Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Pretty Little Lake

 When Evelyn Greene asked me to join her to paddle Fourth Lake near Lake Luzerne yesterday, I didn't have to think twice.  I had paddled this lake just a year ago and remembered what a pretty jewel it was: small and quiet, no motorboats allowed, and most of the shoreline belonging to a state campground, now closed for the season.

We had to carry our boats about a quarter mile from the locked campground gate, but our boats were light and the going was easy and we knew what a glorious reward awaited our efforts once we reached the lake.  Especially on such a dazzling blue-sky day as this, with Red Maples starting to gain their autumn color in the wetlands,  and masses of Water Willow (Decodon verticillatus) already blazing their vivid scarlet along the shore.

Evelyn had a duty to perform, which was to check the shoreline and shallows for the presence of invasive species, and I was glad to assist her at this task.  We began our investigations in the outlet  that empties into Third Lake, and after finding only native species of shoreline and underwater plants there, we headed back around Fourth Lake to explore the inlet on the opposite shore.  From the eastern side of the lake, we could see the rounded dome of Potash Mountain rising over the forested hills to the north.

As we drew near to the mouth of the inlet, we were dazzled by masses of brilliant-red Water Willow, their beauty magnified by their reflection in the rippling water.

We paddled up the inlet under overhanging trees that shaded the cool blue stream.

Evelyn wanted to reach a bog that lay upstream, and she was not about to let this beaver dam impede our progress.  We were able to skooch our canoes up onto the jumbled branches, but we did have to get out of our boats to pull them the rest of the way clear.  I found it very difficult to climb out of my boat, for the footing was quite perilous: either up to my shin in mud or teetering on broken boughs.  But I finally made it.  If there was bog to explore further on, the effort would certainly be worth it.

But . . . .  THIS dam presented even more of a challenge! Evelyn managed to scramble out of her boat and up onto the dam, but I held back, letting Evelyn survey the prospect upstream, to see if the bog was worth the risk to limb or lens (for if I fell in, so would my doomed camera).  I could tell that Evelyn was yearning to proceed, and I was sorry to disappoint her with my reluctance.  But she finally conceded that the bog might be underwater, anyway, so perhaps it was time to turn back.

We took our time paddling back toward the beach where we'd launched our boats, observing the underwater plants, including masses of what we believed was a native milfoil, its multi-fronded stems waving lazily in the current.  Evelyn collected some samples to take for further analysis, although we knew how difficult it is to identify milfoils without the presence of flowers or fruit.  The twiggy green stuff we did positively identify as a freshwater sponge, especially after we picked a sample and felt its gritty texture between our fingers.

As we passed through masses of Water Lily and Pond Lily leaves, I noticed swarms of tiny light-colored bugs hopping all over the leaves, as well as the surface of the water.

I managed to get a close-up view of these tiny bugs with the macro setting on my camera.  It's not a perfectly clear image, but it was clear enough to help me find a match on the internet.  These wee little flea-like insects are Water Lily Planthoppers (Megamelus davisi) -- a most appropriate name, since they certainly perform enormous hops and they feed almost exclusively on Water Lilies.

Also, they are a most beneficial insect, especially to Cricket Frogs, who feed on Water Lily Planthoppers almost exclusively.  I learned this interesting information by reading a most instructive site from the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, which my readers can visit too by clicking here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back to the Banks of the Kayaderosseras

For the fourth time in less than two weeks, I returned to the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek near Ballston Spa today. A floodplain area enriched by silt, this is a wonderfully rich site I never get tired of exploring, and to explore it anew with my super-knowledgable friends in the Thursday Naturalists was a chance I could not pass up.  Besides, I just couldn't wait to show my friends the amazing mix of gorgeous wildflowers thriving there.  I knew they would be just delighted.  And so they were!

