Monday, April 30, 2012

Pat's Little Piece of Paradise

Some people really know how to live.  And my friend Pat (seated left on bench) has the perfect place to do it in: this sweet little cabin in the heart of the Adirondacks.  Deep in the woods an easy walk from Thirteenth Lake, her snug little house has everything a person needs for off-the-grid living: solar panels to provide the small amount of electricity she uses; rain- and snow-water cisterns for washing and bathing (she carries in jugs of water for drinking and cooking); propane-powered stove, refrigerator, and hot-water heater; a composting toilet indoors and an outhouse outside; and a little woodstove that provided plenty of warmth on the bright but cold and windy day this Sunday, when Sue and I drove up to spend the afternoon with her.

 If the day had been calmer and warmer, we probably would have all gone for a paddle around Thirteenth Lake, but because of the cold, we settled for a walk along its beautiful shore instead, as Pat's lively Golden Retriever Grady led the way.

After lunch, we took to the more mountainous trails of the nearby Siamese Ponds Wilderness, hoping to lay our eyes on the moose that Pat has seen plenty of signs of in this section of woods.

The trail encountered several streams that we crossed on rustic handmade bridges.

Our destination was this wilderness body of quiet water called William Blake Pond.  Whether named for the 18th-century British poet or some local chap, none of us knew which one.

We never did see any moose, nor any signs of one, but we sure saw lots and lots of Hobblebush.  I have never seen so much in all my life.  There were tons of buds just waiting for warmth to open, and when they do, this woods will be filled with clouds and clouds of white blooms.

We also saw more Round-leaved Violets than I have ever seen before, although they were starting to fade, their vivid yellow color seeming to drain away, leaving petals streaked with white.  This big furry fly was not dissuaded, however, and plunged right into the flowers, looking for nectar or pollen.

I haven't yet figured out which species of fly this is, except to guess it's a tachinid because of its bristly body and large size.  Searching the web, I found several species that look a bit like this, but I couldn't find an exact match.   Because of that broad band of yellow across its rear, I will dub it "Butter-butt Fly" until I learn its real name.

Going up the trail, we never noticed these opening buds of Painted Trillium.  But maybe they hadn't yet opened on this chilly day until the sun rose high enough to warm them.  Descending the same trail we went up on, we were surprised and delighted to find them.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Kids in the Woods

I'll be 70 next month.  I guess that makes me officially an old lady.  But whenever I'm wandering the woods with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists (some of whom are a good deal older than me), I feel like a kid again.  And I think my friends do, too, since they sure have a lot of fun, bringing a marvelous sense of childlike wonder to what they find in nature.

They sure know a lot of great places to botanize, too, and this Thursday they took me with them to a place that a New York Chief Botanist once called the richest wildflower site in the entire state -- Joralemon Park, in a limestone-rich area about 15 miles south of Albany.

This was the third time I've visited Joralemon Park, and I do believe that this site is becoming ever more endangered because of the masses of Garlic Mustard that have infested the woods, creating severe competition for many of the native plants -- some of them quite rare -- that once thrived in this limestone-rich woods.

Happily, many native plants are holding their own for the time being, such as this vividly colored Wild Columbine.

The woody plants also seemed to be barely threatened by the alien invasion, and I was delighted to find American Bladdernut fully in bloom.

This is a shrub that I rarely find in Saratoga County, especially now, since the groundskeepers at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs cut all their bladdernut shrubs to the ground to install security lighting.   I felt almost sick when I found them destroyed, since I know of no other place in the county to find them.  I'm sure the people who did it had no idea of the rarity of those shrubs.

After exploring the western side of the Joralemon preserve, we next headed across the road to our lunchtime destination, a series of limestone ledges that overlook a beaver pond.  Here we sat to enjoy a picnic while watching Tree Swallows swoop and dive over the water.

A labyrinth of caves underlies the ledges we sat on, and while examining the opening of one of these caves, our friend Win discovered a large pile of bear scat, indicating that a bear had likely holed up for the winter inside that cave.

This part of the preserve appeared to be free of the Garlic Mustard infestation, for Miterwort and violets covered the forest floor instead.

A highly unusual low-growing shrub called Creeping Shadblow hung over the ledges, and we were delighted to find it still in bloom.

We were also delighted to find Fragrant Sumac now in bloom, although the leaves (which are indeed fragrant) had yet to emerge.

Carpeting the rocks where we sat to picnic were sprawling patches of a rare "fern ally" called Selaginella rupestris.   Although this mossy-looking plant is also called by the common name of Rock Spike Moss, it is more closely related to ferns than mosses.

