Saturday, April 28, 2018

Wildflower Update from the Skidmore Woods

The warmth and rain the past few days have inspired the waiting wildflowers to finally burst from the earth and open their blooms at last.  My walk through the Skidmore woods today was interrupted again and again as I dropped to my knees to greet the flowers I'd been waiting all winter to see.

The first one I sought out was the small and fragrant English Violet, the snow-white variety (Viola odorata Alba) I always find in the same spot along the wooded path. I found not even a bud three days ago, but today the blue-spurred but otherwise pure-white blooms were open wide.

This is not one of our native violets, but who could disdain this lovely little super-fragrant flower?They were probably planted many decades ago by the Victorian ladies who liked to carry nosegays of these exquisitely scented blooms.  For years, I was baffled by these violets, since unlike any other of our violets, native or introduced, these had no dark-purple veining on their petals.  Finally, I was informed of their species by a violet expert, who indicated that the hooked style in the throat of the bloom was a diagnostic feature. I think you can make out that pale-green style in this closer look at a single bloom.

This next violet, one of our native species called the Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata), was truly a surprise today, since ordinarily I don't see this species until some time after the English Violets have faded.  Well, this was the only specimen I found.  There were no others at the sites where I usually find them, but I know I can look forward to finding more of these pretty flowers in the weeks to come. The long spur is an obvious distinguishing feature, but so is the darker purple color around the throat, as if the petals had drained their color to the center.

My friend Ed had told me that he found a single clump of Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) in the Skidmore woods, and he told me exactly where to look for it.  And sure enough, there it was, just where he said it would be! But gosh, this sure looks like Dutchman's Breeches, too.  Aside from knowing that Squirrel Corn prefers a limey soil, like that which underlies the Skidmore woods, how could I tell these plants apart when they're not in bloom?  Their leaves and even their flower buds look quite similar.

I carefully extracted the roots of a single stem from this cluster, and there I found the determining feature: the yellow corms that inspired the common name of this plant.  The corms of Dutchman's Breeches are not yellow, but red.  I then replanted this stem right back from where I uprooted it.  I imagine the flower buds will open sometime in the next week, which I'm sure will confirm this plant's identity, too.

I really did not expect to see Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) blooming today, since earlier this past week I had seen hardly any of this wildflower's speckled leaves.  But see their flowers today I did, and quite a few of them, too, displaying the deep-red anthers that protrude below the dangling yellow blooms.

Uh oh!  I'm afraid those plump red anthers will shortly become wrinkled black threads, once this Red-necked False Blister Beetle and its many friends have finished feasting on Trout Lily pollen.  I'm glad I got here in time to see these lovely flowers while they were still pristine.

Here's a plant that's so eager to bloom, it's producing its yellow, pollen-laden anthers even before its dark-purple leaves or flowers have opened wide.  This is one of the traits that distinguishes this species of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) from the related species of Blue Cohosh (C. thalictroides) that blooms a bit later with yellower flowers that don't open until after its leaves unfurl.

I was SO happy to find this Leatherwood shrub (Dirca palustris) dangling abundant numbers of yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers!  The deer really love to eat this plant, and sometimes they browse the shrubs almost down to the ground.  Thankfully, they spared this one.

I know I reported seeing Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) twice already this past week, but wow!  What a show these masses of pristine white blooms with their sun-yellow centers put on!  I am always so happy to see them again, especially since they bloom for such a short time.  I didn't find them in many places throughout the Skidmore woods, but wherever they found their happy place, they certainly thrived.

I'm also aware that I have reported several prior sightings of Sharp-lobed Hepaticas (Anemone acutiloba) this week, but again, I just can't get enough of these luminous flowers, especially vividly colored ones like these, that seemed to glow from the deep shadowed places in the forest.

Here's a plant whose new leaves are actually more handsome than its rather scraggly greenish-yellow flowers that bloom in June. I just love the swirling curvaceous pleating of False Hellebore leaves (Veratrum viride) as they open their tightly furled shoots in the swampy spots of the Skidmore woods.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Birds and Blooms at Ballston Creek

Our stretch of warm sunny days has ended for now,  but the chill rain of this Thursday morning did not deter my friends in the Thursday Naturalists from garbing up for the weather and making the trip to the Ballston Creek Preserve today. The news had spread among our members that the Great Blue Herons were back on their nests in the Ballston Creek swamp, and we were determined to see them.

There are many fewer nests this year than there were in the past, for as the swamped tree snags lose more and more of their branches to age and wind, there are fewer and fewer crotches for these huge birds to build their enormous nests in.  But one central cluster of trees still offers plenty of secure nesting sites, so we were able to observe the comings and goings of their occupants today.

We were delighted to find many spring flowers had now opened their blooms, despite the return of cool rainy conditions. At the very start of our trail to the heronry, we were met with the glorious sight of masses of Bloodroot carpeting the forest edge with hundreds of snowy-white blooms.  When I was here one week ago, there was not yet a trace of them having emerged from the soil. It almost seems they appear as if by magic!

