Saturday, March 31, 2018

Happy Easter!

It's Holy Saturday, and Easter is fast approaching, just as the Coltsfoot is starting to bloom in sandy roadsides and neglected lots where nothing but other no'count weeds will grow.  I composed the following meditation about this brave little flower a few years ago, and I enjoyed reading it again.  Perhaps my blog readers will, too.  Here's wishing a Happy Easter to all!

It's almost Easter, and as Christians prepare to rejoice that the Lord is risen, we wildflower lovers also rejoice that the first REAL flower of spring -- one that actually looks like a flower -- has risen as well.  Alleluia!  The Coltsfoot is up!  The season of blooming is here!  These dear little sunny blooms, bursting forth in glory from out of the cold dead leaves, speak to me of resurrection far more than any pampered, florist-bred Easter Lily could.  Like God's love, they are freely given, they spring forth unbidden, there's not a thing we had to do to deserve them, nor a penny we have to spend to enjoy them.  Also, like the Incarnate One who dwelt among the lowly, they make their home among the poorest soils, brightening desolate roadsides where nothing else will grow.  Supposedly, they even have healing powers.  So bless you, dear little Coltsfoot.  It gives me great joy to welcome you once more.  Who cares about chocolate bunnies or candy eggs?  I found my Easter treat along the road, as sweet as any bon-bon. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Spring Has Sprung! Here's Proof!

Gorgeous, today!  Soft warm air.  Blue sky from horizon to horizon. The sun beating down on rapidly melting snowbanks.  Sunlight sparkling on newly open waters.  Could winter really be over?  I went looking for signs that it might be, and oh happy day, I found them!

My first stop was Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, and look what I saw!  The ice had retreated from the shore at last, a thin strip of open water darkly gleaming.

I hurried onto the wooded trail that would take me down to the water, undismayed by the carpet of snow that remained in the shade of the forest.  I knew when I reached the south-facing shore the snow would all be gone.

And so it was.  And see what else I found!  Among all the American Hazelnut shrubs that crowd these banks, I chanced upon one that was studded with bright red dots.

Here's a closer look at one of those dots, a bunch of tiny, cherry-red pistils sprouting out of a cone-shaped bud.  Here was one of the earliest blooms of spring, the Hazelnut's female flower.  No doubt about it, spring is here at last!

Well, I wondered, if hazelnuts are blooming now, might I also find Coltsfoot today?  I hopped in my car and hurried back to Saratoga and set off down the Spring Run Trail.

And sure enough, on a sun-warmed bank by a rushing stream, the bright little sunburst blooms of Coltsfoot were studding the brown leaf-litter.  I felt a wonderful jolt of joy, for here were the very first flowers of spring that actually LOOK like flowers!

There were lots of the actual first flowers of spring, Skunk Cabbage, swelling their bulbous spathes in the muddy brook that lines this inner-city trail.  Most of the spathes were a deep rich red, but some were this cheery yellow.  And look, the green shoot that holds this plant's enormous leaves has begun to emerge, as well.

I plucked a single spathe to investigate the spadix enclosed within, and a cloud of yellow pollen spilled out onto my hand.  No doubt about it, these flowers are well in bloom.

Happy to find all this evidence that winter is over at last, I felt I was walking on air instead of an asphalt walkway as I made my way back to my car.  The sun was so warm, I took off my coat, and as I lifted my face to the radiant blue sky, I was struck by this thicket of glowing Staghorn Sumac.  As the sumac's velvet captured the dazzling sunlight,  the branches were outlined in gold.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Celebration of Frogs

Was it World Frog Day yesterday (3/20)? Darn, how could I forget to honor some of my favorite critters? Hey, as we prepare for yet another snowstorm, it's good to remember that it won't be long before the vernal pools begin to resound with frogs' amorous croaks and deafening trills. To make up for my neglect of this important celebration, here's a post I prepared three years ago, and I sure enjoyed reading it again.  Perhaps my readers will, too. 

Did you know that yesterday (March 20) was not only the first day of spring but also World Frog Day?  Well, neither did I, or I wouldn't have spent the day futilely looking for signs of spring in my winter-gripped environment.  Instead, I would have been combing my archives for photos of these amazing creatures.  It's way too early yet this year to start hearing the shrill calls of Spring Peepers or the croaks of Wood Frogs, but the memories of these delightful events attach themselves to my photos of them.  I found a few of those photos, so I'm sharing them now on my blog.  It's never too late -- or early! -- to celebrate our froggy friends!

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

This photo is at least three times the actual size of this wee little frog, which may have been about an inch long, in a generous estimate.  Makes you wonder how such itty-bitty creatures can make such enormous sounds, as you can attest if you stop by a woodland pond shortly after ice-out and be nearly deafened by their shrill cries.  This racket is one of the of the sure signs of spring, so head out to any pools you know of and listen for their chorus.  Any day now, we hope.  The cross-like mark on this frog's back is a distinguishing feature.

Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)
(Note:  the genus of many frog species has been changed from Rana to Lithobates)

Another sure sign of spring is the duck-like quacking of Wood Frogs as they convene for their mating orgies in vernal pools.  Due to their distinctive body chemistry, these frogs are particularly tolerant of freezing temperatures and are among the first to stir out of terrestrial hibernation and head to pools that may still be edged with ice.  After their passion is spent,  this will be the last time this frog inhabits water but will spend the rest of the year on the forest floor.  Hence the name "Wood" Frog.  Their dead-grass-brown color and black bandit's mask are distinguishing physical features.

Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor)

We call this cryptically colored frog a "gray" frog, but (true to its species name, versicolor)  it can also turn green to better camouflage its presence among the leaves of trees.  My friends and I were lucky to see this little fellow one spring, since these frogs spend most of their lives high in the trees and only come to ground to find a mate and lay eggs in vernal pools.  One of the ways it finds likely mates is to flash a bright patch of yellow on the inside of its rear legs.  "Hey, girl . . ."

Pickerel Frog (Lithobates palustris)

This isn't my most diagnostic photo of a Pickerel Frog, since it doesn't very clearly show the rectangular spots that distinguish it from the Leopard Frog, which has circular ones.  But this is my favorite photo of it for other reasons.  I'd been chasing this particular frog along the river bank, taking photos as I ran, but the frog blended in so completely with the mud I could hardly make it out. Then, wonder of wonders, it leapt onto this floating Red Maple leaf, which provided a perfect foil.  It's a good thing I didn't try to grab it with my hands, since this frog's skin is known to produce poisonous secretions, useful for discouraging predators but also irritating to human skin.

OK, here's a clearer photo of a Pickerel Frog.  Here's lookin' at you, kid!

Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)

Leopard Frogs can be brown or as green as this one is -- just a gorgeous emerald green!  Note the circular, rather than rectangular, spots.  (Well, sorta!) The Leopard Frog's skin does not secrete a poisonous substance, as the Pickerel Frog's does, but it does contain certain enzymes that have shown some potential for the treatment of certain cancers.  Just one more reason to celebrate frogs. And work to protect their habitat.  They like CLEAN WATER!

Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

Oh Froggy, what big ears you have!  Meaning, those circles behind the eyes, which are called tympani.  This frog tends to be bigger all over than any of the frogs I have named so far, with only the Bull Frog being any bigger.  I suppose it gets the name Green Frog from the color of its upper face, since the rest of its body tends to be browner than greener, except for the yellow chin.  There's a similar-looking frog called a Mink Frog, but the Green Frog is distinguished by the black bands that encircle its legs.  The Green Frog's mating call sounds like a plucked banjo string.

Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

OK, here's the BIG GUY of the froggy universe, at least around these parts (meaning northeastern New York).  In coloration, it resembles the Green Frog, but even if you put similar sizes of the two species next to each other, you'd recognize the Bull Frog immediately by its enormous mouth.  Its mouth is so big, it pushes the tympani up toward the top of the head.  Its mouth is so big it can stuff a rat in there, believe it or not, using its two hands to shove it in.  The Bull Frog eats other frogs, too, so we are not likely to see a Green Frog sitting next to a Bull Frog.  But if we did, we could note that the Green Frog has ridges (called dorsolateral folds) that extend the length of its body (see the photo above).  The Bull Frog's dorsolateral folds stop just behind its tympani.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Taking Shelter

I guess it's obvious, from the paucity of my posts of late, that I haven't been getting out into the winter woods this year the way I used to. No climbs this year to porcupine caves or up to spectacular overlooks high on mountain ledges.   It's been almost three years since I smashed my kneecap, and instead of getting better as I expected it would, the pain continues to increase.  Several times this winter, I've set out on snowshoes and have been halted by pain, worried that I might not be able to make my way back to my car. So of course I'm more eager than ever to say goodbye to the snow.  But I guess it will still be a while.

Lots of snow remains up at Moreau Lake State Park, where I went yesterday, hoping to cheer myself with a walk.  Preferably, without snowshoes.  Hah!  Fat chance!

I thought I might walk on the frozen lake, where the snow is not so deep, but recent warmish weather has rendered the lake ice unsafe.  (No swimming allowed there, yet, either!)

Luckily, much of the perimeter road has been plowed, so I set off to walk this clear path as far as it would take me, just to enjoy the views of the lake and breathe in the sweet cold air.

Unfortunately, a fierce wind kept driving that cold air against my numbing cheeks and into my aching ears, so I soon sought shelter in the park's warming hut, a cozy cabin at the south end of the lake, warmed by a roaring fire.