All of us have seen the deep-purple variety of New England Aster many times, but for some of us, this was the first opportunity to see this spectacular native wildflower in its rosy pink variety.  What a show they put on, filling the open meadow along the banks of the creek with a brilliant mix of colors, mixed in with accents of Boneset and Joe-Pye Weed and bright-yellow sunflowers.

We found several different species of aster, as well, including  Smooth Aster, Arrow-leaved Aster, Tall White Aster, and this big showy cluster of Purple-stemmed Aster, so beautifully intermixed with Tall Goldenrod and the bright pink puffs of Arrow-leaved Tearthumb.

Various species of sunflowers lifted their bright-yellow faces toward the sky on this crisp but sun-warmed first day of autumn.  We found many towering plants of Jerusalem Artichoke just coming into bloom, as well as the more diminutive (and now fading) Thin-leaved Sunflowers here and there.  But the star of the sunflower show today was the willowy Maximilian's Sunflower seen in the photo below, a prairie native that somehow got introduced to this flood-plain site and has made itself very much at home here.

What a lovely combination of colors -- the Maximilian Sunflower and the New England Asters.

Such a pretty little bug, the Twelve-spotted Lady Beetle!  This Ladybug, which is native to North America, is a predator of many plant pests, but also likes to dine on pollen, a food abundantly supplied by this sunflower's disk flowers.

This big yellow composite bloom sure like a sunflower, but the presence of those curling pistils at the base of each ray flower indicate that this is instead the species called Oxeye, or False Sunflower.  None of the genuine sunflower species have such fertile ray flowers.  Most of the Oxeye flowers we found today were nearly spent, but we found enough remnants of bloom on some to be able to determine their identification.

Another yellow non-sunflower, this pretty plant is Nodding Bur Marigold, which was growing close to the water, its preferred habitat.  Although its newly opened flowers are held erect, as it goes to seed it begins to assume the nodding habit that gives this Bidens species its distinguishing name.  We found another Bidens species nearby, called Beggar Ticks, a flower that usually produces only disk flowers, without the yellow "petals" (actually, ray flowers) seen on its showier cousin.

Not all the interesting plants we found today were so colorful, but that doesn't mean they weren't intriguing to look at.  Note how the prickly outer skin of this Wild Cucumber fruit is peeling back to reveal the webby structure within.  It looks like the loofah sponge you can buy for your bath, which is also another member of the gourd family, as is the Wild Cucumber.

Cockleburs are one of the very sturdy plants that grow here along the creek, plants that are robust enough to hold back the encroachment of Japanese Knotweed that also thrives here but can't make a dent in the thickets of this burly plant.  These prickly pods contain two seeds, and our friend Ruth Schottman told us the most fascinating thing about them:  after ripening, only one of the two seeds will germinate this year, while the other will lie in wait and germinate the following year.  This is its strategy for increasing its chances of survival under changing weather conditions.  Isn't Nature amazing?

Another bit of botanical knowledge Ruth imparted today, was to show us the tiny glandular hairs that cover the bracts of New England Aster.  This distinguishing characteristic is something I had never paid attention to before, since this species' size and color of bloom are so distinctive for identifying the flower that I looked no further.

It was such a wonderland of beautiful blooms today, it's hard to believe that this is what this creekside site looked like less than two years ago, in December of 2012.

I happened to come upon this scene of complete devastation while taking a pre-Christmas walk that year, and couldn't believe my eyes.  As luck would have it, I did encounter one of the operators of the earth-moving equipment, and he was able to tell me about this excavation project.  The project involved restructuring the banks for the purpose of flood control downstream.  The previously steep banks at this particular curve of the creek had been beveled back to allow flood waters to flow up over the land and dissipate their energy, rather than charging forcefully downstream, where they could cause erosion damage.   OK, I could acknowledge that this might be a good idea, but oh my, what a horrible mess!  This had been one of my favorite sites for wildflower walks.  How could it ever recover?

