Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Quiet Lake, Shoreline Beauty

We are having rain today at last, and predictions are for heavy rains all night.  This is rain we desperately need, and I'm glad to have it.  Nevertheless, it sure has been lovely to have one gorgeous blue-sky day after another this entire month.  I went for a walk around Moreau Lake last Friday, and I loved the serene quiet of the place before the bustle of Nature Fest the next day.  There was not a single boat on the water, and the only people I saw  on the shore were an elderly couple sitting on a bench, holding hands.  So nice!

As the riotous summer days on the lake wind down, so too does the riot of colorful flowers blooming along the shore.  At least, that's how it appears from a distance.  But walking along where the sand meets the vegetation,  I'm amazed by how many beautiful plants are still blooming away, or else have just as colorfully gone to seed.

The asters, of course, are still in their glory, and probably the most numerous species of aster here on the open sand is the thickly blossomed Heath Aster.

Up a little higher, where the sand meets the trees of the woods, I find some lovely clusters of Smooth Aster, a pretty pale-purple species with smooth heart-shaped leaves that clasp the stem.  Sharing this shady part of the shore with the aster were curving stems of Bluestem Goldenrod.

Although many of the Boneset plants are now past their prime, a few still hold some blooms that are fresh enough to offer their nectar and pollen to bees and other insects.

The same goes for the goldenrods, most of them spent by now, except for a surprising cluster of pretty bloom like this on a patch of Grass-leaved Goldenrod.

Almost hidden by the tangle of taller plants, the pretty little flowers of Small-flowered Gerardia can still be found blooming on the sandy shore.

The stems of Lady's Thumb have turned even pinker now than their spikes of pink seeds, adding quite a bit of color to the floral mix along the shore.

Where I found the sunny little blooms of Nodding Bur Marigold a week ago, I now find their flower heads gone to seed and living up to what their name describes by nodding downward.

I think Wild Mint is among the most persistent bloomers of all, still producing whorls of tiny pale-purple flowers in the axils, even after their very minty smelling leaves have begun to tatter.

I had to peer REALLY close to discern that these tiny yellow flowers were those of Canada St. Johnswort  and not those of Dwarf St. Johnswort , which also can be found on these shores. The fine leaves and the dark-red seed capsules helped to clinch the identification.  Such an exquisite little flower!

How exquisite, too, were these ruby-red Bittersweet Nightshade berries, glowing like tiny Christmas-tree lights amid a tangle of multiple blooms.

Not exactly a flower, but just as pretty as one is this Toothed Flatsedge, which thrives on the sandy shores of Moreau Lake.  I love its green and gold colors and the fine herringbone pattern of its seedheads.

There is only a single Black Tupelo tree along the entire shore of Moreau Lake, back bay included, and that single specimen has been gnawed and girdled by beavers.  The tree still stands, and it still produces glossy green leaves in summer, but those leaves turn color much earlier now than they would on a healthy tree.  And when Black Tupelo leaves turn color,  they have no rival for the brilliance of their autumn foliage.

The quiet of this day extended to the lake's animal inhabitants, too, for I never heard a single goose nor saw a single dragonfly or butterfly, either.  But I did see this Pickerel Frog leaping along the shore and counted myself very lucky when the frog decided to sit very still for its portrait.

Probably the most exciting moment of my walk came when I saw this fuzzy cluster of Wooly Alder Aphids on a bough of a Speckled Alder shrub.  OK, you say, big deal.  You see those all the time, don't you?  Yes, I do see clusters of Wooly Alder Aphids quite often, but never have I found a cluster where the majority of the aphids were winged.

Look closely:  almost all of these have wings.  That means that these aphids are nearing the end of their  life cycle, which started last summer when a single winged female  hatched from an egg laid on a Silver Maple tree.  That winged aphid landed on this alder twig and began to produce wingless clones of herself.  These clones, all females, in turn produced more female clones.  Etc., etc. Their season of feeding on alder sap now nearing its close, these wingless female clones now begin producing winged aphids, including some males, which can fly away to find another Silver Maple tree, where they will mate and lay eggs that will winter over on the maple bark to produce a new generation next spring.  Here is a great site with even more information about this fascinating and virtually harmless creature.

