Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Walk in the Park

While in The City to have some automotive work done (thank goodness for warranties), I met up with my friend Jackie and we went for a walk in Moreau State Park, which is just south of Glens Falls. Rain was in the forecast, but we forged ahead - a few raindrops weren't going to stop us.

I've never been to Moreau before, and we had many choices of where to go. In the end, we opted to walk around the lake. We were there for four hours! Lots of great finds, even though the day was grey and cool.

Skirting the lake, our eyes were grabbed by small dark figures wiggling through the water: newts!

These are the first newts I've seen this year. It's possible they've been out in the breeding ponds with the frogs, but I haven't seen 'em. These newts are the adult stage of our little red efts who prowl the woods throughout the summer. They stay in the eft stage for a couple years before returning to the water to breed as adults, at which time they lose their vibrant coloration - it's easier to blend in when your clothing is drab.

All across the forest floor ferns were beginning to unfurl. We usually thing of young ferns rolled up in the classic "fiddle head" shape, but these sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) were coiled inwards from their sides. It kind of reminds me of the Thistles/Russian Dancers from Disney's version of The Nutcracker Suite.

>Red trilliums (Trillium erectum) were starting to open, too. Also known as Stinking Benjamin, these flowers smell and look like very ripe meat. This is what brings in their pollinators, the green flesh-flies.

This handsome fungus was hanging out on a tree just a short distance from the lake shore. I'm not 100% sure which fungus it is, but I'm leaning towards it being a young artist's conk, but it's entirely possible I'm wrong. Any mushroom folks out there who can ID it for me? It looks kind of like a loaf of bread that is almost finished baking. Mmmm.

I love newly opening leaves. There's something about their color, shininess and supple texture that makes them just so appealing. This set is from a sugar maple (Acer saccharum).

The blueberries (Vaccinium sp.)were in various states of getting ready to bloom. This one was such a brilliant pink that it caught our attention and we spent quite some time photographing it.

Another new plant for me was maleberry (Lyonia ligustrina). This shrub is a member of the heath family and is related to blueberries. According to Jackie, its fruit are rather hard and inedible. Still, the dried capsules here are rather attractive. They remind me of bittersweet.

A traditional springtime flower is trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens). It's also called Mayflower, but these days that may have to change to Aprilflower! Down here these flowers are about past their blooming time, but we found some that were still open and smelled spicy. Two different colors were present here: pale pink...

...and white

I love plants that have multi-colored leaves. Therefore, finding striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) was delightful.

We also found "regular" wintergreen (Caultheria procumbens), complete with bright red berries. Partridgeberry was also around, with its red berries. The two are often confused by the layperson. A good way to tell them apart is that partridgeberry had small, almost round leaves that are paired and a dark green with a white mid-rib. The fruits are formed from two flowers each - so look for two blossom ends at the end of each berry. Wintergreen has just one (note the little "stem" hanging down from the end of the fruit).

When we first encountered this thorny shrub, we were perplexed. What in the world was it? The thorns were too small for hawthorne, but too big for even the most robust blackberries. Jackie suspected black locust. We found more around the far side of the lake, complete with fallen pods. It was, indeed, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), named after Jean and Vespasian Robin, herbalists to King of France in the early to mid-1600s, who did much to popular this species in Europe.

Hard by the locust this handsome spider was hanging out on his wispy web. I say "he" because of the large black pedipalps (the two knobs in front of its face) - structures attributed to male spiders.

This second spider was only a few inches away. I'm not sure if it was another male or if it was a female. This is because although it had something large and black in the region of the mouth, I couldn't discern if it was pedipalps or a partially consumed meal. I'll send the photos on to BugGuide and see if I can get an ID.

The shad were in bloom. Shad trees, shadbush, shadblow - Amalanchier sp. - typically come into flower when the shad (fish) are running upstream to spawn. Or, at least this is what happened historically. Everything is blooming much earlier these days. And this year, for the first time, the shad fisheries have been closed. The population of these fish, which spend part of their lives in the ocean and part in freshwater, has declined to such a level that it can no longer sustain commercial fishing. Annual shad bakes are now a thing of the past.

How sweet are these maple keys?

While making our way around the muddy shoreline, we spied this dark shape near the water's edge. A deceased bullhead. I wonder how it died? It apparently wasn't anyone's meal for there was no evidence of any feeding. HM.

This fish's demise, however, was less of a mystery. Most of the flesh was gone, leaving just the head, bones and a few scales behind. Otters? Very likely.

Beaver sign was all around the lake. Jackie likes to call this the beaver diner - look at all the places where they have been chewing!

This tree has been consumed a bit more recently.

Nearby, we found this pile of scat on a log that was partially submerged. I found a stick, scooped up a bit and took a sniff. If it was fishy, we could reasonably guess otters. It wasn't. The texture looked a lot like sawdust. Beaver? My field guides all describe beaver scats as well-formed pellets, usually expelled in the water, where they dissolve. HM. Maybe this beaver had an upset stomach. Or maybe they were just old and weathered scats, flattened by time.

