Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spring Cleaning

April 10, 2010
Moreau Lake State Park

After a what seemed like a very long week at work, I was looking forward to some quality outdoor-time.
What better way to spend a sunny, slightly warm and breezy Saturday, than helping with the park’s Spring Cleanup Day ?
There was an excellent turnout of folks willing to help. We split into three groups and headed for various areas around the lake. I suggested that the far shore of Back Bay would be fruitful (i.e., full of trash), since the wind blows a lot of stuff that way, and I'd seen lots of cans, bait containers and whatnot over there, back in the fall.
So off we went, a-sorting out the recyclable stuff from the merely trashable stuff. To tell the truth, there wasn’t too much to pick up. My prediction was way off.

It's nice to be wrong, sometimes...

Along the way, reaching out for a can buried in the leaves, one of us met a sunning garter snake –

The shadbush, now being in full white-fire bloom, was attracting those plump fuzzy insects I'd been referring to as "Fly-Bees" - turns out, it is called a Bee Fly – who woulda guessed?

Sorry, they move fast, so all you get today are back and side views:

Later,we saw the tiniest little wormish creature along the shore. It had sort of silvery plates on its body. Every so often it would rear up what seemed to be its head (the larger end) – anyone know what this is? Insect larva? Crustacean? It’s very tiny (maybe a quarter-inch long) as you can tell by comparing it to the maple budlets and grains of sand.

Everywhere, the dullest twig is putting forth new life.
It’s a bit overwhelming, this sudden abundance of riches. Even though you know it is coming, it's still a surprise, somehow.

Even Thoreau, supreme wordsmith that he is, at one point reverts to the simplest of language when he describes these new April leaves:

they are emphatically a green green.

Our little group, led by Rebecca, the new park educator, went all the way around the end of the Bay, and filled up maybe 1 bag total. After we cut back across the New Trail to reach Broadway, it sort of morphed into a nature walk. We all stopped in at Hep Hill to see the tiny hepaticas blooming. It’s also a fine little overlook of Mud Pond. From there we could see common mergansers fighting splashy courtship battles, arcading back and forth like tin ducks in a shooting gallery.

As the group headed along the main trail back to the Nature Center, Jackie and I excused ourselves, to peel out onto a side trail, in search of another spring flower in its known haunts. In a shady spot where a little creek crosses the trail, we found our quarry -- Dutchman’s Breeches, just breeching.
Not knowing any historically-clad Dutchmen, when I see the gentle shapes, tender colors, and sheltered location of these flowers, I am instead reminded of a nursery. Of pacifiers and blankies and diapers. Dutchmen’s Diapers, perhaps?

The creekbed itself was dry, which is unusual for early April, but understandable considering how little snowfall there was this winter. In a week or two, if the April rains come, this spot will be rocking Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Trilliums and Toothwort galore.

Back at our meeting place, the other groups, led by Ben and Gary, were assembling. The trash haul was greater along other parts of the lake, and the Park truck was loaded with full bags.

Most of the trash you see on the trail nowadays is NOT going to go away by itself. The materials it is made of might last … well, forever.

So a big thank-you to everyone who came today to pick up, and more thank-yous to those folks who pick up something every time they are out there, all year round -- it makes a huge difference.
Both for we humans who visit this beautiful place, and for the critters who call this their home.

Speaking of critters, there was just time enough for one last sight – Ben made it a point to tell us that he’d seen suckers spawning, in shallow water on the other side of the lake. Even though I was pressed for time, Jackie and I boogeyed over there to see this event. I had never even seen a sucker before, and these creatures prefer the bottom of the lake to the top.
As the song goes, “Love is in the Air,” but these days I am finding that Love is in the Water, too.
We got over to that shoreline, and in the clear water, it looked like dark rocks were moving, about 10 feet offshore.

It was still pretty breezy, so the water surface was plenty ruffled up, which confused the heck out of the autofocus on my camera. Perhaps you can still tell that the subject is FISH...?

They were just yards away from us. I even peeled off boots and socks to wade out toward them, in an ill-conceived attempt to get closer. That water was just too cold ! And every pebble dug into my almost-numb soles.

The fish merely moved another ten feet away, tantalizing me by staying vague in the viewfinder. It was a dumb idea, and I now regret having disturbed them needlessly.
Back on dry land, I laboriously pulled wool sox back onto wet feet. The fish resumed their Very Important Activity.
Time for me to leave soon.
Time enough to watch just a little while longer.

