Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wildflower Progress Report

 It's Trout Lily time in the Skidmore woods!  And the first flush has just begun.  I was delighted to find their lovely yellow blooms nodding in many parts of the woods on Monday.

Our Bloodroots have been blooming for some time now, and many have already dropped their snowy-white petals.  But here and there I found a few newly opened blooms, wide open despite a few drops of falling rain.

I was really surprised to find one flowering specimen of Canada Violet nestled among limestone boulders. I could find no other violets of any kind in the woods as yet.  Usually, the Long-spurred and Downy Yellow Violets bloom before the Canadas.

False Hellebore is not blooming yet, of course, but its big spring-green leaves have reached their stage of curvaceous perfection.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Birds and the Bees and the Babies

Ah yes, it's Spring, and love is in the air!  And soon there will be babies.  While walking along the Hudson River at Schuylerville yesterday, my friend Sue and I spotted a couple of birds on their nests, both nests safely situated on old bridge pilings way out in the water, out of reach of most predators.

The first one we saw was a Canada Goose, all snuggled in among fluffy down, pulled from her own soft breast.

The second one we saw was an Osprey so far down in her nest we weren't sure at first there was really a bird in there.  Or even if that skimpy pile of sticks on the old bridge piling could really be a nest.  But later she stuck her head up where we could see her.  (And later still, she and her mate treated us to spectacular views of the two of them wheeling and soaring over the river.)

So those were the birds, and here were the . . .  well, they kind of look like bees, even though they're Tachinid Flies,  doing the "birds and bees" thing.  As adults, Tachinid Flies are kind of nice, they don't bite or sting and they eat mostly pollen and they're kind of furry and have big brown eyes.  Their babies, though, we might find a little creepy, since Tachinid larvae parasitize other insects, especially our beloved Monarch caterpillars.  Ah well, all God's chillen gotta eat.

Speaking of babies, I found quite a few in the Skidmore woods today, although they were neither birds nor bees (or flies), but rather, baby plants.

This Wood Betony baby was so small, a quarter might have covered it.  I love its red crinkly leaves, set off so prettily here in a bed of fruiting moss.

This wee little fern was uncoiling among the limestone rocks that litter the forest floor.  I do not know its species, but it's one with a dark red rachis.

Both the new-born leaves and the opening flowers of Wild Ginger are covered with baby-soft down.

The pale-green flower bud of Mayapple hides among its enfolding unfurling leaves, like a chick snuggled down in a nest.

Wait!  This is not a baby Hepatica, with its tattered leaves and with flowers already going to seed.

Yes, but look down in the center of this plant, where the new leaves have just emerged, all fresh and tender and covered with down, as soft and fluffy as any baby kitten or chick.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Spring Bides Its Time

Well, at least the sun came out today.  And the temperature inched up into the 50s.  About time!  It's been mighty cold this past week, which seems to have put spring on hold for now.  Last Sunday, my friend Sue and I went looking for signs of the season around Mud Pond, and we did find a few (see my post for April 19).  But when I went back to Mud Pond today, I couldn't find much that had changed.  Except that Dutchman's Breeches leaves have emerged at last from the creekbank.  There was no sign of them at all one week ago.

One good thing about this cold spell is that the Hepatica have stayed with us a while.  I saw quite a few still blooming on one bank of the pond, just where we'd seen them a week ago.  So pretty!  I noticed that the Hepatica here at Mud Pond are the round-lobed variety (Hepatica nobilus var. obtusa), rather than the sharp-lobed variety (H. nobilus var. acuta) that favors the woods at Skidmore.

There's a huge Nannyberry shrub (Viburnum lentago) that grows on the shore of the pond.  It seemed to show no signs of life from a distance, but when I approached, I could see that its long stork-bills of brown buds were beginning to open their "beaks."

There's a wide low mudflat where the creek empties into the pond, and this mud was densely covered in places with tiny green nubbins interspersed with what looked like wee pink roses.  A close look revealed that the "roses" were actually the baby leaves of Dwarf St. Johnswort (Hypericum mutilum) and the tiny green dots were the infant plants of the liverwort Ricciocarpus natans.  This liverwort is actually a floating plant, but every year I find it stranded on the shores of Mud Pond when the water levels are low.

When Sue and I were here last Sunday, we saw many ducks and turtles and flying insects.  But all was quiet today, except for a couple of Tachinid flies flitting about, searching for pollen to eat.  Good luck, dear chubby fuzzy-butt fly.  I hope the weather warms up soon, so the flowers will open and you can feast to your heart's content.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Pause in Spring's Progress

Well, we did get our hopes up, didn't we?  But that sweet stretch of nice warm weather that paved the woods with wildflowers has come to a halt, with temperatures the last few days hardly budging out of the 40s.  Remember those pretty Bloodroots turning their wide-open faces to the sky?  Today, they had closed their petals to protect their pollen and hunkered down among their enfolding leaves, as if they had drawn a shawl around their shoulders.  (I see a little fly taking shelter there, as well.)

