Wednesday, March 1, 2017

No Snow, Weak Ice

What the heck kind of winter is THIS?  We've had a week or more of temperatures nearing 60 degrees in February!  Needless to say, all the snow is now gone, and the lake ice has weakened to the point it's unsafe to walk on.  I was going to lead a group out on frozen Lake Bonita tomorrow, but now we will have to keep to the shore instead of exploring the islands out in the middle.  But at least we won't have to wear snowshoes.  Here's what the trail to Lake Bonita looked like 10 days ago:

And here's what it looked like yesterday, when I went to Lake Bonita to check on trail conditions. No snowshoes will be needed, that's for sure, although we should certainly wear ice grippers to get us safely along parts of the trail still covered with slippery ice.

This week's walk to Lake Bonita was organized by the land-conservation organization Saratoga PLAN (Preserving Land And Nature) as one of the ways to engage local communities in conserving a region of Saratoga County called the Palmertown Conservation Area.  This is a large area between Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park that 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 eight years ago.  This is my home territory!  And it's a territory that continues to expand.

I was very much looking forward to leading folks out across the frozen surface of Lake Bonita to explore the remarkable habitat of the little islands that dot the lake.  Only recently acquired by the adjoining Moreau Lake State Park, this small lake presents an ecology quite different from other water bodies within the park. Unlike Moreau Lake, a sandy-shored kettle lake carved out by the retreating ice-age glacier, Lake Bonita is a higher-altitude rocky-shored lake, set among the granitic gneiss of the surrounding Mt. McGregor.  Its depths were achieved much more recently than the Ice Age, becoming a lake when one end of a stream was dammed to create a reservoir atop the mountain.  The tiny islands we can see from shore are probably the tops of rocky rises that have since become overgrown with mats of sphagnum moss and thickets of shrubs.  And growing atop that sphagnum and among those shrubs is a remarkable variety of plants we usually associate with bogs or fens, a kind of habitat that is only rarely encountered in Saratoga County.

One of the qualities that distinguishes plants of bog or fens is their tolerance of acidic conditions, to varying degrees.  While not as acidic as a true bog would be, the waters of Lake Bonita are acidic enough to support the growth of such bog plants as the Northern Pitcher Plant and Small Cranberry, as well as other fascinating wetland plants that are tolerant of more neutral conditions, such as Round-leaved and Spatulate-leaved Sundew, Horned and Humped Bladderworts, Yellow-eyed Grass, shrubs like Leatherleaf, Sweet Gale, and Sheep Laurel, and orchids like Rose Pogonia.  Of course, we won't see any of these plants blooming tomorrow, but we certainly will find extensive mats of sphagnum moss, the source of much of the acidity of this mountain-lake habitat.  This sphagnum grows prolifically along the shore as well as atop the islands.

As we make our way along the shore, we are sure to notice  Highbush Blueberry shrubs, their colorful red twigs set off by the emerald green of the surrounding hemlock trees.  It's interesting to me that the steeply banked and rocky woods along the southern shore of Lake Bonita is populated almost exclusively by Red Oaks and Eastern Hemlocks, creating a forest that is largely devoid of any understory trees.  Or any other conifers.  Alternately, the forest along the western end of the lake contains dense stands of spruce,  while the woods along the northern shore supports mixed hardwoods and conifers, including many White Pines.

Even though we won't be able to risk braving the ice out to the islands, many of the same plants that grow out there can be found along the shore.  The shrub called Leatherleaf is easy to spot, since it keeps its ruddy-colored leaves throughout the winter.

If we look closely, we can see that the Leatherleaf flower buds have already formed.

We may also find a few twigs containing the Leatherleaf's spent seed pods, almost as pretty as the little white bell-shaped flowers were.

The glossy brown buds of Sweet Gale are still tightly closed, although they are among the earliest shrubs to burst into bloom.  Tawny-brown male and ruby-red female flowers are usually borne on separate shrubs, although both sexes are occasionally found on the same shrub.

I was so glad to find this beautiful clump of Pitcher Plant leaves growing along the shore.  Out on the islands, I had earlier this winter found the remains of many flower stalks, but the remarkably shaped leaves were then buried under snow and ice.

As we walk through the woods that is now bare of snow, we will be able to see many evergreen plants:  mosses, ferns, and liverworts of several kinds, as well as the leaves of plants that winter-over under the snow.  Here was a lovely patch of Trailing Arbutus, intermingled with the smaller glossy leaves of Wintergreen.

When I walked out onto a rocky outcropping along the shore, I was amazed to see the green leaves of Pale Corydalis sprouted from a crack in the rock and looking almost as fresh as when it bore its blooms last summer.

At the very eastern end of the lake, we will be able to rest and enjoy a spectacular view of this unspoiled lake, a genuine treasure of natural beauty once locked behind prison gates but now made accessible to the public.

While I sat there admiring the view and feeling grateful that a place of such marvelous beauty was mine to enjoy,  who should come striding out of the woods than my dear friend Ray Bouchard?  What a surprise to encounter this fellow lover of all things woodsy and watery!  But in some ways, not so surprising.  We have met on so many other trails and other lakes, quite spontaneously and completely unplanned, that I almost always expect we might meet each time I venture out.  And I am always very, very happy when we do.

I may see Ray again tomorrow when I lead the group for Saratoga PLAN.  Like me, Ray can't believe his lucky stars that we live among so much natural beauty and so many places of wonder, and neither of us can ever tire of exploring them.

1 comment:

The Furry Gnome said...

Bog and fen habitats are always so interesting. Started in my life when my grade 9 science teacher took us on a field trip to a bog. Now, your list of species sounds almost like you're describing a walk at Dorcas Bay on the Bruce Peninsula.