Well, it did.  I shouldn't have worried.  Many native species of trees and shrubs were planted, and in less than a year (when I took the photo below in September, 2013), the banks were completely covered again, and with mostly native wildflowers like goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, Evening Primrose, Wild Bergamot, and Blue Vervain.  Unfortunately, some invasive species like Mugwort were introduced along with the dirt surrounding the new trees' rootballs, but so far they don't seem to have monopolized the site.

I took this photo below a few weeks ago in August, 2014.  Compare these lush green banks with the muddy bald banks in the above photo of the identical site, taken less than two years ago.

And here's what was once a muddy plain scraped bare of all vegetation, now abounding with beautiful flowers.  As it happens, those towering Maximilian Sunflowers are not really native to New York State, being a prairie native most likely introduced to this site either on the rootballs of the young trees or on the tires of the excavation equipment.  They were not here three years ago, and now they are becoming abundant.  It will be interesting to see if they persist.

In the meantime, the diverse mix of wildflowers continues to thrive and grow ever more robust.  Plants that were hip-high last year are now of shoulder height or higher, enriched by the floodwaters that wash over the land each spring.  Other wildlife abounds as well, including the Monarch Butterfly my friend Kay is trying to capture a photo of here.

Lucky for me, the butterfly found a flower worth lingering on, allowing me to creep close enough to snap its picture.

Monday, September 15, 2014

One Park, So Many Pleasures

Again and again, I thank my lucky stars that Moreau Lake State Park is just an easy drive up the road from my home in Saratoga Springs.  Whatever natural habitat I'm craving -- mountain trails, sandy shores, river islands, quiet ponds, deep dark forest -- I can find it at this wonderful park, and in abundance.  I took full advantage of that these past few days, visiting the park on three separate occasions, and immersing myself in a different kind of paradise each time.

 Last Friday found me short on time for a full-day nature walk, but I still had time for a brisk stroll around the southern end of Moreau Lake.  The day was fine, with puffy white clouds floating across a radiant blue sky, with just the slightest breeze to riffle the equally blue water of the lake.  The water is low enough now that I could stride along on the sand right next to the water's edge, watching the minnows dart away, while also scanning the sandy shore to see what flowers might still be blooming in the mild late-summer sunlight.

I was happy to see that the pretty pink Small-flowered Gerardia was still abundantly in bloom.

There were asters, too, of several species, white ones and others tinged with violet, but this little sedge outshone them all for beauty, with its golden color and dainty herringbone pattern.  My friend Andrew Gibson has suggested that this pretty sedge is Cyperus dentatus, also known as Toothed Flatsedge.

Where Speckled Alder shrubs hung over the water, I noticed fluffy white clusters of Wooly Alder Aphids feeding on some of the twigs.  When I see these clusters of tiny insects covered with waxy white fuzz, I peer closely to see if I might discover any predatory Lacewing nymphs slyly moving among them.  Lacewing nymphs are known to disguise their own bodies by covering themselves with some of that white fluff  and thus move undetected among their prey -- exactly like wolves in sheep's clothing!  (I did not find any Lacewing nymphs this day, so these "sheep" could safely graze.)

This Red Admiral Butterfly must also have felt it could safely graze, since it was so busy sipping from a patch of onshore mud I could creep very close and take a photo that captured every beautiful spot of color on its outspread wings.

When Sunday promised to bring fine weather after a rainy Saturday, my friend Sue and I met at Moreau to hike up the Red Oak Ridge Trail, one of the many miles of trails in this park that extends over 5,000 acres in two counties.  Unlike some of the steeper trails in the mountains within the park, the Red Oak Ridge Trail requires only a few stretches of rigorous climbing before it levels off to a gentle up-and-down through a gorgeous forest studded with huge boulders and watered by tumbling streams.

