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.