Thursday, October 29, 2020

Some Fascinating Finds in Victory Woods

Don't be fooled by the clear blue sky above the towering Saratoga Battle Monument. I actually took this photo on an earlier, sunnier day than this past cold and drizzly Wednesday, when my friend Sue Pierce and I parked at this Schuylerville monument to take a walk on the nearby Victory Woods trail.

It strikes me as somewhat odd that this woodland would be named Victory, since it was here in 1777 that British troops and their Loyalist supporters retreated after their sound defeat at the Battle of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War.  But as they say, one side's defeat is another's victory, and the victors got to name the woods where the defeated ones -- starved, exhausted, and with many wounded -- took refuge, hoping to escape back to Canada with the remnants of their army.  As part of the Saratoga National Historic Park, the trail now named Victory Woods passes through wooded acreage where the British hunkered down in misery, and a number of informational signs are posted along the trail, describing the history of the place.  Four years ago, I posted a blog entry about Victory Woods, which you could visit by clicking here to learn more details about this site and its military history.  As for Sue and me, we were here on this soggy day for a nature walk instead of a history lesson, and so we set off through the adjacent cemetery to reach the trailhead a hundred yards or so from the parking area.

The trail through 22 acres of a mixed hardwood forest offers level gravel paths as well as boardwalks, providing easy access to both the able-bodied and the handicapped.  Occasional benches offer resting places, as well.

One of the first things we noticed on our nature walk was the abundance of small trees with big dangling leaves, sapling-size trees that did not resemble any of the tall oaks and maples that towered over them in the surrounding forest.

The leaves were huge, thin and soft, and of a shape completely unremarkable, with no lobes or hairs on the midribs or any discernible odor.  The end of the leaf petiole, however, did taste slightly like Sassafras when I nibbled it. And the leaf fell away from its twig at a touch.

A close look at the end of a twig revealed a new bud that was covered with a pale pubescence, and I could also detect a stipule scar that completely encircled the twig.  After posting these photos on a Facebook page dedicated to the flora of New York and asking for ID suggestions, these two features -- the pubescent bud and the encircling scar -- are what convinced several expert responders that this was a tree in the Magnolia Family.  A Cucumber Magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), to be exact, a tree that is native to our northeastern region, including counties adjacent to Saratoga County.  I never even knew that we had any native Magnolias around here!  Facebook can be an amazing source of information!

Here was another organism I didn't recognize, a tight cluster of glossy-topped brown mushrooms that lay, unattached, at the base of a tree.  Could these be Honey Mushrooms, I wondered, so shiny from being wet from the rain?

But then I turned the clump over and discovered that these mushrooms had inky-black stalks, unlike the brownish speckled stalks of Honey Mushrooms.  Such a distinctive feature made a Google search promptly successful, and I soon learned that this was a cluster of Velvet Stalk Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes).  A new one for me! After searching the web for more information about this species, I also learned that the tops are always glossy and sticky, so they weren't just wet from the rain.  Some sites also claimed that this was the same species used to cultivate the long, skinny, white-capped Enoki mushrooms used in Japanese cuisine, although other sources claimed that Enokis are a different species. Interesting facts, to be sure, but mostly I was just delighted to have found such a beautiful mushroom and had come to know its name.

More interesting fungi lay in wait along the trail.  A fallen log sported long ribbons of this pinky-orange wavy fungus, and at first I thought it might be one of the bracket fungi, either toothed or a polypore.

Since the spore surface would offer the surest clues to this fungus's ID, I peered at its underside and was surprised to find neither pores nor teeth, but rather glossy patches of wrinkled tissue.  Aha!  Now I remembered that I had found this fungus before, and I even remembered its name: Phlebia tremellosa. It's also known as Trembling Jelly Rot, a common and widely distributed wood-decay fungus that grows on the rotting wood of both hardwood and conifer logs.

A bit later, we found yet another interesting fungus, this one composed of tiny pinky-tan, furry-backed  discs scattered across the trunk of a Hop Hornbeam tree.  Its name, quite appropriately, is Hophornbeam Disc (Aleurodiscus oakesii), although it can also be found on the bark of oaks or elms.

Although the Hophornbeam Disc Fungus decomposes the outer layer of bark, creating flat patches on the trunk, it doesn't harm the tree, since it feeds only on dead bark cells, not the tree's living wood tissue.  This is not an uncommon fungus on living trees, but the disc-like fruiting bodies are seldom seen, according to several internet mushroom sites I consulted. I guess we were privileged characters, to have come upon this interesting fungus on our walk.

There was also an intriguing insect sharing this Hop Hornbeam bark. This was a Snowy Tree Cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) clinging to the rain-dampened trunk on this chilly day.  Another name for this insect is Thermometer Cricket, for it is said that the air temperature can be calculated from the frequency of the cricket's chirps.  Sadly, we didn't hear a single chirp from this cricket.  It must have been feeling even colder than we did after an hour or so tramping about in this soggy woods.

