— Photo from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission

“Reliably exquisite” is how Grace Barber, environmental educator for the Albany Pine Bush Preserve, describes ice crystals.

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch pine-scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

I have thought of winter as a visual palate cleanser. It rinses the color from the landscape, priming my eyes to acutely perceive even the most modest greens, reds, and purples of spring. I suspect this attitude is more a reflection of the bias in my attention, however, than a truth about winter.

Most of us spend much less time outside during the colder months. This is certainly true of me, and it limits my ability to observe winter’s intricacies and its variety. Imagine only ever viewing the summer from behind a window or in hurried travels between indoor locations. How much would you miss?

As a child, I paid more attention to the shapes of snowflakes, made a game of walking on the surface of crusted snow without breaking through, and knew that beneath the snow were last year’s plants — lying in a state of decay — and that disturbing them could release a startling scent into the otherwise cold, clean-smelling air. These memories inform me that my experience of winter in more recent years has been cursory at best. I’m determined to slow down and look a little closer this year, and I hope you will join me.

I can’t think of a winter wonder more appealing and pervasive than ice crystals. They are ephemeral, found in the forms of snowflakes and frost, and are reliably exquisite. Just as there are names for different species of wildflowers, there are names for the different forms of frozen and crystallized water that blanket the landscape and our windows in late fall, winter, and early spring.

It was on a nighttime hike through the Pine Bush last fall, while standing in a frost pocket at the base of a large dune, when I first learned there were names given to different forms of frost. A University at Albany student in our hiking group asked me whether I’d ever seen hoarfrost in the frost pockets.

That was the first time I’d heard the term hoarfrost, but I’ve since learned it forms when water vapor from the air crystallizes on surfaces of plants, snow, and other objects when those surfaces are below freezing and colder than the air itself. This can result in gorgeous, large, hexagonal crystals of ice attached to all surfaces of the cold objects. Hoarfrost generally forms on clear nights, and it helps if the air is humid and still, which is where frost pockets come in.

If you’ve ever hiked around the blue trail from the Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center, you’ve walked through at least one frost pocket. Frost pockets are low-lying areas where cold air settles in the evening and can linger late into the morning hours. The chilling effect in frost pockets is so significant, that plants and insects grow more slowly there. Frost pockets also tend to be protected from the wind, making them a good place to look for impressive hoarfrost.

My curiosity about hoarfrost led me back to that same frost pocket, early on a cold November morning, looking for something I wasn’t sure I could identify. There was plenty of frost, both on top of the dunes and down in the swales, and I spent the better part of an hour looking and photographing it.

I found “frost flowers,” which look like sheets of curling white filaments projecting from the stems of plants where liquid water was pushed out to freeze in the cold air. I saw sticks covered in ice bristles and round white balls coating the surfaces of leaves like pilled sweaters.

And on a piece of monitoring equipment used for recording the temperature and humidity in the frost pocket, I found a blooming cluster of flat, translucent crystals. Was this hoarfrost? I took photographs of the crystal clusters using a macro lens to better appreciate their complexity and headed back to the Discovery Center, satisfied with having stopped to (figuratively) smell the winter roses.

If you are interested in joining me on this investigation of winter in the Pine Bush, I encourage you to follow the Albany Pine Bush Preserve on Facebook, follow our blog on (www.AlbanyPineBush.org), or, best of all, head out onto the trails to experience it yourself. The preserve offers miles of official hiking trails to explore, free of charge, right here in the Capital Region. Please visit our website for information on temporary trail closures or call the Discovery Center Front Desk at (518) 456-0655 ahead of your visit.

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— Photo from the Albany Pine Bush Preserve commission

Thirteen kinds of goldenrod grow in the Pine Bush. Heralding the end of summer, they spread by seed and by root.

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine, scrub-oak barrens ecosystems in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

It is officially late summer. Rasping katydids and chirping crickets are audible reminders that the end of the summer season is drawing near. Although fall does not officially begin until the autumn equinox on Sept. 22, much of nature has already started preparing for the coming winter.

