Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Mud Pond Plants in Winter Guise

The wind today is lashing a cold rain around down here in Mt Kisco, Westchester County, where I'm spending the rest of the week with grandkids while their parents are away.  I'd hoped to be taking my granddogs -- two huge Bernese Mountain Dog puppies -- for long happy walks in the woods around here and check out some nearby nature preserves.  Well, I do have to take the pups out for walks, of course, and they're happy enough to roll around in the mud, but I'm not so happy about staying outdoors with them, nor wiping the mud from their saturated bodies before I can let them back into the house.  Also, I'd forgotten about the way dogs smell when they're wet.  Ah well. . . .  Maybe the sun will come out tomorrow.

I'm glad I made the effort to get out to Moreau's Mud Pond on Monday before I left home, even though that day wasn't all that beautiful, either, with a low gray sky and sodden snow underfoot.  But the view across the pond to mountains beyond always lifts my spirits, whatever the weather.

Winter just seems to drag on now, and though some folks have heard the call of the Red-winged Blackbird already, it's going to be a long time yet before we start looking for even the very first of the new spring flowers.  So we wildflower nuts have to content ourselves with admiring the winter remnants of plants, quizzing ourselves to see if we can recognize them from their husks and buds.

Ditch Stonecrop makes it easy, since its dried seed pods look very much like the flowers that first produced them.  Except for the rusty color.

The same can be said for Maleberry, whose BB-hard berries weren't any softer last summer  when the shrub first bore these fruits.   I wonder if there's any creature on earth that eats them.  The bushes remain full of berries all winter long, and I even find these leftover berries still on the bushes when new flowers bloom come spring.

Thanks to my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, who showed me some similar to these last spring, I now know a Nannyberry bud when I see one, with its long skinny point like a crane's bill.  These are growing on one of the biggest Nannyberry shrubs I have ever seen, almost as big as an apple tree, standing along the western shore of Mud Pond.  The buds were visible from some distance away, due to their pinkish cast.

These buds stood out because of their color, too --  a rich chrome yellow.

I would not have known what tree they belonged to if I hadn't noticed the lumpy tumors growing all over the branches.  There's a whole grove of about 20 Bitternut Hickory trees in this low-lying area on the western shore of Mud Pond, every single one of which is infested with these lumps.  A friend pointed them out to me several years ago, and we ultimately learned that the lumps were caused by a fungus called Phomopsis.  The trees may very well have been weakened by this infestation, but as these yellow buds attest, the trees continue to sprout healthy new growth each year.

There was still a little snow on the ground in the woods, which set off the evergreen leaves of Pipsissewa very nicely.  Lots of these plants with their leathery green leaves grow along the trail that circles Mud Pond, but it's not that often we find one that bears its cluster of waxy white flowers.  The seed pod here reveals that this is one plant that did.

The same can be said for this remnant of Striped Wintergreen, a close relative of Pipsissewa that bears very similar flowers and can be told from its cousin by the white stripes on its dark shiny evergreen leaves.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sorry Friends, I've Had It With Spam!

Well, I just couldn't take it anymore.  I was getting at least a hundred spam messages a day, on posts going back all four years.  So I had to do it: activate word verification.  I hate to do it to my loyal readers, who are always so generous with comments.  Sometimes it takes several tries before I can decipher the letters accurately, so I know it's annoying.  Sorry.  I hope you will still stop by to say hello.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

New Finds on the Tupelo Trail

We sure were a grumpy pair, Sue and I, when we met at the Spring Overlook Trailhead on Spier Falls Road today.  Tiny pellets of ice were pattering all around us from a leaden sky, and visions of slick steep curving roads that stood between us and our safe warm houses were giving us second thoughts about hiking up to the overlook today.  But it wasn't just that.  It was just February.  Who doesn't start to feel grumpy in February, especially when the winter has been so snowless and drear?  Oh well.  Let's hike, we decided.  We're already here. 

