Monday, September 29, 2014

Scenes from a Sunday Paddle

We couldn't have asked for a finer day, my friend Sue and I, to go for a paddle on the Hudson River above the Sherman Island Dam at Moreau.  It was summery warm on Sunday, and the water lay still enough to clearly reflect the mostly-blue sky and the glorious autumn foliage.

We came down through the woods at the end of Potter Road and entered the river where the water runs behind a large island and around several rocky promontories.

My own name for this particular bouldered promontory is Picnic Point, because of many flat-topped rocks that serve as benches or tables for enjoying a picnic meal.

We paddled upstream a ways to enter another bay that is centered by Three Pine Island and surrounded by many Black Tupelo trees, which were turning their signature scarlet.

The Tupelo's scarlet leaves looked especially vivid when viewed against a sapphire sky.

This young Sugar Maple added a flash of gold to the dark green forest, while Lowbush Blueberry shrubs provided a deep-red carpet beneath.

The Virginia Creeper climbing this tree glowed an almost-incandescent ruby-red.

No other leaves in the autumn woods turn a vivid pinky-purple color like that of Maple-leaved Viburnum.

Several branches of a Witch Hazel shrub hung low over the water, allowing me to put my face right up  to the ribbony petals and breathe in their delicate fragrance.  I describe that fragrance as rather like that of clean laundry that has dried outdoors in fresh air, touched with a trace of citrus.

As we paddled into one of the coves we find in this section of river, we were almost deafened by the loud chirping chatter of hundreds of Grackles flocking among the branches of these trees.

With binoculars, Sue searched the trees for some sight of the birds, but only glimpsed one or two individuals as they flew from branch to branch.  The whole tree canopy was in constant motion as if the wind were moving through it, although the air was still, and the sound of the birds' squeaking and clacking was so loud we could not hear one another speak. We wondered what this particular stand of trees offered these birds as they flocked together, preparing for migration.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Whole Week of Outdoor Adventures

One gorgeous day after another this past week.  And one fine nature adventure after another, as well.  I haven't posted about them each day because of an eye condition that makes it painful for me to look at a computer screen for more than a few minutes at a time.  But at last I have edited and organized some of my many photos, and now I can pull them all together for this digest.

A serene September morning at Moreau Lake

On Tuesday, September 23, I led a walk around the back bay of Moreau Lake for participants in the Ecological Clearing House of Schenectady, a nature-education organization.  Although I was supposed to keep the walk to no more than two hours, the day was so fine and the scenery so splendid, we did linger a bit longer than our allotted time.  I don't think anyone minded.  There was so much to see, including a large patch of the little orchid called Autumn Coralroot as well as a number of other pretty wildflowers still blooming along the shore.

When I lead a walk, I rarely take the time to take photos, but I did capture one of Kathie admiring the spectacular foliage of a Black Tupelo along the lakeshore.   Unfortunately, this may be the last autumn we have to enjoy this tree's scarlet leaves, since beavers have girdled the bark and the tree has begun to die as a consequence.  But it certainly continues to put on its annual spectacle of color, and we were lucky to witness it.

On Wednesday, September 24, I accompanied Ed Miller to the Landis Arboretum in Esperance, west of Albany, to help him tend to the native woody plant collection Ed has almost single-handedly created at this renowned arboretum.  Since establishing this wonderfully informative exhibit containing most of the trees, shrubs, and woody vines that are native to New York, Ed has spent many strenuous hours over the past 13 years planting, watering, fertilizing, and otherwise husbanding his extensive collection spread over many acres.  For most of those years, he carted all his supplies by hand and on foot, but recently the arboretum has provided him with the use of an electric cart to access the sites of his plantings.  As Ed approaches his 90th birthday next month, he has found that this cart has made performing his many chores enormously easier.  We had quite a jolly ride, bouncing over the uneven ground and holding on tight as we ascended and descended the hilly paths carved through meadow and woodland and wetland.

