Friday, December 31, 2021

Time for Some Woodsy Watery Therapy

So much for a white Christmas this year.  More like a soggy and gray one. But that gray sogginess actually mirrored my mood, since once again as it did last year, Covid caused the cancellation of our plans for a festive gathering with family and friends. Oh well, at least those who fell ill were fully vaxed and boosted, so their symptoms were relatively mild.  And so far, I have escaped it.   But my mood stayed glum for so long, I finally decided I needed some woodsy, watery therapy to lift my spirits.  So despite yet another gloomily-gray day,  off I went yesterday to the Hudson River side of Moreau Lake State Park. And all I had to do was step from my car on the shore of the river to begin to feel peace and joy infuse my heart. Who wouldn't be soothed by such serene beauty as this?

Since the river's too cold to risk paddling now, I chose to walk a portion of the Cottage Park Trail, with its trailhead just across the road from the river. This trail takes its name from the remnants of now fallen buildings that once housed the workers who constructed the Spier Falls Dam on the nearby Hudson near the close of the 19th Century.  

The buildings are long gone, but their stone foundations remain.

As Nature gradually repossesses these old stone foundations, the mosses that thrive on the rock are startling in their vibrant green beauty.

Some of the mosses still possess their spore capsules standing tall above their green leaves, impervious to winter's snowy cold.

As I set off through woods, I can glimpse the mountain range rising in the distance.  This trail will eventually climb to the mountain heights, but I will confine my exertions today to the lowland woods, still colorful with the ruddy leaves of sapling American Beeches (Fagus grandifolia), which won't shed the old leaves until new ones sprout in the spring.

Other evidence of the beech trees' presence is scattered across the forest floor,  with multitudes of spiky Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana), a leafless flowering plant that obtains its nutrients from the roots of American Beech.

These small fleur-de-lys-shaped seed scales scattered across the snow are evidence of another tree species here in this woods, the Gray Birch (Betula populifolia).

 I was surprised to see in this woods Gray Birches of a truly grand scale, since this birch species is rather short-lived and usually topples before it grows as large as a few I found growing here. The dark inverted Vs of the bark are one of the distinguishing marks of this species of birch, which often has bark as white as that of Paper Birch.

When I saw these small tan discs crowding together on a de-barked small treetrunk, I recognized them as the fungus called Hophornbeam Disc Fungus (Aleurodiscus oaksii).  But since the bark was mostly shed, I could not distinguish the host tree as either a Hop Hornbeam or a species of oak.  This fungus is known to grow on either tree species.

I found other fungi occupying fallen limbs that were lying about the forest floor, including this colorful patch of orange Stereum sharing its woody habitat with some beautifully green foliose lichens.

Another fallen limb held an abundant patch of the fungus called Tree Ear (Auricularia auricula). I believe it is obvious how this species obtained such a descriptive name.

Before the Cottage Park Trail starts to ascend the mountainous heights, it crosses an open area beneath the power lines that carry electricity produced by the hydroelectric Spier Falls Dam on the nearby river.  The area under the powerlines is kept mowed to prevent trees growing into the wires, and this open area is home to many sun-loving native meadow flowers during the warmer months.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata) is among those sun-loving plants, and its brown spiky seedheads are easily identifiable even in the winter.

I continued on until the trail began to ascend, and the level terrain of the woods began to change to a steeper, rockier terrain. I recalled exploring this particular area last spring, when small creeks were tumbling down the mountainsides and the forest floor was covered with lovely wildflowers. (To see what this woods looks like in May, you can click here. )

One of the plants I did NOT see last spring was the species that now dangled abundantly over the face of this gigantic rocky outcropping. What plant could that be?

I could not reach the dangling vines on foot, so I  had to rely on my camera's zoom to show me a closer look at the still-green leaves sprouting from rosy-pink vines.  The scallop-edged heart-shaped leaves do resemble those of Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), but I have never seen cascading vines of Foamflower draping across the face of a boulder like this.  For sure, I must return next spring to see if I can confidently put a name to this interesting plant.

