Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Hazelnuts Are Blooming!

 There was no mistaking the wee red sprouts poking out of a bud on a hairy twig:  here was the female flower of American Hazelnut.  The male catkins, which look like small tan caterpillars, have been dangling from the shrubs all winter, but the tiny female flowers wait until spring to emerge.  It takes some peering to find them, though, because they are so small.  A magnifier helps, as my friend Ed Miller demonstrates. 

Ed and I and a few other friends from the Thursday Naturalists enjoyed a very pleasant walk today through the Hundred Acre Woods, a nature preserve in Malta with nicely maintained wood-chip trails and professionally constructed staircases and bridges to ease our passage through the woods and up and down hills and across the little streams.

At one point, though, Ed encouraged us to abandon the trail to explore a creek bottomland, searching for Leatherwood and Spicebush.   We found lots of Leatherwood -- all of it browsed of its buds by deer -- but not a sign of Spicebush.

We had to walk carefully to avoid treading on multitudinous plants of Skunk Cabbage, its tightly furled leaves shooting up like spears from the muddy ground.

Here's another sure sign of spring:  the silky, furry catkins of Pussy Willow.  The cork is out of spring's bottle now, and the explosion of flowering plants is about to begin.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Not Yet, Not This Year. But Soon.

 The day I took this photo of Bloodroot was almost exactly a year ago, to the day.  Lots of other spring ephemerals were blooming then, too: Spring Beauty, Snow Trillium, Round-leaved and Long-spurred Violet, Spicebush, Leatherwood, Hepatica.  Flowers were everywhere!

Not this year, though.  This year on this date, snow still covers the ground, ice still covers the lake, and a wintry chill still lies like a pall upon the earth.  When I walked around Moreau Lake today, I still wore my winter boots, still wrapped a scarf around my ears to keep out the biting wind.

At the northern end of the lake, where sunshine can reach the shore all day, the ice has retreated a bit, and the sand was soft and dry underfoot.  I could see the runic squiggles of snail trails on the sandy bottom beneath the shallow water, and here and there a tiny minnow darted out of my sight beneath the thinning ice.  I felt encouraged to look around for further signs of spring.

Here's the den beneath a tree up high on a bank where we surprised a family of tiny fox cubs last spring.  It appears, by the new layer of damp sand overlying the dryer, that the den is undergoing renovation, and so we might hope for a new fox family here in the near future.

The buds of the Shadblow trees have been coppery bright all winter,  but today I noticed the scales were starting to part, and silky tufts of fluff were breaking out.

I had to search and search among the winter-ravaged leaves of Trailing Arbutus, but at last I found a few bundles of buds that looked as if they were only waiting for a bit of warmth to unfurl their fragrant waxy blooms.  Arbutus flowers can be pink or white.  It looks as if these will be pink.

As I rounded the end of the lake and neared where I'd parked my car,  the sun broke through and dazzled my eyes as it glinted off the snow.  It warmed my back, relaxing shoulders hunched against the cold.  Blue sky appeared in the west as black clouds moved away to the east, trailing wisps of rain across the distant mountains.

One of these days very soon, we will open our door in the morning and step out into Spring.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Out in the Snow, In Spite of Myself

SaturdayWith the Audubon folks at Moreau

I was in such a funk about all this snow that JUST WON'T GO that I didn't want to go outdoors at all until it just disappeared.  But then I learned that a whole bunch of expert birders -- leaders of Audubon chapters from all over the state -- were hiking at Moreau Lake State Park on Saturday, and I was invited to join them. Well, I couldn't pass up that chance!  I can't really bird by myself, because I have such poor eyesight, but I do love to tag along with folks who know what they're looking at through their binoculars.

I'm sure that when they planned this hike at Moreau, the Audubon folks were hoping for open water.   But not only did we have a lake that was frozen solid, we also had freezing temperatures and a biting wind.   So most of the birds in the park were hunkered down, and of course there were no waterfowl at all on the frozen lake.  One Turkey Vulture came soaring by, and I think someone in our group saw a Red-tailed Hawk, and another heard, but couldn't see, some Black-capped Chickadees, but that was just about all the avian life that showed itself this day at Moreau.  It turned out to be a lucky day for the birders, though, when a report came through of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on crabapple trees in nearby Queensbury.  So off went most of the folks in this group to feast their eyes on a rare winter visitor and, for many, a lifetime bird they're not likely to see again.

Sunday: Exploring the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary

My friend Sue Pierce serves on the board of the local Audubon chapter, and when members of that chapter asked her to lead a nature walk this coming May at the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary near Fort Miller in Washington County, she asked me if I could co-lead this walk with her.  Of course I could.  Except neither one of us knows this preserve very well.  I've been there once and Sue not at all, so on Sunday we went there together to become acquainted with the lay of the land and try to get some idea of what might be growing there come spring.  (Yes.  Come, Spring.  Please do. We're tired of all this snow.)

The first thing we noticed about the land was the presence of large deposits of shale, very black and flaky and containing minerals that are certain to influence the kinds of plants that grow here.  My homework now is to consult with experts who can tell me what those minerals are and what plants thrive on them. 

