Friday, February 26, 2021

What's Happening at the Boat Launch?

 We've had more snow, just a few more inches, since I last sat down to blog.  Some days have been warm and others cold, so the snow has both softened and hardened in turn.  As a result, it's deep and crunchy to walk on, and I crashed through up to my shins when I tried to get to the banks of the Hudson yesterday, attempting the unplowed access to the Sherman Island Boat Launch Site along Spier Falls Road at Moreau.  But something sure looked different here.  And why is that big yellow machine sitting there?

Uh oh! A whole bunch of trees have been felled, and the access lane has been widened considerably.

Heaps of tree trunks, including some really big ones, are piled along the lane. Later, I stopped at the Moreau Lake State Park office to ask about this tree-clearing, and I learned that the park is creating more parking spaces for this very popular spot.  The pandemic caused a huge increase in park visitors this past year, resulting in cars parked dangerously out along the main road as well as back in the woods. In addition,  this site will also serve as a parking area for new trails that will eventually lead from here up into the mountains that rise from these riverbanks.

Although I'm glad that more folks are discovering this beautiful river access,  it's been obvious that many of these folks do not respect our natural areas the way they should, often leaving much litter behind. I confess I was happy to have the place all to myself on this mild winter day.  The silence here was deep, and the view of the mountains was serenely beautiful.  With temps approaching 40 degrees (F), I was surprised to find the river still frozen over from shore to shore.

But the little creek that empties into the river here was running free, even though its course was narrowed by thick ice shelves along its banks.  The music it made was a happy sound,  as if the water were singing of spring.

I was fascinated by these flower remnants poking up out of the snow. I recalled that Closed Gentians thrive along these stream banks.  Could these be what has survived of them?

Of course, there's no trace remaining of that flower's radiant blue color, but the structure of the plant sure looked like that of a gentian, a tight cluster of bottle-shaped blooms atop a stem, surrounded by a wreath of leaves immediately below, with a second pair of leaves halfway down the stem.

Here were more intriguing floral remains, the distinctive split-open, tulip-shaped pods of some species of St. John's Wort.

Arching stems of Meadowsweet still held the remnants of last year's flower clusters.

Witch Hazel flowers dropped their ribbon-like petals long ago, but the floral calyces remain on the twigs, creating the illusion of a shrub that is still in bloom with small yellow flowers.

This little wiry shrub still held a cluster of blue-black fruits. A number of our woodland shrubs bear clusters of dark blue berries, but this shrub's small size and opposite branching suggested Maple-leaved Viburnum to me.

There's no mistaking the rabbit-eared buds of Hobblebush this time of year, since no other shrub in our woods has winter buds that look like this.

It's hard to believe that just this thin coating of fuzz is enough to protect both incipient leaves and already-formed flower cluster from winter's ravages.

Who could fail to notice the golden leaves that cling to young American Beech trees all winter long? But I had never stopped to look closely at the twigs that hold those leaves, until I did today. But the buds on these twigs were not as long and slender as those I associate with American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). Could these be the leaves of Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) instead? Whatever the species,  I was delighted by the rich red color of those twigs, as well as by the swirling curvaceousness of the golden leaves.   Sometimes we really have to look close to discover winter's charms.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Coping Through a Covid-constricted Winter

This was the scene outside my breakfast window this morning:  ice everywhere, on top of frozen snow.  Later, even if I hadn't been exhausted from prying chunks of frozen-solid wintry mix off our front sidewalk, I would not have ventured out for a walk in the woods today.  But come to think of it, I probably wouldn't have ventured out even if the day had been gloriously clear and sunny.  I've just been in a funk.  Activities I used to love are just not drawing me. And I know I'm not alone, feeling anxious and sad and lacking in energy, due to nearly a year of coping with Corona-imposed isolation.  There's even an article in the NewYork Times Science section today about how this pandemic is affecting our mental health, even we who have not fallen ill from it. 

I'm embarrassed to admit how down I feel, considering how others are truly suffering from illness and death and lack of livelihood. After all, I'm still healthy, I've lost no one I love to this disease, and our income is more than sufficient (thanks to pensions, savings, and Social Security) to meet all our needs. And yet, I feel lonely and sad, missing not only my closest friends and family members, but also my community life:  my pew mates at church who also like to sing out loud, the friendly fellow who takes our tickets at our local cinema and is willing to hold up the line a moment to gab with us about film, the familiar folks who welcome us as if we were family to our favorite Indian restaurant, and especially my naturalist pals with whom I used to meet every week to explore some nature preserve together.  When I walk downtown Saratoga Springs on what used to be one of the most thriving main streets in the nation, my heart breaks for the owners and employees of the many shops and restaurants now closed for good. 

