Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Flashes of Color Along Bog Meadow Trail

After a stretch of rainy unpleasant days, summer paid us a brief visit today, with warmth and sunshine to add to the pleasure of a walk along Bog Meadow Trail.  I entered the trail from a spur that comes in from Meadowbrook Estates, an access that leads to a boardwalk crossing a wooded wetland.

Although most of the trees have dropped their leaves by now, I still found flashes of brilliant color along the trail, especially among the little oak seedlings when the afternoon sun lit up their ruddy leaves from behind.

The rosy leaves of this baby oak looked so pretty, set among the yellowing leaves of Dwarf Raspberry and set off with a green sprig of hemlock.

Almost every wetland is now ablaze with the crimson fruits of Winterberry, and the Bog Meadow wetlands are no exception.

This sprinkling of the tiny Lemon Drop Fungus looked especially vivid against the dark wood of a rotting stump.

Bog Meadow Trail runs east for about two miles from an entrance on Rte. 50 just outside of Saratoga to its terminus on Meadowbrook Road, near the intersection with Stafford's Bridge Road.  I entered the trail about two-thirds of that way along and turned west.  Here the trail follows an old railroad bed through forested wetland on either side, with a wide-open marsh about midway along the trail.  That open marsh was my destination today, because I hoped to see if migrating waterfowl might be resting on the water.

As I strode along, I noticed that in the dark of the woods, the fluffy white seedheads of Flat-topped Asters glowed with a pearly light.

The leaves of Highbush Blueberry were so brilliantly red, they even dazzled the sensor of my camera, which didn't seem to know what to do with so saturated a color.

I noticed some recent improvements to the trail, with the addition of benches spaced at various points, as well as the placing of distance markers set at quarter-mile intervals.  Although the land through which the trail runs is owned by the city of Saratoga Springs, the trail itself is managed by Saratoga P.L.A.N. (a land conservation organization) and is maintained by dedicated volunteers.

When I reached the open marsh, I was a little disappointed not to see a single waterfowl resting on its quiet water, but I still very much enjoyed the beautiful view.

Wondering if there might be some ducks or geese hiding among the tussocks across the water, I took a seat on this waterside bench and let my eyes scan the distance for any movement.  At one point, a solitary duck came angling in, but when it saw me,  it wheeled around and flew away out of sight before I could try to identify it.  One thing I DID see, however, was a little fluffy white clump surrounding the narrow trunk of a spindly Speckled Alder just to the right of the bench.  Can you see it in this photo?

A closer look revealed a mass of Wooly Alder Aphids, each tiny insect exuding threads of white waxy material that made them look as if they were covered with fur.  Aside from their remarkable appearance, these are indeed fascinating creatures, for each member of this cluster is a clone of a single winged female aphid that landed on this branch and began to produce wingless clonal offspring without mating with a male.  And then the clones also began producing more clones.  The aphids feed on the sap of the tree, and when they have depleted the resources at this spot, they will produce an aphid with wings who can fly off and establish a new colony.

I was not surprised to find this cluster, since the whole time I'd been walking the trail, I'd noticed these tiny bits of blue fluff wafting about, and finally I  had reached out and caught one in my hand. This is the winged form of the Wooly Alder Aphid.  I just can't imagine a cuter little bug, with that baby-blue color, gossamer wings, and abdomen covered with fluff.

I found some other pretty things along the shore of the marsh, including this cluster of shiny red rose hips, the fruit of the same deliciously fragrant Swamp Rose I had stopped to delight in last summer.

Bittersweet Nightshade also produces a shiny red fruit, but theirs with a lovely translucency, and many today were dangling from vines that hung over the water.

I have never seen any other plant but Bittersweet Nightshade produce leaves of such a vivid purple.

And oh, when the sun lit those purple leaves from behind, they glowed like stained glass!

The day grew late and I had to turn and hurry home, but I drew to a halt when I saw this patch of Green Shield Lichen with what looked like a brown bat flying forth from its center.  Fascinating!  And just in time for Halloween!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ed Miller!

Who could believe that this energetic guy, Ed Miller, just turned 90 years old?!   Field botanist extraordinaire, brilliant designer, innovative boat-builder, conquerer of rugged terrains in all weathers, inspiring father and grandfather and beloved friend to many,  Ed was celebrated by hordes of loving family members and friends at a birthday celebration on Saturday, October 25, and a grand time was had by all.  Including the guest of honor, to judge from his happy expression as he greets his friends Ruth and Kay.

