Sunday, May 26, 2013

Little Children

Sometimes, "Big Brother is Watching You" is a very sweet thing.  I saw this trio of little kiddies walking along a path at Moreau Lake State Park last week, all very carefully holding hands and being safely led along by the oldest child in the middle.  So small, so trusting, so vulnerable.  But who would dream of harming such tender innocent little children?

Then I saw this photo of Afghani children yesterday in The New York Times.  The family was fleeing in terror from a Taliban attack on a U.N.-affiliated compound in Kabul.  But they could be children of any country torn by any war.

This Memorial Day, we will gather to honor the bravery of those soldiers who died in battle.  There will be parades and speeches and raising of monuments in their honor.  But who will speak for the innocent children caught up in the horrors of war?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My Mountain Home

Let's see if I can stay awake long enough to post a blog tonight.  I just got home from spending two days and one night at Pyramid Life Center, a retreat center on one of the loveliest lakes in the Adirondacks, Pyramid Lake in Essex County.  I had the whole place to myself, not another soul around except for a pair of loons and a couple of Barred Owls calling throughout the night. But I wasn't exactly on retreat this time.  Every year, I volunteer to clean all the center's guest rooms in the Lodge, a rustic old 19th-century hotel with around 30 rooms, not counting the common areas.  It's mighty hard work, but a task I'm delighted to do for this place of peaceful retreat in the mountains, my home away from home.  Where else would I, a person of modest means, have access to such a place of exquisite beauty and quiet tranquility?

Usually, I perform my work during Memorial Day Weekend, together with a whole campful of other volunteers, all working hard to prepare the center for a summer filled with interesting programs relating to nature and spirituality.  But because I'm having guests at my home this coming weekend, I went up to the center early to do the work I normally do.  I missed the camaraderie of working and eating and conversing with my fellow volunteers, but it's another level of experience altogether to be all alone in such a place, to enter silence and solitude as I watch the moon rise over the still, dark forest at night, or the morning mist rise from the  glassy lake up into the mountains at dawn.

I didn't have much time for paddling or hiking, but I did stop along the center's mile-long entrance road to see what was blooming by the roadside.   I was especially delighted to find Rose Twisted Stalk growing right at eye level out of a steep rocky bank, so that I could see the charming little pink-spotted bells dangling down from the leaves, without me having to lie down on the forest floor to peer up at them.

An even more exciting find for me was a profusion of Purple Virgin's Bower,  a native wild Clematis that likes to grow on lime-rich rock.  I have never found it blooming anywhere but here, and many years I search and search for it in vain, even though I know exactly where it grows.  This was a banner year for it, and I happened upon it just in its prime.  Unlike the horticultural varieties of Clematis, this flower never opens its sepals wide.

I did take a little time to go walking in the woods, searching for Painted Trillium and Bunchberry, two of the flowers I hope to show to my friend Andrew, a young botanist coming all the way from Ohio next week in hopes of photographing some of the plants he rarely, if ever, finds in his home territory.  Sorry, Andrew, I haven't found those two flowers yet.  But I had to step carefully in my search to avoid stepping on the dainty white blooms of Goldthread that were scattered all over the forest floor.

With my nose to the ground on my flower hunt, I almost walked right through the web of this diminutive  spider, which was maybe a quarter-inch long, not counting its stripey legs.   I'm glad I didn't inadvertently destroy this orb-weaver's handiwork.

I drove through the village of Schroon Lake on my way home, looking for the cliffs full of Columbine that my friend Sue had told me she saw when she traveled this route last week.   Sure enough, there they were, hundreds and hundreds of this vivid red and yellow flower, nestled among craggy cliffs that rise vertically right by the roadside a couple of miles south of the village.  Although the Columbines were starting to fade a bit from their previous glory,  they were still quite impressive, especially when complemented by a burgeoning patch of yellow-green Cypress Spurge.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Poor Turtle!

When I first spied this turtle on a pondside path at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve today, I felt quite excited.  Wow!  A Map Turtle!  I see Painteds and Snappers frequently, but I've only ever glimpsed a Map Turtle for a fleeting second a few years ago as it slipped off a log into the Hudson River.  But my excitement soon turned to sadness, for this turtle was dead.  Oh dear!

Oh well, at least I was able to get a really good look at the poor creature.  The yellow stripes on the dark-olive skin are typical, as are the large patches of yellow behind the eyes.  Not so evident in my photo is a raised ridge down the center of the shell, which is also diagnostic for Map Turtles.  The map-like lines on its shell that inspired this turtle's common name are unfortunately obscured by a whitish film.

The turtle's underside was quite colorful, with black paintbrush swatches on rosy-pink plates trimmed with yellow.

I don't have any idea what might have killed this turtle.  It also seemed odd to find it in the middle of a path.  Any theories?

