Spring at Amherst

by Mary Clista Dahl

It is a chilly morning; perhaps not the wisest choice to put my shorts on, yet the blue sky is stunning and clear and the warm group of hikers and our naturalist leader are the ideal distraction from my goose bumps.

We are gathered for an ecology adventure at the entrance to Amherst State Park, an out-of-the-way destination in New York that is not well frequented by crowds.  Seventy-seven acres comprise a combination of forest, creek, orchard, meadow and wetlands. Perfect for fishermen, birders, strollers (of both the walking and baby variety) and nature lovers in general.  It is dog and family friendly.

Our leader, Jon, begins with an enthusiastic introduction to trees.  Cottonwoods are responsible for the seedy puffs in the air, but should not be falsely accused of making us sneeze…that’s pollen.  The leaves of this tree are recognizable by their shimmering dance in the wind.  The Box Elder, hugging the forest edge displays its maple-like helicopter seeds for ride-on-the-wind survival.  Norway Spruces lined up carefully, obvious (at least to our guide and now us) signs of man-made planting provide shelter and luxurious food to Red Squirrels. We get a detailed and interesting lesson in the difference between male and female cones and how they work.  Large sticky female attracts small pollen male.

The Black Walnut Tree has leaflets consisting of leaves, and now I know the difference.  I also know how to gather the fruit and how the tree dispenses its natural herbicide for species survival.  And Ash Trees are there too, threatened by the Emerald Ash Borer.

Other plants are identified and described to us.  Poison Ivy, along with its natural remedy Touch-Me-Not (Jewelweed) are often found growing near one another.   A quick, helpful instruction on how to make an astringent poultice ensues.

And then there are the flowers.  A small pink beauty that I would’ve mistaken for an Aster is Fleabane.  And in one glorious patch of tall grass next to our boardwalk were splashes of pink, faint lavender, sky blue, yellow and white brought to us courtesy of Dames Rockets, Forget-Me-Nots, Buttercups and Canada Anemone.

Edible plant fun was provided at snack time.  Two of our group members brought out their knives and explained to us how to indulge in Cattail stalks (taste like cucumber) and Bull Thistles (more like salty celery).  All were good enough to bring me comfort knowing I could survive with tolerable taste and not starve to death if ever stranded in the wild.  We were warned to avoid the sharp edges of the Sedges and took time to stop and smell the roses and be fascinated by the protective frothy natural shelters of the spittle bugs (frog hoppers).

The birds that live on those plants and feast on the bugs were active around us as well.  Barn (forked tail and red bellies) and Tree (white bellies and no forks) Swallows were plentiful, and I was pleased to differentiate the Cardinals, Gold Finches and Red-Winged Blackbirds by their songs as they scattered in the marshes and trees.  Woodpeckers were seen but not heard and Grackles waddled by creek side and the surrounding underbrush.  As a special treat we were serenaded by a juvenile Baltimore Oriole, spotted by our guide’s ears using the close-eyed technique of listening to the call and pointing a finger in the direction of the sound.  When he opened his eyes we were able to spot our beautiful friend in his treetop perch.  “Hello Friend” is how Jon greeted him, and we all smiled at the thought of his adopting the bird as his equal.  We smiled again when Jon announced that there was a surplus of Orioles in our Northeast region this spring.

Beneath the Oriole’s tree we were offered the option of a wading trip across the stream for those who wanted to get their feet wet to experience an eternal flame.  I chose this adventure and was amazed by the natural gas well surrounded by rocks.  It seemed a sacred space.  We revered a bit then headed back in typical nature group fashion, parting ways as new friends bonding over the environment.