Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Springlike Day Along Spring Run Trail

I know that for many folks, Christmas is over by now.  But for me, the best part of the Christmas Season has just begun.  The work part -- shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, traveling, etc. -- is all done, but the fun part is all still here.  Since we don't put up our Christmas tree or deck our halls until Advent draws to a close, the tree is still fresh and the creches and colorful lights still delight us, and now we can just relax and enjoy the festivities.  We still are singing our favorite carols in church, and in just a few days our son and his family will arrive to celebrate the New Year with us.  It's all fun from here on out!

Even though it's still the Christmas season, the weather sure hasn't felt very wintry of late.  Most of our snow is gone, and temperatures have stayed above freezing most afternoons.  In fact, it felt more like spring than winter when I walked on the Spring Run Trail yesterday, starting from the east end, where a very convenient boardwalk crosses an open marsh.

This Saratoga city trail runs from East Avenue to where it ends at the interstate highway, following an old railroad bed that is wooded on either side.  The trail crosses a rushing creek at several bridges, and the walkway is plowed to allow easy access for bikers and walkers all winter long. In this photo below, the walkway passes under a bridge that allows city traffic to pass unimpeded overhead.

The woodlands and marshes that line both sides of the trail provide a perfect habitat for many bird species and other wildlife.  Although the invasive Phragmites fills more of the wetlands than I would like, this introduced graminoid does provide food and shelter to many creatures, and on this sunlit day, it looked quite beautiful as its waving plumes caught the light.

Despite the abundance of non-native and invasive plant species that dominate this habitat, some native plants hold their own along the trail.  The native viburnum called Highbush Cranberry is one that does, and its translucent ruby-red fruits are at their most beautiful this time of year.

Our native Staghorn Sumac also thrives here, providing food for flocks of American Robins, who see no reason to migrate south when such sustenance is so readily available.

Aside from a couple of robins in a sumac thicket and a single Brown Creeper inching its way up and down a White Pine's trunk, I saw few birds on this late afternoon walk.  But I did hear crows making a racket off in the woods, alerting me that a hawk could be near.  Sure enough, this Cooper's Hawk soon came winging in to take up its perch atop a standing snag.

Although I had intended to keep up an aerobic pace as I walked on the pavement, this foot trail leading off into the trailside woods lured me into following it.  What might be the attraction here, I wondered.

The trail led right to what looked like a campsite right on the bank of the creek.  But I doubt anyone has been sleeping here that recently.  I didn't look too carefully to see what might be under that tarp. Whatever it was, I wish the former occupant had been more tidy and not left all this trash behind.

But I was happy to be back in the woods and along the creek.  What better place could there be to poke about on a spring-like day, with the water rushing and tumbling along?

At one point, I became mesmerized by the shapes and colors of reflected trees and sky where the creekwater swirled and plunged over some mid-stream rocks. (Do click on these next two photos for full effect.)

Here was a creekside boulder covered with the speckled evergreen leaves of Creeping Buttercup. Such a welcome pop of green in the otherwise brown landscape.

I was intrigued by this cluster of tiny globules attached to a spent flower stalk.  At first I wondered if it might be some kind of gall, but then I noticed the slender vining stem that twisted around the flower stalk.  Aha!  This must be what Dodder looks like when it has gone to seed!

Here was one more punch of bright color, this example on one of the many fallen logs that lay across the forest floor back here along the creek.  These translucent globs of vivid orange are called Orange Jelly (Dacrymyces palmatus),  a gelatinous fungus that is common on decaying pine logs. It often persists throughout the winter.

Orange Jelly Fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus) is often mis-identified as Witch's Butter (Tremella mesenterica), another member of the group called the Jelly Fungi (Basidiomycota) that is less commonly found in our eastern regions. Although quite similar in appearance, the two can be easily distinguished by microscopic examination of their basidia (the spore-producing structures of members of the Jelly Fungi group), for Orange Jelly has basidia shaped like tuning forks.  Also, Orange Jelly is found only on rotting conifer logs, while Witch's Butter grows on hardwoods.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Outdoors At Last!

