Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beautiful Barks Along Bog Meadow

 Well, so much for our soft white snow.  Yesterday's all-day rain and today's high temperatures have destroyed all the snow and turned all the trails to wet mud by this afternoon.  Luckily, I did get out for a walk yesterday, despite a constant drizzle, choosing the Bog Meadow Nature Trail just outside Saratoga.  As this photo shows, Bog Meadow Trail is long and straight, and if one wants to walk quickly for exercise, this is a good place to do it -- especially when the trail's underlying railroad ties are thickly padded with a blanket of snow.  Even soggy wet snow.  I wore my waterproof boots.

I expected I would swing briskly along, work up a little healthy sweat, since there's not much to see in the woods this time of year, right?   Ah well, best laid plans and all that.  As it happened, the steady drizzle had dampened the tree trunks and darkened the bark, so that all the marvelous colors and patterns of lichenous growths on those trunks were more evident than usual.  Of course, I had to stop and admire the many variations. 

Some growths were a soft velvety green, with patches outlined in baby blue.

Others were speckled like the sides of a trout, with varying shades of pale green.

Or shades of blue.

Or bright emerald green traced with squiggles of rich brown.

This pale-blue patch was adorned with tiny black wormy shapes.

The base of one tree was speckled with large blue flakes.

This branch was covered with circles of both blue and green.

 During my walk, I focused my attention on only the flat crustose lichens, for the moment ignoring the frilly foliose lichens, as well as the many mosses that decorated the trees.  This abundant fluffy growth at the base of a tree did cause me to pause, however, and take a closer look.  Is this a moss, I wondered, or could it be a liverwort?

My eyesight is too compromised to distinguish moss from liverwort with my naked eyes, but a macro shot with my camera revealed the overlapping leaves of one of the liverworts in the genus Porella.

Stopping and starting along the trail as I did, I did not work up much of a sweat.  But I was out there long enough to get drenched by the constant drizzle that, after a while, set all the twigs to dripping.  Not wanting to risk wetting my camera, I packed it away and headed home, wondering how many exquisite variations on a theme of lichens I had missed.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fun in the Snow at Kawing Crow

 Fresh snow, a fun group of nature lovers, and a fine teacher of nature awareness -- all added up to a great way to spend a cold winter's day today.  Thanks to sponsorship by the Southern Adirondack Audubon Society, a group of about 15 of us braved snow-slicked roads this morning to attend a workshop conducted by noted naturalist Vince Walsh at his Kawing Crow Awareness Center in Greenfield.  Cozying up to a roaring woodstove and surrounded by mounted specimens representing Vince's many years of wildlife experiences, we spent the morning listening to Vince help us understand the minds and motivations of the creatures that live in the wild around us.

After immersing ourselves in the lore of many woodland animals and then fueling up on lunch, we donned our cold-weather gear for further adventures outdoors, exploring the woods and marsh that surround  the Kawing Crow center.

We hadn't gone more than a few steps from the door when we found our first set of tracks in the fresh snow, which provided many lessons in how to determine the size, direction, and speed of the animal that made them.  We continued through the woods and came upon many other tracks,  allowing us to put our new knowledge into practice.  Vince is an extraordinarily engaging and enthusiastic teacher, encouraging our questions and turning even our mistaken guesses into opportunities for learning.  This was at least the fourth workshop of Vince's I have attended, and I always learn something new and have a wonderful time.

A fine snow continued to fall during our afternoon's explorations, frosting the trees and adding to the beauty of the landscape.  

Vince's baby daughter, here pulled by her mother Erica, joined us for for the morning's education as well as for part of our woodland adventures.  What a lucky little girl, to grow up so surrounded by nature's wonders and nurtured in its lore!  Doesn't she look happy to be outdoors?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cold and Snowy -- Hurray!

Two clear cold, blue-sky, bright-sunny days in a row!  And with some nice fluffy snow in between.  Hurray!  As long as we have to have winter, we might as well have some real WINTER!  Happily for me, I was able to get out and enjoy it, both yesterday and today.  Yesterday, inspired by reports of eagles feeding along the Hudson at Ft. Edward, I headed over to Washington County to follow the river roads through Ft. Miller to Ft. Edward.  Well, I didn't see any eagles, but I sure saw lots of geese.  Wherever there was any open water, there were hordes and hordes of geese that never went south for the winter. 

