Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sunday Morning Musings

The Spirit of Life, dedicated to the memory of philanthropist Spencer Trask, is the
only monument among many others in Congress Park NOT honoring warriors or war.
Today brought another lovely summer morning, and to top it off, my knee felt strong and pain-free enough to allow me to walk all the way to St. Peter's Church, passing through the beautifully landscaped Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs to do so.  This is a huge tourist weekend in Saratoga, featuring a famous horse race (the Travers) and an even more famous Triple-Crown winning horse, American Pharoah [sic], who, despite all odds, was out-raced by a 16-1 longshot  named Keen Ice in the very last seconds of the race.  I'm really not that interested in horse racing, but I admit it was thrilling, to see that winning horse just pour on the power and overtake a magnificent horse that no one thought would ever be beaten.

Because of this race, Saratoga is full to bursting with visitors today, and many of them were enjoying the pleasures of Congress Park today, strolling under the huge old shade trees, tasting the waters from several mineral springs, observing the antics of ducks in the quiet ponds, and marveling at the spectacular gardens surrounding the many monuments throughout the park.  As I strode along, assisted by my cane, I was struck (and not for the first time) by the fact that all but one of those many monuments was built to honor warriors or war.

Except for the glorious Spirit of Life, honoring the late 19th-Century philanthropist Spencer Trask, there is not a single monument dedicated to healers or peacemakers or human-rights workers or those whose prophetic voices were raised to resist the horrors of war.  ALL of the other monuments were raised to honor those who were willing to participate in the death and destruction of warfare.  All of them.

By pointing this out, I certainly do not mean to dishonor those brave men and women who gave their lives in what they believed was the defense of their nation, although I cannot recall a single war in my memory that had anything to do with defending our nation.  Even many of those who once promoted such misadventures as the Vietnam War or the Iraq War now admit that those wars were wrong, but that doesn't belie the bravery and sacrifice of those who were sent to fight them.  And those soldiers certainly deserve to be honored, preferably by support for their widows and orphans or by continuing care for those who were wounded.  And yes, by monuments, too.

But I just wonder what there is about our culture that cannot bring itself to honor peacemakers and healers at least as much as it honors those who consent to participate in war.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Around the County With My Cane

Well, if there ever was a good time for my favorite stretch of the Hudson to be pretty much inaccessible for canoeing (see my last post), I guess it was this summer, when I can't go canoeing anyway, because of my injured knee.  I'm heartened, however, by how my strength and flexibility increase by the week, so I can even hope to get back on the water yet before ice-over.  In the meantime, though, I've been hobbling along various nature trails throughout Saratoga County, depending on a cane to help me over a few rocky spots and fallen logs and to push me through occasional waist-high weeds and ankle-grabbing brambles.  The last few days have been busy this way, so now I hope to catch up with a digest of some of the places I've been.

Thursday, August 20:  The Burl Trail along the Kayaderosseras Creek

Thursday was still swelteringly hot, so I sought to walk near water, choosing this creekside trail near Ballston Spa.  I started out by clambering down a bank to wide mud flats, where I found many of the wetland plants I might have found if I'd been paddling the river.

The path leading down to the water was thickly bordered by masses of Wild Cucumber vines, their frothy white flower clusters held erect over large green leaves.  The warm humid air was heady with their fragrance.

The first plant I recognized was Water Purslane sprawling in bright-green mats across the mud flats.

Probably, few people would think of this plant as a wildflower, since you have to really search to find the tiny flowers in the leaf axils, especially since they're not only small, they're also as green as the leaves.

The Monkey Flowers sure don't hide their flowers, but hold their bright blue blooms high up on their stems.

The chubby flowers of Ditch Stonecrop aren't nearly so colorful, but they sure are interesting, being quite unusual in structure.

It would be easy to overlook the tiny flowers of False Pimpernel if they weren't such a pretty shade of blue.

I wasn't the only one enjoying the cool mud beneath my feet this day.  This emerald-green Leopard Frog accompanied me, even sitting still beside me so I could take its picture.

This Black Swallowtail Butterfly sure did not sit still for long.  I can't believe I actually captured an image, since every time I would focus my camera it flitted away to search for a better spot to sample the minerals in the mud.  I'm so glad I did manage to take a photo, since with my bare eyes I could not see the gorgeous blue and red spots at the bottom of its black velvet wings.

When I reached the end of the mud flats, I clambered back up the bank to walk the trail that follows the creek, a trail lined with head-high summer flowers on both sides.

A few clumps of Wild Bergamot still held their beautiful lavender flowers.

The Blue Vervain looked especially vivid when surrounded by yellow Goldenrod.

I know Hedge Bindweed is a common and often undesirable weed, but oh how pretty this pink bloom looked, tucked in among Blue Vervain and backed by yellow sunflowers.

The Silky Dogwood shrubs were heavy with royal-blue berries hung on deep-pink pedicels.

What a treat it was to discover several stalks of Great Lobelia, its vivid blue blooms set off so prettily by the fluffy white flowers of Boneset.

