Saturday, March 27, 2021

What a Difference a Few Days Make!

Oh man, I thought that our snow would NEVER leave!  Just 4 days ago, on 3/23, I stopped by the Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, N.Y., hoping to see if any native wildflowers might be starting to bloom in the woods.  Hah!  Not very likely, since snow still lay deep throughout the preserve, as this photo taken that day reveals.

But look!  All that snow had disappeared by today, 3/27, thanks to some rain and continued warmth.

Four days ago, even our earliest blooming wildflower, the Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), still held its spathes tightly closed.  Not until those bulbous red spathes open to allow light to enter their hollow chambers would we expect to see the interior spadices covered with tiny flowers.

Well, this spathe sure was open today, displaying the pollen-shedding spadix within. As were all the other Skunk Cabbage plants that shared this muddy swale.

Some of the Skunk Cabbage plants even had their tightly furled green leaves beginning to emerge.

But the most exciting find at Orra Phelps today was this tiny Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale), its snow-white flower bud just emerging from its enveloping leaves. The Snow Trillium is certainly an aptly named plant, since it starts to bloom almost as soon as any open ground appears in an otherwise snowy woods.  

I feel extremely lucky to encounter this diminutive flower anywhere in Saratoga County, since its native range is far south and west of here (think Ohio or Pennsylvania).  But a healthy patch of them have made their home here in this preserve, thanks to this land's original owner, the late Orra Phelps, who planted them here many years ago.  I believe by tomorrow this flower should be wide open, so I will be sure to hurry back here to photograph it in full bloom.

Excited by these floral finds, I stopped by the North Woods at Skidmore College on my way home.  When I was last here on 3/21,  six days ago, I had hoped to hear Spring Peepers or Wood Frogs sounding their spring mating calls from the woodland pond pictured below.  Sadly, though, on that day, the pond was still frozen tight from shore to shore and absolutely silent of any frog calls.  But look!  Can you see the open water now along the shore?  And boy, was the woods resounding today with the shrill chorus of Spring Peepers, as well as the croaking "quacks" of the amorous Wood Frogs! Spring music, indeed!

When I was here in the Skidmore woods last Sunday, I could see last year's reddish leaves of Sharp-lobed and Round-lobed Hepatica plants, made obvious on the forest floor by their distinctive color. I had peered into the center of one of those plants and detected a tiny emerging flower bud.  How long, I wondered, before that bud will open to produce a flower?

Less than a week, I learned today!  Peering closely into that same cluster of reddish leaves I'd examined last Sunday, I found not just one, but a whole ready-made bouquet of pink opening flowers, newly emerged from their very furry  buds.

Nearby was another cluster of hepatica leaves, and on this plant that central floral bouquet included a wide-open flower, colored the prettiest pale lavender.

No doubt about it now:  the spring wildflower season is definitely upon us!

Friday, March 26, 2021

A Great Day of Firsts!

What a great day it was for "firsts," this  past Thursday!  The first day this year the temperature reached past 70 degrees. The first day this year to hear Wood Frogs croaking in a woodland pool along the Spring Run Trail in Saratoga.  The first time this year to find American Hazelnut shrubs in bloom, with both male and female flowers.  The first day to find Speckled Alder's golden catkins swaying in the breeze. And best of all, the first time in months since my friend Sue Pierce and I,  now both of us fully vaccinated against Covid, could hug each other, ride in the same car together, enjoy a nature walk together, and have lunch together inside a restaurant.  A day to celebrate! Let our post-pandemic life begin!

Here's Sue trying to capture on video the distinctive duck-like "quacks" of some amorous, only recently thawed Wood Frogs in that Spring Run pool.  We could hear them as soon as we neared this site, but of course they fell silent as soon as we approached their pool.  But just wait!  If we stand here silent enough and long enough, they will start their spring chorus once more.  And so they did!  A sound of spring like no other!  We did hear other spring songs this day as well, all from the birds that happily inhabit this woodsy and watery spot:  Red-winged Blackbirds, Goldfinches, Chickadees, Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers, Winter and Carolina Wrens, and one full-throated Song Sparrow -- all announcing that spring is here at last!

Here are both the male and female flowers of American Hazelnut (Corylus americana), one of our earliest native shrubs to bloom.  The golden dangling catkins won't lift their scales and shed their pollen on the breeze until after the tiny red pistillate flower have been fertilized by pollen wafting from neighboring shrubs. This is the hazelnut's strategy to avoid self-pollination.

