Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Roiling River

SNOW!  We had about four inches of it last night, following a day-long rain.  Today, despite cold temperatures, a bright sun made short work of that snow, adding the snowmelt to an already close-to-overflowing Hudson River.  I drove along Spier Falls Road at Moreau today and discovered my favorite little island was well submerged beneath roiling, rushing water.

Here's a photo of that same little island in calmer waters.  (I took this photo on January 17 this year.)

The river was powerfully plunging over Spier Falls Dam, pounding with explosive force and a mighty roar on the rocks below.  The juxtaposition of all this raging water next to the No Swimming sign gave me a bit of a chuckle.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Floral Explosion Begins!

Remember my visit to Orra Phelps Nature Preserve just 5 days ago?  Here's what the woods looked like then:

Now see what a stretch of warm sunny days and a few rainy nights can do.  This is that same trail as in the photo above, although from the opposite direction, taken today.  Every single bit of that snow and hard-packed ice is now gone!

When I was here last Wednesday, I searched for some sign of Snow Trilliums, and found nothing but cold bare ground where I knew they grew, not even the tiniest shoot.   But look what I found today!  Boy, these flowers don't waste any time once they break through the soil.

It's such a privilege to find these dainty little flowers here at Orra Phelps, since Saratoga County is far from this trillium's native range.  It's believed that Orra herself must have planted them, and they have certainly thrived at this spot.  I counted nine plants blooming today, with many more plants that had no flowers.  Each year I am surprised anew by how tiny they are.  This photo is about life-size.  Note the maple seed for comparison.

So the floral explosion begins!  Every day now, new flowers will burst into bloom, making haste to set seed before the tree canopy closes in and limits the light that reaches the forest floor.  Among our earliest bloomers is the lovely Hepatica, and sure enough, I found this pristine white one blooming today at Orra Phelps.

I was not at all surprised to find these sunny yellow Coltsfoot flowers blooming today in downtown Saratoga's Congress Park.  I always think of them as the first spring flower that really LOOKS like a flower -- meaning one that has petals -- unlike the club-shaped Skunk Cabbage that does bloom even earlier. 

Many people mistake Coltsfoot flowers for Dandelions, but unlike Dandelions, whose flower stalks rise from a rosette of sharply toothed leaves, the Coltsfoot flowers bloom well before the leaves emerge.  The Coltsfoot also has a central disk of fertile flowers that look like tiny five-petaled lilies.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Look! The Ground is Bare in the Woods!

And the mountain streams are rushing with snowmelt!

All that's left of the ice on Mud Pond is a raft of rapidly melting slush!

The American Hazelnut shrubs have at last put forth their tiny red female flowers!

The hazel's male catkins are now exploding with pollen!

And the solitary bees are building their nests and packing them full of that pollen, preparing a nursery for the baby bees.

Isn't it just amazing what a few warm days can do?  The Spring was just waiting, waiting, waiting, and now it's starting to make up for lost time.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Little Night Music

There is no sweeter sound of Spring than the high shrill calls of Spring Peepers from every woodland pool and roadside ditch.  Tonight, while driving the back-country roads through the dark rolling hills between Saratoga and Schuylerville,  I stopped to stand, enchanted, along the banks of a roadside marsh and thrill to this piercing music.  (Note that some Canada Geese were adding their notes to this evening chorus.)


It's hard to believe that all that sound can come out of a tiny frog that's only a little bit bigger than a cricket!  This photo is about life size.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Butterflies! Bugs! Blooms!

Butterflies!  Bugs!  Blooms!  It must be Spring!  It was certainly warm enough today to call it springlike.  Up to 70 degrees at least, according to the thermometer in my friend Sue's car as we drove together to the Skidmore woods, hoping to find some of the season's surprises.

"I bet we'll see a Mourning Cloak," I said to Sue as we started off into the sunlit woods, and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than this exquisite butterfly with its deep-brown velvet wings trimmed with cobalt and gold came wafting by.  And then, to our hearts' joy, this lovely creature lit on a rock and spread its wings and stayed right there for the longest time, allowing us to capture its beauty in clear and close-up photos.

Just a few moments before, Sue had spotted a flash of emerald green on the air, as this Green Shield Bug came flitting by before landing on a tree trunk.  Like the Mourning Cloak Butterfly, the Green Shield Bug also winters over as an adult and is one the first insects we are likely to see as the weather warms.

