Observing Nature


(This 1037th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 6, 2011.)


Teasels in Snow


The other day I told a group of friends that when hiking they shouldn't expect to be constantly entertained. Interesting things only happen occasionally on such excursions. There won't be a new animal or bird or tree or wildflower every ten yards, and they shouldn't ask nature to seek them out to please them.


As soon as I made that pronouncement, however, I began to reconsider. Was I right or was that statement really a criticism of my own approach to the out-of-doors? Was I missing the benefits of natural history experience as I trudged along by not paying close enough attention?


I decided that I would test my assertion with a short hike. I picked a day with the worst conditions possible for this region: temperature below zero, a 15 mile per hour wind, a five to ten inch snow cover and more snow blowing. (I say "for this region" purposely, in Minnesota the corresponding conditions would be 30 below with a 30 mile per hour wind.)


I planned to walk the quarter mile loop around Margaret Louise Park on Hopkins Road in Amherst, a small open area in the middle of Bahre Swamp.


As I stepped out of my car, I had two thoughts: (1) They rightly call this the depths of winter, and (2) I am going to race around this trail as fast as I can and get back to my warm home. I would surely prove myself right: there won't be anything of interest out here.


I immediately regretted that I hadn't come better prepared. Someone had walked the loop trail, but the glare from the sun barely milking through the clouds made it difficult to follow the already half-obliterated tracks.


I couldn't help myself, however. I began immediately to notice things.


First a group of wind-blown teasels, stark brown against the white snow, their lovely but short-lived lavender florets long gone and now replaced with spines.


And here were some wild carrots, Queen Anne's lace to most of us. Their generic name is equally majestic: Heracleum after the Greek god Hercules. The connection escapes me. Their broad white umbels with the black central spot were shriveled into a dry brown cup.


Behind them were a few remnant goldenrods, their color also long gone as were most of their fronds.


I had worked myself into knee-depth snow getting close to these wildflowers and I had to wallow back onto the remnants of a trail. In doing so I noticed the quality of the snow. My feet sensed that there were several inches of soft snow covered by an inch or so of crust and then another two or three inches of soft snow. It would have been perfect for skis or snowshoes.


Aha, there was still life here among all these dead weeds. A solitary crow fought the wind heading north. In a few minutes he passed back, on both flights quartering along the stiff breeze.


Always in the background was the plant that has largely taken over this park and the area running south along Hopkins Road: common reed or phragmites. Most of the center of my hiking loop was filled with this invader from our coastal areas. It is quite attractive with its silky plumes topping five to twelve foot quarter inch round stems, but it is displacing native plants, most often cattails.


I next came upon a buckthorn with a vine grasping tightly to its branches. How in the world did that vine reach out over some distance to entangle new twigs? I guessed that it was an everlasting pea vine, but I would need to return with a guide to check that identification. I just hope it wasn't another location for the invasive black swallow-wort.


Suddenly a loud "churr" rang from the woods to the south. One of the resident red-bellied woodpeckers was calling. I'm sure he's a welcome guest at feeders at nearby homes.


Back at my car I sat momentarily contemplating my experience. I had certainly disproved my sense that there isn't much to see when hiking. The fault lay with this observer.


To experience nature, you simply have to keep your eyes open and your other senses alert.-- Gerry Rising