Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Week of Wild Cats

Just look at this sweet little fluffball!  A miniature Sylvester puddy-tat! He is one of four kittens of a second litter our back-yard feral cat bore this summer, and he really needs someone to love him forever.   Could that be you?  We are keeping him in a crate indoors, hoping to tame him enough to not be so afraid of humans, so that he could be adopted by a loving and patient person.  He is still very timid, but snuggles right into our arms when we hold him, and my husband even got a big purr out of him this afternoon. He is the softest kitty I have ever held!

We captured him yesterday and he has already been neutered, thanks to a wonderful low-cost neutering organization called HOPE (Hope for Orphaned Pets Exists).  His older brother, an all-black kitten born earlier last spring and pictured below with his mother and sibling, was captured last week  and released after neutering, because he was just too wild already to make a good house pet.  Mom cat is in the trap right now, captured today and awaiting a visit to HOPE first thing tomorrow.  (The long-haired black-and-white kitten pictured below disappeared shortly after this photo was taken in June, a fate that often awaits feral kittens left to fend for themselves outdoors.)

Two more kittens remain to be captured and neutered (the fourth littermate has already disappeared),  and we will also try to find homes for them if we capture them early enough.  They are already about 8 weeks old, so I hope we can trap them soon, while young enough to tame.  If not, we will release them to live out their (probably shortened) lives outdoors.  Our best hope is to slow the feral cat population explosion taking place in our own backyard, and by capturing mom, I think we have made a good start.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

First Frost!

It was COLD this morning!  But instead of getting the snow that had been predicted, we found instead a bright blue sky, clear ground, no wind, and frost all over the windshield of my car.  Oh boy, I thought, perfect conditions for Frostweed!  My friend Sue and I had arranged to meet at Moreau Lake this morning to hike in the woods, but I was sure she would want to go look for Frostweed instead.  And so she did, but first we had to stop by the lake to watch the mist rise from the surface.  Lovely!

We then made our way to Mud Pond and the powerline right-of-way that runs along the north shore.  Here in the clearcut is where we find lots and lots of Frostweed (Helianthemum canadense) growing in the sandy soil,  as well as many other low-growing plants that we expected to find covered with a fine coating of frost.

And so we did.  Here's beautiful blue-green Sweetfern and rosy Little Bluestem Grass, all dusted with silver sparkles.

The bright red leaves of Cinquefoil were outlined in frost.

The baby Bear Oaks had leaves of the most amazing colors, enhanced by a fine dusting of sparkles.

 Last year, the power company treated all of the shrubs under the powerline with herbicide, so that most of the Bear Oaks and American Hazelnuts died off.  But now these shrubs seem to be recovering, sending forth new shoots from the old roots, new growth that seems to be far more colorful than the old shrubs ever were.  This photo is of a new shoot of American Hazelnut,

Common Mullein has produced its leafy rosettes that will winter under the snow and then send up tall flower stalks next summer.  This morning's frost emphasized the fuzziness of the leaves.

These little gray mushrooms looked as if they had been rimmed in silver.

And there they were -- the frothy curls that emerge from the stems of Frostweed when the nights are cold enough that the stems develop fissures, releasing a fine vapor of sap that freezes solid in the air.

Not very solid, though, since this frothy frozen vapor melts at a touch, or even if we breathe on it too closely.  So fragile!  And so pretty.

Within a matter of just a few moments, a breeze developed and blew across the water of the pond, carrying with it warmer, more humid air.  When we turned around to retrace our steps, we found that the frost had promptly disappeared, leaving only a trace of dampness that lent a shining gleam to the leaves.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn's Embers

The temperature will be falling fast this week, with even a threat of snow by Wednesday night.  I can hardly complain, we've had such a balmy stretch the whole month of October, including a warm and pleasant day today.  It was perfect for a walk around Mud Pond, to catch the remnants of autumn's glory as the colors start to fade.

God bless the beeches for holding their golden and copper leaves when all other broad-leaved trees are fading fast toward Novemberish brown.

But the duller the big oaks and maples grow, the more vibrant glows the Maple-leaved Viburnum, lighting up the forest floor with flaming color.  Especially when backlit by the sun.

Out on the mudflats, the fat little seedheads of Ditch Stonecrop had turned the prettiest rose, far more colorful than their greenish-yellow flowers had ever been.

