A Fresh New Year: Why Is That So Important?

Reblogging this New Year’s post from my archives because many of you liked it. And I do too. See you in 2017!

Nature Is My Therapy

If you’re like many people, you place at least some significance on January 1st. Whether you make resolutions or set goals, you feel that something important is supposed to happen because the page on the calendar has turned.

Although I’m not usually one to make New Year’s resolutions, this day is still unlike any other day of the year for me. I have a couple superstitious rituals that I usually follow: I do some type of house cleaning as a way of starting fresh, and I eat sauerkraut to bring good luck in the coming year. But you know what? I eat sauerkraut all year long, on regular old Mondays or Tuesdays, on the 3rd of the month or the 21st of the month. When I feel like having it, I do. What happens to me in the days afterward has nothing to do with that meal. Eating a…

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Clarity

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Typical scenery in Costa Rica – gorgeous mountain views

Do you find that you go through phases in life where your interests change suddenly? I  do, and I’m moving into another one of those now. I think my recent trip to Costa Rica helped clarify things for me — traveling always helps to get my brain out of a rut. More about the trip below, but first a bit about those changing passions of life.

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Resplendent Quetzal

I spent the first decade of this century immersed in the knitting world, spending hours each day creating sweaters, socks, and hats. I went to knitting conventions, took classes, and bought lots of yarn.  I loved it so much I started a knitting design business. I sold my patterns nationwide and had a blast doing the marketing and all the other facets of running a business. And then one day I just lost interest in it all.  I think it was because I’d made my hobby into my job, and that sucked the joy out of it.

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Boat-billed Herons

After the knitting phase, I developed an intense interest in birdwatching, and left my knitting needles to gather dust as I ran around the woods and meadows looking for new species to add to my growing bird list. I joined my local Audubon chapter, attended birding events, and made lots of nature-loving friends. And then I took a job in the birding world. And very quickly after that I discovered that my passion for birding was waning. (More confirmation that it’s often not a good idea to turn a hobby into a job.)

So as I mentioned, I just spent a week at a birding lodge in Costa Rica and was surprised to realize that my enthusiasm for finding new birds had evaporated. I’m sure part of the reason was that it was very humid and muddy, and as much as I like to tell myself that I’m okay with that, I’m not. (I hate to sweat so much that I’ve often wished I could do my workouts in the shower so the sweat would wash off immediately. You think I’m joking about that? Nope.) I think I’m suddenly at a point in my life where I’m no longer willing to traipse around on muddy mountain roads getting attacked by mosquitoes while trying to get a brief glimpse of a bird I won’t even remember in two months.

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Golden-olive Woodpecker

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve just written that, actually, but I think it’s true. I still love birds, but I can’t see myself traveling internationally again for the sole purpose of adding new species to my list. I’d rather spend quality time with birds closer to home. Two years ago, when I went to Panama, I was totally geeked about the birds. But it’s different now. I just didn’t feel it on this trip.

Even when I stood on the balcony at the lodge watching dozens of hummingbirds swarming around a half dozen feeders, I couldn’t summon the interest to try and identify the various species. It’s not that I didn’t get enjoyment from sitting there watching them, but I had no desire to identify every one of them just in case it was a new name to add to a list. I was content to know the names of a half dozen species, and after that I didn’t really care. I know the hardcore birders out there will revoke my “real birder” badge now, but that’s okay. I willingly surrender it.

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Fiery-throated Hummingbird

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One Fiery-throated Hummer and two Lesser Violetears

trio-of-brahma-cows-on-a-hillI do still enjoy trying to get a nice photo of a bird though, and that’s why I’m sharing a few in this post. But you’ll also notice some non-bird photos from this trip. I really loved those Brahma cows standing on the steep hillsides. Talk about picturesque…. (Here’s my Flickr album from the Costa Rica trip, with more pics being added in the next few days.)

Despite this waning passion for the sporting aspect of birding, I did have enthusiasm for some of the birds on this trip. Along with the beautiful Resplendent Quetzal and the Fiery-throated Hummingbird, I was hoping to see some more woodpecker species on this trip. There’s something about woodpeckers that I find irresistible. In fact, if given a choice to watch hummingbirds or woodies, I believe I would choose the woodpeckers. I’ve written a bit about woodpeckers here before.

