Friday, January 28, 2022

Undaunted by Cold, My Thursday Friends Head Into the Woods

You can BET we got bundled up, my Thursday Naturalist friends and myself this week! Thursday brought us another 10-below-zero dawn, although the thermometer did manage to creep up to 6-above by the time our smaller-than-usual group gathered at the Usher's Road State Forest Trail at 10am.  You can't see me in this photo, but even if I had been in it, you could not have recognized me, encased to my eyes as I was, in my "walking sleeping-bag" (a shin-length down coat) and with fuzzy scarves wrapping my head. Every pocket held a hand warmer, as much to keep my battery-operated camera alive as to warm my thickly mittened hands.

The Usher's Road State Forest Trail lies a few miles south of Round Lake, and it offers a nearly-two-mile loop trail through forest and wetland remarkable for the presence of many enormous White Pines. We also passed through a Hemlock-dominated section with trees that were almost as large, their branches alive with twittering Chickadees ripping the cones apart to feed on the seeds.   Note the scarcity of understory trees, so typical for forests of this age.

Bright sunshine helped to warm us a bit, but the most exciting reward of that sunlight was to dazzle us with sparkling snow, the sparkles glinting all the colors of the rainbow.  This is a very difficult effect to capture in a still photo, but by boosting the saturation of this shot, I did manage to make visible those colors, even though the brilliant whiteness of the snow got diminished in the process.  Just try to imagine how gorgeous it was, the colors dancing and glittering with every movement of our heads.

With so few herbaceous plants to attract our interest this time of year,  the persistent fungi stand out to draw our attention -- especially when they are as large, intact, and handsome as this stack of polypore shelf fungi. Since many fungi lose much of their distinguishing coloration in winter,  I did not even attempt to put a name to this pale-ivory one, other than to call it "beautiful."

This white shelf fungus had acquired some pretty tracery of a vibrant green moss on its cap, mostly hidden now beneath a fluffy cap of snow.

These small round galls lined up like little birds perched on a twig were as hard as nuts, so I knew they were not the puffball fungi they resembled before I looked more closely. Each had at least one small round hole in it, which could either have been a larva's exit hole or the entrance hole drilled by the larva's predator.

As we passed among towering Hemlocks, we noticed many patches of the remnants of shredded Hemlock cones, both the scales that covered the tiny winged seeds and a few of the seeds themselves.  Would the Chickadees hopping about in the upper branches have done this deed, or had forest-dwelling  rodents had a go at the cones that had fallen to the ground?

Here was a fallen American Beech twig lying on the snow, with two beechnuts still attached, the nuts inside the burs still intact. It seemed very odd to me that the nuts had not been consumed long ago!

The numerous webby patches of Frullania liverwort are so ubiquitous on the smooth-barked trees of any woods around here that they usually go unnoticed.  But this particular patch was such a vivid green (most Frullania is a dark brown) that it looked quite lovely against the golden bark of this tree. (I confess I have not yet learned to distinguish one Frullania species from another.  Sorry!)

At least, I usually DO recognize an orchid when I see one!  And the pods of this small orchid, each plump oval pod with a withered floral part protruding from the tip, definitely said "Coralroot" to me.  Ah, but which species?  After showing this photo to two of my orchid-expert friends, I am happy to report that they verified my hunch that these were the winter remains of an Autumn Coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza).

We managed to emerge from the woods unscathed by frostbite, looking forward to meeting again next Thursday, when I hope to lead my friends out on the frozen surface of Lake Bonita to explore the little islands I described in my previous blog post. I hope it will be a bit warmer then, but still cold enough to preserve the thickness of the ice.

It was still very cold this morning (Friday) when I was surprised to see this Mockingbird drinking from our heated birdbath. I'm not used to seeing this species in our backyard at any time of the year.  But since, after several nights of sub-zero cold, our birdbath may provide the only liquid water available to wildlife for miles around, I suppose I should not be surprised by this, or any other, unusual wildlife visitor.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Venturing Out Into the Cold


Sunday, January 23:  Moreau Lake State Park

Ten below ZERO!  Gosh, you'd think most folks would hunker down in their cozy homes on a day as cold as this.  But today the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky, and by early afternoon the temps had climbed a bit above zero. I'd been nursing a cold all the week before, so I was eager to feel some sun on my face, and I wanted to check out the new skating rink at the park, this first weekend it was open to the public. So I  bundled up and headed out to Moreau.

The first thing I noticed was dozens of cars parked along the beach road and many families with young children out on the frozen lake, arrayed around holes in the ice. Oh yes, I now remembered: the park was offering an ice fishing experience for children today, and lots of families had responded.  As an extra enticement to overcome fear of frostbite, the park's warming hut was open, too, offering hot dogs and cocoa inside by the fireplace, as well as marshmallows for roasting at a roaring firepit outdoors.

