Monday, October 25, 2010

Late Season Surprises

It was well after dark last night when Toby and I headed out for our last stroll of the day. The rain had let up, and stars were even starting to peek out, so we took one of our longer walks down toward the golf course. On the way back home, I caught sight of something in the road. By golly, it was a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)!

The only salamanders I've routinely seen up here are red-backeds and red efts, the latter being the terrestrial stage of the red-spotted newt.

Spotted salamanders are not readily spotted (no pun intended). This is because they are a type of salamander known as a mole salamander. Mole salamanders, as you might imagine, spend a large part of their life underground. They are most readily seen in the spring when they head for ponds in order to create new spotted salamanders for the future. So, you can imagine my surprise at finding one slowing inching its way across the road on a chilly (but damp) night in late October.

We were still about a half mile from home, but I reached down and patted the ground the get a coating of water on my hand before picking the critter up. I simply had to take it home for a photo session! At first it sat coldly in my hand, but soon it began to warm up. As it did, it started to object to its captivity. It wiggled and squirmed, poked its rounded snout between my fingers, and even managed to crawl part way up my sleeve. I was concerned it might begin to dry out, so I added some wet leaves to my hand and picked up the pace.

Once back home, I plucked some rain-drenched grass and hurried inside. An empty salad container would make the perfect temporary home.

While my camera was nearby on the table, my macro lens was out in the car. We've had several cold nights and chilly days lately, and yesterday I had a fire going in the wood stove. You can imagine what happened when I brought the lens inside and attempted to use it.

Yep - it was all fogged up. I tried to wipe it off, even used a hair drier on a low setting, but to no avail. Things were too damp for it to be usable.

So, I had to make do with my regular lens.

One of the characteristics of this salamander that I wanted to point out is the laterally flattened tail (see below). This tail acts as a rudder when the animal is in the water. Like some lizards, the spotted salamander can "drop" its tail in order to escape from predators. I imagine the wiggling appendage is a pretty good distraction while the rest of the animal beats a hasty retreat.

Mostly, however, spotted salamanders are woodland creatures, living out their lives underground in hardwood forests. The only times they leave their protective tunnels is to go out at night to hunt, or to seek ponds on rainy nights in the spring to breed. This fellow must've been out looking for an early evening snack.

Now here's something pretty cool about this large salamander (which can reach almost eight inches in length): its eggs have a symbiotic relationship with a green alga (Oophilia amblystomatis; aka: the salamander alga).

Like many amphibian eggs, the eggs of the spotted salamander are protected by a jelly-like coating which prevents dehydration. However, this protective jacket also limits the amount of oxygen that can reach the developing embryo. Enter the alga. As a green plant, the alga photosynthesizes, and we all know from basic biology that a by-product of photosynthesis is oxygen. Voila! The embryo now has plenty of O2 to get it through to hatching. And all the CO2 produced by the developing embryo is likewise utilized by the alga to continue its photosynthesis. It's a win-win situation.

This may be hard to believe, but these slimy woodland denizens have been found to live up to 20 years in the wild! And every spring of their adulthood they migrate to the vernal pond where they hatched (kind of like salmon) in order to breed. I'm afraid I might have done in that aspect of this particular salamander's life, for I turned it loose at the edge of the woods in my back yard. I wonder if it will find a new home in this strange patch of woods, and find a new pond next spring in which to breed, or if I have doomed it to an abbreviated existence despite my good intentions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Winter Cometh

Last Sunday, the High Peaks already had white caps.

Tuesday a really hard frost hit. We'd already had a couple mild frosts, but this was a true killer frost. Everything was rimed.

Thursday night snow was in the air, but nothing stuck. This morning, however, we woke to a white world.

Admittedly, it wasn't a lot of snow (about an inch on the car), but it was enough to send the plows out with sand and salt.

We may cringe at winter's approach (it's too soon), but you can't beat the view of a pink sunrise on a snow-covered mountain.

(That's Santanoni, by the way, just in case you were wondering.)
They say that some of the High Peaks already have over a foot of snow. Yep, it seems like winter has its toe in the door (although rumor has it that it will be in the 60s again in the next few days).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

On the Road Again

Friday morning dawned...sort of. The sky did appear a shade lighter at 7:00 AM than it was at 5:00 AM, but not a whole lot. I had a long day of driving ahead of me, and the heavy clouds overhead did not bode well. In fact, SNOW was in the forecast.

