Wednesday, January 30, 2019

New Snow!

New snow!  And plenty of it.   Soft, light, pretty stuff, too.  It was all clean and sparkling under a clear blue sky this morning, but unfortunately, by the time I shoveled our walk and dug out my car and finished my other morning chores the temperature dropped, clouds rolled in, and the wind came roaring up a gale.  No going out for a walk for me today!  Happily, I did get out for a walk yesterday, while new soft snow still clung to the trees that hang over the Ferndell Ravine in the Saratoga Spa State Park.

Spa Park is better known for its mineral baths, golf courses, swimming pools, and performing arts arena than for any wilderness areas.  But then there's this lovely ravine, where the pines and hemlocks crowd close, and a small stream splashes and tumbles along the trail that runs downhill between steep wooded banks.  The ravine provides a cool shady respite from summer's heat, as well as the perfect place for a short winter's walk. And it's also wonderfully sheltered from the wind.

A picturesque little bridge crosses the stream, and a handsome basin carved out of granite offers  spring water during the warmer months.  Unlike most of the other springs in the park, this Ferndell Spring is neither carbonated nor highly mineralized, just cold and fresh. But this day, the basin was filled with only cold fresh snow.

Another of my favorite walks in this park is a long allee under towering pines, a pathway that the park management kindly plows for the ease of walkers.

This pathway is especially lovely when the interweaving branches overhead are covered with snow.

These grape clusters, topped with puffs of snow, were silhouetted against a pale gray sky.

I was surprised that the birds and other wild creatures had not consumed all the fruits by now.

In such a monotone landscape, any touch of color stands out as worth attending to.  Here was a branch of a fallen limb, with a mound of feather-light snow topping the fungus- and lichen-encrusted bark.

I loved the contrast in texture between the green lichen and the white snow.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Creek Rises, A Spider Walks

First came the snow, about two feet deep.  Than came the rain, a whole day's worth, soaking the snow and filling the creeks to a roaring tumult.  Then it turned frigid again, freezing the snow and making it hard to walk on, even with snowshoes, which crunched through the weakened snow and got caught beneath the hard crust. Desperate to get outdoors for a walk, I headed out to Saratoga Spa State Park, where I could walk on a paved road that took me past Geyser Creek.  Boy, that creek sure was roaring!

It roared even louder when a little side stream poured into it.

Further downstream, ice chunks clogged the flow, and water flooded onto the picnic area along the banks of the creek.

The afternoon was mild and calm when I started out, but a brisk wind suddenly blew up a quick snow squall.  My ears got cold.  Time to head home.

Whoa!  What's this?  A SPIDER walking around on the snow?  Wow!  You don't see this very often! I would have thought spiders were either dead by January or else curled up somewhere cozy until spring. Well, this was a Striped Fishing Spider, so maybe it was headed toward the creek to try its luck, with the ice washed away like this.  Guess I'd better read up on how Striped Fishing Spiders usually spend the winter. (This one was pretty small, only a bit more than an inch across, so it must have been a young one. The adults can be nearly 3 inches across.)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Winter Woes and Winter Delights

Help!  I am being held captive!  Not by kidnappers, of course, but by this terrible weather that won't let me out of my house.  First, we had nearly two feet of snow last Sunday.  Believe me, I love snow, and I couldn't wait to get out to enjoy it.  But then the temperature plunged to around 15 below.  With wind! Intolerable conditions -- especially now that my ailing lungs clutch up when I breathe really cold air.  And the cold continued all week.   Until today, with temps in the 40s and freezing rain ruining all that snow and covering everything with slippery ice. Just climbing down my front steps this morning to collect my newspapers lying in icy puddles, I slid and slewed and nearly fell with every step. (The above photo was taken after we managed to scrape off some of that ice.)

Not only is this weather intolerable, it's also embarrassing for someone like me, who always has rhapsodized about our winters.  Those clear blue skies!  That soft deep snow! That sparkling ice!   Ah well. . . .  Dream on!  But to prove to myself that winter really CAN be wonderful, I looked back over my posts from past years and found many that did make winter seem quite delightful.  Reading these posts again has helped me keep my spirits up.  Maybe they will yours, too.

