Saturday, March 17, 2018

Taking Shelter

I guess it's obvious, from the paucity of my posts of late, that I haven't been getting out into the winter woods this year the way I used to. No climbs this year to porcupine caves or up to spectacular overlooks high on mountain ledges.   It's been almost three years since I smashed my kneecap, and instead of getting better as I expected it would, the pain continues to increase.  Several times this winter, I've set out on snowshoes and have been halted by pain, worried that I might not be able to make my way back to my car. So of course I'm more eager than ever to say goodbye to the snow.  But I guess it will still be a while.

Lots of snow remains up at Moreau Lake State Park, where I went yesterday, hoping to cheer myself with a walk.  Preferably, without snowshoes.

I thought I might walk on the frozen lake, where the snow is not so deep, but recent warmish weather has rendered the lake ice unsafe.  (No swimming allowed there, yet, either!)

Luckily, much of the perimeter road has been plowed, so I set off to walk this clear path as far as it would take me, just to enjoy the views of the lake and breathe in the sweet cold air.

Unfortunately, a fierce wind kept driving that cold air against my numbing cheeks and into my aching ears, so I soon sought shelter in the park's warming hut, a cozy cabin at the south end of the lake, warmed by a roaring fire.

This cabin has been a welcome haven for winter-chilled hikers, skiers, snowshoers, and ice fishermen ever since it opened in November, 2010, but today I had the place all to myself.

This cozy book corner, stocked with lots of nature books (including many designed for children), is furnished with plenty of reading light as well as a comfy couch.

The hut contains a number of educational exhibits, such as this collection of animal pelts, accompanied by a list of animal names and a challenge to try to name which pelt belongs to which animal.  Right next to these pelts is a collection of labeled specimens from all the trees we might find in the  surrounding forest, revealing both exterior bark and interior pith and grain.

This slice of a tree trunk was another fascinating display, featuring pins placed at individual tree rings, each pin site labeled according to the date the tree ring was formed.

On the table alongside were informational sheets accompanying this tree slab, revealing historical events that took place during the growth of this tree, starting in 1879 and concluding with 1998, the year the tree was felled.  Here are a couple of examples:

Walking back to my car, I noticed these sap-collecting buckets attached to a Sugar Maple.  Park staffers told me they had collected about 40 gallons of sap so far, which should yield one gallon of maple syrup.

I think it will take quite a while to boil all that sap down, since the pot they are using has a rather limited evaporating surface.  But it makes for a fun display just outside of the park headquarters, where I found recently appointed park intern Elizabeth Bertolini checking on the level.

Before joining the park staff in January, Elizabeth had been involved in marine projects on the North Carolina coast, a much warmer habitat than what she has encountered so far at Moreau Lake State Park, where she will serve until next November. I can hardly wait to show her some of my favorite wildflower sites at Moreau when spring's warmth finally comes to these shores.  I regret that it may be a while.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Are We Done Yet?

It snowed all last night, and it's supposed to snow all day tomorrow, too. I haven't had to shovel the walk, yet, since the snow has been melting nearly as fast as it touched the ground.  But wow, it sure stuck to the trees!  A Winter Wonderland, one week from the First Day of Spring!

Lest we despair that spring will ever get here, the Skunk Cabbage tells us that there's no turning back now.  The spathes have opened, the spadices tucked inside are studded with pollen, and the plant is  bursting with so much energy it melts the snow around it.  Ta da!  Let me present, the Very First Flower of Spring!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

To Grandma, With Love and Awe

On International Women's Day, I could think of many brave and renowned women whose lives have inspired me, women like Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Teresa of Avila. But the woman who shaped my values and joy more than any other was my paternal grandmother, Lillian Shafer Dudd. Musically gifted, compassionate toward all, and possessing an awe-inspiring intellect, she could also shoot a thieving Red Squirrel out of a bird's nest with her 22, or nurse a Jersey Cow through a life-threatening siege of green-feed bloat, or make the best strawberry shortcake in the whole wide world from berries she grew herself. But most of all, she loved me with all her heart. She made me feel important, worthy, beloved. She was my safe and happy place when other parts of my life were sad or scary. I somehow believe that if everyone could have a grandma like mine, the wounds of the world might be healed.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

More Snow!

