Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Maybe Next Year

I thought I had finally found a way to show my friends in the Thursday Naturalists some of the wonders to be found on the little islands of Lake Bonita, now part of Moreau Lake State Park. The official trail from the parking lot is rather too steep and rocky for some of our members to negotiate, but I planned to lead us instead along the level service road to the shore and then out onto the solidly frozen lake.  Since boating in the warmer months is forbidden on this pristine mountain lake, winter is the only time we can explore these sphagnum-carpeted islands to find the distinctive plants that grow only in this acidic habitat. Many of the plants are now hidden beneath the snow, but many others protrude, and part of the fun of winter botanizing is seeing if we can identify plants by their winter remnants.  So we set the date of February 6 as when we would go on this adventure together.

But our winter weather did not cooperate.  Every other day of the week this month could be lovely, but Thursdays seem to be cursed with nasty weather. February 6 brought freezing rain and hazardous road conditions, and we all stayed home. I offered to lead the same walk two weeks later, but this time the snow was so deep and untrodden we would exhaust ourselves breaking trail.  So we canceled again.  And now, after days of unseasonal warmth, I fear the lake ice may soon be unsafe to walk on, and I certainly don't want to lead my friends to a watery death.  Oh well.  Maybe next year.

At least I myself had a chance to explore this site, since the day that I went to preview our walk was pleasant enough, and I easily walked through the light snow cover without the need for snowshoes.

The forest that lines the road to the lake is remarkable for the number and size of Black Cherry trees, immediately recognizable by bark that has been described as resembling "burnt potato chips."

Former human habitation is made evident by the presence of old cellar holes.

Out on the lake, mounds of sphagnum moss could be seen at the base of the shrubs that cover these rocky islets.  Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) and Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) are the two most populous shrubs out here, and I detect evidence of both shrubs protruding from this mossy mound.

True to its common name, Leatherleaf holds onto its leathery leaves throughout the winter, on the same twigs where buds for the early blooming flowers are also in evidence.

The open seedpods produced by last year's Leatherleaf flowers also could be mistaken for flowers at first glance.

Sweet Gale twigs hold the glossy brown buds of its spring-blooming flowers, each scale of the buds outlined in white.

Some of the Sweet Gale shrubs display the remnants of last year's female flowers with these spiky seedpods .  A pinch of these pods will scatter the seeds on the snow and scent your fingertips with the delightfully aromatic fragrance that suggested this shrub's common name.

The third most populous shrub on these islets is Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), with evergreen leaves that often take on a ruddy hue in winter.  In the spring, these shrubs will produce abundant clusters of bright-pink flowers.

The deep-red "pitchers" of Northern Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) can be found protruding well above the snow.  I also see the tiny trailing  evergreen leaves of Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) at the base of the central pitcher.

The remains of the Northern Pitcher Plant flowers also persist through the winter, towering over the snow-covered ice.

Most of the herbaceous flowers that thrive on these islets during the warmer seasons completely disappear under the snow, so I was surprised to still find these seed-pod-bearing stalks of Horned Bladderwort (Utricularia cornuta) still in evidence.  By now, I could find no trace of the Spatulate Sundews or Rose Pogonia orchids that share the muddy verges of these islets with the yellow-flowered bladderworts.  To see some of the flowering plants in all their summer gorgeousness, you can visit this blog I posted after I received permission from the state park to conduct a survey of the plants that thrive on these islands.

I had dreamed that when I led my friends in the Thursday Naturalists here this month,  it might be a lovely blue-sky day, with a bright sun warming these boulders on the south-facing shore of the lake, and we could perch here to enjoy a winter picnic overlooking this beautiful lake.  Ah well, we could do that next spring or summer or fall, but it's only in winter, when the ice is thick, that we can explore those sphagnum-covered islands.  As I said before, maybe next year.

