Monday, February 27, 2023

Taking the Waters for Health

We're preparing for a snow storm this afternoon, but this morning the sun was out.  Sadly, I myself had not been out -- "out" as in outdoors -- for more than a week, laid low by an intestinal infection that was painful enough in itself, but the combination of prescribed antibiotics added nausea to the abdominal pain and general malaise.  But at least the drugs must be doing their job, since I felt well enough today to venture out for a brief walk in my Saratoga Springs neighborhood. Luckily, my neighborhood includes Congress Park just a block away.  And located in Congress Park are several mineral springs, whose waters are said to promote good health. So off I ventured to "take the waters," hoping their beneficial tonics might spur my complete recovery.

To reach the park, I headed south from my house on Circular Street, and turned right on the aptly named Spring Street.  The first spring whose waters I'd hoped to imbibe, called the Hathorn Spring, was just down the hill, sheltered under a decorative green-roofed pavilion.

The informative sign for the Hathorn Spring indicates this highly mineralized water is "renowned as a digestive curative."  Aha!  Just what I needed!

Oh bummer!  Out of service!

Luckily, other healing springs were not far away, just across Spring Street in Congress Park proper.  To reach them, I passed another handsome pavilion, this one harboring a marvelous carousel.  Closed now for the winter, it presents quite a lively attraction during the warmer months. I loved bringing my grandkids here when they were young, giving me a grand excuse to climb on a painted pony myself and joyfully surge up and down to the stirring carillon music.

I could look through the glass to admire the beautiful horses, created many years ago by a famous  carousel-pony sculptor named Marcus Illions.  The carousel was once a fixture of a Saratoga Lake amusement park, but when that park was sold, the carousel was moved to its present location in Congress Park, where it opened in June, 2002, to the delight of children of all ages.  

Continuing on, I next passed this grand Victorian building that housed a lively casino during Saratoga's gambling and society-hot-spot heyday back in the 19th Century.  Still called The Casino, the building now houses the Saratoga History Museum and offers luxurious event space for weddings and other elaborate affairs.

One can guess at the fabulous interior of The Casino by noting this gorgeous stained-glass window, created by the famous glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

At the center of Congress Park lies a duck pond that hordes of ducks -- mostly Mallards that have interbred with domestic white ducks -- refuse to leave during the winter, even though the city draws most of the water down. Despite signs asking the public to refrain from feeding the ducks,  many folks can't resist tossing treats to them.  So the ducks know where the easy eats can be found.  Congress Park is a popular destination for people all year long.

I was glad to see this fellow was simply chatting with the expectant ducks, and not really feeding them.  

I'm glad I stopped to chat with the duck-chatting-fellow myself, since he had an exciting observation to share with me.  A pair of Wood Ducks had joined the throng today!  Thanks to my informant's pointing him out, I did spy the Wood Duck male in his gorgeous plumage. His mate, with her more camouflaging plumage, was impossible for me to pick out from the masses of similarly dun-colored Mallard hens.

Finally! Goal achieved.  A flowing spring. I could hear the water splashing as I approached the ornate Deer Park fountain.

I was happy when I read this informative placard, too, to learn that the water flowing was indeed, actual mineral water. Some years ago, as this copy reveals, the water was simply city water, offered as a low-flavored alternative to the mineral-rich spring water Saratoga Springs is famous for.

As the rust-stains reveal, the Deer Park water has lots of  iron in it. Carbon dioxide is dissolved in it, too, as is obvious from its tingly and refreshing carbonation.

Nearby was another mineral spring, the Congress Spring, housed within a handsome Greek-style pavilion.

This, too, was real mineral water, highly flavored and tingly with carbonation.  Again, its iron content is made evident by the rust stains.  The handsome ceramic fountain was created by Skidmore College Professor of Art Regis Brodie, a noted ceramic artist.

Here was one last spring to try in Congress Park, the Columbian Spring.  OK, let's check it out.

Ah, but I then read this placard, which explains that the water running here is basically city water, not mineral water.  Although the sign says that the water "flows here from Loughberry Lake, the City's Water Supply," I'm sure it passes first through the city's water-treatment plant to be filtered and chlorinated.  Not mineral water direct from deep in the earth, for sure!