We hadn't been able to climb this trail all summer and fall, because of heavy construction work on the powerline that cuts across the access to the overlook from Spier Falls Road.  But work is halted now for the winter, so we were free to ascend.  We also wanted to hike even further today, to a swamp way up in the mountain where some big old Black Tupelos grow, and if we didn't go now while the swamp was frozen, we wouldn't be able to get close to the trees without sinking into the muck.  So up we went.

As soon as we left the blasted powerline area behind us, we began to feel more cheerful.  Our dear familiar forested mountain trail was as lovely as ever, and the climbing was very easy today, with just enough snow to provide better footing over the slippery ice, but not enough to require the added weight of snowhoes.  It felt good to force our lungs to take in the sweet cold air, and as we ascended we warmed up enough to unzip several layers of garments, despite our faces being pelted with icy pellets.

Cascades of blue ice decorated the rocky outcroppings near the summit of the mountain.

In every season and every weather, the view from the overlook is ample reward for the effort it takes to reach it.

We didn't linger long at the overlook but pushed on toward the tupelo swamp that lay a good deal further along and at an even higher elevation.

On every hike I take with Sue, I find reason to feel grateful for her remarkable eyesight, and this hike was no exception.  The tiny bug in this photo was maybe a quarter inch long and walking across a snow surface littered with beechnut husks and birch seeds.  But Sue spied it easily, and of course we had to kneel down in the snow to get a better look.  It isn't everyday you see little bugs abroad on the snow.  Other than Snow Fleas, that is, and this was certainly not a Snow Flea, with those long legs and little hook at the end of its abdomen.

Thanks to, Sue has since identified this remarkable little creature as a Snow Fly of the genus Chinoea, which doesn't emerge as an adult insect until after snow covers the ground and because of a unique biochemistry survives in subfreezing temperatures.   Sue also linked me to a site called "The Backyard Arthropod Project" that provided further fascinating information about Snow Flies as well as other intriguing bugs.  Check it out.

We continued on along the trail for longer than we thought we should have, wondering if we had missed our turnoff to the swamp.  But then we spied the landmarks we were looking for:  a long low ridge of rocks and a fallen tree pointing downward to our swamp.

Despite our feet punching through the swamp's ice cover in spots, we were able to penetrate the area far enough to at last lay eyes on one of the trees we were looking for.  Although we find many Black Tupelos growing in swampy areas along the Hudson, it's quite unusual to find them growing at this elevation, and these trees up here show signs of being much older than the specimens we find along the river. Sue and I don't think they are as old as the 600-800-year-old tupelos that have been found and core-sampled in a mountainous swamp just a few miles away from these, but we do think they might be quite old indeed.

The best way to pick them out from their neighbors is to search the sky for the tupelo's distinctive gnarly and twiggy crown that rises above the surrounding forest.

We brought along a GPS device to record the coordinates of the three trees we found today, hoping to interest some old-tree enthusiasts in visiting these trees and attempting to ascertain their age.  We also measured the diameter of each tupelo we found.  This particular tree measured 58.5 inches at breast height.

As we turned to make our way to another tupelo we had spotted off in the distance, we almost ran into this giant specimen hiding out among surrounding hemlocks at the outer edge of the swamp.

We measured the diameter of this tree at 73 inches, and we also noted the texture of the bark as a sign of its great age.  As tupelos age, the bark on one side of the tree becomes smoother than the normal deeply furrowed bark.  This photo shows the smoothed-out bark on the left, the deeper furrows on the right.


We found yet another tupelo, which we also measured and recorded coordinates for, before heading back down the mountain, feeling in much higher spirits than when we started up.  It could be it was just the exercise of climbing that infused us with better cheer, but I do believe it was also the fun of finding really cool stuff in the woods, from tiny bugs with antifreeze blood to ancient, impressive trees.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shivering Along the Towpath

Oh man!  For a day when the temperature rose as high as the upper 20s, it sure felt bitterly cold!  I forced  myself to go out for a walk today and regretted it almost instantly, as an icy wind turned my cheeks to stone and my lips all papery dry and crackly as onion skin.  I had chosen the old towpath trail along the Hudson River at Schuylerville, hoping that maybe the sight of some waterfowl on the open water might add some interest to this otherwise dreary day.  But not a single bird put in an appearance.  Not that I would have seen one if it did, with my eyes all full of tears from the wind-whipped cold.

