Sunday, December 31, 2017

B-r-r-r-raving the Frozen Lake (and other unpleasantnesses)

B-r-r-r, but it has been COLD!  Temps have fallen well below zero for several nights in a row, then remaining down in the single digits even on the sunniest days, like today.  Despite that radiant blue sky and beautiful dusting of fluffy new snow,  I almost talked myself into staying indoors today.  But then I remembered that I have a reputation to uphold, of braving even the coldest days without trepidation.  Plus, the sun was bright and the wind was calm, and I have plenty of winter clothing just made for days as cold as this.   So off I went to walk around Moreau Lake.

It was obvious, from all the foot tracks covering the lake, that plenty of folks beside me have been daring the cold out here, although I didn't see many of them today.  I stopped to talk to a couple of guys who'd been fishing through the ice all day, so far without much luck.  I don't know how they do it, standing out here on the ice, exposed to the cold for hours and hours, and not seeming to mind that they hadn't yet hauled out a fish.  They actually seemed quite cheerful, happy to chat with a visitor for a while.

Not everyone I met today was cheerful, though.  The first fellow I met was cradling his mangled little West Highland Terrier, while telling a sheriff's deputy about how the poor little dog had been viciously attacked by two Golden Retrievers, dogs that had been running off the leash.  Moreau Lake State Park, as do all state parks, has a policy that all dogs must be leashed at all times, a regulation that many dog walkers, unfortunately, rarely observe.

As I continued my walk around the lake, I encountered another dog walker whose two dogs were running free, and I thought I would do him the favor of warning him that the sheriff had been called to the park because of the injured-dog incident, and so he had best put his dogs on a leash before the sheriff caught them.  Oh boy, you'd think I had slandered his mother!  Who was I to tell him to leash his dogs?!  OK, I'll let the sheriff tell you, I said, and he only scoffed:  "I used to be one of them.  They'll give me a pass."  And he walked away, dogs still running free, and tossing this comment back over his shoulder at me:  "You must be a Hillary voter."  And again:  "If I was a black guy, you'd never have approached me."  Both comments flung at me as if they were the worst insults he could think of.  Well, I never waste my time arguing with surly bastards, so I didn't bother to tell him I'd voted for Bernie, or that my own grandchildren were half-black: two factors that would have made me even worse in this belligerent Trumpster's opinion.  Deciding to not waste any emotion on this ridiculous encounter,  I continued around the lake, eager to let nature's beauty wipe that fellow's ugliness from my mind.

By the time I reached the back bay of the lake, the sun was sinking low, casting long blue shadows across the frozen expanse.

The longer those shadows grow, the colder the temperature falls.  It was time to pick up my pace toward home, stopping off in the park's warming hut to thaw out my face by the roaring fire.  What a great addition this hut has made for enhancing winter hiking at Moreau Lake State Park.

I got a brand-new camera for Christmas, a Canon Powershot G7 X Mark II, and I was hoping to find some pretty things to test out its macro function, but not much suitable material presented itself to me today.  I did think this leftover Wild Mint plant was gracefully interesting, even if it presented little challenge to my new camera.

My old camera has a setting just to diminish the blue cast in photos of snow, but my new camera doesn't have that setting.  I have to adjust the color in my computer program instead.  Even when I do, the blue predominates.  I have lots to learn about what my new camera can do. Meanwhile, it did manage to capture the tracks that a little mouse made as it hopped along a trough in the snow beneath a fallen tree.  This log, I imagine, provides sure protection from swooping owls.

I sure wish the park's dog-leashing regulation had protected that little Westie from being attacked by Retrievers.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Along the Frozen River

Well, I asked for it. And we got it: snow and cold, and plenty of it!  Plenty of cold, anyway, with temps falling well below zero each night this week.  And enough snow to blanket the earth and decorate the trees, as these photos taken two days after Christmas reveal.  As soon as the temperature climbed above zero yesterday, I piled on my winter warmies, packed my pockets with chemical handwarmers to keep my camera from freezing, and made my way over to the banks of the Hudson River at Moreau.  There, I strapped on snowshoes and made my way through the woods to the river, amazed to see the water completely frozen over from shore to shore.

The river was frozen over, not just in the quiet bays and coves where I visited first, but also out on the open river, as I discovered when I stopped at the Sherman Island boat launch and walked down to the shore. I'm sure the river's current will shortly open a course in the middle, but on this day there was no open water at all.

I was struck by the lacy ice that topped this snow-covered branch and glistened in the low sunlight.

These bracts from the seed-pods of an Ironwood tree dangled over the bank, as pretty as Christmas ornaments.

These Highbush Blueberry buds looked Christmassy, too, glowing red through their frosty topping of snow.

