Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Out on the Ice to the Islands

All that snow to the south of us, and not a flake up here! Where the heck is our winter?  Ah well, at least it has been below freezing here for over a week.  Until today, that is, when we had rain and temperatures near 40.  But at least I was sure that the ice would be good and thick on Lake Bonita when I returned there yesterday, eager to get out to the little islands that stud its surface. Since Sue and I found some bog plants near shore last week, I've been hoping to explore what botanical treasures those little patches of vegetation might contain, and a hard-frozen surface would allow me to do just that.

When I reached Bonita's shores, I could see that many different animals had been traversing the frozen surface, where the snow was much thinner than it was in the woods, making for easier traveling.  My question was:  is that ice safe enough for ME to traverse? I weigh a heck of a lot more than a coyote.

I walked around shore until I found areas where the lake's surface was free from snow, and I could see through the clear black ice the thickness of the cracks. Six or eight inches thick, it appeared.  Strong enough to hold me.  But smooth and slippery, too, so I pulled on my micro-spikes before setting out.

As I approached the islands, I wondered what shrubs were lending them such ruddy hues.

A closer inspection revealed that most of the shrubbery out here was Leatherleaf, whose sturdy leaves did seem to glow with a rosy light.  There was Sheep Laurel, too, and a few Speckled Alders, but the bulk of the ruddiest shrubbery was Leatherleaf.

But also mixed in with the Leatherleaf were numerous shrubs of Sweet Gale, immediately identifiable by the clusters of dried fruits still clinging to the twigs.

Many of the Sweet Gale shrubs also held the tight little cone-shaped buds of next spring's flowers.

Of special interest to me were the various species of Sphagnum Moss, usually (although not always) a sign of acidic, bog-like conditions. I'm not sure if each color signified a different species, but I did find a number of different colors of sphagnum, including this brownish one.

And here's a golden-hued one.

Another sphagnum patch was this shaggy green.

Yet another was vibrant red.

There was even a patch made up of all these colors at once.  Perhaps some of my bryophyte-expert friends could ID all these for us.

These deep-red Pitcher Plant leaves were definitely a sign that these islands are home to what we normally think of as bog plants.  I wonder what other bog plants we might find if we search these islands in summer. I searched and searched for leftover orchid pods and didn't find any.  But that doesn't mean we might not find some Rose Pogonia here, or Green Wood Orchis. The habitat seems right.

Update:  As a friend has recently reminded me, bog habitats are not only rather rare in Saratoga County, but they are also quite fragile and need to be approached with great care.  I want to point out that I was careful not to trample any of these bog plants, but limited my investigations to what I could see while walking around the edges on the ice.  Although boating will be discouraged on Lake Bonita, it is crucial that no boats land on these tiny islands, should any canoers or kayakers find their way to these waters.

Here's the shriveled flower head of a Pitcher Plant.  Many of them grow on these little islands.

Ooh, look what else I found out here!  At first glance, I thought there was an egg in the nest, however unlikely.  But of course, it was just a  little puff of snow.  Does anyone know whose nest it is, low to the ground among Sweet Gale shrubs on an island far from shore?

As the afternoon wore on, the sky brightened a bit, and sunlight warmed the boulders along the shore.  I might have basked in that warming sun for a while, but the day was growing late.  Time to head home.

To return to where I'd parked my car, I chose to follow the lake's inlet stream as I bushwhacked through the woods, where a low ray of sunshine rendered this bough of American Beech incandescent.

I followed the stream-bed as it angled up through the woods.  For most of its course it was completely dry, but then as I ascended a steeper slope, I discovered the stream's water frozen in place where it had tumbled in terraced falls.  This will be such a pretty little brook in a warmer season.

But then, it was already pretty.  Especially where ice had formed in little side pools, creating such beautiful patterns.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Up a Cold Creek

Oh dear, my poor Mom would sure have a fit if she could see my cats sitting on my breakfast table!  But hey, they already sleep in my bed and I bury my face in their fur when I kiss them, so what's the problem?  Also, I put a clean cloth on the table when company comes. And how could I deny my kitties the only place in the house to bask in the sun on this bright blue-sky day?  I almost felt like joining them to doze in warm puddles of sunshine, but I also felt an equal pull to get myself out to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve on this freezing-cold day and see what ice might be up to on the little creeks out there.

