Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Late-Spring Finds on the Ice Meadows

On my way home from Pyramid Lake last Sunday, I made a detour to visit the botanical wonderland called the Ice Meadows, a remarkable stretch of Hudson River banks north of Warrensburg. During the winter, this 8-mile section of river bank is where massive heaps of a particular kind of ice (called "frazil") mount to prodigious heights, creating a distinctive habitat where many rare plants can thrive.  On this day, I kept to the eastern shore of the river, visiting a site where marble outcroppings create a spectacularly beautiful shoreline.

As soon as I stepped from my car and entered the wooded trail that leads through pine woods to the shore, I was met with the sight of hundreds of Pink Lady's Slippers burgeoning among the pine needles and masses of Canada Mayflowers.

Some areas of the woods were virtually carpeted with thousands of Canada Mayflowers, adding their own delightful fragrance to the already pine-scented air.

Down on the shore, sprawling along the sand and among the rocks, was one of the woody plants this area is famous for, the low-growing shrub called Dwarf Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), one of New York State's threatened species.  Although most of the flowers had shed their petals already, I did find a few still in flower, adding their own fragrance to the warm summer-like air.

Except for those Pink Lady's Slippers I found in the woods and a few clumps of blue violets, all the flowers blooming out on the sunlit marble shore this day were white.  Most impressive for their sheer abundance were masses of Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata), growing high on the shore near where the woods began.

The showiest, just for the size of their flowers, were tall stalks of Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) with their bright-white petals and puffy green centers.  Their common name derives from the thimble shape of their seed heads in the fall.

This flower that looks like a strawberry flower on steroids is Tall Cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta).  It's hard to believe that such a weedy looking plant could be counted as a rare species in many surrounding states, especially since it grows abundantly out here on the Ice Meadows.

I was searching the shoreline down close to the water for Lance-leaved Violets, a small white violet with slender leaves that I had found here once before, when I came upon this white violet.  At first I was disappointed:  Darn it, those leaves aren't right for Lance-leaved Violet!  But then I looked more closely at the leaves, comparing them with the drawings in my guidebook, and I wondered if this plant might instead be the state-listed rarity called Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia var. primulifolia).  Well, I still don't know.  I have sent photos off to some experts I know, and I am still waiting to hear their assessment.  As yet, the Primrose-leaved Violet has not been documented for Warren County. Or for any county nearby.

Here's the leaf of that violet in question.

Update: I have heard from two of my most knowledgable plant-expert friends, who both concur that this IS most likely the Primrose-leaved Violet, a plant that is listed as "Threatened" in New York State.  Although this location is far out of the expected range for this violet, that would not be unusual for this remarkable stretch of Hudson River bank, home to a number of other plant species usually not found this far inland.  I returned and relocated this violet on Wednesday, obtaining better photos, GPS points, and an actual specimen from the more than a dozen plants found after further searching.

Because it was searingly hot and dry out on the river banks this day, I was surprised to find almost all the Wild Strawberry leaves beaded with water droplets, one droplet for each tooth of the serrated leaves.  But then I recalled once reading about "guttation," a process by which some plants can expel excess water pressure  through the points of their leaves.  Wikipedia has a site that clearly explains this process.  Whatever the scientific explanation, the process surely adds some extra beauty to already beautiful plants.

Here was another example of guttation beading, this time on the serrated leaves of young plants of Canadian Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis).  So sparkling and pretty!

I was amazed that this brightly striped dragonfly did not fly away when I moved in close with my camera.  But then I noticed that it was very busy chowing down on its prey, another insect nearly half as big as itself.  The closest match I could find in my dragonfly guide for this colorful critter was a clubtail of the Hagenius genus called Dragonhunter -- a most appropriate name for a dragonfly that often feeds on other dragonflies, sometimes almost half as big as itself.   But this prey specimen did not look like another dragonfly.