Here's a closer look at that tiny American Hazelnut female flower, all pistils and no petals. It is rare to find strictly wind-pollinated flowers so brightly colored, since this flower has no need to invite insect pollinators by its color.  I'm glad for its color, myself, since otherwise it would be very hard to detect among the twigs, it is so very small.

Numerous alders -- both our native Speckled Alder (Alnus incana) and an introduced European Black Alder (Alnus glutinosa) -- thrive in the wetlands along the Spring Run Trail.  I am not sure how to tell them apart, since their flowers look very similar.  Both alder species produce dangling male catkins that lengthen and turn golden with pollen in spring, the catkin clusters surmounted by the reddish-scaled female flower buds, which are held higher on the twigs to lessen the chance of their own shrub's pollen dropping down on them.

Neither sex of the alder flowers in the above photo was quite mature enough to offer or receive pollen, but both appeared to be close to maturity.  When ripe, the male catkins will turn more uniformly golden and shed yellow clouds of pollen at a touch, and the female catkins will sprout tiny bright-red pistils.  I have a photo, taken on another occasion, of what those female alder flowers will look like when they open to receive that air-wafted pollen:

The female flowers will eventually form the small brown cones that persist on the alders' branches long after they have shed their seeds.  As this photo reveals, last year's alder cones were still abundantly present, even on shrubs that were readying to reproduce once again, as these dangling golden catkins would attest.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Spring Inches In

At last!  A whole string of warm sunny days!  This should start springy things happening fast, so I set off these past few days to see what signs of them I could find in the wooded areas near my home in Saratoga Springs.

Saturday, March 20, The Spring Run Trail, Saratoga Springs
What better place to celebrate the first day of spring than along a trail called Spring Run?  And even though snow still covered the ground in the trailside woods, the south-facing slopes along the Spring Run Creek were wonderfully snow free, with a warm sun crisping the leaves on the forest floor.

I'm not sure that the twigs of Red Osier Dogwood actually intensify their red as spring approaches, or if it's just our winter-weary eyes that are seeking such vivid colors.  But they sure were blazing away  today, even though their feet were still deep in snow.

I do know that willow branches color up brightly in spring,  as the new growth on this small tree demonstrated with its golden bark.

And what a beautiful sight it was, this rainbow of colors in the swamp near the eastern end of the Spring Run Trail: red dogwood, yellow willows, green conifers, blue sky. I don't know if finding a pot of gold here would have delighted me any more than this!

More delight awaited!  No one can deny that spring is here for sure when the Pussy Willow fluffs out it silken tufts.

Aha! And what could be a happier find on the first day of spring than the very first FLOWER of spring, this dazzling little Coltsfoot bloom that had pushed up through the cold dead leaves overnight? Yes, I know that Skunk Cabbage usually precedes it in bloom, but the Coltsfoot actually looks like what we think of when we say "flower," like the quintessential blooms that children draw with a yellow crayon. I'm also aware that Coltsfoot is not one of our native wildflowers, but I bet our earliest pollinators won't pass up the feast it offers now, just because this isn't a native.  Happy First Day of Spring!

Sunday, March 21, The North Woods at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs

Among the earliest sounds of spring are the trilling chorus of Spring Peepers and the quacking croaks of Wood Frogs.  There's a woodland pond at Skidmore where I hear both frogs in early spring each year. Would I hear them there today?  Sadly, I did not.  Even though both species often will start their amorous clamor while a bit of ice may still ring their pond, the ice still covered the open water shore to shore, so all was silent.  I bet this will change in just a few days, as the forecast calls for more warmth and some rain ahead.

Meanwhile, I noticed the Striped Maple buds where starting to swell.  Such elegant buds they are, like  ruby-red scepters atop forest-green twigs that are braceleted with pale rings.

It was still way to early to look for hepatica blooms, or even the fur-covered buds.  But hey, I could see the ruddy wintered-over leaves of many Sharp-loved Hepatica plants sprawled across some boulders.  Why not take a closer look?

Aha!  I did find one tiny hepatica bud, just breaking the ground.  Another week, if this warmth continues, and we should start seeing these beautiful flowers.

Tuesday, March 23, The Orra Phelps Nature Preserve, Wilton

Today was the warmest day so far, making it all the way to at least 70 degrees (F) under a clear blue sky.  Could it possibly have been warm enough for long enough for the Snow Trillium to emerge at Orra Phelps?  This wee little trillium has been known to bloom on an upland sun-warmed rise at this preserve while snow still lay in the shaded hollows. And snow did still lie in the hollows today.

