Saturday, March 28, 2020

Draba verna: A Favorite Little "Weed"

Some think of the wee little non-native Mustard-family flower called Draba verna as just a no'count weed, but darn it all, it sure says "Spring!" to me. And so it did, too, to the noted naturalist Aldo Leopold, who wrote the following wonderful words about it in his 1949 book, Sand County Almanac:
"Within a few weeks now Draba, the smallest flower that blows, will sprinkle every sandy place with small blooms. He who hopes for spring with upturned eye never sees so small a thing as Draba. He who despairs of spring with downcast eye steps on it, unknowing. He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance.
"Draba asks, and gets but scant allowance of warmth and comfort; it subsists on the leavings of unwanted time and space. Botany books give it two or three lines, but never a plate or portrait. Sand too poor and sun too weak for bigger better blooms are good enough for Draba. After all, it is no spring flower, but only a postscript to a hope.
"Draba plucks no heartstrings. Its perfume, if there is any, is lost in the gusty winds. Its color is plain white. Its leaves wear a sensible woolly coat. Nothing eats it; it is too small. No poets sing of it. Some botanist once gave it a Latin name, and then forgot it. Altogether it is of no importance -- just a small creature that does a small job quickly and well."

Yesterday, I found uncountable numbers of this tiny unassuming plant filling a most unpromising stretch of dirt between the Wilton Mall road and the cinder-block wall of a BJ's Warehouse.

And I really did have to search for it "with [my] knees in the mud," since these flowers are so tiny they truly cannot be detected from any distance.  But once I approached and peered more closely, I sure did find them, and "in abundance." Thousands and thousands of them!

With so many plants, I didn't feel too guilty about uprooting one, the better to photograph the entire plant -- flowers, stems, and basal rosette -- in one exposure.  And then I tucked it back into its sandy soil.

Here's a closer look at those basal leaves that "wear a sensible woolly coat," as Leopold describes.

Also inhabiting this patch of unpromising dirt were clusters of another little "no'count weed" called Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), its flowers so newly out of bud that the petals were not yet clearly displaying the deep clefts that normally distinguish these flowers.

Punctuating these carpets of tiny, almost invisible plants were occasional vivid sunbursts of Dandelions, another introduced wildflower that arises as early as possible every spring.  This close-up photo reveals how generously it offers its pollen on slender scrolling pistils.

Encouraged by all this floral abundance, I dashed out to the Skidmore woods to visit the Sharp-lobed Hepatica plant I had found just breaking bud a few days ago.  And lo!  There they were: two pretty pale-purple flowers lifting their opened faces to the sun!  The wildflower season is definitely upon us  at last!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Scary Times, Nature's Comforts

It's almost as if a neutron bomb has gone off downtown.  The buildings still stand, the shop windows full of merchandise, but except for a few dog-walkers, all of the people that normally throng the sidewalks  of Saratoga Springs are gone.  You could even find a parking place on Broadway!  In many ways, this Corona-virus pandemic and its consequent order to "shelter in place" hasn't changed my husband's and my life much at all, except that our dinner-and-a-movie date-night out has become a take-out and Netflix-movie-night in. Both of us are retired, anyway, and each of us enjoys solitary activities, my husband reading his books, and I going out to the woods to walk alone. And yet, everything has changed.  People the whole world over are facing the very same threat, and none of us knows how long the danger will last, or if we will ever go back to things the way they used to be.  Or even if we should.  Could it be that Mother Earth has fallen ill from all the ways we have abused her, and this virus is like her immune response trying to heal herself from human infection? Or just her out-of-patience demand that we go to our rooms and STAY THERE!

Strange and scary times, indeed! And so I have sought to comfort myself the way I know best, by heading to the woods and the waterways. Usually alone. But sometimes with a friend.

Last Wednesday, my pal Sue and I met to wander Moreau Lake State Park, agreeing to keep at least a six-foot distance between us. The day was sunny but cold, but we were delighted to see that the lake was mostly free from ice. There were ducks out there that looked interesting (this being migration time), but all kept their distance too far from us to determine what species they were with any certainty.  In this photo, Sue is watching a Spotted Salamander wriggle out of view beneath an underwater leaf.

Soon we left the lakeshore and headed up the nearby mountain, following a stream that bounded from boulder to boulder. See how responsible we were, not standing close enough to share any possible germs, Sue on one side of the stream, I on the other.