This cabin has been a welcome haven for winter-chilled hikers, skiers, snowshoers, and ice fishermen ever since it opened in November, 2010, but today I had the place all to myself.

This cozy book corner, stocked with lots of nature books (including many designed for children), is furnished with plenty of reading light as well as a comfy couch.

The hut contains a number of educational exhibits, such as this collection of animal pelts, accompanied by a list of animal names and a challenge to try to name which pelt belongs to which animal.  Right next to these pelts is a collection of labeled specimens from all the trees we might find in the  surrounding forest, revealing both exterior bark and interior pith and grain.

This slice of a tree trunk was another fascinating display, featuring pins placed at individual tree rings, each pin site labeled according to the date the tree ring was formed.

On the table alongside were informational sheets accompanying this tree slab, revealing historical events that took place during the growth of this tree, starting in 1879 and concluding with 1998, the year the tree was felled.  Here are a couple of examples:

Walking back to my car, I noticed these sap-collecting buckets attached to a Sugar Maple.  Park staffers told me they had collected about 40 gallons of sap so far, which should yield one gallon of maple syrup.

I think it will take quite a while to boil all that sap down, since the pot they are using has a rather limited evaporating surface.  But it makes for a fun display just outside of the park headquarters, where I found recently appointed park intern Elizabeth Bertolini checking on the level.

Before joining the park staff in January, Elizabeth had been involved in marine projects on the North Carolina coast, a much warmer habitat than what she has encountered so far at Moreau Lake State Park, where she will serve until next November. I can hardly wait to show her some of my favorite wildflower sites at Moreau when spring's warmth finally comes to these shores.  I regret that it may be a while.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Are We Done Yet?

It snowed all last night, and it's supposed to snow all day tomorrow, too. I haven't had to shovel the walk, yet, since the snow has been melting nearly as fast as it touched the ground.  But wow, it sure stuck to the trees!  A Winter Wonderland, one week from the First Day of Spring!

Lest we despair that spring will ever get here, the Skunk Cabbage tells us that there's no turning back now.  The spathes have opened, the spadices tucked inside are studded with pollen, and the plant is  bursting with so much energy it melts the snow around it.  Ta da!  Let me present, the Very First Flower of Spring!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

To Grandma, With Love and Awe

On International Women's Day, I could think of many brave and renowned women whose lives have inspired me, women like Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Teresa of Avila. But the woman who shaped my values and joy more than any other was my paternal grandmother, Lillian Shafer Dudd. Musically gifted, compassionate toward all, and possessing an awe-inspiring intellect, she could also shoot a thieving Red Squirrel out of a bird's nest with her 22, or nurse a Jersey Cow through a life-threatening siege of green-feed bloat, or make the best strawberry shortcake in the whole wide world from berries she grew herself. But most of all, she loved me with all her heart. She made me feel important, worthy, beloved. She was my safe and happy place when other parts of my life were sad or scary. I somehow believe that if everyone could have a grandma like mine, the wounds of the world might be healed.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

More Snow!

Here we go again!  Another big snowstorm is hitting us today, with about a foot predicted to fall by tomorrow morning.  As this photo of a snow-capped Flowering Dogwood bud in my backyard reveals, quite a few inches had already fallen by early this morning.  Today I'm hunkering down inside (except for shoveling bouts), which makes me really glad I went for a walk yesterday, when the air was warm, the sky was blue, and the trail along the canal towpath in Schuylerville was beautifully clear of snow.

I love this towpath between the old barge canal and the Hudson River, offering clear views of both waterways.  The canal was still solidly frozen along this stretch, but the river was wide open and shining as blue as the reflected sky.  There were many waterfowl on the river, mostly Canada Geese but also small flocks of ducks too far away for me to ID as to species.  Wish I'd brought my binoculars!

One of the best features of this path is the presence of many Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis), immediately identifiable in any season by their distinctively ridged bark.  I never find this tree in upland mixed hardwood forests, but here along the Hudson they are one of the most common trees, along with Cottonwoods.

I enjoy trying to identify the winter remnants of last year's blooming plants, and there's never any difficulty naming the vine that produced these prickly orbs that were entwined among riverside shrubbery.  This is the dried-up fruit of Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata).  Those spines might look quite daunting, but they're actually not prickly at all, being rather firm but also flexible. You can safely handle these fruits without fear of being scratched.  It's interesting to take them apart and see how much they resemble the common bath accessory called a loofah, which comes from a related plant.

Another notable leftover fruit I find along the river here is that of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), with its clusters of pretty red berries.  Although these loosely clustered smooth berries are distinctly different from the tightly compacted fuzzy berries of Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina), I'm not sure I could distinguish them this time of year from the fruits of Shining Sumac (R. coppallinum), which appear quite similar.  Since I have seen this particular sumac thicket when it bore its distinctive non-winged leaves, I can confidently claim that these are the fruits of Smooth Sumac.