Woodchucks have been feasting on fruits and leaves, adding to their fat reserves. Birds are gathering in groups in preparation for migration; some have already begun their southward journey. Acorns are ripening and seeds are abundant as plants complete another cycle of life.

While the approaching fall can make some of us wistful for a return to early summer, there is much to enjoy about late summer.

One of the most enjoyable displays this season has to offer is that of late summer wildflowers. These late bloomers wait until the final weeks of the summer season to display their brilliant blossoms.  Many bloom through early autumn, even after the first frost.

Goldenrods are an easily recognizable group of plants that are in bloom right now.  Frequently seen along roadsides and in field and forest alike, these tall sturdy wildflowers are a common inhabitant of the Pine Bush.

Goldenrods are named for the golden yellow hue of their tiny brilliant blossoms, arranged in clusters of varying shapes and sizes. If you look closely you may notice some of the differences among the species: leaf shape, texture, and arrangement of blossoms are great places to start.

Goldenrods belong to the genus Solidago; 32 different kinds of goldenrod have been identified in New York State, 13 of which grow in the Albany Pine Bush. Canada goldenrod, rough goldenrod, and white goldenrod (as its name suggests, this goldenrod has white blossoms) are just a few of the goldenrod species that are found here. Goldenrods spread by seed and by root and can quickly colonize fields and gardens, revealing their identity in late summer with their sunny golden flowers.

Asters are another familiar group of late-blooming wildflowers that come in an even more impressive diversity. The name “aster” originates from the Greek word for star, which describes the star-like flower head of asters.

Asters are actually related to goldenrods and are grouped together in the same family, Asteraceae. In the Albany Pine Bush, 22 species of aster have been identified including stiff-leaf aster and New England aster. Their blossoms range from a deep vibrant purple to brilliant white with yellow to orange centers.

Taking a closer look (with the aid of a magnifying lens), you can see what may have first appeared to be one singular flower is actually an arrangement of many tiny flowers called disc flowers (clustered in the center) and ray flowers (distributed around the edges, each possessing one petal).

Asters are a popular fall landscaping plant for their beautiful shape and color. Keep your eyes open for them at many of the local nurseries and grocery stores this fall. Or, come visit the Albany Pine Bush Preserve and explore the trails or grounds of the Discovery Center to experience asters in bloom.

Perhaps the best show of all is the diversity of animal life that comes to visit fall blooms. Butterflies, bees, wasps, beetles, flies, spiders, and more visit fall wildflowers in search of a meal or shelter.

Nectar attracts pollinators that return the gift of food with the service of pollination, critical for seed development. The heavy pollen of goldenrod is distributed in this way, unlike the allergy-inducing ragweed flower whose pollen is spread by the wind.

Late summer flowers provide vital sources of nectar and pollen to insects as the growing season comes to a close. The seeds that grow following pollination feed both resident and migrating birds as well as small mammals. Seeds also ensure the start of the next generation of fall wildflowers in the coming spring.

Before the chilly winds of autumn blow, take a moment to savor the last hurrah of summer and the brilliant display of life this season brings.

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If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center go to our website AlbanyPineBush.org, call (518) 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

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The Pine Bush Preserve is inhabited by creatures great and small — like this grasshopper.

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

Many people wonder what kinds of animals live in the Pine Bush. This is also a common topic that we discuss with visitors on our programs.

A few weeks back, I was out on a hike with a group of first-graders. I asked them what animals they thought lived in the Pine Bush.

One student raised her hand and very calmly said “unicorns,” as if she had seen five unicorns on her way to the Pine Bush that morning and expected to see more on her way home. I explained that unicorns do not live in the Pine Bush and so we would not see them on our hike that day.

