Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Autumn's Glory at Lens Lake

Every autumn, we here in northeastern New York wonder, "Will we have spectacular foliage colors this year?"  Some years we do; some years we don't. Well, I think this year might be one to remember as truly terrific.  A friend had sent me photos from Lens Lake up in Warren County, photos that urged me to get up there to enjoy the show while the colors were at their peak.  As I drove up the mountain road from the tiny village of Stony Creek to the lake, it became very clear that I was in for a treat! 

Another treat was finding I had the whole lake to myself.  That's my lone car in the parking lot, and there wasn't another boat on the lake the whole time I was there.

Lens Lake is a long, rather narrow lake with a very convoluted shoreline. A few cottages exist along that shore, but all are hidden back in the woods and few signs of human habitation can be seen from the water. A very low speed limit is imposed on all watercraft, so no jet skis or speeding powerboats roil the lake's quiet waters.  Acres and acres of floating bog mats dot the lake's surface, and mountain heights surround the lake on every side.  And on this day, every one of those mountain heights displayed a crazy quilt of magnificent colors!

When I lowered my eyes from the mountain heights, I was treated to equally colorful scenes along the shore, thanks mostly to the brilliant leaves of blueberry shrubs and birch and maple saplings.

The bog mats, too, offered their own special beauty, beginning with the white tufts of cottongrass swaying in the breeze.

For exploring the narrow channels among the bog mat, it sure helps to have a canoe as small as mine!

The bog mats are carpeted with sphagnum mosses of many colors, including the rich gold seen here providing a foil for the scarlet leaves of a large Pitcher Plant.

Ripe cranberries nestled among the soft mounds of sphagnum moss.

Some very tiny gold-colored mushrooms had sprouted up from a thick carpet of scarlet sphagnum. A couple of tufts of a golden sphagnum had popped up, too.

In the shallower waters of the lake, fallen logs and moss-covered hummocks supported a wonderful variety of colorful plants. This particular log held the bright-yellow spikes of Bog Lycopodium and some coral-colored leaves of Marsh St. John's Wort.

On this hummock covered with gold-colored sphagnum, more stems of Marsh St. John's Wort had found a home.

Here's a closer look at the intensely colored leaves and the deep-scarlet seed pods of Marsh St. John's Wort.

I loved the sculptural shapes some bleached and twisted tree roots acquire after many years of weathering and immersion, the old wood achieving a silvery patina.  A large mound of richly colored sphagnum had found a home on this particular stump.

I was struck by the swirling curvaceous beauty of this twisted old stump, made doubly more exquisite by its reflection in the still water. Gray-green lichens and a colorful shrub had sprouted from the ancient wood.

The fertilized flowers of Fragrant Water Lilies had long been pulled down by their stems to burrow in the muddy lake bottom. But a few Yellow Pond Lilies still held their spent blooms at the water's surface, displaying this golden disc, which had earlier been hidden within the flower.

I did hear the plaintive call of a loon, the quintessential music of an Adirondack lake.  But I never did see the bird itself.  I did, however, see this solitary Canada Goose standing, all by itself, at the edge of the shore. It struck me as odd, to see this single goose apart from the flocks I now see winging their Vs across the sky, heading south. I wondered if something was wrong with it, preventing it from taking wing.

Just one year ago, I had come upon this Common Merganser family perched on a boulder, and I wondered if I might see them (or their cousins) again this year.

And so I did! Quite a few more Mergansers, in fact, although not posed quite so prettily as they had done last year.  But still, I was glad to see them as I paddled into the cove where I would go ashore, so happy that I had made the trip up here to this beautiful lake, during this most beautiful season of all.

As I made my way back down the mountain, every turn in the road offered yet another vista of autumn's glory!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Our Paddling Pal Gets a Hornbeck!

If anyone deserves a Hornbeck canoe, our friend Ruth Brooks certainly does! An avid and super- knowledgable amateur naturalist, Ruth has been gamely joining our mutual friend Sue Pierce and me on many watery nature adventures while paddling her inflatable canoe, a very practical packable craft, but one that's rather too heavy to hike with, and also makes an easy plaything for any wind that should whip up while we're out on the water.  But now, thanks to Ruth's dear and most generous husband (who gifted her with a Kevlar Hornbeck canoe for her birthday), Ruth is ready to find out what stress-free paddling is like. Her new boat weighs about the same as my cat (15 pounds), and its low profile makes it practically impervious to buffeting by the wind. There she is, in the photo above, about to set off in her brand-new canoe!

