Monday, January 30, 2017

A Trailwalker's Challenge

A sunny day at last!  Has it really been gloomy and gray for days on end, or was I just feeling down because of my dear kitty's passing?  At any rate, today was a great day to go walking, so I headed out to Bog Meadow just east of Saratoga.  Although the trail was ice-covered, the going was easy with Yaktrax on my boots.  My only challenge today was going to be finding something to pique a naturalist's interest.  Obviously, I wasn't going to find any flowering plants, nor was I going to track any animal's trail through the snow. Maybe I'll find some fascinating waterfowl when I reach the open marsh.

Nope.  The marsh was still frozen over from shore to shore.  No waterfowl out there!  Nor did I see or hear any birds of any kind anywhere.  All was silent.

So OK, what else can I look for along this wooded wetland trail?  How about seeing if I can ID some plants in their winter garb?  Here's a shrub I knew at a glance because of the distinctive feathery panicles of pedicels at the tips of its twigs.  This is Panicled (or Gray) Dogwood (Cornus racemosa), which, earlier in the year, bore clusters of porcelain white berries, and those pedicels were then bright rosy red.  Little color remained this late in the winter.

These knobby clusters are all that's left of wild grapes, after the birds have had their fill.

This is all that's left of a Canada Lily's seed pod (Lilium canadense), borne erect now, although the flowers dangled downward when blooming.  The neatly stacked seeds have all fallen away, but a few traces remain of the dainty stitches that once held the pod together.

This tight cluster of gaping Pac-Men is what remains of a stalk of White Turtlehead flowers (Chelone glabra).

The small white flowers of Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana) are pretty enough, but when they go to seed they explode into feathery clusters far more dramatic than the flowers ever were. I love how the filaments of these persistent puffs glisten in the sun.

I think there's something really elegant about the spore stalks of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), especially when their tight rows of dark beads are silhouetted against the white snow in the swamp.

Adding color to the otherwise muted landscape were thickets of Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), the bark a startling red and speckled with pin dots.

The buds of Red Maple trees (Acer rubrum) are plump and colorful now, reminding us that spring is on its way.

I was surprised to see some clusters of berries still dangling from the branches of Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), since these fruits are a valuable food source for birds.  If you stay on the trail at Bog Meadow, you are unlikely to come into contact with the toxic oil of this shrub, since it much prefers the deep damp of the swamp where humans seldom tread.  Because the swamp is frozen now, I was able to approach this tree to take the photo.

The birds have definitely eaten most of the fruits of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) by now, so I was quite surprised to come upon a shrub with a single berry remaining.

When I left the trail to follow the bank of a stream back into the swamp, I came upon a patch of bright-green Atrichum moss, and protruding above the moss were a number of tightly-furled Skunk Cabbage spathes (Symplocarpus foetidus).  Lest I indulge a false hope that these early shoots signaled an early spring, I reminded myself that Skunk Cabbage sent up these shoots last fall, so they are not recently risen.  And mosses stay green all winter.  In a normal winter, these plants would be buried beneath several feet of snow.  Ah, but when did we last have a "normal" winter, with deep snow covering the ground?

Friday, January 27, 2017

Goodbye, Sweet Finn

His royal highness, king of the fuzzy tummies!

It's a sad time for our family this week, as we said goodbye to our dear Finn.  We adopted Finn some 14 years ago from an animal rescue organization, and he was the biggest, furriest cat we have ever had, about 25 pounds at his top weight, and as sweet-natured as he was enormous. He was also a very sociable guy who enjoyed greeting visitors with his friendly wide-eyed gaze, a wave of his amazing plume of a tail, and a nudge with his fuzzy muzzle. Except for the fluid that swelled his cancer-filled belly, he had shrunk to nothing but matted fur over protruding bones in the past two months, and when I saw that he could barely open his eyes, I knew it was time to say goodbye. Our dear kind veterinarian, Dr. Leisa Brockett, came to our house Thursday morning and helped Finn enter his final sleep in the kindest, most peaceful way. We are sad, but also happy that Finn is suffering no more. And ever so grateful to Dr. Brockett for helping to make Finn's passing as easy as possible.

Although Finn was a stray and no one was sure where he came from, he certainly exhibited most of the characteristics of being a Maine Coon Cat, with his prodigious size, broad sweet kitten-like face, and mellow nature.  He was the most undemanding cat I have ever known, content to just amble about the house looking adorable and loving to be loved -- and also looking for the coziest spots for a cat nap.  He especially loved baskets filled with clean laundry, warm from the dryer.

Other cats came and went in our household during his lifetime, and he was always a welcoming friend to all of them. (He even tolerated our daughter's visiting dogs with calm equanimity.) He never battled for dominance (as our female cats did), and he served as a warm furry foster dad to a pair of feral kittens we captured and kept for our own.  Here's little Cleo snuggled against his flank.