Many folks, too, were enjoying the new skating rink at the beach, zipping around on ice that park staffers had cleared and smoothed for skating.  Several fires had been placed around the shore, offering warmth to both skaters and onlookers. This is a new winter activity being offered by the park this year, and I was happy to see so many folks turning out to enjoy it.

Even some little children were enjoying the rink.  The nice thing about being as small as this child, you don't have that far to fall.  And of course, you are so bundled up in padded snowpants, your tender parts are well cushioned against any "owies."

I noticed, too, that the park has supplied some supportive equipment for those just learning to skate. Or to just scoot around on the ice and have fun with your bigger sisters and brothers.

Heading home from the park, I drove along the Hudson River, noting that ice was building out from the shore.  After the several sub-zero days that followed, the ice eventually reached from shore to shore.

Monday, January 24: Lake Bonita at Moreau Lake State Park

Every winter I look forward eagerly to when the ice grows thick on Lake Bonita atop Mt. McGregor in Moreau Lake State Park. Several sub-zero nights have now allowed me to venture safely out to examine the plants that inhabit the little islands that dot the lake's surface.  These islets are all thickly covered with Sphagnum Moss, a particular kind of moss that creates an acidic habitat, one that is conducive to the growth of plants best suited to bog or otherwise low pH habitats.  I was glad that today the snow cover was light enough to reveal this golden Sphagnum mat at the base of a Leatherleaf shrub.

Here's a cluster of the three most populous shrubs of the little islands: the golden leaves are those of Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), the deep maroon leaves are those of Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), and the leafless twigs bearing pointed buds (lower right) are those of Sweet Gale (Myrica gale).

Here's a pair of twigs from a Leatherleaf shrub, the twig on the left bearing the open seed pods that resemble little brown flowers, and the twig on the right bearing the winter-persistent leaves and the buds that will produce next spring's bell-shaped white flowers.

I am always delighted to find female Sweet Gale shrubs filled with cone-shaped seed pods. While not particularly beautiful to look at, they certainly produce a marvelous fragrance when I rub one through my fingers, spilling the tiny seeds on the snow beneath. My fingers will now carry that fragrance until I next wash my hands or my gloves. The scent is very similar to that of Bayberry or Sweet Fern, but even more intensely aromatic.

Other Sweet Gale twigs are laden with buds of the flowers to come in the spring, with pistillate and staminate flowers growing on separate shrubs. I find these flower buds very beautiful, their glossy mahogany-red pointed scales outlined in ivory.

A fourth shrub populates these islands, too, although much more sparsely. But finding the winter remnants of Water Willow (Decodon verticillatus), with its wreaths of seedpods circling the arching stems, is definite proof of this plant's presence out here. I have paddled ponds where masses of Water Willow form impenetrable thickets along the shore, but out here on these tiny islets, it is only an occasional resident.

Some herbaceous plants, too, bear dried remnants that one can recognize even in winter. These tulip-shaped split-open achenes of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum) are abundant along the shore of the lake, as well as among the flowers that populate the islands.

It's always fun to come upon the vase-shaped leaves of a Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea), but it's a special treat to find one in winter, its normally liquid contents frozen solid and its beautiful color intact.

The colors of its bright-red flowers have faded, though,  but much of its fascinating structure remains intact. At least, for occasional specimens. Not all of the Pitcher Plant flowers I found today were this well preserved.

Many Speckled Alder shrubs (Alnus incana) thrive along the lakeshore, as well as growing occasionally out on the islands.  Here and there, I found some female cones infected with a fungal plant pathogen called Alder Tongue Gall (Taphrina alni), which causes the cones to produce tangled masses of ribbon-like growths, like those pictured here.  I have read that, although it distorts some of the cones of an individual tree, it does not harm the tree itself.

Another common small tree that grows along the shore is Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).  By this time of year, the ribbon-like petals of its fall-blooming flowers have been shed, but the remaining floral calyces are so yellow and flower shaped, once could easily mistake them for small yellow flowers blooming in the dead of winter.

The steep rocky banks of Lake Bonita's north-facing shore are thick with Eastern Hemlock trees, the beautiful green-needled branches adorned now with tiny brown cones.  With this conifer species currently under attack by the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, I hate to imagine our northern forests bereft of this signature tree. I desperately hope that some kind of control will be found effective to combat this menace.