For one thing, the creeks were running briskly, making a lively music under sparkling layers of ice.  Happily, I had found an old camera that, although damaged, still works in some of its modes, so I could capture some of the beautiful things water does when it meets up with freezing cold.

It was obvious from the several layers of ice that the water levels had been up and down the past week or so.

In some spots, paper-thin sheets of ice displayed delicate lacy patterns.  So pretty!

Where the water tumbled with extra vigor, splashed-up drops formed crystal icicles that dangled from protruding ice shelves.

Out in the middle of the rushing dark water, it looked like some fairy princess had dropped her diamond tiara.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


I was SO looking forward yesterday to a lovely walk at Moreau Lake.  The lake is now frozen over solidly from shore to shore, so I could walk directly across it to visit a brook I expected to be decorated with all kinds of crystalline ice sculptures.  Also, the sky was blue and the wind was relatively quiet for a change.

Wearing ice grippers on my feet to prevent me from slipping, I made a beeline across the lake, noting the ice's thickness by the size of the prodigious cracks visible through the clear black ice.

I marveled at the size of some of the bubbles that had been captured in the clear ice.

Before long, I reached the shore where the brook runs into the lake, carefully skirting the area where its turbulent running water might thin out the ice.  But I needn't have worried about running water in the brook on this day.  To all appearances, it was now quite dry.

Teetering from rock to rock along the streambed, though, I could see that water had coursed through here not long before, leaving its evidence in the icicles descending from overhanging banks.  I clambered on, hoping to find still-coursing water and more elaborate ice structures higher up on the mountain side.  But then I dropped my camera.  Lens open, it bounced from rock to rock with a sickening crack.

When I picked my camera up, part of the lens apparatus came off in my hand, and when I pushed the off button, the display revealed this image of purple and green blurs. Uh oh!

After repeated tries to replace the parts and restart my camera, I realized all was lost.  Yes, it would still take pictures, but the images looked like this.  This was supposed to be a photo of the treeline along the lake shore.  Kind of interesting, I admit, but not what I use my camera for.  Unfortunately, it's time to get a new one.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Shoreline Finds at Lake Bonita

Just an inch of fluffy soft snow, a bright blue sky with a brilliant sun, my best nature buddy Sue with the day off from work to join me, and a wonderful woods and lake to explore:  if not for a fierce and frigid wind, our walk to Lake Bonita today would have been perfect.  But thanks to some exciting plant finds, all discomfort due to that wind was discounted, and our day's adventure ranked among one of our best.

Sue had yet to visit this property newly acquired by Moreau Lake State Park and didn't know quite what to expect when we started off on the wide trail that leads from the road to the lake, an easy quarter mile or so away.  We soon got engaged in noting the many signs that wild animals had traveled this road not long before we arrived, to judge from the freshness of their tracks: coyote, fox, fisher, red squirrels, and a myriad mice.

When we reached the lake, we were dazzled by all that brilliant whiteness.  We were also stung by the force of a wind that was whipping snow smoke from the trees and spinning whirling snow devils across the open expanse of the lake. (That vague patch of white in the center of this photo was a cluster of tightly twirling mini-tornados seconds before I managed to focus my camera on their misty dissolution.)

By following the sunlit western shore of the lake, we escaped the full brunt of that roaring wind and were also comforted to a mellow warmth by that blazing sun.  Our passage was also eased by being able to walk on the solid ice a few feet from shore as we examined the shoreline foliage, eager to see what plants we might find on this yet unexplored and isolated lake.

We found such typical shoreline shrubs as Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, Water Willow, Winterberry, and Steeplebush, and we were enchanted by the lovely soft coral color of these wintering Sheep Laurel  leaves.

I had never seen Red Maple twigs so vividly crimson before.

We often find Witch Hazel shrubs dotted with the yellow bracts of their fallen flowers, but never had I seen them quite so closely clustered before.  This small tree must have been quite a gorgeous sight when these bracts held the yellow ribbony petals last fall.