UPDATE:  I have heard from a reader named Erik Danielsen, who assured me that this plant is indeed Foamflower, but he also argued that it is more likely the species called Tiarella stolonifera, which botanists now are arguing should be split off from the species T. cordifolia, due to its habit of regularly producing long stolons like those illustrated in my photo.

Other evergreen plants were abundant at this site, including the aptly-named Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), which I recognized despite its distinctive Christmas-stocking-shaped pinnae being partially obscured. I was captivated by the curvaceous frond, with the points of the pinnae so sharply protruding from the snow.

I was surprised by how many people I met on this trail today, including several people who witnessed me down on my hands and knees peering at the underside of some fungi.  And surprise of all surprises, these people recognized me from this blog, and were kind enough to tell me how eagerly they followed it and learned so much from it.  My spirits were already high from simply having walked in this marvelous woods, but now they truly soared.  I continue to keep this blog, if only for my own documentary purposes, but knowing that others learn from it is truly rewarding to me. Walking back to my car, I felt I was drifting along on Cloud Nine!

Back on the riverside, I lingered a while, feeling blissed-out by the serene beauty I beheld, even on this darkish day, growing darker now as the afternoon grew late.

I even found a few flower friends I could greet, including these still-lovely stalks of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), their residual beauty enhanced by the riverside setting.

I was especially pleased to find these sturdy seed pods of Great St. John's Wort (Hypericum ascyron), rated a Rare species in New York but happy to grow in several sites along this stretch of the Hudson.

I stood for quite a while taking in this scene,  of small rocky islands perfectly reflected in the still water and steeply forested banks receding in the distance, their dark shapes growing more misty with each bend of the river.  Elated by the power of such serene beauty, I found it hard to leave. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Cold At Last: Winter Transformations at Moreau Lake

Whoa!  Big change from just a few days ago when temps approached 60 degrees! But when I woke up Monday morning after a clear cold windless night, I was startled to read the thermometer: SEVEN DEGREES ABOVE ZERO!!! I'm so glad my pal Sue Pierce and I had agreed to meet at Moreau Lake this day.  We'd bet we'd find new ice on the lake, and we were not disappointed.

Although the lake was still open in areas out toward the middle, along the north-facing shore the ice had formed crystal clear and hugging the shore.  Not quite thick enough to walk on though, as my tentative step revealed: CRACK!

This is exactly the kind of ice that thrills Sue and me: clear as glass and prone to capture stacks of silvery bubbles as organic material on the bottom releases gases.  No bubbles as yet had been caught within this thin-as-crystal coating, but this ruddy oak leaf sure looked pretty captured beneath a finely etched glaze.

Here was an ice formation neither Sue nor I had ever noticed before.  Where tiny twigs protruded above the thin ice, frosty disks with spiky edges had formed around each twig. And what were those spidery lines that were swirling around that middle twig?

A closer look revealed that feathery threads of waterfowl down had caught in the twigs and been captured and held within the thin layer of ice.  So pretty!

A large flock of Canada Geese had congregated on patches of open water, and they sent up quite a cacophony of cackles and hoots as they visited with one another.

It was fun to see some of the flock waddling about on the ice sheet that rimmed the open water. Sometimes they'd slip just as you or I would on that slick water-covered ice.

Sue noticed that some of the waterfowl at the edge of this flock were quite a bit smaller and whiter of head than the geese, and they also would disappear suddenly beneath the surface from time to time.  I'm glad my camera's zoom could see these diving ducks better than my eyes could, or I would never have known that a few Buffleheads were sharing Moreau's open water with all those geese today.

Here's the snow-covered trail we took as we walked part-way around the lake. A sleety wintry mix followed by snow two days before had whitened the evergreen boughs and caused them to sparkle in the sunlight that made it through the trees today.

A snow-covered fern. I believe it's a Marginal Wood Fern.  Sue and I like to test our knowledge of plants in their winter guises, but this fern doesn't look much different in winter than it does the rest of the year.