Here's a post that proves I even had good words to say about 30 below!  But only if you're dressed  for it!

And I did enjoy standing alongside a roaring waterfall transformed by beautiful ice formations.  If only for a few minutes!

Here's a post that recalls when an arthritic knee hadn't yet dissuaded me from snowshoeing high up into the mountain ridges around Moreau Lake, in search of some caves where porcupines live.

I never would have known that porcupines lived in those caves if I hadn't climbed up that mountainside in deep snow.  Wth snow on the ground, it became very obvious where porky lived, and also where he went every day to climb one hemlock tree to dine on its bark.  Porcupines don't wander the woods each day in search of food.  Rather, they leave their dens each day to feed in the same tree they fed in before, littering the troughs they pack in the snow with quills and pee and poop.

Here's another post about climbing the mountains in Moreau Lake State Park in winter.  If we'd gone up to look for these big old Black Tupelo trees any other time of year, we wouldn't have been able to get close enough to hug them (as my friend Sue is doing here), because they grow in a swamp.  Swamps are usually impenetrable unless their water and mud are frozen solid enough for us to wander around on.

This particular Black Tupelo signifies its old age by the texture of its bark: deeply furrowed on one side and smoother on the opposite side.  Note that the trunk leans a bit to the right, which means that the furrowed bark on the right has been more protected than the smoother bark on the left, which has more directly borne the brunt of weathering over the decades (and possibly centuries) of its growth.  I remember that this winter hike found us in great spirits, most likely because of the fun of finding "real cool stuff in the woods, from tiny bugs with antifreeze blood to ancient, impressive trees."

This next post reminds me of the gorgeous colors I never can see except in winter, such as the deep blue of the sky on a day when sub-zero cold has driven all humidity from the air.

And this particular day was dazzling in more ways than one, for the sparkling snow was flashing all the colors of the rainbow. (Yes, I enhanced the saturation of this photo in order to amplify the colorful effect,  but I really could see all those colors with my naked eye.)  Be sure to click the link to this post to see some other colorful delights we found on this winter's day!

To judge by how many guys I often see fishing out on frozen Moreau Lake (and I hardly ever see gals!), I know I'm not the only person who celebrates the joys of winter.  I think these guys must be even more tolerant of the cold than I am, for I have often seen them sitting out on the ice, exposed to the wind, for hours.  As this post recounts, I love to stop by and chat with them and see what kind of fish they have caught.

Sometimes the guys sit there all day without catching a thing.  And sometimes they catch some real beauties!

As I'm sure my blog followers know, I'm much more of a plant nerd than an ice-fisherman, so a frozen lake offers me a different kind of reward than a couple of Rainbow Trout.  I especially recall the first time I was able to walk out on ice to the little islands in Lake Bonita , a recent addition to Moreau Lake State Park. Restrictions on boating would prevent me from paddling to them, so only in winter, when the ice was hard, would I ever get to explore them.  Granted access at last by winter's cold,  I discovered a treasure-trove of bog plants (such as these Pitcher Plants)  poking up from mounds of sphagnum moss.  Bog habitat is quite rare in Saratoga County, so plants like these and many other bog plants were quite a find!

Ice on the Hudson River is never really safe to walk on. Dam operations cause the water level to rise and fall several times a day, breaking the ice up close by the banks and causing weak spots, even back in the quiet coves where the rushing river current slows to a mosey.  But wild animals often use the river ice as their energy-saving highway, since the snow is usually much less deep out there than it is in the woods. And sometimes I just can't resist risking the sometimes-fragile ice out there, to follow the animal tracks. I would never know that so many critters lived in these woods -- coyotes, bobcats, fishers, foxes, minks, and more -- if not for their tracks in the snow. One of the greatest pleasures of winter is trying to decipher their stories by following their trails in the snow .

In this post from late February, 2014, I found many fascinating things along the river banks, but the best find of all was this trail of a River Otter, skidding along on its belly through the snow.

See what fun I have had in winters past?  I sure hope I can get out there again this year for similar adventures.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Hey Look! The Moon is Red!