Ed has organized the exhibits in two ways:  by family and also by habitat.  At most of the sites along the trail, the trees and shrubs are exhibited by family groups (oaks, maples, sumacs, dogwoods, etc.) for easy comparison, and at other sites, the plantings are exhibited according to appropriate habitat, with a mixture of species sharing sites labeled Wetland, Dry Open, or Understory, for example.  At each site, a mailbox contains a map listing and showing location of all the species located there (some of which Ed was carrying water to on this day).

Here is the map and list of the more than 40 species located within the Understory Habitat.  A recent addition to each site is the display of a QR (Quick Response) code linked to audio recordings of Ed himself describing aspects of the exhibit.

Ed is currently in the process of establishing an exhibit of native ferns, to be called Nan's Ferns in honor of Ed's friend Nan Williams, who has provided many of the specimens from her own property.  On Wednesday, Ed had brought a number of new plants for planting in the exhibit, a task made quite difficult by the presence of rocks and roots in the soil.  But Ed made short work of them with his swinging mattock to loosen the soil, and then completing the job with his bare hands.  We had carted in many jugs of water to help the ferns become established in their new home.

With summer winding down, we did not expect to find many flowers blooming, aside from the abundant asters and goldenrods that still held their blooms.  But the long-lived Purple Milkwort (Polygala sanguinea) was still putting forth new layers of purple bracts encasing bouquets of tiny yellow flowers within.

Nearby we found a single spike of the little orchid called Ladies' Tresses, which we at first sight assumed was the most common species, the Nodding Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes cernua).  But then I noticed the distinctly yellow undersides of each floret, in addition to the two upswept bracts on the side of each floret, and made the claim that this must be the species called Yellow Ladies' Tresses (S. ochroleuca).  Since ochroleuca was long considered by botanists to be a variety of S. cernua rather than a species in its own right, Ed was reluctant to recognize this plant as a separate species, no matter how insistently I pleaded.  But Ed has been at this plant business a lot longer than I, so I ceded to his judgment.  At the moment.  But I still say this is S. ochroleuca.  Just not out loud in Ed's presence.

Here was another surprise: the biggest, fuzziest gall either of us had ever seen on a rose.  Bigger than my fist, as this photo reveals.  There was just this one on the whole bush.  Amazing!  Just one of the many amazing aspects of this delight-filled day at Landis Arboretum.

Mostly, it was just fun hanging out with Ed, a truly remarkable guy.

On Thursday, September 25, I was delighted that the Thursday Naturalists had planned their weekly walk at a location close to my home in Saratoga Springs -- the creekside trail at Shenantaha Creek Park near Malta.  And I even got to see Ed again, shown here leading our friends along this beautiful wooded trail.

Shenantaha Creek (also called Ballston Creek) dances and tumbles and now and then slows to a glassy stillness as it runs between steep shale cliffs for much of its course through Shenantaha Creek Park.  As the trees on the banks take on their autumn colors, a golden glow illumines the otherwise deep green forest, appearing to shine from the depths of the dark still water.

It's the season now for fruits to replace flowers as sources of bright color along the trail.  This is White Baneberry, with its porcelain-white berries arrayed on bright-red pedicels.

We could spy the bright-blue seeds of Blue Cohosh even in the depth of the dark forest, their color is so distinctive from all that surrounds them.

Ah yes, here it is at last, one of the very last flowers to bloom, the spidery little yellow flowers of Witch Hazel.  On colder days, these ribbony petals will roll up tight, and then unfurl again and again as warmer days come and go.  I have seen this understory shrub still blooming away, even as late as December!

After following the creek until the passage grew impenetrable, we climbed a steep embankment to reach the Zim Smith trail, a wide paved path for bikers and walkers that connects several towns in central Saratoga County.  Here we could swing our legs freely without watching for ruts or roots or rocks,  while enjoying the open meadows alongside the trail as we made our way back to our cars.  At this open field abounding with asters, we waded out among the blooms to practice our aster-identification skills, as well as to watch as the visiting bees and beetles and other bugs loading up on pollen as the flower season draws to a close.

