Is it just me, or is it getting more difficult waking up this time of year, now that it’s staying dark so much later?
The other day I dragged myself out of bed for my morning run. It was the normal time, but pitch black outside, and I felt low in energy. Unwilling to face cold pavement or the steep climb up the hill behind us, I decided to drive over to the nearby Shawangunk Grasslands…
When I arrived at the Shawangunk Grasslands, the sun was peeking above the horizon. It was a huge relief to see the light, and with the sky clear, the promise of a bright morning was a big motivator.
I headed out along the 3-mile trail with the sun behind me. The trail had been recently mowed, which made it easy to trot along in the soft grass. I was in no particular rush, just curious to see what I would discover this morning — since there’s always something new to see in the Grasslands.
This morning I had the entire 597-acre parcel to myself — at least as far as people. A herd of deer live here. I see them most mornings and have noticed they prefer to keep their distance. This morning I spotted them along a tree line about 200 yards to the east. I could see them watching me, too — heads pointed my way on outstretched necks. By the time I’d closed within 100 yards, that was close enough for them, and off they went, bounding through the brush.
Runners tend to look down so as not to trip on obstructions, but it’s a good idea to pay attention to your surroundings, even if you only glance up from time to time. A few minutes later, heading west now, I glanced up and saw a small dark creature on the trail — I came to a screeching stop and starting backing up. The skunk did not look happy to see me, either, in fact it arched its tail, which I took as a sign of extreme ill will. I backed up a few more steps, while the skunk decided to exit the trail for the concealment of the grass alongside. I watched as the stalks rustled, until it seemed the animal had moved three or four feet inside the grass, then screwing up my nerve, I made a mad dash and got past.
That was enough adventure for one morning. Usually what I spend the most time observing in the Grasslands is not animals, but the ever-changing collection of wildflowers, for each month of the spring, summer, and fall offers a different assortment. Fall is time for goldenrod and asters. This morning it was the late purple asters and white heath aster that caught my eye.
This morning, however, there were more creatures waiting for me — a northern harrier took off from a bush just a few feet away — then I heard a red-tailed hawk screeching in the sky — I surprised a cat chewing on something; when it saw me it took off like a bat from hell and didn’t stop ’til it was out of sight — there were flocks of sparrows and small birds with dusky yellow chests that might have been pine warblers. Finally, upon rounding a corner in the trail, I came upon a great blue heron walking slowly down the path. I suppose it was stalking frogs. I crept up within a few feet of the bird, before it flapped off. I have no doubt it was watching me the whole time out of the corners of its eyes.
Speaking of birds, the grasslands is a favorite spot for birdwatchers. Earlier in the spring I’d seen eastern bluebirds, blackbirds, song sparrows, meadowlarks, and bobolinks, which Washington Irving called “the happiest bird of our spring.” The bird’s song is metallic, bubbly, and rambling and reminds me of the chirps issued by the Star Wars robotic droid R2-D2.
Earlier this spring I encountered a box turtle in the Grasslands, and then later on it was lots of butterflies, including viceroys and a pearl crescent.
The place gives you a taste of the prairie. The variety of grasses is overwhelming. The eastern gamma grass is tall and distinctive.
The Grasslands are the site of a former military airport; today they are a national wildlife refuge. The 597 acres are wide open and offer views of the Shawangunk Mountains to the west and north. In early summer, the fields were dotted with white flowers (bedstraw, I think) that mirrored the white clouds overhead. Later on, the birds-foot trefoil was so abundant, that to run on the path was to run through a sea of yellow flowers. On a walk here in early September, clouds of grasshoppers buzzed and darted out from under my feet.
Each time I’m there, the scene looks a little different, whether it’s the soft tangerine color of early morning sun in winter, or the sun as a hazy spot of light during a humid cloudy summer morning, or clean scene in late spring with crepiscular rays slanting in sideways.
I could spend more time describing the sights and sounds of the Grasslands — indeed, I’ve meant to write up a catalog of the flowers, birds, grasses, and other observations for each month of the year — but I run in other places, too, including the paved roads around our house. On a recent morning run on the roads, I encountered a wood frog stationary on the road. Since the road is not a safe place to hang out, I picked it up and placed it on the shoulder. Then it was a pickerel frog, which, with some encouragement from my toe, hopped off to the side. Perhaps the cool morning air surprised them and sapped their energy mid-way across. Regardless, I was happy to have helped them exit the danger zone.
Another place I run frequently is the local college track. A few days ago I arrived to find a deer strolling nonchalantly past the fence. I’ve seen them on the far side of the track as well. Earlier this spring, a deer was lying on the grass by the entrance road, looking relaxed. It was my inspiration for the day — I tried to emulate its laid-back attitude.
We live near Minnewaska State park, and I often run along rocky paths up the hill and into the forest. I could write endlessly about this area. For example, let’s talk fungus for a moment — how about chanterelles in both red and gold? — or fruits like blackberries and wild strawberries — or bumble bees on knapweed and autumn olive blossoms — or pearly everlastings, a wildflower which I’d seen on a trip to the Sierra Nevada and what a surprise to find them here, too. Out of thousands of pictures I could show, here are two favorites — a bluet, which is a small kind of dragonfly that I found clustering above the shores of Lake Awosting in early June, while nearby a northern watersnake watched from underneath a bush (on my next trip there, I saw the snake swimming).
By the way, just to state the obvious, you don’t have to run or walk to see wild creatures — like the red fox that wandered through the backyard one morning, or the garter snakes that live in the woodpile.
I’ve found a great deal of interesting insect life on our screened-in porch. From a distance, they’re all just “bugs,” but if you look closely, there is an amazing variety of colorful creatures, including this wasp, European (“praying”) mantis, and a collection of moths (including Appalachian brown and Silver-spotted Skipper). The porch is a hazard for these insects, because they get trapped against the screen and can’t get out, and because spiders lurk here, too. I saw a huge horse fly get trapped on the thinnest strand of web — then a tiny spider darted out and gave it a nip — and it was lights out.
The other day I spotted a moth fluttering against the screen. I caught it in my hand, walked to the door, tossed it out, and watched it flutter off.