I've been hiding out at home all week, so I really needed the exercise, but I sure wasn't able to pick up any aerobic speed on a trail that was pocked with hard, sharp ridges of slippery ice.  Mostly, I picked my way along the edges, grumbling that winter might just as well get over, if it's not going to get any better than this.

Well, it wasn't ALL miserable.  I was pleased to see some very nice improvements to this trail since I walked it last year, including this sitting deck perched over the water.  I wouldn't have wanted to linger there today, but I can imagine soft warm summer afternoons when this would be a very pleasant spot, indeed.

And here was a MAJOR improvement to this towpath trail, a project restoring access to this old iron bridge.  The bridge has been closed to automobile traffic for years and barricaded against foot traffic as well, as the deck turned to rust and the stone piers started to crumble.  But just this year, funds were found to strengthen the bridge for foot and bicycle traffic, and here was a crew hard at work on this blustery day doing exactly that.

Oh boy!  Here I was, complaining about the cold and I'd only been outdoors for maybe half an hour.   These guys are out here all day long in the unrelenting wind and frigid air.    Probably getting splashed with water, too.  It was really amazing, though,  to see how precisely they manipulated those huge iron tubes they were setting in place and then screwing down into the river bottom to prepare for bolstering the footings of the bridge's piers.

I was fascinated to see how carefully they set the tubes, using plumb lines and levels and tweaking the crane just so to get the tubes exactly into position, then attaching a rotating device to screw the tubes down until they reached the bedrock.   Be careful, guys!  One misstep, and you're in the drink!  I noticed that everyone was wearing a life preserver.

It's funny.  I bet I stood there for 45 minutes watching this work and forgot completely about how cold I felt.  Except for the fingers I used to operate my camera.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Poor Porky!

A grey day, not very cold.  No particular outdoor adventures beckoned, but I wanted to walk for exercise, so I decided I might as well walk along the river as anywhere else.   The wooded banks along Spier Falls Road always offer a pleasant prospect, and there's always the chance of spotting eagles or wintering waterfowl.

Although the snow is now crusted over, it's not very deep, hardly reaching the top of my boots, so the walking was easy.  Below Spier Falls Dam, the river was running wide open.  The wooded area between the river and the road was criss-crossed with many animal tracks, but the prints were too degraded for me to make out any crisp outlines.  I would guess, though, that this trail, with its side-by-side prints, was made by a Fisher.

After walking a mile or so close to the river's edge, I made my return by crossing the road and climbing up a hill to reach the powerline access road that runs along the side of the mountain.  This is also a pleasant place to walk, with a view of the river through the trees below, and a deep forest climbing to ledges high above.

There were many well-worn deer trails up here, especially around the many Hawthorn trees that line the road.  I did not see any fruit left in any of the Hawthorns, but I did find this bird's nest tucked in among the thorny branches that were entwined with  Oriental Bittersweet vines containing some leftover berries.  Looks like a nice safe place to rear a brood of baby birds.  Anyone know which bird made this nest?

That's a snowshoer's trail on the left of this shot, but the one on the right sure looks like a Porcupine trail to me.  I can almost see its waddling gait, with its tail swinging arcs as it goes.  This trail wasn't as well-trodden or dirtied as many Porcupine trails I have seen.  I wonder if this particular creature was setting out to seek out new territory.  I followed the trail until it descended steeply through brushy thickets toward the road.

Oh no!  Poor Porky didn't get very far!  Porcupines feel no need to run quickly away from predators, trusting that their quills will serve to defend them.  But those sharp quills can't stop a speeding car.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Two Riverside Walks

These pines "holding hands" seemed an appropriately loving image for Valentine's Day.  My friend Evelyn and I came upon this unusual sight today while snowshoeing in the Hudson River Forest Preserve north of Lake Luzerne.  It was a beautiful, almost balmy day for exploring this part of the Lake George Wild Forest that runs for several miles along the river, which at this point was flowing mostly free of ice and sparkling in the sun.  We had intended to climb up a mountain to a popular site called Buttermilk Falls, but when we observed the long steep trail that followed the now-frozen creek, we decided the payoff would probably not be worth the struggle, and we ambled along the river instead.  Nice!