Update:  Be sure to check the comments to this post to read several opinions about the fate of this turtle.  Note that one reader believes this to be a Red-eared Slider, not a Map Turtle, and after looking at images on the internet which showed the distinctive rosy underside spotted with black as typical of the Red-ear, I have to agree.  Thank you, dear readers, for all your contributions.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Nature Walk Preview

Since I'm leading a nature walk for a garden club at Moreau Lake on Friday morning, I thought I'd better get over there today and see what might be in store.  With most of the spring ephemerals now faded, and the showy summer flowers not yet in bloom,  I wasn't sure I'd find much of interest.  But of course, there's always something of interest in the out of doors.  Here's  a preview of some of the things I hope to show our group tomorrow.

My plan is to lead the group around the back bay of Moreau Lake, which this year has a broad sandy beach all the way around, which should make for easy walking.  With the forest canopy now closed in, we wouldn't find many flowers blooming now under dense shade, but here on the sunlit shore of the lake we should find quite a few.  The first flowers to catch my eye as I stepped from the woods to the sand were many, many tiny white violets scattered up and down the shore, a fragrant species called Sweet White Violet (Viola blanda). 

There's a truly majestic Highbush Blueberry shrub along this stretch of shore, and today it was full of flowers, waxy white bells capped with rosy bracts.

We will be able to compare a number of different Heath Family shrubs along this stretch of shore, for close by the Highbush Blueberry are numerous shrubs of Lowbush Blueberry and even more of Black Huckleberry.  The huckleberry flowers pictured here were still in tight red buds, but when they open they will resemble the bell-shaped flowers of the blueberries, although a little bit pinker.   I will have our group pinch the leaves of the huckleberry bushes to see how the leaves stick to our fingers, because of the resinous secretions on the backs of the leaves.  The leaves of either blueberry will not be sticky.

Here was a fourth Heath Family shrub, a Maleberry, although it did not as yet have any of its globular bell-shaped flowers.  The dried fruits from last year still remained on the bush, fruits that are hard as rocks and as yet uneaten by any wildlife.  The fact that this shrub never develops edible fruit hints at how it got its common name. It is also called He-huckleberry.  Its scientific name is Lyonia ligustrina.

The vividly colored and intricately shaped Fringed Polygala is often the favorite find on wildflower walks, and our group will not be disappointed.  Masses of this lovely flower are carpeting the banks near the shore.

Columbines are also a big crowd-pleaser, and they won't be hard to find, since their brilliant color causes them to stand out in even the shadiest woods.

Not as showy, but still rather pretty in its own right, is Bastard Toadflax.  Although most of the plants were still in tight bud, a few had opened their small starry blooms that cluster at the top of the stems.

The green flowers of Solomon's Seal are easy to miss, since they dangle hidden below the leaves.  I hope I can find them again when I lead the walk.

After we've circled the back bay of Moreau Lake, we will come out on the broad beach of the main part of the lake and walk along in the soft sand.  The weather is supposed to be lovely on Saturday, much less windy than it was today.

Here on the beach we will be able to examine the interesting flowers of Pitch Pine.  I even found a branch that included both male and female flowers as well as a young cone that was formed a year ago.  The female flower is that small red tuft near the top of the new growth, the male flowers (as yet unopened) are the chubby green things circling the growth spike, and the yearling cone is hidden among the needles below.

If we had all day for our walk, I would next lead our group through the woods to Mud Pond and explore the shoreline over there.  We won't be able to do that on Saturday, but today I took myself over there to have a look around.

There's a flat muddy area along one shore, an area my friend Sue and I call "The Delta."  This is where (when it's full of water)  a stream enters the pond, creating a wide sandy expanse that is home to many interesting wetland plants.

I was curious to see if that floating liverwort called Ricciocarpus natans was still stranded on the mud where I had found it several weeks ago.  Indeed, it was.  Still waiting for the spring rains to flood the shore and carry it off to deeper water.

Just behind the shore was a field packed full with Golden Ragwort, brilliantly yellow against the dark green of its foliage.

This enormous fly with a fuzzy butt, big brown eyes, and a yellow nose was busily feeding on the ragwort flowers.  This is one of the Tachinid flies, possibly of the genus Juriniopsis, that like to eat flower nectar.

If the staff of Moreau Lake State Park would allow it, I would like to lead a nature walk along the bed of the stream (now dry) that feeds into Mud Pond, for many interesting plants grow here. 

I counted many dozens of Jack-in-the-Pulpits, some with plain green spathes but most with purple stripes.  There was Toothwort, too (you can see its leaves in this photo), plus Miterwort and Foamflower.  There were also Downy Yellow Violets and Long-spurred Violets, as well as extensive patches of Plantain-leaved Sedge, all plants I usually associate with a lime-rich woods.

One of the most populous plants along this streambed is Dutchman's Breeches, and today I found a number of plants with their rosy-red underground corms uncovered.  Although the stream was dry today, it looks as if there might have been water passing here recently, perhaps after the heavy rain we had a few days ago.

