Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Snow!  And a pretty-as-a-postcard snowfall, too.  Soft and dry, coating every branch and twig, and with starry crystals visible in every fluffy heap that piled up atop the remnants of last summer's flowers.

Aware that this frosted beauty would not last (the forecast called for rain to follow), I hurried off to several locations around Saratoga today, stopping first at a pine-lined walkway at Saratoga Spa State Park, where I took the three photos above.  I next drove out to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail just east of the city, to walk the snow-covered trail out there.

This trail is lined by swamp on both sides, the now-frozen wetlands heaped with puffy tufts of Tussock Sedge (Carex stricta).

I was delighted to find this seedpod from a Canada Lily plant (Lilium canadense), not only because it looked so cute with its fluffy cap of snowflakes, but also because I was glad to see at least one of these lily plants had escaped the depredations of the Scarlet Lily Beetle, whose larvae destroyed many of our Canada Lilies last summer.

There were many birds darting about in the treetops, most of which I could not see well enough to identify.  I did note a couple of American Robins, however, as well as a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, undoubtably drawn to the many Poison Sumac shrubs (Toxicodendron vernix) that thrive in this wooded wetland.  We humans may have a low opinion of Poison Sumac, but it does provide valuable food for many species of wildlife.  And its drooping clusters of ivory-colored berries are also quite attractive.

Most birds prefer the sumac fruit to the low-nutrient fruits of Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), which means we get to enjoy the Winterberry's bright-red beauty well into the winter.  They looked especially pretty today with their snowy frosting.

I next stopped by Yaddo, the artists' retreat at the edge of town that is famous for its beautiful gardens, especially its well-manicured rose garden.  But I prefer Yaddo's conifer-shaded rock garden, where today those spruce and pine needles were laden with snow, as was the fountain that sits in the garden's center.

Yaddo is also home to one of the very few Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) that grow in Saratoga, which is north of this gorgeous native tree's natural range.  A few of the branches of this majestically tall tree bend low enough to the ground that I could see the tawny bracts of its seedpods, today piled high with puffs of snow.

There's another tree on the Yaddo grounds that thrives here despite our location being far north of its native range, and that is a Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina).  In May, its branches are hung with numerous dainty white bell-shaped flowers, but this time of year, those same branches are hung with these tawny winged seedpods.

I also made sure to visit the American Bladdernut shrubs  (Staphylea trifolia) that grow by Yaddo's creek.  A few of its distinctive hollow pods still hung from the snow-covered branches.

Friday, December 8, 2017

My Naturalist Pals Come North

My friends in the Thursday Naturalists gather each week to explore some regional nature preserve, and I love to tag along, learning all I can from these veritable walking encyclopedias of nature lore. But I hadn't joined them for several weeks, mostly because they'd elected to explore preserves further south from my home than I wanted to drive.  But this week my friends came north to the Schuylerville area, just a few miles away, so I was delighted to join them.

We actually explored two preserves in one outing, electing to stop first at the geologic anomaly called Stark's Knob, located just north of Schuylerville on our way to the Denton Wildlife Preserve across the Hudson River in Washington County.

I had visited Stark's Knob recently and then posted a blog about it, which my readers can revisit to learn about its remarkable geology.  My friends and I were here on this day to see what unusual plants we might find that had made a home in these calcareous (lime-rich) rocks, composed of  "pillow basalt," formed when volcanic lava erupted beneath the sea, during the early ages of our continent's formation.

The monumental cliff of black rock loomed so steeply above us, few of our members wished to clamber up and across it to find the most interesting plant that grows upon it.  So we sent one of our most agile members up to collect a single frond of the Purple Cliffbrake (Pellaea atropurpurea) that generously populates the pillow basalt's nooks and crannies.  That way, we could all examine this fern's distinctive under-curled leaflets (pinnae) and see the powdery spore packets (sori) that edged each one.

Purple Cliff Brake is known to prefer a lime-rich substrate like this pillow basalt, and we had hoped to find other lime-loving plants in the area.  I believe we may do so if we return in the spring, but for now the only other distinctly calciphile plant we found was a beautiful patch of Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense), which looks like a mass of tiny green flowers.

Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, most of the other plants at this frequently disturbed site were non-native species, although we did find quite a few of our native anemones called Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana), with its fluffy tufts of flocked seeds.

