Friday, November 29, 2013

A Thanksgiving Album

We had so many things to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Day this year:

We had perfect weather -- including a dusting of beautiful snow! -- for our trip to West Dover, Vermont.  The hour-and-a-half drive is part of the pleasure, with scenic vistas all along the route, including the lovely rolling farmland of Washington County, NY.

The mountains begin to reach up to the sky between Bennington and Wilmington, Vermont.   This clear sunny day was cold enough that the hoarfrost was still on the mountaintop trees at midday.

 It's hard to imagine a lovelier destination than the our hosts' handsome old farmhouse surrounded by ancient Sugar Maples and acres of rolling hills overlooking a valley.

What a feast we had, all pitching in to help our hosts prepare this spectacular meal.  Our enjoyment was amplified by the loving companionship of family and friends.

We were especially happy to spend this day with three of our own dear children, Philip, Jane, and Stephen . Our fourth child, Peter, was just home from a performance tour and was happy to spend the holiday quietly at home with his own family in New Jersey.  We will all be together at Christmas.

If you click on this photo you might be able to see the planet Venus shining brightly above the horizon.  We were thankful to have this clear, quiet night for our drive back home to Saratoga, full of wonderful food and happy memories of a perfect Thanksgiving Day.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Over the Mountains and to Vermont, to a Thanksgiving Feast We Go

And I'm bringing the pies! Three cherries, one pumpkin, and an apple strudel (the rustic tart stays home).  Meanwhile, over on the stove is a pot of Osso Bucco and my husband's birthday cake.  His birthday is the day before Thanksgiving this year, and if I had to name one thing I'm really thankful for, I'd have to say I'm glad I said Yes to that blind date with him way back in 1961.  So many, many blessings have flowed from that yes -- most wonderfully, our four children, three of whom we will see on Thanksgiving.

I didn't get outdoors at all this week, aside from trips to the stores for food and birthday gifts, so I'm really looking forward to walking about in the mountains of Vermont, where our daughter's in-laws are hosting our big family gathering.  The snow we had Tuesday has all been washed away by Wednesday's rain, and the weather has cleared for our drive to West Dover, Vermont.  Another thing to be thankful for.

To all of my readers, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving, hoping you all have many wonderful things to be thankful for.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Tree Tutorials with the Thursday Naturalists

This dark rainy day (Saturday) was actually welcome, giving me a good excuse to stay indoors and finally get back to this blog.  Twice in the last two weeks, I've been out in the woods with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, learning all kinds of tips about how to tell the trees in winter.

On November 14, I met my friends at Veterans' Memorial Park near Jonesville, where we walked for what seemed like miles along a maze of wide woodland lanes.  Although the morning was frosty cold, we soon warmed up under a clear sunshiny sky.

This southern Saratoga County woods provided a perfect laboratory for studying our native birches, since we found all four species -- Black, Gray, Yellow, and Paper -- in close enough proximity for easy comparison.  Here, a Yellow Birch (left) and a Black Birch grow side-by-side, with the Yellow's bark displaying the golden color and tight little curls that are typical of its species, and the Black's displaying the darker color and large loose plates it acquires at it matures.  All of the birches have horizontal lenticels (openings in the bark that allow the tree to breathe).

I was happy to correct my misunderstanding regarding Gray Birch, a tree I have often mistaken for Paper Birch, due to the white color its bark sometimes displays, as in this photo.  The bark of Paper Birch, however, peels off in wide swaths and does not display the tell-tale chevrons that decorate the trunks of Gray Birch, an early succession birch that will die before it reaches great age.  If you look around a mature forest and note the whitish trunks lying about, these will almost always be those of Gray Birch.

I still have much to learn regarding tree bark, and I was very glad to have tree-expert Ed Miller show me a chunk of American Elm bark that displayed the alternating dark and light layers that are typical of this species.   The bark of this tree is quite easy to break off in pieces for examination.

Oaks come in even more species than birches do, and we knew that both Bur Oak (left) and Scarlet Oak were growing in the surrounding woods, just by finding their leaves on the ground.

We had welcomed Lois as a new member of our group this day, and she gifted us with a new clue for distinguishing the broad leaves of Norway Maple from those of the Sugar Maple.  A quick glance reveals there are 7 veins that radiate from a point on the stem.  Sugar Maple typically has 5.

As we passed a wetland thick with red-stemmed dogwood shrubs, I was able to identify this shrub as Silky Dogwood by the long lenticels along the branches (not shown in this photo).  But Ed pointed out another distinguishing element, the general silkiness of the terminal twig, covered with downy hairs.  Red Osier Dogwood has smooth bark at the tips and pin-dot lenticels on its even-redder branches.

One of our most amazing finds at Veterans' Memorial Park was this enormous Black Birch, much larger than any of its species any of us had ever seen.  We measured it at 130 inches around, or nearly 3 and 1/2 feet in diameter at chest height.  It's possible it could be two trees that grew together, but it's still a huge size for a Black Birch.