But hey, what's that snowy-white fowl out there in the middle of that flock of geese?   Looks like a barnyard goose has come out to visit his Canadian cousins.  Or could that be a Snow Goose?  I can't see its tail feathers, which would be black on a Snow Goose.  Usually, Snow Geese gather in large flocks along this stretch of the Hudson.  Do they typically mingle with the Canadas?

Today was even sunnier than yesterday, and what a dazzling sight it was, to see Moreau Lake all sparkling white from shore to shore, following last night's snowfall.  Most exciting, the "Thin Ice" signs were down,  so the lake was completely walkable, all over its surface.  I don't know how to explain it, but I always feel a certain thrill, walking across that wide-open frozen lake under that huge blue sky.

I stopped to chat with some ice fishermen, including this cheerful fellow named Vince, who had caught two beautiful Rainbow Trout.  Nice big ones, too.  See them lying on the ice in front of Vince.   I swear, it takes a special breed of guy to sit out on a windy cold lake all day long and insist that he's having fun.  I love the cold, but I have to keep moving in it.  Man, he doesn't even have GLOVES on!

If I had to sit still on a frozen lake all day, I'd do what this fellow named Zach is doing, sitting nice and cozy inside a blind that keeps out the cold wind and keeps in the heat from a small propane heater between his feet.

But then, wouldn't that make it all the colder, having to climb out of that warm cocoon to tend to the fishing lines?   I guess he must feel it's worth it, especially when a nice 18-incher like this one is tugging on the other end of the line.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Brisk Riverside Ramble

A bright beautiful day today, but ooh, that wind!  Ear-piercing, nose-numbing, cheeks-freezing wind.  I really hate wind in the winter.  But I'd been house-bound for two days and I had to get out, so I drove to the end of Potter Road in Moreau and made my way down to the Hudson through the woods.  Here, there is often some shelter from wind, thanks to mountains rising to the south and west, and it's almost always quiet in the woods.  There was a brisk wind whipping down the course of the open river, but the water out there lay still as glass under a sheet of ice from shore to shore.

Last time I was here, I found the cocoon of a Cecropia Moth lashed to a twig of a Black Tupelo, and I was glad to see it was still hanging there.   Today, backlit as it was by the sun, I could see that the larva was still snug inside its winter wrapper.  It seems hard to believe that that packet of flimsy tissue could keep a living thing safe through the bitter cold, but I guess it must.  Does anyone know if I could break off that twig and bring the cocoon home to place outside my kitchen window, so I could watch it emerge in the spring?  Or should I leave it where its caterpillar chose to place it?

There is some snow in the woods along the river here, but it's icy and pocked by having been melted, rained on, and then refrozen.  I couldn't find any animal tracks except those of deer, the only animal heavy enough to break through the hard crust. It really is amazing to see the variety of tracks criss-crossing this woods when the snow is fresh:  otter, mink, fisher, coyote, fox, squirrels (red and gray), turkey, deer, rabbits, mice, voles and shrews, plus wingprints of ravens and eagles as they land on the frozen bays.  You'd never guess, without those tracks as evidence, that this woods is so well-populated by all these creatures.  Rare indeed is the moment when you actually lay eyes upon them.  I thought for just an instant today, that I'd caught a glimpse of a large owl sitting at the base of a tree.  But nope, just some peeling bark with two dots of well-placed fungus.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

B-r-r-r-ding the Ft. Edward Grasslands

Ten below zero when I got up this morning, with a bit of wind stirring the dangling seeds of the Box Elder tree outside my kitchen window.  And I don't think it got much warmer than ten above all day.  I must be nuts, I thought to myself, as I agreed to meet Sue this afternoon for a birdwatching jaunt around the grasslands east of Ft. Edward in Washington County, an open rolling (and windy!) habitat designated one of New York's Important Birding Areas.  But the thrill of the hunt overcame the dread of the cold, especially since area birders had reported seeing a pair of Short-eared Owls (an endangered species in New York State)  hunting these fields in recent weeks.  So out came the big down coat and the fur-lined hat with flaps that cover my cheeks and chin, and off I drove to meet Sue.

