Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Catbird Seat

August 22, 2009
Betar Path

It had been a while since I'd been along the Betar Trail, so on this Saturday afternoon, that's where I headed. It's a great little path that runs along the Hudson River in the village of South Glens Falls. One great thing about it is that it is right at water-level - you can walk right over to the river's edge. This section of the river, just upstream from the dam at Glens Falls, is very pondy, but don't be deceived, underneath is a robust current. In the days of logging, this shoreline was the equivalent of an industrial zone. Now, running along one riverbank, it is a pleasant town trail.

The village maintains the path year-round, even plowing it in the winter. In the summer, they mow along the sides, and each year it seems they clear more and more of the land toward the riverside. That's OK in some places, making for fine views.

On the downside, this summer I had a hard time finding water-loving cardinal flowers again (in a spot where I had seen many last year) - because someone had used a weed-whacker right up to the water's edge!

Here's one that escaped the whacker...

It is also a place to see many invasive plants, up close. (I'll save that for a future entry.)

Meanwhile there is plenty to see -

Eastern Comma butterfly - or is it a Question Mark?

under the lower wing, you can just barely see the identifying white "comma" mark -
(click to enlarge any of these)

A bumblebee, fully absorbed in a turtlehead flower. It seems tailor-made for him!

A dragonfly was dipping into the water, over and over. I tried to capture the moment she touched the water, but it was all too quick for me! What was she doing?

A slimey green frog enjoying his slimy-ness.

Along the way, was a girl whose dog who was not at ALL interested in going for a swim.

A lot of the plants are entering the berry and nut stage. This is a bonanza for the many species of birds that frequent the trail.

And some other creatures, too.
For several years, a white squirrel has been seen along the northern part of the path. (Last year, I found out that there may be more than one of them.) They don't seem to be true albinos, since the one I saw last winter had brown eyes.

One of their more conventional cousins was noisily gnawing on a walnut husk.

Another was busy in an arbor of witch-hazel shrubs, busily gathering the small fleshy nuts.
She was hidden well in the leafy bower.

It was the fact that parts of the shrub were shaking that drew my attention.
By standing quietly for a long while, the source of the shaking was revealed.
The squirrel would crawl down one branch, reaching out and picking off a nutlet:

then move to another branch (where I could photograph her more easily, thank you) to eat it.
She was really packing them away! They must have been tasty.

The birds were having a feast day, and making no attempts to be quiet about it.

All up and down the path, you could hear robins squealing, waxwings whining, and goldfinches chortling. The catbirds were mewing back and forth to each other, as if to say, THIS bush is MINE!

I stopped to watch one of them. He was aware of me, but also really interested in those cornel berries.
Classic catbird pose showing all of his field-marks -

He ate a berry.

Then he did a weird thing -
First he extended one of his wings a little, then tilted his head - as if he was stretching:

Then he folded up his wing, and stayed like THIS for about 3 minutes!
It was as if he was in a freaky trance.

Or turned into a zombie catbird.

It was like when you try to take a picture of a kid, and they make a face:

After a while, he shook himself out a little, and looked normal again.

Does anyone know what in the world he was doing?
Update: perhaps he was merely trying to get that berry down his throat, as Jackie suggests,
or maybe it was some kind of sunbathing / anting behavior related to this time of year, when catbirds tend to be molting as well -
Lindsey sent this link (scroll down in it, to see another photo of catbird wierdness:
and I found this one yesterday:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Down with a Bug

August 16, 2009
Mud Pond

Well, it seems that I was not truly recovered from my cold of the week before. Climbing Buck Mountain on a hot humid day apparently did me in! I woke up feeling sicker than ever; missed two days of work, and even after going to the doctor (“it’s a virus”), just felt awful the whole next week.

It was the height of the Dog Days as well, weather-wise, an appropriate time to feel sick-as-a-dog. The days were hot and humid. The evenings barely cooled down – one night, it was 80 degrees at 9:30 pm. After a week of lingering indoors in air-conditioned discomfort (when not at work), I felt good enough to go a-walking again. This time I would take it easy! What better tonic than a visit to Mud Pond?

Despite its humble name, Mud pond is one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

I got there early enough to see the morning dew on the raspberry leaves, and to hear or see lots of birds - catbirds, goldfinches, a bluejay, a flycatcher, wrens, herons, crows, a kingfisher, woodducks and an osprey. Heard red-eyes, cherry-birds and wood peewees, still in the west woods. They’ll be leaving soon. A skein of geese flew in from the Big Lake, honking as they came, and landed by the beaver lodge. So fall begins ...