Here we go again!  Another big snowstorm is hitting us today, with about a foot predicted to fall by tomorrow morning.  As this photo of a snow-capped Flowering Dogwood bud in my backyard reveals, quite a few inches had already fallen by early this morning.  Today I'm hunkering down inside (except for shoveling bouts), which makes me really glad I went for a walk yesterday, when the air was warm, the sky was blue, and the trail along the canal towpath in Schuylerville was beautifully clear of snow.

I love this towpath between the old barge canal and the Hudson River, offering clear views of both waterways.  The canal was still solidly frozen along this stretch, but the river was wide open and shining as blue as the reflected sky.  There were many waterfowl on the river, mostly Canada Geese but also small flocks of ducks too far away for me to ID as to species.  Wish I'd brought my binoculars!

One of the best features of this path is the presence of many Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis), immediately identifiable in any season by their distinctively ridged bark.  I never find this tree in upland mixed hardwood forests, but here along the Hudson they are one of the most common trees, along with Cottonwoods.

I enjoy trying to identify the winter remnants of last year's blooming plants, and there's never any difficulty naming the vine that produced these prickly orbs that were entwined among riverside shrubbery.  This is the dried-up fruit of Wild Cucumber (Echinocystis lobata).  Those spines might look quite daunting, but they're actually not prickly at all, being rather firm but also flexible. You can safely handle these fruits without fear of being scratched.  It's interesting to take them apart and see how much they resemble the common bath accessory called a loofah, which comes from a related plant.

Another notable leftover fruit I find along the river here is that of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), with its clusters of pretty red berries.  Although these loosely clustered smooth berries are distinctly different from the tightly compacted fuzzy berries of Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina), I'm not sure I could distinguish them this time of year from the fruits of Shining Sumac (R. coppallinum), which appear quite similar.  Since I have seen this particular sumac thicket when it bore its distinctive non-winged leaves, I can confidently claim that these are the fruits of Smooth Sumac.

I was thinking those sumac berries were the only colorful clusters I would be likely to see this time of year, when I noticed this Silver Maple bough hanging over the canal and bearing clusters of buds just as red as those sumac fruits.

A closer look revealed that these were the buds of the tree's female flowers, their ruby-red pistils already protruding from the bud scales.  The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) usually bears male and female flowers on separate trees.  So I began to see if I could find a Silver Maple bearing male flowers.

And so I did! Here are the male (staminate) Silver Maple flowers just peeking out of their buds, the anthers still clustered tightly together and not yet shedding the pollen that will waft on the air to unite with the pistillate flowers that are blooming on separate trees.  I thought they looked like tiny nosegays.  Tree flowers are usually small and not very showy, but they often deserve a closer look to note their own kind of beauty.

I was staring up into the branches of a tall Cottonwood, watching a small flock of very flighty Red-winged Blackbirds that would not hold still for the picture-taking and listening to their raucous calls, when I heard a loud buck-buck-buck! right at my feet.  Oh my lord!  What kind of bird is THIS? !

Well, it's obviously a chicken, but it sure didn't look like any chicken I had ever seen, with that fountain of feathers erupting atop its head and obscuring its eyes, and those black-and-white feathers that looked like a complicated ink drawing.  Wow!  Somebody's pet fancy-chicken, I assumed, and quite a friendly bird at that.  It kept running up to me as if it wanted to be pet.  When I got home, I googled "black-and-white chickens" and found photos of Silver-laced Polish chickens that matched.  I also learned that they were a strictly ornamental breed, in that they weren't very meaty for eating, as well as being unreliable egg-layers who, if they did manage to hatch a brood, would often eat the chicks.  Just goes to show:  good looks aren't everything!