Still, I had a mission: I was off to Michigan for a job interview.

Now, you wouldn't think there'd be a lot in common between the Adirondacks and Michigan, but there's one thing that was constant in NY, OH, PA, MI and even here in Canada, where I am tonight, and that is road construction.

The first delay from construction was right at the edge of the Park, near Forestport. They are rebuilding the road. Even Santa got into the swing of things.

Fortunately, I avoided the snow. All I had to deal with was rain, and more rain. It was a long haul across NY, even on the Thruway. When I crossed into Pennsylvania, however, the clouds started to thin, and I got my first glimpse of one of the Great Lakes - Lake Erie. Those are grape vines in the foreground, by the way.

The Lake was most impressive as I creeped through Cleveland during rush hour that evening. The wind had really picked up and was throwing large waves against the brakewaters, tossing spray into the air as impressive as some I've seen at the ocean. However, driving in rush hour traffic does not lend itself well to admiring the view, no matter how spectacular it was. Photography was definitely out.

I made it as far as Toledo, Ohio the first day. Twelve and a half hours on the road. I was ready for a good night's sleep.

Morning came with a slow sunrise. I was still headed westward, but the early morning light sure lit up the countryside beautifully.

There are so many beautiful barns in Ohio. I only captured one with the camera, though.

This was my destination, the Dahlem Conservancy - a combination nature center, environmental education center, and land conservancy outfit. I was being interviewed for Education Director later in the afternoon, so I had the morning to explore the trails.

The walkway leading toward the building is lined with lovely gardens that have been put together by master gardeners, and it shows! Even in mid-October they are quite stunning.

A special needs trail goes through the woods right around the building. What a beautiful day it was - a nicer one couldn't have been planned if a direct order was placed with the weather gods.

A wild cucumber had creeped over the railing of the boardwalk.

The morning air was filled with birdsong, many of which I recognized (chickadees, juncos, nuthatches). I was delighted to spot this female cardinal in the shrubbery.

What joy to see sasafrass, and tulip poplar - old friends I don't encounter in the central Adirondacks.

This shadow was so sharp that it stood out from over fifty feet away.

The property at Dahlem showcases several habitats. I'd passed through some forested habitats, some wetlands, and could see on the edge, here, some farm fields. Two sandhill cranes flew overhead - the third pair I had seen this morning. What a wonderful sight!

I confess I did not recognize all the vegetation. Could this be privet? I'll have to dig out my field guides when I get back home.

Along the edge of the woods to the west is a fair-sized field, some of which is restored prairie.

At least two ponds dot the property. One had a muskrat lodge in it, while the other was surrounded by lots of animal tracks.

Could these be bidens? Again, I'll have to get out my Newcomb's when I get home.

In addition to the two cranes that winged overhead, I saw a Cooper's hawk buzz through the woods, and watched several turkey vultures soar over the field, which were briefly accompanied by a red-tailed hawk.

As I returned to the building, I saw this large collection of branches. It was roughly nest-shaped. Upon closer inspection, I saw a white plastic egg inside. Hm. It turns out that this "eagle's nest" was created by some volunteers. Apparently the area's first real eagle nest was built this last year.

One of the Dahlem staff told me that after my interview I should head over to the local Audubon sanctuary to watch the cranes come in to their evening roost. I took him up on his advice, and after a very tasty meal at Bob Evans, I went in search of the sanctuary. Lots of road construction and a detour later, I found the place. The parking lot was hopping!

A mowed path takes visitors to a couple different viewing spots above (a loose term - there isn't a whole lot of elevation here) Mud Lake. This is one of two roosting spots for the cranes in the sanctuary. I got there about 5:30 and already the birds were coming in.

Of course, while waiting for the birds to fly over, I took in some of the vegetation. I have no idea what this plant is, but there were quite a few of them. Jackie - you're from MI - do you have any idea what this is?

