Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Walking the Winter Away

What a crazy winter!  We finally had some snow -- nearly a foot of the soft sparkly stuff that makes bearing winter's discomforts worth while.  But there's not much left of it now, as temperatures have climbed up toward 60 for nearly a week. But at least I had a couple of days that merited hauling my snowshoes down from the attic,  including the day two of my Thursday Naturalist friends joined me to explore the little islands out on iced-over Lake Bonita.  Here, Kathy (left) and Nancy stand near one of the islands where we found a few remnants of the interesting plants that grow there.

The Sphagnum Islands of Lake Bonita

Several species of low-growing sphagnum mosses cover these little islands, creating an acidic habitat that supports the presence of plants we usually associate with bogs or fens, such as pitcher plants and cranberries.  While the sphagnum and smaller plants are now hidden beneath snow and ice, a few stalks of the Northern Pitcher Plant flowers (Sarracenia purpurea) still stand tall enough for us to identify them.

We could also find most of the shrubs that thickly cover the islands, predominantly Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, and Sheep Laurel.  This single branch of Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) protruding from the snow still bore its leaves and the remnants of its flower cluster.

Although Waterwillow (Decodon verticillatus) drops its leaves before winter, the remains of its axillary flower clusters wreathing its graceful stems were still quite evident.

Kathy, Nancy, and I had a marvelous time exploring this beautiful site, as these smiling faces attest.

Spring Run Trail, Saratoga Springs

Although I love the freedom my snowshoes give me to wander untracked snowy woods and frozen lakes, my bum knee wishes I'd find less strenuous places to walk in winter, and I'm lucky to have such a place but a few blocks from my home. The Spring Run Trail, accessed from East Avenue in Saratoga, offers about a mile (one way) of a plowed asphalt walkway that follows an old railroad right-of-way through woods and a swamp and along a little stream.

This trail offers a very pleasant woodsy experience, even though it is never far from neighborhood streets and houses.  This lovely pink stucco house, one of the few houses visible from the trail, reminds me of one that could be found in the countryside of France.


Along much of the trail, a rushing stream can be heard or seen, adding to the bucolic experience.

I spied these Skunk Cabbage shoots protruding from the stream, but they did not cause me to imagine that spring is already on the way.  Skunk Cabbage sends up these shoots in autumn, and they persist throughout the winter, preparing to produce our first flowers of spring, usually in March or April.

A good part of the Spring Run Trail runs through a section of open marsh, an area that ardent birders acclaim for being excellent bird habitat throughout the year.

Since I was walking here in late afternoon, the woods and marsh were extremely quiet.  Birding is best in early morning.  Even the few Black-capped Chickadees I saw teetering through twigs in a thicket barely let out a peep. But then I saw this large bird perched atop a snag in the marsh.  Before I could focus my camera's zoom, however, the bird took flight.  Not a great photo, but good enough to detect a striped tail and horizontal rusty breast bars.  Since this hawk appeared to be bigger than a pigeon, I would guess it was a Cooper's Hawk, rather than its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Saratoga Spa State Park, the pine-forest pathway

For those times when knee pain dissuades me from slogging through snowdrifts, another nearby place to walk on plowed pathways is a 2.6-mile circuit through the pine woods of Saratoga Spa State Park.  I can park my car near the Lincoln Bathhouse and make my way to where this broad well-traveled path begins its loop near the Rte. 9 entrance to the Avenue of Pines.

Where I enter the stretch of this trail that leads past a state tree nursery, the boughs of pine trees nearly meet overhead.

A remarkable feature of the White Pines that line this section is that almost every single one of them splits into multiple trunks about nine feet above the ground.  Normally, the trunks of White Pine grow singly and as straight as the masts on a ship.   But I have been told that when we find pines that look like this, the malformation is almost always caused by an infestation of Pine Weevils when the trees were young.  The weevils feed on the growing tip of the young tree, causing multiple trunks to form.

When the loop path merges into the walkway that borders the Avenue of Pines, we can see the more typical growth habit of the healthy White Pines that tower majestically over our heads.  I suppose it's possible those multi-trunk pines are some cultivar that is bred to split like that, since every tree along that stretch is branched in the same way.  I just don't know.  Something to ponder.

If I feel the need to rest or warm up while completing this loop, I can stop off at the elegant Gideon Putnam Hotel at about the half-way point.