Boy, I never know what I'm going to find when I go on a walk!  Or what I will learn when I turn to Google for information about what I find.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Bare Earth, Open Sky

Weary of slogging through snow or slipping on ice, my feet were craving the feel of yielding bare earth beneath them, and I knew exactly where I could go to satisfy that craving.  Passing by in my car, I had noticed wide-open fields of bare earth where the Saratoga Spa State Park edged Route 9.  With the air soft and warm and a lovely blue sky overhead, that's where I went to enjoy a walk yesterday.  Parking my car near the Warming Hut, I set off across wonderfully snow-free fields toward the paved pathway that circles this part of the park.

This paved path is a favorite of dog-walkers, bikers, and strollers all year, and there were many folks out enjoying this spring-like late-winter day.  A row of Red Pines shaded this stretch of the path.

In more open areas, various shrubs had been planted along the walkway, including this Red Osier Dogwood with its vivid red branches.

Alternating with those red-twigged dogwood shrubs were other shrubs with colorful twigs, only these were as vividly yellow as the Red Osier was vividly red.  A close look revealed the opposite branching and pin-dot lenticels I usually associate with Red Osier, and I wondered, could this be a cultivar of that native dogwood?  A quick Google search when I got home revealed that this was, indeed, a cultivar of Red Osier (Cornus sericea), now offered by nurseries to add color to a winter garden.  Its name is Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea.'   Now I am wondering: is this cultivar capable of naturalizing in the wild?  And if it reproduces sexually, do its offspring exhibit this same bright-yellow color?  Anybody know?

Continuing on to where the path leads into the New York State Tree Nursery, I saw whole hedge-rows of vividly colored shrubs, including this ruby-red patch of Red Osier, set off by a row of dark-green White Cedars and a meadow of golden grass.

More red-twigged dogwoods, except this row consists of Silky Dogwood (Cornus amomum), almost as brilliantly red as Red Osier but distinguished by lenticels that create stripes in the bark, rather than pin dots.  Both dogwoods are species native to this region, and are cultivated by the State Tree Nursery for use in reforestation and land-reclamation projects.

In this photo, the dogwood plantings alternate with rows of baby Pitch Pine and Red Pine.

Where the tree nursery abuts the Saratoga Spa State Park golf course,  these ancient Sugar Maples stand guard over an equally ancient house, long abandoned and now open to the elements.  Some 25 years ago or more, a litter of Red Fox kits was living under the porch, and my husband and I used to hide behind some trees to watch them come tumbling out when mom fox arrived with a woodchuck for dinner.  This house was decrepit then, and is even more derelict now.  The park once offered the house free to anyone who could propose a good use for it, but there were no serious takers.  Too bad.  Despite the ravages of time and neglect, the house still shows the beauty of its original early-19th-century design.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

February Thaw

 Thanks to a whole string of above-freezing days this past week, it feels as if winter is losing its grip and spring is on the way.  When I walked along the Hudson River above the Spier Falls Dam last Sunday, I was pleased to see that the ice was breaking up even in the long-frozen bays.  Then, as I walked along Spier Falls Road where the mountains rise sharply from the road's edge, the music of splashing water greeted me from tumbling creeks and many tiny spring-fed rills.

Just across from the dam, where a creek comes bounding and crashing down the mountainside, the lower part of the waterfall was still encased in ice.  But higher up, where the sunshine has had more opportunity to warm the rocks, the water was freely flowing over moss-covered boulders.

Many people think of the shrill calls of Spring Peeper frogs as the first music of spring, but the sounds of splashing water, dancing as if in celebration of its liberation from enprisoning ice, sure sings of springtime to me.

Today, Tuesday, the air was warm and the sun brightly shining, tempting me out to take a walk along Bog Meadow Brook Trail near Saratoga.  Although most of our roadsides and open fields are now bare of snow, the woods are still deep with it, and the well-trodden trails remain quite icy.  Ice grippers on my boots, I set off along the trail that leads through wooded wetlands.