Of course, we didn't expect to find any plants newly growing today, but we did enjoy the beauty and color of mosses and lichens that grace the forest all winter long.  I love the contrasting textures and colors of Broom Moss and Cladonia lichens.

I believe that this moss, with its beautiful fern-like structure, is one of the Hypnum mosses, possibly Brocade Moss.

This Tree Moss (Climacium americanum) is one that is easy to remember the name of, since it looks like tiny trees.

Well, here's a promise of flowers to come, the wintering-over leaf of Hepatica.

The dark thready branches of Frullania liverwort are evident on tree trunks all winter long,  but we were struck by the vivid orange of the bark of this tree, and wondered if the color might be because of a fungal growth.

As for animal life in evidence today, we did hear a Barred Owl calling again and again as we started out, although it fell silent as we proceeded along the trails.   Then Sue, with her excellent eyesight, espied these Snow Fleas crawling and hopping all over the surface of the snow.

They're not really fleas, although they do hop, using a springlike appendage under their abdomens.  They don't bite like fleas, either, but suck up nutrients through  a kind of sipping apparatus on their bellies. In fact, they're not even insects, despite having six legs.  Because they are so uniquely equipped with parts no other insect has (their springtails, for example), some entomologists think they might belong in a class all their own.  Whatever they are, I think they are really cute.

Here's another bug we saw today. (Well, Sue saw it and pointed it out to me.  At maybe a third of an inch, it remained invisible to me until it landed on the snow.)  I think it might be a male Winter Cranefly, which was taking advantage of a day above freezing to fly about, hoping to capture the attention of some willing female hiding down in the leaf litter.

Uh oh.   This creature won't be flying around anymore.  We couldn't figure out how this Turkey met its end, since we didn't find any animal's tracks in the snow around it, other than deer prints.  Perhaps it was shot, either in the air or while perched in a tree, and fell to earth here, minus its head.

Poor Turkey, we're sorry you died, but what a chance this was to really get a good look at the beautiful iridescence of your feathers.

We walked for a couple of hours along the well-marked trails of the Denton preserve, moving through upland woods and lowland swamps and along a valley watered by running streams.  We look forward to returning in warmer days, to see which plants will flourish in each habitat.  Skunk Cabbage was certainly flourishing along this little stream, where Sue is trying to peer into a spathe to see if the spadix within is flowering with pollen.

 We passed two open swamps with standing snags of dead trees, which provide perfect nesting areas for creatures of many kinds.  It was here we heard the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds,  the males already in residence, competing to acquire and defend good nesting sites before the females arrive in warmer weather.

In one of these swamps, I was struck by these mounds of some kind of grass or sedge,  like green-haired gnomes poking up from the snow.  I don't recall seeing this particular plant, so different in appearance from the Tussock Sedge more commonly seen in such swamps.

Sue had been alerted by one of her Audubon friends to look for a scrubby little pine tree that her friend could not identify.  He said it had short needles that gave the little tree a spruce-like appearance.  We found a tree that met this description, only about four feet high, with bundles of two needles that were about two inches long and slightly spread, creating an acute angle between the needles in each bundle.

Sue had brought a tree guide along, and we decided that our little tree fit the description of Jack Pine contained in her book.  If our analysis is correct, our little tree was quite a find, since Jack Pine is listed as Rare in New York State.  We searched the open sandy area where we found this tree, and could not find another.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Winter's Last Gasp (I Hope!)

"What the heck!" this cardinal seems to be saying, as he searches for seeds beneath the many inches of snow that fell last night.  More snow is predicted to fall throughout today, the last day of official Winter.  Ah well.  We've had worse snowstorms even later than this, so I keep thinking Spring, which arrives with the Vernal Equinox tomorrow.  Officially.  Right.

Here was a fine and most appropriate poem to ease my grumpiness this morning.  I heard it on Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac" on NPR.

Here in the Time Between

Here in the time between snow
and the bud of the rhododendron,
we watch the robins, look into

the gray, and narrow our view
to the patches of wild grasses
coming green. The pile of ashes

in the fireplace, haphazard sticks
on the paths and gardens, leaves
tangled in the ivy and periwinkle

lie in wait against our will. This
drawing near of renewal, of stems
and blossoms, the hesitant return

of the anarchy of mud and seed
says not yet to the blood's crawl.
When the deer along the stream

look back at us, we know again
we have left them. We pull
a blanket over us when we sleep.

As if living in a prayer, we say
amen to the late arrival of red,
the stun of green, the muted yellow

at the end of every twig. We will
lift up our eyes unto the trees hoping
to discover a gnarled nest within

the branches' negative space. And
we will watch for a fox sparrow
rustling in the dead leaves underneath.

"Here in the Time Between" by Jack Ridl, from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron. © Wayne State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Birds Along the Betar

 When I was a kid, the sight of a robin running across the grass was a sure sign of spring.  Not anymore, it seems, and especially not in this place -- the Betar Byway in South Glens Falls -- where robins flock together all winter long, feasting among the tangled masses of Oriental Bittersweet.  I came here today to work up a little sweat with fast walking along the paved path that follows the Hudson River just above the Glens Falls dam.  It's a pleasant unobstructed place to walk, and a great birding site, especially now, with the river running free of ice, inviting many different species of migrating songbirds and waterfowl to stop for a rest and to feed.