Since trees are our major focus of interest this time of year, I invited the Thursday Naturalists to come up to Moreau Lake State Park the following week to see the new tree-identification signs the park officials have installed (with the help of many volunteers) along the Nature Trail in the park.  As it happened, the next Thursday (November 21) dawned bitterly cold, but that did not dissuade the hardy folks who showed up at Moreau.  Such a frosty morning did, however, cause us to change our route through the park, since this turned out to be one of the rare chances many of our friends had ever had to see the phenomenon of Frostweed doing its thing.  Before we hit the Nature Trail, we made a little detour to the top of Mud Pond, where we discovered that this remarkable plant (its scientific name is Crocanthemum canadense) still preserved enough moisture to create the fascinating curls of frozen vapor along its stems.  We know of no other plant in our part of the country that behaves this way.

Many in our group had never witnessed this phenomenon before, and we were lucky to find many examples of it.

We were also lucky to spy some gorgeous clusters of Climbing Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), its beautiful orange-husked red berries complemented by a backdrop of radiant blue sky.  This is our native American species of bittersweet, which is becoming increasingly rare because of being supplanted by the extremely invasive Asiatic Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus).

Although these berries appear very similar to those of the Asiatic Bittersweet, because they grow in a terminal cluster rather than as clusters in the leaf axils, we can be confident that they are indeed our native Climbing Bittersweet.

Eventually, we did make it to the Nature Trail and were able to admire the handsome and informative signs that point out many of our native trees along the way.

We did have a moment's pause, however, when we stood before this sign and this tree, since none of us would have picked out this tree as an unmistakeable example of Yellow Birch.  The bark color was more gray than golden, and we could find none of the shaggy curls of bark that are so typical of this species of birch.  The tree experts among us did agree that it certainly was a birch, and it was neither a Gray Birch nor a Black Birch.  It continues to puzzle us.  We shall have to come back when the tree is in leaf or in fruit to confirm its identity.

We found another puzzle among this group of Black Locust trees.  On every trunk of this group of five or six locusts, we discovered the bark had been torn away on one side of the trunk from about four feet above the ground.  It seems unlikely that these were caused by deer rubbing their antlers on the trunks, but what else could have caused this bark damage?  I'd love to hear other guesses.

I find it delightful that many of the understory trees already have colorful buds that hold the promise of spring, even though it's not yet even winter.  Those of Striped Maple are especially elegant and colorful.

Rivaling those maple buds were these of Sassafras, fat yellow buds on branches colored spring green.

It may not yet be official winter, with the solstice still a month away.  But ice on the lake is telling us that the season's change is already upon us.  I thought it was just the thinnest of skims, but Win bravely demonstrated its solidity to us.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

One Perfect Paddle

I knew there was a reason I hadn't stowed my canoe as yet.  Yes, I had a hunch there'd be one more perfect paddling day, so my boat stayed strapped to the top of my car, just waiting, waiting, waiting.  Well,  that day happened on Friday.  Warm sun, no wind, blue sky, and not another soul around to roil the river's still surface.  I slipped my boat into the sheltered waters that hide out behind a large island,  dipped my paddle into the cold clear water, and glided effortlessly into Paradise.

Okay, I admit that that Paradise claim might seem a bit hyperbolic, but if Paradise means the state we are in when we come face to face with God, well, it's here on this beautiful stretch of the Hudson that I feel closest to my Creator, the source of great goodness out of which all this exquisite natural beauty arises.  When I'm here, I find it easy to pray, and my prayer is simply, "Thank You."

Thank You for the moss-draped, deep-shaded boulders that line the shore, and the dark-green fragrant forest that rises behind them.

Thank You for the wide blue sky, the stately pines, and the sun that warms the banks where the flowers thrive.

Thank You for the brilliant berries that offer a feast for my eyes as well as food for birds and other creatures.  Thanks, too, for the rippling waters that amplify the shoreline's beauty in reflections.

Thank You for the mosses and vines that brighten the banks and soften the rocks' hard edges.

Thank you for the seeds that store the promise of next summer's flowers.  (These handsome pods hold the seeds of Great St. Johnswort, a gorgeous flower that thrives on one of these islands.)

Thank You for the dark shade of the woods and the golden light of the lowering sun that caused this Winterberry bush to just explode into glory.

Here, my prayer fell silent.  I simply breathed Yes! with every breath, and sat with the river's stillness.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Wandering a Windy Height

The cold and blustery days we've had of late remind me of Heathcliff and Catherine wandering the windy moors around Wuthering Heights.  Well, we don't have many moors around here, but we do have some windy heights, including a mountainous powerline clearcut off of Spier Falls Road that's been calling to me for years.  So off I went on Friday to explore it.

From the road, it looks a bit daunting, with rocky outcroppings rising steeply and no path marked out to climb them. No matter.  There must be a way, I thought, and started up.