I think this whole process is just amazing!  And I feel really lucky that I got to see this part of the aphids' lifecycle.  I just never know what I'm going to find on a walk around the lake.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Summery Days in Early Autumn

Yes, autumn officially arrived this past week, but except for a chill in the air at night, the days have continued summery warm and sunny, inspiring me to visit some of the beautiful natural areas that surround us here in Saratoga County.

Last Wednesday I stopped by one of our newest preserves, the Round Lake Preserve, which provides car-top boat access to both Round Lake and the Anthony Kill, a creek that runs out of the lake to join the Hudson River at Mechanicville.  A long driveway accessed from Rte. 67 ends at a parking area that contains a number of interesting informational signs.

This preserve, a joint project of the Town of Malta and the land-conservation organization Saratoga P.L.A.N., provides boaters and fishermen easy access to these waters via a substantial boardwalk that crosses acres of wetland to end in a floating dock at the Anthony Kill.

Although I would not be able to launch my canoe from this dock (I need to wade out into shallow water to do so), I certainly enjoyed the expansive view of the many acres of wetland that surround the stream here.  Judging from the beautiful red vegetation, I could assume that the most abundant plant growing here was the native Water Willow (Decodon verticillatus), sometimes called Swamp Loosestrife but no relation to the invasive Purple Loosestrife that dominates many other wetlands. Water Willow does  have spikes of purple flowers earlier in the summer, but those flowers have faded now, to leave clusters of ruby-red seed pods in the axils of the stalks.

Other plants visible from the dock included the large flat floating leaves of Tuberous Water Lily (Nymphaea tuberosa) and the white-flowered stalks of Swamp Smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides).  Considering how abundant this Swamp Smartweed is at this location, I am surprised that I have never encountered it on my other watery explorations.  I would love to further explore the vegetation along this creek, but I would have to launch at Round Lake and make my way here to the Anthony Kill, which would be easy to do.

The terrestrial plants surrounding the parking area indicate that these fields were once devoted to agriculture.  One field still produced an ample crop of Alfalfa, distinguished by these purple clover-like flowers.

Not a crop plant, but one that can often be found at the edges of corn fields, is this intriguing weed called Velvetleaf or Indian Mallow (Abutilon theophrasti).   Other common names include Butter Print or Pie Plant, suggested by the crimped top of the seed pod.  Considered quite a pest by farmers when it infests their fields, it is related to our pretty garden Hollyhocks and has a yellow flower that is similar to a Hollyhock flower, although much smaller.

Trails through the woods and along the creek are planned for the future, but are not yet accessible at this otherwise very pleasant Round Lake Preserve.

The following day dawned just as sunny and beautiful, and I was glad that my friends in the Thursday Naturalists had arranged to explore the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa, an easy drive from my home in downtown Saratoga Springs.  We began our explorations of this site on the mudflats exposed by low water this time of year.

High on the banks we could see abundant thickets of brilliant-yellow Jerusalem Artichokes, one of our native sunflowers that is neither related to artichokes, nor is it from Jerusalem.  You can eat the tuberous roots, however, although I don't know as if they taste like artichokes.

Despite the generous beauty of Jerusalem Artichokes, I often feel just a wee bit sad when I see them, since this is the last wildflower of the summer to come into bloom around here (not counting Witch Hazel, a shrub that sometimes doesn't bloom until late in October).  This pretty little Candystripe Leafhopper has found one of its sunny ray flowers a fine place to perch on.

Earlier in the summer, frothy spires of Wild Cucumber flowers trailed across creekside shrubs, and now we can find the Wild Cucumber fruits dangling from twigs and resting on the sand.  Despite what look like formidable spines covering the inedible fruits, those sharp protuberances are actually quite soft and will not prick your hand if you pick one up to examine its loofah-like interior.

