Wednesday, April 24, 2019

It's Violet Time!

 Oh my gosh, did it RAIN this past week! Rivers and ponds are over their banks in several places around the county,  and the Snook Kill Falls was as full and tumultuous as I have ever seen it (see above photo).  I had stopped on the Wilton/Greenfield road to check on the falls while on my way to the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve on Parkhurst Road in Wilton, hoping that all this rain and several days of warm weather would have inspired our earliest violets to spring into bloom.  And as it turned out, I was not disappointed.

As I made my way down the trail that leads to the Little Snook Kill, which runs through the Orra Phelps Preserve, I noticed the Striped Maples were holding aloft their velvety pink-blushed buds.  I love how these buds catch the light and seem to glow with a pearly light of their own in the dimly shaded woods. And their luminous presence often signals the start of the violet season.

When I reached the bridge that crosses the creek, I searched the far bank for signs of our earliest violet to bloom around here, the lemon-yellow Round-leaved Violet (Viola rotundifolia).  And sure enough, there was one peeking out from the mossy bank! Can you see it, that little dot of bright yellow over there?

The creek was too full of rushing water for me to step across for a closer photo, but here's a photo from my files that shows the dark-purple veining of this pretty violet's lower lip.  This particular violet blooms even before its leaves completely unfold, but those leaves will continue to grow larger and persist well into the summer, long after the flowers have faded.

Encouraged by this find at Orra Phelps, I hurried back to Saratoga Springs to search the Skidmore woods for a second early blooming violet, the pure-white English Violet (Viola odorata).  And there it was, pushing aside the leaf litter to raise its pristine and deliciously fragrant blooms to the light.

As far as I know, this is our only white violet that shows no dark veining on its lower lip, but it does have a purple spur, which you can see in the lower flower on the right.  For years, I was completely stymied as to this flower's ID, for I found no similar violet in any of my wildflower guides. But one year a violet expert informed me that this -- as its common name implies -- was an introduced species, cultivated here in gardens as much for its exquisite fragrance as for its beauty. This expert also told me that this violet's hooked style was diagnostic for the species.

English Violets also bloom with deep-purple blooms, and I know of a patch this color that grows along a road on the opposite side of the Skidmore College campus.  So that's where I hurried to next.  Ah yes, there they were!  Such a beautiful violet!  And such a fragrant one!

Since these violets were growing wild along a roadside and are often abused by groundskeepers dumping lawn waste on them, I felt no guilt about picking a little nosegay of them to bring home.  Can you imagine?  Just a wee little bouquet this small has filled my kitchen with delightful fragrance!

And guess what?  When I stepped from my car, look what I found, already blooming next to the sidewalk.  This is our Common Blue Violet (V. sororia),  a gift from the native-flower gods so generous that many folks call it a weed.  Not me, though.  Instead, I call it a treasure.  And its season has just begun!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Where the Wildflowers Are

Disappointed by how slowly our local wildflowers are coming into bloom this cold spring, I headed about 10 miles south to the Ballston Creek Preserve on a sunny warm day yesterday.  Guess I'll go look for some Great Blue Herons, I thought, instead of flowers. There's a heronry in a swamp along Ballston Creek.  But another disappointment awaited me there.

Where the heck are all the heron nests that used to be here?

Where I used to see more than a dozen heron nests on the snags in this swamp, now I could see only two.  Maybe there's a third in the works on the rightmost tree.  But windstorms over the past few years have blown down many nests, as well as limbs and branches that the birds used to support their giant woody nests.  Ospreys and Great Horned Owls used to occupy some of the spare heron nests as well.  No sign of them this year. But at least I did detect two heron heads poking up from the two nests that remained.

Oh well, it sure was a lovely day for a walk in the woods.  And lucky for us, the trail stewards of the Ballston Creek Preserve have made it much more pleasant to walk here, having laid boards across some of the muddier places in the trail.

As I walked along the trail and cast my eyes about through the woods, it sure didn't look as if any flowers had opened their buds here as yet. But then I spied this one little Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) blooming atop a moss-covered rock.

Oh!  There's another one! Such a beautiful little flower, glistening white with pink stripes, and even its anthers are pink!

Two more!

Three more!  And now that I knew what to look for, I began to see more and more Spring Beauties everywhere.  And the bloom has just begun.  During the next week or so, masses more will open up and carpet the forest floor.

I also found many different colors of Round-leaved Hepaticas (Hepatica americana), including this deep-purple cluster. (I note that this native wildflower appears to have returned to the genus Hepatica, after having briefly spent some time in the genus Anemone. Depending upon whose flora you consult!)