We were treated to the sight of this butterfly (I believe it is one of the Fritillaries) as it wafted over the asters, lighting here or there but never staying long enough for us to get a clear look at it.  We had just turned to continue on our way when the butterfly landed on my cap, and there it sat for the picture-taking.  Poor thing, its wings are so tattered, no wonder it wanted to rest a while.

Friday, September 26, continued the stretch of spectacularly pleasant weather, as temperatures returned to an almost summer-like warmth.  Although I had chores that should have kept me at home, I wasn't the least bit unhappy that one of my tasks required me to return to Moreau Lake State Park.  My task accomplished, I decided to linger under this radiant blue sky and along the shore of this pretty blue lake, keeping up a healthy brisk pace as I walked completely around it.

Our autumn colors are coming on fast, adding an extra element of beauty to scenery that is already spectacular.   Be sure to find the time to get outdoors and enjoy it.  And don't forget to look up.  I would have missed the rosy magnificence of this tall White Ash if I hadn't lifted my eyes to the heavens, alerted by an amber glow that spilled to the forest floor.  This is the stained glass of my favorite cathedral.

Saturday, September 27, brought the most summery day of the week, with temperatures rising into the 80s under a clear blue sky.  We couldn't have hoped for better weather for the annual Nature Fest at Moreau Lake State Park, a family-friendly day-long celebration of nature held on the beach at Moreau Lake. Offered to the public free of charge, the park holds this event each year to benefit the Friends of Moreau Lake State Park, a service organization whose members work in many ways to support this magnificent park.

One of the popular exhibitors at this year's Nature Fest was John Vanek, a graduate student in herpetology who brought a fascinating collection of snakes, turtles, toads, and lizards to introduce to interested attendees.  It was wonderful to watch him help children discover the pleasant texture, surprising strength, and sinuous beauty of snakes, allowing the children to touch the snakes and even to hold them in their arms.

Noted raptor expert Beth Bidwell was another highly popular presenter, as she displayed a number of large and beautiful birds of prey and conveyed a vast amount of fascinating information about them.

Sam Lanz is a very active member of the Friends of Moreau Lake State Park, and today he manned a craft table where he taught many people how to build simple birdhouses.

Park Naturalist Gary Hill demonstrated his skill at cleaning fish, which he then handed over to his wife Jean, who dusted the fillets with cornmeal before frying them in hot oil and serving them up to many eager consumers.  (Including me. I savored some delicious fried Bluegill.   Mmmm!)

There was lots of other great food: cookies and cakes at a bake sale,  chili and macaroni-and-cheese prepared by members of the Friends group, and grilled hot dogs prepared by none other than the manager of Moreau Lake State Park himself, Peter Iskenderian.  Thanks, Peter, for taking on this hot  all-day task on a day with summer-like heat.

A silent auction offered items donated by many businesses and organizations, as well as by members of the Friends of Moreau Lake State Park.  There was a remarkable mix of items, from garden tools and household goods, to children's books, to decorative wreaths and dried flower arrangements. These intricate intarsia designs were donated to the auction by talented Friends-member Jim Van Amerongen.

My friend Sue Pierce and I donated several large photographs of locations within the park, including the three you can see in this photo, representing the natural beauty found in all seasons.  I hope our photos found a home with folks who share our love for the many remarkable scenic wonders of this amazing park.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Pretty Little Lake

 When Evelyn Greene asked me to join her to paddle Fourth Lake near Lake Luzerne yesterday, I didn't have to think twice.  I had paddled this lake just a year ago and remembered what a pretty jewel it was: small and quiet, no motorboats allowed, and most of the shoreline belonging to a state campground, now closed for the season.

We had to carry our boats about a quarter mile from the locked campground gate, but our boats were light and the going was easy and we knew what a glorious reward awaited our efforts once we reached the lake.  Especially on such a dazzling blue-sky day as this, with Red Maples starting to gain their autumn color in the wetlands,  and masses of Water Willow (Decodon verticillatus) already blazing their vivid scarlet along the shore.

