Wednesday, January 31, 2024

New Trails Into Winter Wonderland

Oh my gosh, here it is, the last day of January!  What have I been doing since I last posted here?  Not much, besides sulking about how crummy our winter has been so far, with more rain than snow and no sub-zero temps to freeze the lakes solid enough to walk on or for tumbling creeks to create their elaborate crystalline iceworks. But we finally did have some snow, and some pretty snow, too, that stayed on the trees to transform the woods into winter wonderlands.  Just in time, too, since I have offered to lead my fellow nature-loving friends on a visit to Saratoga County's newest nature preserve, the Graphite Range Community Forest, a few miles north of Saratoga Springs.  I asked my friend Sue Pierce to join me on a scouting mission there this week, and here are just a few of the highlights of our most delightful visit.

As the map on this welcoming kiosk demonstrates, visitors will have their choice of many trails, most of which are open to both bikers and hikers, although each group can find a trail here for exclusive venturing (and bikers are allowed to ride up but not careen downward on many of the trails). Most of the trails require only moderate endurance levels, although all lead up into the forested regions of the Palmertown Mountain Range.   For more information about the development of this preserve, here's a link to a newspaper article that provides considerable background regarding how this project came about.

As this photo reveals, all trails from the ample parking area along Rte. 9 in Wilton start out on level ground along a grassy road that soon connects with trails that gradually ascend into more mountainous regions. Just a few inches of soft snow lay on the road when Sue and I visited, so we easily made our way without needing snowshoes.

Rather than follow the road, we chose to take a trail that immediately led from the parking area to a more wooded path along a rushing creek.

And oh, how lovely the woods appeared along this trail, each branch and twig of the surrounding trees coated with sparkling snow! 

Our path led along a steep rocky gorge, where a small creek tumbled down from the mountains above.

We were accompanied on this trail by the pleasant sounds of rushing water crashing over rocks.

The droplets tossed up by the rushing water decorated the far bank with beautiful icicles.

At one particularly pleasant spot overlooking the stream, a pair of Adirondack chairs provided a place to rest and enjoy the surroundings. We noticed several other spots throughout the woods where other chairs invited hikers to sit a spell, either to rest or just to become one with the beauty of the place.

Sue and I chose the Old Mine Road to follow toward our destination, the several abandoned graphite mines toward which I hope to lead our Thursday Naturalist friends when we meet on February 8.  The mines are located just about a half-mile from the parking area.

Although we had wished that more of the preserve's trails would be reserved for hikers only, we were happy to learn that bikers should not be charging downhill towards us if we happen to crouch to observe a plant or insect near the ground. That's if the bikers observe the restrictions, anyway.

At one point we branched off the Old Mine Road to explore a bit further along the Upper Works Road,  walking as far as a bridge that crossed the creek, widened now and flowing more quietly through a level area in the forest.

This Upper Works Road passed by some impressive old stone foundations, the remains of structures that must have served the graphite mining operations in some way.  Perhaps in the future explanatory signs will be posted that tell of the history and purpose of these old stone ruins.

It was near these old ruins that we chanced upon mossy banks that contained outcroppings of a crystalline kind of rock (marble or quartzite?).

On a section of bank that was carpeted mostly with Delicate Fern Moss, we also noticed a moss with broader fern-like leaves.  This moss reminded me of one of the species of Fissidens moss, but I cannot be certain of the species.

The presence of American Beech trees in this area was revealed by the still-visible remains of Beech Drops, a forest-floor wildflower that needs no green leaves to garner its nutrients, since it is parasitic on the roots of beech trees.

We also detected the presence of occasional Witch Hazel shrubs, their snow-covered branches knobby with numerous ripening seedpods.

We soon back-tracked to re-connect with the Old Mine Road and continued on our journey toward the mines.

Our journey was not only onward now, but also UPward, and we wondered if the rise in elevation was the reason the surrounding branches were even more snow-whitened than those we had admired at a lower elevation.  Was it possible that hoarfrost had settled on every twig up here, whitening them even more than the snow did?

I'm glad that Sue was wearing such a bright-colored coat.  Otherwise, my photos of this snowy woods looked as if they were shot in black-and-white, not full color.

The twigs were actually puffy with frosty snow!

Since I had failed to carry drinking water on this hike,  I found these snow- and ice-tipped twigs could offer me easy refreshment if I just popped them into my mouth.