Now well refreshed with what I hope are healing waters, I ambled through the park on my way toward home, just a couple of blocks away. I am glad my path took me close by our city's most exquisitely beautiful monument, called The Spirit of Life.  This elegant figure, holding a pine branch in one hand and an overflowing basin in the other, was sculpted by Daniel Chester French, the artist who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Monument, in Washington D.C.

Another favorite location for statuary in the park is this pool and fountain, formally named The Triton Pool but more familiarly known to Saratogians as Spit and Spat.  In warmer months, the two contending male figures (now protected from the winter in transparent enclosures) each blow water through conch shells toward each other .

Here's a closer look at one of the male figures.  If it's supposed to be Triton, god of the sea in Greek mythology, it seems that his dolphin tail is missing.  But of course, in warmer months, that part of him would be under the water of the pool.

As a naturalist, of course, I always take note of what's of botanical interest along my way.  I was pleased to see that young Black Tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica) have been planted recently on the banks of one of the park's pools. I recognized the right-angled horizontal limbs, as well as the short peg-like twigs on the branches. This is the right habitat for the species, too: next to the water.

The flat bean-like pods on this next tree indicate it is most likely a Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), rather an odd tree to find locally.  This is a tree known sparsely across New York State,  its native status unknown.  Most likely, it was planted in this park by landscaper.

This blooming Witch Hazel (Hamamelis sp.) is definitely not one of our fall-blooming native species, which would long ago have dropped its ribbon-like petals.  There is a southern species, H. vernalis, that blooms from January into April.  Native to more southern states, that Witch Hazel somehow manages to survive our northern winters in cultivated locations.  Maybe that's what this one is.

Almost home, I pass under the sprawling and arching branches of this gigantic European Linden Tree (Tilia sp.) that stands at the northeastern corner of Congress Park. My home is a whole block away, but when this tree is blooming, I can smell the delightful fragrance of its dangling flowers from there.  I can also hear the buzzing of bees collecting the flowers' nectar from almost as far away. Our native American Basswood species (Tilia americana) has equally fragrant and insect-attracting flowers, but seldom does its leafy crown spread as far and wide as this one does. A magnificent tree!

Of all the trees in Congress Park, this healthy American Elm (Ulmus americana) is the one I cherish the most.  Raising its splendid branches toward the sky like arms that are lifted in prayer, this tree truly speaks to me of hope and survival. This tree is a true survivor of  Dutch Elm Disease, which destroyed almost all of our native elms across the entire country.  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!

I wonder if this America Elm's wide-spreading roots have tapped into some of the same waters that spring from our health-promoting mineral springs dotting the park.  Perhaps those waters will help me heal more quickly from my own ailment.  I sure hope so!

PS: There are many other mineral springs located throughout the city of Saratoga Springs, with the highest concentration located in the Saratoga Spa State Park, at the southern end of the city.  I frequently visit some of those springs in the winter, and I've posted many a blog about them.  Here's a link to one of those posts.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Where Did Winter Go?

Yes, it was lovely on Wednesday this week.  Clear sky, gentle wind, and temps approaching 70 degrees by late afternoon.   A truly beautiful day for a walk along the Hudson River, following Spier Falls Road above the dam. Blue sky, blue water.  What could be nicer?

But I was longing for SNOW and ICE!  Come ON, ye winter gods, where the heck ARE you? What little bit of snow we've had so far is all gone from south-facing slopes.  The only-recently ice-covered lakes are once again unsafe to walk on. So much for all the wintry stuff that actually makes winter fun!  Oh well.  There was still lots of decorative ice on the spring-fed mountainside rocks that line the road I walked along.


But I could hear the sound of melting all along the way, with melt-water trickling and splashing down the jagged roadside cliffs. 

I was pleased to see at least some of the spectacular spring-fed icefalls remained in the roadside quarries,  where back at the close of the 19th Century, rocks had been blasted from the mountainside to provide building material for the Spier Falls Dam, the largest privately-owned hydroelectric dam in the world, back when it was completed in 1903.  The dam still operates, generating 56 megawatts of power, which it provides to the surrounding communities.

(Here's one of my photos of the still-operating Spier Falls Dam, taken in very early spring some years ago.)