We next followed Rte. 4 across the Hudson River until we arrived at the Denton Wildlife Sanctuary, only a little more than a mile from Stark's Knob, with a small parking area along the highway.

This many-acred Nature Conservancy site offers miles of trails through a mixed-hardwood/conifer forest that also contains large wetland areas.  But we hardly ventured into those woods today, drawn instead to the many attractions offered by a large opening at the start of the trails, the former site of extensive shale mining.

Aside from a few stunted shrubs of Bear Oak and some tufts of Little Bluestem Grass, this extensive shale outcropping was mostly populated by many different species of mosses and lichens, offering a beautiful crazy-quilt of different textures and colors.

Sharing that shale with the mosses and lichens were abundant numbers of the cute little puffball fungus called Earth Star.

I found a second interesting fungus growing on a fallen limb in the bordering woods near by.  Called Split-gill Fungus (Schizophyllum commune), you only have to examine its undersides to see how it got its name.  This is not only one of the most widespread fungi in the world, but also one of the most interesting, with its ability to dry out and then rehydrate again and again. And also because of its astounding reproduction strategies involving 28,000 distinct sexes!  (Don't believe me? Visit THIS SITE to learn where I got this fascinating information.)

It may be hard to believe, but this runty little scraggly pine was the rarest plant we encountered today.  This is a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana), a common-enough denizen of Canada and parts further north in the United States, but considered a rare species in New York State.  It's quite a puzzle how this solitary specimen arrived here, since there are no others near here that I have found.

The Jack Pine can be distinguished from our more common local pines -- White, Red, Pitch, and Scotch -- by its bundles of two slightly twisted needles that promptly spread into Vs as they leave the sheathes that surround them at the base.  Their small curving cones are also distinctive, but we couldn't find any on or near this stunted specimen.

I had visited the Denton Preserve last Sunday to preview the trails and also to determine exact mileage to include when directing my friends to these Schuylerville area sites.  As I headed home to Saratoga late that afternoon, I was struck by the noble stature of this solitary oak, profiled against a coloring sky, with rows of apple trees in the near distance, the Saratoga Battle Monument's obelisk rising just beyond the orchard, and mountains paling into misty gray on the far horizon.  There was something ineffable about these juxtapositions that struck me as profoundly beautiful, and I had to pull over to the side of the road to gaze at them.

When I turned to re-enter my car, I was struck again by the sight of this perfect orb of a brilliant orange sun caught among the branches of trees on the rolling hills across this meadow. I never know when scenes of such quiet beauty will stun me with absolute joy.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Home to Familiar Shores

What a treat it was to spend a few days in the stimulating bustle and magnificent cultural attractions of New York City!  And oh, how sweet it also was to return to the placidly beautiful shores of Moreau Lake on this splendid late-autumn day.  There was nothing particularly exciting or novel to report about my walk around the lake today, just the familiar joys of feeling soft sand beneath my feet, scenting the fragrance of sun-warmed pines, hearing the whispers of tiny ripples lapping against the shore,  and seeing a sky lend its deep-blue radiance to the breeze-riffled water of the lake.

I saw not another human as I made my way around the lake, but I certainly saw many hundreds of Canada Geese gathered in clustered flocks across the water or resting on the shore.

There were other waterfowl as well, including some Hooded Mergansers and also this pair of Bufflehead Ducks bobbing on the water and intermittently diving beneath the surface.

And here in this cove, a pair of Black Ducks moved serenely back and forth across the quiet water.

Striding along the sun-lit shore, I halted to gaze at the golden ripples moving in hypnotic waves across the sandy bottom close to the water's edge.

The flowers of Evening Primrose were spent long ago, but these colorful rosettes of their basal leaves offered the promise that they would return next summer.

A few Bittersweet Nightshade vines still held some clusters of ruby-red berries .

And look at this!  One solitary Dandelion blossom shone like a golden star amid the acorns and shed beechnut husks that littered the sand.

At first glance, I thought for a second that these, too, might be the small yellow flowers some bush had produced, taking advantage of our prolonged, over-warm autumn.  But a closer look revealed that these "blooms" were simply the yellowish leathery bracts of spent Witch Hazel flowers, which would persist throughout the winter.