A Busy Week in Various Woods

It's that time of year, the wildflower explosion that keeps me hopping from woods to woods to keep up with the latest to come into bloom.  Happily, two nights of near-freezing temperatures this past week did not seem to slow the progression.  Here's a quick recap of the past week in the woods.

On Friday, I had the honor of escorting some of my favorite plant people through the Skidmore Woods to check on some of that rich habitat's rarest species.  Here (l-r)are Bob Duncan, Evelyn Greene, Nancy Slack, and Ed Miller making their way to one of the secret areas where Goldenseal has been known to grow.

Why so secret about where it grows?  That's because over-collecting has very nearly extirpated this medicinal herb from the region, with the Skidmore Woods being one of the last areas in Saratoga County where it might be found.  And we were in luck, for we found an extensive patch that was looking very healthy.

Another plant that thrives in Skidmore's limey woods but at very few other locations is Green Violet.  Neither Bob nor Evelyn had ever seen this unusual member of the Violet Family before, and I was a bit disappointed that it wasn't yet fully in bloom.  But its little green flowers really don't look much different from the buds, even when fully open.  Nor do its little green flowers look much like any other violet.

We did find lots of violets that looked like typical violets and which were indeed fully open.  There were abundant numbers of Long-spurred, Downy Yellow, Canada, and Common Blue, including this quite unusual bicolor variety.

This Tuesday, my friend Sue Pierce and I returned to the Denton Wildlife Preserve in Washington County to prepare for the wildflower walk we'll be leading there on Saturday morning.  Since the walk is sponsored by the area Audubon chapter, I imagine we'll have avid birders along, so our job will be to try to direct some of the folks' attention to the plant life, surrounded as we will be by a habitat favored by birds as well as plants.

One of the interesting plants at this site is a rather stunted little Jack Pine, an anomalous occurrence for Washington County, which is far out of the natural range for this native American pine.  We were really surprised on Tuesday to find this little pine under attack by a swarm of budworms wreaking serious damage to the new growth.  No wonder the tree is stunted!  I wonder if this happens every spring.  (I also wonder if we should attempt to destroy this infestation, since budworms can devastate other conifers, not just Jack Pine.)

If our walkers are repulsed by the sight of the budworms, we will quickly find remedy in the beauty of Fringed Polygala, which thrives in abundant numbers at many places along the trails that wind through the preserve.

 Equally charming are the many Starflower plants just coming into bloom.

We will find plenty of Foamflower, too, in the places where our trail passes near to a stream.

If we're lucky, we'll once again find the little patch of Rue Anemone we saw on Tuesday, its pristine sepals of purest white opening above a whorl of dainty rue-like leaves.

There are lots of Bear Oaks at the Denton Preserve, and wherever we find oaks, we also find galls.  I've seen galls of many shapes and colors on oaks, but never one that looked like these little green balloons.  Undoubtedly, they are caused by some insect laying its eggs on the leaves, but I don't know which insect is responsible for this particular gall.

Of all our finds at Denton Preserve, a nice patch of Nodding Trillium excited us most of all.  The New York Flora Association has expressed concern that this species of trillium appears to be disappearing from its range, so to find a new site like this is cause for celebration.  I hope our birder friends will appreciate what a privilege it is to see this pretty flower.

Encouraged by that Nodding Trillium find, I stopped at Bog Meadow Nature Trail on my way home to Saratoga Springs.  This trail is one of the few sites in Saratoga County where Nodding Trillium may still be found.

I hurried to the area where I usually find them, but I was disappointed.  I saw many Red Trilliums, fading now, but only one Nodding Trillium, which was still in tight bud.  I noticed that the area had been cleared of the shrubs that once grew close by the trail, so perhaps this shade-loving trillium will no longer thrive at this site.  A pity.

One plant that is surely thriving at Bog Meadow is Star-flowered Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum stellata), which bears a cluster of white star-shaped flowers at the end of a graceful stalk of leaves of the prettiest blue-green color.  Over the years, this lovely plant has increased its population many times over.

I stooped to admire the bright-yellow star-shaped flowers of Hooked Crowfoot and found this shiny green red-eyed bug arrayed on a leaf.  I think it may be a nymph of some kind of Assassin Bug.

This rusty-brown bird kept hopping around in the bushes and finally landed on a branch that gave me a nice clear view.  If only it had opened its bill and sung, that would have clinched its ID.  I believe that this is a Veery, although one with very faint spots on its breast, so it doesn't look exactly like the pictures in my bird guides.

Since my route home took me right by the entrance to Yaddo, I turned into the drive of this artists' retreat center.  Last year, Yaddo's groundskeepers had cut down all the American Bladdernut shrubs that grew by a bridge over a stream.  I contacted some of the people responsible and asked them to do what they could to protect these native shrubs in the future, since this species is really uncommon in northern Saratoga County.   This day, I was happy to see that the shrubs were recovering nicely, and were even bearing the clusters of blooms that would later produce the distinctive hollow pods for which this shrub is named.