Friday, March 10, 2017

The Facts of Life

     "To know him is to love him."
- Phil Spector

     Hmmm...I'm not so sure. Seems like there's one "him" we're getting to know and finding hard to love. Still, the 1958 song by the Teddy Bears (really their name!) has a sweet sentiment. And the idea that knowing is the path to loving is true of places as well as people. 

     So let's get back to my Thank You note. In an earlier post I spoke of my gratitude to those who've helped me understand Washington County a little better. I touched on rocks and landforms, weather and climate, and the sky above - the natural architecture of our world - and the geology, meteorology and astronomy resources that have opened my eyes to that world. In this post we'll look at what's available to make sense of the garden that blooms here, the flora and fauna of the place. Think of it as help with the facts of life. 
     What the *&#! is that? The need to attach a word to a thing - it's the essence of who we are. Most of us who spend time in nature have a few field guides. Some have more than a few and suffer lower back pain because of it. I've climbed mountains and waded thru swamps hauling more books than your typical college freshman carries across campus. As people who know me like to point out, I get a lot of value out of my identification guides. That's because I'll use them to figure out what some cute trailside flower is and then promptly forget its name. When I encounter the same flower a week later I get to repeat the whole gratifying process all over again.

     My books are a motley crew. Most of them are old enough to collect Social Security but are still hard at work. If you're building a library, Peterson and Audubon are the heavyweights with dozens of titles between them. But don't overlook interesting local and regional volumes. Bird and wildflower guides are ubiquitous but there are more esoteric offerings - mosses and lichens, dragonflies, etc. I've heard about identification "apps" but I remain smart phone celibate and can't help with those. Just this advice: if you stick with paper and ink take only one book at a time, something you can stick in a pocket. Saves on torn pack straps and chiropractic fees. 
     I've got a bunch of name brand field guides and use them all the time. In the library the other night I saw many more shelved in the biology section. The following is a list of smaller, more idiosyncratic sources I like:
 - Golden Guides: slim, 4" x 6", 160 pages each and just $2 apiece (a long time ago), I've got a collection of these that easily slip into a pocket and while not comprehensive, they're light, compact and get used. I particularly like Weeds, Pond Life and Non-Flowering Plants
 - Two books by Marilyn Dwelley covering wildflowers of New England - with colorful drawings and solid information - favorites for many years.

 - Freshwater Fishes of New York State, a slender guide produced by Cornell that comes in a zip lock bag, fits in a fanny pack and likes to go canoeing.
 - Invasive species: recognize the enemy with these booklets - The Lake Champlain Basin Aquatic Invasive Species Guide and Invasive Plants of the Adirondacks. Also handy both for information and as bookmarks are a series of business card sized resources on invasives.
 - Rare Plants of New York State - a State Museum publication with line drawings, text and lists.
 - Grasses-An Identification Guide by Lauren Brown. Simple line drawings and a key help with knowing this neglected group of plants. Grasses and hay are a big part of my life so I use this one a lot.

- Trees: Two volumes (one for trees and one for shrubs) by George Symonds use photographs for identification. Large format, they are a little awkward to carry but worth the effort. Small and delightful is Rutherford Platt's A Pocket Guide to Trees. I've had this little paperback since I was a kid and what's left of it is literally held together with masking tape. Good for identification, but it's so much more. A beautifully written love letter to trees filled with  fascinating tidbits.

     One things for sure, a teacher by your side is worth ten books on the shelf (or in your pack). If you get a chance to explore with an expert, don't miss it. I've been fortunate to go on field trips with Sue Van Hook (fungus and lichens), Laurie LaFond (birds), Jerry Jenkins (all things botanical) and Greg Edinger (plant communities). When on organized outings, the other participants are invariably knowledgeable, often complementing (even challenging) the leaders expertise. Check the following for guided outings: the Battenkill Conservancy, the Agricultural Stewardship Association, the Lake George Land Conservancy, the Southern Adirondack Audubon, the Pember Museum, the Friends of the IBA and the Nature Conservancy.

      You're introduced to someone, learn their name, shake their hand. A good start but really just the first step in building a relationship. Same with plants and animals. The real reward comes in getting to know what their life is like, their habits and the community they live in. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior ventures into the territory beyond basic identification. Its first section covers everything you might possibly want to know about birds (and a dozen other things as well). There are chapters on flight and feathers, bird intelligence (not an oxymoron!), evolution and classification, nests and eggs, range and habitat. The second section looks closely at 80 bird families found in North America. At nearly 600 hefty pages it is not a book to take into the field. Instead, read it at home as a hors d'oeuvre or dessert to days spent birding with a standard field guide (David Allen Sibley has written a fine one of those as well). There are similar books for just about any group of living things you might be interested in. Browse the library shelves or check the 'References' section of your field guide to find them. 

     No man is an island and neither is any species of plant or animal. To understand the ecological ties that bind the web of life I've found the following valuable:
 - Eastern Forests by John Kricher/Gordon Morrison. In the Peterson Field Guide series, lots of illustrations, sections on ecological patterns.