While pondering where she might take her maiden paddle with her new boat, I suggested a stretch of the Hudson River between the Spier Falls and Sherman Island dams.  This stretch of the river is an almost sacred place for me, since it was here -- where the river's currents slow to an easy pace, where its waters are studded with forested islands, and its shoreline is convoluted with rocky promontories and quiet coves -- that my passion for wildflowers first was piqued, thanks to the splendid abundance of beautiful flowers and trees that thrive on these banks.  Ruth agreed to my suggestion, so it was here we set off, on the Hudson's mirror-still water and under a clear blue sky, last Friday morning.

At first, I feared we might be too late in the year to experience the abundance of flowering plants that thrive on these banks, but many colorful shrubs and trailing leaves were offering much beauty of their own.

A surprise awaited us, though, for tall stalks of Green-headed Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) still stood at attention along the tree-shaded banks.

We even found a few lingering Cardinal Flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) still flashing their intensely red blooms, the plants tucked in amid sun-warmed boulders and accompanied by tiny-flowered white asters.

Some bright-yellow Sneezeweeds (Helenium autunmale) also greeted us, waving from among a large patch of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum), the pink flowers long gone to seed but the scarlet seedpods and purple leaves even more colorful than the flowers had been.

Sadly, most of the Closed Gentians (Gentiana clausa) we encountered had faded from brilliant blue to a rather bedraggled purple.  But whoa! Here was a patch that still held some flowers as brilliantly blue as ever!

We paddled downstream to a place where the river flowed back into a small marsh,  where abundant numbers of Black Tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica) lined the shore and still produced their signature scarlet leaves, despite their trunks having been girdled by gnawing beavers more than ten years ago. Somehow, they still survive!

A cluster of particularly beautiful Black Tupelos stood on the shore of a nearby cove, and their spreading boughs hung low enough that we could examine the beautiful fruits that studded the boughs of a female tree.

Black Tupelo's dark-blue berries on hot-pink pedicels are definitely a bird magnet!  While we idled below the branches, we could see flocks of Cedar Waxwings and several individual Yellow-shafted Flickers fluttering among the boughs and feasting on the fruit.

We continued our paddle into several quiet coves, where in one, a Witch Hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana), with its leaves just beginning to turn the soft gold of its autumn color, was reflected in the dark still water.

In a second cove, the leaves of a Flowering Dogwood shrub (Cornus florida) were not as brilliantly red as I had expected them to be, but the berries it bore along its boughs certainly were.

High noon on the Hudson, and what better spot to have lunch than on one of the rocky promontories I call Picnic Point, for its abundance of flat-topped rocks just perfect for perching on?  I hope that the big smile on Ruth's face is a sign that she found this maiden voyage in her new Hornbeck a happy taste of paddling adventures yet to come.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A Farewell Blaze of Glory From Some Fabulous Fall Flowers

Our northeastern wildflower season approaches its close in a blaze of glory! What could rival for radiance the spectacular gold of Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), or the rich royal purple of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), or the incomparable blue of Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)?

There's a big patch of this native sunflower called Jerusalem Artichoke right near a Price Chopper parking lot in Saratoga Springs.  I've been waiting and waiting for this last flower of summer to finally open its gorgeous blooms, and just two days ago it did!  What a parting gift to us, these gloriously golden flowers, offering an entire bouquet of blooms atop each gigantic stem!

New England Aster is another generous autumn bloomer, a flower of incomparably vivid color, offering bursts of brilliant purple along roadsides and open meadows everywhere.

The Fringed Gentian is much more elusive, offering its royal-blue beauty only to those who know where to seek it out.  Its habitat requirements are more particular, for it needs both lots of sun but also a dampish soil, and wet meadows are not that common, usually reverting to wood lots in just a few years. I found these growing at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, where volunteers help the folks at  Saratoga PLAN maintain a habitat suitable for these glorious flowers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

I'm Still Here! And Still Out There!

Oh gosh, but I don't think I've ever gone so long without posting a blog!  It's not that I haven't been out exploring the woods and the waterways, it's just that I'm feeling my age these days.  When I get back from hiking or paddling all day, it feels more like it's time for a nap instead of time to prepare a blogpost. I do like to keep this blog going, though, if only to maintain a searchable record of what's blooming where and when. So let me try to catch up.

Canal Park at Lock 4, September 14

More than a week ago, my friend Ruth Brooks and I learned of another rare plant -- Ohio Flat-topped Goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis) -- that once had been found on the banks of the Hoosic River where it joins the Hudson in Rensselaer County.  So back we went to Canal Park to see if we could find it, even though this Threatened species of goldenrod hadn't been reported from here for many, many years. We first searched a low wet area near the junction of the two rivers.  There were many interesting plants here, but no goldenrod that met the description for the rare species we were seeking. 

Our next area to search took us along the north bank of the Hoosic, where we explored the shore until we could go no further without trespassing on somebody's private property.

