Saturday, March 31, 2012

Spring Marches On

I'm happy to report that the frigid temperatures this past week have done little to stop the unrelenting progress of spring.  Sure,  the cold weather slowed it a bit, after the rapid push of summer-like heat a week ago, but in my wanderings around local woods the last few days, I found little damage from freezing nights, as well as new buds just waiting for warmth to call them into bloom.

In the wetlands that line the  Bog Meadow Nature Trail, new green sprouts are crowning the gnomish humps of Tussock Sedge .

The Marsh Marigold buds are already showing a hint of the yellow that soon will fill every roadside wetland with masses of gold.

Sharing that Bog Meadow wetland, Toothwort is raising its clusters of buds to the light, ready for just a little more warmth to coax those buds into dainty white flowers.

Most of the Spring Beauty plants have tucked their blooms back under cover, but a few little brave ones have poked their heads above the  forest floor.

A sure sign of spring, no matter what the weather:  little Stoneflies are now emerging from clear running streams.

Returning to the Skidmore woods, I hurried to check on the Bloodroots I'd found there last week and was happy to see that their pristine white blooms showed not a trace of damage from the cold, thanks to the enveloping protection of their wraparound leaves.

Blue Cohosh plants had shot up almost overnight, their leaves and flower buds sharing the same purplish color.

Red-berried Elder shrubs held tight clusters of purple-tinged flower buds that are prettier than their rather homely greenish flower clusters will be, but not nearly as spectacular as the brilliant red berries that will adorn the bushes in late June.

Littering the path were these fat red caterpillar-shaped things, the male flower clusters of Cottonwood.  I don't know if they were knocked out of the trees by wind, or if Red Squirrels are nipping them off as they clear their treetop highways of obstructing growths.

The Hepaticas showed no sings of having suffered from the cold, but then, they are well-equipped with furry bracts to enclose their colorful sepals should the need for retreat arise.

I was really startled to find a couple of Long-spurred Violets already in bloom.  Their flowers were quite contorted, however, with the long spur twisted opposite from the way it usually grows.  Maybe it was trying to tell the rest of the flower to head back into bud until the weather warms up for good.

Wildflowers Make the News!

We haven't yet had any April showers, but April flowers are getting some press this weekend in the Albany Times Union's magazine called "Explore,"  which will be included in the Sunday paper tomorrow.  I'm especially excited about this because Gillian Scott, the author of the cover story ("Walk on the Wild[flower] Side"),  was kind enough to interview me for this article and also give my blog a mention.  I also contributed some photos for the piece, some of which appear on the cover spread.  The magazine will be on the newsstands April 1,  but you can get an online preview by clicking here.

Update:  The newsstand copy of the Times Union I bought on April 1 in Saratoga Springs did NOT have a magazine enclosed.   Nor did the one my friend Sue bought in Glens Falls.  I have heard from some folks who DID get a magazine in their papers, so it did go out, but not to all papers.  I wonder why.

Gillian Scott and Herb Terns are the authors of a very informative and fun blog, "Outdoors," which covers all things outdoors in New York and beyond.  You can find that blog among my blog list in the right-hand column, or you can visit it by clicking here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Frost-hardy Survivors

As these icicles dripping from cliffs along Spier Falls Road attest, it did indeed go below freezing last night.  Way below.  Down into the 20s.   Concerned about how that deep freeze might have affected some of our way-too-early bloomers, I drove out to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton today to check on them.  My first concern was a patch of Snow Trillium, but as I hurried across the bridge toward where I knew those rare trilliums would be growing, a dot of bright yellow along the stream bank caused me to halt in my tracks.  What?!  Could that really be a Round-leaved Violet?  Blooming in March?!  And after a freezing night?  Well, that is indeed what it was.  Just one, but hard to miss that vivid lemon-yellow bloom, apparently untouched by frost.

As for the Snow Trilliums, they too survived the freezing night unscathed.  In fact, they looked perkier than ever, with many new plants emerged from the ground since last I visited.

Nearby, I could see the bank where Dutchman's Breeches grow every spring, and I noticed this frilly cluster of leaves that told me the Dutchman's Breeches were well on their way.  Isn't it amazing that such newborn leaves would be so impervious to frost damage?

This itsy bitsy Red Spider Mite was also undaunted by the cold, scurrying so fast around a patch of Mnium moss I had a very hard time taking its photo, since it would not stay within macro focal range.  I snapped about 20 shots and this was the best I could get.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lamb-like March Turns Leonine

Brrrr!  The thermometer barely climbed above 40 today, while a stiff wind drove that cold through every opening it could find in my coat.  Such crazy weather!  Three days ago I was walking around in shorts and a tee, but today the longjohns went on before I went out.  Despite a bright sun, it was rather unpleasant outdoors today, although it felt more and more comfortable the deeper I walked into the sheltering woods of the Ballston Creek Preserve, where I'd come to see if by any chance Spring Beauty had opened its buds.  I wasn't at all surprised to find the first Dandelions of the year,  such sturdy little weeds they are, with flowers so sunny yellow they seem to radiate heat.  But Spring Beauties are such seemingly delicate things, with slender stems and dainty pink stripes.  How could they possibly tolerate this cold?