 At least I think I can glimpse some light at the end of this terrible tunnel.  The vaccines are on the way (I've had my first shot and hold an appointment for the second), although the efforts to obtain appointments to receive the vaccinations are truly daunting.  I have wept bitter tears of helpless rage, while maneuvering through various websites that led me to only dead ends.  Ah well, some day this pandemic will ease, and our society's healing can begin.  If we're still alive, that is. And sadly, for many, without their lost loved ones by their sides.

In the meantime, I do get outdoors now and then, even if I have to push myself to do it.  There are places near home with paved and plowed paths, and I'm truly grateful for these. The Spring Run Trail at the edge of town is the option that tempts me most frequently. And I've found a way to access this trail from an apartment complex with a plowed parking lot and a stairway leading down to a midpoint in the mile-long one-way trail.

The Spring Run trail runs through a wooded wetland, crossing the Spring Run Creek two times.  Even though the busy streets of the city of Saratoga Springs are well within earshot at times, the sound of the rushing creek dominates, and the trail feels wonderfully woodsy and watery. And I don't have to strap on my snowshoes to navigate it!

I do sometimes leave the paved trail to wander a wooded section along the creek. I find the trails of deer and foxes and other wildlife in this woods, and often the trees are full of winter-resident birds.

Since the Spring Run Trail follows an old railroad right-of-way, the long-ago-disturbed trailside soils are mostly inhabited by invasive species like Japanese Knotweed and Asian Bittersweet.  But a few native species manage to find a foothold here, including a thicket of Highbush Cranberry Viburnums, shrubs that retain clusters of bright-red berries well into the winter.

Our native Evening Primrose also thrives here, and the distinctive remnants of its flower stalks shone brightly gold in the low sunlight when I took this photo.

The trailside woods holds many leafless snags, dead trees that still stand tall, providing shelter for various wild animals in their hollowing interiors.  These snags also serve as perches for raptors surveying the surroundings for prey, as well as heights from which other birds sing out their territorial claims when nesting season arrives.  This trail is a favorite site for birders, especially on early mornings in spring.

I frequently spot hawks atop these perches.  I didn't this day, but I did get a photo of one on another day. My photo is not clear enough for me to ID this hawk, although the dark-and-light stripes on the tail and  what look to be narrow horizontal ruddy stripes on the breast suggest a Cooper's Hawk to me.  Corrections would be most welcome!

Another favorite nearby spot for a brief mood-lifting walk is Congress Park in downtown Saratoga Springs, just one block from my home.  It's a lovely park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City.  There are mature and young trees of many selected species (mostly native), beautiful floral gardens and statuary, ornamental pools, fountains, and trout ponds, and acres of open green lawn for lounging and frisbee playing and listening to concerts and watching summer Shakespeare performances. A notable addition this pandemic year was the placement of many picnic tables scattered at safe distances across the lawns, so folks could observe "social distancing" while picnicking under the trees.  This time of year, the paths through the park are plowed, making for easy walking, even in winter.

Three ponds in the park attract hundreds of what used to be wild Mallard ducks, which fail to migrate south each winter, preferring to crowd the half-drawn-down ponds.  I guess they know where the easy eats are, despite signs that ask folks not to feed the ducks. The free lunch continues all winter, since folks do frequent this park all year, bringing children who cannot resist tempting the ducks with foods they really shouldn't be eating.

PS: I love the row of lovely old homes that line the east side of Circular Street atop the steep banks of Congress Park. Each of the stylistically varied homes is an architectural gem in its own right.

A relatively recent addition to Congress Park is this amazing carousel, with beautifully carved and painted horses by the noted master carver of carousel horses, Marcus C. Illions. During the early part of the 20th Century, Illions created over 6,000 carousels, fewer than 200 of which exist today.  Of these, the one in Congress Park is the only two-row in existence.   Although this carousel has remained silent and unmoving since the Covid pandemic changed all our lives a year ago, we can still enjoy the beauty of the painted ponies by peering through the glass of its locked enclosure.