Friday, August 21:  The North Woods at Skidmore College

After an overnight rain, Friday brought a welcome cooling relief from the stretch of sweltering 90-degree days we'd been having.  Although I had chores to do at home, I couldn't spend this beautiful day without at least a brief walk through a nearby woods, and the North Woods at Skidmore College was just that place.

I never expect to find many flowers blooming in the dark of the woods this time of year, but there are a few that actually prefer the deep shade, including this Zig-zag Goldenrod.

Horse Balm is another shade lover, and I was lucky to find a few plants still holding on to a few of their lemon-scented oddly shaped flowers.

The White Wood Aster was starring the forest floor with its rather raggedy pure-white blooms.

Yes, very few flowers, but lots of colorful fruits can be found in the woods right now.  Among the prettiest are the frosted blue seeds of Blue Cohosh.

And you sure can't miss the fruits of White Baneberry now, these stark-white berries held on hot-pink pedicels.

An unusual find, the fruits of Asparagus, glossy green topped with white stars,  dangling from the lacy foliage of the fully grown plant.  They will eventually turn bright red.

Saturday, August 22:  Woods Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa

Ah, the weekend is here, which means my dear friend Sue can join me for nature adventures, and what a gorgeous day we had to explore the different habitats at Woods Hollow Nature Preserve.

We first enter this large preserve through an open meadow that is dampened by several springs and covered with sun-loving wildflowers like Tall Goldenrod, Boneset, and Queen Anne's Lace.  There's Purple Loosestrife here, too, but what amazes me is how this normally invasive plant seems to have taken its place as one of the meadow wildflowers and hasn't overrun the native plants that also thrive here.

Holding its own against all the big sturdy plants in this open meadow is the delicate Slender Gerardia, blooming by the thousands where the grasses are low.

Sue was the first to spot the Nodding Ladies' Tresses, a little white orchid that I had feared had disappeared from this meadow, since I couldn't find it here last year or the year before.  But it sure is making a comeback this year.  We found many plants, their iridescent florets shining in the sun.

As we continued our exploration of Woods Hollow, we wandered a sandy oak/pine opening, where , in addition to Horse Mint, Sweet Fern, Sand Jointweed, Sand Burs, and Winged Pigweed, we found many plants of Blue Curls still holding on to their pretty blue blooms.  By afternoon, all the flowers will be scattered in the sand, making way for a whole new crop that will bloom tomorrow.

We next explored the shady woods surrounding a quiet pond, the still water reflecting the blue sky and deep-green trees.

I had just told Sue that I often find Painted Trillium here in these woods in spring, and then we came across a nice specimen of just that plant, bearing its bright-red fruit.  We could tell that this was a Painted Trillium by the long leaf stalks.  Other trilliums around here are sessile to the stem.

This last plant sure had us puzzled.  It reminded us of Yellow Bartonia, which we had found in a northern bog before.  But I somehow couldn't believe we would find that bog-loving plant in these woods, although it was growing in a damp area where we also found Leatherleaf and Sphagnum Moss.  When I got home I studied Google images of Yellow Bartonia and came away convinced that that is indeed what we found.

 To date, there has been no record of Yellow Bartonia in Saratoga County (according to the New York Flora Association floral atlas), but since it is known to exist in surrounding counties, there's no reason to think it couldn't grow here.  Now, I will have to send in a specimen to prove its existence in the county.  That is, IF I can find it again.  It was Sue, with her super eyesight, who saw it first, while I never even noticed it.  What a great companion she is on any nature adventure.  And what a fine county I live in, to have so many fascinating parks and preserves to explore.  Even if I have to explore them leaning on my cane.

Saturday night, in my own kitchen garden:

I went out to my garden to snip some basil leaves for dinner tonight, and just as I was about to sliver the leaves over a tomato salad, I discovered this cluster of pearly white eggs on the back of one leaf. Aren't they beautiful?  I have no idea what creature has laid them there.  I took the leaf back to my basil plant and laid it among the living leaves, hoping whatever hatches may find what it needs to eat there.  Perhaps I will be sorry, as I lose my basil plant to some hungry larvae.  But isn't this really amazing?  It just proves that you don't have to go very far to find some of nature's marvels.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Where'd the River Go?

Many circumstances combined to keep me out of the woods this past week or so, but today I was finally free to head outdoors and see what the natural world was up to these days.  A nice walk along the river seemed like a good way to get my nature fix, so I headed over to Spier Falls Road hoping to enjoy some lovely views of the Hudson while I stretched my (recovering) legs.  Imagine my surprise when I found the water level so low, it looked like someone had pulled a giant plug and drained the catchment between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams.

In fact, that's pretty much what actually happened.  I found a notice posted by the power company that operates the dam, informing the public that water levels will be lowered until early November, while work on a "water control structure" is being undertaken.  Yes, lowered indeed.  Look at the broad mud flats that line the banks and surround the mid-river islands.