As I climbed the forested hills to return to my car, I was struck by how the ruddy bark of these tall, straight Red Pines (Pinus resinosa) stood out from the typical gray of the surrounding tree trunks.  I can certainly see how this stately conifer came by the name Red Pine.  I frequently come upon stands of Red Pine whose even rows indicate intentional plantings, but the random distribution of these particular trees in the woods surrounding Lake Bonita suggest that they could have occurred naturally, since this species is native to this part of New York State.

Tuesday, January 25: The Hudson River Shore at Moreau

Finally, my pal Sue Pierce and I found a day when neither she nor I was feeling ill.  And the weather cooperated, too, warming enough for us to meet for an extensive walk without suffering from the cold. We even saw a patch or two of blue sky above the mountains that line the Hudson downstream from the Spier Falls Dam. Sub-zero nights had frozen the river completely across.  But knowing how river currents can weaken ice cover, we did not venture onto the main river ice, choosing instead to walk a paved county road to a fenced-off water treatment plant, then down through the woods to the shore of the river.  We then returned to our starting point by walking through the woods close to the river. 

I  had thought it would be an easy walk.  But I had forgotten about the fierce straight-line winds that had roared through here a few years back, toppling many trees that now lay across our path.   We sometimes had to scramble to make our way through the jumble of trunks and branches.

It was obvious that many Coyotes had travelled this route much more easily than we could,  for we saw their abundant tracks where the animals had passed easily around, amid, and under the fallen trees. I think my friend found this evidence of largish wild canids a bit disconcerting, but I tried to assure her that any Coyote for miles around had already heard us coming and had hightailed it far away from us.

After pushing and scrambling through blow-down for some distance, I found it quite a relief to step out onto this ice-covered swamp, where the walking was much less burdened.  And I loved the view of this rocky little island I used to call Three Pine Island before those winds I mentioned before toppled two of those gigantic pines.

Even though I felt sure that most of the ice-cover here in the swamp was safe to support me, I was aware of where a stream flowed into the swamp and made sure to keep a safe distance from where this stream could have weakened the ice. I did not want to slosh the quarter-mile or so back to my car with saturated snowpants and ice-water-filled boots!

My personal name for this backwater swamp is Tupelo Swamp,  suggested by the many Black Tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica) that once flourished here.  Sadly, most of the tupelos have been girdled by beavers and are slowly dying.  This particular cluster of young tupelos was blown over by those roaring winds, and I was struck by how several trunks had managed to remain upright, even though dead. I thought the remaining twisted trunks looked quite gracefully sculptural.

As I re-entered the woods, I passed through a thicket of Highbush Blueberry shrubs (Vaccinium corymbosum) whose reddish twigs and scarlet buds caught my attention. In a winter landscape mostly bereft of vibrant color, such colorful exceptions do stand out!

I also delighted in this sunlit patch of Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) looking so sprightly as it cast its shadow on the snow.

The sun that cast that shadow, though, was fading fast. Thick dark clouds were racing across the sky in our direction, and we hurried as quickly as we could up the snow-covered slope that lay between us and our cars.  The snow was falling fast by the time we reached the parking area, driven by a fierce wind that was almost frightening in its roaring.  But that same wind drove the clouds quickly past us, not allowing much snow to accumulate on the roads as we made our ways home, happy we'd found a day to venture out among these beautiful woods along the Hudson.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Taking Pity on a Poor Opossum

Earlier this week, when I saw this young opossum feeding on the cat food we put out on our back porch for feral cats, I noticed its ears and the tip of its tail were bloody stumps from having been frozen off. Poor thing, it must have been feeling great pain! (Opossums are relatively recent residents of the frozen north and have not truly evolved to endure our sub-zero winters.)  After eating its fill, the opossum took refuge from a bitter wind in an insulated cat shelter we had constructed out of plastic bins and placed on this same porch.  

The population of our local feral cat colony has diminished greatly in recent years, and the remaining few cats appear to have taken up residence elsewhere, only occasionally visiting our backyard to drink from our heated birdbath and eat the food we still put out for them. Because of this, I hadn't bothered to replenish the bedding material in the shelter. But when I saw this poor shivering creature trying to get warm, I felt I needed to create a better place for it to do so. So yesterday I lined the shelter with a heat-reflecting mylar sheet and piled in heaps of sweet-scented timothy hay.   And today, I see that my efforts have paid off for this opossum.  Hope you are cozier now, dear one!

Monday, January 17, 2022

So Much For Our Winter Wonderland!

Woke up today to that Winter Wonderland we've been waiting for!  Hurray!  About 5 inches of soft fluffy snow, easy to shovel and clear from my car, and it wasn't very cold out, either.  I hurried through breakfast and jumped in my car to head out to Saratoga Spa State Park.  There's a long allee of tall pines there that hold the snow most picturesquely, and I hoped to capture that loveliness in a photo.

