to raise its blazing torches amid the riverside rocks.

The Great St. Johnswort was splendidly in bloom today, perfect for obtaining a specimen for the state herbarium. We counted at least 40 plants surrounding this one, so I didn't feel too bad about collecting a single stem.

This species must be exceedingly resilient, since the area where they are growing was scoured by raging waters for several weeks this spring. But there they were in all their golden glory, poking up from among all the flotsam left by the floods. Makes you wonder how a flower so tough could become so rare in much of its original distribution. Perhaps because it's so beautiful, poachers dug it up for their gardens. If so, they must have been disappointed to find that those showy yellow flowers bloom for just a few days. I feel very lucky to have caught the show.