During the course of the festivities, folks who have known Ed in many areas of his many-faceted life rose to honor this remarkable man with stories of his many amazing adventures.  Some told tales of him as an exceedingly creative engineer with GE, or as a Boy Scout leader skilled in all kinds of campcraft, or as a longtime and still active downhill skier, or as leader of many rigorous and challenging outdoor excursions.  I was just wondering who would speak of his encyclopedic botanical knowledge when Ed's son Scott thrust the microphone at me.  Ulp!  Oh dear!  I had not prepared any remarks in advance, but I was not going to pass up the chance to pay public tribute to my dear friend and mentor, so I managed to stutter out some general expressions of gratitude and celebration.  But oh, I could have related so many more telling things about this wonderful guy, if only I'd come prepared.  I'm just going to have to use my blog to do that now.

At Lester Park near Saratoga Springs, Ed stands atop an outcropping of stromatolites, the fossilized remains of 490-million-year-old sea creatures. 

I first met Ed maybe 15 years ago at a photo-lecture our mutual friend Evelyn Green was giving about the Ice Meadows, a remarkable botanical site on the Hudson River north of Warrensburg.  I was then still quite a neophyte among wildflower enthusiasts, but I managed to gain Ed's attention when I was the only one in the audience who could name a tiny yellow flower (Creeping Spearwort) that Evelyn had projected on the screen.  I guess that must have impressed him, because Ed introduced himself after the lecture, and we started talking and talking and talking about plants and more plants and more plants, while my husband waited patiently by the door.  That's how it goes when nature nuts find each other.

As time went on, we would meet each other by chance on this trail or that as we each went about botanizing on our own, but our relationship really became cemented about five years ago when Ed came along on a nature walk I led at Bog Meadow Trail near Saratoga Springs.  Long after all the other participants had gone their ways, Ed and I (and also our mutual pal, Sue Pierce), were still happily poking about among the flowers and the ferns and the fungi, our curiosity still unsated.

Since then, Ed and I have shared many other outdoor adventures, including exploring the shores of the Hudson River, especially below the Spier Falls Dam, where together we have found an impressive array of unusual riparian plants.  Ed showed me where to find Wild Senna shrubs, and I was able to take him to where the Great St. Johnswort grows. And on and on.

In the course of our explorations, we often enjoyed a picnic and the pleasure of each other's company amid these splendid surroundings.

In this photo, Ed is explaining to me how to distinguish a Quillwort from a Pipewort, while sitting in one of the innovative lightweight canoes that he and his sons designed and built themselves.  (And which were the envy, years ago, of his aluminum-canoe-toting fellow paddlers, who regaled us at Ed's birthday party with tales of exhausting portages trying to keep up with Ed and his lightweight boat.)

Through Ed, I have come to find many other friends and fellow nature enthusiasts, especially among the group that calls itself the Thursday Naturalists.  Each week, throughout the year, this group of both passionate amateur and professional botanists meets to explore nature preserves throughout the region.  Every single member brings a vast store of nature knowledge and lore, but Ed continues to be our go-to guy for distinguishing one plant from another, and he brings an almost childlike enthusiasm and winning delight to every one of our forays.

At Woodcock Preserve in Clifton Park:

At the Hundred-acre Wood in Malta:

At Woodlawn Preserve in Schenectady:

At Mud Pond in Moreau Lake State Park:

One of Ed's special friends is Nan Williams, an equally passionate botanizer and one of his ski buddies who lives in Massachusetts but often joins the Thursday Naturalists on our outings. Together, Ed and Nan have led us more than once on expeditions to old marble quarries on a mountain in Vermont, where we found a wondrous number of rare and beautiful lime-loving plants.

Ed and Nan know of many remarkable habitats where we can find the rarest of New York's native plants.  This photo was taken in a Warren County bog where Grass Pink and Fringed White orchids grow as abundantly as Dandelions on a suburban lawn.

At one time in my quest to identify all the wildflowers I came across, I learned to distinguish each of the dozens of aster species native to our region.  But then I set that knowledge aside, content to acknowledge all asters by genus but not bothering any more to parse out which species they may be. (Lord, there are so many! And so many lookalikes!)  But when I'm with Ed, that won't do at all, and he whips out his magnifier to demonstrate the characteristics of each species' bracts, stems, leaves, petals, etcetera.  He's made a very helpful crib sheet, too, that now I tuck into the pages of my Newcomb's Wildflower Guide.   He included the goldenrods, too.   So helpful!  Thanks, Ed.

