Friday, September 29, 2017

Stark's Knob: A Rock Pile of Note

 While my son is away this week, I've been driving over to his house in Schuylerville to care for his cats.  It's only a 10-mile drive from Saratoga Springs to Schuylerville, but I don't often think of going that way for nature adventures.  But as long as I'm over here every day, I decided to look around for some interesting places to walk.  I'd noticed the sign for Stark's Knob before, so on Thursday I pulled over to see what this "knob" was all about.

It certainly looked like a fascinating pile of rock, black as coal and rising up to an impressive height.

There were a number of signs posted in the area to help visitors understand the significance of this geologic phenomenon. I found the information included on these signs to be somewhat inadequate in addressing the significance of this particular site, but I did learn how "pillow basalt" is formed, and that Stark's Knob consists of pillow basalt.

Geology is a fascinating science, but as I'm sure most of my readers know, my first love is plants instead of rocks, so of course I started exploring these bulbous rocks to see if any interesting plants might call them home.  I believe pillow basalt can be rich in calcium, so I thought I might find some calciphile plants occupying the cracks in the rocks.

And so I did! This rather spindly-looking fern was one.  I once had seen Purple Cliffbrake (Pellea atropurpurea) growing on limestone ledges at a site south of Albany, and this certainly looked similar to that calcium-loving rock fern.

Purple Cliffbrake has two forms of its fronds, with the fertile fronds bearing their pinnae (leaflets) more widely spaced than those of its infertile ones.  Both kinds of frond can be seen in the photo above. The photo below shows a fertile frond, with the inrolled pinnae widely spaced along the purplish stipe.

When I turned the frond over, there I could see the spore packets, called sori, arrayed within the inrolled margins of the pinnae. This was the clincher:  Purple Cliffbrake it was!

I'm afraid that was it, though, for interesting plants growing among the rocks.  I did see some Columbine leaves, but there were far more leaves belonging to invasive species like Spotted Knapweed.  I should come back in the spring to re-explore these rocks for calcium-loving plants.

I next took a trail that climbed through the woods to reach the top of the knob.  If you decide to climb this same trail, be warned that it is quite steep.  I had left my hiking pole behind, and it would have been very helpful, especially coming back down on a trail that was slippery with loose gravel and fallen leaves.

But the view from atop the knob was certainly worth the climb!  I have zoomed in on the view, the better to show the Green Mountains rising to the east, beyond the Hudson River immediately below. Just imagine how lovely this view will be, when the trees reach their peak of autumn color.  Or should I say, IF they reach their peak of autumn color.  Lack of rain and a long stretch of record-hot days has caused many of our maple leaves to start to shrivel.  Even the sumacs look done for.  I fear that our autumn colors this year will be dead-grass green and dusty brown.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Lens Lake, Early Autumn

Well, it is now officially autumn. But the temperatures are hotter now than they have been all summer.  As the thermometer climbs toward 90 today, it sure doesn't feel like fall.  I wonder how this unusual heat will affect our autumn foliage colors?  When my friends Kathy and Nancy accompanied me to paddle Lens Lake this past week, we could see that the trees up there, further north and higher in altitude than Saratoga, had already begun to turn.

Even more colorful than the trees on the mountain slopes surrounding this quiet Adirondack lake were the thick mats of sphagnum moss that cover the bog mats dotting the lake.  Masses of red and gold  sphagnum intermingled in patterns as lovely as those of a Persian carpet.

Bunches of Pitcher Plant leaves glowed like flaming embers when the sunlight illuminated their hollow pitchers.

The tiny green leaves of both Large and Small Cranberry vines sprawled across the sphagnum, and here and there we found lots of ripe cranberries ready for the picking.

Many moss-covered hummocks bristled with the flame-leaved stems of Marsh St. John's Wort, their stained-glass beauty reflected in the dark still water.

The Winterberry shrubs along the shore were heavy now with scarlet fruit.

We found much of interest beneath the water as well, including beds of Common Bladderwort that looked like submerged evergreen forests.  Each bladderwort stem was topped with a bulbous green orb called a "turion," a winter bud that will sink into the mud after the rest of the plant disintegrates from freezing.  A new plant, a clone of its parent,  will sprout from the turion in the spring.  Although these bladderworts do produce above-water flowers and are capable of reproducing sexually by the production of seeds, they also continue to spread their populations by this vegetative method.

Paddling over some sunken tree limbs, we saw what looked like lengths of green yarn caught in the twigs and waving around underwater.  I broke off a twig and lifted up a portion of this "green yarn" to examine it more closely. Its gritty texture, composed of silica, convinced me that this was Freshwater Sponge, a colony of tiny animals that filter water through their bodies, absorbing oxygen from the water and feeding on waterborne food particles.  Their presence in a lake is usually an indication of clean water.

We also found a second mysterious underwater "being," bulbous masses of transparent greenish jelly submerged in the shallow water of a quiet bay.  The closest I've been able to come to an answer regarding these blobs is that they could be formed by a colonial microscopic single-celled protozoan called Ophrydium versatile.

