Three Spring Hikes
(This 4th column was first published in the April 29, 1991 Buffalo News.)
Notes from a hiker's log:
March 27. Little Valley. My first trail hike of the year. A sedentary winter lifestyle has left me in poor physical condition, so the nine miles is a serious test. My shins, calves, and finally hips keep me informed.
Three hen turkeys quietly feed on the trail. Seeing me, they shoulder each other off the path and melt into the woods.
Along a ridge are several acres of blowdown: dozens of beeches, some twenty inches in diameter, thrown about by highly localized wind gusts. The absence of overhead canopy encourages the bare raspberry branches to reach out and tear at my clothes. A fox sparrow, like a big, richly dressed and redder song sparrow, works its way through the tangle.
Rolling thunder announces not only the shower that is to come but also lightning, a threat here on this exposed ridge. I welcome the start down.
On the north slope are ridges of snow but also a few bright spots of green against the drab brown forest floor. Ground pine pushes up through the leaf clutter as do two ferns: Christmas fern, with uncharacteristically broad stocking-shaped leaves alternating along its stem; and evergreen wood-fern, its lovely big green fronds quite out of keeping with the time of year.
Along the road back the earliest flower, the coltsfoot, grows in sandy margins. Several groups of these little dandelion-like yellow blossoms perch atop straight, ugly, asparagus stems.
April 2. Salamanca. Three to five inches of snow cover the ground and some of the time it snows hard. My footprints are already covered when I hike back to my car.
Near the Allegheny River are three richly colored male bluebirds. Three phoebes, widely separated, glean the forest margins for early insects. They do not call yet but characteristically wag their tails.
April 12. Red House in Allegany State Park. A beautiful clear day, the winter brown of the hillsides taking on a rosy hue from budding trees.
The long roll of a pileated woodpecker drilling breaks the forest silence.
Leeks are everywhere and a few skunk cabbages have pushed up cones in boggy swales. The Christmas ferns have replaced their leathery appearance with a healthier green. The brown leaves of the forest floor are giving way to small plants, some already in blossom. I find hundreds of what I believe to be white, lavender, and blue hepatica. A single pansy-like but tiny yellow blossom I key from my field guide: it is a round-leaved yellow violet, its minute flower on a stem separate from its two heart-shaped leaves. Patches of grass remind me of home duties to come.
Small groups of gray juncos dart off flashing their white tail feathers accompanied by the first three hermit thrushes of the year. Two of the juncos make high pitched squeeks that sound like those bird calls that twist metal against metal.
A winter wren tinkles its long and remarkably loud song from a hemlock grove. A male yellow-bellied sapsucker ‹ would you call your worst enemy that name ‹ flies smoothly after a female. They light on a dead stub near me, the male hoy-hoying in exuberance.
A creek is newly dammed by beavers. Three common mergansers career off and miss watching me teeter across on a yellow birch log one of the beavers has conveniently felled.
It is not yet the middle of April but a few flies buzz underfoot and a bumblebee dashes by. In the leafless trees I see several old bird nests. Only one can I identify: it is the tiny nest of a gnatcatcher.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen and I struggle up a bank to my car, I think how in these walks I have been witnessing a vernal rebirth as esthetically attractive to me as the art of that other renaissance.