Monday, February 17, 2020


I admit I've been hibernating this winter, neglecting this blog for the cozy comforts of afternoon naps with a cat on my lap.  But at last, we had the kind of day that rousted me out of my recliner and beckoned me outdoors: a bright blue sky, a shining sun, and temps that were invigorating without being numbingly cold. And to add to my pleasure, the snow-covered path at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail was hard-packed but not icy, easy to walk without the encumbrance of either snowshoes or spikes.  What a joy it was to stride easily along, swinging my legs and filling my lungs with sweet fresh air.

Lying just east of the city of Saratoga Springs, this trail is renowned for botanical bounty during the warmer months, but even during the depths of winter I find enough remnants of plants to capture my eye.  These Sensitive Fern spore stalks presented stark silhouettes against the dazzling white of the snow.

The dangling fruit clusters of Highbush Cranberry introduced a jolt of ruby red against the deep-blue of the sky.

A recent snow and ice storm that brought down trees and powerlines across the region also forced many trees along the trail to bow or topple beneath all that weight.  I wonder if the slender trunk of this Gray Birch will re-achieve verticality as the snowless months progress.

The seeds of this wild clematis called Virgin's Bower have already fallen out of their pods, but the silvery filaments that remain were glistening in the sunlight.

When I reached the mid-point bridge, I was happy to see that the beavers had not yet rebuilt their dam that every year threatens to flood this trail, so the creek remained unimpeded and was surging merrily downstream.

Although the water was open and turbulent in the creek, the open marsh remains solidly frozen over from shore to shore.

Because of that frozen surface, I was able to walk along the shore on the ice, staying close to the banks.  I did have to detour around this fallen Red Maple, however. Another victim of our recent ice storm.

With the maple's topmost branches now at eye level,  I cold enjoy a close-up view of its  rosy-red swelling buds.

There were several toppled Gray Birches, too, their branches still dangling the tightly-packed seed clusters.

NOT so tightly packed, I discovered! The seed clusters fell apart at a touch, filling my hand with tiny papery-textured winged seeds.

Scattered across the snow, the birch seeds resembled a flock of tiny flying birds.

More seed pods, these ones dangling their papery remains along thin twining vines.  My guess is that these are the winter remains of Climbing False Buckwheat.

Ah yes!  Here's that thicket of Swamp Rose shrubs along the marsh's shore, with some of the hips still glossy and red.

I will always remember how these roses once saved my day, after I had harassed a poor Hognose Snake to the point where it had released the most terrible stench imaginable and I couldn't get it out of my nose.  But then I happened upon these exquisitely fragrant roses and buried my nose in their blooms, breathing deeply until their sweet smell had finally neutralized that horrid stink. I guess I learned my lesson about not harassing Hognoses, but I also learned where to find some of summer's most beautifully fragrant flowers.   Just one of the many wonderful finds along the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Wintry Mix Brings Wintry Woes As Well As Wonders

First came the rain, all Friday morning. Then came the sleet. Then finally, the snow.  And then the power went out.  Ice-laden limbs and whole trees came down all over the area, and our house grew darker and colder as the hours went by.  As night fell, we escaped for dinner and a movie on the west side of town, which remained unaffected by the power outage, and when we returned home by 10pm, we rejoiced that our lights were back on. When we awoke on Saturday morning, we found the world transformed by amazing beauty.

By the time I had scraped the thick ice and crusted snow from my car, I didn't have much energy left for a long woodsy walk, but I did manage to muster enough to carry me along some snowy trails in our nearby Saratoga Spa State Park.  The Avenue of Pines (my typical route into the park) was closed off due to fallen limbs,  but I made my way by another route and entered the woods near the Ferndell Ravine.  The snow was not deep, but my pace was slowed by the tangle of toppled trees.

The trail through the Ferndell Ravine was transformed to even greater beauty than usual by the snow-covered branches of stream-side shrubs.

The weight of the snow and ice on the limbs brought many of their twigs to eye level, where I could better appreciate the lacy filigreed snow and crystal droplets.

These American Hornbeam seed clusters held icy globules among their bracts.

When I reached the picnic area along Geyser Creek, I was delighted to find this new installation of a fountain, with mineral water spurting up from a handsome basin of carved stone.  It was easy to taste the water from this bubbling column, and I found it was mild in flavor but really salty.