The dried seedpods of Spotted Coralroot, one of our native orchids. I doubt I would have been able to ID this plant from these remnants alone.  But we found it right where we'd seen a large patch of Spotted Coralroot last fall.

Same goes for these pods of Pyrola.  No doubt it is Shinleaf Pyrola,  since that was the species we'd found growing here along this trail last summer.

When we reached the building that houses the locker rooms for the swimming beach, I was struck by this pattern of icicles dangling from the eaves.

As we walked across the bridge that divides the main lake from the back bay, we noted that the main lake remained wide open at this south-facing end of the lake, while the bay just beyond the bridge was completely frozen over from shore to shore.

I  was fascinated by the ice formations along the railings of the bridge, lacy half-melted snow remnants above and crystalline needles below.

It was barely noon, but a low Solstice sun cast a golden glow on the steep forested banks that line the back bay, the smooth ice below the banks capturing that glow in a shimmering reflection.

Despite that golden sunlight and because clouds were moving in and the wind picked up, we were beginning to feel the bitter cold that hadn't climbed much into the double digits.  Time to pick up the pace and hurry back to the warmth of our cars.  But we drew to a halt when we found some patches of pretty frozen bubbles close to the shore.  They weren't the stacks of silvery disks we had hoped to find in this glassy ice, but they were pretty enough to cause us to pause to enjoy them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Spots of Interest on a Gray Day

It's absolutely gorgeous outdoors today, clear blue sky, little wind, warmish temps, but I have so many tasks to do, I don't have time to get out to enjoy it.  And the last time I did get out there, a visit to Moreau Lake late last week, everything was GRAY: lake, sky, mountains, ice. Kinda cold and windy, too. Could I find ANYthing out here to delight me?

Well, I did find these floating disks of slushy ice in a patch of open water kind of fascinating. What could have caused these perfectly circular shapes?  At least their existence gave me a puzzle to ponder.

And I did find a few spots of color as I wandered the woods near the shore.  I loved how the warm, cinnamon-brown hues of this Stereum fungus contrasted with the icy crystals that adorned it.

And the myriad tiny cones among the braided green twigs of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) offered not only some attractive color but also a bit of a surprise:  Where did this solitary tree come from, the only one of its kind on a long stretch of shore?

Here, too, was another puzzle to ponder: The dark-blue fruits of Maple-leaved Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) are so attractive, dangling as they do on such vivid hot-pink pedicels, how come they haven't been devoured already by wildlife? I often find them quite late in winter, shriveled and ignored, still hanging on, uneaten. I wonder why.

It's easy to ID young Sassafras trees, even in winter, after their distinctive mitten-shaped leaves have fallen.  Just look around for twigs and buds of such a bright spring-green color the small trees stand out from all the other saplings in the understory.

Striped Maples have especially elegant and colorful twigs and buds this time of year. I did find it cheering to find these understory trees with their colorful buds that hold the promise of spring,  even though it's not yet officially winter.

And here was a plant that always delights me, ever since I discovered this extremely rare Whorled Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. verticillatum) on the sandy shore of Moreau Lake back in 2013. At that time, the population of this Endangered species thrived by the hundreds here, but years-long high water levels later caused the population to diminish.  Last summer, I counted fewer than 20 specimens, trying to make a come-back along the now-dry shore.  Thankfully, the plants looked very healthy, even now, with their still-green leaves in December, the flowerheads having spilled the seeds that I'm hoping will re-build the original abundant population.

This last find, of the dry, empty seedpods of Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) was hardly colorful, but I think the husks make up in cuteness for what they lack in color. As thin and translucent as tissue paper, the tiny three-toothed, scoop-shaped cups once held two shiny black seeds nestled within like two babies in one bunting. And of course, their presence on Moreau Lake's sandy shore holds the promise that we will find these beautifully blue wildflowers when we walk here again in late summer.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Walking a Riverside Road

Sometimes I feel the need for a nice brisk swing-my-legs walk, instead of the meandering, inch-along, up-and-down way I usually move through the woods, and Spier Falls Road offers just the place to do that. Right at the northern boundary of Saratoga County, this gently curving road closely follows the Hudson River as the road rolls past the eponymous Spier Falls Dam,  the steep forested slopes and jagged cliffs of the Palmertown Mountain Range rising abruptly from the roadside.