Evelyn had come down from North Creek to meet me in Lake Luzerne, where we stopped in at the Adirondack Folk Arts School and then walked down to see Rockwell Falls before heading the several miles north to the wild forest area.  The ice structures that form around the falls are always impressive.

Earlier this week, on Saturday, my friend Sue and I enjoyed another very pleasant hike along a more southern  stretch of the Hudson, the powerline clearcut up on the mountainside above the Spier Falls Dam at Moreau.  The snow was new and fresh and glittering, hardly deep enough to warrant snowshoes, but the crampons helped on some of the steeper parts of the trail.

When work crews return in the spring, we once again won't be allowed access to this powerline road, but for the time being I felt we could safely ignore the No Trespassing signs and High Voltage warnings and enjoy the lovely views of the river and the hydroelectric dam below.  Many coyotes had also been enjoying the ease of travel along this unencumbered road.  The tracks were so abundant, it appeared they'd been having a party up here.  Sue is photographing a site where a couple of coyotes must have been "dancing" together.

The exposed bedrock on the mountainside is home to a wide variety of interesting plants, many of then visible even in winter.  We were particularly intrigued by this mossy stuff, spiked with growths that almost looked liked like porcupine quills protruding out the ends of the tufts.  I suppose they are fruiting bodies, but like none I've seen before,  let along during the cold of winter.  I've put out some queries to knowledgeable friends, so I hope to return later to name this unusual plant.

Update:  Thanks to Ed Miller for putting me on the right track to finding the name of this moss.  It is Juniper Haircap (Poytrichum juniperinum), one of the most widespread mosses in the world.  I'm sure I must have seen it before, just not at this particular stage of its sporetalks' development.

After hiking the clearcut until it stopped being clearly cut, we descended the mountain to our cars and drove downstream to the Sherman Island Boat Launch Site.  Here, we walked about in the snowy woods, listening to the music of this babbling stream and the almost imperceptible peeps of Golden-crowned Kinglets high in the trees.  Sue is trying here to capture the chuckling sound of the brook in a video.

A beech leaf had fallen into the stream, seeming to rest on this pillow of frost and snow.

It was very cold on this Saturday, and we always marvel at how the Hobblebush leaf and flower buds manage to make it through winter, clothed in only the thinnest coat of flocking.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not Much Snow, But Lots of Ice

 Saturday, Feb. 8:
We lucked out again.  Just as with Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy,  Winter Storm Nemo hardly touched us up here in northern New York, although it sure walloped the coastal areas of the Northeast.  We got maybe four inches of snow and none of the gale-force winds that whipped areas to the east of us, where highways became clogged with cars stuck in several feet of snow and many communities remain without power today.

Actually, I'm disappointed.  I would have liked a couple of feet of snow.   Ah well.  Although I was deprived of the drama of a major weather event, I did find some compensatory drama  today in witnessing the incredible buildup of ice in the Hudson River up north of Warrensburg.  My friend Evelyn Greene had told me she doesn't remember the ice ever mounting so high, to the point where it was overwhelming some of the riverside roads.  So when this morning dawned bright and clear, I sped up well-plowed highways to see this accumulation for myself.

Here's the scene along Golf Course Road that runs north out of Warrensburg.   This photo is the view  looking south from where I had scrambled out onto the jagged ice.  I wish I had a photo of this same location in summer, showing steep banks that drop around 15 feet or so from the road to the river's edge.  Here, the ice has completely filled the river's flood zone, with jumbled heaps of it actually pressing against the guardrails of the road.

I continued north to where the Hudson runs under a bridge at the Glen,  where I crossed to the road that runs south along the western bank of the river.  I stopped at the spot we call the Ice Meadows and made my way down through the woods to the river's edge.  Here I found the ice had mounted all the way to where it was starting to actually enter the woods, the huge chunks pushing over trees in their path.