At first, I thought that this might be my lucky chance to walk along the river banks, exploring areas I otherwise haven't been able to get to this summer, since my broken kneecap has not yet healed enough to let me lift myself in or out of my canoe.  But I soon found that the mud was too soft to allow for easy walking, especially while I have to balance myself with a cane.  But it was interesting to see what plants have been revealed on what was once the bottom of the river.

I sure wish I could have visited this site earlier this summer when the Golden Pert was fully in bloom, covering every mud flat and filling every rock crevice with a glowing yellow carpet.  Most of the plants were already done blooming, although I did find a few still bearing its tiny yellow trumpets.

Punctuating the mats of green were a few white Arrowhead blooms.

Higher up on the banks, the bright yellow Sneezeweed was vying with the brilliant red Cardinal Flower to be the showiest flowers along the river.

It was actually a bit unpleasant here, and not just because the mud sucked at my feet and threatened to topple me into the muck.  The stink was also pretty strong, with rotting vegetation and hundreds of snails and freshwater mussels stranded to die in the blazing sun and oppressive heat.

As I turned to head toward the shade of the nearby woods, this beautiful  Meadow Hawk  Dragonfly perched on a twig just long enough for me to take its picture.  I love that ruby-red body and those black lace wings.

Back in the shade of the woods, I found no flowers in bloom this late in the summer, but I sure found many beautiful fruits.  The Virginia Creeper carries its frosted-blue berries on hot-pink pedicels, backed by emerald-green leaves.

One of the prettiest fruits in the late-summer woods is that of Indian Cucumber Root, when the berries turn a deep blue-black, held aloft above green leaves brushed with vivid red.

I love the marbled-pink berries of Solomon's Plume before they ripen into a solid red.

The fruits of Canada Mayflower display a similar mottled coloration before turning a translucent ruby red.

Now is the time to find the fruits of White Baneberry, such a distinctive porcelain white on pedicels of vivid pink, each berry topped with a large black dot.  It's obvious how this plant earned its alternate common name, Doll's Eyes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Milkweed Murder Mystery

We really needed the rain we had today, especially the long slow soaking we got last night.  But I was glad for a break in the showers midday, because I wanted to go up to the Nature Center at Moreau Lake State Park to install the August-September wildflower poster.  My friend Sue Pierce came up with this idea a couple of years ago, to create posters featuring what wildflowers park patrons might find on their hikes or paddles each month throughout the growing season.  She and I contributed our photos and she made the posters, which are mounted both inside and outside the Nature Center.  Here's the outdoor one I installed today.

My poster task accomplished, I wandered over to a patch of Common Milkweed near the beach bathhouse to see if I could find the Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillars I had seen there a couple of weeks ago, chewing away on the milkweed leaves.

I couldn't find a single Milkweed Tiger Moth caterpillar, although I turned over leaf after leaf in my search for them.  But I sure did find a lot of Lady Bugs, including this pair doing their bit for the next generation.

And when I turned over a leaf next to this amorous pair, I was pleased to see a Lady Bug larva, this odd-looking spiky creature chowing down on itsy-bitsy aphids coating the undersides of many milkweed leaves. And this was only the first of many I found in my examination of this milkweed patch.

There was certainly an inexhaustible supply of fodder for Lady Bugs, adults and larvae alike, and not just those minuscule  pale-yellow aphids pictured above.  I also found quite an infestation of the bright-yellow Oleander Aphids on many milkweed stems.  And this congested clump of all-female aphids will be just the beginning of their population, as they spread the colony by producing clones of themselves, and then the clones producing clones,  over and over again, until they have finally exhausted their food supply.

It's a good thing, then, that the Lady Bugs, adults and larvae, help to control this aphid population explosion.  On the back of this leaf, I found a larval Lady Bug actually snagging an aphid in its jaws.  And I also saw a curious thing I have yet to understand.  See that odd oozy lump at the tip of this leaf?  Well, it used to be a fly, but what the heck happened to it?

The fly was stuck to the leaf as if glued there, and its body was erupting with oozing white slime.  Yikes!

Again and again, I found more flies stuck to the undersides of the milkweed leaves.  All were dead, and most were oozing that slime from cracks in their exoskeletons.

This fly seems to have some kind of egg case attached to it.

Yet another dead fly.  One of many more.  Who can explain what plague is attacking them?  Are they dying of some bacterial or viral disease, or are they being parasitized by some other insect?  Does this mass fly death occur only on milkweed, or does it occur elsewhere? This is a phenomenon I have never witnessed before.  I shall have to see if I can find the cause.

Update:  Isn't the internet amazing?  I put some of these dead fly  photos on my Facebook page and promptly got lots of information from truly reliable sources, including a Cornell University professor, Kathie Hodge, who is an expert in fungi.  Professor Hodge suggests that the pathogen was a species of Entomophthora fungus, which uses the fly as a vehicle for spreading its spores, killing the fly in the process.

To read Professor Hodge's detailed account of how this kind of fungus infects a fly, click HERE.