Evelyn had a duty to perform, which was to check the shoreline and shallows for the presence of invasive species, and I was glad to assist her at this task.  We began our investigations in the outlet  that empties into Third Lake, and after finding only native species of shoreline and underwater plants there, we headed back around Fourth Lake to explore the inlet on the opposite shore.  From the eastern side of the lake, we could see the rounded dome of Potash Mountain rising over the forested hills to the north.

As we drew near to the mouth of the inlet, we were dazzled by masses of brilliant-red Water Willow, their beauty magnified by their reflection in the rippling water.

We paddled up the inlet under overhanging trees that shaded the cool blue stream.

Evelyn wanted to reach a bog that lay upstream, and she was not about to let this beaver dam impede our progress.  We were able to skooch our canoes up onto the jumbled branches, but we did have to get out of our boats to pull them the rest of the way clear.  I found it very difficult to climb out of my boat, for the footing was quite perilous: either up to my shin in mud or teetering on broken boughs.  But I finally made it.  If there was bog to explore further on, the effort would certainly be worth it.

But . . . .  THIS dam presented even more of a challenge! Evelyn managed to scramble out of her boat and up onto the dam, but I held back, letting Evelyn survey the prospect upstream, to see if the bog was worth the risk to limb or lens (for if I fell in, so would my doomed camera).  I could tell that Evelyn was yearning to proceed, and I was sorry to disappoint her with my reluctance.  But she finally conceded that the bog might be underwater, anyway, so perhaps it was time to turn back.

We took our time paddling back toward the beach where we'd launched our boats, observing the underwater plants, including masses of what we believed was a native milfoil, its multi-fronded stems waving lazily in the current.  Evelyn collected some samples to take for further analysis, although we knew how difficult it is to identify milfoils without the presence of flowers or fruit.  The twiggy green stuff we did positively identify as a freshwater sponge, especially after we picked a sample and felt its gritty texture between our fingers.

As we passed through masses of Water Lily and Pond Lily leaves, I noticed swarms of tiny light-colored bugs hopping all over the leaves, as well as the surface of the water.

I managed to get a close-up view of these tiny bugs with the macro setting on my camera.  It's not a perfectly clear image, but it was clear enough to help me find a match on the internet.  These wee little flea-like insects are Water Lily Planthoppers (Megamelus davisi) -- a most appropriate name, since they certainly perform enormous hops and they feed almost exclusively on Water Lilies.

Also, they are a most beneficial insect, especially to Cricket Frogs, who feed on Water Lily Planthoppers almost exclusively.  I learned this interesting information by reading a most instructive site from the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, which my readers can visit too by clicking here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back to the Banks of the Kayaderosseras

For the fourth time in less than two weeks, I returned to the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa today. A floodplain area enriched by silt, this is a wonderfully rich site I never get tired of exploring, and to explore it anew with my super-knowledgable friends in the Thursday Naturalists was a chance I could not pass up.  Besides, I just couldn't wait to show my friends the amazing mix of gorgeous wildflowers thriving there.  I knew they would be just delighted.  And so they were!

All of us have seen the deep-purple variety of New England Aster many times, but for some of us, this was the first opportunity to see this spectacular native wildflower in its rosy pink variety.  What a show they put on, filling the open meadow along the banks of the creek with a brilliant mix of colors, mixed in with accents of Boneset and Joe-Pye Weed and bright-yellow sunflowers.

We found several different species of aster, as well, including  Smooth Aster, Arrow-leaved Aster, Tall White Aster, and this big showy cluster of Purple-stemmed Aster, so beautifully intermixed with Tall Goldenrod and the bright pink puffs of Arrow-leaved Tearthumb.

Various species of sunflowers lifted their bright-yellow faces toward the sky on this crisp but sun-warmed day at the close of summer.  We found many towering plants of Jerusalem Artichoke just coming into bloom, as well as the more diminutive (and now fading) Thin-leaved Sunflowers here and there.  But the star of the sunflower show today was the willowy Maximilian's Sunflower seen in the photo below, a prairie native that somehow got introduced to this flood-plain site and has made itself very much at home here.

What a lovely combination of colors -- the Maximilian Sunflower and the New England Asters.