Up and up and up I went, grasping at trunks of gnarly Scrub Oaks to haul me up the steeper spots where my feet could find a foothold in the rocks.  The way soon leveled off somewhat, although I still had to watch where I put my feet as I passed through mats of cinnamon-brown frost-killed Hay-scented Fern that obscured the hidden peril of tumbled rocks.  The wind moved in waves across meadows of tawny Little Bluestem Grass and tossed the boughs of coppery-leaved American Beeches and tall White Pines in the forest that lined the way.  I could have climbed higher and higher, but the day was growing late.  I promised myself I'd come back to see what lies beyond the farthest height I could see from here.

About halfway up, I could hear the gentle music of a little stream rippling and splashing over the rocks in miniature cascades.

When I turned and looked back I could see the whole valley below me, the Hudson River shining in the slanting sunlight, with mountains rising on either side.  I find it something of a marvel how the power company manages to raise these pylons all along these heights, and then keep the forest cleared beneath the lines.

These clearing replicate somewhat the forested areas that once were cleared by fire, creating habitat for many plants that thrive in such open locations.   Although I found the long views of the valley breathtaking, I also enjoyed discovering the abundance of beautiful plants that were happy here.  The Dewberry leaves were a truly striking ruby red.

I don't know the name of this grass, but I loved how its yellow blades complimented the emerald green of the moss it grew out of.

Another lovely composition was this clump of spiky green erupting out of the frothy white mound of Reindeer Lichen, the bright-red shred of a leaf like a ribbon that tied the whole arrangement together.

I love how the  mosses grant us delight in their greenery in every season.  Here's a particularly pretty patch of Haircap Moss.

How aptly named is Delicate Fern Moss!

Another moss, name unknown to me, spread an emerald velvet carpet that completely shrouded some rounded rocks, punctuated by a spiky asterisk of baby pine.

One isolated tumble of boulders must have contributed lime to the soil around it, for here I found such lime-loving plants as this Ebony Spleenwort growing abundantly.

Broad patches of flat rock interspersed with thin soil offered a happy home to many plants of Ovate-leaved Violets, their fuzzy green leaves turned lemon-yellow this late in the year.

Those same thin-soiled expanses were where I also found this patch of spiky plants colored the most unexpected bright pink and green.  Wow!  Here's a new one on me!  Or so I thought, at first.

Nearby were more clumps of similar spiky plants,  but more thickly branched, with pink-stemmed spikes mixed in with twiggy stems of a rusty brown.  Close examination revealed flower heads that resembled those of various species of St. Johnswort.  This leads me to believe that these plants could very well be that miniature St. Johnswort called Orange Grass (Hypericum gentianoides), one of those plants that thrive in barren soil like that on this mountainside.

The teeny-tiny flowers of Orange Grass are actually yellow, not orange, and you have to look very closely to see them.  I have seen them twice before in my life, both times in Massachusetts, but never in Saratoga County.  The New York Flora Association distribution map doesn't record them for Saratoga County, either.  So I shall have to return late next summer to collect a specimen.  And I will be very happy to do so, for this was a wonderful place to explore.  I certainly plan to be back again, and next time make it all the way to the top.

Addendum:  Just for the record, here's what Hypericum gentianoides looks like when it's in bloom.  Very tiny yellow flowers and dark red fruits.  I took this photograph in September, 2011, near the Atlantic coast outside of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rare Mint Confirmed for Moreau Lake

It's always a good day for a walk around Moreau Lake, especially on days as beautiful as it was yesterday.  But this time I had a special reason for walking this shoreline, for I wanted to revisit the Whorled Mountain Mint I found along the shore this fall.  (See my post for September 9.) Except that then, I wasn't sure of its name.  But now I knew for sure, since I had just heard from Steve Young, chief botanist with the New York Natural Heritage Program, that this is, indeed, the endangered species of mountain mint he thought it might be, Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum.  I'm happy to report that it was looking still very healthy yesterday, with many of the dozens of plants still bearing green leaves.

I had sent a pressed specimen to Steve, who shared it with Dr. Robert Naczi,  curator of North American botany at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.  After close examination, Dr. Naczi confirmed that this was, indeed, the variety of P. verticillatum  listed among New York's rarest plants, with only four verified occurrences and five historical occurrences known to exist in the state.  Now we can make that five verified occurrences.  According to Dr. Naczi, this was "a very good find."

Satisfied that my treasured plant was still safe and happy, I continued my walk around the lake, enjoying the pleasant warmth of the sunlit beach and the beautiful reflections of multicolored trees in the still water.

At first glance, I almost mistook these Hop Hornbeam seed pods for pinecones, especially since the hornbeam branches were surrounded by those of White Pine.

A thicket of Black Huckleberry shrubs made a ruby-red hedge along the northern shore of the lake.

The vivid pink leaves of Maple-leaved Viburnum still put on a colorful display.

As the late afternoon sun began to sink behind the mountains, I sat on a shore-side bench  and contemplated the exquisite beauty of this special place, so familiar to me after so many years of wandering its woods and waterways.  But also, still capable of granting me delightful surprises.