Yesterday, it was not only cold, it was rainy, too, and this Garter Snake was so chilled it never budged when I poked my camera in close.

A cold rain is bad enough, but darn it all, today it actually SNOWED!!!  Just a couple of brief snow showers that scattered a few icy pellets among the mosses at Bog Meadow Nature Trail,  but still . . . .

I had come to Bog Meadow today to see if the masses of Spring Beauty might be blooming there, but of course they were not, having shut their buds tight against the cold.  So what other flowers might I find, I wondered, ones that might be better equipped to brave inclement weather?   Ah, let's look for Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum), a flower that doesn't have any petals to open or close, and which actually likes it cold and wet.  And sure enough, there they were, sprawled across the swampy swales, each bloom displaying a ring of bright-red anthers.

I don't know.  Can we talk about Field Horsetail Reeds (Equisetum arvense) "coming into bloom?"  They're not really flowers, with stamens and pistils, etc., but they do bear spores that they shed to produce new plants.  These fertile stalks do, anyway.  They were just breaking the ground today, but when they mature those honey-comb scales will open to disburse their spores, and then these stalks will wither and disappear.  Other, sterile stalks will continue to grow, opening their chlorophyll-containing "leaves" to sustain them throughout the summer until autumn frost.  None of these green stalks had emerged from the ground as yet.

My next stop today was Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, where I hoped to find the early-blooming Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia) starring a mossy bank along the stream.  And behold, there they were! This is a violet that really doesn't seem to mind the cold at all.

What a gorgeous bright lemon-yellow it is, with flowers that emerge even before its leaves open wide.

I haven't seen any other native violets as yet, but I did count on finding some English Violets (Viola odorata) near the Clinton Street entrance to Skidmore College.   I had already found the white variety of this introduced species on the other side of campus, so I wasn't surprised -- although I was definitely delighted! -- to find these deep-purple blooms spreading beneath some stately pines.

For many years, I was stumped as to the species of this beautiful and exquisitely fragrant violet,  but eventually, one of America's foremost violet experts, Harvey Ballard, told me to look for a hooked style, which would be diagnostic for Viola odorata.  So I looked, and there it was!

Since picking violets only encourages the plants to put forth more blooms, I didn't feel bad about making myself a little nosegay to take home.  Tonight, this wee little bouquet is perfuming my entire kitchen.

While there at Skidmore, I decided to take a quick tour of the North Woods, not really expecting to find much new in bloom.  I saw acres and acres of Trout Lily leaves (Erythronium americanum) and had given up hope of finding any in flower, when this pretty duo appeared before my eyes.  Lovely!

A few days ago I had found the little yellow trumpets of Leatherwood flowers (Dirca palustris) just peeking out of their furry buds.  Well, this cold spell sure didn't slow them down!

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) had also ignored the cold, and had put forth their little puffs of yellow-green blooms.

Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) sure has spectacular blooms, and ordinarily we would never see them up high in the canopy, but the path today was littered with these fluffy red "caterpillars," the male flowers ripe and ready to shed their pollen.  I don't know if recent high winds blew them down, or if squirrels have been nipping them off, or if these male flowers typically are shed spontaneously. The female flowers are borne on separate trees, and it is the female flowers that will develop the cottony fluff-covered seeds that will fall like snow across the landscape in early summer.

These are not flowers, but rather the swelling buds of Striped Maple (Acer pensylvaticum).   I think they are among the loveliest growths in the spring woods, with their elegant symmetry and velvety pink leaf buds clasped by ruby-red bud scales, held aloft on deep-red and dark-green twigs that are ringed in gold. They seem to glow with a pearly light in the darkest shadows of the forest.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

". . . and the red buds thicken . . ."

I heard this poem on NPR's The Writer's Almanac this morning, shortly after I had gazed in amazement at the glorious Red Maple that stands in front of my house.  I just had to share them:  the poem as well as some examples of Red Maple's beauty.

April Prayer

Just before the green begins there is the hint of green
a blush of color, and the red buds thicken
the ends of the maple’s branches and everything
is poised before the start of a new world,
which is really the same world
just moving forward from bud
to flower to blossom to fruit
to harvest to sweet sleep, and the roots
await the next signal, every signal
every call a miracle and the switchboard
is lighting up and the operators are
standing by in the pledge drive we’ve
all been listening to: Go make the call.
“April Prayer” by Stuart Kestenbaum from Prayers and Run-on Sentences. © Deerbrook Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

A couple more photos of Red Maple's beautiful buds.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

In Good Company

 I'm SO glad my friend Sue and I were able to walk together around Moreau Lake today!  What a beautiful blue-sky day it was, and I always see so much more when my friend Sue's along.  I have uncorrectable blurry vision, but Sue has the sharpest eyesight of anyone else I know, and she can point out many, many wonders that I would miss completely.