I love to make my careful way back into these quarries,  the forest floor still littered with huge sharp-edged chunks of blasted rock, but the constantly dampened ledges are softened by carpets of gorgeous green mosses.

But this perky clump of moss looked more red than green, what with a sunbeam illuminating the scarlet translucent spore talks.

This clump of the same moss bore leaves almost as red as the spore stalks.  Perhaps this red color is what suggested this moss's vernacular name of Marsh Cardinal Moss (Ptychostomum pseudotriquetrum).

I have no idea what organism (or mineral?) might have contributed the red splotches of color to this otherwise green-coated patch of wet quarry wall.  The patch was way out of reach for me to examine it closely, but my camera zoom showed me enough detail to suspect that both mosses and liverworts composed the green mix.

A number of lichens also joined the rock clingers, including this brown-leaved Dog Lichen species displaying its uplifted tan-colored reproductive parts. Tom Phillips, a friend who knows his lichens much better than I do, has identified this species as Peltigera polydactylon.

Here was a second foliose lichen sharing the same wet rock, this one less rubbery-looking and so dark as to be almost black.  Tom Phillips also gave me a likely name for this one, too:  Leptogium cyanescens,  a  most appropriate specific name, since any lichen this black will have cyanobacteria in its constitution, in addition to the fungus and alga that typically make up a lichen.

This wee baby fern had sprouted from a crack in the well-watered rock.  Juvenile ferns are notoriously difficult to identify, but since I could see a clump of Marginal Wood Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) immediately above it, I will guess that's what this one is, too.  

We naturalists would have so much less fun in the winter if not for the evergreen ferns and mosses and liverworts and lichens that decorate the forest floor, tree bark, and rocks in every season, adding beauty and interest to every walk in the woods. Even during a winter that doesn't seem much like winter at all.

Speaking of beauty and interest, this particular boulder I found in this quarry continues to fascinate and frustrate me.  I can find many photos of crustose lichens of various colors that cling tightly to rocks.  But none of them is this rosy pink. And my queries posted on sites that might be seen by those who would know have not elicited any responses.

It is quite lovely, is it not?  I wonder what its name is.

UPDATE:  Sue Van Hook, an expert mycologist, has indicated that she is "pretty sure the pink is a color change oxidation reaction like we see in Parmelia sulcata when the upper cortex has been eaten. I’d say it’s a senescent crustose lichen that previously was gray green."  Thanks, Sue!  That makes sense.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Out on Lake Bonita's Ice, At Last!

Finally, after a few sub-zero days and nights, the "all-clear" came from Moreau Lake State Park that the lake ice was safe to walk on.  I don't know if this is the latest date ever for thick ice to form, but I've sure been waiting and waiting and waiting to get out on the ice of Lake Bonita, one of the three lakes that lie within the boundary of Moreau Lake State Park. So I issued an eager "Let's Go!" to my local hiking pals, and friends Sue Pierce and Dana Stimpson joined me yesterday for an adventure out on iced-over Lake Bonita, high atop Mount McGregor in the Palmertown Mountain Range.

Of course, we had to stop along the forested trail from the parking lot to the lake. This tree-full of Violet-edge Polypore (Trichaptum biforme) beckoned us to take a closer look at it.

A coat of lime-green algae coated most of the fungus's caps, which this time of year don't show much of the purple that suggested this shelf fungus's common name. But that algae was a sign for us to take a closer look at the caps.

And lo!  There they were: the teeny, tiny, itty-bitty black "Fairy Pins" (Phaeocalicium polyporaeum), a lichen-forming fungus that grows primarily on algae-covered members of the Trichaptum genus.

It was Sue's super eyesight that first alerted us to the presence of Fairy Pins on Violet-edge Polypores, but believe it or not, it was my terrible eyesight that first detected this itty-bitty critter scurrying across the trailside snow.  But then, it was Sue who corrected my cry of "Look!  A spider!" when she pointed out the creature had six, not eight long spindly legs.  But neither of us could identify this strange wingless creature, so tiny and moving so fast it was hard to get a clear photo of it.  This was the best I could get. Its body was at most a quarter inch long.