 - Wetland, Woodland, Wildland by Elizabeth Thompson and Eric Sorenson. Introduces the concept of natural communities with descriptions of over 80 types (Dry Oak Forest, Vernal Pool, Alder Swamp, etc.). Covers Vermont but applicable to Washington County, N. Y.

 - Pond and Brook - A guide to nature in freshwater environments by Michael Caduto. All about water, both moving and still.
 - A number of regional natural histories place the biology of the Northeast within the context of our physical setting:
 - The Nature of Vermont by Charles Johnson
 - Lake Champlain - A Natural History by Mike Winslow

 - Adirondack Wildguide - A Natural History of the Adirondack  Park by Michael DiNunzio
 - Why the Adirondacks Look the way they do - A Natural History  by Mike Storey
 - A Guide to New England's Landscape by Neil Jorgensen
 - A Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide to Southern New England by  Neil Jorgensen
 - In addition, there's two little books that I've really enjoyed. They focus on places just to the east and west of Washington County:
 - A Natural History of Tinmouth, Vermont by George LeBoutillier
 - Treasure in the North Woods - A guide to the natural campus at  Skidmore College edited by Sue Van Hook

 - I also want to mention a couple of volumes, out of print and  nearly a hundred years old, but still highly useful (Lesson: Respect  your elders).
 - A Biological Survey of the Upper Hudson Watershed
 - A Biological Survey of the Champlain Watershed
 These are products of the State Conservation Department (now the  DEC). They are filled with maps, charts, photos and illustrations of  their respective areas. Rare, but the Owl Pen or Village Booksmith  might be able to find a copy.


     It won't be long before every living thing on Earth has its own website and blogging will be as common as breathing. Unfortunately, I'm not the person to guide you to this bounty. I'm of a certain age that still likes books and real people as sources of information. Still, there are a few sites I'm aware of and can recommend.
 - The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a favorite with birders.
 - The new kid on the block is the Northern Forest Atlas. It's already a treasure trove of photos, videos, diagrams and charts with more being added all the time.
 - The Facebook ship sailed without me but I know many people who start the day with a visit to Gordon Ellmer's page. He features exquisite bird photos, most of them taken in the Fort Edward area. Ellmers shots are the birding equivalent of Hubble's images of the cosmos - breathtaking.
 - Saratoga Woods and Waterways is Jacqueline Donnelly's botanical blog. It dispels the myth that Saratoga County is just a bunch of subdivisions strung together by the Northway. I often visit many of the same wild places as Donnelly but see only a fraction of what she finds - a testament to her deep knowledge of plants, her perceptive eye and sharp photography skills. 

Screen Shot of Donnelly's blog


     Finally, the more we know about the fascinating life a place hosts, the more we want to get out and explore. Here are some suggestions:
 - Carter Pond Wildlife Management Area for upland, wetland, woodland and pond habitats. Accessible nature trail. Canoe and binoculars are helpful.
 - Hebron Nature Preserve with Black Creek, trails and the Porter Schoolhouse nature education center. Part of the Pember Museum in nearby Granville - two of Washington County's treasures.

 - Lake Champlain access at South Bay and Clemons. Bring a
canoe, fishing pole, dip net and binoculars for the abundant aquatic life.

 - The Nature Conservancy's protected lands along the Poultney River. Noted for several species of freshwater mussels but all kinds of wildlife abound here. Also in the same area is the DEC wildlife management area on Co. 10 east of Whitehall. A canoe is the way to go.

 - Several Lake George Land Conservancy properties along with the extensive State Forest Preserve in Fort Ann, Dresden and Putnam. Featuring everything from mountaintops to Lake George shoreline and cedar swamps to cliffs and talus. Moose roam here and peregrine falcons nest.

 - The Hudson River/Champlain Canal. Water attracts life - fish, reptiles, amphibians and birds.

 - The Fort Edward Important Bird Area for hawks, owls and other grassland species.
 - Denton Preserve - diversity in vernal pools, ponds, wetlands and dry shale ridges.

 - Several State Forests in the southeast corner of the county where the Battenkill River, Eldridge Swamp and high, dry forests create a variety of habitats. Noted for bobcats and black bears with eagles along the river.

     What better way to spend these late winter evenings than reading and getting ready to enjoy the burst of life activity that comes with spring in Washington County. There's still one more facet to knowing this place that I hope to delve into. That would be the legacy of you, me and all our ancestors - what people have done here and the resources for understanding that. No promises, but I hope to post on that before the rush of spring farm work (and a few fun outings) takes priority.

     People have been seeing large groups of Bald Eagles congregate near open water on South Bay, just north of Whitehall.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

0 for 3?