Sadly, though, the temperature was now above freezing, and much of the snow had dropped from the limbs of the trees.

Even worse, the air now was filled with droplets of rain instead of big fluffy snowflakes.  I noticed the sledders were still reluctant to leave their hill, after waiting so long to use their sleds this winter.  But I bet they were soaking wet when they got home.

I sat in my car, feeling glum. Here's all that snow I'd been hoping for, now soaking up rain like a sponge.  I didn't cry or anything as dramatic as that.  But the view through my windshield looked as if it had been dimmed by tears.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Good Ice on the Lake, At Last!

I do believe this is the crummiest winter I've experienced since moving to Saratoga Springs in the fall of  1970.  Granted, that winter of '71 would be a hard one to top, with record cold and snowfall that haven't been matched since (28-below each night for several January weeks and 120 inches of snow over the course of the winter). Luckily, we then were living in Skidmore faculty housing, where we didn't have to pay for heat or shovel the walks or repair the damage when a roof caved in from the weight of wet snow on it. So I  thought all that snow and the consistent cold were truly great. As were the persistently sunny days that set all that fresh clean snow to sparkling.  REAL winter, man!  Not like this one, with freezing rain one day and single-digit temps the next, then back to rain, followed by too-cold-to-tolerate days that have been keeping me indoors. And one gray day after another. It was really getting me down.

Well, it was still pretty gray yesterday, too, but several close-to-zero nights had frozen-up Moreau Lake really well.  And with daytime temps approaching a balmy 30 degrees, it was a perfect day for getting out on that iced-over lake to see what was happening at Moreau Lake State Park.

I wasn't the only person celebrating those strong six-inches of ice from shore to shore.  Many fishermen had wasted no time getting out there with their tip-ups and tents to try their luck.  I have  noticed that they are almost always fisherMEN, too.  Why is it, I wonder, that so few women choose to spend the day sitting for hours on the ice? Hmmm.

See the smiles of the faces of this pair of fellows?  That's Ben on the left and Bob on the right, and they had a very good day.

Three beautiful big Rainbow Trout (14-16 inches).  And they weren't done fishing yet!

Both Ben and Bob were happy to show me their bountiful catch, and Ben was eager to chat with me when we started talking about foraging for wild food. As it turned out, Ben's a skilled and enthusiastic  mushroom hunter, so we spent lots of happy chatter as he showed me many of the amazing finds he keeps photos of on his cellphone. I think he was a bit surprised that I knew the name of nearly all of them.  Such a happy encounter, indeed! It's so much fun to meet by chance someone who shares your passions.

As I continued my walk around the lake, I spied  these tiny mushrooms growing on a shoreline shrub, and I almost ran back out on the ice to tell Ben about them.  But maybe he wouldn't have been that excited about Split-gill Fungi, since they're not edible.

How did I know what species they were?  All I had to do was turn them over, to see the split gills that suggested this mushroom's name.  (Schizophyllum communis, its scientific name, also refers to its distinctive split gills.)  I was impressed by how furry these specimens were, as if they had grown a winter coat to make it through the winter.  This is indeed a species of fungus we can find intact all winter long.

Here was another furry find, this one faunal instead of fungal.  And quite a surprise, too, since I would never expect to see a colony of Woolly Alder Aphids this far into the winter. But then, we did have a very warm fall and a very late frost, followed by days of unseasonable warmth that even brought some spring wildflowers into bloom in October and even November.  So maybe this clonal group just kept on cloning more and more generations of aphids, a species that exudes waxy threads that look like fur.  This waxy fur protects the tender insects from predators as well as inclement weather.  But it could not protect them from temps as bitterly cold as the cold that froze this lake solid in just a few days.  These aphids were frozen solid and definitely dead.

My particular destination today was to check on the skating rink I'd learned was being created near the swimming beach.  I'd been wondering for years why the park did not offer this winter activity, so I was delighted to see this work in progress.  Park staff are now smoothing the ice with makeshift "zambonis", hoping to open the rink for skating by Saturday, January 15.  I've heard there will be benches set near, as well as some fire rings kept burning to help skaters keep warm.  What a great addition to winter activities at this already wonderful state park!

I'd been hoping all day that the sun would break through the clouds to add some sparkle to the afternoon. Ah well, the sun did manage to cast a golden path on the ice just before it descended behind the mountains. Knowing that darkness would very soon follow, I hurried across the ice toward where my car waited at the opposite end of the lake.  I noted that none of the fishermen were yet packing up their gear.  Very persistent fellows, those fishermen! So full of hope!  And as I left the lake much happier than when I'd arrived, I think some of their hope had rubbed off on me.