If we polled elementary school students in the Capital Region, we would also have dinosaurs, lions, and monkeys roaming around in the Pine Bush. Perhaps it’s the element of excitement and mystery but for whatever reason these are the animals that come to mind when we are huddled on a sandy trail looking out into the sea of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, and pitch pine.

While we do have some big mammals in the Pine Bush — coyote, fox, deer, and fisher — it is highly unlikely that we would see them on a group hike. We more commonly see birds, big ones like hawks and vultures, and small ones like black-capped chickadees.

We also often see chipmunks and insects galore. These may not seem exciting but, if you can quiet the part of your brain that says, “I have seen a million chipmunks in my lifetime” and just watch the chipmunk scurry across the path into a scrub oak bush and quietly make its way to the top to grab an acorn, you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, that is amazing!”

Stop and just stare at the beautiful orange butterfly milkweed flowers and watch the insects that come to visit. Don’t think about them creeping into your house or onto your skin but just watch them as they crawl across one flower and fly on to the next without reacting to your presence.

A habitat for wildlife in the midst of the Capital Region, the Pine Bush Preserve is full of these small wildlife discoveries.

Wildlife, from the common to the rare and everything in between, is difficult to predict. Recently, another educator and I led a nighttime bat program in the preserve.

As soon as we got out of our cars, we noticed bats diving over our heads. We had timed this walk right!

We hadn’t even left the parking area and we had already seen bats. We turned on our bat-detecting devices and heard even more. We enjoyed watching these roadside bats for a bit before we headed down the trail.

Along the first field, we heard a few more bats and saw them too. They were big brown bats zooming over our heads, feasting on insects. Bat numbers in New York have decreased dramatically in recent years but on this night we enjoyed watching these flying mammals dart back and forth over our heads.

Whether you are seeing your one-millionth chipmunk or your first endangered Karner blue butterfly, reflect on the fact that you are catching a glimpse of a wild animal in its habitat. In a world of schedules, appointments, and lists, just enjoy that you are catching this animal in the middle of its daily routine.

The next time you are out for a walk, keep your eyes open for all types of wildlife. You might be surprised at what you find.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center, go to our website AlbanyPineBush.org, call 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

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— Photo by Sara Poggi

What story do these snow tunnels tell?

The Albany Pine Bush is one of the best remaining inland pitch-pine scrub oak barrens in the world. It is a truly unique place right here in the Capital District. Through this column, I hope to transport you for at least a short time to the Pine Bush to experience some of the seasonal happenings, active projects, and musings of this environmental educator.

Recently, I have been reminded that so much goes on in nature that we never see. If we don’t look closely enough, we miss so much of what is going on around us.

In January, a coworker showed me a spot just in front of the Discovery Center building where a small creature, perhaps a meadow vole, had created a tangled web of tracks and tunnels in the snow. To look at this path, you might think that this had to be the work of a lost or impaired animal.

If you let your mind wander, you might start to consider other animals and then the possibility emerges that this is a path of pursuit. What if there were two voles, not one or a vole being stalked by another animal?

These creatures have, of course, moved on or tunneled down out of sight so we will never know their real story but, if you stand, observe, listen and wonder, you might start to unravel the story.

Take a dead tree in the Pine Bush. On first approach, it seems lifeless and unimportant. Look closer and imagine what animals might visit this tree.

Dead trees are very important as shelter for small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Think even smaller. Insects! Underneath the bark, dead trees are crawling with insects.

Many of these insects will aid in the eventual decomposition of the tree. Trees like all living things die but the process of decomposition returns those nutrients to the soil, encouraging the growth of new trees and other plants.  In the meantime, these insects are a very important food source for many other Pine Bush animals.

Stare at the sand that you are walking on. By this time, you are aware that sand is not just sand. There are plants growing out of this sand and you are actually seeing only a portion of the plants.

Many Pine Bush plants have very deep root systems. Big blue stem, a tall native grass in the Pine Bush, can grow to grow four to eight feet tall. The roots of this plant can grow to be that same length underground! You might be seeing only half of the grass.