And ice still covered the trails with slippery peril.  Without ice grippers on my boots, I made my way along by crunching through the softening snow instead of chancing a fall on the icy trail.

In a swale populated by dozens of scarlet spathes of Skunk Cabbage poking up from the moss-covered mud, I was surprised to find very few of the spathes had opened enough to espy any pollen-bearing spadices within.  Gosh, but it seemed awfully late for these plants to not yet be in bloom, especially since I had found Skunk Cabbage fully in bloom at other sites nearby. 

With the Skunk Cabbage not yet blooming here, I was not surprised to find no trace of Snow Trillium at the location I usually find it.  The forest floor was bare where it grows, but not yet warm enough to coax the trilliums awake from their winter sleep.  Much of the woods was still quite deep in snow at this preserve, although I could see bare earth now at the base of most of the trees.  I have read that sun warming the dark bark of the trunks helps to melt the snow around them.

I decided to avoid those ice-covered trails by returning to my car through the woods, keeping to several stretches of forest floor that were bare of snow.  As I neared the banks along Parkhurst Road,  I encountered this large patch of blooming yellow flowers.  A low stone wall and some moss-covered steps indicated I had come upon the site of a former garden, paved now with hundreds of fully open Winter Aconite.  What a floral feast for my winter-weary, flower-famished eyes!

As a native-plant purist, I probably shouldn't have been so happy to find this non-native and possibly invasive flower blooming so profusely at the edge of a nature preserve dedicated to native plants. But oh my, aren't they pretty?   And they WERE mostly confined to an area that obviously had been somebody's garden.  

More proof of this site's previous function as a private garden was this abundant patch of one more non-native garden plant, called Snow Drops, sharing the space with more of the Winter Aconite.  Both of these flowering plants, natives of Europe but not the U.S., are among the earliest flowers to bloom wherever they grow.

As these snow-surrounded flowers indicate, the "winter" part of Winter Aconite is quite well deserved!

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

OK, Not Yet. But Soon.

kinda jumped the gun, last post.  A couple of sunny warm days got my hopes up that we were going to sail right into spring from now on out.  Hah!  Dream on!  The thermometer plummeted again.  Gray skies turned stubbornly permanent.  Snow on the forest floor refused to melt.  Even on partly sunny days, a bitter wind discouraged me from venturing out.  I fought against my resistance, however, and did go in search of some earliest signs of spring.  And I did find a couple.

The Skunk Cabbage growing in a trailside creek at Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail had opened a few red spathes to reveal some tiny pollen-shedding florets on the spadices within.  So here it is, folks: the first real flower of spring! Some of our earliest pollinators will be even more excited about this than I am!

I also took a turn on the Spring Run Trail here in downtown Saratoga Springs, and I could hear the rasping calls of Red-winged Blackbirds sounding across a trailside marsh crowded with Phragmites.  I even got a picture of one. At least the males have arrived, to establish nesting sites for when their mates venture north in the weeks to come. So, great!  Another sure sign that spring is on the way.

Those finds set me thinking that maybe I could discover our second flower of spring -- the tiny red sprouts of American Hazelnut's pistillate flowers -- among the many shrubs that line the powerline just north of Mud Pond at Moreau Lake State Park. It sure didn't look very promising when I arrived.  The pond itself was still covered with ice from shore to shore, and I had difficulty accessing the site through icy snowbanks two feet deep.

The powerline trail itself was still covered with packed snow that was difficult to walk on now, potholed as it was from melting and refreezing.  A real ankle twister! But that's where American Hazelnuts crowd the trail on either side.  I was eager to search among the bare twigs for those tiny bright-red flowers.

I could easily detect the male hazelnut flowers, the catkins that had dangled from the twigs all winter.  They were still tightly closed, not shedding pollen yet.  And a diligent search of dozens of shrubs' tangled twigs revealed not a single sprout of a female flower.  Not yet. Sigh!

But at least I did find this fascinating fungus on a very few of the hazelnut shrubs.   See how this smaller twig is stuck to the larger one?  The reddish stuff that has stuck it there is called Glue Crust Fungus (Hymenochaete corrugata), and believe it or not, that fungus has a good reason to do just that. Its strategy is to hoard dead hazelnut twigs for itself, gluing the dead twigs to living ones high in the shrubs, so they won't fall to the ground, where other, rival fungi could compete to consume them. Who could have guessed that a fungus could strategize like this? Sometimes, Nature absolutely astounds me!