I tend to stick pretty close to home in my wildflower explorations, hoping to find and document every plant that is native to Saratoga County.  But Ed is continually expanding my botanical horizons, carrying me off to many amazing sites I would never know about on my own.  One of these sites is a Nature Conservancy site at Joralemon Park, south of Albany, acknowledged to be "perhaps the richest wildflower site in all of New York" by state botanists, containing abundant numbers of some of the state's rarest plants.  It was Ed who recognized the amazing quality of this limestone-underlain site, and it was he who purchased this site with his own money to give it to the Nature Conservancy.  Ed is exceedingly familiar with the plants at this site, and here he is searching for the tiny spikemoss called Selaginella that he knows grows here, while the rest of his friends enjoy a picnic overlooking the pond.

Here's Ed again, in that familiar eyes-to-the-ground searching posture, seeking for rarities among the rocks that line the shore of the Hudson River at another Nature Conservancy site along the Ice Meadows in Warren County. In the winter, these shores are heaped with masses of frazil ice up to 12-feet thick or more, creating a frigid habitat that discourages the encroachment of trees and ensures that the rare sub-boreal plants that thrive here will continue to do so.

This remarkable site attracts botanists from many surrounding regions, including those who attended last year's regional meeting of the American Botanical Society, hosted by none other than Ed Miller himself. In this photo, Ed is joined by his longtime dear friend Ruth Schottman, another exceedingly expert botanist, teacher, author, and one of the founders of our Thursday Naturalists group.

The Thursday Naturalists always enjoy an annual foray to the Ice Meadows, as well as the pleasure of each others' company on a picnic in the shade.  I'm so glad I found this particular photo in my files, because it shows the laughing (bearded) face of our friend Win Bigelow, a valued fount of woodland knowledge and treasured companion who died last year while wintering in Florida.  So many good times together, Win!  We sure miss you.

Here's another photo with Win's dear face among the group, taken during the summer of 2013 when Ed led the Thursday Naturalists on a tour of the collection of native woody plants he has personally established at Landis Arboretum, near Esperance.

Landis Arboretum was originally established to showcase exotic species of trees from all over the world, but Ed convinced the directors there that he should create exhibits showcasing the trees and other woody plants that are native to New York.  That was back in 2001, and in the years since then Ed has almost single-handedly designed, planted, weeded, fed, and watered the extensive collection, arranged in ways that facilitate easy identification and comparison between species. (To see my 2010  account describing some exhibits, click here.)

Among the more fascinating exhibits Ed has established at Landis is a collection of bog plants, growing on a raft in a tub of acidified water that is carpeted with sphagnum moss to approximate the habitat of a natural bog.

 Ed regularly visits his collection at the arboretum, carting water, fertilizer, and gardening tools to each site to tend to all the plants' needs.

This past summer Ed has been working on a new exhibit showcasing New York's native ferns, with most of the plants provided by his friend Nan Williams from the ferns growing on her own property. To honor her contribution, Ed plans to name this exhibit "Nan's Ferns."  The site for this exhibit was not exactly plant-ready when I visited there with Ed this summer,  but he was undaunted.  After quite some effort breaking up tree roots and dislodging rocks with his mattock, Ed proceeded to use his bare hands to tuck some new plantings into their prepared beds.

After all that effort, Ed deserved to rest on one of the benches his sons have built and inscribed to acknowledge his work at the arboretum.  Ed, what a legacy you have left to native plant lovers!

I don't downhill ski, but Ed sure does, still hitting the slopes every week in the winter months, and now I hope he gets a special lift-ticket discount reserved for nonagenarians.  My preferred winter sport is snow-shoeing,  and I felt truly privileged that Ed deigned to slow his pace to mine when we explored the old canal towpaths along the Mohawk River at Vischer Ferry, a marvelous historic site I had never visited before, until Ed took me there.

Another very special adventure with Ed was attending an American Botanical Society annual meeting in Ithaca during the summer of 2011. Ed invited me to join his friends Ruth Schottman, Frank Knight, Nan Williams, and himself on a four-day marathon of botanical forays into the fields, forests, swamps and streams of this spectacular area of central New York State.  Of course, the botanizing was fantastic, but the best part was spending whole days (and long car rides) in the delightful company of these wonderful people.  I think there must be some special gene unique to plant lovers that makes them so cheerful, patient, smart, and just so much fun to be with.

So Happy Birthday to you, dear Ed!  I can't thank you enough for all you have taught me, all the places you've shown me, all the friends I have made because of you, all the joys we have shared together in the woods and on the waterways.  I celebrate your friendship and look forward to many more adventures together.    I am so very, very proud to call you my friend.