An eastern hognose snake could be buried under a layer of sand. Startled, it would perhaps rear its head, like a cobra and then eventually it might change course, mimicking the opossum and play dead.

Deeper down beyond sight could be a spadefoot toad. As the name suggests, these toads have spade-shaped hind feet ideal for digging. They spend most of their time underground not emerging for weeks or even months at a time in dry periods.

On the side of the trail you may notice small pits in the sand. At the bottom of this pit ,just under the sand, the antlion is waiting, jaws ready for a small insect to fall in and become its next meal.

Tracks, too, may cover the sand, telling stories of fox, coyote, deer, and people all walking through the Pine Bush. We aren’t able to observe them all in action but, if we walk, stand still and observe, taking it all in, we just might start to see the things we previously never noticed.

As we enter spring and things thaw and awaken, I encourage you to get out in the Pine Bush and look for tunnels, holes, tracks, dead trees full of life, and all the hidden stories happening around you.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center go to our website at www.AlbanyPineBush.org, call (518) 456-0655, or visit the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

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— Photo by Krishna Hill

Vista rooted in sand: The Albany Pine Bush Preserve is an ocean of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, blueberry, grasses, wildflowers, and pitch pine trees covering rolling sand dunes.

Have you ever heard of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve? Better yet, have you ever visited it? Walked on the trails? Attended an educational program?

If you have never heard of the Pine Bush, I hope to help you come to know a bit more about it through this column. If you have visited before, I hope to point out something new to you, as I share what’s currently happening in the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

 “At the beach”: That is the first response that almost everyone gives when I ask people “Where do you usually find sand?”

Of course, I am often asking this as I stand on top of a 75-foot tall sand dune in Albany. We are not at the beach but at the Albany Pine Bush Preserve.

The next question I usually ask is, “How did this sand get here?”

Answers to this question range from, “You brought it here” to, “The wind blew it here.”

I have written in this column before about how the glacier that covered most of New York State retreated, leaving behind Glacial Lake Albany, which drained, exposing the sand. The wind blew the sand, creating rolling sand dunes and then plants started to grow.

This sand is the foundation of the Albany Pine Bush and in many ways dictates what types of animals and plants live here. The Albany Pine Bush is not on the coast so having a natural community based in sand is very rare.

If you have ever walked on one of our trails, you probably noticed the sand right away. Recently, the sand at the Albany Pine Bush was recognized not only by our visitors but also by the National Park Service.

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve was designated as a National Natural Landmark. “What is that?” you might be asking yourself. I had a vague recollection of hearing this term when I lived on the West Coast but wasn’t sure what it meant exactly.

The National Natural Landmark program is managed by the National Park Service and the designation is issued by the Secretary of the Interior to recognize sites that contain outstanding biological and geological features. This does not make the Pine Bush a National Park or change who owns or manages the land.

It does highlight the rarity and significance of this place on the national stage. The Albany Pine Bush Preserve was designated a National Natural Landmark because it is the best example of wind-derived inland sand dune landforms and the inland pine barrens ecosystem within the Appalachian Plateau and Appalachian Ranges.

As you walk up one of the sand dunes you might catch yourself imagining a beach just over the edge. Of course, the beach won’t be there.

Instead, you will see an ocean of scrub oak, New Jersey tea, blueberry, grasses, wildflowers, and pitch pine trees covering rolling sand dunes. You will be standing on very old, very unique sand — sand that is the foundation for the Albany Pine Bush.

So, whether you come to walk our trails to check out the new National Natural Landmark or because this has been one of your favorite places to walk for many years, come and look at the sand and all that it supports.

If you want more information about the Albany Pine Bush Preserve or the Discovery Center, feel free to visit our website at www.AlbanyPineBush.org/, give the commission a call at 456-0655, or stop into the Discovery Center at 195 New Karner Road in Albany.

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