Under the powerlines that run along the north shore of the pond,  American Hazelnut shrubs are rebounding with vigorous new growth, after having been sprayed with herbicides last year.  Is it only young branches that turn so intensely red?  I can't remember ever seeing such colorful shrubs at this site.

Tiny dots of blue fluff were wafting around in the air, the winged form of the Wooly Alder Aphid, quite possibly setting forth to start a new generation of aphids.

I didn't have to look far to find just such a colony of the wingless form of this tiny insect clustered on a branch of Speckled Alder.  I have read that all of these individual aphids are females clones of one other, produced asexually without requiring a male.  After their feeding has depleted the resources of the twig they're affixed to, then they will produce clones with wings -- including some males -- that can fly away to mate and lay eggs on other twigs, most often on Silver Maples.  Isn't nature amazing?

Until I enlarged this photo on my computer, I hadn't noticed the presence of ants among this colony of Wooly Alder Aphids.  I was aware that ants exploit the common garden-variety of aphids for their exudant honeydew, but I didn't know that they did the same with this particular aphid.  I wonder if that white waxy fluff that the aphids exude is collected as food by the ants.  I shall have to do some research to find out.

Update:  Here's a link to a site with lots of information about this fascinating insect.   Apparently, it's not just ants that feed on this aphid's honeydew, and some other creatures feed on the aphids themselves.  On another site from Northern Woodlands magazine, I read that the larvae of Lacewings burrow in among the aphids and feed on them, plucking off threads of fuzz and fastening them to their own bodies, so as to disguise themselves and avoid detection by the guardian ants, who would kill the larvae if they were discovered.  Like wolves in sheeps' clothing, they freely feed on the flock!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Following the Yellow Beech Trail

It's called the Western Ridge Trail, the trail that Sue and Laurie and I hiked on Friday in Moreau Lake State Park.  If you study the full-color map provided by the park, it's the yellow trail that follows a mountain ridge that runs for six miles or so, up and down through woods high above the Hudson River.  And yellow was certainly the predominant color now, with mostly the beeches still holding on to their sunshine-colored leaves, filling the forest with golden light, even in the deepest shade.  A few Red Maples still held some leaves, but even these were mostly yellow, although we found evidence all over the forest floor that some of the maples had once held the brilliant scarlet foliage this tree is famous for.

This fallen log provided another bright splash of color from the Turkey Tail fungus and Green Shield lichens colonizing its moss-covered length.

We found long stretches of bedrock covered with green-velvet mosses of many different kinds.  We were grateful to have Laurie, who is a geologist,  point out to us the different kinds of rocks that underlie this mountainous forest, and we noted how different species of moss were growing on the different kinds of rocks, whether composed of granitic gneiss or quartzite or marble.  I confess that I could identify only a few of the mosses.  (Note that we are wearing blaze orange, now that hunting season has begun.)

 Here's one moss I think I know the name of, the starburst-shaped ones called Atrichum undulatum surrounding the tiny red mushroom that could be a Scarlet Waxcap.

Talk about tiny!  None of us had ever seen a Red Eft so itty bitty as this fingernail-sized cutie wriggling along on the same clump of moss as the normal-sized eft next to it.

The bears should be fat and happy going to winter rest this year, to judge from the massive numbers of nuts we found throughout the woods.  We found Pignut Hickory nuts now shedding their thin green husks, as well as thousands of bristly-husked beechnuts popped open and releasing the tasty morsels within.  We filled our pockets with the little wedge-shaped nuts, peeling and eating them as we strode along.

We didn't hike the full length of the trail, choosing a destination only a couple of miles from the trailhead. We started at the high end of the trail to minimize the amount of climbing we would have to do to reach a spectacular overlook, although the hike did require a certain amount of huffing and puffing up steep slopes and carefully picking our way down rocky ones.  Here we are, about to take our final steps to a rocky outcropping that will grant us glorious views of the Hudson valley.

Yes.  Glorious views, indeed!

That's the Spier Falls Dam on the far left, with the Luzerne Mountain range beyond the forest across the river.

Here's the view directly below where we sat to enjoy a picnic lunch.  Except for the dam site and the powerline clearcuts, plus a state road that runs close to the river, Moreau Lake State Park owns the land on both banks of the river here, so all that forest and river shoreline will remain in its naturally beautiful state for generations to come.