As is the case with many Hepatica flowers, each colored sepal is edged with the merest rim of white, which makes them appear to glow as if rimmed with luminous haloes.

Another generous cluster, more of a pinkish color.

This cluster of moonlight-pale Hepatic blooms seemed to glow with a luminous light against the dark forest floor.

What's this? A Hepatica plant with multi-colored blooms?  More likely, a white-flowered plant growing so close to a pinker-flowered one that their blooms intertwine.

When I reached the end of the trail at the edge of the road, I was surprised to find a patch of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) opening its blooms beneath a thicket of shrubs. How could I have missed these when I walked past this patch on my way into the preserve?  I bet the buds were still closed an hour or so before, and the warm sunlight was now beckoning them into bloom.

Directly across the road, another patch of Bloodroot had also opened its flowers, clustered close beneath an ancient tree.

It's hard to imagine a flower that says "Welcome Spring!" any more beautifully than does Bloodroot, with its sunburst of yellow anthers set among sparkling white petals. (Sepals?)

Well, with Bloodroot and Spring Beauties now open,  it occurred to me that I might find more spring wildflowers blooming along Ballston Creek where it runs beneath shale cliffs in Shenantaha Creek Park, a community park that lies just across Eastline Road from the Ballston Creek Preserve. It's the same creek running through both properties, but it acquires its original Iroquois name of Shenantaha (meaning "deer water") when you cross the road!  The park offers wooded trails that follow the creek, which was roaring vigorously after several days of abundant rains.

And sure enough, when I reached a particular spot along the trail where I often find wildflowers blooming early, I found dozens of Early Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum giganteum) already holding open flowers. With this species of Blue Cohosh, the flowers open wide even before its dark-purple leaves have completely unfurled.

Here too, I found a couple of Trout Lilies (Erithronium americanum) with fully opened flowers.  In the Ballston Creek Preserve just across the road, Trout Lily leaves had barely emerged from the earth, with not even a flower bud to be found.  I'm not sure why this particular spot inspires such early blooming, but I find it to be the case every year.

I had noted Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) with tight buds in other locations, but here in this remarkable spot, the trillium buds were already opening to reveal the crimson flowers held inside.

What a spot!  And the wildflower abundance here is just beginning.  With many more flowers now budding and yet to bloom, I believe a return trip to this very place will soon be in the offing.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Hepatica Bouquet

Following two more warmish days, I returned to the Skidmore woods to see if the Hepatica buds I'd found there on Wednesday had opened into full blooms.  And indeed they had!  Unfortunately, somebody must have poached the plant with lavender flowers, because I could find no sign of it today, even though I knew exactly where I had found it.  At least the plant with pink flowers was still there, and its buds had opened wide:

Other Hepaticas with open flowers were far and few between as yet.  In a week or so, they should be blooming all over the woods.  At least, the few I found today were in rather interesting colors.  Here was a white flower with purple edges.

And here was a purple flower with whitish edges. Note the beautiful sharp-lobed leaf, mottled green and purple.  These leaves first opened a year ago, remained intact through the winter, and will fade as this spring's flowers go to seed and new leaves start to grow.

Oh, how lovely this one was, with radiant purple flowers and beautifully preserved leaves, some of them pure green and others in more mottled shades.

Here's a closer look at those beautiful purple flowers. They appeared almost luminous in the dappled shade of the woods.

And here was another beauty of a different kind:  a gorgeous Mourning Cloak Butterfly, remarkably unscathed for having spent the winter sheltering under the leaf litter.  This lovely creature can be difficult to photograph, flitting away whenever I approach within focussing distance.  But today, it must have been loathe to leave this sun-warmed rock and remained quite still, soaking up the rays.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Bud Break Today!

Finally!  Following a stretch of nice warm days and a couple of good rains, the snow at last was ALL gone from the woods at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve today.  Time to go look for Snow Trillium!

It was such a pleasure to walk on trails that were finally clear of slippery ice, and also to delight in the sounds of the Little Snook Kill as it danced and tumbled through the woods.

As I passed by the muddy swale where dozens and dozens of Skunk Cabbages had been blooming for weeks already, I noted that the huge green leaves were now unfurling from amidst the curvaceous deep-red spathes.

After holding my breath as I climbed the ridge where I know the Snow Trillium grow, I let out a gasp of delight when I saw the snow-white buds protruding from their trios of little green leaves. I was here  just two days ago, and could find no sign of either leaves or flowers then. But Snow Trillium flowers don't wait very long to emerge, once the leaves have appeared, as if by magic, overnight.