Of course there have to be mineral springs in a city called Saratoga Springs, and Congress Park offers several of them, including the Congress Spring, still offering (even in winter) its crystalline waters beneath this magnificent pavilion, a reproduction of one that protected this same spring back in the 19th Century.

The Congress Spring waters flow through pipes that are housed in a handsome ceramic structure that was created by noted potter Regis Brodie, a Saratoga resident and art professor at Skidmore College.

Whenever I walk in Congress Park, I always make sure my route takes me past this magnificent fountain that features the exquisite statue called The Spirit of Life.  Holding both a sprig of White Pine and a bowl overflowing (in warmer months) with water, this graceful statue was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the same sculptor who created the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln that resides at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A powerful presence always, this monument holds special meaning for me and others this year, as many struggle to survive this life-threatening epidemic or deal with the grief of having lost ones they loved.

There's another presence in Congress Park that speaks even more hopefully of life and survival, and that's this majestic American Elm, raising its splendid branches toward the sky like arms that are lifted in prayer.  This tree is a true survivor of yet another disease, the Dutch Elm Disease, which destroyed almost all of our native elms.  I believe even this one was once infected, but with the help of intensive treatment it has survived and flourishes.  What a spirit-lifting symbol this tree presents!

On my way home from the park, I passed this scene that was also spirit-lifting,  both for the exuberance of the vine that has spread so symmetrically across the brick wall, and also for the vividly colorful  combination of red bricks, chartreuse window frame, and blue berries that continue to cling to the vine, well into the winter.

Here's a closer view of those vibrantly blue berries.  The fruits resembled those of Virginia Creeper, but the undivided leaves most certainly did not.  I was content to simply enjoy these beautiful colors, even if I didn't know the name of the vine.

Update: Readers of this blog (see comments) have suggested that this vine is Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata). (Thank you, dear readers!) I confess I considered that species, but dismissed the possibility because I thought Boston Ivy was evergreen.  But a little research informed me that the leaves of Boston Ivy do die off in winter.  Despite the Boston part of its name, this vine is Asian in origin and not native to our continent.  Although a prolific spreader, Boston Ivy does not usually survive competition from our native Virginia Creeper and so is usually not considered to be seriously invasive in the wild.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Blue Sky Over Lake Bonita

Thursday, February 4:  Here it was at last: that perfect winter day! A cobalt sky, clear of the merest trace of filtering clouds. A bright February sun, now reclaiming some height in that sky and adding some warmth to its rays. Fresh clean snow, still kickably powdery in the woods as the temps rose warm enough to breathe but not so warm as to melt that powder to mush.   And lucky for me, I knew of a marvelous place to make the most of this perfect winter day:  the snow-covered trails leading down to the solidly frozen surface of Lake Bonita.  So off I went to this small unspoiled lake near the summit of Mount McGregor in Moreau Lake State Park.

A remarkable feature of Lake Bonita is the presence of many small shrub- and sphagnum-covered islands that dot the lake.  Since paddling this lake is forbidden (in order to protect its pristine, invasive-free waters), the only time I can explore these little islands and their fascinating botanical inhabitants is  when the surface is frozen good and solid. A previous week of close-to-zero nights had produced good solid ice, before the recent snowfall covered the ice with about four inches of fluffy stuff, dazzling today beneath that radiant sky. 

While the remnants of most of the low-growing acid-loving plants -- the sundews, the sphagnum mosses, the bladderworts, the small pink orchids -- are now well-buried, the shrubby growths, still retaining their desiccated leaves and seedpods, cast intriguing shadows across the snowy expanse.

The most dominant of these shrubs is Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), which retains its leathery leaves throughout the winter.  Normally green, the leaf-tops now take on a rosy cast, and the twigs are already studded with the buds that will open into small white bell-shaped flowers in early spring.

Some of the Leatherleaf twigs still retain the remnants of last-fall's seed pods.  Having split open to spill the seeds, the husks of the pods now look like small tan-and-burgundy flowers in their own right.

The second most prolific shrub on the islands is Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), which does not retain its leaves through the winter, but it certainly has readied itself for spring by producing many cone-shaped glossy buds.

Here's a closer look at Sweet Gale's glossy mahogany-colored buds, each pointed scale outlined in white.