Update:  Thanks to Wayne Jones, who in his comment to this post corrects my misidentification of this dragonfly.  As Wayne explains, this is not a Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus), but rather another clubtail in the genus Gomphus. He points out that the yellow markings on this dragonfly's thorax are thicker than they would be on the Dragonhunter.

My guess is that that dragonfly was feasting on one of these: a Giant Stonefly.  On one of the nearby shrubs, almost every leaf held a resting Giant Stonefly.  Perhaps they had all just emerged from their nymphs and were resting up for the urgent search for a mate.  These stoneflies are born without mouthparts, so before they starve they have to hurry and find a mate and reproduce before they die. Or before they get eaten by other dragonflies!

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Changeless Beauty

 This is the same view of Pyramid Lake I featured in my last post, the photos taken two years apart.  But except for that little wooden dock, the scene would probably have looked the same two hundred years ago! Such is the changeless beauty of a lake in the Adirondack wilderness, the landscape protected and preserved by New York State as forever wild.  And this is the changeless beauty that greeted me at dawn on Saturday morning, a few hours before I would start my work to help prepare Pyramid Life Center for another season of spiritual retreats.  I had just enough time to slip my canoe across those quiet waters and visit a cedar swamp at the western end of the lake, hoping to catch a glimpse of the loon whose haunting call was sounding from beyond the island and echoing off the mountains.  A quintessential Adirondack morning!

Paddling close to shore on my way, I was struck by the beauty of abundant Starflowers spangling the shore, their bright-white flowers shining out from the mossy dark of the banks.

In a month, the access to this cedar swamp will be made almost impassable through thick mats of Fragrant Water Lilies, but today I could just make my way along the narrow stream, sometimes having to pull my way through by tugging on streamside shrubs.

The most prolific of those streamside shrubs were the thickets of Leatherleaf, dangling their pretty white bells over the blue-sky-reflecting water.  I know from previous visits that Sheep Laurel and Labrador Tea also share these banks, as do the gorgeous little pink orchids called Rose Pogonia, but I will have to return in mid June if I want to see these beautiful flowers.

There were spider webs everywhere, catching the light from the rising sun in their silken strands.

This dragonfly had just emerged from the crumpled husk still stuck to the bark just below it on this old log.  I have no expertise in identifying juvenile dragonflies, so I don't know what species this is.  But I do know I have never seen such beautifully colored wings, the sunlight flashing a rosy red on their glistening surface.

As that sun climbed higher above the lake, I knew it was time to make my way back to the center to start my day of work -- work I am more than happy to do, since it grants me access to one of the most exquisite natural sites in the whole wide world!

At the end of a day spent vacuuming a whole winter's worth of dirt from the many rooms in the lodge, scrubbing the bathrooms, washing windows, and hauling out heavy furniture that somehow got stashed where it didn't belong, believe me, I was tired!  But then we had a good dinner with amiable friends, followed by a communion service enlivened by spirited singing, and I started to feel revived.  And then the lowering sun began to color the rocky faces of the mountains to the east, and the water quieted down to a mirroring sheen, and once again, the loons began to call across the water.  Yes, I think there might be time for one more paddle before it grows dark!

This time I kept to the shore that was jumbled with boulders, boulders that over the ages had broken free of the massive cliffs high above and tumbled down to the lake.  The day had been hot -- way, way too hot for the end of May! -- and I had felt exhausted by the heat.  But as I paddled close to these boulders, I felt a frigid air flow out over the water, as if the winter's chill was still holding out, way back in the massive crevices of rock.  Sweet relief!

On one of these shoreline boulders, I always find this perfect circle of startling orange.  It's a lichen with a perfect name to match: Elegant Sunburst!  (In Latin, that's Zanthoria elegans.) Even more startling than this lichen's brilliant color is the fact that on all the shoreline around this lake, I find it on only this one rock.  Amazing!