The Hudson flows in a northeasterly direction along this stretch, heading toward Glens Falls and Hudson Falls, where it will take a sharp turn to flow directly south to New York City and the sea.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Timeless Beauty of Pyramid Lake

No, this is not the same photo of Pyramid Lake I posted last Friday.  That one was taken on October 11, 2010, while this one was taken two days ago on Saturday, October 12, 2013.  Such unchanging beauty is one of the treasured gifts to be found in the protected forever-wild areas of the Adirondacks.  Pyramid Lake lies in the heart of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness in Essex County, and the only auto access to this crystal-clear lake is through the Pyramid Life Center, a spiritual retreat center located on the north shore of the lake.  The center's main lodge and a dozen rustic cabins are clustered here along the north shore, most of them hidden high on the wooded banks.  The remainder of the lakeshore and all of the islands are carefully stewarded as pristine wilderness, where no roads may penetrate, structures be built, nor motorized vehicles intrude, whether by land or by water.  Thus, we can hope with great confidence that all this natural beauty will remain unchanged forever.  By human hands, that is.  There is evidence that climate change will alter the Adirondack forests and waterways over time, but at least for the rest of my lifetime, I hope to return again and again to immerse myself in this splendid and timeless landscape.

Spending this past weekend at Pyramid Lake, helping to close up most of the center's lodgings for the winter, I was rather disconcerted by the unseasonable warmth we enjoyed.  Sure, it was grand to conduct our tasks in shorts and T-shirts instead of our woolies and longjohns, but this is the time of year we expect a crisp edge to the air, when the smell of woodsmoke is the signal of welcoming warmth indoors.  But who could complain about blue-sky days like these, with misty mornings and sun-bright afternoons and mild starry nights with the moon casting silvery light across the still water?  Not I!  I joyfully immersed myself in these gorgeous days and nights, delighting in the sun-dappled woods ablaze with autumn's colors, paddling at dawn and again in the evening after my work was done, then sitting quietly out on the dock to watch Venus's bright reflection dance on the dark surface of the lake.  Of course, I carried my camera with me everywhere to record the surrounding wonders.  And share them with my readers.  Here is a gallery of some of my shots.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Back to the Center

How I wish all the people in the world could immerse themselves in the serene splendor of Pyramid Life Center in the Adirondacks.  Just a few at a time, of course, so as not to disrupt the deep silence of a mountain dawn, when swirls of mist move across the still water, the loons' long calls the only sounds to reach our ears.  I truly believe that to witness such natural beauty could help to quiet our strivings and create in us a desire to live in peace.

That was certainly true for me, when I first came here in 1991, full of woe for a world once again at war.  How many wars ago was that?  Over the decades, nothing much has changed for the better in the world at large, but I myself have learned to live more peaceably, thanks to the people I've met in this retreat center, people whose lives of loving and joyful service encouraged me to seek such a life as my own.

Out of gratitude for this gift of a new path in life,  I now volunteer at the center, helping to ready the lodgings in spring and then, in the fall, to tuck them safely away for the winter.  So that's what I will be doing this weekend, bagging up blankets and covering beds and helping with whatever needs to be done to ensure that the center can once again welcome hundreds of other peace-seekers next spring.

And of course, I will also be finding sweet peace of my own.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strawberry Fields and Cranberry Bogs

Tuesday, October 8: Touring the Strawberry Fields Forever Nature Preserve

There may very well be strawberry plants in the Montgomery County nature preserve called Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were not what we'd come here to see on Tuesday.  No, we were here, myself and a group of avid nature lovers from the Environmental Clearing House of Schenectady,  to see the magnificent flowers that are blooming here by the thousands this month: the rare and radiantly blue Fringed Gentians. We were also here for lessons in aster analysis from ecology professor Nancy Slack, who had prepared for us some simple guidelines for distinguishing among the many similar-looking species of asters that share the same open meadow habitat -- as well as the same growing season -- as that of the Fringed Gentians.

Our host on this spectacular blue-sky day was Jeff Leon (center, in the photo below), the owner and careful steward of this remarkable property, consisting of more than 70 acres of open meadows, plus 40 more of woods and wetlands, including streams and a pond.  After speaking briefly about the history of the land and its previous owners going back to first European settlement, as well as about his own conservation efforts here, Jeff led us on a tour of his land, guiding us along wooded paths and across open meadows to where the Fringed Gentians were unfurling their beautiful flowers to the warming sun.

Along the way, we stopped to admire sweeping views of the Mohawk Valley.