This tiny Spring Peeper was lively enough, anyway.  Both Sue and I had quite a time attempting to photograph the wee critter, frisky despite the chilly rain-wet leaves that it would disappear into as soon as we each got our cameras focused on it. I'm hoping Sue captured a clearer image than I did.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Battlefield Beauty

On a gorgeous blue-sky day last week, I took a short walk at the Saratoga National Historic Park, just to get outdoors for an hour or so.  This park commemorates the Revolutionary War battle in which the Americans roundly defeated the British and signaled a turning point in that war.  What were open farm fields back in the 18th Century are still kept open as expansive meadows, and a hilltop vista offers views of these meadows that extend all the way to the Hudson River Valley, beyond which the Green Mountains of Vermont can be seen rising in the distance.

The meadow plants were more muted in color this year than I've seen them in years past, but the trees were magnificently multi-colored.

This stand of Quaking Aspen shimmered against the deep blue of the sky, the leaves set a-tremble by the brisk breeze.

Although the trailside Gray Dogwood shrubs had already dropped their leaves and shed their white berries, the persistent pedicels were as brilliantly red as ever.

I did find a few flowers valiantly holding on.  This bumble bee must have been happy to still find a source of nectar and pollen as it busily foraged the deep-purple blooms of a solitary New England Aster.

The abundant yellow blooms of some of the goldenrods still attracted many insect visitors, including this pollen-eating wasp.

Even though this little weed called Common Groundsel was already producing seed puffs, it still put forth a number of flowers, short tufts of yellow stamens and pistils tightly wrapped within green bracts.

Pokeweed had reached its peak of beauty, with blue-black shiny berries strung in clusters on hot-pink pedicels. The Saratoga Battlefield is famous for attracting birds to its forests and fields, and pokeberries are one of the fruits that attracts them there.  Humans cannot eat them, although we may certainly feast our eyes on them!

We humans could eat the apples from ancient trees that attest to the farms and orchards that once occupied these fields, but usually the many deer that find refuge here have consumed all the ones within reach.  I had to use my camera's zoom to approach these apples still clinging to the treetops.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Farewell to Our Paddling Pal for Now

Friday was a perfect day for a paddle. It was pleasantly warm with quiet winds and a morning fog through which the autumn foliage seemed to glow even more intensely than it would have with bright sunlight and shadow. I hope that it won't be the last paddling day of the season for me, but it was our last day to paddle, Sue Pierce and I, with our dear friend Ruth Brooks, who leaves for her winter home in Florida in just a few days.  I suggested we enjoy our last paddle together on the Hudson River above the Sherman Island Dam, where the river runs back behind a large island and flows around rocky promontories and into quiet coves, with forested mountains rising from both banks.

We carried our lightweight Hornbeck canoes down through the woods to launch onto this quiet bay. On the far shore across the open river, we could glimpse mountainsides patch-worked with richly glowing colors of gold and red and bronze, their summits shrouded in mist on this foggy morning.

As soon as we set our paddles into the water, we steered close to shore, where blossom-laden boughs of Witch Hazel hung low over the bank. We could press our noses into the thick clusters of bloom and breathe in their distinctive faint fragrance, a scent I have described as similar to that of clean laundry dried outside in the sunshine and fresh air.

We then set off downstream, rounding this first promontory I call Picnic Point, because of its flat-topped rocks that offer relatively comfortable seating for riverside dining. Highbush Blueberry bushes and Gray Birch and Red Maple saplings provided a colorful setting.

Just around Picnic Point, we entered the first of a series of quiet coves.  Sheltered behind the large island that shields them from buffeting winds, these coves usually offer peaceful paddling, no matter how fiercely a brisk wind might be riffling the open river.

Here, we are entering a second cove, which I have named Flowering Dogwood cove, for the solitary specimen of this beautiful spring-flowering tree that flourishes here, despite taking root beyond its usually more southerly range.  The humidity here tempers our cold climate enough for this species of dogwood -- as well as other southern species like Sassafras and Black Tupelo -- to not just survive, but even thrive.

That's Ruth in her nearly brand-new Hornbeck canoe, searching through binoculars for bright-red  dogwood berries among the Flowering Dogwood's lipstick-red leaves.  

Blueberry shrubs line the shore of this cove, rivaling the much-taller dogwood for brilliant color.

As we make our way downstream toward the Sherman Island Dam, we are delighted again and again by the colorful foliage in the riverside woods.

The leaves of American Beech seemed to shine like tongues of flame.

And the radiant leaves of Red Maple glowed like burning embers.


It was marvelous to see all this foliage color mirrored in rippling reflections,

and to relish the lovely colors of autumn in a single floating leaf!