And here are the entrances of the old mines. Quite an impressive site!A placard here describes some of the history of these mines, which produced the mineral to be powdered and used as a lubricant for machines.  When more abundant sources of graphite were later discovered in Asia and Africa, these mines were abandoned in the early 1920s.

I found an interesting article from The Saratogian newspaper that provides some additional history of these mines. 

The mine openings may appear to tempt us to explore within, but such entry is restricted now, with the area fenced off to make access difficult. Also, water fills the floor of the mines, making for slippery ice in winter and knee-deep sloshing in warmer months.  Better just to marvel at this dramatic sight (and site!).

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Ascending to Porcupine Haven

My nature buddies and I had one more day to enjoy the snowy woods before the rains returned on Friday.  And what better way could we spend that day but by hiking up the mountain at Moreau Lake State Park to see if the Porcupines still claimed a series of caves up there as their denning territory? 

Although the temps rose into the 40s, snow still covered the forest floor (the better to follow the Porkies' trails), and the stream we call Zen Brook was flowing exuberantly down the mountainside. It's quite a steep climb up to Porcupine Haven, a cluster of small grottos carved into marble outcroppings, most likely created by the same flowing waters that fill this brook. This climb was a first test of my injured legs since their bashing in a car crash a month ago, and I was quite delighted to discover I managed it okay.


As soon as we entered a dense Hemlock forest near the mountain's summit, we found abundant evidence of Porcupine travels, their low-slung bodies creating troughs through the snow that were pocked with the tracks of their wide flat feet. Unlike many other wild animals that wander the woods in search of food, a Porcupine finds a likely tree to feed on and returns to the same site again and again, eventually packing the trail to the point where the individual footprints can no longer be discerned.

All we had to do to find a den was to follow a well-packed trail to where it disappeared within the dark depths of a cave in the rocky outcroppings.  The trails were also marked by dribbles of yellow urine, shed hairs, and occasional quills, if we needed further evidence that such trails belonged to Porcupines. In this photo, Porkie's comings and goings appeared quite evident.

Nearby was a second cave that obviously was providing shelter to another Porcupine.

At one den site, friends Nancy, Noel, and Tom examine the animal tracks near the mouth of one cave, as well as the plants that cover the rocky outcroppings.  In the foreground, Sue is perusing the various mosses that thrive near a second cave.

A third cave opening reveals a stream coursing through it,  rendering its interior inhospitable for any Porcupine den.  But the watery habitat only made it more welcoming to insects that find winter shelter amid such damp spaces. I could detect a number of tiny flying insects darting around the dark interior.

Since some of these insects were performing an up-and-down bobbing dance in the air, I could assume they were male Winter Craneflies engaged in their distinctive mating behavior, intended to entice the ground-dwelling females to rise up to join the males in mid-air, before returning to the ground to lay their now-fertilized eggs in the leaf litter.

One of the insects did land on the snow, which helped to confirm its identity as a Winter Cranefly (Trichoceridae genus). I also noticed a Porcupine hair sharing the snowy surface.

The calcareous nature of these rocky outcroppings could be deduced from the various plants that thrive on them, since many of these plants would occur only on lime-rich rocks such as limestone or marble. That would be true for the round puffs of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense) seen here poking up from amid the slender fronds of Walking Fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), a distinctive fern that travels across its moss-covered rocky habitat by creating new plants wherever the tips of its long skinny fronds touch down.

I never did learn which moss Noel and Nancy were examining here, but it might have been a species of Hedwigia, a moss that can grow on either calcareous or acidic rock.

Sue is here searching amid the flowing water of a nearby stream for a moss known to prefer just such a wet habitat.

And find it, she did! The moss is called Fontinalis antipyretica (or Common Water Moss), a moss that grows underwater with long trailing stems that flow with the current.

A close examination of its leaves revealed that they were folded sharply along a midline, the fold-line forming a prominent keel, which suggested another vernacular name for this aquatic moss,  the Keeled Water Moss.

We were also intrigued by the variety of fungi still evident in the winter woods.  Among the more interesting was this Ceramic Fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus), with small, hard, flat crust-like clusters that resemble broken pieces of ceramic tile.  My Baron's mushroom guide indicates that this distinctive and unusual fungus that grows on old debarked oak logs is "widely distributed but not common."