Clinging to the sides of the ledges was another highly unusual plant called Purple Cliff Brake (Pellaea atropurpurea).  Although this photo doesn't show them well, this small fern of sunny calcareous rocks has dark purple hairy stalks.

Purple Cliff Brake bears its sporangia along the inrolled margins of its pinnules, and I did manage to capture a photo of that.

I was also happy to capture in a photo the little red glands that stud the petioles of Black Cherry leaves, a distinctive feature of most cherry species.  I would have thought they were some kind of gall, but my friend Ruth Schottman, a walking encyclopedia of botanical knowledge and a longtime member of the Thursday Naturalists, informed me that these little red bumps were a normal part of healthy trees, perhaps serving as decoys to prevent ants or other destructive insects from attacking the fruit.

That's one of the great things about joining this friendly and extremely knowledgeable group of friends on their nature walks.  There's almost always somebody who can answer any question I may have.  Even if I didn't know enough to ask it.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Seed-hunting on Powerline and Pond

 Sue Pierce  (white hat) takes a photo of Wood Betony buds at Moreau Lake State Park, while Jeremy LaPointe examines a dried seed head.

 When Jeremy LaPointe, a specialist in native grassland restoration, asked the naturalists at Moreau Lake State Park about what species of upland plants might grow in the park,  my friend Sue and I were summoned to show Jeremy around.  We were more than happy to take him to where we knew such species grew, particularly under the power lines that cut through mountainous sections of the park.  Jeremy is interested in obtaining seeds that can be used for pinebush restoration, and after locating populations of desired species, he would be able to return after blooming season to collect the seeds.

Although few of the plants typical of this habitat are now in bloom, we were able to show him where many of them grow, examining the evidence of dried stalks and spent seedheads, and even discovering newly emergent shoots.  One of our remarkable finds today was a burgeoning patch of Wood Betony, with purple flower buds growing out of masses of crinkly leaves.

After exploring the dry open areas, we next led our guest into the woods surrounding Mud Pond, where we found an extensive patch of Downy Yellow Violets (Viola pubescens).  I believe this photograph shows pretty clearly the furry stalks and leaves that earned this violet its common name.

 Nearby was another patch of yellow stemmed violets, but these did not have the hairy stems and leaves that the other violets had.  Although this violet was once considered to be a separate species (V. pensylvanica), it has since been reclassified as a variety of the Downy Yellow and now goes by the name of V. pubescens var. scabriuscula.  But we can still call it Smooth Yellow Violet to differentiate it from its fuzzier sister.

Jeremy was not looking to collect the seeds from Red Maple trees, but if he had been, he sure would have found an abundant supply.  What a sight they presented, with cascading streamers of vivid red and green!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Big Day for Moreau Lake State Park

There was excitement galore today at Moreau Lake State Park, as many of New York State's top people in parks and recreation gathered to celebrate the opening of the park's new Nature Center addition.  Even Mother Nature herself added to the festivities, bringing bright sun and balmy temperatures, despite predictions of rain and cold.

The new addition provides much more space than was available before for educating the public about the many natural wonders and inhabitants native to the vast forested habitat that is Moreau Lake State Park.

In addition to exhibits featuring live reptiles, amphibians, turtles, and fish, the Nature Center also houses the park's extensive collection of animal mounts, allowing visitors a close-up view of creatures they ordinarily would only see at a distance.

Of course, I myself prefer to experience nature directly and out of doors, so when the ceremonies and speeches were over, and after I had partaken of the wonderful lunch that the park provided, I was only too eager to join a few naturalists for a walk around the lake.

Our first destination was a Mallard's nest that one of the naturalists had discovered earlier, such a beautiful creation with the hen's speckled down lining the nest.

We also happened upon a cluster of dragonflies just emerging from their nymph cases.

We also found vivid red Wild Columbines emerging from their buds.

But the most exciting event of our walk was discovering a family of tiny Red Fox kits, who were scampering and tumbling about the bank until they caught sight of us and dashed quickly into the safety of their den beneath this tree.  Before they disappeared completely, they peered at us with their darling little foxy faces, and although their fur was a grayish brown, we could tell they were Red Fox, rather than Coyote or Gray Fox, because of the white tips at the ends of their tails.

What a wonderful treasure we have in Moreau Lake State Park!  There's always something amazing to see, whether indoors at the newly enlarged Nature Center, or anywhere in the over 4,000 acres of forest and mountains and wetlands.

Swamp Slogging With Evelyn

After such a busy nature week as I'd had, I'd planned to maybe sleep late on Sunday and wake to the Sunday papers and a lapful of cuddly cats.  But then I got the invitation from Evelyn Greene to come explore "her" cedar swamp up in North Creek.  Well, I never can resist when adventures with Evelyn beckon.  So off I went, rubber boots on my feet and well bundled against the damp cold day.