As the afternoon wore on, more clouds moved in and a chilling breeze began to blow across the open lake, but here on the back bay, the water still lay serene and unrippled, and a lowering sun cast a golden light along the far shore.

Soon, the shore lay mostly in shadow with only the tops of the trees and a distant mountaintop holding the lingering rays of the sun.  Darkness comes so soon this close to the Winter Solstice!  I longed to sit and take in the beauty of this scene, but I was only half way around the lake, so now I had to pick up my pace if I wanted to make it home before dark.  But I will soon be back!

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Wonder-filled City Sojourn

Here's quite a different landscape than I usually post on my blog.  This is the view at dawn of rooftops, skyscrapers, church steeples, and bridges I could see from our 12th-story hotel room in New York City's Chinatown last week.  My husband and I spent three days in this amazing city, enjoying to the maximum those pleasures that can only be found in a metropolis such as this, where people from every nation, class, culture, and creed manage to live peaceably side-by-side, contributing to a rich mix of human experience and artifact.

We chose to stay at the Hotel Mulberry on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan, not just because it is one of the more affordable places to stay in New York, but also because of its location in the heart of Chinatown.  Here, where the streets are lined with colorful open markets, and very little English can be heard on the street, we felt we had traveled a long way from home, instead of just a four-hour train ride away.

Our hotel was directly across the street from a popular neighborhood park, where musicians could be heard playing Chinese music in the afternoons, and in the mornings, groups of local women moved through the fluid movements of Tai Chi exercises.

I don't know what game these men are playing, but the intense concentration of both players and onlookers suggested that maybe something more was at stake here than simply winning one game.

Just a few doors down from our hotel was a shop that declared it sold funeral supplies.  Funeral supplies?  Then why, I wondered, are these items that looked like toys -- fancy dollhouses, luxury toy cars, miniature flat-screen TVs -- on display in the window of such an establishment?  Consumed by curiosity, I entered the shop and asked the proprietor. He informed me that these items -- all made of paper -- were burned along with the bodies of the deceased, to provide housing, transportation, and entertainment in the afterlife.  (Did I mention we felt we had traveled a long way from home?)

* * *

Such cultural shifts occur abruptly in this part of lower Manhattan, for only two blocks from our very Chinese neighborhood, we entered the neighborhood called Little Italy, with its wonderful offerings of all things Italian and not a single attraction that could be taken for Chinese.

We had already eaten our dinner but were looking for something a little sweet to enhance our evening stroll, and what better place could we find for this than Caffe Palermo, which offered, after 44 years, "still the best cannoli on Planet Earth"?  The cafe latte and ricotta cheesecake were very good, as well.

We had eaten our dinner earlier at the Great N.Y. Noodletown restaurant, which had a very interesting menu.

Declining the pork stomach porridge, we opted instead for a delicious meal of salt-baked shrimp, scallops, and squid, accompanied by another dish of shredded duck with pea shoots, along with a side of Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce.  Yum!

We continued the Asian theme for our other dinners, enjoying Japanese sushi one night and Vietnamese bahn mi sandwiches the other, meals that were not only delicious, but very moderately priced, by NYC standards.  Our lunch at the Metropolitan Museum cafe, for example, came to more than $40 for two meagerly filled sandwiches and one fruit cup.

* * *

Since this is now the holiday season, we ventured up to mid-town Fifth Avenue at night to see the glorious holiday displays that New York City is famous for.  And we weren't the only ones being dazzled by the windows at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The department store's decorating theme this year was  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, with all the windows along Fifth Avenue featuring scenes from the Walt Disney movie of Snow White in amazingly elaborate detail.

So pretty!

The side-street windows at Saks were also amazingly elaborate, and they featured designer gowns just as fantastic as those in any fairy tale!

The huge Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center would not be lit until the following night, but the spectacular sparkling music-and-light-show that danced across the facade of Saks Fifth Avenue offered far more dazzle than any tree-lighting could.

The facade of Saint Patrick's Cathedral offered its own kind of beauty, and the doors were open wide to invite us inside, where we gazed in awe at this church's architectural splendor.  We also toured all the side altars, marveling at the paintings and statuary while learning many details about the lives of the saints each altar was dedicated to.