Before we started that search, however, we stopped to examine the basal rosettes of another super-rare plant, called Provancher's Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus var. provancheri), that were clustered thickly on some steep shale banks.  When I'd found these rosettes a week or so before, I had estimated there were maybe a couple of dozen.  Hah!  Counting more carefully this time, we came up with a count of closer to two HUNDRED!

We never did find any Ohio Flat-topped Goldenrod, but we did delight in many other flowers blooming along the banks now.  Nodding Bur Marigold (Bidens cernua) was among the showier of them.

The radiant blue blooms of Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) seemed to glow among the surrounding greenery.

Even though the big beautiful flowers of Great St. John's Wort (Hypericum ascyron ssp. pyramidatum) had faded long ago, their distinctive plump seed pods were easy to spot atop their tall stems.

At first I mistook the bright-yellow flowers of this Water Stargrass (Heteranthera dubia) starring a sprawling mass of creeping stems as those of a creeping buttercup. But a closer look revealed a slender-petaled flower that looked nothing like a buttercup's. This particular flower was growing on the muddy shore, but others were happily blooming away out in the shallow water just off shore.

Here was a genuine stumper!  Neither Ruth nor I had ever seen this purple-flowered Mint-family plant before.

Those one-sided flower stems thickly clustered with fuzzy florets looked completely foreign to either of us.  And "foreign" turned out to be an appropriate word.  Ruth tried one of her cell-phone plant ID apps, which correctly identified this plant as Vietnamese Balm (Elsholtzia ciliata), a plant that is native to Asia but not to North America.  We later learned that this plant has been tagged as a probable invasive species, so next time we encounter it, we will remove it.  At least there was only one plant at this location.  So far.

Here was the prize of the day!  A healthy plant of Provancher's Fleabane, perfectly in bloom!  All of the other specimens we had found of this Endangered species along this shore had possessed only spent flower stalks. But here was a perfect flowering specimen to submit to the New York Flora Association, proving its presence here in Rensselaer County.

Moreau Lake State Park, September 15
The next day, Ruth joined Sue Pierce and me to hunt for more American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) in the vast woods of Moreau Lake State Park.  After seeing my post about finding this rare plant at Moreau some time back, a friend of a park staff-member told him that ginseng was growing in a certain area of the woods. Luckily, Sue was familiar with the location cited, so we set off to see if we could find this plant.

Our hopes rose when we spotted lots of Maidenhair Fern growing along a creek bed, for both this fern and American Ginseng are known calciphiles, growing only where lime is present in the soil.

The abundant presence of Plantain-leaved Sedge (another calciphile) was one more sign that this could be American Ginseng territory.

Alas, we never did find any American Ginseng. We wondered if maybe the person who reported finding it  might have seen Dwarf Ginseng instead, a true spring ephemeral that completely disappears after blooming in the spring. Ah well, we enjoyed the search anyway, especially because it took us through a beautiful part of the woods.  And we also found some interesting fungi.  I don't know the name of this cute little mushroom. I just thought it was very cute.

I am pretty sure, though, that these emerging fungi make up an abundant cluster of Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria mellea), a common species and a choice edible. Too young, as yet, to take home for supper!

I don't know the name of the insect that caused this oak leaf to produce such bright-red galls, but they were certainly colorful!

This cluster of tiny urn-shaped growths on the vein of an oak leaf has me intrigued.  Are these galls?  Or could they be egg cases?  I have sent this photo to, hoping that somebody there can satisfy my curiosity.  If I learn the truth, I will return with an update.

UPDATE: comes through again!  These are indeed galls, called Dryocosmus deciduus, caused by a tiny wasp in the Dryocosmus genus that lays her eggs on the midveins of leaves in the red oak group. Each tiny "urn" shelters a single larva.

Satisfied that our ginseng search was in vain, we next headed out to the shore of nearby Mud Pond.  I was curious to see what was growing there on some mud flats I hadn't been able to explore for several years.  The water in the pond had risen all the way to the woods for a long while, and only this year had the water retreated enough that we could walk on the wide flat delta where a stream sometimes enters the pond.

We found abundant numbers of Yellow Loosestrife plants (Lysimachia terrestris), which we could identify from the presence of little red bulbils growing in the leaf axils.  These bulbils will eventually fall off onto the mud, where they will produce clonal offspring. I know there are other plants that use this same reproductive strategy, but the bulbils of Yellow Loosestrife are particularly striking and colorful.

Low Cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum) is a plant that prefers open soggy spots, so I wasn't surprised to find it had quickly re-colonized these mud flats that had been submerged for several years.  Not a native plant, and it's probably invasive somewhere, but I never find it in overwhelming numbers at this location.  Probably because it gets drowned here every few years, as water levels rise and fall.

