Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Sun Returns As Winter Begins

 Today, Winter Solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year, the sun begins its journey back to warm us. Moment by moment, day by day, its light will shine brighter, its rays grow stronger, its presence last measurable minutes longer.  And yet, each day, as the winter goes on, the cold will grow deeper, along (so I hope) with the snow.

I do love winter.  Especially ones with deep cold and deeper snow.  I want the lakes and the river bays to freeze thick and hard, so that I can safely cross their frozen expanses and make my way back into the swamps and marshes and bogs too muddy for exploring in summer.  I want the snow deep and soft in the woods, so that I can marvel at how many creatures pass there, coyotes and minks and foxes and fishers and bobcats and more, animals I would never know lived in these woods, if not for their tracks and trails.  I want nights so cold and clear I can see all the way to heaven, with stars so bright they pierce the eye, and sub-zero days with deep-blue skies and frost-spangled air that glitters with sequined snowflakes.

So yes, I do celebrate the return of the light and the promise it holds of warmer seasons to come.  But I also delight in all of the beauties of winter.  Without that cold, I could never find hoarfrost stars exploding from the surface of clear black ice.

Splashing creeks are lovely in every season, but only in the coldest winters can I find crystal chandeliers overhanging the banks.

The warmer seasons gift us with a riot of colors, from the earliest spring flowers through midsummer's multicolored meadows to autumn's glorious foliage. By contrast, winter offers mostly a monotone palette of blacks, grays, and whites.  All the more powerful, then, is the brilliant red of Winterberries, glowing through the snow.  What a jolt of joy to behold!

Wishing all my readers comparable jolts of joy as we celebrate this holiday season, whether you spend it cozy and warm by an indoor fire, or warmed by the effort of huffing and puffing through snowbanks.  Happy Solstice to All!  And a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, too.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Beautiful Ice

A beautiful day, at last!  The weather has not been conducive to outdoor adventures this past week, what with snowstorms and subzero temps and wind and then rain to ruin what had been a lovely heap of snow.  But today was just perfect for winter walking: sunshine, blue sky, no wind, and temps well into the 20s. Time to head up to Moreau Lake and see what was up with the ice.

Well, the first thing I learned was that the ice was still too thin to venture out on.

But at least the lake appeared frozen from shore to shore.  I pulled on my Yaktrax and set out to walk around the lake, keeping to where the ice appeared thick enough to bear my weight and the water no more than ankle deep should my foot plunge through.

Judging from what I could see of the cracks, most of the ice close to shore was plenty thick enough to walk on.  And most of it was spotted with these odd pockmarks, formed, no doubt, by rain falling on slushy snow-covered ice.  It all froze solid, then, when the temperature fell once more.  Today, all the snowed-on ice had smoothed to a hard slick surface.  If I hadn't worn grippers on my feet, I surely would have slipped and fallen.

Here and there it was evident that the ice-cover had opened up and refrozen with absolutely glass-clear ice, allowing me to clearly see the sandy lake bottom.

This looked like open water, but it was actually crystal-clear ice, allowing the sunlight to pass through its rippled structure.

Where the ice was opaque, it was frequently marked with clear black-ice "spiders," or in this case, black-ice "eyes."

Along the north shore, where the sun warmed the sand all day long, the ice had retreated from shore and then refrozen with much thinner, clearer ice.  I left the ice in these sections to make my way along the snow-covered shore.

I was careful to stay off the ice as I approached where I knew a stream emptied into the lake.  And today there was actually water rippling and splashing along the stream bed.  Since the stream had been dry for most of the autumn, this was quite a surprise.

Stream beds are wonderful places to look for beautiful ice formations, such as these sturdy crystalline pillars that formed from droplets splashing up onto an overhanging bank.  The feather was an added embellishment!

These delicate swirls in the thinnest plates of ice would shatter at a touch, they were so fragile. I've never figured out exactly how they form.  They are so exquisitely thin, it's almost as if they formed from vapor, rather than liquid water.

And here were some frozen bubbles! Such a marvel to behold!  Such beautiful treasures sure make it worth venturing out in the cold to see.

Yes, I was glad I ventured out into the cold, but I was also glad to step inside the warming hut and comfort my freezing face for a few moments.  This hut with its blazing fireplace is such a welcome addition to Moreau Lake State Park, offering a cozy retreat for chilled skiers, snowshoers, and winter hikers.  On weekends, I believe there is hot cocoa offered here, as well.

A big table and chairs provide a relaxing place for eating a lunch or a snack, as well as offering gorgeous views of the ice-covered lake.