As I lingered among the boulders beneath the cliffs, across the lake the sun descended behind the distant mountains.  The blue sky paled to gray and then warmed to pink, and then, just before the last light slipped below the horizon, the sky took on a vibrant orange that rivaled the brilliant color of that Elegant Sunburst lichen.

On my way home on Sunday morning, I crept my car at a slow pace along the center's mile-long entrance road, peering for a place among marble outcroppings where I always hope to find this beautiful native clematis called Purple Virgin's Bower (Clematis occidentalis var. occidentalis).  And I was not disappointed. Unlike the garden-variety of clematis, this elegant flower never opens its purple-tissue-paper blooms, but shyly dangles them beneath its vining greenery.

I also took a little detour past the village of Paradox (which lies directly across the highway from the Pyramid Life Center entrance), and followed a road along a creek until it came to this stunning waterfall.  I just wanted to soak up more gorgeous Adirondack beauty before getting on Interstate 87 to speed my way home.

Obviously, I love the Adirondacks.  But one thing I do NOT like about this region is the swarming hordes of black flies  that torture residents and visitors alike this time of year.  All these bites on the back of my neck (there are more in my ears and on my temples, too) occurred during the first 10 minutes I stepped from my car, before I could unpack my super-heavy-duty insect repellant.  SO much worse than mosquito bites!  Mosquitoes just sip a wee bit of our blood, but black flies actually chew off chunks of flesh.  And boy, do the bites swell up and burn and itch!

Update:  I discovered a remedy for the burning and itching of these bites that really works!  Recalling how Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo had quelled the burning and itching of dandruff sores, I washed my hair with it, leaving it in for about 5 minutes before rinsing.  Immediate relief!  The swelling and pain and itching were greatly relieved, and they haven't come back by two days later.  Usually black-fly bites burn and itch for a week or more.  I wonder if this shampoo would relieve the burning and itching of poison-ivy rash?

Here's one more GOOD thing about the Adirondacks: the sweet, sibilant, fluting, trilling, piping song of the Winter Wren.  I have heard them go on and on and on, each repeated song lasting as long as seven seconds.  This one is quite a bit shorter than that, but at least you will be able to hear a bit of that exquisite music.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Return to Pyramid Lake

My car is loaded with sleeping bag, vacuum cleaner, bugdope, sunscreen, and canoe, and I'm off to Pyramid Lake, my personal heaven on earth.  It won't be all fun and relaxation, though, since I will be one of many volunteers helping to open Pyramid Life Center, a spiritual retreat center on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes in the Adirondack wilderness.  I've been coming here since 1992, a year I count as pivotal for helping me try to live from the very center of my being, attempting to heal from the influences of our steeped-in-violence world.

While sweeping up mouse dirt and dead flies and making up beds, I'll be thinking of all the victims of so many wars, unending war, through all the years.  We honor the soldiers this weekend, acknowledging their sacrifices and their willingness to set their own desires aside to do their nations' bidding, right or wrong.  But let us also remember those millions and millions of noncombatants, their deaths always outnumbering those of soldiers by at least ten-to-one in every war, and for whom there will be no parades nor monuments raised in their memory this weekend.

This is my Memorial Day prayer:  Dear God, please bless us with leaders who recognize the sinfulness and futility of war.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Great Way to Spend My Birthday!

I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my birthday: with my best nature buddy Sue, walking a beautiful flower-bedecked trail, and finding treasured plants we thought had been lost forever.

Sue and I have been walking the Warren County Bike Trail between Glens Falls and Lake George for a number of years, congratulating ourselves that here was a trail where we could count on always finding Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernua).  Except that over the past couple of years, they had disappeared (or seriously diminished) from where we had found them before.  So imagine our delight today when we found lots and lots of them, in places we'd never thought to look before.  We now call them "the traveling plants!"  Ants are very instrumental in dispersing these lovely native wildflowers, carrying off their seeds and depositing them in their nests. It seems as if those ants have been very busy along the Warren County Bike Trail.  Thanks a lot, ants!

