Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Out and About. All Alone

I really can't complain.  I am safe at home and have everything I need:  a roof over my head, hot and cold running water, a clean warm bed, plenty of food in the pantry and freezer, a house-full of books,  computer and cable TV and Netflix, a cat for my lap, a husband by my side, and a telephone to connect with our kids and grandkids, every one of whom is still healthy.  I even have plenty of toilet paper!  What I don't have, though, are my nature buddies to join me out in the woods, since we're all "social distancing" from anyone not already in our households.  And until today, when the sun shone at last, a series of cold rainy days has not exactly urged me to get outdoors.  But I did go out.  Alone.

One place I went was the Ballston Creek Preserve, a many-acred woodland bordering a swamp a few miles south of Ballston Spa.  It's a good thing I wore my waterproof boots, since the trails were pretty soggy.  We've had a LOT of rain!

I was hoping to visit the colony of Great Blue Herons that have nested here for many years, building their giant nests in the many snags that stand in the swamp that is watered by Ballston Creek.  But no sign of them yet this year.  And most of their nests are gone or blown to tatters.  Oh dear!  Little by little this colony has diminished over the past few years.  I wonder if they will not return at all this year.  There used to be Ospreys here, too, as well as a Great Horned Owl. But not anymore.

Well, THAT hardly cheered me up!  Thankfully, there were a few other things to delight in as I made my muddy way back to my car.  This fallen log colonized by colorful fungi and lichens was a happy sight to see.

And here was a lovely green abundance of both moss (Anomodon minor) and liverwort (Porella sp.) sharing the living bark of a standing tree.

I also found a dead twig dotted with tiny Split Gill Fungi only about a quarter inch across.  This is a pretty fungus that is even prettier viewed from underneath.

Today the sun shone bright and warm all day, so the trails through the Skidmore woods here in Saratoga Springs were dry and passable.  And I found a SECOND hepatica in bloom, this one of the round-lobed species, Hepatica americana.

What an enchanting flower, with its explosion of stamens surrounding a green hedgehog of pistils, and such a beautiful shade of purple!

I found no more hepaticas blooming yet, nor any other wildflower.  But I did find the buds on the Leatherwood shrubs quite swollen and covered with fur.  So it won't be long before the scales part to release the small yellow trumpets packed within.

As I strolled along through the sunlit woods, that sunlight caused this moss-covered boulder to glow a beautiful green and picked out a generous patch of Walking Fern that spread across the top.

A closer view of that Walking Fern reveals how the tips of its long skinny fronds embed in the moss and cause new plants to sprout from the point of contact. This is how the fern "walks" across the face of the rock.

The warmth of the sun today inspired a number of early lepidoptera to flutter about the woods.  Having wintered-over as an adult, this Mourning Cloak Butterfly looked a little worse for wear.  I wonder if a foraging bird had nibbled its wings as it hid under bark or leaf litter during the winter. At least it still had enough left of its wings to take to the air today. I couldn't get any closer than this before the butterfly wafted away.

The  Eastern Comma is another butterfly that winters over as an adult and frequently can be seen fluttering about the woods on the first warm days of early spring.  I first spotted this one flashing its bright-orange wings some distance away, but it disappeared as I approached it, perfectly camouflaged where it landed among the dead leaves. My nearing footfalls caused it to take to the air once more, and lucky for me, it landed on this twig where I could see it perfectly, even after it closed its colorful wings to become nearly invisible.  I could certainly see it well enough to detect the diagnostic white "comma" on its underwing.  The almost-identical Question Mark Butterfly would have a white dot near the comma.

At first, I thought I was "seeing things."  I kept detecting some motion just above the leaf litter, but I could see nothing but leaves when I turned to look.  Must be the wind, I thought.  But there was no wind in the woods today.  I turned to go, but suddenly I sensed that motion again!  This time I bent near the ground and searched,  and this time I saw the moth! Oh ho, how well camouflaged you are, little Common Oak Moth!  And in such perfect condition.  That's because this moth has only recently emerged from its wintering-over pupa, just in time to lay eggs on oak trees so its larvae can start feeding on the leaves as they bud out.

I was glad to read later that the Common Oak Moth larvae don't cause much damage to the trees. Now I can be genuinely happy I saw this moth today, just one of the signs that life is once again re-emerging in the woods. I need to cling to that hopeful thought as we go through these stressful times.


Woody Meristem said...

Thanks for identifying split gill fungus -- it's not in any of my field guides on fungi. Maybe I'm not looking in the right places, but I've yet to find a satisfyingly complete guide to identifying fungi. Spring has certainly arrived, yesterday I saw the first spring beauty, trout lily and bloodroot flowers of the year.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

You obviously live further south than I do, Woody Meristem, for our woods are mostly bereft of spring flowers as yet, aside from the occasional hepatica. Regarding fungi guides, we do have to consult a number of them to be satisfied of correct ID. But the one that often serves me best is George Barron's "Mushrooms of Northeast North America," a Lone Pine Field Guide. Split Gill is in there, as well as lots of slime molds. I also look at the Audubon guide, mostly to read more information about each species.