It was called the Wolf Moon, the traditional name for the full moon that comes in January.  But this year it was also called the Blood Moon, for the color the moon becomes in total eclipse.  It was also well below 0 degrees F. when I ventured out about 12:15 am to attempt a photo.  I didn't want to stay outside very long, so I just pointed my hand-held camera, zoomed in as far as my camera would zoom, and with shivering hands took this blurry shot.  The moon looks a bit redder and brighter in the photo than it did to my naked eye, but it still looked pretty amazing up there!  I'm so glad the sky cleared after the snowstorm that brought us about two feet of snow on Sunday.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Time to Feed -- and Celebrate! -- the Squirrels!

Well, we sure got some snow!  Well over a foot of it by now, and more is still coming down.  After clearing walks and shoveling out my car, I was too pooped to go for a hike, choosing instead to sit by my window and enjoy how this squirrel coped with digging out birdseed buried in snow.   Just in time for Squirrel Appreciation Day, too!   You never heard of Squirrel Appreciation Day? Neither did I until I happened upon this post from The National Wildlife Association.  Anyway, here are some photos to help us appreciate the little furry critters' diligence.

 Hey you guys!  How about some more birdseed out here?  Pleeeese?

Oh well, let's see what's buried under this snow.

Nope.  No luck here.

How about over here?

Whew!  Gotta come up for air!

Guess I gotta dig a little deeper.

Aha!  Success!  Found a seed! Num num . . . .

Oh cripes!  Here come those dratted birds!  Well, they're not gonna get MY seed!

Not to worry, bird-lovers.  My husband shortly booted and mittened up and shoveled out a clear space and spread lots and lots of birdseed and cleared the heated birdbath, too, providing a feast for all.  Let's hope the birds and squirrels manage to eat their fill before the seed gets covered up with more snow to come.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Rest in peace, as so you lived, Mary Oliver

I learned the sad news yesterday that the poet Mary Oliver had died. No other poet has sung my heart so perfectly, has celebrated with me so profoundly my sense of the sacred in nature. I have frequently quoted poets here on my blog when appropriate, and no one but Mary Oliver have I quoted so frequently.  Here are links to five posts where her writings have appeared,  accompanied by the photographs that opened my posts.  Click on each colored link to enjoy Mary's beautiful writings.

Prayer, March 7, 2014
with Mary's poem "Praying"

An Earth Day Celebration, April 22, 2018
with a passage from Mary's essay, "Attention is the Beginning of Devotion," from Upstream:Selected Essays

A Poet Sings of Autumn, September 22, 2018
with the poem "Song for Autumn"

Snow!, November 26, 2014
with the poem "Walking Home from Oak-Head"

with the poem "When I Am Among the Trees"

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

For Plant Nerds Only

I'd guess most of this blog's readers already know I'm a wildflower-obsessed plant nerd. For more than two decades, I've been keeping a life-list that approaches a thousand plants by now, and every year I keep finding a few more to add to it. Of course, the number of new finds dwindles with each passing year, but this past year (2018) included a few remarkable ones that -- just for my personal record --  I want to document here on my blog.

A truly exciting find was the Two-colored Fringed Orchid (Platanthera x bicolor), a hybrid of the White Fringed Orchid (P. blephariglottis) and the Orange Fringed Orchid (P. ciliaris).  The New York Flora Association Plant Atlas shows this  hybrid as having been reported from only one other New York county (Suffolk, way out on Long Island), so the mystery remains as to how it came to emerge in the Warren County bog where we found it this past July. Plenty of White Fringed Orchids grow in this bog, but the Orange Fringed hasn't been found anywhere near here for years and years.

Truth be told, I never would have found this lovely yellow hybrid -- or at least, been able to distinguish it as such -- if my friend Dan Wall had not alerted me to its presence in a Lake-George-area bog I often visit just to see the White Fringed Orchids that thrive there.   In this photo below, Dan is holding the stem of the hybrid orchid.  A second yellowish hybrid can be seen a few feet beyond, with the definitely more purely white White Fringed Orchid growing between the two.  I have probably passed right by these hybrids on my annual visits to this bog, not noting the slight variation in color that distinguishes them. Thanks, Dan, for helping me see what was probably right before my eyes.