This was my gorgeous view as I rounded the last bend of the shore toward home. Late afternoon light has touched the lakeshore trees with gold, and the mirroring ice reflects an abstract image of winter's beauty. Imagine how sweet it would be to glide across that smooth ice on skates.  Let's hope it stays this smooth as it thickens and hardens to depths safe enough to skate on.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Mysterious Ice!

Well, I heard a lot of grumbles this week about how cold it was getting.  But I and some of my fellow nature-nut pals were delighted to learn that the temperature had plunged into the teens last night. Time to get over to Moreau Lake and see what the ice was doing.

Here are Sue and another of our friends, Johanna, walking the sandy shore on this gorgeous blue-sky but frigid day.  The main part of the lake was lovely under that wide blue sky, but so far we found little ice had formed on its wind-rippled waters.

But when we reached the back bay of the lake, beyond the bridge, here we could see that ice had covered the bay's waters, almost from shore to shore, with an interesting change in texture and color from one part to another. Transparent black ice lay next to the shore and a clouded ice lay further out.

Oh! But look at these perfect circles that had formed on the ice!  Never in all of our icy explorations over the years had we seen such a thing!  What the heck could have caused them?

We did note that each circle was centered with a black-ice "spider," a phenomenon formed when water wells up through weak spots in the ice cover.  We had seen these "spiders" many times over the years, but never surrounded by such perfect circles.  We guessed that the circles could have been formed by water spreading from each upwelling.  But why would the water form such perfect circles, especially when other evidence suggested that wind had been blowing across the ice and sweeping the snow across the surface? Why didn't the wind distort the patterns around the source of each upwelling?  My Google searches so far have not yielded any answers regarding this mystery.

Puzzled, we just stood in awe of these mysterious patterns in the ice.

We were also in awe of the beauty.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Woodsy Rewards

I almost didn't  join my friends in the Thursday Naturalists today.  The day was gray and cold and damp, and I couldn't recall anything special about the Ushers Road State Forest near Clifton Park, and darn, but my knee was hurting!  But eventually, friendship won out over reluctance, and soon I was setting off with my pals to explore this 120-acre woodland preserve along its well-groomed and level trails.

I don't think we'd progressed more than 20 yards when the first of many rewards appeared:  the withered stalks of the little orchid called Autumn Coralroot.  Frankly, I don't know how I managed to see its skimpy brown stalks, and probably wouldn't have if they had not stood out against the patches of white snow.  This orchid is hard enough to see when in full bloom in September, being the color of dead leaves even then, except for some tiny purple spots on its itty-bitty single petal.  I was quite excited to see a good number of them here in this woods and will look for them again when they bloom next September.

The very opposite of hard-to-see in the winter woods are our three evergreen ferns, and all three species of them were adding their lovely color to the woods we walked today. Top left in this photo is Intermediate Wood Fern, top right is Marginal Wood Fern, and at the bottom is Christmas Fern.  Note that the Intermediate Wood Fern has more intricately-cut pinnules (subleaflets) than does the Marginal Wood Fern, and the Christmas Fern has individual pinnae (leaflets) that resemble tiny Christmas stockings.

The two Wood Fern species are easy to distinguish when the little spore packets called sori are present on the backs of the pinnules.  See how the sori are right up to the edges (margins) of the pinnules on the Marginal Wood Fern.

While on the Intermediate Wood Fern, the sori are positioned mid-way between the center veins and the edges of the pinnules.

Not one of us could identify this baby fern.  But even fern experts have difficulty identifying juveniles.  We just admired its adorable cuteness.

Our most colorful finds today were the remarkable variety of fungi, including the Stereum fungus (Stereum hirsutum) decorating this log that Kay is photographing.

Stereum really does deserve a closer look, with its ruffly and colorfully striped caps that, unlike those of the similar-appearing Turkey Tail, have neither gills nor teeth nor visible pores.

Here's another pretty bracket fungus,  this one the toothed fungus called Purple-toothed Polypore (Trichaptum biforme), distinguished by the purple rim and undersides of its buff-colored caps.

Here was another purple fungus, this one appearing to burst right out of a split in the tree trunk.  The closest match I could find in my mushroom guides is a sac fungus called Ascocoryne sarcoides, or Purple Jellydisc.

My Barron's guide (Mushrooms of Northeast North America) describes the fruitbodies of Ascocoryne sarcoides as "up to 1cm across, gelatinous, and violet to purple or reddish-purple.  Young fruitbodies appear as purple lobes bursting out of the wood.  Lobes absorb water and expand to form cups or discs, which swell and coalesce to form a gelatinous mass."  Sounds like a match to me!

I still haven't found the name of these tiny, fragile, pale-green mushrooms growing at the base of a White Pine.  So dainty, so shiny, so elegant, like the finest celadon porcelain!