* * * 

We spent most of our second day in the city at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a special exhibit of Michelangelo drawings offered a stunning selection of this artist's works on paper.

A few of Michelangelo's sculptures were also included in this exhibit.

And one darkened gallery was crowned with a full reproduction of Michelangelo's magnificent paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome. An awe-inspiring culmination of a beautiful exhibit!

The museum also offers many astounding works by the world's most prominent Abstract painters, including these works by Mark Rothko my husband Denis is admiring.

Denis was also delighted to revisit this monumental work by Jackson Pollock.

Another special exhibition at the Met featured artistic works in bamboo.  There were many intricately detailed baskets and other utilitarian objects included in this exhibit, but I was most impressed by some of the large, strictly aesthetic sculptural forms that had been rendered in bamboo.

The Metropolitan Museum is so huge we could never hope to visit all its works in one day, but we always try to include the gallery that contains many gorgeous polychromed wooden carvings of religious subjects, including this lovely rendering of the Madonna and Child.

At the center of this gallery was a huge Christmas tree that was decorated with intricately detailed figures from the Christmas story, including the Holy Family and attending angels.

* * *

After several hours of admiring the magnificent works of human hands, I craved an outdoor adventure, especially since the day was almost summer warm, under a clear blue sky. So we caught the Fifth Avenue bus that took us right to the entrance to the Central Park Zoo.  I love this little zoo, with its sea lions frolicking in an outdoor pool, its charming buildings, and its botanical plantings nearly as exotic as the animals housed there.  We visited grizzly bears, snow monkeys, and penguins, and delighted in the absolute adorableness of some extremely active Red Pandas, one of the prettiest animals on earth.  But the absolute stunner of the afternoon was this magnificent Snow Leopard, who accommodated us by venturing so close to us that we could exchange slow blinks. What a gorgeous creature!

Here's another gorgeous creature, a Crested Blue Pigeon, who resided in a splendid aviary where birds of many brilliant colors were free to fly about and perch among the branches of tropical vines and trees.

* * *

We spent our last morning in the city at the Frick Collection, a splendid small museum on Fifth Avenue at 70th St.  that features the art collection of the wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). Here in this mansion that was once Frick's home are housed works by some of the most magnificent painters of all time --painters the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Veronese, Titian, and many others -- as well as sculptures, small bronzes, fabulous porcelains, and antique furnishings of incomparable quality. Unfortunately, the only place in this mansion that photography is permitted is this splendid skylit atrium with its splashing fountain and monumental columns.  But I think this one photo is sufficient to suggest the magnificence of this mansion and the quality of its collection.

Here's a peek at one of the Veronese paintings, visible through a doorway from the atrium.

* * * 

When we visit New York, we never bring our car, so we don't have to spend a large portion of our days looking for parking places or grumbling over extravagant parking fees.  Plus, one of the great pleasures of visiting this city, in my opinion, is riding the subway.  Here, all the glorious mix of folks who inhabit this city crowd in together, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, in what seems to me to be an example of how we might all get along.  Most of the time, anyway.

One of the great pleasures of a trip to New York is the train ride to get there from Saratoga Springs, and I always try for a window seat on the west side of the car.  For almost the entire trip, from Rensselaer to Yonkers, the train travels close to the east bank of the Hudson River, offering views of this magnificent waterway, its picturesque bridges and river towns, the waterfowl that inhabit the river, and even the occasional Bald Eagle.  (Yes, I saw one Bald Eagle perched on a piling, but the train was traveling close to 100 miles per hour at that point, and my photo was only a blur.)

Several still-working lighthouses can be seen as we whiz past, including the Rondout Lighthouse at Kingston.  Standing at the mouth of the Rondout Creek, the lighthouse remains an important aid to navigation on the Hudson River, warning boat captains of the dangers of the shore and the shallow tidal flats surrounding the mouth of the creek.

Probably the most fantastic sight from the train is this crumbling castle perched on the shore of a little island near Newburgh.  Called Bannerman's Castle, it was originally built in 1901 by Francis Bannerman as a storage facility for surplus military equipment, including millions of munitions cartridges.  Damaged by a munitions explosion in 1920 and further devastated by fire in 1969, the castle continues to disintegrate, making each glimpse of it from this speeding train all the more remarkable.