How I wish I had had my friend Sue along, for she can spot birds that are nothing but dark blurs to me, and can also identify the different species by their songs.  Well, I heard lots of chirps and whistles and twitters and trills today, and saw lots of fluttering shapes in the trees and the bushes, but except for this bright red cardinal perched in a thicket, I couldn't have told you what any of them were.

Of course, the old regulars were well in evidence.  Gulls and geese hang around the river all winter, just as the cardinals and robins do.  I did take a second look at these gulls, though, when it looked as if they were walking on water.  Turns out there was just a sheet of new ice close to shore, which was covered with a thin layer of water.

While watching the gulls and feeling rather disappointed that I hadn't seen any birds a bit more interesting than them,  I heard a thunk! thunk! thunk! just over my shoulder.  I turned around to see this magnificent Pileated Woodpecker not ten feet away.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Walk at Woods Hollow

When I went to bed last night, the world was all white with new snow.  But by the time I got out for a walk at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve in Ballston Spa this afternoon, the snow was mostly gone.  Only in the deep woods, or whereever no sun had reached it, did any snow remain.  The sun even poked through the clouds for a bit, warming my back as I walked on the sandy path.  If I'd closed my eyes, I might have imagined I was walking on the beach, with soft yielding sand beneath my feet.

Then, if I'd opened my eyes at this spot, I might have imagined these Earth Star fungi were starfish washed up on the shore.

The atmosphere felt quite different when I reached the wooded trails at Woods Hollow.  Snow here covered the icy path, a damp cold crept from the woods, and every breath I took drew in the bracing scent of pine.

It's much too soon to start looking for new spring flowers, but it's always fun to find evidence of last year's blooms, their leaves still bright green despite having spent the winter under the snow.   Of course, that only pertains to those that have evergreen leaves, such as these pretty scalloped hearts of Dalibarda.

Even more exciting is finding the elusive mottled rosettes of Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain, one of New York's native orchids.

The leaves of Fringed Polygala have a dainty beauty all their own, but they can't compare to the splendid show to come in May, when this patch will be starred with vivid bright pink blooms.

I know of a single specimen of Balsam Poplar in all of the Woods Hollow preserve, and I sought it out today to see how its buds were progressing.  Rather nicely, I would say, with these shiny fat golden-brown buds pumping up their volume.

I sacrificed one of those fat brown buds so that I could pry it open and enjoy its distinctive balsamy fragrance. (Luckily, I had some hand-cleaner in my car, to clean my sticky fingers of the thick yellow sap.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Winter Punches Back

I spoke too soon about Spring inching in, yesterday.  Winter came punching back today, with temps in the teens, a bitter wind, and even a quick blast of snow.  But I'd agreed to join a hiking group tthis morning, up in the Adirondacks near Riparius, so I bundled up in my extra-warm longjohns and headed north.  I'd been invited to join a chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club on a hike through some old-growth woods, to act as a naturalist-consultant in case we saw something interesting along the trail, and so I had to show  up.  And I'm glad I did.  By the time we started our hike, the sun was peeking through the clouds, and deep in the woods we hardly felt the wind.  As this photo shows, there's a lot more snow about 40 miles north of Saratoga Springs.

Our trail led through state forest land that hadn't been logged for well over a hundred years, so we passed under some really towering pines of substantial girth.

Our ultimate goal was a section of the Hudson River called Race Horse Rapids, but before we could get there we had to cross a stream that is usually just a trickle we could hop across.  But not today.  Heavy rains on Tuesday and melting temperatures up until yesterday had swollen the stream to a depth and width that seemed impassable.

We explored several stretches of stream bank, hoping to find a narrow spot where we could cross over.  Here's Rick showing us the spot he'd found.   I wish I had followed him to begin with, for just as he hollered he'd found this spot, I plunged through an ice shelf up to one thigh, filling one boot to overflowing with icy water.  I'm very grateful that these ADKers always come prepared for emergencies and had packed dry socks and a plastic bag they could lend me to replace my soaking socks.  Otherwise, my hike would have been over, except for a freezing mile or so back to my car.

With my foot now dried I could continue our hike to one of the prettiest spots on the Hudson River, a long stretch of rapids through high rocky forested banks.  We found a sunny spot out of the wind and sat on the rocks to eat our lunches.
As we sat there, we spied a long dark animal racing along the bank across the river.  I thought it was a mink, while others suggested otter.  But before we could study it carefully, it disappeared into the woods.  Smallish otter or largish mink, it was wonderful to see it. 

As for my naturalist duties, I was able to point out a few mosses and lichens and liverworts along the trail, and here on the riverbank, I plucked a few pieces of Sweet Fern and demonstrated its fragrance to my companions.  This is one of the commonest trailside plants to be found in the Adirondacks, so it surprised me that none of my friends today had ever enjoyed breathing it in.