I was thinking those sumac berries were the only colorful clusters I would be likely to see this time of year, when I noticed this Silver Maple bough hanging over the canal and bearing clusters of buds just as red as those sumac fruits.

A closer look revealed that these were the buds of the tree's female flowers, their ruby-red pistils already protruding from the bud scales.  The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) usually bears male and female flowers on separate trees.  So I began to see if I could find a Silver Maple bearing male flowers.

And so I did! Here are the male (staminate) Silver Maple flowers just peeking out of their buds, the anthers still clustered tightly together and not yet shedding the pollen that will waft on the air to unite with the pistillate flowers that are blooming on separate trees.  I thought they looked like tiny nosegays.  Tree flowers are usually small and not very showy, but they often deserve a closer look to note their own kind of beauty.

I was staring up into the branches of a tall Cottonwood, watching a small flock of very flighty Red-winged Blackbirds that would not hold still for the picture-taking and listening to their raucous calls, when I heard a loud buck-buck-buck! right at my feet.  Oh my lord!  What kind of bird is THIS? !

Well, it's obviously a chicken, but it sure didn't look like any chicken I had ever seen, with that fountain of feathers erupting atop its head and obscuring its eyes, and those black-and-white feathers that looked like a complicated ink drawing.  Wow!  Somebody's pet fancy-chicken, I assumed, and quite a friendly bird at that.  It kept running up to me as if it wanted to be pet.  When I got home, I googled "black-and-white chickens" and found photos of Silver-laced Polish chickens that matched.  I also learned that they were a strictly ornamental breed, in that they weren't very meaty for eating, as well as being unreliable egg-layers who, if they did manage to hatch a brood, would often eat the chicks.  Just goes to show:  good looks aren't everything!

Boy, I never know what I'm going to find when I go on a walk!  Or what I will learn when I turn to Google for information about what I find.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Sigh . . . .

So much for all that bare earth.  It must be March in northern New York.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Bare Earth, Open Sky

Weary of slogging through snow or slipping on ice, my feet were craving the feel of yielding bare earth beneath them, and I knew exactly where I could go to satisfy that craving.  Passing by in my car, I had noticed wide-open fields of bare earth where the Saratoga Spa State Park edged Route 9.  With the air soft and warm and a lovely blue sky overhead, that's where I went to enjoy a walk yesterday.  Parking my car near the Warming Hut, I set off across wonderfully snow-free fields toward the paved pathway that circles this part of the park.

This paved path is a favorite of dog-walkers, bikers, and strollers all year, and there were many folks out enjoying this spring-like late-winter day.  A row of Red Pines shaded this stretch of the path.

In more open areas, various shrubs had been planted along the walkway, including this Red Osier Dogwood with its vivid red branches.

Alternating with those red-twigged dogwood shrubs were other shrubs with colorful twigs, only these were as vividly yellow as the Red Osier was vividly red.  A close look revealed the opposite branching and pin-dot lenticels I usually associate with Red Osier, and I wondered, could this be a cultivar of that native dogwood?  A quick Google search when I got home revealed that this was, indeed, a cultivar of Red Osier (Cornus sericea), now offered by nurseries to add color to a winter garden.  Its name is Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea.'   Now I am wondering: is this cultivar capable of naturalizing in the wild?  And if it reproduces sexually, do its offspring exhibit this same bright-yellow color?  Anybody know?

Continuing on to where the path leads into the New York State Tree Nursery, I saw whole hedge-rows of vividly colored shrubs, including this ruby-red patch of Red Osier, set off by a row of dark-green White Cedars and a meadow of golden grass.

More red-twigged dogwoods, except this row consists of Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), almost as brilliantly red as Red Osier but distinguished by lenticels that create stripes in the bark, rather than pin dots.  Both dogwoods are species native to this region, and are cultivated by the State Tree Nursery for use in reforestation and land-reclamation projects.

In this photo, the dogwood plantings alternate with rows of baby Pitch Pine and Red Pine.

Where the tree nursery abuts the Saratoga Spa State Park golf course,  these ancient Sugar Maples stand guard over an equally ancient house, long abandoned and now open to the elements.  Some 25 years ago or more, a litter of Red Fox kits was living under the porch, and my husband and I used to hide behind some trees to watch them come tumbling out when mom fox arrived with a woodchuck for dinner.  This house was decrepit then, and is even more derelict now.  The park once offered the house free to anyone who could propose a good use for it, but there were no serious takers.  Too bad.  Despite the ravages of time and neglect, the house still shows the beauty of its original early-19th-century design.