Another wonderful find today was this Early Azalea bush in full glorious bloom!

Earlier this month, Sue had visited the site where we always find this gorgeous native azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum), and she had despaired when she saw what looked like nothing but bare dead branches at the site.  The power company had sprayed herbicides along a nearby powerline, so we had assumed that our treasured azalea shrubs were gone forever.  But today our spirits soared when we glimpsed that vivid pink high on the bank and smelled the delicious fragrance today's gentle breeze carried our way from these heavenly scented blossoms.  That herbicide had somehow missed these treasures!

Here's a closer view of those beautiful blooms, and if you look very carefully at the flower tubes, you can just make out the glandular hairs that carry the exquisite fragrance this wild azalea is famous for.

Of course, there were many other beautiful flowers along the trail on this balmy late-May day, warmed by afternoon sunshine after a soft morning rain.  The most abundant shrub of all was Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), dangling its chubby clusters of snowy white blooms.

We thought we had come too early to catch the vivid confetti-colored flowers of Glaucous Honeysuckle (Lonicera dioica), but then we found one vine that was just beginning to burst into bloom.

Certain grassy sections along the trail were carpeted with masses of the pretty purple blooms of Dog Violet (Viola labradorica).

And not far away, along the road we had driven here on, was a generous grouping of this spectacular native orchid, the Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

I have to share this fabulously funny card my friend Sue gave me today.  Longtime readers of this blog will certainly get the joke!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

OH NO! MORE Feral Kittens!

Aaargh!!!  I thought we had captured and neutered ALL the feral cats that hang out in our garden.  We were down to just two, who came to our porch to feed and take shelter in a hutch my husband made for them.  They were welcome, although they would never be pets -- too wild, too frightened of humans (although my husband has the magic touch, and manages occasionally to caress the female of the pair).  But then this little tiger female showed up, wild as a squirrel and obviously pregnant, and before we could manage to trap her and confine her until she gave birth, she DID give birth, somewhere in parts unknown. Then we could not trap her while her babies needed her hourly.  And now she has brought her babies, all five of them, to our back steps.  (The fifth, a little dark tiger, had just fallen off the porch.) Skittish as sparrows they are; one hand on the doorknob and off they fly!  Hard to believe such weak little scraps of fur could fly so fast!  I'll bet they can scratch and bite, too, if I were to manage to grab one.  

Since the babies are obviously old enough to eat solid food, I guess I can now try to trap and neuter their mom.  Then see if one by one I can trap the little ones.  Perhaps they are young enough to be fostered and gentled into pets.  There's an organization called Hope for Orphaned Pets Exists (HOPE) that will neuter feral cats for a greatly reduced fee.  Let's see how my plan works out.  Wish me luck!

(In the meantime, oh Lord, are these tumbling, pouncing, scrapping, climbing little ones fun to watch!)

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Weekend's Wildflower Finds (Just a Few Critters, Too)

It wasn't the best weather for woodswalking, but between the showers and despite Sunday's chill, I did get out to four of my favorite wildflower haunts this weekend.

Cole's Woods
I started the weekend Saturday morning meeting my friend Sue at Cole's Woods in Glens Falls, a remarkably woodsy site right in the middle of a bustling city.  The overnight rain had moved away and the sun was peeking through remaining clouds to make for a quite pleasant morning walking these extensive trails.

Because of heavy rains during the night before, many of the flowers looked rather weather-beaten, but these pretty little Goldthread blooms, bruised just a bit, still shone like stars from the damp-darkened forest floor.  Partridgeberry fruits, of course, looked just as shiny, red, and plump as they had all winter. If ice and snow and subzero cold don't phase them, a little rain won't, either.

Persisting raindrops beaded up on the leaves only added to the diamond-sparkle charm of these Jewelweed seedlings lining the brook, revealing one of the possible sources for their common name.