I did see some buds on the Spring Beauty plants last week, but today the forest floor was virtually carpeted with their beautiful pink-striped blooms.

The speckled leaves of Trout Lily were just as abundant, and we also found a few buds of their flowers among the leaves.  I bet by the end of this week, those buds will open to reveal the pretty, yellow, dangling flowers.

Considering how advanced these other spring wildflowers were, I was surprised that the many Round-lobed Hepatica plants we found held buds that were barely open. But I find the softly furry bracts that enclose the lavender flowers are quite charming in their own right.

This is a fungus and not a flower, but the elegant undersides of the Split Gill Fungus are just as lovely as any spring bloom. 

Last week, I was scheduled to lead my friends in our Thursday group to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, but I canceled the outing because of bad weather as well as the lack of any other flowers  blooming beside the Snow Trilliums.  I told my friends today that the Snow Trilliums were still in bloom if anyone wanted to go and see them, and one of our group took me up on the offer.  So off we went to visit Orra's preserve in Wilton.  And sure enough, these lovely little diminutive flowers were still in their glory.

We also found Dutchman's Breeches about to bloom, with stalks of swelling buds held high above the lacy foliage.  One week ago, I could not find any trace of them.  All it took for them to emerge was a couple of sunny warm days.

I was also delighted to find this mossy bank along the creek punctuated by the bright lemon-yellow blooms of Round-leaved Violets (Viola rotundifolia).

Such a charming little violet, so deeply yellow with its lower petal vividly striped with purple.  The flowers open wide before the leaves completely unfurl.  After the flowers disappear, those leaves will continue to grow larger and rounder, and we can see these leaves throughout the summer, lining trails through the Adirondacks.  This is a different species of yellow violet than the Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), a violet with slightly paler flowers that bears its leaves on its flower stems and blooms a bit later in spring.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Here Come the Spring Flowers!

Warm at last! Wonderful welcome warmth!  That stretch of unrelenting cold has finally broken, and oh, how the earth has responded!

The ice is all gone from Moreau Lake.  Not even a few brittle bits remain in the shadiest coves. On Sunday, the first of this string of gorgeous shirt-sleeve warm days, my husband and I enjoyed a walk around the lake, the sand soft and warm beneath our feet, that cobalt sky lifting our winter-weary spirits.

The water shimmered and sparkled, almost as if it were dancing for joy, freed at last from its prison of ice.  How beautiful these multi-colored pebbles appeared beneath the rippling water close to shore.

Today, the warmest day so far, I met my friend Bonnie Vicki at the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve.  Bonnie had never seen the sweet little Snow Trilliums (Trillium nivale) that grow there (and probably nowhere else in the state), and I was delighted that they were still in perfect bloom.  They've been blooming now for almost two weeks, and the intervening cold weather helped to lengthen their bloom-time.  All of their buds were now wide open -- as wide as this itty-bitty flower can open them!

Bonnie and I then joined some friends at Lester Park in Greenfield, a site that is famous for ancient seabed fossils that have contributed their minerals to the soil, creating perfect habitat for many spring  wildflowers.

There's a spectacular outcropping here of these fossils  -- called stromatolites -- which resemble sliced-open cabbages turned to stone. These are the 490-million-year-old remains of some of the earliest life forms to inhabit our planet, the blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). In the process of forming these calcareous structures, the cyanobacteria depleted the carbon dioxide that predominated in the primordial atmosphere, allowing for the development of an oxygen-rich atmosphere essential to the development of advanced life forms, creating the very air we all now need to breathe.

Well, this geology is all quite interesting, but we were here today in the hopes that we might find some long-awaited spring wildflowers, and oh my, we were not disappointed!  What incredible numbers we saw of Sharp-lobed Hepaticas (Anemone acutiloba) carpeting the forest floor!

What a sight for eyes grown weary of winter's dull colors!

Almost as abundant at this site as hepaticas were uncountable numbers of Squirrel Corn plants (Dicentra canadensis), a few of them already lifting stalks of soon-to-open buds.

At this stage of growth, Squirrel Corn is almost indistinguishable from its close relative, Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), but an examination of its root structure revealed the yellow corms distinctive to this species.  The corms of Dutchman's Breeches are red, not yellow.  From the look of these yellow corms, it's easy to see how the Squirrel Corn's common name came about.  (We promptly replanted this little plant!)

Most of our friends were already departing when Bonnie exclaimed she had found a single plant of  Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) that was already sporting its distinctive solitary brown bloom.  Like the other wildflowers that prefer this site, Wild Ginger prefers a soil enriched with calcium.

We also discovered a few little Bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis), their pristine white blooms still wrapped in enfolding leaves. If this warm weather continues, I expect to see thousands of these exquisite little flowers adorning many roadside ditches and forest edges before too long.