Cinnamon Woodpecker male

Cinnamon Woodpecker (Panama)

Here at home we have quite a few beautiful species of woodpeckers: Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Pileated, Northern Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. (Here’s a link to my Flickr photos of woodpeckers in Michigan and Ohio.) And when I was in Panama a couple  years ago, I saw the beautiful Cinnamon Woodpecker, the Crimson-crested, the Black-cheeked, Red-crowned,  and the Lineated Woodpecker.

In Costa Rica I saw a few more types, including the Golden-olive Woodpecker and my favorite, the Acorn Woodpecker. We stopped at a feeding station on one of our day trips, and as we walked toward it we saw a small group of Acorn Woodpeckers (aka clown-faced woodpeckers) fly up into the trees.  I didn’t  recall ever seeing woodpeckers in groups before, but I was so busy trying to get photos of them and all the other birds that day that I didn’t think too much about that interesting tidbit. So imagine my delight when I sorted my mail once I returned home and found that the new issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest has an article about Acorn Woodpeckers! (“The Clown-faced Woodpecker with an Obsession,” by Steve Shunk.)

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Acorn Woodpecker (female)

In this article I learned some fascinating facts about these birds. They often live in small family groups consisting of a mated pair and their offspring from past years. Hmm, that could explain why there were so many together that day in Costa Rica. And in addition to the obvious acorns, which they prefer to eat when they’re fresh in the last summer and fall, these woodpeckers actually catch insects on the wing in much the same way as the typical flycatchers do.

I wish we’d had time to stay and watch them for a while longer, but that’s not how things work on these group birding trips, so it was back into the van and on to the next stop….

I’ve been feeling rather unsettled these past couple months. I thought it was mostly because I’d quit my job and wasn’t sure what I would do next. But writing this has helped me clarify what’s actually going on, and now I know that I’m moving into another stage of my life with exciting new interests. And leaving that job was what enabled me to get some much-needed distance from the intensity of the birding world. I’m sure birds will still be an important part of the way I connect with nature, but now I’m free to explore some of the other things I’ve been keeping on the back burner in recent years. I’m suddenly feeling quite optimistic and purposeful, and I think that’s a very good way to enter the new year.

Here’s hoping you have something to look forward to in 2017 as well.

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Cattle Egret on a cow…match made in heaven, lol

 

 

 

 

Posted in Birds, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Lunatic in the Woods

Yeah, that would be me. Standing alone on a trail with a HUGE smile on my face. If you happened to come upon me just then it would be understandable if you gave me a wide berth and glanced over your shoulder after you’d passed by. But let me explain….

For the past couple of hours I’d been enjoying a much-needed leisurely walk in one of Ohio’s beautiful nature preserves. It was the tail end of fall migration, and I didn’t expect to see too much bird activity. I had planned to do some thinking about my life as I contemplated some big decisions.

And I did get some serious thinking done, but only in between distracting flurries of bird activity. (So much for expectations.)

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I saw dozens of White-throated Sparrows traveling through the undergrowth in small leaf-flipping gangs. Flitting around above them were flocks of tiny kinglets, both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned. I watched a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos foraging in the grass, my first sighting of that species this season. And wait–what was that? A Brown Creeper!

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Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)

Brown Creepers are tiny brown birds that climb the trunks of trees in a spiral pattern, eating insects and eggs they find in crevices of the bark. They’re beautiful and yet hard to find because they’re so well camouflaged against the tree bark. I’m very excited whenever I get to see one of them. And on this day I’d seen two of them already. (They’re hard to photograph because they move fast, but I was happy to get this photo of one a couple years ago.)

And then, just moments before you came upon me smiling in the woods by myself, I’d seen my third Brown Creeper of the day. When I realized I was standing there with that silly grin on my face I quickly tried to modify it into a not-crazy-just-friendly smile, and I waited for you to continue around the bend.

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That red vine on the tree is another kind of creeper — Virginia Creeper.

Then, alone again, I tilted my face up to the sky, savoring the moment. With the warmth of the October sun on my face, I took a deep breath, feeling days worth of stress leaving my body. I felt lighter, almost as if I could walk on air. And as I write this more than a week later, I’m smiling again at the memories of that special day.

If that doesn’t illustrate the healing power of nature, I don’t know what does.