Here, we beach our canoes in the last cove above the Sherman Island Dam, behind another rocky promontory I call Juniper Point, for the low-growing junipers sprawling across its bouldered banks.

We leave our boats for a while, in order to explore this forested riverbank.  Many different mosses glow with various shades of green, carpeting both wood and rock with their diverse colors and textures.  Ruth has a passionate interest in mosses, so I was glad we found so many different moss species to engage her on her last outdoor adventure before she heads south. I also was glad that she was with us to confirm my guess that this rock was covered with two different interwoven mosses, Leucobryum glaucum and Thuidium delicatulum (Pincushion Moss and Delicate Fern Moss). Ruth has much to teach me about mosses.

I didn't confirm my guesses with Ruth, but I believe this tree root was covered with more of that Pincushion Moss, punctuated with a perky patch of Haircap Moss (Polytrichum sp.).

Just about noon, the fog lifted and sunshine flooded the multi-colored mountains on the far bank of the Hudson.  What a spectacular view, as we comfortably reclined on a moss-covered slope to enjoy our picnic lunches, while gazing across the water! 

Lunch over, we launched our canoes once more to return upstream and visit more sites up there.  This is Sue in her carbon fiber canoe, very similar to my own boat.  Ruth's canoe is made of Kevlar, and all our boats are light enough that we can carry them easily, allowing us access to bodies of water as beautiful and quiet as this, even if we have to hike some distance with them to reach the water.

Sue leads the way as we paddle a narrow passage back to the open river and head upstream.

This passage is lined with a steep rocky bank that is carpeted with many interesting mosses (thick mats of pale-pink sphagnum among them).  This fluffy lime-green moss is called Pleurozium schreberi, and here it is decorated with the shiny red berries and glossy green leaves of American Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

All along the way, we are warmed by the sun and charmed by the changing colors on the riverbank mountainsides as the clouds cast moving shadows across their heights.

We enter another cove and approach an island we used to call Three-Pine Island, when its rocky substrate was crowned by three towering White Pines.  Sadly, only one tall pine remains, since a fierce straight-line wind this past summer toppled many trees along this stretch of the Hudson. As this photo reveals, the pines' roots could not anchor the tall trees into the earth, so the entire root masses peeled back from the rock as the giant trees plummeted.

Shrubs and saplings, like these scarlet Highbush Blueberries and bright-yellow Gray Birches, still hold firm in the boulders' cracks on this tiny island.

Before we return to our launch site, we ease our canoes into one last cove, one that I call Shelter Cove for its almost always peaceful water, no matter how blustery the wind might be blowing elsewhere.  True to my name for it, the water lies still and gleaming, with only enough movement to its surface to cause the reflected golds and greens and scarlets to shimmer in reflection.

A variety of mosses carpet the cove-side boulders here, but one in particular catches my eye, this fluffy mound of emerald-green stars, peppered with tiny brown orbs.

A close look reveals the ridged spherical capsules that could only belong to Bartramia pomiformus, appropriately called (in English) Apple Moss.  I'm so glad we found this less-common moss for our budding-bryologist pal Ruth Brooks, before she leaves us to explore more tropical habitats along Florida's Gulf Coast.

The stunning beauty of our take-out site made us long to linger, just drifting a few moments more in silence, breathing the fragrant cool air, grateful to have a place of such incredible loveliness so easily accessible, and to have such amiable friends to enjoy it with.  Safe travels, dear Ruth, and a happy, warmer winter.  We will be so glad to paddle with you again come spring.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Sunday in the Park at Lake George

Most days, my husband Denis and I go our separate ways, I to some woods or waterway, he to his rocker to read.  But this past Sunday was such a gorgeous blue-sky day, we decided to take a drive together to enjoy the autumn foliage in its last blaze of glory.  So off we set, driving north along the Northway (I-87) toward our destination, Lake George.  As the miles went by, our disappointment grew as we noticed that the roadside trees sure looked faded, well past their prime of beauty. But then we arrived at Lake George.  Wow!  The colors here were spectacular!

We ambled through the lakeside Battlefield Park, where back in the mid-18th Century the English and French were battling over control of Lake George, then called Lac du Saint Sacrement by the French, who had originally settled the area. After the English won the French-Indian War, they re-named the lake in honor of the English king, George III.  As we wandered the lovely green hills beneath glowing Sugar Maples, it was hard to imagine the roar of cannons and the screams of the wounded that long ago had echoed from the surrounding mountains.

The remnants of an old English fort, plus a number of monuments and statues, reminded us that blood had once been spilled on these now-quiet rolling hills.

I always prefer to look for native plants than to study war monuments, so I was delighted to find a few plants of Herb Robert still putting forth their pretty pink blooms.

As we headed back to where our car was parked near the edge of a marsh, we slowed our steps to gaze at the forested mountain that rose on the other side, adorned with spectacular colors.