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) - I love these plants. They are also called mandrakes. Those who are Harry Potter fans will recognize the name mandrake. But this isn’t the same mandrake – that is a European plant, which does look a lot like our native mayapple here. The story behind the real mandrake is that the root sometimes had a somewhat human form. In truth, it looks kind of like a carrot, and anyone who’s grown carrots knows that sometimes they can develop into some pretty crazy shapes – sometimes with arms and legs. Anyway, it was believed that if pulled from the ground its cry would kill the person who disturbed it. In order to avoid this problem, it was recommended to tie a rabid dog to the plant. The dog would then pull up the root and die, leaving the area with one less rabid dog and the perpetrator with a now harmless mandrake root.

Still, as I said, our mayapple is a different, and less deadly, plant. Well, the root IS poisonous, but parts of the plant have been found to have genuine medicinal properties, including potential use in the fight against cancer.

Not all early leaves are a brilliant spring green. Some, like these black cherry leaves (Prunus serrotina) show a bit more red. In fact, these leaves were almost coppery in color - really quite beautiful.

I think this was hophorn beam (Ostrya virginiana). What a lovely soft green.

Maple-leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) is also known as dockmackie. One glance at the leaves of this shrub make it clear how it got its common name. The best explanation I could find of "dockmackie" is that it is probably American Dutch in origin, although it could be Mahican. Hm.

I'm not 100% sure what tree/shrub these belong to, but I'd be willing to guess an oak.

We stumbled across this lovely little violet, an ovate-leaved violet (Viola fimbriatula). Most violets have rounded leaves, but the leaves of this little beauty are oval-shaped. Another key to a postive ID is the hairy stem.

But I'm just enchanted with the flower itself - how charming it is! And a nice splash of color to a still mostly brown landscape.

Now, you'd probably think this is another unusual flower, but these are the bracts that remain from last fall's blossoming. The plant? Witch hazel. Hamamelis virginia is one of the last flowering plants to bloom – it comes into its own in the fall with these wild yellow flowers that look terribly windblown. It has astringent qualities, which is why it is bottled and sold in drug stores. Although, now that I think about it, is the witch hazel antiseptic of today still made from this plant, or is it entirely synthetic, like wintergreen flavoring (no longer, or very rarely, extracted from wintergreen plants)? HM…I’ll have to check the next time I’m at the drug store

Plants weren't the only things strutting their stuff. These fish were also feeling the urges of spring. Jackie says they are a type of sucker. I have a call out to a fishy friend to see if we can get a more precise identification for them. UPDATE: My fish friend says that they are most likely white suckers - a native species! And indicators of good water quality.

I really need to brush up on my bryology. Mosses are fascinating, especially up close. This particular patch was a very robust population of hairy-cap moss, Polytrichum sp. The tall sporophytes were thick as theives, looking almost like some kind of forest from a science fiction novel.

A short distance away the splashcups grew. These are the male reproductive parts. When water (rain) splashes into the brown cups, the sperm splash out, hopefully to land on receptive female parts.

Update on Polytrichum: the common name, hairy-cap moss, come from the fact that the tips of the sporophytes (the tall things in the first photo) have hairy caps. As mentioned above, with Polytrichum the male and female reproductive parts grow on separate colonies of the moss.

When you look at a moss, the green leafy bit, you are looking at the part called the "gametophyte." When the gametophytes mature, they produce sporophytes, a result of sexual reproduction. In other words, the gametophytes produce eggs and sperm.

In the case of Polytrichum, the male reproductive parts are on one colony (the ones with the splash cups), the females on another (they just look like green moss - no overt structures). Rain splashes the sperm from the male splash cup and they swim outwards across the wet plants in search of eggs on the female plants. When fertilization occurs, the sporophyte is produced. This structure releases spores when it matures, which explode out onto the landscape in hopes of starting new moss colonies.

This tiny wee plant is known as Wicklow grass, Draba verna. It was one of the last plants we encountered up close this day, but one that Jackie was eager to show me.

Look at how tiny it is! It takes a real nature nut, with botanical tendencies, to find this delicate flower. Someone like Jackie, who, I swear, knows every plant in Saratoga County on a first name basis. Her enthusiasm is a treasure and easily contagious.

Anyway, this little plant is about past its prime bloom-wise. We found a few that were still in flower, but many had already produced their fruits (the green “tongue” sticking out from the white petals). A member of the mustard family, this is a plant that Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservation, declared pointed out the true seekers of spring, for they would find it (spring) by crawling across the ground rather than by gazing up towards the tops of trees. Ahhh – I knew there was justification to my walking always with my eyes to the ground!

So, many thanks to Jackie for a wonderful tour of one of her neighborhood parks. We'll have to do it again, on another trail, perhaps when the sun is out. But days are always good when spent with good friends, regardless of the weather.


  1. Oh what delights! First, to spend such a fun day with you, and then to enjoy our adventure all over again through your beautiful photos and vivid commentary.Thanks for both.

  2. What a wonderful array of spring goodies! So nice to see mayapples, which I used to see lots of in my former home, but don't seem to have around here.

  3. Great post! I'm especially impressed with (and jealous of) your incredible close-ups. The moss photos are delightful, just to mention one of many.

  4. I loved the reading and seeing the walk that both of you did together. It is fun to see things from different perspective. I didn't think anyone could top the moss photo that Jackie took but you equaled it for sure.

    I have been totally focused on learning ferns lately that I haven't had much time to look at anything else. Your trip was just want I needed on this boreing day inside working.


  5. Fascinating stuff! Thanks for the lovely tour.

  6. Thanks for bringing Spring into my office via the computer.