 I just have to trust that Evelyn knows where she's going when she leads me into such trackless swamps as the one she took me to.  At first glance, I sure didn't see any way to penetrate this gnarly wet mess.

But Evelyn did, since she'd been working to lop crowding limbs and lay branches across mucky areas so that we could make our way deep into the heart of the swamp.

It's in mineral-rich swamps such as this that we're more likely to find certain orchids and other rare flowers, although we will have to come back later when the weather is warmer to look for such flowering plants.  For the present, we could satisfy our botanical cravings with a marvelous diversity of mosses and liverworts.  Let's see if I can remember the names of some of the ones we found.

This pretty, ferny-looking stuff is Hypnum imponens, which Evelyn told me is also called Brocade Moss.

Evelyn told me that this ruffly tree-loving moss is Neckera, although she wasn't sure of the species name.

Here's one that has a most appropriate common name, Shaggy Moss.  But I'd love to learn the Latin name for this one, because it's so much fun to say it: Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus.  There!  Now, you try it.

Then there were liverworts, such as this Bazzania trilobata nestled into a clump of Dicranum moss.  On one website dealing with such bryophytes, I found this species called Millipede Liverwort, which I thought was a very descriptive common name.

Another liverwort, which looked like tiny cedar boughs, was growing on the trunk of a tree.  This is one of the Porella species, I couldn't determine which one.

In the midst of all that mossy green, this vivid orange polypore (species unknown) sure stood out.

Update:  One of my blog readers, the author and wildflower expert Carol Gracie, has written to tell me that this is the aptly named Red-belted Polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola), found year-round on many species of dead trees.

We made it through the cedar swamp to higher dryer ground that was home to an amazing number of Dutchman's Breeches plants, more than I had ever seen in one place.

We also found an abundant patch of tiny pale purple violets.  We almost passed them off as nothing more interesting than Common Blue Violets, but then we noticed the remarkable bulging spur on the back of the flower.  Hmmmm,  what species could this violet be?  I knew it couldn't be Long-spurred Violet, since that's a stemmed violet with a very skinny long spur, so might this be the one called Great-spurred Violet?

A closer look inside the flower revealed no sign of hairs on any of the petals,  one of the diagnostic details for Great-spurred Violets, also called Selkirk's Violet (Viola selkirkii).

We took one of the plants back to the house where we could examine it in better light, and there we confirmed that this was indeed V. selkirkii.  Other diagnostic details include the deep notch where the stem meets the leaf, and the fine hairs on the tops of the leaves.

It's always fun to play plant detective, to parse a plant until you can determine its species, and I felt an extra pique of pleasure, since this was a new flower for my life list.  I have also since learned that there is no record of this plant growing in Warren County, where we found it.  I shall have to ask Evelyn to go back and obtain a fresh specimen to press and dry for the state herbarium.  I'd do it myself, but I'm not sure I could find my way back through that cedar swamp.  But Evelyn knows the way.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Woods Walks and Tree Counts

Where did this week go?  Every day was filled with one nature adventure after another, and the week to come looks to be just as busy.  Let me just touch on some of the highlights of the week just past before future events push them back into the dim regions of my memory.

Wednesday morning found me up in Glens Falls with my friend Sue, walking in Cole's Woods, a delightfully woodsy forest right in the middle of the city.

While we followed a pretty creek that wound through the woods, we were serenaded by a Winter Wren flitting about the creek bank and Pine Warblers chattering high in the pines.  There were many wildflowers blooming in the woods, including Red Trilliums, Dog and Northern WhiteViolets, Wood Anemones, and more Dwarf Ginseng than I have ever seen in all my life, starring the ground like a firmament between clouds of Skunk Cabbage leaves.

Thursday brought further woodsy adventures with the botanically inclined group of friends who call themselves the Thursday Naturalists, this week to explore the North Woods of Skidmore College.

 Among the unexpected delights we found were the pristine white flowers of the Large-flowered White Trillium, which will carpet large areas of the Skidmore woods with masses of bloom in the coming weeks.  We were quite surprised to see these this week, since their bloom time is usually later than that of the Red Trillium, which is also just coming into bloom itself.

That was also the case with Large-flowered Bellwort.  We found this showy yellow bellwort beginning to bloom this week at the same time as the Sessile Bellwort, the two usually blooming several weeks apart, with the Sessile Bellwort opening first. 

My friend Sue was the first to spot these fluffy tufts of bloom, so vividly yellow against the clear blue sky.  I would probably have assumed they were just clusters of opening leaves, but Sue has very sharp vision (aided by binoculars) and could see from quite some distance away that these were indeed flowers and not leaves.