We left my car on the side of a road and rode together in Sue's car, meandering through the hills and meadows of this vast open area looking for hawks until it grew late enough to start looking for owls.  We had hardly started our birding journey when Sue spotted a Rough-legged Hawk soaring over a hedgerow, and I later pointed out a Red-tailed Hawk perching in a tree.  A bit later we saw a hawk with white undersides and black wing-tips flying low over a field, a bird Sue later confirmed was indeed a Northern Harrier.  Important Birding Area, indeed!

As a lowering sun began to cast long shadows across the fields, we made our way to the specific site where the Short-eared Owls have been spotted.  Unlike most other species of owls, which hunt in the dark of night, the Short-eared often leave their roost and begin their evening's hunt before the sun disappears, giving us some small hope that we might actually see them today.

We were not the only ones to share that hope.  We were soon joined by other avid birders, including one couple who had driven to this spot all the way from Amsterdam, NY, several counties away.  But especially exciting to us was the arrival of noted bird photographer Gordon Ellmers,  who set up his scope and camera in the hopes of obtaining some shots of this rare and endangered bird.

Well, it certainly was our lucky day! The fellow from Amsterdam let out a shout -- "There's one!" -- and we all trained our binoculars in the direction he pointed.  Sure enough, a pair of owls came flapping along, close to the ground, and Gordon hurried to get his shots while the birds remained within range and the daylight lasted.  Here's a shot that Gordon generously shared with us and permitted me to publish.  I did not even attempt to photograph the owls with my little pocket camera with its limited zoom.  Plus, I did not want to put down my binoculars, lest I miss a moment of watching these elusive birds.

 Photo by Gordon Ellmers, used with permission.

My readers can visit our regional Audubon site to see more truly spectacular and instructive photos by Gordon Ellmers of these beautiful owls, as well as of two of the hawks Sue and I saw today, the Rough-legged and the Northern Harrier.  Also, be sure to visit Sue's blog Water-lily to read her account and see her wonderful photos of today's adventure.

Our faces numb and our fingers nearly frozen, Sue and I agreed it was time to head home to hot suppers, and so we went our separate ways, she to Queensbury and I to Saratoga.  I did take a little detour to the tiny river village of Ft. Miller, stopping to take in the beauty of sunset on the Hudson.  There were still areas of open water along this stretch, and flocks of geese came circling in from many directions, peppering the deep-blue sky with their darkened profiles.

Gordon Ellmers had told us that he had seen many hundreds of Snow Geese on the river at Ft. Miller today, but I could not tell what species of goose these were, dark shapes against the water and sky and filling the air with their haunting cries.   I hope this huge flock was able to find an area of open water to spend the night.

Frazil Forms on the Rivers

Saturday, January 15:  Still very cold today, but not so windy as on Friday,  and we even had some bright sunshine this afternoon, so I had no excuse to not get outdoors today.  I drove up to Hadley, where the Hudson River joins the Sacandaga, hoping to catch sight of eagles fishing in the waters kept open by turbulence on both rivers.  No eagles in sight today, but I still saw a fascinating phenomenon:  the formation of "frazil" ice in the turbulent waters.

Both rivers were running full and fast today.  Here's the Hudson as it roars through a gorge at Rockwell Falls.

Here's the Sacandaga in full rowdy flow as it charges toward the restored Bow Bridge that joins both sections of Hadley. The two rivers come together just beyond the Bow Bridge.

At the confluence of the two rivers, I noticed accumulations of slushy ice that had congealed into the distinctive cakes or pans so typical of the special ice called "frazil."  This is a kind of fluid ice that forms when turbulent water throws droplets into the frigid air, where the droplets form crystals and fall back into the water.  The frozen droplets stick together to form thick mats that build on themselves, often creating "hanging dams" that obstruct the river's flow, causing the mats to rise and be deposited along the river banks.  Certain stretches of the Hudson to the north of here are renowned for amassing huge accumulations of this ice, sometimes as thick as 15 or 20 feet.

