I've never been on a roller coaster. Never will be. It's just not my thing. If I want a thrill, I'll have a bowl of Holly's handmade ice cream! But this winter is beginning to feel like a roller coaster. It's been a wild ride between low temperatures and high, between deep snow and none. Take the other morning. Got up and checked the thermometer. A typical February morning at 15 degrees. Then I clicked on the NOAA forecast. Whoa! They predicted a high of 70 by the middle of the week. If my rusty math skills serve me, that's almost a 100 degree swing from January lows a little over a month ago. We're on a weather roller coaster, like it or not.
Last Sunday there was still nice snow on the ground, but you wouldn't want to sell it life insurance. With summer like temperatures and rain on the way its future didn't look bright. Time to get in a few last ski trips before the flood and the mud that lie ahead.
Hudson River near Fort Miller
Decided to head up to the Fort Edward Grasslands. Ski a little, maybe see some owls. On the way I was treated to an open Hudson River dotted with clusters of waterfowl. In early spring the river vies with the grasslands as a birding hotspot. Soon I was out in the open fields of Fort Edward and happy to find the parking lot at the DEC Wildlife Management Area on Blackhouse Road plowed and easily accessible.
While I was getting ready to ski, another gentleman was finishing up his snowshoe hike. It was a quick glide down the trodden and slightly icy path that leads towards the observation platform. Here the snowshoer and others had kept going straight along the edge of the property rather than angling over to the platform. In what may have been a case of the blind following the sightless, I went with their tracks. Not until later did I see signs warning you to stay on the trail, which presumably means going only to the platform and back. Since I didn't see any birds during my off trail ramble, I think it's safe to say that no wildlife were harmed in the creation of this blog.
Trail to viewing platform
I shuffled down to the banks of Dead Creek - partly open, partly ice. Then along the edge of its thicketed course. The field had been bush-hogged making for easy going. I haven't seen a unit management plan for this parcel but apparently it calls for mowing different quadrants on a rotating schedule. I saw scattered brush piles and a few saplings left standing, perhaps to grow into perch trees. Other sections hadn't been mowed and showed a typical one year growth of grass, weeds and small shrubs.
Varied Habitat - Weedy growth, mowed and brush piles
Back at the viewing platform I spoke with a couple from downstate who had come up to Saratoga for the Dance Flurry weekend. They wanted to do a little birding before returning home and Google had sent them here. While in the parking area they had been excited to have a Rough-legged hawk fly directly overhead. Now they were tracking a Northern Harrier in the distance. As the day faded we decided to go over to the blind on Co. 42 with the hopes of spotting Short-eared owls.
Northern Harrier - from Cornell Ornithology site
On the way we encountered a small group who had just seen a northern shrike and a snowy owl. A little farther on we spoke with a woman who had her camera focused on a partially hidden Short-ear waiting for a good shot. At the blind we could see a flock of turkeys foraging at the far end of the field. There was also a large hawk that flew from an elm. Other people arrived and there was a lively exchange of sightings and info but the owls were a no-show. Finally, with dusk settling, I bade my new friends a safe trip as they prepared to head back down the Hudson Valley towards home.
Northern Shrike - from Cornell Ornithology site
I've heard tell of some friction between residents and birders, of some harassment of the owls. That's sad, but what I experienced was a sociable gathering of folks with a shared enthusiasm for birds and the environment. It left me thinking that a small eatery/coffee shop where locals and visitors could mingle over a snack and hot drink might be a good thing. How about 'The Birder Feeder Cafe'! Even something mobile that swung by on weekends - 'The Migratory Food Truck'! Just a feeling that the IBA could benefit from a communal spot, making it more of a destination.
Monday dawned warm and overcast with afternoon showers possible. A short tour close by seemed in order. Denton Preserve on Rt. 4 between Northumberland and Fort Miller fit the bill. The snow had been plowed back enough to park well off the busy road. I could see where others had snowshoed and walked but no one else had skied. There are orange, blue and yellow marked trails which I followed in a free form sort of way.
Denton Preserve outlined - the red line is Rt. 4
It's sad to see the trolley line being slowly choked by brush and deadfall. I can remember when it was much more open and easy to follow. I've always thought its level, firm bed would make a nice trail for the disabled. With minimal maintenance it could give those in wheel chairs or with other mobility issues a path into a natural area with lots of wildlife viewing opportunities. Furthermore, its historical significance makes preserving at least a small segment seem worthwhile. You can still see a few of the pedestals and the occasional insulator that carried the electric line. A small quarry where they mined fill material and the stone abutments of the creek crossing are also interesting.
Overgrown trolley line
Small shale quarry
At both Denton and the Grasslands I saw no other ski tracks. Snowshoeing has become much more popular in recent years and, in truth, it's probably a better way to visit these places in winter. It's just that skis offer a playfulness that can be addictive, that the kid in me still craves. But it doesn't really matter what's strapped to your feet. The important thing is to get those feet out there. The landscape, wildlife and fellow explorers will be your reward.