This large patch of overlapping striped caps had me thinking they must be a species of Stereum fungus, they were so uniformly and vividly colored and thin and tough.

But then, I looked at the underside and discovered a fertile surface covered with tiny pores.  As far as I knew, all Stereum species have a smooth underside with no visible pores.  All these tiny pores indicated I must be looking at the real Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) and not the Stereum species called False Turkey Tail.

We were all stymied by these small patches of rubbery red pustular stuff on a fallen log, especially when Nancy used her cellphone to access iNaturalist, which named it as a species in the order Cantharellales.  That can't be true, I thought at first, since Cantharellales is the order that includes Chanterelle mushrooms, and I could not imagine how that stalked edible fungus could be related to these rubbery gelatinous blobs. Well, it turned out that iNaturalist was right.  The name of this red stuff turned out to be Tulasnella aurantiaca, and it is indeed included in the order Cantharellales. Who would have thought?!

Here's a closer look at Tulasnella aurantiaca to better indicate its texture and size. Apparently, this fungus is not that uncommon, but its small size makes it easy to overlook. It should be hard to miss that red color, though.

We never know, each time we venture out to the woods, what new marvels we might find.

Here was one last amazing find: a pair of Porcupine footprints, clearly defined in the soft wet snow and showing the claws as well as the soles of the feet.  Rare indeed is the opportunity to see such clear footprints, since Porkie's habit is to trample its own prints over and over again in its daily travels along the same trail.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

For One Brief Shining Moment . . .

"Don't let it be forgot, that there was once a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as . . . ." Well, not exactly Camelot, but mighty close to it: a perfect winter's day at Moreau Lake State Park.  At least, so far this winter. If the forecasts come true, this gorgeous blue-sky sparkly-snow scene will soon be melted and rained on.  But along with my friends Dana, Sue, and Tom, we made sure to make the most of it yesterday by immersing ourselves in as many of its glories as we could.

Here we are, setting off under a radiant sky and snow-laden towering trees to reach a favorite destination, where a mountain stream we know as Zen Brook flows beneath a bridge along the Red Oak Ridge Trail.

Due to recent rains, water still danced and splashed among snow-covered rocks.  We are still waiting for sub-freezing cold to transform that splashing water into fabulous crystal creations, but the sparkling mounds of soft fluffy snow were lovely enough in their own way.

Our friend Sue is the one who once thought to call this tumbling mountain stream Zen Brook, for it doesn't take many moments of hearing its music before tranquillity overcomes any stress we might be harboring.

As we continued along the Red Oak Ridge Trail, we noticed several young trees that had bent to form graceful arches: perfect frames to showcase us jolly companions. Left to right, here are Dana Stimpson, Tom Callaghan, and Sue Pierce, among the best co-nature explorers I could ever hope for.

And, oh, what a gorgeous day we had to explore such wintry beauty! Here, mounds of fluffy stuff caught in the twigs were rendered translucent by rays of golden sunlight.

This gracefully curvaceous snake of snow appeared to be winding its way among snow-capped baby beech leaves.

This lichenous limb appeared to be trimmed with ermine fur!

The snow was so clean and white and fresh, still cold enough this morning that the flakes still kept their spiky shapes intact.  It was also refreshing to taste, and I picked up dollops of it on my finger to place on my tongue.

There was little wind on this sun-drenched morning, but every so often an overhead branch would shed showers of glittering snow, filling the air with sequin-sparkle and prickling our faces with icy kisses of cold.

Sue must have enjoyed that sensation so much, she found some snow-laden hemlock boughs to create a personal snow-shower beneath!

We continued our explorations until we reached the lake's back bay.  Here, we pondered why this large section of the lake always froze over completely before any ice at all had formed along the shore of the lake's main body. Today, the ice cover was dotted with these mysterious dark "spiders," probably formed by water welling up through weak spots in the opaque ice, spreading out in rays, and then transparently refreezing.  I wonder if this phenomenon has ever been recorded in time-lapse photography.

I enjoyed one last look at the lake, which lay wide open and calm enough to reflect the blue sky.  A beautiful and yet troubling scene.  We are well into January now, when skaters and fishermen ought to be traversing a frozen lake. This "one brief shining moment" of cold and snow we had yesterday had better not be the last we will have all winter.