The sprightly little orbs of Dwarf Ginseng also survived the storm, their dainty beauty here enhanced by the presence of a few Dog Violets.  I recently learned that the scientific name of Dog Violet is no longer Viola conspersa, but rather V. labradorica.  Still called Dog Violet, though.  I remember this common name because of the sharply toothed stipules that wrap the leaf nodes.  Sharp teeth make me think "canine," which reminds me of "dog."

Here below is a violet that absolutely loves it wet, as its name -- Marsh Blue Violet -- certainly implies.  Its most instantly recognizable feature (aside from its damp habitat) is the way it holds its large purple flowers well above its leaves on long leafless stems.

Definite confirmation of Marsh Blue Violet's species is the shape of the hairs on its two side petals. Unlike the fine tapered tips of most violet species' hairs, these are club-shaped, with blunt tips.

We were delighted to find the Striped Maples in bloom, with dangling clusters of dainty green flowers.

Quite a few of the wildflowers we'd hoped to find in Cole's Woods were not yet in bloom.  I'd say we need at least a week to 10 days before we will find Clintonia, Rosybells, Pink Lady's Slippers, or Sassafras flowers bursting their tight buds.  It might even be a bit longer before the One-sided Pyrola or Shinleaf Pyrola blooms, but we were delighted to once again discover the patch of forest floor where the One-sided Pyrola grows.  This flower (now scientifically called Orthilia instead of Pyrola) is not that common a find.  Here, it shares its space with the glossy green umbellate leaves of Pipsissewa.

Teasing us with its flighty refusal to land and stay still so we could take its photo, was this tiny black-and-white flutterer we assumed was a miniature butterfly.  Turns out (thanks, Google Images!) it's a moth, not a butterfly, called Trichodezia albovittata, the White-striped Black Moth.  My photo of it was so blurry I couldn't use it, so I lifted this image off the internet.  Look at how fringed are the edges of its wings!

The highlight of our morning at Cole's Woods was actually avian instead of floral.  We kept hearing Ovenbirds all around us, but miracle of miracles, we even got to SEE one!  That was amazing enough, for this little warbler is one of the most elusive birds of the forest. You can hear its loud, persistent calls all around, but the cryptically colored bird itself most often remains quite hidden from view.  But even more amazing was actually seeing this Ovenbird's little ground nest, shaped like the mud ovens that suggest the bird's name, and just about impossible to make out on the forest floor.  I think I have mentioned many times my friend Sue's excellent vision.  So guess who saw this first?  I NEVER would have found it, without my friend along!  We were overjoyed!  If we hadn't been so hungry for lunch, we might have parked ourselves in a hidden spot for several hours to possibly see the bird come and go.  I doubt very much we will ever be able to find this nest again.

Woods Hollow Nature Preserve

It didn't rain on Sunday, but it sure was windy and cold. Not very pleasant, but thanks to my Polarfleece pullover and warm wooly socks, I didn't feel anything but happy to get outdoors, heading first to Wood Hollow Nature Preserve near Ballston Spa.  Wild Lupine thrives there in a wide sandy oak/pine area, and I was wondering if it had started to bloom.  Not quite, but close, as I discovered.  Come back in a week or so.  There'll be masses of gorgeous blue.

In a week, I bet the Pink Lady's Slippers that thrive by the hundreds in Woods Hollow's piney woods will be in gorgeous bloom.  So far, just green buds.

At least I wasn't disappointed to find a Painted Trillium in the same dark shady spot where I've found it in past years. Isn't this a gorgeous wildflower?

Sometimes we forget that trees also have pretty flowers.  I thought the ripening male flowers of Scotch Pine were beautifully colorful.  Allergy sufferers might want to stay away, though.

The Red Oaks were also in bloom, their baby leaves more colorful than their gracefully dangling flower clusters.