It was high time the blue-curls were out, in a spot I knew of from the year before.
Jackie got some fantastic photos of them this week.
They are a tiny plant - the flowers are ridiculously flamboyant if you look really close:

I’m am standing next to one, just to give you an idea of how small they are.

Waded through the lush pond-side undergrowth, to get to the water’s edge.
Ow ! what was stinging my legs?
It took me a while to figure out that it was a PLANT.
Ellen featured this plant in her blog recently – Arrow-leafed Tearthumb. Being a Lazy Botanist, I knew it merely as a Smartweed.
Always wondered why it was called Smartweed – did eating it stimulate the brain?
No, it’s because if you walk through a patch of the darn stuff in shorts – it smarts!
The stems are barbed and will raise red-lined welts on your legs. You feel like you’ve been scratched by ten teeny tiny kittens.

My legs were stinging pretty good. And I had been ready to blame it on a bug.
Outsmarted by smartweed.

Speaking of bugs – let me show you some of the insect life I saw today. Without a decent field guide (does the Little Golden Book of Insects count?) – I apologize for the generic naming here. If anyone can identify them exactly, let me know!

A dragonfly – meadowhawk, perhaps?

Some kind of weevil – hanging out in American Hazelnut shrubs

A bumblebee enjoying mint –

In the water, whirligig beetles were having a hoedown –

If you look closely (click to enlarge), you can see the beetles themselves –

A grasshopper or locust –

He was wonderfully armored in a sleek aerodynamic way -

Gerardia and a type of Syrphid Fly. I love his “I’m-A-Bee” paint job! -

A beautiful wasp – with waist that would make Audrey Hepburn jealous -

On the way home in the car, driving along Mountain Road, something flew into the open window with a thunk! against the doorframe, & the next thing I know
PAIN on my upper back - it was a bee!
I pulled over, tugging at my shirt, and saw a little yellowjacket fall onto the seat.
It’s been many years since I can even remember my last bee-sting.
Wow, did it hurt.
Continuing home, as a painful welt formed on my shoulder, I laughed.
At least my legs didn’t sting anymore!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I'd Walk a Mile for a Blueberry

August 9, 2009

... How about 2.5 miles, straight up a mountain!
Despite being not-quite-over a weeklong cold (I’m feeling better, really!), today I accompanied my friend Marie and her father in a walk up Buck Mountain.
We had read in the local paper about the fabulous blueberry-picking on its summit.
Since I didn't grow up here, I had never been to this popular mountain, which overlooks Lake George from the east. I think every kid who ever lived within 20 miles of here has been up that mountain at least once.

Marie and I are in our fifties, and her dad Gordie is eighty-two. Our thinking was, “Dad’s determined to go with or without us, we’d better go along to make sure he is OK.”
Didn’t we get a rude awakening!

Gordie is one tough dude.
Well, maybe that’s not the right word to use, especially for someone who has been active in the local Rodeo Circuit for many years! Gordie excels in Team Roping. He keeps on winning those big fancy buckle trophies. Marie and I have less, er, athletic occupations, mainly centered around A Desk.

After a nice walk in level woods, the trail started snaking upward.
That’s when Gordie hit his stride! It was all we could do to keep up with him, as he led the way, stopping just long enough to wait for us.

He has spent many an hour in these particular woods, and entertained us with stories of fall hunts from years ago. To hear him tell it, it was only yesterday.

The day was hot, cloudy and very humid. The forecast was for a front to come through, with thunderstorms (possibly severe) by noontime. The hike took longer than I anticipated, and was more difficult, too. Maybe I wasn’t in the best of shape to be a-hiking.

But the Call of the Wild Blueberry was strong.

The woods were dark and still, and full of interesting things:
Miniature forests of shining club moss :

Green frogs :

The tallest black birch I've ever seen

And ferny canyons sprinkled with plants like Common Wood Sorrel, Bunch Berry and mosses:

There were lots of glacial erratics lying about, some of which made a fine place to take a break. That's Marie and her dad, waiting for me to catch my breath.

The top third of the “trail” was an eroded gully – Gordie did not even slow his pace here.

Near the top, he was thrilled to surprise a red fox taking a nap under a spruce tree.
We were far behind him, and didn't see it.
Knee-deep in blueberry plants, we went right into picking-mode. There were huckleberry bushes mixed in with them, too.