According to the "Ask the Naturalist" blog, these colonies "can be found all over the world in fresh water.  The individual cells line up side-by-side in the 'blob' and attach themselves to a jelly-like substance they secrete.  They are symbiotic with microscopic Chlorella algae that live inside the Ophrydium cells and give the blob its green color."

Well, these organisms certainly must be microscopic, since when I picked up a glob of the jelly, I could see nothing inside but flecks of silt like you'd find in any sample of lake water.  Some day I will take a sample home and look at it under a microscope.  On that Ask the Naturalist site I mentioned above, there are videos showing these cells in action.

What a day!  So full of beauty and wonder and surprise!  Then add to that the pleasurable company of good friends enjoying a paddle under a lovely blue sky on a warm early autumn day.  I think you can see by these happy faces that we were truly loving it!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Nature Saves Some of Her Best For Last!

Our wildflower season approaches its close in a blaze of glory!  Could any other flower rival our gorgeous New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) for the vivid purple of its ray flowers?

Or compete for radiance with the spectacular gold of Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), our last sunflower to open its bright-yellow blooms?

I'm not the only creature drawn to these beautiful flowers.

A Monarch Butterfly feasts on the nectar of New England Asters:

A Candy-striped Leafhopper rests on a Jerusalem Artichoke's bloom.

So much color is ours to enjoy, and soon these flowers will be joined by the gorgeous autumn leaves.  Be sure to get outdoors to feast on this glorious season.

Friday, September 15, 2017

An Ever-changing River!

Wow!  Who pulled the plug on the Hudson?  These vast mud flats are the sight that greeted me as I came down Spier Falls Road on my way to the river.  Then I remembered a newspaper notice about water levels being lowered so work could be done on the Spier Falls Dam.  I had come to the river today in hopes that I would go for a paddle on this lovely late-summer day.  Would I be able to launch my boat? Certainly not here, above the dam, where the mud would suck me down to my shins before I could reach the water.

How happy -- and surprised! -- I was to find the river still full to its banks when I reached the Sherman Island Boat Launch about a mile downstream from the dam. I soon was gliding across the river's silvery surface under a beautiful sky.

My destination was a group of little islands that lie not far from the launch site, their shores adorned with the ruddy leaves of Silky Dogwood shrubs and bordered by shallows that support many emergent wetland plants.

Although many of summer's flowers have faded and fallen, often their leaves remain stunningly beautiful.  The glowing corals and rich reds of Marsh St. Johnswort leaves and seedpods are somehow enhanced by sharing their space with the dainty lime-green leaves of Northern St. Johnswort.

Here was a third species of St. Johnswort, Dwarf St. Johnswort, a pretty pink cluster crowning a rotting stump.

The Yellow Loosestrife plants were adding a little color of their own by sprouting ruby-red bulbils in their leaf axils.  These bulbils will drop off and sink to the mud to produce clones of the parent plants.

Mats of blooming Golden Pert added their sunny yellow and glowing green to the color scheme.

As I paddled along close to the river banks, I came upon this patch of sedges, their dangling seedheads pale and shimmering against the dark ruddy leaves of Silky Dogwoods.

And oh, what a burst of royal blue from this explosion of Bottle Gentians!

Sharing the riverbank with the gentians were numerous blooming Turtleheads, their fat white blossoms tinged with pink.

I don't know how this catchment of the river can stay full of water with its source upstream so diminished.  But the water level was high enough that I could enter a section of a small stream that enters the river close by the boat launch site.  What a display the Bottle Gentians put on back here!

I could even spy a few remaining spikes of Cardinal Flower tucked in among the creekside greenery.  There's certainly no missing the super-saturated red of this flower's blooms!

Sneezeweed, too, still held onto its sunny-yellow blooms to brighten this dark shady creekbank.

It was still summer-warm on this mid-September day, but these bright-orange leaves on a riverside maple reminded me that autumn is on its way for sure.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Avens, Avens, Everywhere!

If the Large-leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum) is so rare as to be classified as an endangered species in New York,  how can it be that we've found it thriving in three contiguous New York counties this week?  Well, in the case of Essex and Saratoga Counties, I already knew exactly where to look, because I had seen it there, even before I knew it was endangered.  But in Warren County, my friend Sue Pierce discovered it entirely by accident,while out walking for exercise. And last Sunday afternoon, she took me to where she had found it.

Actually, Sue took me to three different places where she had found what she believed to be Large-leaved Avens: the Warren County Bike Path near Glen Lake, then to an expansive meadow with mowed paths surrounding a housing development on Meadowbrook Road in Queensbury, and just down the road from there, a many-acred field of meadow flowers called the Meadowbrook Preserve. (The Meadowbrook Preserve is where I took the photo above.)  And sure enough, we found this supposedly elusive plant at each one of those sites.  Even without its yellow flowers or burry seed heads, there was no mistaking the large round terminal leaflet on the compound basal leaves, or the very hairy leaves and stems.