I continued along Geyser Creek, which was full and roiling from the recent rains, the creekside forest a froth of snow-covered boughs.

The creek takes its name from this mineral-water spouter, which technically is not a geyser at all, since its spouting is caused by a buildup of gasses.  Geysers spout because of a buildup of heat.  This water is icy cold.

A fringe of icicles decorates the edge of an impressive dome of mineral deposits, called a tufa, that surrounds the spouting mineral-water spring.

As the sun dipped lower in the western sky, the snowy forest along the creek was transformed by a golden glow.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

A Winter Walk at Bog Meadow

In a couple of weeks, it will be my turn to lead my friends in the Thursday Naturalists on a nature walk somewhere near Saratoga.   But where should we go?  My first thought was the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, starting from the new trailhead off Meadowbrook Road.  This new entrance takes us immediately into a wide open marsh, a habitat thriving with plant and animal life, even though winter is not the best time to look for the beavers or herons or waterfowl that make their homes here in the warmer months.  Right now, the marsh is solidly frozen over, but it's still an interesting habitat to explore.

One of the plants that thrives here is Swamp Dock (Rumex verticillatus), and I keep hoping to collect a specimen of it to document its presence in Saratoga County. To date, there is no official record of it growing in this county, although its presence here is obvious, even in winter. I could easily walk out on the ice to obtain a specimen, but it has no leaves right now, and I know the remnants of its flowers will shed as soon as I disturb the plant. If the water in the marsh stays high come spring, I will return with my canoe to collect it when it's in bloom.

As I proceeded along the trail, I began to question the wisdom of leading my friends on a long walk here, unless trail conditions change.  Since our last snowfall, the snow and slush have been pitted by hiker's boots and are now frozen into rock-hard ruts that are miserable to walk on.  After only a half hour of struggling along the trail, my ankles began to ache from constant twisting. But who knows what the weather will bring in the next two weeks? Either a thaw or a nice deep snowfall could make the trail much more passable.  In the meantime, I continued just a bit farther, making my way along a boardwalk that crosses a frozen pond.

The boardwalk at this location is lined with small willows, all of which were ornamented by various galls that are best observed in the winter, when leaves do not obscure them.  This photo shows the most common of these galls, the Shoot-tip Rose Gall, which resembles a dried-up rose atop the twigs, and the Willow Beaked Gall, a hard, ruddy-colored gall that creates a spindle-shaped swelling on the twigs.

Here's a closer look at the Shoot-tip Rose Gall, which results when a tiny fly (Rhabdophaga rosaria) lays its egg in a slit of the twig.  The tree then is chemically induced to produce this flower-shaped rosette of tissue surrounding the egg, protecting the larva until it matures.

The reddish, spindle-shaped Willow Beaked Galls are caused by another tiny fly, called Mayetiola rigidae.  The larva is wintering over within the gall and will emerge in the spring.  While reading up on these galls, I also learned that willows play host to more kinds of galls than any other woody plant.

Those galls might be of interest to my naturalist friends, but I confess I did not find much more to amaze me along the trail today, aside from enjoying the beautiful blast of bright red from the many Red Osier shrubs (Cornus sericea) that line the banks of the marsh.  The similarly red-twigged Silky Dogwood also thrives along these banks, but the pin-dot lenticels pictured here are distinctive to Red Osier. The Silky Dogwood has lenticels that look like stripes instead of dots.

Another nice find was the wintering-over seedpods of the Loesel's Twayblade Orchid (Liparis loeselii), one of New York's native orchids that prefers a muddy habitat like that along the Bog Meadow Trail.

Since Loesel's Twayblade is a tiny, greenish-flowered orchid that blooms in summer, it is much easier to spot in winter, when its pale-tan pods stand out against the dark background, rather than when its blooms are hidden among surrounding greenery.

Royal Ferns (Osmunda regalis) are not evergreen ferns, but their curling wiry stems persist all winter.  I enjoyed the beauty of these coiling stems, like a graceful ink drawing, dark against the white snow.