The hotel's lobby contains some very comfortable seating areas, and often there's a roaring fire in that beautiful fireplace.  The public restrooms are also nice, should another kind of nature call, aside from the one that called me outdoors in the first place.

Spring-watered boulders along Spier Falls Road

There's one more place I might head when I feel the need to be outdoors but my knee is trying to keep me reclined on the couch.  Hey leg, I say, let's take a walk along Spier Falls Road where it follows the Hudson above the dam.  We can get some blue sky over our head and watch for eagles along the river, and the effort won't tax that arthritis so much. And it's such a beautiful road!

Among the best features of this stretch are the sheer cliffs and jumbled boulders that rise on the mountainous side of the road.  Seeping springs and tiny rills constantly water these rocks, creating some fantastic ice formations throughout the winter.

Thanks to all the warm days of late, the seeps and rills are flowing with crystal rivulets dripping  and splashing over moss-covered rocks.

The rocks themselves are alive with mosses and lichens forming colorful patterns across their wet surfaces.

If I walk all the way to the Spier Falls Dam, I pass several areas where the mountains were quarried early in the 20th century to produce rock for building the dam.  This time of year, these quarries are festooned with cascading ice in a spectacular array.

And once in a while, I actually spy a Bald Eagle!

The porcupine caves at Moreau Lake State Park

I was so happy when my friend Sue told me she had Presidents' Day off from work, and could we go hiking together on this sunny warm day?  Oh boy, you betcha!  One of our favorite winter hikes is to an area of caves in the mountains above Moreau Lake, so that's where we headed this past Monday.

We started out on the Red Oak Ridge Trail, but soon took a detour off the official trail to an area higher up.  We were seeking out a series of caves in the bedrock where we have known porcupines to live, and it wasn't long before we found some well-traveled porcupine trails leading straight to their dens. Unlike many other animals that roam the forest seeking their prey, the bark-eating porcupines select a hemlock to feed in and return to the same tree each night.  Because of this propensity, their trails will be well packed down, and we often find trickles of urine and nuggets of feces scattered along the troughs, as well as scattered hairs and an occasional quill.

I have yet to see a porcupine up in a tree or moving about the woods up here, but there's really no doubt who lives in this cave, thanks to the pungent woody odor emanating from the depths, as well as the presence of all the other sign, such as tracks, hairs, and quills.

We presume that the bedrock surrounding the entrances to the caves must be calcareous, either limestone or marble, considering the presence of Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum) that adorns the mossy surfaces.  Note, too, the little starbursts of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense) tucked in among the fern fronds.  Both Walking Fern and Rose Moss are known to prefer a lime-rich substrate.

We found many patches of the pretty Rose Moss, an aptly named moss that resembles tiny flowers.  A tuft of Broom Moss (Dicranum sp.) also adorns this patch of rock above one of the porcupine caves.

We never saw any porcupines this day, nor any of the deer or the fishers whose tracks criss-crossed the snow-covered forest up here on the mountainside.  But the air was alive with tiny winged insects.  We guessed they could have been either Winter Stoneflies or Winter Craneflies, since both these insects can often be seen stitching the air on warm winter days.  Finally, several of the dainty little creatures landed on the snow. Thanks to the macro lens of my camera , which can focus far closer than my eyes can, I was able to determine that these were indeed Winter Craneflies (Trichoceridae), an insect that is known to live in caves and animal burrows.  We were seeing swarms of these minute insects -- all males I have learned -- bobbing up and down with a bouncing mating dance.  Most of the time, the females remain on the ground, only briefly flying up to mate with the airborne males before returning to the forest floor to lay their fertilized eggs among the leaf litter.   By the way, that's a porcupine hair sharing the photo's frame.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Snowy Trail Through the Spa

We got SNOW!  Not as much as downstate, nor even enough to warrant snowshoes, but enough to cover the ground with sparkling white and tempt me out for a walk in it.   The day was really cold, however, and wind was blowing the snow from the trees and creating spangled clouds in the air. Pretty, yes, but daunting enough to cause me to choose a nearby trail instead of heading up to the mountains or out on a frozen lake.  The Ferndell Trail at Saratoga Spa State Park offered a pleasant option: beautifully woodsy and mostly out of the wind, and it led me to where I could visit many of the mineral springs that made Saratoga famous.

The Ferndell Spring was spouting a pillar of crystal drops from the center of its snow-covered granite basin, and I stopped to take a sip of its cold, clear water. Unlike most of the other springs in the park, this water does not contain the concentration of minerals and gasses that give mineral waters their distinctive flavor and effervescence. But oh, is it refreshing!

When I reached the bottom of the ravine, I turned right and followed the road to where the next spring leaps from the earth and spreads across the ground in a rust-colored mineral deposit.

I learned just lately that this spring is called Tallulah Spring, named after a Native American word that means "leaps from the earth."  Yes, I would say that that's a good description of how its water leaps in an arching stream.

Just a bit further along the road, the Polaris Spring was leaping and dancing, surrounded by lacy ice formations that rimmed its old stone basin.

Soon I arrived at the Geyser Creek, which was full and rushing along, bordered by snow-adorned trees.  I took the path that leads along the creek.

There are a number of information signs in this part of the park, and today I took the time to stop and read them. (The signs will be much easier to read if you click on them to enlarge the photo.) This sign is about the creek.

Geyser Creek is named for the famous spouter along its banks, which has built up quite a dome of mineral deposits called a "tufa," streaked today with fingers of rust-colored water.  Although local folks call this spring a geyser, it's not technically a geyser, since its spouting waters are propelled upward by pressurized gases, rather than thermal pressure (as this nearby sign explains).

An even larger dome of mineral deposits lies just a bit further upstream, caused by the waters that spout from Orenda Spring high up on the bluff.

Look closely at the water-washed dome to see the beautiful patterns of built-up calcium deposits.

A set of stairs leads to the top of the bluff, where a small stone house encloses Orenda Spring.  The word "Orenda" means a divine force believed by the Iroquois people to be the source of all positive human accomplishment.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all the peoples of the world could be so transformed by drinking the waters of this spring?  One could only hope!

Here's a view of that huge Orenda domed tufa, seen from above the creek.

And here's another view of that spouter, seen from the bluff above the creek.

I enjoy sipping a bit from all the springs as I visit them, although I know not everyone likes the taste of these mineral-rich waters.  They are salty and effervescent, and people used to believe they could heal all kinds of ailments.  Here's one more sign that tells the story of how these waters contributed to the growth and renown of Saratoga Springs.

The sweet cold air, sparkling snow, and radiant blue sky were tonic for me today, even if I hadn't stopped to sip from the healing springs.  One of the more enchanting sights I saw today were these boughs of Sycamore fruits, each bristly ball topped with a conical cap of fresh white snow.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Out on the Ice to the Islands Again

Since I offered to lead my friends in the Thursday Naturalists out to the islands of Lake Bonita this week, I went there today to preview the walk and search for points of interest.  As this lovely little lake is now part of Moreau Lake State Park, the park has created a large (plowed!) parking area off of Corinth Mountain Road, with a trail that circles the lake leading off of the parking lot.

It's quite a long descent from the parking lot to the lake, but the trail takes a meandering path across the slope so that it never seems too steep for folks of limited agility to manage.  The trail is definitely icy, though, and should not be attempted without some kind of ice grippers on your feet.  I wore my microspikes today and carried a hiking pole, so I never felt in danger of slipping.

A remarkable feature of Lake Bonita is the abundance of little islands, each covered thickly with shrubs as well as a marvelous array of plants we usually associate with bogs or fens.  Since the park has forbidden the use of boats on this pristine lake, the only time we can carefully search these islands for their botanical treasures is when the lake is solidly frozen.  As it certainly is right now.

The most abundant plants on these islands are the woody shrubs, primarily Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, and Sheep Laurel, underlaid by a marvelous variety of sphagnum mosses and herbaceous acid-tolerant plants like Pitcher Plants, sundews, and native cranberries.  Although most of the lower-growing plants are now hidden under several inches of snow and ice, the shrubs, of course, are easy to find and fun to try to identify.  These gracefully arcing twigs still thick with leathery leaves are those of the shrub called Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata).

Many of the Leatherleaf shrubs bear the exploded seed pods of what had been small, white, bell-shaped flowers.  A close look reveals that these husks are almost as pretty as the flowers were.

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) is the second most common shrub on these islands, and its twigs are now adorned with the cone-like buds of next spring's flowers. I think these buds are quite elegant, with each shining brown scale outlined in pale ivory.

Some of the Sweet Gale shrubs (the female ones) now bear these spiky little seed pods.

A pinch of those spiky seed pods sends a shower of seeds to the snow below, and also delivers a delicious spicy scent to your fingertips.  There's a good reason this shrub has "sweet" as part of its common name.

Here's the third most common shrub of the islands, Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), which can be distinguished from other bog-dwelling laurels by the terminal cluster of leaves surmounting the flower cluster.  This shrub, which has bright-pink flowers in late spring, also has leaves that retain much of their rosy autumn color throughout the winter.

A few small trees protrude above the shrubbery, the most common being Speckled Alder (Alnus incana).  The alder's branches are already hung with male catkins that will open to shed their pollen in spring.  The female flowers (now in tight reddish buds that dangle above the catkins) will open a bit later to receive pollen from neighboring shrubs.

Some of the alders bore these curly brown tufts, galls that are caused by Taphrina alni, a fungal plant pathogen that affects just the female flowers of alders.

The willowy stems of Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) still bore the remains of its axillary flower clusters, which in summer are a pretty bright purple.

When I find the persistent stems and flower bracts of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba var. latifolia) throughout the winter, I am reminded that this lovely summer flower is indeed a woody shrub and not a tender herbaceous plant. It grows abundantly out on Bonita's islands, as well as along the shore.

The same is true for Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa), whose winter remnants can frequently be found along the frozen shore of Lake Bonita.

One of the most common sedges to be found in  northern bogs and fens is White Beak Sedge (Rhynchospora alba), and it, too, can be found on the boggy islands of Lake Bonita. Its persistent slender stalks are still easy to find waving in the winter wind.

The Northern Pitcher Plant is one of the most emblematic plants of northern bogs and fens, and this plant appears to be very happy growing on Bonita's islands.  Although its distinctive tubular leaves are now buried beneath the snow, its spent flower stalks still ride high above the drifts.

Here's a photo of those colorful "pitchers" I took last summer, when I had special permission to paddle out to Bonita's islands for the purpose of conducting a plant survey for the state park.  Note, too, the gorgeously colorful sphagnum moss, as well as the pink-veined green leaves of Marsh St. Johnswort and the tiny trailing leaves of Small Cranberry.  There's even a tiny Round-leaved Sundew plant in the center foreground, if you look carefully.

Although many of the herbaceous plants do not produce persistent remnants, the tulip-shaped seed pods of Marsh St. Johnswort (Hypericum virginicum) can still be found protruding above the snow.

Many mint-family plants also have stems and seed clusters that persist through the winter.  This group of slender stalks strung with axillary clusters could be one of several mints.  If I had to guess, I would bet it was one of the Lycopus species (Water Horehound or Northern Bugleweed), or possibly Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis). Some of these mints are hard to distinguish even when they are in bloom.

Hmmm. . . .  What flower could these pod-topped stalks be the remnants of?  I confess I have never seen them before, at least in this stage of their life.

When I recall what was growing here last summer, I remember the slender stalks of Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta), which were topped with clusters of several blooms.  It's certainly possible that's what those unknown flower stalks could be.

Update:  I received a note from Michigan naturalist Ron Gamble, who confirmed my guess that these flower stalks were those of Horned Bladderwort.  Ron provided a link to Michigan Flora Online, where I found this photo of Horned Bladderwort seed capsules  Sure looks like a match to me!  Thanks, Ron! (Photo by G.E. Crow)

Quite a few of summer's plants remain hidden beneath the snow now, but on the other hand, some things that were hidden in summer are now revealed in winter.   This bird's nest tucked in among the twigs of Sweet Gale and Alder was well-hidden when the shrubs were leafed out and the mother bird (a Red-winged Blackbird?) was sitting on her eggs.

As the day grew late and snow clouds moved in, I reluctantly turned toward home.  I would have loved to just continue walking around Lake Bonita's rocky and forested shoreline, enjoying the silence and solitude of this beautiful place. How lucky we are that its acquisition by Moreau Lake State Park has made it accessible to the public.  When Lake Bonita and the surrounding acres of forest were part of the Mt. McGregor State Prison property, it would have been illegal for me, or any other unauthorized person, to explore this property's remarkable ecology.

As I approached the break in the shoreline trees that would lead me back to my car, I was pleasantly jolted by this vividly colored Highbush Blueberry shrub. My eyes had grown accustomed to the muted hues of white snow, gray sky, and brown foliage, and I found the bright-red of these buds and twigs, backed by the emerald green of shoreline conifers, quite astonishing and wonderful.