At the summit, the usual panoramic view of Lake George was somewhat muted by threatening clouds just above us. It was still beautiful.

I was tired, hot, coughing and fearful of lightning striking us down at any moment.
But O! the berries!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Day in the Life

August 9, 1854

Good ol' Henry.

His journal is fourteen volumes long, and some of the entries run pretty long, whole pages describing turtle behavior, the fall of a leaf, or patterns in the sand.

Here's the entire entry for what was an important day for all of us - just shows you what his priorities were!

August 9, 1854:
"Walden" published.


Waxwork yellowing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I Like Turtles

August 3 - 8, 2009

This summer, I re-enlisted in the Lake George Turtle Monitoring Project. ( )

As part of a five-year study, they enlist ordinary folks (that's me) as spotters. There's an orientation (a crash course in turtles of this area), you learn how to record and report what you see, and you are assigned a specific area of Lake George as your territory. Last year, I had Dunham's Bay as my observation area - I had never been there before. From the first day there, I fell in love with the place. I requested it again for this summer. Lake George, 32 miles long, is SO big and open ... I'm happier paddling around in this inlet at the southern extreme of the lake.

It's a wide slow river-marsh that flows from Pickle Hill to the south, zigzagging for miles through a wide swampy valley with hills on both sides. Home to beaver, muskrat, herons and all sort of birds. Oh and TURTLES. Lots of painted turtles, and snapping turtles.
Big ones!

My put-in is at a small dock area. The motorboats all go the other way, north to the open lake. I generally head south, into the marsh.

This week is the last official week of observation for the summer.
Compared to early summer, I see less painted turtles in the marsh, mainly because it's more difficult to get near the edges, where they bask upon the shore.

Nowadays I see them perched on anything that floats: lily roots, muskrat mud-platforms, and lily pads. If I don't immediately ship-oars as soon as I spot one, they dash into the water with a plop. Thanks to my new zoom, I can stay outside their personal space and take some photos. It's tricky since the boat is moving.

Late in the summer, snapping turtles can be hard to find. Perhaps they are spending more time at the bottom, in deep water at least, in these hot days of summer. I've snuck up on some of them at the surface, as they hide under a lily pad or hang out in the profuse plant growth that proliferates along the edges of the channel. It’s tough, because their noses look just like lily buds peeking out of the water (or vice versa.)
I spend a lot of time chasing down lilies.
Today I saw two (noses), but when I sidled up to where they were ... no sign of them. They saw me first, and just sunk down silently, into the dark water. No splashes. No bubbles. Just a lowering of their hulks. Steath is their game, and they play it very well.

Back in May, they were more visible, and less cautious. In early summer, their whole backs are out on the surface, soaking up the sun with those solar-panel shells. One snapper in particular was like a puppy, hanging around our boats as we floated above. He seemed just as curious about our behavior, as we were of his. I named him “Mohawk” because of the ridge of long green algae running down the length of his tail. On two other occasions, he was observed in the same area.

During last year’s observations, I came upon a large snapping turtle who was just under the surface, in clear shallow water. I stopped the boat almost directly over him. He had just taken a breath, and settled down, 10 feet under the boat. Checking the time, I sat to watch him, floating above with paddle still. It was a calm and sunny morning. He was looking up at me, and I was admiring him. I figured he'd be back up at the surface for another breath in about 15 minutes.

But time to a turtle is another thing altogether. After 45 minutes, I gave in, and backed the boat away. He came up at once, took a breath, and settled down again. Back home, I did a little research, and found out that turtles have a unique way to absorb oxygen through their skin (one source said, through their cloaca.) Great, I was waiting for this turtle to surface, and he was breathing through his ass!

It's a marvelous adaptation for a creature who has to somehow get through the northern winter, buried in mud.

For more information on turtles, and some fantastic artwork, read The Year of the Turtle: A Natural History by David M. Carroll.

Some other turtles that were observed this summer:

Musk Turtle, a.k.a. Stinkpot - usually secretive, though this one was spotted at high noon:

Wood Turtle, a species of special concern in New York State:

The name comes not from their usual woodland habitat - but the beautiful shell:

This one was scouting out nest sites near my apartment - she was detained only briefly!

Nesting sites of painted turtles, at the docks:

In June, at the time of the first good rain after the full moon, you might find a snapper nesting ... almost anywhere!