With many different species of asters blooming along our path, Professor Slack had ready material at hand for demonstrating the distinguishing characteristics of each species.  Here she is holding a specimen of New England Aster, easily recognized by the vivid purple of its flowers, as well as by a careful analysis of leaf shape and size of flowers.

The small white asters can often be more difficult to tell apart, so finding them right next to each other can be quite helpful.  Even before noting the differences in leaf shape and hairiness as well as the differing characteristics of the flowers' bracts, the difference in size of bloom is immediately apparent.  Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) has flowers that are quite a bit smaller, as well as being more crowded along the stems, than those of the Awl Aster (S. pilosum), which has a much more open pattern of bloom.

Many species of aster have varying degrees of roughness or hairiness to their leaves, but the very smooth, almost leathery feel of the leaves of Smooth Aster (S laeve) provides an immediate clue.  We also noted how the leaves clasp the stem, having no stalks.

And here was the prize!  We can stop to admire the many different kinds of asters along almost every roadside, but there aren't many places left where we can immerse ourselves in the stunning beauty of Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita). Thanks to Jeff Leon's careful maintenance of this flower's particular habitat,  mowing it yearly to keep woody plants from shading the fields as well as to aid in seed distribution, the population here continues to thrive and expand.  And we were lucky to have a bright sunny morning to coax the petals into fully opening.

There were other beauties, too, along our way, including many shrubs and trees in fruit.  I am always struck by the beautiful combination of porcelain-white berries on hot-pink pedicels that adorn the branches of Panicled Dogwood shrubs.  A cobalt-blue sky as a backdrop certainly adds to the impact.

Hawthorn trees were decorated with bright red fruits no bigger than cherries.

Sweet Viburnum shrubs (also called Nannyberry) held clusters of dark-blue fruits on rosy-red pedicels.  Just one more delight to top off a day of many pleasures.

* * *

Wednesday, October 9: Berries, Bartonia, and Other Finds on the Bog

Another gorgeous blue-sky day, and what better way to spend this splendid morning than with my friend Sue, tramping a cranberry bog?  Especially this year, with a burgeoning crop unlike any I have seen in other years.  The  little ones in the photo below are Small Cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus), but we also found lots of Large Cranberries (V. macrocarpon)), too, nestled among the sphagnum.

Earlier this year, when we walked through this same bog (sorry, its location is secret), we could reach out and let ripe luscious blueberries fall by the fistful into our hands.  Today, we could get an eyeful of the blueberries' luscious color, the bushes' leaves lit up by the morning sun as if they were aflame.

Isn't it funny, that here in the midst of all this splendor, what delighted us most today was finding this wee little straw-colored plant, no showier than a handful of toothpicks stuck in among the sphagnum?

This is Yellow Bartonia (Bartonia virginica), and it doesn't look much different now than it did in full bloom back in early August, when it was slightly more greenish-yellow.  I guess you might guess, by the shape of its flower heads, that it's in the Gentian Family, but it's certainly far more modest in both size and color than the other gentians I've been admiring this week.  Although not classified as rare in the state, I certainly don't see it very often.  But then, it's easy to overlook.  I can't believe I actually saw it today.  An abundant patch, too, of nearly 20 plants.

This cluster of seed pods, too, was quite a find.  I believe it belongs to a White Fringed Orchis (Platanthera blephariglottis), which blooms abundantly here in this bog in mid-July.  Many times I have looked for the dried seed heads, but this is the first time I've found one.  Two, actually.  Right next to each other.  But no more anywhere on the bog.  I made sure to dust the powdery seeds off my hands before I left the bog.  I could also be mistaken about its identity, since I've never seen a White Fringed Orchis in seed.  Before now.  Corrections are welcome.

This looks like the seedpod of another orchid, too.  I think it might be that of Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus), since I found it where I know this bright-pink orchid blooms profusely in early summer.  I did find quite a few of these.

There were bits of Cottongrass fluff wafting around in the air, and at first I thought that that's what this little bit of fluff was.  Except it was kind of blue.  I was able to capture it gently in my hand and verify that it was, indeed, the winged form of the Wooly Alder Aphid.  Is this not the most adorable little bug, with its baby-blue fluffy butt?

The wingless form of this aphid is also remarkably cute, gathering in wooly clusters on alder twigs.  I'll have to go looking for them now along the river banks.  Here's a photo I took of them last year.