You’d catch an underwater glimpse of a face – a fin – a tail – as wavelets and sunlight rippled over the surface. The spawning fish would arrange and re-arrange themselves in groups, pointing this way and that, skirling around in the sandy shallows. Sweeping the bottom of the lake with their tails, as we had cleaned along the shore.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Life of ... Who?

April 1, 2010
Moreau Lake State Park

Things have settled down at the Frog Pool near my house, so off I went to the place where I heard my first wood frogs ever – Moreau Park.

There are several vernal and vernal-type ponds within the park. (True vernal ponds dry up during the summer, as I understand it.)
These liquid gems, set here and there in the forest, are special places. The frogs need ponds like this, where there are no fish lurking to prey on them or their young.
At Vernal #1, the quacking noise was audible from quite a distance away. These frogs, unlike their suburban cousins in Queensbury, were much more shy.
When I walked down into the forested bowl toward the pool, cronching over the dry leaves as I walked, they immediately hushed and dove for cover.

The only frogs I could get close to were this pair,

locked in an operatic embrace something right out of Tristan und Isolde. Love or death? Sometimes both, if you're a frog.

One thinks of a frog’s life as being spent entirely in oozing slime and muddy muck – but sitting here a while, it seems that, at least for a portion of their short lives, they float in liquid constellations –-

-- in sky-water.

As I sat crouched on the edge of the pool, a few brave ones popped to the surface silently, eyebumps betraying their location.

No quacking, though (even after I tried a few test clucks on them.)
After some time, I stood up, stretched my legs, and walked away, back toward the main trail. Within minutes, as my footsteps receded, the frog conversations in Vernal #1 started up again. Apparently it was a private affair to which humans were not invited.

Thoreau's Journal, March 28, 1853:
My Aunt Maria asked me to read the life of Dr. Chalmers,
which however I did not promise to do.
Yesterday, Sunday, she was heard through the partition
shouting to my Aunt Jane, who is deaf,
“Think of it! He stood half an hour to-day to hear the frogs croak,
and he wouldn’t read the life of Chalmers."

Wood Frog Woodstock

March 24, 2010
Warren County Bikeway

Can you ever be sure that you have heard
the very first wood frog in the township croak?

Ah! how weather-wise must he be! There is no guessing at the weather with him.
He makes the weather in his degree; he encourages it to be mild.
The weather, what is it but the temperament of the earth? and he is wholly of the earth, sensitive as its skin in which he lives and of which he is a part.
His is the very voice of the weather. He rises and falls like quicksilver in the thermometer.
Thoreau's Journal, March 24, 1859

Since a year ago, I have been looking forward to hearing the quacking of the wood frogs again.
They come from their forest hideaways to the very pools where they were born, there to mate and lay eggs. After this short but intense breeding period, they will once again hie to the woods, for the remainder of the year. So this time of year is a great time to actually see them, and witness the groovy wildness of Woodfrog Woodstock.

There’s music, and dancing in the mud,
and good times with someone you just met,
and probably won’t see again (or be able to remember, if you do.)

There is a spot just off a busy local trail where I anticipate their spring frolics. It's wondrous that such a small shallow pool of water can hold hundreds of woodfrogs at this time.

With the weather being unusually warm for this time of year, imagine my surprise when I went to show a friend this spot where the frogs would be – and viola, they already were !

From that day to this, I have returned to their pool many times, knowing that their breeding period only lasts a week or two at the most. Midweek, the weather turned “seasonal” again, which meant several freezing nights.
This cooled their ardor (understandably) but when the air warmed up to 50 degrees again, the frolic continued.
If you read up on them, (places like here) you’ll learn that these frogs can produce a sort of antifreeze in their bodies, enabling them to freeze and thaw without harm.
This ability apparently starts during their egg-hood too, so there was little likelihood that this weather could harm the frogs or their eggs.

Jackie had sent me a link describing a naturalist’s humorous attempts to communicate with these amazing creatures.

Of course, we had to try it too ! So a few days after that, when she visited my neck of the woods, off we went to the frog pool.
It was warmer today, and our little Romeos were quacking, clacking and chuckling away like crazy. At our approach, they got quieter.

After looking over our shoulders (we were sitting within a foot of the sometimes-busy bike trail), we commenced to quacking, trying to get a response.
We sounded more like chickens with whooping cough than woodfrogs.

There was a moment of embarrassed silence from the frog pool.

Then we tried again, really putting some oomph into it (I noticed Jackie was sitting with her legs folded, just like a big frog) – we soon fell to laughing till we cried, at the ridiculousness of it all, wiping tears from our eyes -- and then –
The pool came to life as every male seemed to answer at once !

More laughter, this time in response to the scary realization that we have entered the ranks of People Who Talk To Frogs.