#GetOutside

Note: If you’d like to read more about the Brown Creeper and listen to its calls, check out Audubon’s Bird Guide, here, or Cornell’s “All About Birds,” here.

 

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Something To Look Forward To

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800Have you ever been in a rut? You know what I mean, those times when you realize that all you’ve been doing is living life on autopilot, just going through the motions of everyday life. You wake up, go to work, come home tired, eat, fall into bed, and repeat that, day after day, with very little variation in the routine.

That’s where I found myself a couple months ago–deep in a rut. I’d realized that I had nothing coming up on my calendar that I could look forward to, nothing that I was excited about, nothing that represented a change from my routine. Life was so boring.

So I decided that I would make an effort to plan more activities that would put a spark back into my life, like visiting new places, meeting new people, and doing things I’ve never done before.

One evening I was standing in the kitchen and I impulsively wrote this note on my refrigerator: “Something to look forward to…”  And having that message on my fridge where I see it every day has motivated me to start making plans. The biggest and most exciting of these plans is my upcoming birding trip to Costa Rica with a friend, but while I anxiously await that one, I’ve been doing some more exploring of places closer to home.

staircase-in-woods-looking-down-594x800One of the places I discovered recently is Steyer Nature Preserve, a great park along the Sandusky River near Tiffin, Ohio. It consists of 141 acres with four miles of trails that wind around wildflower meadows and crisscross steep ravines. I’ve written before about how I enjoy places with even the slightest elevation changes, something that’s rather rare in northwest Ohio’s farm country.

This park is part of the Seneca County Park District, and they’ve done a really nice job of building bridges and staircases to facilitate access to the trails through the steep ravines. And they’ve included lots of interpretive signs as well, identifying various tree species and giving background on the history of the land.

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I learned names of some trees that I’d never heard of before, like  hophornbeam and pignut hickory. And there are two trees on this property that are nearly 300 years old.

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I sat on the bench near this Bur Oak for quite some time, contemplating some of the events it had survived in its 292 years. How often do you get the chance to touch something that has been alive for centuries? And yes, I’ll admit that I hugged this amazing tree. And then I photographed this Eastern Comma butterfly that had paused to rest on its trunk:

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Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma)

I found this huge spiderweb in the woods — it was probably 18 inches across. Did you know that the design of a spiderweb can give you hints as to the type of spider that made it? This one is typical of those constructed by members of the orbweaver family.

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bridge-and-stairs-at-steyer-nature-preserve-800x594As I walked toward that old Bur Oak on my way back to the car, a Bald Eagle flew out of the top of it. He’d probably been surveying the river below for fish. I watched him fly across the cow pasture and land near another Baldie on the far side.

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The Sandusky River at Steyer Nature Preserve

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This frog jumped into the water as I approached the river — he thinks I can’t see him.

I’m so glad I got myself motivated to go out for that walk. Discovering this wonderful spot definitely helped lift me out of my rut, giving me motivation to keep looking for more new places to explore close to home!

Posted in Ecotherapy, Ohio, Trees, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Saying Goodbye

I said goodbye to a friend today and am feeling a deep sense of loss.

I spent the afternoon helping him load his moving truck, along with another close friend. For the most part, the three of us tried to focus on the task at hand so we wouldn’t dwell on the emotions we were all feeling. Of course there was optimism about his new life and hope that everything would work out, but there was also lots of sadness and uncertainty. As upset as I was though, I was determined to keep my chin up and not make this day any harder for him than it had to be.

Even though I wasn’t happy about why we were together, I was grateful that the three of us had this special time alone today. Our friendship is partly based on bonding over some experiences that we can’t really talk to anyone else about. If you’ve ever read about the psychology of bonding over shared pain you’ll understand how strong that bond can be. We have been each other’s support system through some very difficult times.

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My friends on the beach at Lake Erie a couple weeks ago, as we began saying our goodbyes

As the afternoon wore on and we made a few re-checks of the house, gathering up the remaining last-minute items, I started to feel my emotions welling up.

In the late afternoon we finally finished loading the back of the truck, then the two guys began hooking the car up to the tow dolly. As I waited for them to do that, I walked out behind the house and stood beside the wildflower meadow, watching butterflies and bees flitting and buzzing from flower to flower. Turkey Vultures soared over the house and Blue Jays squawked loudly from the trees. I almost cried then, standing in the sunlight watching the vultures and listening to my friends discussing how to secure the car on the towing rig.