Such a pretty little bug, the Twelve-spotted Lady Beetle!  This Ladybug, which is native to North America, is a predator of many plant pests, but also likes to dine on pollen, a food abundantly supplied by this sunflower's disk flowers.

This big yellow composite bloom sure like a sunflower, but the presence of those curling pistils at the base of each ray flower indicate that this is instead the species called Oxeye, or False Sunflower.  None of the genuine sunflower species have such fertile ray flowers.  Most of the Oxeye flowers we found today were nearly spent, but we found enough remnants of bloom on some to be able to determine their identification.

Another yellow non-sunflower, this pretty plant is Nodding Bur Marigold, which was growing close to the water, its preferred habitat.  Although its newly opened flowers are held erect, as it goes to seed it begins to assume the nodding habit that gives this Bidens species its distinguishing name.  We found another Bidens species nearby, called Beggar Ticks, a flower that usually produces only disk flowers, without the yellow "petals" (actually, ray flowers) seen on its showier cousin.

Not all the interesting plants we found today were so colorful, but that doesn't mean they weren't intriguing to look at.  Note how the prickly outer skin of this Wild Cucumber fruit is peeling back to reveal the webby structure within.  It looks like the loofah sponge you can buy for your bath, which is also another member of the gourd family, as is the Wild Cucumber.

Cockleburs are one of the very sturdy plants that grow here along the creek, plants that are robust enough to hold back the encroachment of Japanese Knotweed that also thrives here but can't make a dent in the thickets of this burly plant.  These prickly pods contain two seeds, and our friend Ruth Schottman told us the most fascinating thing about them:  after ripening, only one of the two seeds will germinate this year, while the other will lie in wait and germinate the following year.  This is its strategy for increasing its chances of survival under changing weather conditions.  Isn't Nature amazing?

Another bit of botanical knowledge Ruth imparted today, was to show us the tiny glandular hairs that cover the bracts of New England Aster.  This distinguishing characteristic is something I had never paid attention to before, since this species' size and color of bloom are so distinctive for identifying the flower that I looked no further.

It was such a wonderland of beautiful blooms today, it's hard to believe that this is what this creekside site looked like less than two years ago, in December of 2012.

I happened to come upon this scene of complete devastation while taking a pre-Christmas walk that year, and couldn't believe my eyes.  As luck would have it, I did encounter one of the operators of the earth-moving equipment, and he was able to tell me about this excavation project.  The project involved restructuring the banks for the purpose of flood control downstream.  The previously steep banks at this particular curve of the creek had been beveled back to allow flood waters to flow up over the land and dissipate their energy, rather than charging forcefully downstream, where they could cause erosion damage.   OK, I could acknowledge that this might be a good idea, but oh my, what a horrible mess!  This had been one of my favorite sites for wildflower walks.  How could it ever recover?

Well, it did.  I shouldn't have worried.  Many native species of trees and shrubs were planted, and in less than a year (when I took the photo below in September, 2013), the banks were completely covered again, and with mostly native wildflowers like goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, Evening Primrose, Wild Bergamot, and Blue Vervain.  Unfortunately, some invasive species like Mugwort were introduced along with the dirt surrounding the new trees' rootballs, but so far they don't seem to have monopolized the site.

I took this photo below a few weeks ago in August, 2014.  Compare these lush green banks with the muddy bald banks in the above photo of the identical site, taken less than two years ago.

And here's what was once a muddy plain scraped bare of all vegetation, now abounding with beautiful flowers.  As it happens, those towering Maximilian Sunflowers are not really native to New York State, being a prairie native most likely introduced to this site either on the rootballs of the young trees or on the tires of the excavation equipment.  They were not here three years ago, and now they are becoming abundant.  It will be interesting to see if they persist.

In the meantime, the diverse mix of wildflowers continues to thrive and grow ever more robust.  Plants that were hip-high last year are now of shoulder height or higher, enriched by the floodwaters that wash over the land each spring.  Other wildlife abounds as well, including the Monarch Butterfly my friend Kay is trying to capture a photo of here.

Lucky for me, the butterfly found a flower worth lingering on, allowing me to creep close enough to snap its picture.