Spring-watered boulders line the road, their jagged rocks offering a foothold for a marvelous variety of evergreen plants, as well as tiered shelves from which dangle spectacular icicles when the weather turns cold.

As clouds today moved intermittently across a low December sun, the sunlight cast a golden glow across the glittering ice.

With daytime temperatures still above freezing most days, the tiny rills that course down the mountains splash and dance from rock to rock.  Fantastic fairy castles of ice will build up around these rills as the winter proceeds.

I love how the sharp edges and rough surfaces of the roadside rocks are softened by cushions of beautiful mosses of many different kinds, all of them green all winter.

Even though I don't know the names of most of these mosses, I marvel at the lovely shapes and colors that decorate the constantly watered rock. This one had long ropy stems with short sharply pointed leaves. It occurred to me that it might be Fountain Moss (Philonotus fontana), especially since it occupied the wettest areas of the boulders. Without that species' distinctive orb-shaped spore capsules, I couldn't be sure.

This moss had spiky leaves, and it spilled in thick clumps over the jagged edges of the wet rocks.

Finally, a moss I believe I know the name of, recognizing the spidery, starburst leaves of Apple Moss (Bartramia pomiformis), even though this particular clump was lacking its distinctive tiny apple-shaped spore capsules.

And this spiky erect moss that resembles a miniature pine forest is probably one of the Haircaps (Polytrichum sp.).  I loved how its lush green carpet was backed by a sheer wall of lichen-spotted rock.

A nice mix of several different mosses cushioned a ledge that held a long row of the basal leaves of Early Saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis).  This spring wildflower's leaves will stay this fresh-looking all winter, and when May arrives, these rocky ledges will explode with masses of snowy-white blooms, a veritable rock garden of small star-shaped flowers.

I love how the basal leaves of Early Saxifrage look as if they'd been cut out with pinking shears.

When I drew abreast of the Spier Falls Dam, I pushed my way through roadside thickets to enter an open area of jumbled sharp-edge rocks and sheer cliffs that were draped with icicles.  This is a remnant of one of the places the mountainside was quarried for rock to build the dam, back at the close of the 19th Century.  At its completion in 1903, the Spier Falls Dam was one of the largest hydroelectric dams in America, 1800 feet long and more than 100 feet high, requiring an enormous amount of rock to build.

I have read that a number of workers died while working to construct this dam, and as I walked around this abandoned quarry I thought of those men, most of them immigrants from Europe, and of how so little effort was made at the time to ensure their safety. May they rest in peace. We owe them our gratitude still,  for the 56 megawatts of power this dam continues to generate for the electrical needs of the New York Capital Region

As I carefully picked my way among the jagged rocks still lying about the floor of the quarry, I could hear the thunder of water plunging over the dam, the only sound to disturb the quiet of this haunted place today.

A number of human-made artifacts remain at this site, including several concrete and iron structures that I suspect served as footings for the huge derricks from which cables were strung to carry the quarried rock out to the construction site on the river.  This photo shows just a glimpse of the still-operating dam where it stretches across the Hudson.

I have never figured out for what purpose this small stone structure was erected. When I first discovered it several years ago, I thought it might be an oven or part of a forge.  But I have never found where a fire might have been built within it.  Except for the square opening (visible in this photo) that extends all the way to where the structure meets the quarry wall, the structure is solid rock.   So it remains a mystery, one that adds yet another touch of consequence to this historic site. (And I did once find some old bones and a deer skull way back in that opening, possibly dragged in there by a Fisher or other smallish animal.)

I lingered so long at this quarry site, it began to grow dark, and since I had about a mile to walk to reach my car, I hurried away.  Before long, it stated to snow, filling the darkening air with big soft clusters of flakes. This seemed to be just the right touch of beauty to end my walk today.