Here's another example of that Glue Crust Fungus doing its thing. I should tie a bright ribbon to mark these occurrences, so I could observe how long the fungus persists at each site and if I could observe any change in the dead twig being consumed. But first I'd have to determine which of the twigs was the living one and which one was dead. Not that easy to tell from these photos!

Finding that fungus was enough fun for the day, I decided. The ankle-twisting pot-holed trail around the pond did not look the least bit inviting. And the gray sky was darkening, even though it was early afternoon.  And that darned snow still lay thick over anything of interest on the forest floor.  A warming trend is forecast for later this week.  Let's see what changes that warming trend will bring.  Later!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

What a Difference a Day Makes!

I started this week thinking that winter in Saratoga County would never end. Other friends had been finding Skunk Cabbage -- our first flower of spring -- blooming already not too far away.   But when I went to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton on Monday, expecting to find Skunk Cabbage in its usual seepy swale, the snow still lay way too deep for even that self-heating, snow-melting plant to come up for air.

So I headed next to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail in Saratoga Springs.  There's a little stream there, where Skunk Cabbage pops up early, right out of the shallow water.  Well, it had popped up, all right, protruding right through the ice that still covered the stream.  And its bulging bright-red spathes had broken free from the greenish bracts that protected the plant all winter. But all the spathes were still tightly closed, still hiding the pollen-producing spadices within.  Close, but not yet truly in flower, still held tight in winter's grip. A bitter wind wormed inside the scarf protecting my ears. Discouraged and shivering from the cold, I just went home.

But what a surprise, the following day! When I opened my door on Tuesday to collect the morning papers, a blast of bright sun startled my eyes and a wave of balmy air surrounded me with warmth. Spring had arrived, overnight! Time to get out and enjoy it.  So up to Moreau Lake State Park I went, to walk around the lake, under that radiant blue sky. Of course, the lake was still covered with many inches of ice, but the very top of the surface had melted in the day's warmth, producing pools of standing water.

The ice was still plenty thick enough near shore to support my weight, and the surface had softened to a point where it was not even slippery.  Even without wearing spikes on my rubber boots, I could walk on the watery ice a few feet from shore, where the going was easier than crunching through the crusted snow that still covered much of the beach. Evidence of previous hard-packed ski and snow-shoe tracks was preserved in the softening slush.

Several days ago, high winds had blown much dusty dirt across the surface of the lake. Today, that dirt had collected in rippling waves of fine dark threads that floated on the watery surface. I had never observed this particular phenomenon before. It was rather pretty, like sheer silk edged with black lace.

I was struck by other images as well, such has this oak leaf, released from where it once had been frozen onto the ice, now floating free above the shape the leaf had previously impressed in the ice. What looked like a shadow beneath the leaf was actually a pit several inches deep, created by the leaf's dark color magnifying the heat of the sun.

Here was a beech leaf in similar circumstances, floating free above its own deep impression in the ice.

When I reached the south-facing end of the lake,  I was struck by the presence of two long ridges of sand, about 8 feet apart, that ran parallel to the shore.  I have often seen such ridges on sandy beaches, created by wind-driven ice pushing sand up onto the shore. But the presence of the TWO parallel ridges indicates that the lake's water level must have dropped significantly between the creation of the higher and lower ridges.  The pronounced change in water levels at Moreau Lake has been a situation of significant concern over the past few years, and scientists are still investigating the causes.

This sunlit shore tempted me to park myself on a log and just bask in this warmth a while, feeling the chill of winter begin to seep out of my old bones.  I was also delighted to observe this man and his dog enjoying the day. The dog spied a stick a few yards out from shore, partly embedded in the softening ice, and she scampered out to dislodge the stick, came romping back to encourage her master to fling it (which he did), and so the game began.

Is there any image more joyful than that of a dog playing fetch with a stick?  Again and again, she tore out after the stick her master had hurled, skidding past the stick on the slippery ice but promptly skittering back to reclaim her prize and deliver it once more to the man she obviously adored. Her happiness was as infectious as it was obvious.  I laughed out loud.  I loved her. It felt good to be alive.

It also felt wonderful to squish my boots in that soft sun-warmed sand.  I could feel the warmth right through the soles of my boots and my super-thick socks.  Just the day before I had felt the cold of that still-shin-deep snow at Orra Phelps Preserve.  This felt so much better!