Ed pauses to enjoy the sound of a waterfall plunging through a gorge at Oakwood Cemetery in Troy.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Walking Another Ridge

The hollow-point bullets are what changed our plans.  On Sunday, Sue and I had planned to walk the  high Western Ridge Trail overlooking the Hudson in Moreau Lake State Park.  We'd hiked there a year ago to spectacular overlooks and were looking forward to repeating that beautiful hike.  (You can click on this link to see just how beautiful it was.)

We remembered it was opening day of deer-hunting season, but I wasn't worried because it was black-powder hunting only, and black-powder hunters tend to be very careful shooters, not wanting to waste their single shots on hikers instead of deer.  But then we met a hunter in the parking lot, an amiable guy who was more than happy to talk about his sport and show us how he loaded his gun.  I just wish he hadn't mentioned how the hollow points of his bullets spread open to cause major damage inside the deer, because that's when I felt Sue start to cower in the direction of her car.

"Um . . ., think we should hike in a safety zone instead?" I suggested.  So we changed our plans and chose another ridge:  the Red Oak Ridge Trail within the No Hunting area of the park.  If you  stand at the lake's boat-launching site and look to the mountains that rise to the west, this trail runs about midway up that slope, with a few steep spots but mostly a gentle up-and-down hike through a beautiful mixed hardwood forest.

Sure, there are some Red Oaks along this ridge, some White Oaks and Chestnut Oaks, too, but this time of year it's the yellow-leaved trees like Sugar Maple and Shagbark Hickory that cast a golden glow throughout these woods, even when most of those leaves lie scattered across the forest floor.

Another remarkable aspect of this trail is the presence of rocky outcroppings throughout the forest.

Some of those outcroppings are steep and towering, many of them covered with interesting mosses, ferns, and lichens.

We took a short detour to visit an area of the woods where a series of caves offer shelter to woodland creatures like porcupines.  I'm not sure of the exact geological makeup of these rock formations, but I would guess limestone or marble because of the presence of so many calciphile plants inhabiting the rocks.  In this photo, for example, there is a very healthy patch of Walking Fern, those spiky leaves covering the mossy boulder just to the left of the cave opening.

Update:  I heard from my friend Ed Miller, who told me that there is a fault line running through Saratoga County separating limestone on the east from marble to the west, indicating that the substrate in the mountains at Moreau Lake State Park is marble rather than limestone.  Since marble is metamorphic limestone, it also contributes lime to surrounding soils.

Another indicator of a limey soil was the abundance of Maidenhair Fern, still holding on to its delicate lacy green leaves, which will shrivel and disappear after frost. (The pink leaves here are those of Maple-leaved Viburnum.)

We also found patches of the lime-loving moss, Rhodobryum ontariense, covering the surface of some rocks. This aptly named Rose Moss looks like a carpet of tiny green flowers.  Sharing its patch in this photo is another lime-loving plant, Sweet Cicely, which will bear tiny white flowers in the spring.

I can never remember how to distinguish between Long Beech and Broad Beech Ferns, but I am pretty confident that this is one or the other, with its final pair of leaflets angled backwards.  It is normally a pretty green, but this ghostly white of its dying phase looked quite beautiful against the colorful fallen leaves.

Most of the Indian Pipes we found in the woods were desiccated and black, but this cluster had stems of the most remarkable pink.  Usually, Indian Pipe has stems as ghostly white as its terminal blooms, shown here turning black.

I was excited to show Sue these interesting Bigtooth Aspen leaves, bright yellow but each with a little patch of green emanating from its midrib.  That green patch is caused by a tiny moth larva within the leaf emitting a chemical that prolongs the life of the chlorophyll in the leaf, allowing the larva to continue feeding on living leaf tissue until it is ready to pupate.  I learned about this fascinating phenomenon just last year on a hike with friends, and if you click here you can go to my post (The "Undead" in the Autumn Woods) where I link to a very informative site explaining the process.

The Red Oak Ridge Trail eventually descends the ridge to come out near the back bay of Moreau Lake, where a flock of noisy Canada Geese were restlessly moving about on the water.  Sue studied the flock with her binoculars and discovered a solitary Bufflehead swimming amid all the geese.

Rain, wind, and a threatened frost will soon strip many of the remaining leaves from the trees, but the Highbush Blueberries always end their season in a stunning blaze of glory.  Sue and I were hurrying to drive out of the beach area before park staff locked the road gate, but we just had to stop awhile and gaze at the splendor of this gorgeous shrub.