This is exactly the open, soggy habitat that Ditch Stonecrop (Penthorum sedoides) also prefers, and I am always glad to find this native plant with its distinctive chubby pod-like flowers.  The spiky sedge surrounding it here is also a common denizen of such sites, but I am unsure of its name.

Both the muddy flats and the shallow water were studded with the bright-pink flowers of Water Smartweed (Persicaria amphibia), demonstrating how this native wetland plant must have earned the specific part of its scientific name.

Moreau Lake State Park, September 18
I returned to Moreau Lake State Park a few days later,  this time alone and this time to try walking the shore of the lake.  Now that the waters have retreated a bit, I was hoping that some of my favorite shoreline plants were reclaiming their territory.  The weather had suddenly taken a turn toward autumn, and a chilly wind was whipping across the water.  Time once more for long pants and polar fleece tops!

Sadly, the shoreline plants that used to thrive here have not yet ventured back, and I found the going too muddy to continue close to the shore.  So I headed inland and walked the wooded trails that surround the lake. One of the most abundant flowers in the woods right now is Whorled Aster (Oclemena acuminata), and I found extensive patches of them thriving under the trees.

I was quite surprised to find several plants of American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa) along the trail, since I think of this plant as signaling a calcareous habitat, and I hadn't thought of these woods as being particularly limey.  But marble occurs in odd spots around here, so maybe this is one of them.

A few of the Spikenard plants had ripening fruit, so I consumed just a few of the blackest berries.  The fruit has quite an exotic flavor, reminding me of the way certain incense smells.

I also tasted just one of the ruby-red berries of Solomon's Plume (Maianthemum racemosum), since they look so tempting when perfectly ripe like this.  They are said to be non-poisonous, but their intense sweetness is touched with a strange bitterness, and I never feel inclined to consume more than one, merely for curiosity's sake. Just never confuse the fruits of this plant with those of Solomon's Seal, which are indeed quite poisonous.

This walk turned out to be quite a tasting tour, since the next plant I encountered was Clammy Ground Cherry (Physalis heterophylla) with its dangling papery-husked fruits that resemble tomatillos in appearance, and taste a little bit like them, too. And lucky for me, one or two of the fruits were perfectly ripe.

As is true for all members of the Solanaceae Family (even tomatoes!), the green fruits of Ground Cherry can be at least slightly toxic, but this toxin disappears when the fruit is ripe. The one Ground Cherry I ate was perfectly ripe and golden yellow and wonderfully sweet and delicious.  This one looked a bit too green to consume.

I encountered one more berry-bearing plant on my walk, this one a native shrub called Round-leaved Dogwood (Cornus rugosa). I have long been puzzled by the fruits of this species.  Earlier in the year, I find clusters of greenish-white berries on these bright-pink pedicels.  Those berries fell off or were eaten by birds some time ago, yet there still appears to be tiny pink berries attached to the pedicels. Does the bush produce a second crop of abortive fruits that never grow any larger or any other color than this? If anyone can explain this phenomenon to me, I would love to know it. Nevertheless, this is one beautiful dogwood, lovely in every season.

Denton Preserve, Washington County, September 20
This past Sunday was cool but sunny, a good day for a brisk walk with my pals Sue and Ruth through an interesting Nature Conservancy site of many acres.  The Denton Preserve consists of a mixed hardwood/conifer forest that has grown up over rolling land previously mined for shale. The preserve also includes both swampy lowlands and open marsh.

Among the most intriguing plants we found here was a patch of what we decided were the creeping leaves of Twinflower (Linnea borealis).  What else could they be, these small round scalloped leaves, borne opposite each other on ground-hugging vines? We were quite excited to find this here, since we've always had to travel some distance north to find this beautiful wildflower up in the Adirondacks.


We also came upon the leaves and acorns of Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) lying on the forest floor. This is a tree that's not uncommon in New York, but it's one we don't come across very often in the places we usually explore. The broad-shouldered leaves and very burry acorns are quite distinctive for this species of oak.

We also stopped off at nearby Stark's Knob, an impressive outcropping of pillow basalt near Schuylerville in Saratoga County and one of the few  places I know of to find Purple Cliffbrake (Pellaea atropurpurea), an evergreen fern that will be found only on calcareous rock.  The fertile fronds of Purple Cliffbrake bear its distinctive brown sori along the inrolled edges of its pinnae, which are arrayed along its distinguishing purple stem. 

Whew!  There, I'm all caught up, ready to head out for more nature adventures later this week.  Lucky for me, I have other things to attend to this week, so I won't have more to report on for a while. Now to file all my photos, and put this blog baby to bed!