I always search among the Sweet Gale shrubs for the female ones containing the seed pods, dried now and ready to open and spill the seeds on the snow.  Although brittle and seemingly desiccated, the pods are actually sticky with a fragrant resin that perfumes my fingertips when I pinch the pods, the fragrance persisting until I next wash my hands. The "sweet" part of this shrub's vernacular name is well deserved!

Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) is the third most populous shrub on these islands, and its ruddy leaves are much in evidence now, as are the clusters of seedpods where this acid-loving shrub bore clusters of vividly pink flowers in June.

I know that Water Willow (Decodon verticillatus) grows out here, for I've spied through binoculars from shore a few of its flexible stems bearing purply-pink axillary flowers edging some of the islands in late summer. But the population always seemed so sparse, I felt quite surprised to find its remnants emerging from the snow.

Another (but less happy) surprise was that I did NOT this year find the chubby flower heads of Northern Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) standing tall on long stalks well above the snow cover. I know that they grow abundantly out here, as this photo from several years ago attests. But I could find not a single one this year, where in other winters I've found dozens.  I hope this species is not disappearing from these sphagnum-covered islands, the very kind of acidic habitat that it normally prefers.

After staring so long at plant remnants etched against the dazzling snow,  my eyes grew weary of the glare. The tree-lined south bank of the lake was casting long shadows across the lake, and I gladly headed toward this shore and its shady relief for my eyes.

The tracks of many wild animals criss-cross the lake, and most were too obscured by blown snow to allow for accurate identification. But deer tracks are usually easy to ID, since their heavy weight and two-toed hooves leave very distinctive prints.  As I walked in the shade near shore, I was curious about this set of tracks, which indicated at least one deer kept approaching the leaning boughs of this Red Maple (Acer rubrum). A closer inspection of the boughs revealed that many of the plump reddish buds of the maple were missing. Looks like deer enjoy nibbling on Red Maple buds!

Whoa!  Speaking of RED!  These vividly hued Highbush Blueberry branches (Vaccinium corymbosum) certainly announced their presence, especially arrayed against the dark-green background of Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) that form a near-monoculture of trees on the north-facing rocky shore of Lake Bonita.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

A Short Walk Through New Snow

I saw photos of folks digging out from deep snow further south of us, but just a few inches of soft fluffy stuff fell on us here in Saratoga --  easy to shovel and easy to walk through without snowshoes.  And it even felt kind of balmy today, with temps in the upper 20s. So I went for a walk on the Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail, entering from the Meadowbrook Road trail head.  I had thought I might find hard ice in the marsh that would allow me to venture out into places too soggy for exploring in warmer months.  But the stream that follows the trail sure did not look frozen hard enough to walk on! So I stayed on the trail.

The snow had stopped falling when I first left home, but by the time I reached the trailhead a few miles from my house, the snow started falling again, filling the air with big soft flakes, gently drifting down.

Then it started falling harder and harder, with the wind picking up to drive the snow slanting through the trees that line the trail.

I walked as far as where a boardwalk crosses a pond.  The wind had relented by now, so the snow was  falling gently down once more.  The flakes didn't show up in a photo, though, until I set my camera on flash.

It was hard to photograph much of the trailside vegetation, with snow wetting both my camera's lens and view screen. I did take a shot of this Gray Dogwood shrub, its berries long devoured by birds but the spidery pedicels still decorating the ends of the twigs.

I'm always pleased to see the remains of Turtlehead flower spikes.  The empty seed pods look a bit like stacks of pistachio shells.  And of course they inspire pleasant memories of the fascinating white florets that bloom on these stalks in late summer.  Ah, summer!  Here's hoping by summer we'll all be free to mingle with family and friends once more. I do feel lonelier and lonelier as the months of this pandemic wear on.

I think it's that loneliness that has stolen some of the joy that used to lighten the dark days of winter for me. I'm aware that I've not embraced winter days as I once did.  All I need to do is look over my blog posts from nearly a dozen winters past to note how my enthusiasm for the season has faltered this year.  The gray skies and drab foliage remnants seem to better reflect my current mood.  I searched and searched for some colors today, and eventually I was rewarded by the deep-red twigs of Red Osier Dogwood and the vivid chartreuse of tree trunks decorated with Green Shield Lichen.

And see how vivid the ruddy brown leaves of a young American Beech appear, a surprise of cheerful color against the otherwise black-and-white of the winter woods.