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A gift I made for my departing friend

After they got that done, the cat was put into her carrier and loaded into the front of the truck. The snuffling little pug dog would go in at the last minute, after our final goodbyes.

When it came time to close the garage door for the last time, my friend stood in his garage and said softly, “Thanks house, you’ve been good to me.” And that’s when my tears started to flow.

I’m not sure why that particular thing touched me so much. I think maybe because I realized the importance of what he had just done: He stopped to acknowledge the happy times he’d had in this place before leaving it.

Because of what the three of us shared today, I’m thinking a lot tonight about gratitude and mindfulness. About how, even in the midst of sadness, we can choose to be thankful for the good in our lives. And about how important it is to stop and appreciate the best moments as they’re happening. And to look forward rather than backward. I’m thankful for the time I had with my friend and for all I learned from him. He opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world and dealing with challenging times. He made me laugh–hard. And he gave the world’s best hugs. I’m so glad that we took a group selfie today to serve as a memory of our last time together as a trio of friends.

When I was dealing with another painful loss recently, I was reminded of this line from a Tennyson poem: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  I suppose that’s the way to look at this too–being grateful that I had the experience of knowing this person who was so special that it hurts to say goodbye.

As I write this he’s driving south toward his new home and new job. I have high hopes that he’ll find what he’s searching for, and that his life will be overflowing with love and friendship.

 

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Cannibal Encounter at Creek Bend Farm

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Meadow path at Creek Bend Farm

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Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)

So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.

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Cabbage White butterfly (Pieris rapae)

I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.

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Viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) 

There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience!  I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:

Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:

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Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.

Ruby-throated hummingbird preening with foot

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I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.

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But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?

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This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.

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My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:

Red-footed Cannibal Fly - 2 of them (800x535)

They’re a couple of inches long and very intimidating. Especially if you’re a smaller insect! And I discovered that these predators have been known to prey on…wait for it….hummingbirds! So I guess the little hummer in the next tree was very lucky this hungry killer had already found a victim.

Okay, this has been long already, but I don’t want to leave you with visions of gut-sucking cannibals, so here are some pretty dogwood berries. I hope that makes up for it. 🙂

Either Gray Dogwood or Red Osier Dogwood

Dogwood berries

Posted in Insects, Ohio, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap

You know how great it feels when your day off coincides with a fantastic weather forecast? Well that’s what happened for me on Monday this week, and I took full advantage of it to get outdoors and poke around to see what I could find. I was particularly grateful for this day because I’d spent the previous day in bed with a migraine that lasted for 19 hours. Yep, that’s right, 19 hours.  After losing an entire day, it’s no surprise that I was eager to reclaim my life the next morning. I usually feel like I’ve been reborn on the day after a migraine, and am reminded to be thankful for every pain-free day I have.Lotus flowers in bloom at Meadowbrook v2

So on this glorious day I decided to visit one of the locations on the Lake Erie Birding Trail (LEBT). The Ohio LEBT Guidebook, published by the Ohio Division of Wildlife just a couple years ago, is a compilation of 88 birding locations along the Lake Erie shore of Ohio. It’s a really handy book that I often keep in my car in case I feel like exploring someplace new. So far I’ve visited 21 of the sites on the “trail” — and I also happen to work at one of them (#73, Black Swamp Bird Observatory).  Today my  destination was Meadowbrook Marsh, a property of 190 acres that includes a large marsh and meadows surrounded by tall trees. As you can see in the photo above, the gorgeous lotus flowers are in full bloom now.

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There were hundreds of these Pearl Crescents fluttering in the grass (Phyciodes tharos)

As I started walking the grass path alongside the big meadow, I noticed that the ground was dancing beneath my feet. There were hundreds of little Pearl Crescent butterflies feeding on clover and other flowers — it was really something to see. I tried to get a video that would convey the magic of it all, but wasn’t able to get anything I felt was worth sharing here. So just close your eyes and imagine walking slowly in the grass,  watching dozens of butterflies taking flight in front of you with each step. It was so pretty — they’d flutter a few feet away and alight on their next food source. I felt like I was in some sort of fairy land! And so it was that my walk started off with a big smile.