(Here's another photo, taken a few years ago, of the Green Shield Bug's funny face with its black beady eyes and tiger-striped antennae.)

We did not expect to see any flowers yet, since it's only a few days since the snow cover finally melted away in the woods.   So imagine our surprise when we spied this opening Hepatica bloom emerging from its furry bud amid its cluster of bright-green leaves.   Like the two insects we had seen, Hepatica leaves also winter over, the leathery three-lobed leaves looking as fresh as before they were buried under the snow.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

First Critters of Spring

Unfortunately, the first of spring's critters I've found as yet (aside from migrating birds), was the Deer Tick I found embedded in my arm this morning.  I must have picked it up on one of my forays this week in search of signs of spring.  Not fair!  Everything else is weeks late in arriving. Ah well, the warmer weather due these next few days should start things stirring in the woods.  But it's going to take quite a blast of warmth to melt all the snow and ice still chilling the ground at Orra Phelps Nature Preserve in Wilton, as I discovered yesterday.

 I had gone to Orra Phelps on the slimmest chance I might find Snow Trillium coming up, a tiny flower that lives up to its name by blooming even while snow remains on the ground.  Saratoga County is way north and east of this pretty little trillium's native range, but Orra herself must have planted these in her woods, and they have thrived here ever since.  I'm assuming I will find them again this spring, but as yet there was no sign of them.

What I did find, though, were long snaky piles of mud deposited on the leaf litter in several swampy spots.  It looks like the Star-nosed Mole is doing its spring house-cleaning.  It's hard to believe that a small furry creature would want to live in such mucky ground, but that's exactly the habitat this species of mole prefers.

There were still a few mucky spots on the trail at Ballston Creek Nature Preserve, which I visited today, but here in this sun-warmed woods the snow was completely gone, and the walking was easy.

If the weather stays warm, we will soon see this woods just carpeted with thousands of Carolina Spring Beauties.  As of yet, there was still no sign of any spring wildflowers.  But imagine my delight at seeing a fluttering flash of orange as a Comma Butterfly flitted about the woods.  Like the Mourning Cloak Butterfly, the Comma winters over as an adult, emerging the first barely warm days of spring to feed on dripping tree sap.

  Obviously, I did not take this photo today, since none of the woodland leaves are yet this green.  I tried and tried to stalk this butterfly and capture its image today, but every time it landed on the forest floor, it closed its wings, revealing underwings the same color as dead dry leaves, and it completely disappeared.   Again and again I lost sight of it, until once again it flew away, revealing its brilliant colors just out of camera range.

I came to this nature preserve today to see if the Great Blue Herons had returned to their nests in a swamp, and sure enough, they had.  Here are three of the seven nests I counted, most of them occupied by a sentinel or nesting heron.

Off to one side of the swamp was a solitary nest, much larger than those the herons were sitting in.  I assumed that this was the nest of a pair of Ospreys, who also return each year to this site to rear their young.  At first sight, though, no Osprey appeared to be near.

Soon enough, though, this pair came wheeling through the air, the one on the right with a bundle of sticks in its talons, which it deposited in the nest before flying away again.

While peering through my binoculars at all this avian activity, I slowly became aware of a distinctive croaking sound off in the woods a ways.  Hey, could that be Wood Frogs?!  I followed the sound through the woods to this half-frozen vernal pool, and there they were!  They seemed to be just warming up their mating calls, since I didn't observe the copulatory frenzy I have witnessed at other times.  Perhaps the ladies have yet to arrive.

When the ladies arrive, these guys will be waiting for them.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Blackbirds Singin' On a Dark Dank Day

Today was dark and dank and blustery, and I almost didn't go out.  But I felt the need to swing my legs, so I pulled on my boots, tugged a hat over my ears, and grudgingly set off to nearby Bog Meadow Nature Trail.  Maybe I'd see a bird or two, I grumbled, but I sure wasn't going to find any flowers. 

Well, I sure did see a bird or two -- or three or four or more than a dozen, thanks to a young man named Russ I happened to meet on the trail.

When I first spied Russ he was peering through his binoculars at a tree across the swamp, a tree that was all aflutter with twittering birds, hopping from limb to limb, and making a royal racket!  I might have mistaken them for Starlings, but Russ had better binoculars than I and could see the birds' yellow eyes, as well as their tails that were longer than Starlings' and shorter than Grackles' tails.  So what could they be but a treeful of Rusty Blackbirds?  Rusties are not all that common around these parts, so Russ and I were both excited to see them.