I have read that turbulent water like that found near waterfalls, rushing streams, and crashing waves is actually health-promoting, producing negative ions in the surrounding air that somehow help us heal. (Here's an article about this effect.)  I certainly love how such rushing water looks and sounds, and thus can attest to how it promotes my happiness, so why shouldn't it also promote good health?

Except for some budding shoots of Plantain-leaved Sedge, we found no evidence of spring flowers about to emerge.  But I found the lovely shapes and colors of these wintered-over Foamflower leaves a heartening testament to this species' ability to endure unscathed through the harshest of winters.

Saturday stayed quite chilly despite a high sun beating down out of a cloudless sky.  But this rainbow of colors along the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga  -- red-twigged dogwood, yellow-branched willows, green conifers, deep-blue sky -- certainly indicated that the season was definitely Spring.

And if I needed further and even more definite proof of Spring, here it was!  Masses of Coltsfoot lifted their bright-yellow sunbursts of bloom from out of the dead-leaf litter along the trail.

Yet one more emblematic sign of Spring:  silvery puffs of Pussywillow gleaming against that blue, blue sky.

And here on a fallen log along Spring Run Trail, I once again found a testament to nature's ability not just to revive but also to endure: This brilliantly colored fungus called Cinnabar Polypore had made it through at least one winter (and possibly more) without losing any of its intense orange-red color. I turned one small piece of it over, in order to display the richness and depth of its saturated hue.

We had a balmy day or two this past week, but Sunday was not one of them.  I'd heard reports that the Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs were trilling and croaking (respectively) from the still-ice-ringed ponds in the Skidmore woods here in Saratoga. Of course, I just had to go out there to celebrate the return of this froggy chorus.  But not a peep nor a croak did I hear.  Was this day too cold for them to poke their heads above water? Ah well, another day! And meanwhile, I went looking to see if the Sharp-lobed Hepatica that thrives in this woods was showing any signs of new growth.  The deep-red of their leathery wintering-over leaves made their presence easy to spot.

And look!  Some pinky-purple hepatica blooms were peeking out from their furry bracts.  I bet if the day had been just a bit warmer, these flowers would have opened wide to show their pretty faces to the sun.

Well, if hepatica blooms were almost open, might I find Snow Trillium already up at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton? This is a super-early bloomer, often thrusting up from just-thawed soil while snow still lies deep in the hollows.  Since Saratoga County is well out of the native range for this more-southerly tiny trillium, this preserve is the only place in all the state where we are likely to see them, since Orra herself once planted them here, and they have happily thrived. But not yet this year, I soon discovered, when I hurried to the spot where I usually find them.  And yet, I was happy to wander along the pretty stream that meanders through this preserve, delighting to note that all the snow is now gone from the woods.

Ah, but that wintry cold still lingered on icicle-festooned banks along the stream!

And then THIS happened today!  So much for signs of Spring!

Sunday, March 15, 2020

So Long, Winter!

That's it, Winter!  So long!  Bye bye!  You're outa here! Take off!

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Spring won't be official until next week,  and we could still be walloped with heavy snows, as we have many times in the past.  But guess what?  The ICE is off the water!  And no matter how snowy or cold it may get for a day or two down the road, that ice is gone for good (or at least, until next winter).

Here's the Hudson River today: not even a bit of crust along the edge, nor a shred of a floe careering along on the current.  Free and clear!

And here's Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park, its breeze-swept surface open from shore to shore to reflect the blue of the sky. (Not counting some softening ice that remains in a bay.)

And here's another sure sign of Spring: the wee little lipstick-red, sea-anemone-shaped pistils of the female American Hazelnut flowers (Corylus americana).  Today's bright sunlight was picking out their tiny points of crimson among the bare twigs of the shrubs that line the trail around Mud Pond.

I left my finger in this photo to show how itty-bitty these flowers are.

I was truly surprised to find these female flowers, since hardly any male catkins dangled from neighboring hazelnut shrubs.  And even the few I could find were far from ready to open their scales and waft their pollen on the air toward the females.  Poor girls: flaunting their feminine charms in vain!