We had a really beautiful snowfall on Christmas Day, about 8 inches of light fluffy stuff.  But just as the sun came out to add sparkle to the landscape, some fierce winds rose, and soon that immaculate blanket of white was littered with oak leaves and tree seeds.  I recognize these tiny fleurs-de-lis and winged nutlets as the scales and seeds of birch trees (probably Paper Birch).  They do look kind of pretty, observed up close, but I look forward to when the snow's surface is rendered pure white once more with a subsequent coating of new soft snow.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

New Ice on the Lake

OK.  Shopping is done, gifts are wrapped, cookies are baked, garlands are hung.  Finally, I could take a breather from holiday preparations and head up to Moreau Lake State Park for a walk around the lake.  Oh, how sweet was that cold clear air, how wide that bright blue sky!  And how eerie the sounds emitted by that expanse of frozen lake, iced over at last from shore to shore.  As I descended the forested bank to the lake, it sounded like a Star Wars battle was going on out there: Pew!  Pew!  Pew!  No ray guns around, however.  Just the sounds that lake ice will make as it responds to changing temperatures.  It may have been well below freezing today,  but yesterday was much warmer.  Pew! Pew! Pew!

The park had posted "Thin Ice" signs warning walkers from venturing out on the lake, but I could see that the ice close to shore was thick enough to bear my weight. So I set off around the lake on the ice, keeping to where the water was no more than ankle deep, should I happen to hit a weak spot.

Because snow had fallen on the ice as it froze, I found very few patches of crystal-clear black ice.  But I did find a few that were clear enough to capture these tiny bubbles, looking as fizzy as those in a glass of champagne.

We had had a series of above-freezing days, causing the ice sheet to open in cracks, where water oozed up and then refroze, creating these long feathery lines that meandered across the now solidly frozen expanse.

I was lucky I could find two workable ice-grippers for my boots in the trunk of my car.  Who cares if they didn't match?  That ice was slick!

Some of the ice close to shore was clear enough to reveal the multicolored pebbles lying beneath, now rendered like an Impressionist painting by the textured ice above them.

Where the ice was covered with remnants of snow, I found these patterns of sharp black slashes.  They reminded me of drawings by some Abstract Expressionist.

Here were more fascinating patterns, formed by white crinkly ice overlying clear black ice.

Where a tiny creek entered the lake, I found some beautiful frozen bubbles suspended above the creek bottom, left behind when the temporarily splashing water dried up again.

The sun went down awfully early, on this, the shortest day of the year.  Time to head home.

There was still enough light from that sun, however, to turn the clouds to spun gold. So lovely! 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Solstice Meditation (Redux)

How can it be that I haven't been out to the woods in over a week?  I could blame the weather, especially the warmth and rain that have ruined the little snow we had and weakened the newly formed ice on the lake.  But frankly, I've just been too busy with holiday preparations, as well as hindered by old-age aches and pains that exacerbate my fear of falling on ice or the misery I feel when a cold wind worms its way into my ears.  To console myself a bit, I looked back over my blog posts of previous years to remind myself that winter holds more delights than discomforts for me.  I particularly liked a meditation on winter I posted in 2016 on Winter Solstice, and I'm posting it again as Winter Solstice is upon us once more.

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 will grow stronger, its presence will 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, like this full-color photo of a crabapple covered with snow.

 All the more powerful, then, is the brilliant red of Winterberries, glowing through the snow.  What a jolt of joy to behold!

I wish 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.  Here's one more photo to remind me of the pure beauty and exquisite silence of a snowy woods, when even at midday, the sun casts lengthening shadows across the snow.

Happy Solstice to All!  And a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, too.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Snow!  And a pretty-as-a-postcard snowfall, too.  Soft and dry, coating every branch and twig, and with starry crystals visible in every fluffy heap that piled up atop the remnants of last summer's flowers.

Aware that this frosted beauty would not last (the forecast called for rain to follow), I hurried off to several locations around Saratoga today, stopping first at a pine-lined walkway at Saratoga Spa State Park, where I took the three photos above.  I next drove out to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just east of the city, to walk the snow-covered trail out there.

This trail is lined by swamp on both sides, the now-frozen wetlands heaped with puffy tufts of Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta).

I was delighted to find this seedpod from a Canada Lily plant (Lilium canadense), not only because it looked so cute with its fluffy cap of snowflakes, but also because I was glad to see at least one of these lily plants had escaped the depredations of the Scarlet Lily Beetle, whose larvae destroyed many of our Canada Lilies last summer.

There were many birds darting about in the treetops, most of which I could not see well enough to identify.  I did note a couple of American Robins, however, as well as a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, undoubtably drawn to the many Poison Sumac shrubs (Toxicodendron vernix) that thrive in this wooded wetland.  We humans may have a low opinion of Poison Sumac, but it does provide valuable food for many species of wildlife.  And its drooping clusters of ivory-colored berries are also quite attractive.

Most birds prefer the sumac fruit to the low-nutrient fruits of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which means we get to enjoy the Winterberry's bright-red beauty well into the winter.  They looked especially pretty today with their snowy frosting.

I next stopped by Yaddo, the artists' retreat at the edge of town that is famous for its beautiful gardens, especially its well-manicured rose garden.  But I prefer Yaddo's conifer-shaded rock garden, where today those spruce and pine needles were laden with snow, as was the fountain that sits in the garden's center.