Woods Hollow is near Ballston Spa, just far enough south of Glens Falls (about 25 miles) that its wildflowers bloom and fade a bit earlier down here.  While the Dwarf Ginseng was in its youthful glory up in Glens Falls, down here it was already going to seed.  I had never seen its seedheads before, so I'm glad I caught this stage of this flower in time.  Before long, every bit of Dwarf Ginseng will disappear until next spring.  Truly a "spring ephemeral!"

Well, this is one of those early small and fragrant white violets: could be Northern White, could be Sweet White. I can't tell them apart unless I ponder every part of them and cross-reference all my wildflower guides.  But today I was more interested in the little critters swarming across its leaves:  Snowfleas!  I usually find them swarming across the snow on sunny days in February, not green leaves in spring!

Here's a little closer view of these cute little bugs, unlike any other six-legged critters because of the tiny undercarriage spring that can fling them great distances.  Snowfleas are also called Springtails, and for good reason.  Do google a search for them and learn about this fascinating creature.  They do no harm to anything or anybody, except maybe the tiny bits of stuff they eat.  Here's a good site to peruse: http://www.esa.org/esablog/research/snow-fleas-helpful-winter-critters-2/

Do Garter Snakes eat Snowfleas?  Probably not.  At any rate, this snake would have had to have eaten an awful lot of tiny bugs to cause this big lump inside it.  More likely a frog.  Or might this be a female laden with eggs?  Do I have any herpetologists among my readers who might answer this question?

Bog Meadow Nature Trail

After realizing that many of Woods Hollow's wildflower treasures were yet to be revealed this spring, I hurried north to Saratoga and the Bog Meadow Nature Trail just east of the city.  A friend had reported that the Nodding Trillium there were already blooming, and this is a special flower I just can't miss!  And I didn't!

My super-knowledgeable botanist friend Andrew Gibson has informed me that a distinctive feature of this trillium (Trillium cernua) is the long length of the anthers' filaments, which can be seen in this closer view of this flower.  I have heard reports of this trillium disappearing from many of its previously reported sites, but I'm happy to report that it seems to be thriving along this trail.  It's possible that it could be overlooked, because of its habit of hiding its flower beneath its three broad leaves.  It also likes to grow beneath the branches of thick shrubs.

Blunt-leaved Sandwort is another flower that could be overlooked along Bog Meadow Trail, but just because it is so small.  Its bright-white flowers certainly stand out, though, against its dark-green leaves, and it tends to grow in masses, spangling the trailside.  This used to be called Arenaria lateriflora, but its scientific genus name was recently change to Moehringia.  Another common name is Grove Sandwort.

Another wee flower easily overlooked, this is Dwarf Raspberry, which also thrives along Bog Meadow Trail.  It will later have a sweet red berry.

More hidden flowers.  This one is Rose Twisted Stalk, also called Rosybells, and it hides its pretty pink bells beneath its arching stalk.  This flower grows abundantly in Cole's Woods (where it should bloom next week), but here on this trail I could only find a single specimen, no matter how hard I searched.  I hope I find it spreading over the years.

One more wee little no-count flower that most folks don't even notice -- unless they're on one of my nature walks where I urge them to pay attention!  This is Hooked Crowfoot, one of our native Buttercups.  They may be small, but see how those starry little blooms stand out against its attractive green foliage.  A common denizen of damp areas.

This same damp area where the Hooked Crowfoot thrives was a place of wondrous beauty on Sunday, with masses of Maidenhair Fern just spreading their delicate trembling fronds along a tiny creek.  One of the greatest glories of spring!

The North Woods at Skidmore College

Actually, I must confess:  I never made it to Skidmore on Sunday.  I meant to, but my aching knee was begging me to call it a day after running around for miles at Woods Hollow and Bog Meadow.  Cold damp days seem to make the pain worse.  But I know that both Wild Columbine and Miterwort are blooming everywhere now, and nowhere more gloriously than I saw them on this date last year at Skidmore.  That's when I took this photo, and that's how I bet this same site looks today.  Unless the college has continued its mania for creating more parking lots where wildflowers used to thrive.