I found another interesting organism while poking about in the hazelnuts.  See how this little dead twig is stuck to the larger, living one?  The reddish stuff that has stuck it there is called Glue Crust Fungus (Hymenochaete corrugata), and believe it or not, that fungus has a good reason to do just that. Its strategy is to hoard dead hazelnut twigs for itself, gluing the dead twigs to living ones high in the shrubs, so they won't fall to the ground, where other, rival fungi could compete to consume them. Who could have guessed that a fungus could strategize like this? Sometimes, Nature absolutely astounds me!

And sometimes, too, Nature absolutely heals me!  Still feeling fatigue from a long bout of a supposedly "mild" form of pneumonia, I was grateful to find a fallen log I could rest on while walking around Mud Pond.  I basked in the warmth of the sun, feeling that energy shore up my own, as I delighted in the dazzling sparkles of sunlight dancing on water.  As I breathed in the sweet clear air, I felt it soothing my still-irritated lungs. No wonder they used to bring TB sufferers up to the Adirondacks to find healing from the very air!  I find that very believable on a gorgeous day like today and in a spectacularly beautiful place like this.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Up and Out!

The Skunk Cabbage DID wait for me!  By Wednesday this past week, I finally felt well enough to venture briefly into the woods.  So off I went to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, hurrying straight to a swale where massive numbers of curvaceous Morocco-red spathes protruded from the mud. Most were still so tightly closed that I couldn't peer within to see if the spadices were studded with open florets as yet.   But here and there I did find a few that were definitely "open for business," shedding their pollen and luring early insects by wafting their distinctive "fragrance" on the warming spring air.  Ta da!  Our first native wildflower of Spring, and this darned sickness didn't make me miss it!

That discovery pumped me up so, I decided to make one more outdoor stop before heading back to my recliner and an afternoon nap. Spring is the best time of year to experience the thrilling power of the magnificent Snook Kill waterfall off Greenfield Road, and it can easily be witnessed without having to venture far from the road.

Of course, as soon as I heard the roar of the falls, I longed to move closer to feel its power more directly.  The banks are so steep, however, I had to cling to tree trunks as I descended.  This was just one small section of the waterfall's turbulent course.

Here's where the Snook Kill takes its final plunge before charging along on its only-slightly-less- turbulent cliff-lined course toward the east.

It was truly a thrill for me to be out in the woods and along this gorgeous waterway, after so many days when I wondered if I would ever regain health and strength.  I was feeling super-psyched, indeed.  Except, guess what?  Later that night, while washing my face, I discovered a tick embedded behind my ear.  AAARGH!!!  Already?  On my very first day OUT?!! Ah well, time to dab on the DEET.

Still feeling a bit bummed by that bite the next day, I was granted a spirit-lifting sight right outside my breakfast window. A big flash of red caused me to lift my eyes from my eggs in time to witness this huge Pileated Woodpecker exploring our Box Elder just outside.  I guess I'm glad the bird didn't stay to rip the tree to shreds, but I sure felt blessed to have seen it stop by for a moment.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Hope Springs! Flowers Bloom!

What a Monday it was!  Sunny and warm, with temps approaching 70 degrees!  An unbelievably spring-like day for so early in March.  Sadly, my lungs are still too compromised by this recent illness to allow me to venture out to the woods to note what transformations must be occurring.  I fear that this year I will miss opening day for our very first flower of spring, the Skunk Cabbage. But then I remembered an even earlier bloomer I found in full flower on this date last year, the Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis).  And even better, I found it blooming right by the road near the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton.  I could drive right up to it!

And so I did.

And there it was: bright sunny flowers in multitudinous bloom, scattered across the dead brown leaves of the forest floor.  And all I had to do to enjoy it was stand by the side of the road.

Yeah, I know, for a native-plant snob like me, this flower shouldn't even count, since this Buttercup-family flower is an introduced alien species, native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe but not to North America.  Gardeners grow it here, of course, and why wouldn't they?  Who wouldn't want to step out their door and be greeted by these sunshine-bright blooms, even while snow still lies deep in the shaded areas of the garden?

I myself was certainly glad to see it, even though it was not in my own garden.  There is evidence here, though, that this patch of Winter Aconite was once part of SOMEbody's garden long ago, since these blooms were surrounded by a crumbling stone wall with moss-covered steps leading down the roadside bank.