When I visited this very same spot with Evelyn Greene and some other friends on January 23, the ice was still well down below the banks, as this photo reveals, with us standing on solid ground that is now buried many feet under the ice.  Quite a difference in just 3 weeks!  Evelyn has told me that this build-up does not occur gradually over the winter, but that the river rises quite quickly when the frazil builds down to the river bottom and completely dams the flow.  Ice -- both slushy frazil and hard-frozen block ice -- is carried onto the shore by the rising flood and deposited there when the dams give way and the water recedes.

Here's the same location in June, showing the normal course of the river.  I guess it's obvious how the Ice Meadows got its name.  Such massive accumulations of ice certainly work to preserve the banks as an open, meadow-like habitat.

Continuing south along the river road, I eventually had to stop and turn around.  Near an area known as Snake Rock, the ice had completely covered the road, rendering it impassable.

I continued on foot to where I climbed atop the massive accumulation, then looked back from where I had come.  Road crews have been working to clear access through the ice build-up, but they still have a long way to go.

Here's the uncleared road, continuing south.   I wasn't going to get back to Warrensburg along this road today!

Only the top of Snake Rock was visible above the heaps of ice.  Although a particular kind of white ice called "frazil" is responsible for creating the ice dams that cause the river to rise to such heights, there were obvious chunks of blue ice among the deposits, ice that was formed in water less turbulent than that which forms the frazil.  (See my post from January 23 for a  more detailed explanation of how frazil forms.) Many of these blue-ice chunks were over three feet thick.

Just as I was about to leave, this young man came along, wanting to witness this dramatic accumulation for himself.  I was glad to have someone to stand near the ice, the better to show the  height of the ice compared to this rather tall man.

I think it's going to take a very long time for all of this ice to melt.  We may not see the ground along here until July!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Before the Snow

We're supposed to get really slammed with a snowstorm, starting tomorrow.  The forecasters are whipping themselves into a frenzy, claiming this storm will be of "historic" proportions,  with up to two feet of snow in some areas.  Two feet?!  Hey guys, calm down!  We've had bigger snowfalls than that around here, ones where the snow is heaped so high you can't tell which car at the curb is yours when you go to shovel it out.  As for me, I'm looking forward to snow, lots of snow, enough to cover the cold bare ground and stay there the rest of the winter.

On a walk at Bog Meadow Nature Trail today, I almost felt sorry for that bare brown earth, with no winter coat to insulate it against the bitter cold.  It's been cold enough lately to freeze solid the little stream that runs along the trail, and this created an easier pathway to walk on than the lumpy, frost-heaved trail.

The trail was an ankle-twister today, that's for sure!  I look forward to when deep snow will smooth the way for skis or snowshoes.

This time of year, there's not a lot to report on, out here in the woods.  If not for the mosses and lichens and liverworts, there'd be little color at all.

Small willow trees line the boardwalk where it crosses an open marsh, and today I noticed that almost all of the willows were sporting at least one of two kinds of galls.  The Shoot-tip Rose Gall looks like a dried flower at the tip of each branch, and is caused by a tiny fly (Rhabdophaga rosaria) laying its egg in a slit in the branch.  The tree then produces this flower-shaped rosette of tissue surrounding the egg, to protect the larva as it matures.

Other small willows were bearing multiple hard, brown, spindle-shaped swellings on their twigs, each one with a bud protruding out of the top of the gall.  After searching around on the web, I found photos of similar galls -- called Willow Beaked Galls -- that were identified as caused by another tiny fly  called Mayetiola rigidae.  The larva is wintering over within the gall and will emerge in the spring.  While reading up on these galls, I also learned that willows play host to more kinds of galls than any other woody plant.  The winter is the best time to find these galls, since during the growing season they are hidden among the leaves.

Making my way home along the shores of Saratoga Lake, I stopped to enjoy the brilliant orange-gold light of the sun as it peeked through a break in the thick cloud cover before falling below the horizon. It looked so clear off there in the west, it seems hard to believe that a massive storm is heading our way.  I guess we shall see.