Since we had had rain the day before, we were hoping to find abundant fungi sprouting all over the woods.  Well, we did find abundant masses of this tiny Marasmius capillaris, a species of fungus that appears very quickly after rain and then disappears just as quickly when dry weather returns.  But that was just about IT.  I was hoping to forage for some delicious Honey Tooth or Bear's Head, but they were biding their time.

It looks to be a good year for Chestnut Oak acorns, for they were littering the forest floor like tiny yellow Easter eggs.

If this wee little Wood Frog had just held still, we would never have seen it, so perfectly camouflaged it was among the brown leaf litter.  But it hopped and then we saw it.  I love its golden eyeliner and dark bandit's mask.

Aside from just enjoying the sheer beauty of the Red Oak Ridge Trail, Sue and I had chosen to hike it now because we hoped to find the tiny late-season orchid called Autumn Coralroot.  As it turned out, we did find a few rather faded specimens along the ridge, but our big surprise was finding a huge patch of Autumn Coralroot right by the parking lot, even before we had started up the trail.  I doubt very much you can see the flower that Sue is photographing here, since this little orchid is just about exactly the color and texture of fallen leaves.  But Sue managed to see them, and when we counted them, we found at least three dozen right here beneath these trees.

Autumn Coralroot is easier to see when silhouetted against a dark background, which this big tree most handily provided.

When Monday turned out to be so exquisitely clear and calm, I could feel the cool blue waters of the Hudson River calling to me.  And I promptly answered.  I have discovered that many people are quite surprised to learn that this stretch of the river above and below the Spier Falls Dam is also part of Moreau Lake State Park.  Indeed it is, and not just the Saratoga County side.  Those forested mountains along the Warren County shore are also part of the park.  What an amazing treasure!

As summer draws to a close, many of the riverside flowers have completed their bloomtime,  so I was delighted to see that the golden-yellow Helenium was still in its glory.

And here and there, a solitary spike or two of fiery-red Cardinal Flower still blazed away at the edge of the riverside woods.

As the flowers fade, various fruits assume their role as providers of gorgeous color along the shore.  And what fruit could play that role any better than the dazzling red Winterberry?  Especially when viewed against such a sapphire sky.

Of course, the true extravaganza of color is yet to come, when the trees acquire their wondrous autumn foliage, and oh my, is that spectacular when reflected in the river's still water! I could already see touches of red and gold in some of the maples and poplars, but the champion of all when it comes to scarlet foliage is the glossy-leaved Black Tupelo.  Not only does this tree produce the brightest red autumn leaves of all, it produces them much earlier than any other tree.  See?  Ruby-red and emerald-green, all at the same time.  And studded with dark blue berries.  How could anyone desire more treasure than this?  And all of it free to enjoy, thanks to its preservation at Moreau Lake State Park.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Week's Worth of Woodland Adventures

What a week of wonderful weather for being outdoors!  This is the very best time of year, with cooler mornings and fewer bugs, and I made sure to take advantage of it this week, filling each day with visits to various nature sites around the region.  Most days have found me too tired at night to file any daily reports, so this post will just touch on the week's nature visits, in my attempt to catch up.

Thursday, September 4:  A Creekside Walk with the Thursday Naturalists

 It's always a treat to walk with my botanically expert friends in the Thursday Naturalists, especially when Ed Miller is along to solve the riddle of naming the ferns.  We did find many ferns this week at Boice Family Park near Rock City Falls, walking a wooded path that followed closely along the Kayaderosseras Creek. Lots of ferns, but very few flowers along this shady woodland trail: White Wood Aster, Bluestem and Zigzag Goldenrods, and the beautiful blue Closed Gentians topped our brief list of those in bloom.

On the other hand, mushrooms love the cool damp woods, and one of the interesting fungi we found was this Gemmed Puffball, covered with little nubs.

This Jelly Tooth Fungus has a liking for well-rotted conifer logs, which were abundant here in this woods along the creek.

