Nature at your doorstep: Mills-Norrie State Park

Stone chair. (photo by Richard Parisio)

Stone chair. (photo by Richard Parisio)

I must confess I had to steel myself for this walk in the blazing sunlight of a torrid July morning. But I was already at the park for a kayak tour from the marina, in which I was sure to get wet and catch some cooling winds on the river. Besides, I had just discovered the quiet “Hopeland” area of the state park, removed from the bustle of the boat basin and campground. The trails shown on the interpretive kiosk traversed places with intriguing names like Falcon Field, Dragonfly Pond and Pine Meadow. I wanted to explore them despite the heat, already intense by mid morning.

Richard Parisio VERTICALOne trail loop leads to a meadow which is indeed dominated by white pines, medium-sized trees with the spreading crowns that typify trees that have grown in open fields, so unlike the tall, straight trunks of forest pine trees. A side trail branched off at this point, leading through the pines to a giant stone bench, made from huge slabs of sandstone (by whom I don’t know), which overlooked an open meadow full of flowers, including milkweed, vetch, ox-eye daisies, musk mallows and St. Johnswort. I tried the bench and found it still cool to the touch, the sun’s rays not yet having reached it. I pressed my back against the massive stone and savored a few minutes of rest and contemplation, listening to the lively song of an indigo bunting and glimpsing flashes of cobalt blue when the bird took flight.

The number and variety of dragonflies and damselflies in the air these days seem to have reached a seasonal peak. Some have clear wings, some banded, and their tails can be white, green, blue or red. All dragonflies appear clad in a gleaming suit of armor and have mobile heads and huge compound eyes able to track the slightest movement of a would-be prey or predator. Damselflies are comparatively slender and hold their wings up rather than horizontally like dragonflies. One of the most striking damselflies right now is the ebony jewelwing, well named for the exquisite contrast between its smoky-black wings and emerald body. Whereas most dragonflies zip through the air like jet fighters, making them hard to see closely, the ebony jewelwing’s fluttering flight made it easy to follow and photograph when it perched on a leaf.

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On a summer walk like this one takes one’s time. It is a stroll, or, better, a saunter, rather than a hike. At this pace we can spot and appreciate small things the hiker passes by without noticing, like an ornately formed (unidentified) black bug on a grass stem with long antennae whose ends seem to have been dipped in orange paint. Or a great spangled fritillary feeding on milkweed flowers, its wings’ undersides silver-spotted. And then there were the nursery web spiders, which make silken tents by pulling leaves over at the tops of plants and binding them together. I usually see these large, active spiders in the spring, carrying a large white egg sac in their mandibles. By midsummer the female spider has suspended this egg sac in the tent or “nursery web” she has made. She will stand guard over the eggs and the dozens of tiny spiderlings that hatch from them and shelter in the web for safety from predators. It’s surprising to see the big, tawny female below her brood like that, since spiders, like insects, are not usually known to care for their young after their eggs are laid. Male spiders are much smaller than females and are seldom seen. In the case of our nursery web spider, the male courts the female by bringing her a fly. If she accepts this gift, he will mate with her while she eats the fly. I can only imagine with what trepidation a male approaches a female nursery web spider several times his size, holding his humble courtship offering in his trembling jaws!

By the time I reached the trailhead I was ready to leave the sun-drenched meadows of “Hopeland,” named by an aristocratic couple, Major Rawlins Lowndes and Gertrude Livingston, who settled in the house they built here after the Civil War. The house was expanded by subsequent owners (the Huntington’s) and finally demolished. So this place, like some other grand estates along the Hudson, originally established as a retreat for the privileged few, can now be enjoyed by the all the people, especially those privileged to live in the Hudson Valley. And by wildlife like the kestrels I saw darting over the meadow I passed through at the end of my walk, recalling the name on the trail map, “Falcon Field.”

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