     Some think this business of being a naturalist is a walk in the park. They picture retired school marms "Oh-ing" and "Ah-ing" over some dainty botanical specimen. Or birders who see whole life-lists fly by every time they raise their Hubble powered binoculars. Rockhounds unearthing entire T-rex fossils with one swing of their hammer. Maybe it is like that for some people. But not for everyone. Not for me. 
     Here's a little story about eskers, owls and eclipses. About life that doesn't always go as planned. The day got off to a rough start. The early morning phone call that no one wants to get. An accident. A beloved family member. Tragedy and tears. Hard as it can be, life goes on. Especially on a farm where, no matter what, animals must be cared for.  Gwenne, Holly and I talked, consoled and kept busy. We feed the herd, cleaned barns and got a maternity pen ready for a cow soon to calve. 
     By mid-afternoon we were momentarily caught up. It was sunny, nice, not real cold. I thought a little get away might do our battered spirits good. 
     "Anybody want to go look for eskers?"
     "Sure, why not?"
    Now I doubt either of them knew or cared what an esker was. The operative word was "go". I could have said "Anybody want to go look for rabid dogs? the smallpox virus?" and the response would have been equally enthusiastic. We just needed to be together and a change of scenery wouldn't hurt.
     That's how we ended up in North Argyle. I have a surficial geology map that shows a number of eskers on either side of Rt. 40. An esker is a long, narrow ridge formed from deposits of a meltwater stream flowing beneath a glacier. Blessed with a vivid imagination, I anticipated a landscape squirming with something like the mole tunnels that adorn my lawn...supersized mole tunnels! 

Web image of glacier on left and esker on right

The arrowed lines are eskers, the oval with line in lower left corner is a drumlin

The map showed a long esker angling from above the sharp bend on Mahaffy Road down across Co. 44 all the way to Kinney Road. Very prominent on the map, totally invisible on the ground. Another one was shown crossing Co. 45, parallel and just east of the Moses Kill. No trouble finding the road or the stream, no luck finding the esker. A couple of small ones were mapped along Safford/Pope Hill Road. So small that I couldn't see a trace of them on the ground. Then it was back along Coach Road and across Tripp where we felt something like an anorexic speed bump where there was supposed to be an esker. Just beyond is the view across open fields to the old Presbyterian Church and Cemetery ... a soothing, timeless scene. My source indicates both are on top of an esker. Guess that places them a little closer to heaven. 



      A  little zig zag took us down Rt. 40 (supposedly on an esker) to Kinney Road where we finally hit the jackpot. Not one of those figments of a geologist's imagination that we'd been chasing all afternoon but a big, beautiful drumlin with the road hopping over its tail end. Another relic of glaciation, drumlins are long narrow hills. Their steep sided shape reminds me of a whale or submarine breaking the surface. Rising up to a hundred feet above the surrounding level, they can be quite imposing. But remember, they were mere bumps molded at the bottom of ice that towered as much as a mile above them!

South end of Drumlin with Kinney Road on left

North end of drumlin sloping down in wooded area to right

     Drawing a blank on eskers, we decided to look for owls. It was getting late in the day, the time when these big birds of prey become active. We wound back thru Durkeetown, imaging the huge meltwater lake that filled the valley before us 13,000 years ago. The same waning glacier that formed eskers poured out torrents of muddy water flooding the basin from here to the terminal moraine far to the south. 

     Eventually the lake drained and what we call the Fort Edward Grasslands became established on the former lakebed. It's great habitat for a variety of birds with sightings of short-earred and snowy owls in winter. Often seen by Gordie Ellmers and his camera, occasionally seen by competent birders and not seen at all by us. 

Web image

                                                                                                                 We cruised back roads, stopped at viewpoints and scanned with my poor excuse for binoculars. The days tally: one distant northern harrier, too many crows to count and a disheartening flock of "Building Lots For Sale - Will Finance" signs.
     We naturalists are made of stern stuff and it wasn't time to admit defeat just yet. I knew there was a full Moon tonight and that it was supposed to pass thru Earth's penumbra. That's the fainter part of the shadow our planet projects into space. When the Moon aligns with the inner, darker umbra we see an eclipse. But close calls with the outer penumbra can produce interesting shading effects. 

 It was sunset so by definition the Moon should rise at any moment. But the minutes ticked away. We were at the bird blind on Co. 42. I alternately looked low across the meadow for owls and up to the Argyle hills for sign of the Moon. It grew colder and the wind picked up. My family retreated to the truck. I knew they were hungry, that we had evening chores to do. A reluctant "OK", now it's time to admit defeat. No eskers, no owls, no Moon. 

     A short while later we were driving thru Hudson Falls. Looking east we caught  a few blurred glimpses of the Moon rising behind houses and trees. That was about it. Expectations can trip you up. It's the difference between what we want and what we get. It's easy to fall into the disappointment trap. But that isn't how I remember our day. Maybe we didn't find what we were looking for. Instead we saw the parade of hills marching above the Taconic Thrust fault. In front of the hills and beyond stretched the rolling Hudson/Champlain lowlands, finally giving way to the Adirondack Mountains to the west. Beautiful country full of life. A fox trotting across the road in front of us, a field speckled with turkeys and all those crazy crows - loud and mischievous. Looking up there was color in the sky - two multi-hued sundogs - what a treat. 

Web image

     You can dwell on what you missed or revel in what you've been given. And when you lose someone, you need to grieve for the life lost but also celebrate the precious time you had together.   
Nikos Lukaris - (January 4, 1974-February 9, 2017)
pictured with his dear, sweet Rosie

The center of much attention
This little charmer began her life journey on the 
night of our esker/owl/Moon outing
We named her Nikki