When I ventured down these crumbling stone steps to photograph the Aconite, I discovered a second early-blooming garden flower called Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), only these were still in bud, having just pushed their way up through the crusted snow in a more shaded area of this plot.  Again, this is not a North American native wildflower, but it is frequently planted in gardens here, where it obviously survives some of the coldest winters in the country.

Meanwhile, our native early-blooming wildflowers are still tucked in under the snow that remains  shin-deep throughout the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve.  I hope they will wait to bloom until I am well enough to greet them when they open their faces to the spring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Odonata And Their Amazing Eyesight

A blue-bodied, green-faced male Eastern Pondhawk studies me with his huge super-accurate black eyes.
Oh, it was cruel to step out onto my sun-warmed front porch this morning to pick up my New York Times ! The air was kind and scented by the smell of softening soil, the snow had pulled back from the edge of the walk, and the clear lilting calls of a Tufted Titmouse (Wheat! Wheat! Wheat!) definitively proclaimed that Spring Is In The Air!  But sadly, with lungs still too congested to deeply breathe that sweet air without hacking and gagging, I wasn't walking anywhere today except to my breakfast table to read my paper before heading back to the couch.

And there in my paper I found consolation: a wonderful, full-page, full-color piece about some of my favorite critters, the Odonata (damselflies and dragonflies), and their amazing eyesight.  Described as a group of insects that "took to the air long before birds were even on the evolutionary horizon," these damsels and dragons were said to have vision "swifter than any vertebrate's studied thus far." And the rest of the article -- "The Killer Neural Wiring That Links Eyes and Wings" by Veronique Greenwood -- describes in fascinating detail how researchers found that out.   Here's a link to the piece so you can enjoy it yourself:

The opening lines of that article sure drew me in:  "Jewel wing damselflies live up to their names: They dart through the filtered sunlight of ferny stream beds and forests like wands made of brilliantly colored gems."  Yes!  Exactly!  I have seen them myself, fluttering on coal-black wings (I know them by the common name of Ebony Jewelwings), flashing a glittering iridescence that's almost impossible to capture with my camera.  But those opening lines inspired me to search my blog for any photos I might have taken of them.  I did find some, and I even managed to catch a trace of their color.  Here's one:

And right after that photo, I found another of that same male Jewelwing, after it had darted off in a flash and almost immediately dashed back to exactly the very same spot, this time chewing its prey.  Talk about proof of these super-swift predators' prowess, as that article had described!

Of course, as I searched my blog for a Jewelwing photo, I came across many photos of other damsels and dragons.  What a bunch of gorgeous critters they are!  So I dredged some photos from out of the depths of computer storage to enjoy them once again.  Sadly, most of my damselfly photos are blurred, but I did find one of a coppery-colored Spreadwing (species unknown by me) whose glass-clear wings sparkled with iridescence.

And here was one of the Bluets that actually landed and sat still for the picture taking. Such a beautiful, vivid blue!

The dragonflies are often easier to photograph: one, because they are bigger, but also because they flutter less and perch longer, and they often return again and again to the very spot you have frightened them from, if you just wait, creeping closer between each return. And oh, is it worth the wait! Some are so colorful!  For example, what a dazzler this guy is, a male Calico Pennant with valentine-heart-colored markings. Even his stigma are red, as well as the veins in his wings.

And the female Calico Pennant is equally colorful, although marked with schoolbus-yellow in the same places her mate sports red.

The Blue Dasher has the most beautiful turquoise-colored eyes as well as a tiger-striped thorax.

The Autumn Meadowhawk has glossy brown eyes and an abdomen red as sun-ripened tomatoes. The stigma are red, as well.

The male Slaty Skimmer is a pretty powdery blue, with a glossy black face, while his mate is mostly brown.

In the case of the Eastern Pondhawk, however, the female is the more vividly colored, a truly unforgettable Kelly green.

The male Eastern Pondhawk might be mistaken for that Slaty Skimmer pictured above, since both have bodies of powdery blue.  But if this guy would turn and look at us, we would see that his face is the same Kelly green as the rest of his mate's body is.  You can get a close look at his face in the photo at the top of this blog.

And here's another look at that male Eastern Pondhawk's green face, the photo taken when he'd landed on my knee and stayed there studying me for the longest time.  I was able to look him right in his bulbous black, super-accurate eyes and even marvel at what looked like a mustachioed "upper lip." The sight of that mustache made me laugh. And I swear that dragonfly opened his mouth and laughed right back at me!