I had searched several muddy swales this week, finding the Skunk Cabbage shoots still tightly swathed by the pale-green bracts that had protected the undeveloped spathes all winter.  But here in the tiny brook that runs by the Bog Meadow trail, some spathes had swollen to burst free of those enveloping bracts and had already turned their gorgeous Morocco-leather red.  Some of the spathes had opened a little, so I could peer inside to see the developing spadices, which were still smooth and bald and not yet producing pollen.  So I can't yet call these the first flowers to bloom in spring.  But it won't be long before I can!

I continued along the trail to where it leads to a boardwalk over an open marsh, the boardwalk lined with willows and alders and red-twigged dogwoods.

I could see the willow catkins were just beginning to emerge from their buds, the "pussies" almost ready to fluff out their silken "fur."  A sure sign of spring!

I noticed that almost all of the willows were sporting at least one of two kinds of galls.  The Shoot-tip Rose Gall looks like a dried flower at the tip of each branch, and is caused by a tiny fly (Rhabdophaga rosaria) laying its egg in a slit in the branch.  The tree then produces this flower-shaped rosette of tissue surrounding the egg, to protect the larva as it matures.

Other small willows were bearing multiple hard, brown, spindle-shaped swellings on their twigs, each one with a bud protruding out of the top of the gall.  

These Willow Beaked Galls are caused by another tiny fly called Mayetiola rigidae.  The larva is wintering over within the gall and will emerge in the spring.  Willows play host to more kinds of galls than any other woody plant,  and now is the best time to find them, since once spring comes, they will be hidden among the leaves.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Warm Day, River Walk

Freakishly warm today!  The temperature was in the low 70s, but it was still quite icy underfoot where I walked along the Hudson Crossing Trail at Schuylerville.

With snow melting fast on this strangely warm day, I feared that the Hudson River might be flooding, but no, the water, while muddy and roilng, remained well within its banks.

Although the day was dark and gray, it was pleasant to sit by the river and enjoy the balmy air and the sound of the rushing water.  The designers of this trail have added many places to do just that, with benches placed at intervals along the way.

It will be many more weeks before I think about paddling the river, but it's good to know there are sites along this trail that would make it easy to launch my canoe.

My birding friends report seeing Bald Eagles and all kinds of migrating waterfowl along this stretch of the Hudson, but the only birds I saw today were made of metal, like these life-sized iron sculptures, a Great Blue Heron standing by the trail and a Pileated  Woodpecker mounted on a tree stump.

I did not see the mouse or vole that made these subnivean tunnels, but the little creature's active travels beneath the snow have become quite evident, now that the snow has melted and uncovered the branching paths.  By tunneling under the snow this way, these little rodents can stay warm and safe, invisible to such predators as owls and foxes.

Winter's snow and ice bring down many tree limbs over the course of the season, and this limb was particularly colorful, adorned as it was with a pretty green lichen and the dark-brown rubbery "ears" of Wood Ear Fungus.

There are many American Bladdernut shrubs along these river banks, and some of them still held a few of the hollow pods that this shrub is named for.

Hackberry trees are also abundant here, and they are immediately identifiable by their distinctive, deeply ridged bark.

Tulip Trees are NOT abundant this far north in New York, but I know exactly where to find one small sapling that grows at an intersection along this trail.  Normally, these giant trees are way too tall for me to reach their buds, but because this sapling is still small, I could really examine them.  The purplish twigs were covered with a slight whitish bloom, and the terminal buds were flattened and leathery, quite unlike any other tree buds I have seen.

Driving home through the rural farm fields, I enjoyed sweeping views of distant mountains and low clouds.  I was amazed to see how bare of snow these fields had become, almost overnight.

The obelisk of the Saratoga Battle Monument rises in the distance, beyond these rolling cornfields and wooded copses.