Apparently, they tolerate it very well, to judge from their glorious profusion today across the forest floor.

Despite their fragile appearance,  such very early bloomers as these native wildflowers must have evolved some kinds of strategies to allow them to survive late freezes, such as the one predicted for tonight, with temperatures possibly plunging into the 20s.  I'll have to come back again next week to see how they coped.    If they do happen to get wiped out for the year, I'm glad I had a chance to see them in all their glory today.

With that strong wind whipping these Red Maple branches around, it was hard to get a clear photo of those scarlet blossoms so lovely against that blue sky.  A beautiful sight!

Red Maples bear male and female flowers on separate trees, with the male trees seeming to predominate.  I had to search around to find a tree with pistillate flowers like these.

The Shadblow trees are about to burst into bloom with the next warm spell, biding their time for the chilly moment with their furry bud scales snugged up around their tightly furled petals.

Friday, March 23, 2012

More Flowers Rush the Season

Another summery day in March.  I only had time for a quick walk through the Skidmore woods today, not expecting to see anything new from my walk there on Wednesday, just planning to stretch my legs.  But lo!  There I saw it:  one lonely little Bloodwort in a Trout Lily patch.  The Trout Lily leaves had emerged overnight, and the Bloodroot bloom was about half the size of normal, but still. . . there it was, opening its sunny little face to the sky, a full month ahead of schedule!

I was also surprised by Spicebush, little puffs of yellow floating as if on air, visible from some distance away in the woods.  I know they weren't here two days ago, because I had searched for them and couldn't find them.

I did expect to find these purple English Violets, since I had found their white-flowered variety on Wednesday.  These extremely fragrant, early blooming violets are not native to North America, but I'm awfully glad that someone long ago imported them, probably the Victorian ladies who lived in the mansions that once stood along the carriage roads in these woods.  I picked a little nosegay to bring home to fill my kitchen with fragrance.

Except for their exquisite fragrance, it would be hard to tell these purple violets apart from our native Common Blue Violets (which are not blooming yet), but a closer look into the throat of the flower reveals the distinctive hooked style that is diagnostic for this species.

One more floral surprise:  a patch of delightful little weeds called Hairy Bittercress, blooming a full month before I have ever found it before.  This is another of those tiny alien mustards that, like Draba verna, love to cover the soil in our garden patches before the gardeners come along to yank them out.  I happen to think they are quite pretty, especially the foliage, which is actually kind of hairy if you look really close.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flowers Are Coming Fast!

In all my years of wildflower hunting, I have never found spring ephemerals blooming in March.  But with several days in a row of summer-like heat, I thought I'd better start looking now, or they'd come and go without me.  So my friend Sue and I met at Moreau Lake this morning to look for some early bloomers.   A thick fog rendered the morning chilly and gray, but by the time we reached the back bay of the lake -- where we thought we might find Trailing Arbutus -- not a trace of fog remained to obscure a radiant sapphire sky.

There were ducks on the bay too far away for my camera to capture, but Sue with her excellent birding skills was able to tell me immediately what kind they were, including two pairs of Ring-necked Ducks and a pair of Wood Ducks.  Sue was also the first to spy this just-opened arbutus blossom growing on a sandy bank.  Peering close, I noticed that the petals were edged with brown.  Could it be that our snowless winter has made the flower buds vulnerable to damage?

As we walked along the sandy shore, we came upon a fallen log covered with a wonderful mix of colorful mosses and lichens and liverworts.  At least, I think that these mats of reddish stuff are a liverwort.   But it's not one I know the name of.

Looking closer, I didn't find the braided sacs I usually associate with liverworts, but I did see those shiny black spheres on stalks that I do associate with liverwort fruiting bodies.

Here's an even closer look at those fruiting bodies, very tiny, emerging from cylindrical cases.

I've sent these photos to some friends who are very knowledgeable about bryology, so I hope I will eventually have a name for this fascinating organism.  Update:  Evelyn Greene suggested this might be the liverwort Ptilidium pulcherrimum, which I googled and found photos that look quite similar.  This is one of the few liverworts with common names:  Naugahyde Liverwort is one name, and Lovely Fuzzwort is another.  Guess which one I'll be calling it.  Love that Lovely Fuzzwort!

Down the beach from that liverworty log was a beautiful mound of Haircap Moss, its starry green stalks crowned with rusty-colored cups that hold the ripening sperm.

Overhead, yellow-and-red puffs of male Red Maple flowers showed their colors to best advantage against that blue, blue sky.

On the same sandy bank where I found that Draba verna the other day, Sue saw these wild-haired yellow heads in the grass, the flowers of some kind of sedge, but a rather small one.  The flowers look just like those of Plaintain-leaved Sedge, but the leaves are much narrower.

As we rounded the lake and reached the road that would take us back to our cars,  we noticed that some of the roadside posts were polka-dotted with tiny bumps, like  nothing we'd ever seen before.