The main attraction, of course, was the cranes. These are sandhill cranes, although there was a whooping crane out in the water (and I did catch a glimpse of him). The birds flew in in groups of two to, oh, maybe twenty.

I took a LOT of photos, but I'll spare you the repetition and just post the best.

As the sun was nearing the horizon, larger flocks began to arrive.

I would have liked to have stayed for the big show, but I wanted to reach the Canadian border before I called it quits for the night, so I had to leave.

It was quite dark by the time I got back on the highway and headed north and east. The traffic was horrific - what were all these people doing out driving on a Saturday night!?!? I was relieved to finally reach Port Huron, on the Canadian border, where I'd planned to spend the night. Who knew there would be some sort of youth hockey event going on, with all the little dears and their families taking up EVERY SINGLE ROOM in every single hotel?!? I suggested that since the kids are small they could stack them up like cord wood in the rooms, leaving space for the rest of us weary travelers, but no one would take me up on it. So, I got out my passport and crossed the border. I'm now somewhere in Canada - I have no idea where. It's the first place I could find a room.

Tomorrow I'll see if I can find a map.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


The mid-1900s found the Adirondack Park chock full of kitschy amusement venues, most of which are no longer around. The North Pole is still in operation up in Wilmington, and the Enchanted Forest (or is it the Magic Forest?) down in Lake George is open summers. The rest, however, have faded away into the dust of time.

Not too far from Newcomb, just off Exit 29 from the Northway, is/was FrontierTown, a little bit of the American West in the Adirondacks.

Many of the folks in Newcomb (and no doubt the other nearby villages) held summer jobs here, dressed as frontier folk and making memories for tourists.

Today, all that remains is the empty main building, the train depot, and a couple small out-buildings, little more than walls and roofs.

I was meeting my County Coordinator for the NYS Bluebird Society this morning to drop off unsold nestbox kits, money from sold kits, etc. Our meeting spot was the FrontierTown parking lot. I got there early, so I wandered around taking photos.

Of course, I couldn't pass up photographing the milkweed, which is at its prime right about now.

This was the first building I encountered. Was it a jail? A storage shed?

More milkweed. :)

A small pond graced the property, surrounded by a split rail fence.

Some of the fence rails were simply coated with lichens!

I walked around the pond and crossed the little bridge (which has seen better days).

Along side the "trail" were what looked like railroad ties, albeit small railroad ties. Did they have a little train ride here?

Sure enough, following the tracks, they led right to what had been the train depot. There are no trains running here any more.

There's plenty of vegetation, though. Why, it's a regular ghost town! Minus the actual town.

I continued past the depot toward the main building, with its tall triangular form.

The remains of a wagon rest against the building.

A road grader (?) lies in the weeds.

The glass had been shattered on the door that led into the Triangle, so I poked my head and camera inside. There appeared to be a stage inside. Did they have shows here? Perhaps they held dances?

Two old chandeliers still swung from the rafters, accompanied by some tacky fluorescent lights.

A candle holder perhaps?

A fire hydrant lurked nearby, almost swallowed up by the vegetation.

I headed back toward the train depot.

How very sad it all looks today. The original signs are still in place, warning visitors to be careful on the rides. Today I suppose they apply equally well to visitors like me who are just poking around.

Soon Kathy rolled into the parking lot and my wandering came to and end. I gave her my bluebird stuff, we swapped a few stories, and then we went our separate ways.

I never got to visit places like FrontierTown when I was a kid. Oh, we did Disney World out in California when we lived there, but I was too young to remember. I do remember asking to go to the North Pole when we visited Lake Placid, but we never did.

The place I always wanted to visit was down in the Mohawk Valley: Petrified Creatures. I was really into dinosaurs when I was a kid, and this place had 'em. Well, I guess what they really had were fiberglass replicas, which I've heard weren't to accurate. We would pass Petrified Creatures every time we drove to my grandparents' house in Gloversville. Every time I would ask if we could stop, but we never did. I finally stopped asking. I can still remember seeing the neck and head of a brontosaurus and the ridged back of a stegosaurus peeking through the trees, behind the perimeter fence. Like all such places in the Park, Petrified Creatures is nothing more than a fenced in patch of trees and weeds today. An era has passed. The nostalgic side of me is sorry I missed them.