But the most exciting plant finds awaited us as we approached this little shrub island lying just a few feet off shore.  At first glance, it looked like it held nothing but the faded foliage of Leatherleaf, but a closer inspection revealed a treasure trove of bog-loving plants, a type of plants that are relatively rare in Saratoga County.

If Sue hadn't been with me, I probably would have dismissed this Pitcher Plant leaf as a dead tree-leaf remnant stuck upright in the snow.  But she noticed it for what it was right away, with that deep-red color traced with darker lines that look like blood vessels.  If there's any plant that's an indicator species for boggy soils, it's got to be Pitcher Plant.  And there were LOTS of them!  We also found some spent flower stalks.

Here was another tell-tale bog plant inhabiting that island, the tiny-leaved wiry stems of Wild Cranberry.  Hope we can find some of its fruits if we visit next fall.  For sure we'll be back in the spring and the summer (perhaps bringing canoes) to see what other bog plants might inhabit this and several other islands that stud the lake.  Maybe we'll find some orchids!

UPDATE:  No canoes will be allowed on this lake, I learned from the park manager today.  He explained it would be too difficult to monitor the cleanliness of boats, even those light enough to be carried in.  Only shoreline explorations will be allowed, after an access road has been built and trails marked.

Another area of this property we hope to explore in the future is the course of this tumbling stream, the outlet of Lake Bonita, released by a dam at the northern end of the lake.

Today the stream was rushing and tumbling over the rocks, creating a lovely water music as well as exquisite crystal hangings along its splashing course.  So pretty!  By all means, we will return.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Riverside Wander

Feeling much better today but still a little fragile, I went for an easy walk along the Hudson River, parking my car at the Sherman Island Boat Launch and walking a ways along Spier Falls Road.  The day was overcast,  rather mild, with no wind, so the river flowed smooth as satin.  Here's the view looking upstream.

And the view looking downstream.  The shelf of ice on the near shore will grow thicker as the winter grows colder.  Wild animals use this relatively snow-free ice shelf as their energy-saving highway, as can be evidenced by the multitude of fisher, otter, coyote, fox, and mink tracks preserved when there is a thin layer of snow coating the ice.

When walking in the winter woods, I like to challenge myself to identify plants in their winter disguises.  The long, sharp thorns on this shrub are a give-away that this must be a Hawthorn.  I never had noticed how ruddy the buds were, before.

The leaf and flower buds of Hobblebush are covered with cinnamon-colored flocking.  It's hard to believe that that meagre covering will keep them safely unscathed all winter long, even through sub-zero temperatures.  But it will.

This clump of old Indian Pipes looked as if it were exploding out of the snow.

The presence of Beech Drops scattered around indicated that stately American Beech trees were nearby.  And so they were, although most showed evidence of the disease that will eventually kill all these glorious trees in our northern woods.  So sad!

I could tell these were the winter-killed fruits of Doll's Eyes (White Baneberry) by the stubby pedicels holding each shriveled berry.

There must be quite an insect infestation of this old snag, to keep a Pileated Woodpecker working at it until the hole got so big.

Across from the Spier Falls Dam I slipped into the woods to witness these cascades of icicles sheeting down from ledges of steep cliffs.  This is an area of mountainside that was quarried to create the boulders used to build the dam back at the start of the 20th Century.  At the time of its completion in 1903, this was the largest hydroelectric dam in the world, so it took a lot of rock to build it.  This is only one of several places along Spier Falls Road where such quarries can be found.

In the woods near the dam we can still find old stone structures that were built to support  conveyance cables for moving the rocks from the mountainside to the construction site.

I can't quite figure out what this little cubical structure was built for.  It's not hollow inside, but that square opening extends all the way from the opening back to the wall of the cliff.  Of course, I had to peer in.

It was too dark in there to make anything out with my eyes, but I used the flash on my camera to illumine this shaft, wondering if perhaps any animals had made it their home.  Ooh, are those BONES back in there?!!  I wonder if a coyote dragged a hunk of deer back in here so as to feast in peace.  Guess I'll never know.