Here's a link to my post recounting the day Dan showed me these remarkable orchids.

A second exciting find this past year was the Small-flowered Dwarf Bulrush (Cyperus subsquarrosus), a tiny Endangered flatsedge that we discovered flourishing by the thousands along the sandy and pebbly shores of Moreau Lake.

Back in early September, I had invited one of New York State's rare-plant monitors, Rich Ring, to walk these shores with me to assess the population of another plant (Small-flowered Gerardia), which had recently been moved to the "Watch" list from the "Rare" list.  While we were walking, Rich had suggested we might also look for this little flatsedge (not really a bulrush), which hadn't been reported from Moreau Lake since way back in 1961.  Turns out, we had been walking right over hundreds of them without seeing them, so tiny they are, and as disguised as they were, hiding among other teeming species of much-more-common flatsedges.   As it happens, we may never see them again in our lifetimes, since the sandy beaches where we found them last September are now under water, due to abundant rainfall all autumn and into the winter.  A lucky find!  Here's a link to my post recounting the day we found this truly rare little plant.

It was quite a good year for me and flatsedges, for I found a couple more that were new to me, while paddling Carter's Pond over in Washington County.   It was interesting to me that both are designated as flatsedges, even though they look quite different from each other.  The Umbrella Flatsedge (Cyperus diandrus) has flat spikelets that are patterned a pretty red and tan:

The Redroot Flatsedge (Cyperus erythrorhizos) has clusters of spikelets that look like yellowish fuzzy caterpillars.  Neither of these flatsedges is considered to be uncommon in our state, although the Redroot Fladsedge is classified as rare in some surrounding states and was recently moved from the Rare to the Watch list in New York.

While paddling that same Carter's Pond in Washington County, I came upon two plants of the Persicaria genus that I had seen before, but which I had always mis-identified.  My paddling companion on that pond was my friend Bonnie Vicki, who helped me find the correct name for these flowers.  First was this dainty, pale-pink flower called Mild Water Pepper (Persicaria hydropiperoides), whose little florets are larger and prettier than those of the Pennsylvania Smartweed I had been calling it before I learned to distinguish it.

Pictured below is the second Persicaria species, P. coccinea or Scarlet Smartweed, that I finally learned the true name of.  I formerly had mis-identified it as Water Smartweed (P. amphibia) when I had found it floating on the surface of a lake.  But here at Carter's Pond it stood tall, its gorgeous  big flower spikes reaching far above the thickets of Swamp Loosestrife that form a virtual shrubby monoculture around the pond.  So even though I had seen these two plants before, I could still add them to this year's "New for 2018" list. And I also learned that I still have a lot to learn about plants!

As long as we're on the subject of my ignorance, here's yet another flower I discovered the true name of this year, having probably long mis-identified it in the past.  This is the Fraser's Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum fraseri).

I found these pretty pink flowers growing on the banks of a little island in Lake Desolation and at first assumed they were the same-old Marsh St. John's Worts I see in many other wet places I paddle. But gosh, they seemed a bit smaller than the ones I usually find.  Looking closer, I noted that the sepals seemed rounder and shorter, too. Could they be a different species, I wondered? A bit of research when I got home convinced me that yes, indeed they were!  I wonder how many times I have seen them and called them by the wrong name.  Another new plant for my life list!

One of the floral "hot spots" my botanizing friends and I like to visit is Canal Park, on the Rensselaer County side of the Hudson River, where the Hoosic River flows into the Hudson. A combination of mixed hardwood forest, steep rocky banks, and alluvial floodplain occur there, providing habitat for lots of interesting plants. And just when we think we have listed them all, some new ones come to our attention.  It's certainly understandable that we might overlook the tiny Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata ), it being so very small and not very colorful.  But my shoelace became untied and when I stooped to retie it, look what appeared before my eyes:

At first, we were stymied by what to call it, because it possessed both alternate and whorled leaves and didn't accurately fit the descriptions in any of our wildflower guides. Later, after a few Google searches, I discovered that Polygala verticillata is sometimes known to have alternate leaves and is then called  P. verticillata var. ambigua.  That's the name I used to record it in my life list.