A closer look revealed that each of those bumps was affixed to the post with a very fine thread so that they dangled down about an inch from the attachment site.  Also, the bumps turned out not to be spherical, but rather flattened, like teensy bowls.  Very strange!  I've never seen anything like this.  Is it a fungus?  Maybe a slime mold?  I sure don't know.

Update:  Thanks to Heather and her comment regarding these little blobs, we have an answer to our mystery:  these are the rain-splashed "eggs" (reproductive sacs called peridioles) of bird's nest fungi that attach themselves by threads to surrounding structures like shrubs and fence posts, the better to disperse their spores on the air.  And sure enough, all over the ground around these posts are masses of White Bird's Nest Fungus (Crucibulum laeve), now emptied of all their "eggs," as the following photo, taken yesterday,  reveals.

Here's another photo of this fungus, taken last September when the nests were still full of eggs.  (You can see my original blog entry about them by clicking here.)

Sue had to leave to go to her job, but I was free to continue my day in the woods.  After stopping at home for lunch, I then headed out to the Skidmore woods, where I found Hepatica just opening its beautiful flowers, a good two weeks earlier than I have ever seen them.

The tightly pleated leaves of False Hellebore have thrust up from the ground like green rockets.

The fuzzy buds of Leatherwood have split open to dangle their bright-yellow trumpets, so lovely against the sky.

I didn't expect to find English Violets today, and almost didn't bother to take a detour to find them.  But the day was still young, and very warm, so I decided to make my way to the other side of Broadway on the chance that they just might be in bloom.  And so they were.  Or rather, so IT was.  Just one, but with many buds soon to open.  And oh so fragrant, as its Latin name, Viola odorata, would suggest.

I wasn't the only creature enjoying the summer-like warmth of the woods today.  A Mourning Cloak Butterfly spends the winter as an adult, sheltering under leaf litter with its blood charged with glucose to prevent it from freezing.  On warm days in early spring, it emerges to feed on plant sap and spread its dark velvet wings to absorb the energy of the sun.  This one kept teasing me by lighting too far away for a photo,  but my patience paid off as it landed at last by my feet. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Nature Adventures Here and There

With all this warm weather (close to 80 today), signs of spring are popping up fast, so we have to keep moving to try to keep up with them all.  Sue met me in Saratoga today for a trip to Bog Meadow Nature Trail, our first stop on a day of nature adventures at several locations.

Accompanied by the croaks of Wood Frogs and the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds, we explored both the open marsh and the wooded wetlands that make up this nature preserve, stopping to notice the long pendulous male catkins of the alders, and also the little red puffs of this shrub's female flowers.

At our second stop of the day, the Ballston Creek Preserve near Ballston Lake,  we found other female alder flowers that seemed a bit bigger and redder than the ones at Bog Meadow.  I know we have at least two species of alder, but I can never remember how to tell them apart.

We had come to the Ballston Creek Preserve to observe the active heronry there, and we were not disappointed in finding the giant nests already occupied by Great Blue Herons.   We were, however, quite disappointed to find that the Osprey-occupied nest we'd been observing the past two years was totally gone, with not a stick remaining nor any sign of the Ospreys.  I wonder if last summer's hurricane blew the nest away.  Or if the Osprey pair will return to build a new nest.  They may have decided to relocate among less inhospitable neighbors.  My post from last year recounts one of their not-so-friendly encounters with the herons.

It looks like one red-feathered bird (perhaps a woodpecker?) had a very unfriendly encounter with some kind of predator, to judge from this gob of remains Sue found on a log.  We weren't quite sure if the gob was feces or regurgitated matter.

As we sat on a bench to eat our lunch, we were serenaded on all sides by birdsong and frog calls.  Out in the marsh we could hear the motorboat chugging of what Sue was pretty certain were Pickerel Frogs, while off in the woods to either side of us we could hear the loud quacks of the Wood Frogs seeking mates in the vernal pools.

I wasn't able to record with my camera the distinctive sound of the Pickerel Frogs, but I did manage to record the quacking Wood Frogs.  Of course, the frogs fell silent as we approached the pool, but after we sat there quietly for a good long while, they once again began to croak their distinctive calls.

On our way back to Saratoga, we decided to pull in to the Malta Nature Preserve, a small natural area of wooded marsh and ponds set among surrounding housing developments.   Our reward for stopping was the sight of a good-sized flock of Ring-necked Ducks resting from their migration on one of the ponds.  Once again, Sue amazed me with her ability to recognize them immediately, even at quite a distance.  Unfortunately, they were too far away for a photograph, but I was quite excited to be able to see these unusual ducks through my binoculars.

While standing on a dock observing the ducks, we looked down into the water to notice these fish that seemed to be observing us.

After Sue returned home to prepare for an evening obligation, I decided I still had time for one more nature adventure today and drove up to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton.  There, I was astounded to find the diminutive Snow Trillium already in bloom, at least two weeks earlier than I've ever found it before. 

Although this lovely little trillium is not native to areas this far north, it seems to have naturalized very well in this location.  No doubt, it was Orra Phelps herself who planted it years ago in her woods,  for which I am very grateful.  Otherwise, I would never have the chance to see this brave little beauty that dares to open its blooms so early, some years even while snow remains on the ground around it.