I climbed down the snow-covered bank to the water's edge and followed the Hudson upstream from where it joined the Sacandaga.  As I approached the bridge that joins the villages of Hadley and Lake Luzerne, I noticed a thick raft of what looked like heaps of snow just downstream of the bridge.

Here's a closer look at that raft, which is not snow at all (we certainly haven't had anything like this amount yet this winter), but rather an accumulation of frazil ice.

I then climbed up the bank and out onto the bridge to observe the river from above, looking downstream.  The river was flowing freely both above and below this frazil raft, so the frazil had obviously not "grounded" here -- an unlikely occurrence, since the river is exceptionally deep at this point.

Walking over to the upstream side of the bridge, I looked directly down to where the torrent, constrained by steep rocky cliffs on both sides, suddenly explodes in a froth of swirling whitewater.  I wondered if frazil ice was forming just as I watched, since I saw milky trails of slushy ice collecting into a mass along the right bank.   This mass would grow in size until its edge reached the swirling current, which then swept much of the slushy ice downstream as more began to accumulate in the shelter of the bank.

This process was rather mesmerizing to watch, and I could have stayed there a long time, but my face grew numb and my nose started dripping from the cold wind.  So I took a little video to watch in the cozy warmth of my home.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Bowlful of Kitty

Yeah, okay, we got some snow yesterday -- the sodden rained-on stuff that gives winter a bad name.  I couldn't even bear to take a photo of it, let alone go out and play in it.  Then today, the wind is howling and gusting up to 50 miles/hour.  Stuck indoors, I decided to make some cookies and got out the mixing bowl.  Ooh, what's this? little Cleo wondered as she climbed right in and discovered the bowl made a lovely place for a nap.  Or so she thought!

 Hmm . . . . This looks interesting.  Will I fit?

 Guess I'll have a little wash-up before I settle in.

 What!  You want me to get out and let you have the bowl?

 Nuh-uh.  I'm gonna take a little snooze first.

 I'll get her out of there, says brother Bebert.

 Oh yeah?  Sez who?  Take that, you rat!

Aw, Mom!  Can't I stay, pleeeeease?

No, she couldn't.   And don't worry about hairy cookies.  I washed the bowl really well before I used it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Icy Amusements

Ho hum.  A winter without any snow can be really boring.  No skiing or sledding or snowshoeing or following animal tracks in the woods.  But lucky for me, I am easily amused.  And even luckier for me, I not only have the wonderful Moreau Lake to explore in every weather, I also have a congenial pal named Sue to enjoy exploring it with me.  We met for a walk at the lake this morning and were delighted to see the water completely frozen over.  Not thickly enough to cross as yet, but perfect for ambling along on close to shore, where we could see straight down to the lake bottom under crystal-clear ice.  Here's a view of the lake from the new deck of a cabin that hangs right over the water.  Over the ice, today.  (Lucky the campers who rent this cabin next summer!)

Here's Sue trying to take a video of the hundreds of minnows that clustered close to shore, exploding away at our footfalls above them, faster than we could capture a photo of them.

I loved looking down through the ice at the many-colored stones, their beauty intensified by the crystalline water.

A frozen lake presents many puzzles, such as what caused these bulges of clear ice to form around the base of plant stalks?

Or what caused these jagged patterns of frosted and clear on the surface of the ice? 

Here was an interesting patch of clear dark circles polka-dotting an area of white opaque ice.

The pattern above is just the reverse of what we expect to see.  Usually, ice bubbles are opaque white  as they stack up in layers within the dark clear ice .  We found lots of bubbles like that, each one prettier than the last.

Here was a distinct trail of bubbles that formed as a creature swam under the ice.  And what could that creature be?

Most likely the creature that takes shelter under this heap of sticks and leaves, a muskrat lodge.

Aha!  More evidence that a muskrat has been about, dragging its skinny tail through the slushy ice before it froze hard.

And here is the muskrat in the flesh, resting under the boat dock near the beach.  Of course, it dived into the open water before I could get a closer shot.

At this point, we were more than half-way around the lake, but we had to hurry on so that Sue could get to work on time.  We'd spent a long time dallying on the bridge between the lake and the back bay, marveling at the howls and pings and cracks and groans that lake ice makes as it freezes, sounding like a battle out of Star Wars.  As I said before, we are easily amused.