After thoroughly cataloguing all the plants we could find in the mud along the creek banks (compiling a list way too numerous to enumerate here), we climbed the bank to follow a trail that led through head-high (and even higher!) autumn flowers.  What a riot of gorgeous color!

Although many late-summer flowers had already faded, the New England Asters added their brilliant purples and roses and pinks to the trailside beauty and provided late-season nectar to many visiting pollinators.

Another brilliant-yellow sunflower, called Maximilian Sunflower,  added to the glory of the scene, but this one arrived here only recently and is already beginning to dominate the landscape.

 I first encountered this sunflower in September, 2013, as a single specimen sprouting from the rootball of a sapling tree that was planted to re-forest a denuded creekbank.  If you go back to read my blogpost from that date, you will see that even the experts were puzzled as to its identity, although we finally determined it to be the Maximilian Sunflower, native to central states of the U.S., but not native to New York or any nearby states.

From that single specimen we found in bloom two years ago, the Maximilian Sunflower has spread to dozens, if not hundreds, of healthy multi-bloomed plants.  Although our native Bonesets, Vervains, Goldenrods,  Bee Balms, and Asters appear to be holding their own for now, there may be cause for concern that this introduced species of sunflower may well become invasive and supplant the glorious diversity of wildflowers that grow here now.  Yes, this sunflower is beautiful, but not as beautiful as this vibrant mix of native plants that we've come to love along the Kayaderosseras Creek.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Festive Nature Day at Moreau Lake State Park

Moreau Lake State Park displayed its new banner featuring one of my photos of the Hudson River landscape.

What a day for Nature Fest!  A radiant blue sky, crisp cool air, warm bright sun, and a fascinating variety of presenters added to the pleasures hundreds of folks enjoyed today, at this annual festival put on by Moreau Lake State Park.

We couldn't have had a more wonderful day for strolling the sandy beach of the lake, where the trees were just starting to don their autumn colors.  This exhibit presenting aspects of Native American culture was just one of the many attractions arrayed along the shore, featuring demonstrations of interest to festival-goers of all ages.

I was particularly drawn to the exhibits featuring wild raptors like this little Screech Owl and the much bigger Snowy Owl perched in the background.  All of these birds of prey, including several hawks and other owls, had been injured in ways that prohibited their return to the wild, so now they serve to help educate the public about these fascinating creatures.

Nature educator Beth Bidwell is also known for her work with birds of prey like hawks and owls, but this year she returned to Nature Fest with her personal crow friend  Mojo -- again, a bird whose former injuries prevent it from surviving in the wild.  With Mojo resting on Beth's arm and often interjecting comments of "I know" to Beth's commentary, Beth regaled an attentive crowd with tales that demonstrated the amazing intelligence and amusing personality traits of the American Crow.

One of the presentations that attracted the largest crowds was this one put on by an educator from Up Yonda Farm, a nature education center in Bolton Landing.   After listening to a fascinating account of the life cycle of the beautiful Monarch Butterfly, we were able to witness the tagging of several butterflies as they were released to begin their annual fall migration all the way to Mexico.

This presenter from Paul Smith's College in the Adirondacks brought along an intriguing model that demonstrated how harmful runoff into a watershed occurs.  Children were especially drawn to helping her sprinkle colored  crystals representing lawn chemicals, crop pesticides, or road salt onto the model, then spraying water to imitate rainfall and watching the colored water make its way to the rivers and lakes.

These children were fascinated by the baby Black Rat Snake that Moreau Park's own Nature Educator Rebecca Mullins held out to show to the children.

Here's a closer view of that cute little snake.

Park carpenters constructed this spacious pen just for Rebecca to use at Nature Fest to display a variety of turtles. The one climbing the wall over there is a Wood Turtle, while a Box Turtle ambles along the side, and a Painted Turtle rests atop a log.

A couple of baby Snapping Turtles were scrambling around a nearby aquarium, demonstrating their eagerness to be released into the lake, which Rebecca will do very soon as the park's Nature Center closes down for the winter.