Russ came to Bog Meadow today because he had heard a report of seeing an American Coot on the marsh's open waters, a bird that would be a "lifer" for him.  He wasn't sure where to find this open water, so I told him to walk with me and I'd take him there.   When I was last here a week ago, the "open water" was still frozen over from shore to shore, but today we found it mostly free of ice and teeming with all kinds of waterfowl swimming back and forth amid its rolling wind-blown waves.

Sure enough, there was that Coot!  It's the dark bird with a pale bill, close to the center of this photo below.  When we first spied him, he was close to our side of the marsh, but as we approached, he made his way to the far side, where dozens of other water birds swam in and out of the sheltering tussocks.

I know my photos are inadequate to reveal the species of ducks we saw (I only have a tiny pocket camera with a limited zoom), but with binoculars we were able to see many Ring-necked Ducks, Buffleheads, Mallards, Canada Geese,  and a couple of Common Goldeneyes.  (Take my word for it, that is a Goldeneye in the photo below. ) One of my birder friends, Lindsey, reported today that she had seen Gadwall, Black Duck, Green-winged Teal, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, and Wood Ducks at this same location, in addition to the species we saw.  And they may have been there still, but hiding among the reeds.  I would say that Bog Meadow Nature Trail is truly a birding paradise!

Bog Meadow is also a botanizer's paradise, although it will still be some time before the spring wildflowers poke above the ground.  At least I could see the promise of things to come in the fresh green shoots topping a mound of Tussock Sedge.

I was also delighted to see the Skunk Cabbage making up for lost time, now that the heavy snow cover has melted at last.

Monday, April 7, 2014

One Last Snowshoe Hike (I Hope!)

When Evelyn Greene called Sunday morning to invite me on a snowshoe hike,  my first impulse was NO!   I don't want anything more to do with snow.  But then it sunk in that this was EVELYN asking, and I never turn down an opportunity to hike with her, since she knows all the very best places to hike in the Adirondacks.  And oh, it was such a splendid blue-sky day, perfect for a walk in the woods.  Even a woods with shin-deep snow still thick on the ground.  So I dug my snowshoes back out of storage and headed north to explore a forest I had never visited before, a Land Conservancy tract near Wevertown, with a trail that follows Mill Creek to where it joins the Hudson River.

Evelyn Greene is a long-time student of how frazil ice collects on the banks of the Hudson River, and this particular trail would take us to a site along the river that she hadn't yet been able to observe this year.  Since the trail is not marked, we wandered quite a ways off, but with the sounds of the rushing creek to guide us, we knew we would end up where the creek itself did, where it joined the river.  And so we did.

Although the Hudson's rushing water was free of ice at this point,  Evelyn could see the deposits of frazil remaining along the bank, confirming her expectations about how far upstream this particular kind of frothy ice had collected.

After resting a while at this beautiful sun-warmed spot,  we walked the nearby railroad tracks in search of the trail we had missed coming down.  We found it soon enough, and set off to return to our car.

Our return trek took us much closer along Mill Creek, granting us splendid views of its rushing waters curving through the forest and tumbling over a small waterfall.  And even though I'm really weary of walking in snowy woods, I had to admit, it sure was beautiful.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Bare Ground! LOTS of Bare Ground!

 Just look at all these wide open fields, completely bare of snow!  At last I could walk on the grassy bare ground, the soil gently yielding beneath my feet, as I made my way along the Wilkinson Trail at the Saratoga National Historical Park near Stillwater.  Several days with warm sun and above-freezing temperatures have finally melted (or evaporated) the heaps and heaps of snow I thought would never leave.  There was still enough covering the trail in the shade of the woods to remind us of how thick that snow-cover had been, but out in the open under a wide blue sky, not a trace of it remained.

There was not another soul sharing this trail with me today, except for what sounded like hundreds of chirping birds hiding among the boughs of this big old White Pine.  It amazes me how well birds can hide from view, for although I searched these boughs with my binoculars, not a single bird could I actually lay my eyes on.  But take my word for it, that tree was full of birds.  Happy sounding birds, seeming to celebrate this beautiful blue-sky day.