Well, I took my own advice (as stated in my last post) and got out at last to enjoy some of those delights found only in winter. Did I mention those deep-blue skies of a clear cold day?  The sky over Moreau Lake sure lived up to that description when I braved the single-digit cold to visit there on Saturday.

I was happy to see that the lake had frozen over, but Thin Ice signs warned me not to venture out to the middle just yet.  I was able to walk on the ice close to shore, but even there, my feet punched through a few times.  I look forward to when I can freely amble about on the lake, checking to see what the ice fishermen have caught.

I enjoyed my visit to Moreau Lake on Sunday even more, because this time I had my pal Sue to play with.  Although most of the lake ice was rough and clouded, I told her of where I had found some smooth and crystal-clear ice where a stream entered the lake, and this is the kind of ice we dream of finding each year. Sue was happy to visit that ice with me.

That clear black ice held stacks of silvery bubbles, and the super-slick surface was starred with spiky crystals of hoarfrost. Beautiful!

To add to our excitement, we found tracks and trails of otters all around the stream bed, and we also found this hole in the bank, its entryway adorned with icy crystals.  Could this be where an otter denned, the spikes of hoarfrost resulting from the warm breath of a creature within?  At least I felt pretty certain it was SOME critter's hidey hole.

Here's the otter trail, a long smooth trench intermittently punched with footprints as the otter kicked along, sliding on its belly.  A deer trail crossed the otter's at this point.

We followed the otter trail through the woods and along an ice-covered stream, to where the trail led up the steep hills.  I wondered if the otter was heading over the mountain ridge to the river, now that ice was closing off its access to the lake.

The ice on the surface of the stream had assumed many beautiful shapes and patterns.

These bubbles were still in liquid form, but I have seen them frozen into solid plates.

As the stream climbed the mountainside, the ice on its surface looked like molten glass.

As the grade grew steeper, the water's splashing became more energetic and the ice formations grew ever more elaborate and lovely.

I'm so glad we ventured out on these cold, cold days, to witness how frigid air and both rushing and still water work their wonders.  Today was  surprisingly balmy, with  bright sun and temperatures edging toward 50 degrees -- a lovely day for a winter walk. But so were those single-digit days when our cheeks grew numb but our eyes grew wide with delight.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Light Returns -- And so does one favorite blog post!

It's Solstice, and the light begins to return.  And so do I return to this way-too-long-neglected blog. How can it be that I haven't been out to the woods for several weeks?  I could blame the weather, first the warmth and rain that ruined the little snow we had.  And then the following bitter cold that I find more daunting every year.  But frankly, I've just been too busy with holiday preparations and family responsibilities, 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 sequin-spangled air that glitters with breeze-blown 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 a Happy Whatever Winter Holiday you celebrate.  And a Happy New Year, too. But most of all, a happy Winter, enjoying all the delights the season offers.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Winter Returned!

My calendar says that Winter won't arrive officially until December 21.  But Monday's snowstorm said, "Oh yeah?" and dumped a foot of snow on us here in Saratoga Springs.  But compared to a few miles south of us, we got off easy.  The Albany/Schenectady area got walloped with nearly two feet, I heard. But we got enough to transform the landscape with a beauty that -- once I finished shoveling -- I could take delight in.

Here are just a few scenes from a walk I took on Tuesday afternoon in Saratoga Spa State Park.

A snowshoe trail through a snowy woods:

A pretty little bridge crosses the stream that flows through the Ferndell Ravine:

Sunshine dapples the snow and shines in the little creek of the Ferndell Ravine:

No picnickers today in the park's picnic area:

A turbulent Geyser Creek rushes along between snow-covered banks:

The Island Spouter's mineral water washes the snow away from atop the giant "tufa," a buildup of calcium carbonate deposits formed by the spouting spring:

A fringe of icicles decorates the edge of the Island Spouter's tufa:

Late in the day, a low sun gilds the forest's trees with golden light: