Spring is a kind of kaleidoscope. Its array of delicate colors — lavender, white and pink in early forest flowers, red in the tops of swamp maples, and gold-green in budding trees — shifts with the turning earth. The eye wants to focus close, at the ground underfoot, then far, at the greening landscape and soft blue sky, then close again, at the branch just ahead, with its swarm of flowers like tiny yellow bees but no leaves yet, and a small gray bird perched on it, bobbing its tail up and down.
The yellow flowering shrub is a spicebush, and the bird is the familiar Eastern phoebe, one of our flycatchers. Both underscore the certainty that spring has arrived, at last, and both greeted me when I visited Ferncliff Forest recently for a leisurely ramble.
Just outside the village of Rhinebeck, Ferncliff Forest is an ideal place to shift your gaze from near to far, from the wildflowers at your feet, to the beaver ponds and vernal pools glimpsed through the trees, blue reflections in water like pieces of sky on the forest floor, to the fire tower’s panorama of the Catskills, Taconics, Berkshires, and Hudson Highlands. The trail loop I walked from the entrance, around reedy South Pond, past well-constructed Adirondack lean-tos, then along a ridge with spring pools and swamps on either side, and through a stately second-growth forest, led me to the tower with its splendid views. In an hour or so of walking I had traversed an impressive range of habitats and variety of scenery.
I had been lamenting of late that my favorite wildflower of early spring, the hepatica, seems to have largely disappeared from our woods. Lacking another culprit, I blamed the overabundant deer for this loss. Though I can’t prove that deer munch on hepatica and other increasingly uncommon wildflowers, their appetite for everything green, even tomato foliage in my garden, makes them a prime suspect.
I hardly expected to find these elusive wildflowers at a place like Ferncliff Forest, with its well-trod trails and regular use by hikers, joggers, bicyclists and campers. Nor would I have found them there, had I not been lured from the pondside path by a tail-wagging phoebe, which flitted from branch to ground to branch again some 15 feet away from me. The bird kept his distance, but I followed him to a rocky outcrop, hoping for a closer look and maybe a photo.