Canal Park is also known to be home to several species of Bushclover, including one that is classified as Rare in New York State, the Creeping Bushclover (Lespedeza repens).  

Since I had never seen this plant before, I had to compare descriptions in several guides before I became confident enough to assert that this really was the rare Bushclover, an assessment that botanists more expert than I am later confirmed.

Well, the verdict is still out on whether an aquatic plant I found in the Hudson River at South Glens Falls is the Endangered species called Cutleaf Milfoil (Myriophyllum pinnatum) or a similar milfoil that's not nearly so rare. It was growing in only about an inch of water when I found it close to the shore.  "Hmmm," I pondered,  "What's this weird plant?  Don't think I've ever seen it before."

When I looked more closely, I could see both pistillate and staminate flowers in the axils of the spiky leaves, and they reminded me of another milfoil I had found some years ago. So I sent a specimen off to Steve Young, chief botanist with the NY Natural Heritage Program, asking his help to ID it.

Steve informed me that this looked very much like the Endangered Cutleaf Milfoil, but that molecular analysis would be needed to distinguish it from another one very similar in appearance. That analysis has not yet been done, so I'm not quite sure how to record this plant in my wildflower journal.  Unknown Milfoil will have to do for now.

I'm not sure of the exact species of this next aquatic plant, either, although I have a general idea.  I found it attached to the river bottom in the same stretch of Hudson where I found the unknown milfoil.  The water was shallow enough I could reach down from my canoe and pull one cluster up to examine it more closely.  It felt quite gritty, and what amazed me is that it smelled very garlicky!  Some folks who are familiar with aquatic species have told me that this is most likely a multi-cellular macro-alga called Muskgrass (possibly Chara vulgaris).  That smell is the clincher, they told me.  Once you smell it, you won't forget it.

According to information I found on the web, Muskgrass has no true leaves, but it does have branches and branchlets, which occur in whorls at intervals along the main branches. These branches and branchlets are made of single, column-shaped cells that often are surrounded by spine-shaped cells.  These spiny cells and the lime deposits that collect on them are what make the plant rough to the touch.  These branchlets also are the sites for the alga's reproductive sporangia, the dark, ball-like organs that appear seed-like along the branchlets.  No part of the Muskgrass is more than three cells thick.  Wow!  I learn something new all the time!

Whew!  Here's a plant I DO know the name of, and I figured it out all by myself (with Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, that is).  This is the Sessile-fruited Arrowhead (Sagittaria rigida), and it, too, was growing along that same stretch of the Hudson at South Glens Falls as the two plants mentioned above.  According to the New York Flora Association, this is not a rare plant, but I had never seen it before. Or maybe I just never noticed it as different from other Arrowheads, since its flowers look very much like those of the other species.  There's much variation in leaf shape among the Arrowheads, even among plants of the same species.  But this plant had leaves and fruit clusters that were distinctive enough to distinguish it as S. rigida, a new species for my life list.

I haven't been listing trees in my wildflower journal, but maybe I should.  After all, it was puzzling over the magnificent Black Tupelo trees that flourish along the Hudson River that first inspired my passion to know the name of everything that grows. And it was fun this year to puzzle out that the  leaves pictured below belonged to a Yellow Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) growing along a trail in the Skidmore Woods.

Another common name for Q. muehlenbergii is Chinkapin Oak, and that name could be a useful mnemonic, for a distinguishing feature of the Chinkapin Oak's leaves is a tiny pin-point projection at the tip of each leaf lobe.  Some tree guides mention the number of leaf lobes as distinctive for this species, but as this photo shows, that number can vary.  A close look, however, reveals that every lobe is tipped with that tiny point.

My friend Ed Miller deserves the credit for alerting me to the presence of this tree in the Skidmore woods, a calcareous habitat that this species prefers.  If I noticed it at all, I probably dismissed it as one of the Chestnut Oaks that also abound in this woods, until Ed took a closer look and alerted us that he had found something unusual.  Even though the NYFA Plant Atlas indicates that this tree has not been vouchered for Saratoga County, that doesn't mean it doesn't grow here.  Because of Ed's pointing it out and demonstrating its distinctive features, I can now defend this tree as present in the county.  And I can also add it to my life list.