And here's little Bebert greeting his big Uncle Finn.

Finn was always tolerant of the kittens' peskiness, but sometimes he used a gentle swat from his big furry paw to let them know who was boss.

One of the reasons I love this photo of Finn keeping cool on a hot summer day is that it shows off to great advantage those enormous fuzz-tufted paws.

Finn amiably tolerated all our cats (we've had as many as five at one time), but his special buddy was Selene (may she also rest in peace).  They frequently slept curled together, and Selene would often wash Finn's face as they snuggled together.  Sometimes in the middle of all this seeming affection, Selene would suddenly bite Finn hard, and he would draw back, astonished, but never once returning a bite for a bite.

I'm so grateful for the blessings our kitties brought to our home, the laughs they gave us, the love they showed us, and the warmth they shared at naptime on cold winter days.  Farewell, sweet Finn.  I like to imagine you and Selene are once again snuggled together in some special heaven made for beloved pets.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Winter? WHAT Winter?

Where the heck did our winter go?  I sure got my hopes up a few weeks back, when we had some nice snow, and a cold snap froze the lakes good and hard and rendered some fabulous crystal creations along the creeks.  But jeez, we've now had a whole string of days above freezing, with more just as warm forecast for the week ahead.  When I headed over to Moreau today to walk along the Hudson, the river was wide open below the Spier Falls Dam, and so calm and lovely I could imagine slipping through that dark still water in my canoe.

When I walked in the woods along the river, the forest floor was virtually free of snow.  No animal tracking today!

At least the back coves of the river were still frozen solid.

Carefully avoiding the thin ice where creeks emptied into the river, I ventured out onto the ice and back into the swamp.  The warm sun caused a misty fog to rise from the ice and cast long shadows across the frozen surface.

Among the sun-warmed boulders that make up the islands and promontories here in this part of the river, I found pretty patches of colorful plants.  Here, the leathery green leaves of Trailing Arbutus are punctuated with the smaller, redder leaves (and one red berry!) of Wintergreen and the starry puffs of Haircap Moss.

Heading home, I stopped where the river takes a sharp bend above the dam.  The scene was so lovely,  with mountains rising against the horizon and pretty pink clouds in the sky and rafts of mist floating above the water, and -- oh my gosh!  Is that a kayaker I see out there?

My zoom lens lets me take a closer look:

Yes indeed.  It WAS a kayaker!  His name was Jarod, he told me after he'd pushed his boat across the thin ice to where he could safely climb ashore.  And he didn't even have gloves on!

Let's Hear It For the Squirrels!

This poor pitiful rain-soaked mama squirrel is begging us not to forget that today, January 21, is National Squirrel Appreciation Day.  You didn't know that?  Neither did I, until a friend's Facebook post reminded me.  I confess I do have a soft spot in my heart for these clever little critters, despite their maurauding habits.  I even wrote a blog post in praise of them a couple of years ago.  You can read that post again (and see some pretty amazing photos of these furry rascals) by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Calling All Creators!

It's time once again for the Spring Street Gallery's annual open-call themed art and performance exhibition to benefit Code Blue, the shelter that helps folks without a warm home make it through the winter. I've participated in this show before, and it's just a wonderful way for artists, musicians, and all kinds of performers (both pros and amateurs) to celebrate each others' creative gifts, and enjoy a great party, too, while helping those less fortunate than ourselves. The theme this year is Winter, a season I always celebrate through my photography. I haven't yet decided what to submit, but here are three of my photos I do like, each one displaying some quality of winter in our northern climes. 

This first one, "Ice Fog on Saratoga Lake," demonstrates that even in the middle of winter while the lakes are still solidly frozen, we will occasionally get a warm rain that creates this kind of fog. All that mist transforms the far shoreline into what looks like a wonderland rising out of a cloud. Or a Japanese ink painting.  This photo measures 24"X6".

"Frost Flower" is an 8X10 photo of the spectacular frost crystals that can sometimes be found on the surface of clear black lake ice. Rarely do I find them as nearly symmetrical as this.

"Crabapple in Snow," is an 8X10 photo of one of those rare and amazing times when the newly fallen snow clings to every branch and twig.

The gallery welcomes contributions from artists and performers throughout Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities, so if any of my readers from this area wish to submit work for the show that will open with a reception on February 10, go to the Spring Street Gallery's website to register and to learn more information.  Hope to see you there!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Slowing Down, But Still Getting Out

Maybe it's my age (I'll be 75 this year), or my painful knee (it still hurts from last year's fracture), or this inconsistent winter weather (zero one day, raining the next). I just keep thinking of reasons not to go out for the winter walks I used to love. Or when I do, I'd rather nap afterwards than write a blogpost about it. But I have been out since my last post of January 5, so let me try to catch up.