I put my finger in the photo to show how tiny they are.

Those tiny, pale-green mushrooms would have been easy to miss, but not these vivid Orange Jelly Fungi decorating a fallen log, which we could spy from many yards away.  Note, too, the clipped-off tufts of hemlock twigs, which were littering the floor of this hemlock stand.  No doubt they are evidence of the Red Squirrels grooming their paths through the tree-tops, nipping off any twigs that might impede their progress.

From that nearly-pure stand of hemlocks we next moved into a section of woods populated by towering White Pines that soared over our heads to disappear against the sky.  I always feel I have entered a sacred space when I walk beneath such giants.

The forest floor beneath those pines was decorated with some of the prettiest plants of the woods:  the red-berried Wintergreen, the glossy-leaved Goldthread, and the delicate ferny moss called Delicate Fern Moss.

There were so many other beautiful mosses and lichens and liverworts, I could have stayed in this woods all day, trying to get my camera to focus on them.  But time was growing late and we had to pick up our pace.  I did stop, though, to take one quick shot of this exuberant spray of Callicladium moss, which seemed to just explode in rays against this fallen log.  The photo's not truly in focus, but it still expresses something of how happy I am that I did join my friends for a walk in the woods today.

When I got home today and was looking at Facebook,  one of my friends had posted this passage by Hal Borland from his book Twelve Moons of the Year (December, 1966).  Wow!  How accurately he describes my love for the woods, even in December!

On its Own Terms
It wasn't an outdoor poet who coined the phrase "bleak December." It was someone who probably slept late, had sluggish circulation, and was afraid of catching cold. December was bleak because it wasn't June, loud with bees and bright with blossoms.
True, December can be raw and cold and its days sometimes are dark, but it is neither bleak nor colorless, Go outdoors soon after sun-up, which now comes late, and even on a lowering day you probably will find a frosty scene of dazzling beauty. If the day is clear it can be a world transformed by frost or snow, newly created, fragile as spun glass, ephemeral as the passing hour.
Go to the woodland and see how the green of pine and hemlock is twice as bright against leafless elm and ash and maple. Underfoot are those humble ancients, running pine and ground cedar, greener than summer grass; and the creeping partridgeberry is gay not only with evergreen leaves but with dewdrop-size rubies. Sumac has fat clusters of bloodstone-fruit. Black alder stems are decked with garnets. Bittersweet is festive with bangles of coral and carnelian. The barberry bushes are loaded with topaz and rubies.
The meadow grass is bronze and antique gold. Empty milkweed pods are lined with mother-of-pearl. Fraying thistle heads are spun silver. The gray beech tree's crisp leaves are beaten gold.
Taken on its own terms, no December day is really bleak. December wasn't meant to be June.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Evergreens in the Snow

Evergreens in the snow.  What could be more seasonably appropriate?  They're so Christmassy, after all.  Evergreens of all kinds have long been considered symbols of hope in the dead of winter, and so I am looking forward to leading a nature walk featuring evergreen plants at Moreau Lake State Park this coming Friday, on behalf of the land-conservation organization Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land And Nature). I volunteered to do this as a way to help PLAN engage local communities in conserving a region of Saratoga County they are calling the Palmertown Conservation Area.  This is a large area between Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park that PLAN believes has a high potential for conservation of working forests, stream headwaters, wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation, based on the results of a recent landscape analysis carried out by PLAN to determine best use for various regions of Saratoga County.

I couldn't be happier that PLAN has asked me to participate in this conservation effort.  After all, the main focus of my blog since its inception on January 1, 2009,  has been to promote awareness of the amazing natural diversity to be found in exactly this area now referred to as the Palmertown Conservation Area.  This area includes the Palmertown mountain range along the Hudson River, all of the Saratoga County portions of Moreau Lake State Park, other state-owned forests that are managed for timber, and also lands owned by Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  Sounds like an index to most of the entries I've posted on Saratoga Woods and Waterways since it first went up on the internet nearly eight years ago.  This is my home territory!

So yes, I'm eager to show folks the wonderful variety of evergreen plants that can be found around Mud Pond this coming Friday.  I led a similar walk for the Environmental Clearing House of Schenectady a few weeks ago, and we located more than 50 different species of evergreen plants of a marvelous variety, including trees, shrubs, mosses, lichens, liverworts, ferns, wildflowers, and even two native orchids.  There's just one problem, though.  On Monday, it snowed.  Snow now covers the ground, and many of the plants that we found before are now hidden beneath several inches of the white stuff.   I went back to Mud Pond today to see what I could find.

The beautiful low-growing mosses -- like this Common Haircap -- are still there and still green, but we aren't going to see them unless we brush the snow away.