After documenting the locations of all the Large-leaved Avens we found at each site, we continued walking just for the sheer pleasure of being out under a clear blue sky, surrounded by vast fields of goldenrods, asters, Joe Pye-weeds and other meadow plants. The air was filled with the shrill trilling of Tree Crickets, and if we stood still and paid attention, we became aware of a constant low hum, the sound of thousands and thousands and thousands of bees and flower-flies feasting on wildflower nectar and pollen.

Is there any late-summer wildflower more striking than the vividly purple New England Aster?  This was one of the commonest meadow flowers we found, set off so beautifully by masses of goldenrod.

We saw beautiful creatures, too, in addition to beautiful flowers.  It was a great day for numerous Painted Lady Butterflies, which were fluttering busily among the Joe Pye-weeds and occasionally spreading their lovely wings long enough for the picture-taking.

The Brown-hooded Owlet Moth is one of our drabbest moths, just a little dusty-brown thing that might be mistaken for a dead leaf.  But its caterpillar is one of the most colorful of all, with vivid red, yellow, and orange stripes alternating with striking black-and-white patterns.  It was so busy chowing down on this aster leaf, it let me move in for some close-up shots.

Somehow Sue managed to spy this female Marbled Orb Weaver hiding out in a cluster of flowers.   I think she must have caught it in action, while it was quickly wrapping that unfortunate bee in silk.  I know it's a female because of its globe-shaped abdomen, and oh look!  There's a tiny fly sitting atop that abdomen!  Smart fly!  I wonder if the spider even knows it's there.

At the far end of the meadow where the ground is damp, our footsteps set off a  frenzy of hopping Leopard Frogs.  Since the frogs were as green as the grass, we never saw them until they sprang from the path just ahead of our feet.  Then, once in a while, a frog would freeze, as if hoping its camouflage would save it from detection.  Silly frog, you should have landed in the grass instead of the dirt!

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Happy Task At Pyramid Lake

 What a day to visit Pyramid Lake in the Adirondacks!  One of the nicest days we've had all summer, sunny and warm but cool in the shade, dry air, blue sky, calm wind.  Except for the trilling of Tree Crickets and the occasional haunting call of a loon, all was delightfully silent.   And there wasn't another soul around to break that silence. Not until my pals Bonnie and Bob arrived, that is.

Fellow plant-enthusiasts Bob and Bonnie had come to help me count the number of Large-leaved Avens (Geum macrophyllum var. macrophyllum) we could find.  I knew where lots of them grow, since I've been visiting them for years just outside the dining hall of the Pyramid Life Center, a retreat center situated here on this beautiful lake.  I've known these plants were here for at least 15 years, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that I learned they were classified as an Endangered species in New York, the rarest category.  Well, endangered they may be, but they certainly never seemed to mind the rather unaccommodating situation beneath the kitchen porch, where they happily grow surrounding the trash cans and other stuff tossed beneath the kitchen's deck.

We counted around 50 individual plants of varying sizes, from those that bore flowering stalks (now topped with burs) to those that looked as if they were juvenile plants, not yet mature enough to bear the small yellow blooms this native wildflower puts forth in early summer.  Although this species has already been documented to exist in Essex County,  the New York Flora Association likes to keep track of rare-plant populations,  and we will be happy to report that this looks like a large and healthy one of this Endangered species.

Our botanical task completed, the three of us set out for a pleasant hike around the western shore of the lake. Our trail took us through a mossy, pine-needle-carpeted woods now studded with many fascinating fungi.  One of those fungi was this nearly black mushroom with creamy-white gills that Bob later identified as the very descriptively named Chocolate Milky (Lactarius lignyotus).

A very dark chocolate, indeed!

Eventually, the trail led up a rocky mountainside to a ledge where we could gaze out across the lake toward this gorgeous view of Pharaoh Mountain in the distance. The last stretch of this trail proved steep and rather precarious, so we were glad to rest a bit on this ledge, enjoying the spacious view as well as the scent of sun-warmed Sweet Fern that surrounded us there.

Tired but happy, we said our good-byes, and I was already leaving the parking lot when I had to pull over and jump from my car to get a better look at a beautiful patch of Common Hedge Nettle (Stachys tenuifolia) growing by a small stream.  Its purple blooms looked especially pretty set off by the tiny clustered white flowers of Arrow-leaved Tearthumb (Persicaria sagittata).  I had seen this Mint-family plant blooming profusely here in mid-July, so it was quite a surprise to find a large patch of them still in perfect bloom.

Common Hedge Nettle is certainly worth a closer look, to enjoy the lovely moire pattern on its florets' lower lips.

One more precipitous pull-over occurred along the center's long access road when I spied these furry tendrils arrayed across some marble outcroppings.  These are the seedheads of American Purple Clematis (Clematis occidentalis var. occidentalis), and I had promised one of my friends who propagates native plants that I would try to obtain some seeds for her.  Mission accomplished!