Friday, September 5: Meadowbrook Preserve in Queensbury

My friend Bob Duncan wanted to examine some odd growths he had seen on some goldenrods, and what better place to find goldenrods than the many-acred meadow set aside as a nature preserve along Meadowbrook Road in Queensbury?  We couldn't have had a lovelier day on Friday to walk the mown paths that follow a loop through head-high Tall Goldenrods and Joe-Pye Weed.  We didn't have to walk but a few steps to encounter the growth Bob had come to examine, the bushy rosettes at the tip of many goldenrod stems, looking rather like large green Chrysanthemums.

I remembered reading about these galls in John Eastman's wonderfully informative The Book of Field and Roadside, so I could share that knowledge with Bob.  Eastman identifies the source of this bushy growth as the larval Goldenrod Gall Gnat (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), which attacks goldenrod buds and transforms them into bunchy masses of deformed leaves by preventing node elongation.

Although goldenrods and Joe-Pye Weeds constituted the preponderance of flowers that filled this meadow, we did find many asters mixed in, including the pale-lavender-flowered Panicled Aster, which we were able to identify by its narrowly lance-shaped leaves that clasp the stem.

Not all Purple-stemmed Asters have so brightly colored a stem as this one had.  But the large purple flowers and hairy stem are also distinguishing features of this showy plant.

Who would argue that the New England Aster is not the showiest aster of them all?  No other of our native asters have flowers of such intense color, which can be either purple or rosy pink, as this one was.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Look what we saw!  A MONARCH Butterfly!  This butterfly has seen severe decline in its populations lately, so we were quite excited to see this beautiful creature feeding on Joe-Pye Weed.

In fact, we saw quite a few Monarchs flitting about the pink tufts of the Joe-Pye Weed, so I'm posting a second photo in celebration. Yay!

Another lovely creature we saw was this Leopard Frog, as green as green can be, and with gold-rimmed eyes.

Saturday, September 6:  The Kayaderosseras Creek at Gray's Crossing

Saturday was the muggiest day of this week, and I might have taken a nature-day off, but I wanted to clock the mileage to a trail that follows the Kayaderosseras Creek at Gray's Crossing near Ballston Spa.  I'm leading a nature walk here later this month, and I need to tell folks exactly how to get here.    I find this site quite fascinating, botanically speaking, because the banks were cleared and reshaped a few years ago as a strategy to prevent flooding, and I've been curious to see what plants are moving in to repopulate the site.

Many native trees and flowering plants were planted here following excavation, and I'm happy to see that many of those plants continue to thrive.  Could there be a prettier mix of flowers than Boneset, a rosy variety of New England Aster, and Tall Coneflower?

Tall Goldenrod and the purple-flowered variety of New England Aster have long co-existed here, and they continue to thrive, I am very happy to report.

Down close to the water, I found a nice patch of the bright-yellow Nodding Bur Marigold.

I sure hope that this beautiful blue Great Lobelia continues to thrive.  I found but a single stem, growing where I have never seen it before.

In many ways, this trail along the creek is a study in the aggressive nature of invasive species, for here I find some of the most robust populations of such alien species as Japanese Knotweed and Wild Chervil I have ever found.  But I also find some of the sturdiest of native plants that do their best to force the invasives to keep their distance.  I don't know how it does it, since Pale Jewelweed is an annual that must grow from seed each year, but vast thickets of this beautiful native flower still hold their own against the encroaching Japanese Knotweed that also lines this path.

Ever since the soil along these banks was denuded and new plantings were brought in, I keep discovering new and disjunct species of flowering plants that were never here before.  Not all of them persist.  Last year I found Partridge Pea and Sawtooth Sunflower, but not a trace of either could I find this year.  This year, another disjunct species of sunflower has emerged, and it seems to be gaining quite a foothold.