There were lots of other happy-seeming birds on the Hudson River, including these Bufflehead ducks, one female surrounded by a group of males.  I wonder if she had already selected her mate, since the males, although flapping their wings now and then, were not performing their marvelous head-bobbing, crest-spreading courting display.  This is such a pretty little duck, and one we don't get to see very often, except as they stop to rest on our local waters as they make their way north to nest in hollow trees near northern lakes.

I saw lots of migrating ducks yesterday, too, when my friend Sue and I visited the Hudson at South Glens Falls.  Unfortunately, they were too far out on the river for me to get any good photos of the Scaups, Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks that were mixed in with flocks of Canada Geese and Mallards.  A majestic Osprey flew in, too, and perched for quite a long while on a snag overlooking a backwater.

It was there in South Glens Falls, in a soggy spot along the Betar Byway, that we finally found our first flower of spring, the Skunk Cabbage in full pollenaceous bloom.  That makes it official: Spring is really, truly here at last!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spring Edges In!

Heat wave!  Well, not really.  But the temps have edged up into the 40s, even bumping into the 50s the past few days.  And yesterday the sun shone brightly all day long.  Lovely!  I hurried over to Mud Pond at Moreau yesterday, hoping that that warming sun might have melted a couple of feet of ice along the northern shore. Maybe I'd find some Spotted Newts basking just under the surface. Nope.  Not yet.  The pond was still frozen shore to shore, but it looked like it might be softening around the edges.  Especially around the beaver lodge.

It was still rather difficult to make my way around the pond.  The packed-down trails were slippery and post-holed, and the snow was still shin-deep in the woods, making progress slow and fatiguing.  So I didn't stay very long.

I did linger, however, to examine nearly all the American Hazelnut shrubs along the powerline, hunting for the tiny red female flowers that look like miniature Sea Anemones, hardly bigger than the head of a pin.   But no, too early yet, even though the male catkins look as if they have begun to grow longer in preparation for shedding their pollen.

At least my craving for color was not disappointed, thanks to this pretty little cluster of Green Shield Lichen spreading its verdigris ruffles right next to a bright-orange dot of a tiny fungus that had somehow kept its color through the winter.

And there is no flower (well, maybe the Cardinal Flower) that can out-red the red of this tiny Cladonia lichen's fruiting bodies. And bless their hearts, they gift us with their colorful beauty all year long, unfading even under the snow.

Tuesday, April 1:  Today dawned clear and bright and mild, although clouds had covered the sky by the time I got outdoors after lunch.  I had heard reports that the Osprey pair had returned to the nest they have built on a telephone pole along busy Rte. 4 between Schuylerville and Ft. Edward.  So I grabbed my binoculars and crossed over the Hudson to Washington County.

And there they were!  Standing right up on the edge of their nest, seemingly undisturbed by the traffic racing by, or even more surprisingly, by the commotion going on all around them. There were growling bulldozers shoving rocks and dirt, construction crews shouting to one another, and clanking cranes towering into the sky, as repair work proceeded on the Champlain Canal that runs directly alongside the road at this point.  With all that racket, I was able to creep quite close to the nest without the Ospreys flying away.

What a majestic sight!

The Champlain Canal is mostly drained for the winter, and whatever water remained was still frozen solid.  I crossed over the canal on my way to Ft. Miller, a Revolutionary War-era village on the banks of the Hudson River.

Here at Ft. Miller, the Hudson was wide open and clear of ice, its shimmering waters teeming with waterfowl.  As I stood on the banks,  many flocks of Canada Geese came streaming north over the river, their musical calls filling the air.

Many geese had already landed to rest and feed along the shore.  Mixed in with the geese were several kinds of ducks, mostly American Mergansers, but I think I saw some Ring-necked Ducks as well.  My birder friends have reported seeing some quite unusual species this year, but even with my binoculars I could not see the ducks well enough to identify them for sure.  Many would dive, the very moment I focused my lenses on them.  So I focused instead on the beauty of this landscape with deep red barn, shimmering reflections, and gently rolling hills.

Here are some of the colorful creatures I sighted on my way home,  rowing crews plying the waters of Fish Creek near Saratoga.  I believe that's their coach in the motorboat.  When I came by here only a week or so ago, the creek was still solidly frozen.  All this open water means that spring must be here for sure.  About time!