A closer inspection revealed the pretty yellow staminate flowers of Sassafras. I wish I had a magnifying lens on my camera to show what one of the botanists in our group, Ruth Schottman, showed to me, the tiny caps on the ends of the stamens that had opened to release the pollen.

I don't know which one of our group spotted this Grey Tree Frog, which looked like a licheny stone lying on the forest floor.   It was quite a surprise to find one down on the ground, since these frogs spend most of their lives in the treetops, rarely descending except to find mates.  It was remarkably docile, allowing us to  poke our cameras at it from very close as well as from all angles.  It even allowed us to pick it up and place it on a green leaf to see if it would green-up to match its background, as these frogs are known to do.  But we detected no change in coloration.  I have read that the change happens quite slowly, compared with chameleons.

We did, however, notice this startling flash of orange under the rear leg of the frog, a color signal that is visible only when the frog is hopping.

We found many other things of interest in the woods that day, but I would say that this dear little frog was definitely the highlight.

Friday, another lovely spring day with temperatures climbing into the 70s, found me picnicking on the sandy shore of Lake Moreau with my friends Sue and Lindsey.  Lindsey is an expert birder who will be leaving next week to do ornithological research for the summer in Mississippi, so Sue planned this picnic to give Lindsey a good dose of northern woodlands before she departed for the steamy south.

Nature certainly cooperated to make the day memorable, for in addition to providing an exquisitely fine day, she sent several critters to entertain us as we sat on the beach.  The first surprise was a muskrat swimming out from shore and when it got directly before our line of sight, it arched its back, poked its nose upwards, and stuck its skinny little tail straight up and proceeded to swim back and forth in that odd posture.  What do you suppose this display could mean?  Is it possibly a part of mating behavior?

Other entertainers included hawks and vultures soaring overhead and a beautiful loon swimming on the lake right before our eyes.  Too bad my camera can't capture birds as far away as these were, but I did manage to get a shot of this lovely American Painted Lady, who landed on the sand beside our blanket.  And posed quite nicely, wasn't that considerate of it?

After our picnic, we walked around the lake, admiring the many beauties that were set before us, such as these baby Red Maple seeds colored a vivid red . . .

. . . and this tiny little Ovate-leaved Violet, as vividly purple as it was adorably diminutive.

We didn't make it completely around the lake because we spent quite a while lingering along the shore of the back bay, listening to the shrill trills of mating American Toads, as well as sitting by a still woodland pool, watching the round eyeballs of toads emerge from the murky water, sometimes in tandem from mating pairs.  My shots of the toads were too blurry to post here, but I did manage to capture the sound of their mating calls in this brief video.  (I couldn't photograph the Snapping Turtle, either, the one Sue tells us about in this video.)

 Saturday was supposed to rain, and so it did, but not until this afternoon, after this group of tree-loving volunteers had completed much of their assignments surveying the street trees of Saratoga Springs.  After gathering for a group photo in the shade of one of Saratoga's few remaining American Elms, we fanned out two-by-two across the city, clipboards, measuring tapes, and GPS devices in hand to conduct a street tree inventory as part of the Saratoga Springs Urban Forestry Project.  This is a project designed to promote awareness of the desirability of large trees in the urban landscape, as well as to argue for the use of native versus introduced, often invasive, species of trees.

My assignment completed, I was walking home when I stopped to admire the flowering crabapple trees lining the front walk of the public library in downtown Saratoga Springs.  I was curious to see if I could find the multiple pistils that distinguish the multi-seeded fruits such as apples and pears from the single-pistillate blossoms of stone fruits like cherries and plums, and sure enough, there they were, those three little green stalks surrounded by the yellow anthers.

Compared to those showy apple blossoms, these tiny Thyme-leaved Sandworts, growing against a stone gutter on a city street, are virtually invisible.  Most folks would never see these little weeds, but then, most folks aren't wildflower nerds like me, who doubtless startled some bystanders when I dropped to my knees to peer closely at these minute little bits of floral prettyness.

I took a brief detour into Congress Park before I got home, eager to see if other of my favorite lawn weeds had come into bloom, to catch sight of them and admire them before the mowers came along to "tidy up" the patches of damp ground where they grow abundantly.  Oh yes, yes, yes!  Some of my most favorite of the mustard-family flowers were blooming today, the dainty white Cuckoo Flowers, so exquisitely lovely with their pink buds, especially when set among masses of beautifully blue Ground Ivy.

And again, yes, yes, yes!   Clustered prettily against the trunk of a tree and protected from the mowers by the tree's roots, was the showiest of our native chickweeds, the Field Chickweed, with flowers nearly an inch across.