By January 8, Moreau Lake State Park staff members told me that Lake Bonita was frozen solid, at least 8 inches thick on this lovely little pristine lake.  So I ventured over to the new (and plowed!) parking area off of Corinth Mountain Road and made my way down the steep and rocky trail to the lake.  Despite a cold wind sweeping across the lake, its vast expanse of white under a bright blue sky beckoned me out to explore the little islands well offshore.

I love to search these little sphagnum-carpeted islands, inaccessible by boat during the warmer months, for the fascinating variety of bog-loving plants that populate them.  Although most of the smaller plants' remnants were buried under snow, the flower stalks of Pitcher Plants and the seed heads of Sheep Laurel could still be found.

January 11 was a much warmer day, so when my friend Nancy Slack called to urge me outdoors, I told her "Sure! Let's go climb that waterfall's course across from the Spier Falls Dam.  We should find lots of mosses on the streamside boulders." Since Nancy's a bryologist, mosses are always a special lure to tempt her to a location.

Well, it turned out most of the mosses were well hidden under crusty snow, but we still enjoyed clambering up the mountainside, accompanied by the rush and splash of the waterfall, which was mostly covered by thick ice.

We did find some pretty mosses and ferns, though, when we descended the mountainside and examined the spring-watered boulders that line Spier Falls Road near the dam.

It was pretty cold on Sunday, January 15, but the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky on dozens of ice fishermen out on the thick ice of Moreau Lake.  My destination was a brook tumbling down the far mountainside, but I was happy to dally along the way to see what kind of luck these brave guys were having out on this frigid expanse.

These two young fellows, Adam (left) and Andrew,  were very happy to describe the beautiful Pickerels they had caught today (but didn't keep to eat, since their flesh contains many small bones). I was struck by their charming enthusiasm and the delight they took in spending hours walking around on the frozen lake, checking their trip lines.  Andrew told me his grandpa had been bringing them here since they were little, and they just loved it!  Grandpa, they said, was taking a break in the warming hut on shore.

I love it when the lake is frozen and I can scoot directly across its expanse to the brook I was hoping to visit, expecting this day for its course to be filled with water from recent heavy rains.  And I was not disappointed.  After the rains came plunging temperatures, which transformed the streamside rocks and shrubbery into exquisite crystalline ice formations.

And where the water slowed and the streambed widened where it approached the lake, the quieter water was frozen into the most delicate of crystal plates, decorated with gossamer striping and frost-ringed bubbles.

 Today, January 16, was the best day of all!  Not only did I have a new trail to explore in Moreau Lake State Park, but my great pal Sue had the day of from work, so she could explore it with me.  This newly groomed and marked trail starts near the dam at the end of Lake Bonita and terminates at a section of the long-existing Western Ridge Trail at a point quite near its Spring Trailhead along Spier Falls Road.  Since we didn't know how difficult the trail would be or how long it would take us to walk it, we parked one car at the Spring Trailhead and drove a second car up Mt. McGregor to start our hike at Lake Bonita.  Here's Sue standing on Bonita's shore just before we enter the trail.

The trail starts by following the stream that falls from Bonita's dam, and the stream's watercourse was decorated today with beautiful ice formations.

Very soon, though, the trail angles away from the stream and heads off into the woods.  It was obvious that many folks had followed this trail already, packing the snow on the path.  We were very glad we had worn ice grippers on our boots.  It turned out that we would not have been able to continue along certain sections without such stabilizing footgear.  Readers, do not attempt this trail without such gear, at least while the ice persists.

A beautiful feature of this trail is a series of rocky ledges, many of them thickly covered with many different kinds of mosses.

On one of those mossy ledges, I found this small hole, its entrance festooned with hoarfrost, probably formed by the warm breath of some small furry creature living within.

At one point, we caught a glimpse through the trees of the Hudson River in the valley far below.

Here was a truly magnificent ledge, its steep face made even more dramatic by cascading sheets of ice.

The trail is crossed by several streams, most of them tiny rills that are easily hopped across.   But this was a rushing torrent crashing noisily down the bouldered mountainside.

Trail groomers had helpfully placed boulders across the stream to form a bridge, but today those rocks were glassy with wet ice.   Even with grippers, our feet just slid across the icy rocks without catching, and we thought long and hard about what to do to get safely across.  Well, we did, obviously, thanks to a small patch of leaf mould and some crunchy snow.  But somehow Sue lost one of her ice grippers in the process.  Now we know what to call that creek:  the Gripper Grabber Creek.

 As it turned out, we were quite near the trail's terminus by then, and safely reached Spier Falls Road without incident.  Our hike took us about two hours, with many stops to photograph points of interest. We can't wait to get back on this trail in warmer weather to see what plants grow in those fabulous ledges and along those tumbling streams.  Beautiful!