But Sue's photo of this insect was clear enough to elicit a response from an iNaturalist follower, who informed her that this was a Snow Fly, a member of the genus Chionea,  flightless flies that are specifically adapted for cold climates, active only in winter, with bodily fluids composed primarily of glycerol.  Basically, they have antifreeze instead of blood!  Lots more information about these fascinating creatures can be found on Google. Just one more example that proves we never know what we might see on any walk we take!

Here we are on the frozen lake!  Although both Sue and Dana seemed a bit leery of venturing out on what was liquid water only a week or so ago, I tried to assure them that if the park said the ice was safe on Moreau Lake, it surely was also safe on this lake, which lies many hundreds of feet higher in altitude than Moreau.  I also lured them out by telling them all the fascinating plants they would find on the tiny sphagnum-covered islets that dot Lake Bonita.  So out they went! As did I.

The sphagnum that covers these rocky islands was covered with snow,  but the bog-loving shrubs and other plants that grow out here attest to the acidic habitat the sphagnum creates.

Most of the shrubs are easily identified, even in winter. Here are the two most populous shrubs, Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), with its persistent leathery leaves; and Sweet Gale (Myrica gale), leafless now but possessing distinctive buds and seedpods.

Leatherleaf's flower buds are already present, ready to open into small white dangling bells in early spring.

Some of the Leatherleaf's twigs bear the remnant's of the seedpods that spilled their seeds last fall, but the husks of those seedpods are almost as pretty as flowers themselves.

Sweet Gale's flower buds are quite lovely now, with glossy mahogony-red scales, each scale outlined in pale ivory.

And the seedpods of Sweet Gale offer their delicious fragrance to any fingers that pinch them, which helps to scatter the seed on the snow as well as perfuming those fingers for the rest of the day.

Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) is almost as abundant on these island as the two shrubs mentioned above. During early summer, clusters of bright-pink flowers are borne below terminal tufts of leathery green leaves, and the remnants of both flowers and leaves persist on the twigs all winter.

Some years, I can find the pitcher-shaped basal leaves of Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) protruding above the snow, but this year, I found only the remains of their big red flowers, remarkably intact even though brown and crispy.

I had almost given up on finding the remnants of smaller flowers (cranberries, sundews, bladderworts, even orchids!) that bloom on these islands in warmer months, since most now lay hidden under the snow.  But then I spied these distinctive pods, what remained of the seedpods of Marsh St. John's Wort (Hypericum virginicum), our only St. John's Wort with pink (not yellow) flowers.

Many Speckled Alder shrubs (Alnus incana) grow on the islands, the branches already hung with ruddy immature male catkins that will open to shed their pollen in spring.  The female flower buds of this particular shrub have been infected by a fungal plant pathogen called Taphrina alni, which causes only the female buds to produce tangled masses of curly brown tufts. I have read that, although it distorts some of the cones of an individual tree, this pathogen does not harm the tree itself.

This tangled brown mass, however, is not caused by a pathogen but rather is built by a bird, most likely a Red-winged Blackbird, a species that builds its nest low among waterside flora (in this case a Sweet Gale shrub). 

And here was another kind of "nest,"  a rather small beaver lodge that hardly seemed big enough yet to provide a winter home for a family of beavers.  But much of the lodge could be beneath the ice. Since beavers often keep the water open near their lodges,  we kept a wide berth from what could possibly be some recently open water now skimmed over with thin ice.  Perhaps it was time to head back to shore.

There was plenty to enjoy while walking close to the shore. The red twigs of this Highbush Blueberry bush (Vaccinium corymbosum) looked quite stunning, arrayed against the deep-green background of hemlock boughs. 

A large Red Maple tree (Acer rubrum) had fallen from the shore into the lake, but apparently it still remained healthy enough to have borne leaves last fall and also produce chubby red buds that will open to reveal new leaves come spring.

Since Lake Bonita is a mountain lake, huge outcroppings of bedrock line the shore, rising steeply and dramatically from the water's edge.

And of course, where there's rock, there are mosses and lichens and liverworts.  Here, Sue and Dana move in close to see what they can find.

I found some Bazzania liverwort clinging to this rock face, still beautiful even though most of its glossy green leaves had turned brown. But that made the cascading fronds of the evergreen Rock Polypody Fern even more lovely, thanks to the contrast in color.