The same goes for the colorful red-capped Cladonia lichens, hiding now beneath a mantle of white.

At least some of the club mosses, such as this Tree Clubmoss, are erect enough to protrude well above the snow cover.

But some others, like this Running Pine Clubmoss, only peek an inch or so above the snow.

Most of the ground-covering mosses and lichens will be difficult to find, but where they grow up the trunks of trees, we will be able to admire their beautiful colors and textures.

Some of our daintiest wildflowers are surprisingly sturdy, with glossy green leaves that persist throughout the winter, enduring sub-zero temperatures and heaps of snow.  This Pipsissewa plant still bears the seed pods from the flowers that bloomed in July.

Striped Wintergreen also bears pretty flowers in summer, and its leaves stay fresh and green all winter long.

The bright-red fruits of Wintergreen will be just as plump and pleasant to taste next spring, after spending the winter under the snow.

 I could not find the low-to-the-ground leaves of Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain, despite brushing many yards of snow away from the area where I KNEW this little orchid is known to grow.  But those pale, flattened leaves are hard to find even when there is no snow.  I did find the more robust and curvaceous leaves of its cousin orchid, called Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, after scuffing through the fallen birch leaves and pine needles that covered them.

At first glance, the steep banks on the south end of Mud Pond do not look as if they would yield many evergreen finds on this dark cloudy day.  But sometimes looks can be deceiving.  Let's look a little closer.

Sure enough, these banks were rife with all three of our evergreen ferns:  Christmas Fern, Intermediate Wood Fern, and this one, called Marginal Wood Fern.

An amazing abundance of Trailing Arbutus burgeons here on these banks, with leathery leaves that will persist throughout the winter.  The plants have even already produced the flower buds that will be among the first flowers to open in spring, shedding their exquisite fragrance on the still-chilly air as early as April.

I could not find the pretty leaves and fruits of Partridgeberry along the trail through the woods, but here on the steep bank where the snow is less deep, a few little plants peeped out.

I also found some of the mosses here, such as this lime-green clump of Dicranum, that were deeply buried under snow along other parts of our trail.

UPDATE: On second viewing, I believe this moss is Bartramia pomiformis (Apple Moss), not a species of Dicranum.

I had to brush the snow off a fallen log to find this vigorous clump of Tree Moss.

Masses of the usually-floating-but-shore-stranded liverwort called Ricciocarpa natans were also buried beneath the snow, but I knew exactly where to look for them, and my search was promptly rewarded.

This fallen log was covered with green algae, and that green algae was peppered with the tiny threads of  Green Algae Fungus.

Although they're not usually green,  surprising number of fungus species can be found flourishing throughout the winter, including the orange caps of Stereum, which often thickly cover fallen logs and limbs on the forest floor.

And here was a flower, which, while not green, was certainly persistent despite the freezing weather.  On most other Witch Hazel shrubs that I found in the woods today, the ribbon-like yellow petals had already fallen.  But here on this shrub, they were still blooming away.

The male catkins emerging now on Hazelnut shrubs are not green, but they certainly symbolize hope for spring in the dead of winter.  Thickly dangling in masses now, the catkins already hold the pollen that will later ripen to fertilize the tiny red female flowers when they open in early April.

Sweet Fern, too, has already produced the male catkins that will waft their pollen on the April air. And even though the curling leaves of this shrub (it's not really a fern) are brittle and dry, they still possess the sweet fragrance that persists throughout the winter.

Since we won't be spending a lot of time searching for mosses and lichens beneath the snow, perhaps we'll have time to notice some of the seedpods of flowers silhouetted against the white.  These are the lace-like desiccated pods of the little lobelia called Indian Tobacco.

And these dainty tissue-thin cups are what remains of the little mint called Blue Curls, after the seeds have spilled to the surrounding sand.

If we are still up for further amazement, we can ponder the ice that now covers the shallow water of Mud Pond.

Have you ever wondered what causes these spidery fissures that form on lake ice?  I sure have!  My friend Ed Miller, an engineer who is constantly trying to figure out the reasons for things, has told me that these "spiders" are formed when the weight of the ice presses down on the water, and water springs up through weak spots in the ice.  Somehow, that reason doesn't quite satisfy me, but I don't know any other explanation.    At any rate, Nature is full of such wonders to ponder, and I'm awfully glad that organizations like Saratoga PLAN are working to protect such places of natural wonders as the Palmertown Conservation Area.

My evergreen-plants walk is scheduled for this coming Friday, December 9, from 1 until 3 pm.  Participation is limited to 10 people.  I haven't heard if that quota has been reached as yet, but those who might be interested in attending would need to email or call her at 587-5554 to receive directions to the site and to provide contact information.  Terrible weather will cancel.