We are so lucky that Orra Phelps herself must have planted these tiny Snow Trilliums, since their natural range is far to the south and west of Saratoga County.  But they certainly have thrived at this spot, living up to their common and Latin name (Trillium nivale) by blooming very, very early in spring, often while snow still lies in the shady hollows.

Encouraged by the trilliums' blooms, I made a detour to the Skidmore woods as I headed back to Saratoga from Wilton.  Remember those wee little Sharp-lobed Hepatica buds that I found last Friday, curled so tight and hiding way down beneath the leaves?  Today, the pretty pink flowers were peeking out from their fuzzy bracts, held aloft on lengthening stems that were straining toward the sunlight.

As I turned to go, I spotted a second Hepatica plant, this one with flowers that tended more toward the lavender, open even a little bit wider than the first ones I had found.

 Oh happy day! Just a bit more warm weather and the Skidmore woods will be carpeted with hundreds of these beautiful blooms in all their lovely colors, from pristine white through shades of pink and lavender to a few rare ones of deepest purple.  And then comes the spring ephemerals flood: Long-spurred, Yellow, and Canada Violets; Bloodroot; Large-flowered White and Red Trilliums; Trout Lilies; Blue Cohosh; Foamflower; Columbine; Miterwort; Goldenseal; Wild Ginger; Large-flowered and Perfoliate Bellworts, etc., etc., etc.  Wildflower adventures await!

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Creatures Are Stirring Along Bog Meadow!

 What a lovely spring-like day it was, Sunday, along Bog Meadow Nature Trail!  Shirtsleeve warm, with calm winds and a sun beaming down through high thin clouds. And best of all, my pal Sue Pierce came along as my companion.  Not only is she great company, content to mosey along at a stop-and-go pace that would drive most of my other friends crazy, but she also can see so much more than I can -- especially those critters whose cryptic coloration would definitely hide them from my nearsighted eyes. In the marsh she's surveying in the photo above, she didn't even need her binoculars to spy this mother goose nesting atop a beaver lodge.  And she also could tell, at a single glance, that the furry brown critter swimming across the open water was a muskrat and not a beaver. What a gift it would be, to be able to see that well!

Mother goose lowered her head to glare at us, warning us to keep our distance from her nest.

But when we got to this stretch of the trail, neither of us needed our eyesight to detect the Wood Frogs gathered in a vernal pool hidden off in the trailside woods.  We couldn't even see the pool, but we sure could hear the loud cacophony of their mating croaks:  not the most melodic song of spring, but a definite sign that spring is here at last!

Here's a recording I made of the Wood Frogs' mating calls

Here was another sign of critter activity: numerous Skunk Cabbage spathes torn open so that the spadix inside could be devoured by some unknown animal.  Although most animals avoid eating this plant because it contains calcium oxalate crystals that cut and burn the mouth and throat, I have read that deer can eat the leaves and flowers. But these plants were growing in such deep watery mud, I couldn't imagine a deer would want to venture out into it.  Does anyone know if muskrats eat the flowers?

Another creature out enjoying this balmy day was this little stonefly.  Although I have found some species of stoneflies crawling about on the snow or bobbing their mating dances on the cold February air, I can't imagine that even a winter snowfly wouldn't prefer the kinder air of a warm spring day in April.

This Garter Snake was so relaxed, basking in the warm sun on a moss-covered log, that it really seemed loathe to leave when I poked my camera in close.  It did, however, flick its bright-red tongue at me, the better to take in my smell.  But I guess I must not have smelled that scary, since the snake never even budged.

Different snake, same story.  A sleepy Northern Water Snake resting atop a second log, letting the warm spring sun chase winter's chill from its body.

So animals, rather than plants, were the major signs of spring we discovered today along Bog Meadow Trail.  But we did find some vigorous shoots of False Hellebore thrusting up from the forest floor.  Their tightly furled, pointed and pleated leaves resemble green rocketships when they first shoot up from the winter-cold soil, before a warming spring sun can coax them into opening their big, voluptuously curvaceous leaves.

We'll have to wait a bit longer yet before we find many blooming wildflowers, but even the remnants of last year's plants were a welcome sight, especially when they looked as pretty as these rosy Foamflower leaves ornamenting a mossy log.

And an even more exciting find was a new spot to look for some Loesel's Twayblades when they come into bloom this next summer.  Did I mention my friend Sue's excellent eyesight?  She was the one who spotted the pale-tan leftover seedpods of this little orchid at a new location before we arrived at the spot where we'd found them before.  This orchid is not that easy to find, even when in bloom with its tiny wispy florets the color of grass.