For example, Sue could tell at a glance that these white dots bobbing out on the lake were Bufflehead ducks.  I managed to concur after studying them with binoculars, but she could tell immediately with her unaided eyes.

She, too, was the first to spot the Spotted Newts that were basking in the shallows where the bright sun warmed the underwater sand.

She also could point my eyes toward this tiny green blur in the leaves, which a closer inspection revealed to be a very small, very green grasshopper.

I knew that we were surrounded by many flying insects as we walked along kicking up leaves, but I never would have ascertained that most of them were the adorably fuzzy Bee Flies, without Sue informing me.  From time to time the little flies would stop to bask in the warmth of the sun, and that's how I managed to get a closer look.

I know it was Sue who first spotted the half-open blooms of Trailing Arbutus among the wintered-over leaves on the shady banks along the western shore of the lake.  But she also remembered some patches of Arbutus she had found last year on the sunny eastern shore, and when we got there, what a treat to find these abundant clusters of wide-open fragrant blooms!

Now, here were some ducks I could recognize all on my own, as this pair of Wood Ducks scurried away from the bank of Mud Pond as we approached.  No duck has more glorious plumage, and they were still close enough to shore that I got to see and enjoy it.   But I sure couldn't see the groups of Painted Turtles out on those patches of mud, until Sue pointed them out to me.  She also described a pair of Snapping Turtles interacting with each other near another mud island, and these turtles were still under water! As for me, I never could get a good glom on them.   It amazes me how much I miss when my friend is not along.

But at least even I could spot these bright tufts of male Red Maple flowers, so dazzling against that blue sky.

The tiny little weed called Draba verna is much less showy than those Red Maple flowers, and we had to search and search to find them, even though we know exactly where they grow.  Count on Sue, of course, to spy them first.  I bet even if you could blow this photo up 10 times, you still would not be able to see what Sue is photographing.

Draba verna (also called Whitlow Grass) is hardly what you would call a showy plant, even when you do manage to see it.  It is awfully cute, though, with its tiny rosette of basal leaves and four petals so deeply cut they appear to be eight.

See how tiny they are?

Now, in case you are wondering why we would bother to go in search of such a wee ordinary weed, let me quote from the noted naturalist Aldo Leopold, who had some really delightful things to say about this tiny plant.

Within a few weeks now Draba, the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms. He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.

Draba asks, and gets but scant allowance of warmth and comfort; it subsists on the leavings of unwanted time and space. Botany books give it two or three lines, but never a plate or portrait. Sand too poor and sun too weak for bigger better blooms are good enough for Draba. After all, it is no spring flower, but only a postscript to a hope.

Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible woolly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance -- just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Back to Ballston Creek

On Thursday, I came to the Ballston Creek in Malta with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, but we spent most of our time that day in the nature preserve on the west side of the road, observing the birds in the heron nesting area.  Today I returned to Malta to explore the creek across the road in the Shenantaha Creek Park.  This is a fine town park with playgrounds and picnic areas, but my favorite part is the woodland trail that follows the creek through beautiful shale gorges.  Shenantaha (meaning "deer water") is the Iroquois name for Ballston Creek, and yes, I can certainly imagine this beautiful woods and waterway being a haven for wild deer.

When we were here two days ago, we found but one or two Bloodroots in bloom, but today, with temperatures reaching the 70s, the wooded areas along the road were carpeted with these beautiful early spring wildflowers.

What a welcome sight!  Is there any flower more beautiful in its elegant simplicity?

I could find no other wildflowers along most of the trail that follows the creek through the woods, but this woods has a beauty all its own, accompanied by the music of the rushing water.

At one point along this trail, a brook tumbles down shale cliffs to enter the creek, and I wonder if this brook is bringing lime enrichment to the surrounding woods.  It's along this brook that we always begin to find such lime-loving plants as Blue Cohosh, which today was beginning to open its deep purple flowers.

It won't be long before the other flowers we find in this woods begin to open their buds.  I found many plants of Red Trillium getting ready to bloom.

A few of the Trout Lilies were also sporting swelling buds.

Patches of Toothwort will bear their pretty pink-tinged white flowers any day now.

Actually, I am delighted to find Red Elder shrubs before they bloom, because their purple-tinged  buds are far more colorful than their clusters of rather homely off-white flowers.

I found dozens of Dutchman's Breeches bearing buds on flower stalks, a few of which were already turning from pale green to iridescent white tipped with yellow.

I remembered from former visits a spectacular patch of woods just teeming with Hepaticas.  Sure enough, there they were, right where I remembered them, abundantly blooming in many different shades of lavender and white.

In among all those shades of pale blues and purples, this Hepatica, with its radiant pink blooms, certainly stood out.