Yaddo is also home to one of the very few Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) that grow in Saratoga, which is north of this gorgeous native tree's natural range.  A few of the branches of this majestically tall tree bend low enough to the ground that I could see the tawny bracts of its seedpods, today piled high with puffs of snow.

There's another tree on the Yaddo grounds that thrives here despite our location being far north of its native range, and that is a Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina).  In May, its branches are hung with numerous dainty white bell-shaped flowers, but this time of year, those same branches are hung with these tawny winged seedpods.

I also made sure to visit the American Bladdernut shrubs  (Staphylea trifolia) that grow by Yaddo's creek.  A few of its distinctive hollow pods still hung from the snow-covered branches.

Friday, December 8, 2017

My Naturalist Pals Come North

My friends in the Thursday Naturalists gather each week to explore some regional nature preserve, and I love to tag along, learning all I can from these veritable walking encyclopedias of nature lore. But I hadn't joined them for several weeks, mostly because they'd elected to explore preserves further south from my home than I wanted to drive.  But this week my friends came north to the Schuylerville area, just a few miles away, so I was delighted to join them.

We actually explored two preserves in one outing, electing to stop first at the geologic anomaly called Stark's Knob, located just north of Schuylerville on our way to the Denton Wildlife Preserve across the Hudson River in Washington County.

I had visited Stark's Knob recently and then posted a blog about it, which my readers can revisit to learn about its remarkable geology.  My friends and I were here on this day to see what unusual plants we might find that had made a home in these calcareous (lime-rich) rocks, composed of  "pillow basalt," formed when volcanic lava erupted beneath the sea, during the early ages of our continent's formation.

The monumental cliff of black rock loomed so steeply above us, few of our members wished to clamber up and across it to find the most interesting plant that grows upon it.  So we sent one of our most agile members up to collect a single frond of the Purple Cliffbrake (Pellaea atropurpurea) that generously populates the pillow basalt's nooks and crannies.  That way, we could all examine this fern's distinctive under-curled leaflets (pinnae) and see the powdery spore packets (sori) that edged each one.

Purple Cliff Brake is known to prefer a lime-rich substrate like this pillow basalt, and we had hoped to find other lime-loving plants in the area.  I believe we may do so if we return in the spring, but for now the only other distinctly calciphile plant we found was a beautiful patch of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense), which looks like a mass of tiny green flowers.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, most of the other plants at this frequently disturbed site were non-native species, although we did find quite a few of our native anemones called Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana), with its fluffy tufts of flocked seeds.

We next followed Rte. 4 across the Hudson River until we arrived at the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary, only a little more than a mile from Stark's Knob, with a small parking area along the highway.

This many-acred Nature Conservancy site offers miles of trails through a mixed-hardwood/conifer forest that also contains large wetland areas.  But we hardly ventured into those woods today, drawn instead to the many attractions offered by a large opening at the start of the trails, the former site of extensive shale mining.

Aside from a few stunted shrubs of Bear Oak and some tufts of Little Bluestem Grass, this extensive shale outcropping was mostly populated by many different species of mosses and lichens, offering a beautiful crazy-quilt of different textures and colors.

Sharing that shale with the mosses and lichens were abundant numbers of the cute little puffball fungus called Earth Star.

I found a second interesting fungus growing on a fallen limb in the bordering woods near by.  Called Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune), you only have to examine its undersides to see how it got its name.  This is not only one of the most widespread fungi in the world, but also one of the most interesting, with its ability to dry out and then rehydrate again and again. And also because of its astounding reproduction strategies involving 28,000 distinct sexes!  (Don't believe me? Visit THIS SITE to learn where I got this fascinating information.)

It may be hard to believe, but this runty little scraggly pine was the rarest plant we encountered today.  This is a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), a common-enough denizen of Canada and parts further north in the United States, but considered a rare species in New York State.  It's quite a puzzle how this solitary specimen arrived here, since there are no others near here that I have found.

The Jack Pine can be distinguished from our more common local pines -- White, Red, Pitch, and Scotch -- by its bundles of two slightly twisted needles that promptly spread into Vs as they leave the sheathes that surround them at the base.  Their small curving cones are also distinctive, but we couldn't find any on or near this stunted specimen.

I had visited the Denton Preserve last Sunday to preview the trails and also to determine exact mileage to include when directing my friends to these Schuylerville area sites.  As I headed home to Saratoga late that afternoon, I was struck by the noble stature of this solitary oak, profiled against a coloring sky, with rows of apple trees in the near distance, the Saratoga Battle Monument's obelisk rising just beyond the orchard, and mountains paling into misty gray on the far horizon.  There was something ineffable about these juxtapositions that struck me as profoundly beautiful, and I had to pull over to the side of the road to gaze at them.

When I turned to re-enter my car, I was struck again by the sight of this perfect orb of a brilliant orange sun caught among the branches of trees on the rolling hills across this meadow. I never know when scenes of such quiet beauty will stun me with absolute joy.