Park Naturalist Gary Hill once again demonstrated his fish-cleaning skills as he cleaned native species of fish, some taken directly from Moreau Lake.  Gary's wife Jean occupied an adjoining table, where she dusted the cleaned fish with cornmeal, fried them up, and served them to folks waiting hungrily for their portions.

More hungry patrons kept Park Manager Peter Iskenderian busy at the grill, where he served up hot dogs and hamburgs throughout the day.  There was lots of other good food available, too:  chili, macaroni and cheese, baked goods of a delectable variety and more, all donated to this annual festival by Friends of Moreau Lake State Park.  I happen to be one of those Friends (I donated a big pot of chili), and I couldn't be happier to do what I can to promote this beautiful state park, which provides me with my own personal Nature Fest every single day of the year, and all year long.

This beautifully marked Cicada was not part of one of the formal presentations, but just dropped by, perhaps just to see what was going on.  I was happy to see it, for I couldn't recall hearing the Cicada's high trill all summer long and had wondered if they were around this year.  Yup, I guess they are!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Hudson Shores Transformed

All summer long I've been longing to be back on my favorite stretch of the Hudson River below the Spier Falls Dam.  At last my shattered kneecap has become strong and flexible enough to lift me into and out of my canoe, and just look at the gorgeous paddling weather we had this past week!  I couldn't wait to get back on the river! But when I arrived at the spot on the shore where I normally launch, I discovered I couldn't get to the water.  The river has been lowered the last month or so while workers repair a water-control structure,  and the shoreline revealed was just too muddy to walk across.  I would sink to my shins in muck before I could reach boat-floating water.

All I could do was stand and gaze at the beauty of river, forest, mountains, and sky -- and the sight of a row of Canada Geese arrayed along a boulder, perfectly reflected in the still water.  Serene!

But then I wondered that if I drove along the river, perhaps I could find a firmer shore for a launching site.  So I headed upstream, stopping to gaze at the little group of islands whose now-extended shorelines I longed to explore.

It wasn't far upstream from these islands I did find a firmer shore for launching, and soon I was joyfully seated in my boat and sailing along under a radiant blue sky.

I soon reached the little islands and climbed out of my boat to walk broad stretches of shoreline that used to be river bottom, now covered with glowing green plants.

The major source of all that glowing greenery was a pretty little yellow-trumpeted plant called Golden Pert (Gratiola aurea).  Even in times of high water on the river, we find this plant lining the shore with beautiful bloom, but it also carpets vast stretches of river bottom, not blooming while deeply underwater, but ready to burst into bloom as soon as it becomes exposed to sunlight and air.

Punctuating those carpets of mossy green were the little white dots of Pipewort, a plant that usually grows in standing water.

Higher up toward the edge of the woods I found masses of  Marsh St. Johnswort, their seed capsules turned a beautiful ruby red.

A few scattered plants of Sneezeweed added their bursts of brilliant yellow.

I searched out a stand of Yellow Loosestrife I remembered blooming early in summer, and I found the stalks lined with little red bulbils.  These small vegetating growths will fall off and drop to the mud, where they will produce new plants.  Under normal conditions, many of the bulbils would be carried away by the river's current to be deposited elsewhere downstream.  This year, I guess they will all stay home.  It will be interesting to return next summer to see how this patch of Yellow Loosestrife (also called Swamp Candles) has expanded.

I kept searching the mudflats around the islands, hoping to find the feathery leaves of Mermaid Weed, a mud-loving plant I found at this site for the first time last year (when this photo was taken).  Alas, it was nowhere to be found.  Perhaps it needs to have its feet in standing water, which was certainly lacking this summer.

Ah well, at least I was rewarded by the glorious sight of brilliant red Winterberry fruits arrayed against a sapphire-blue sky.

On my way home along Spier Falls Road, I passed by the Spier Falls Dam and was surprised to see plumes of thundering water spilling from the dam.  I read in the newspaper later that the river will now be filled to normal levels.  Wonderful news!  I look forward to paddling those quiet coves again, but it was certainly fascinating to explore their exposed banks while the water was low.