What a thrill it had been, after waiting so long this very cold spring, to find so many of our favorite wildflowers blooming today.  And we still had one more treat in store.  On our way back to where Bonnie had left her car at the Orra Phelps Preserve, we swung into the Skidmore College campus, where I wanted to check on a patch of English Violets (Viola odorata) I knew to grow there.  At first we found only the leaves, but just as we turned to leave a flash of purple caught our eye. Aha!  there it was!

We knew it was this particular species of violet when we examined its interior and found its distinguishing hooked style. What a pleasure to find this lovely flower, and not just for our eyes, but for our noses as well.  This is one exceedingly fragrant violet, as its specific epithet, odorata, would suggest.  A nice little treat to top off this already wonderful, flower-filled, warm spring day.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

An Earth Day Celebration

The Little Snook Kill as it splashes and dances through the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton
Winter's cold has fled at last, and springtime warmth is spreading across the meadows and creeping into the forest on this gorgeous blue-sky day.  What a wonderful Earth Day gift from the weather gods!   I'm heading out now to immerse myself in this glorious day, but before I go I want to share this passage from poet Mary Oliver, a writer after my own heart:

"Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones–inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones–rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms."

Attention is the Beginning of Devotion.
— Mary Oliver, from Upstream: Selected Essays

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Braving the Soggy Cold at Ballston Creek

When the heck is it gonna warm UP?  I've been hunkered down inside all week, keeping out of the sleet and snow and miserably cold rain.  It wasn't that much better this Tuesday-- cold and dark and damp -- but I felt like I just HAD to get outdoors.  So I headed down to the Ballston Creek Preserve south of Ballston Spa.  Maybe this site was far enough south of Saratoga for spring to have progressed a bit more along its forested trails. 

It sure didn't look that promising in the soggy woods, aside from the fact that all the snow was gone.

At least the vernal pools were free of ice down here, but not a peep nor a croak from any sex-crazed Spring Peepers or Wood Frogs emerged from these silent waters.

I did see lots of Carolina Spring Beauty leaves poking up from among the leaf litter.

And some of those plants were sporting buds that had opened just a wee bit.  When warm weather finally hits, this forest floor will be carpeted with thousands of these beautiful pink-striped flowers.

Lots of Round-leaved Hepatica will be blooming here, too, with the first warm days.  I ran to examine this plant when I saw a glimpse of purple, only to be disappointed when I found that purple was just the underside of a leaf.  Not even a furry bud was hiding down at the base of those stems.

I was happy to find some interesting patches of green in the woods, like this burgeoning clump of Porella liverwort at the base of a tree.  Gotta love those liverworts.  At least they stay green all year.

I was quite amused by this moss-covered rock, which looked like a green-furred hedgehog.

A Red Maple twig with swelling buds had fallen to the ground, contributing a punch of color to the forest floor.  But see how tight those buds are still.  Most years by this date, they would be open and wafting their pollen on the warm spring winds.

Oh wow!  Talk about a punch of color!  Here was a fallen limb just covered with an amazing mix of colorful fungi and lichens.  The fungi are Red Tree Brain (Peniophora rufa), Black Jelly (Exidia nigricans), and Lemon Drops (Bisporella citrina), and the pale gray-green lichens are possibly a species of Physcia.

A tiny tuft of the moss Ulota crispa was sprouting from the other side, as was a lovely greenish clump of lichen, possibly a species of Phaeophyscia.  I do believe this is the most beautiful mix of lichens, fungi, and moss I have ever seen!  And bless their pretty little hearts, all of these organisms can be found throughout the year. Even in the dead of winter or in dark, cold springs.

In addition to searching for plants, I had come to the Ballston Creek Preserve to observe the heron nests in the marsh that lies at the end of the trail.  Sure enough, when I reached the marsh I could see some of the huge rough nests out in the standing snags, although many fewer this year than in some years past.

At first, I could see only one Great Blue Heron standing on a nest and I wondered where all the others might be.  Then my camera zoom showed me what looked like birds settled down in the nests.  No doubt there were eggs in those nests that needed a parent bird's warmth and protection from the rain on this drizzly day.

This little bird I was able to observe more closely, since it kept hopping on the forest floor and fluttering up into the shrubs only a few feet away from me.  Since it had a rather ruddy coloration and spent much time on the ground, I was thinking it might be a Veery.  But my photo revealed features like white eye rings and a darkly striped breast that seem more consistent with a Hermit Thrush.  I have a hard time telling thrushes apart, so I'm hoping some more expert birders might weigh in on this ID.  I could certainly tell the thrushes apart by their songs, but this little thrush was quiet as a mouse.

I ended my outdoor adventures today with a visit to the Orra Phelps Preserve up in Wilton.  I was scheduled to lead a wildflower walk there this coming Thursday, but except for this one Snow Trillium in bloom, not a single other wildflower (not counting Skunk Cabbage) has yet even broken the ground.  And with more cold temperatures predicted, along with the possibility of snow,  nothing much will change in the next few days.  So I canceled the walk, hoping to return when warmer weather releases the floral floodgates.  I was glad, anyway, to have seen this darling little trillium, a very rare find this far out of its natural range.