I recognized this odd plant as a species of sunflower, but I could find nothing like it, with such deeply folded toothless leaves, in any of my wildflower guides, which cover only those plants that normally occur in the northeastern United States.  So I searched the internet for images of "sunflowers with sickle-like leaves" and there I found its look-alike in Maximilian's Sunflower, a native of the central plains.  So how the heck did it find its way to the banks of the Kayaderosseras Creek?  Most likely it arrived with the root balls of the young trees that were planted here, which could have come from nurseries across the U.S., I suppose.  At any rate, it's surprises like this that keep me coming back to the banks of the Kayaderosseras at Gray's Crossing.  I never know what I will find.

Sunday, September 7: A Mountain Trail at Moreau Lake State Park

 Oh, what a perfect day for climbing a mountain was Sunday!  Fresh and cool in the morning, with bright sun and dry air.  I was so happy I had arranged to meet my friend Sue Pierce to climb up the Spring Trail at Moreau Lake State Park, with our destination a splendid overlook providing breathtaking views of the Hudson River below and foothills of the Adirondacks beyond.  (We happened to come across a mutual friend, Ray Bouchard, along the way, and had the pleasure of his company as well.)

We had a second destination, too, midway along the trail to the top.  Here lies a wet meadow that used to be home to dozens of Nodding Ladies' Tresses before encroaching trees began to shade them out.  But just this past spring, volunteer trail workers had cleared those trees from this site, and Sue and I were delighted to find that these little white autumn-blooming orchids were back as robustly as ever.

Except for the Ladies' Tresses, we found few flowers blooming this time of year (aside from some woodland species of aster), but we did see some beautiful fungi, such as this speckled yellow Amanita species.

Following our climb and picnic lunch overlooking that gorgeous river/mountains view, Sue and I visited a nearby stretch of powerline right-of-way that was new to us, and there we found the most amazing population of Orange Peel Fungus that extended at least a hundred yards along a damp stretch of trail.

Monday, September 8: Climbing a Powerline Up a Mountain Slope

Gosh, it was almost chilly this morning, while also sunny and clear.  That clinched my decision to go for the top of a mountainous powerline right-of-way that has been calling to me for some time.  I've gone part way up before, but always turned back before ascending this last rise of rocky terrain.  Today I was going to DO it!

And do it I did, as far as my eye could see from down below on Spier Falls Road.  But then, as soon as I rounded the top, I could see that other ascents still lay ahead.  And now the rocks were steeper and higher, and my better judgement convinced me that I had gone high enough.  I was alone, with no one to go for help if I should fall, and my bones take longer to heal now that I am in my 70s than they did when I was younger.

At least I managed to accomplish another task I had set for myself, which was to obtain GPS coordinates for two plants I had found up here on these rocky thin soils, neither of which have yet been recorded in the floral atlas for Saratoga County.  I had collected specimens on a previous climb, but today I brought my GPS recorder along.  One of those plants was Round-leaved Tick-trefoil, which today I found with many pretty flowers.

The other plant was Orange-grass St. Johnswort, a wiry little native wildflower that has tiny yellow flowers when in bloom and dark red seed pods when it has finished blooming.  Sad to say, I found not a single flower in bloom today, so I guess it has gone to seed for the year.  But it was still kind of pretty.  And I did get its coordinates.

Acres of blooming goldenrods were studded with numerous clusters of pretty purple asters.  After examining their leaves and the bracts of their flowerheads, I decided that this was most likely the species called Smooth Aster.

The stalkless clasping leaves were indeed quite smooth to the touch, and almost completely entire, with only a few small teeth along the edges.

Before descending, I sat for a while, a gentle breeze cooling the sweat I had worked up on the climb, and enjoyed the exhilarating view of the clearcut stretching for miles along the Hudson Valley.

When I moved to the edge of the clearcut, I could see the river shining in the distance.  A beautiful view!  I will have to come back up here again.  Maybe next year I will catch that Orange-grass St. Johnswort in full bloom.  Or if somebody else comes with me, I might summon up the courage to brave those last big boulders.