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Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis)

Mixed in with all those Pearl Crescents, I found a little butterfly that I’d never seen before. It was about the same size, maybe an inch and a half across, but the wings were black with whitish spots, and the body had a bluish tint to it. It turned out to be a Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis). I love discovering something I’ve never seen before because each discovery makes me appreciate the diversity of life that’s around me every day. So much of the natural world goes unnoticed in our busy lives, doesn’t it?

House Wren

House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)

A few minutes later I heard the unmistakable chattering of a House Wren and was able to quickly find him moving through the trees beside me. There were several of them in a mixed group that included Common Yellowthroats (a type of warbler) and Indigo Buntings. All three species were agitated by my presence, and I saw quite a few curious juveniles who were apparently being scolded by their parents to get away from the human!

Common Yellowthroat - fall immature male

Common Yellowthroat, a type of warbler. This is a young inquisitive male.

I continued walking and came upon another pocket of bird activity. This one had young Brown Thrashers and several Great Crested Flycatchers, and a single tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher buzzing around the treetops and flicking his long tail.

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A young Brown Thrasher

One of my favorite birds was this pretty female Cape May Warbler, who posed nicely for me:

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Female Cape May Warbler

Grasshoppers are always hard to photograph because they leap so fast and far at the slightest movement. But I managed to get a couple shots of this one, at least. I think it’s a Red-legged Grasshopper.

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Red-legged Grasshopper (at least I think that’s the right species)

And take a look at this close crop of his leg joints on the hind legs. It’s clear that they’re very specialized to allow him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. (Oh wait, that’s Superman, isn’t it?)

Grasshopper showing back leg specialized joints (717x635)

Close-up of semi-lunar processes on grasshopper’s hind legs

Those joints are called the semi-lunar processes. I found a website that explains how they function, and it even includes slow-motion video to show the mechanics of the spring motion. If you’re curious, it’s here.

There weren’t too many dragonflies around on this day, but I did manage to get a photo of an Eastern Amberwing, one of our smaller dragonflies:

Eastern Amberwing - close crop

Eastern Amberwing (Perithemis tenera)

Before I realized it, I’d spent two hours at Meadowbrook and the sun was starting to get a bit too intense. So I reluctantly ended my walk after having seen 27 species of birds, about a half dozen types of butterflies (including a couple Monarchs), and lots of other insects that I haven’t identified yet.

I just find these quiet walks in natural places to be so life-affirming and renewing. So today I’m grateful for those “Things that Fly, Flutter, and Leap,” for all the ways they enrich my experience of life on this beautiful planet.

Posted in Birds, Ecotherapy, Insects, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Rain! Green! Ahhhh….

Here in northwest Ohio we’ve been suffering through a drought for many weeks, so it was such a relief when we got a good soaking rain yesterday. And since my weekend plans changed at the last minute, I spent most of yesterday indoors, enjoying a lazy Saturday listening to the thunder and rain. But because of that, I really wanted to do some kind of outdoor activity today.  So even though the rain showers continued off and on today, I decided to go explore a new-to-me nature preserve about a half hour drive south of here. And I’m so glad I did — I had a wonderful hike in the rain!

Panorama of woods at Collier State Nature Preserve

The place is called Collier State Nature Preserve. It’s a beautiful wooded 115 acres bordering the Sandusky River near Tiffin, Ohio. There are lots of pretty nature preserves and metroparks around here, but what made me want to see this place was when I heard that it had HILLS. That’s right, actual changes in elevation, as opposed to almost everywhere else within a couple hours drive here in the flatlands of Ohio. I grew up in southeastern Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. Hilly terrain is where I feel most at home, and it’s where I find the most aesthetic appeal too.  I haven’t been able to adjust to the endlessly flat scenery that I see in my daily life here — hundreds and hundreds of acres of corn and soybean fields in every direction. It’s not that I haven’t tried to find beauty in the flatness–I really do appreciate how the sunsets are so amazing here where there’s nothing to block the view. But I guess I just have a strong psychological bond to the hills.

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Look, a HILL! (Oh, and two Turkey Vultures)

So imagine my pleasure as I made the drive down there in the rain today, noticing that the roads were suddenly more hilly and scenic as I approached the preserve. I felt my breath slow and my body relax as I drove the narrow road with tall trees towering overhead on both sides. Because of the rain, everything was so fresh and green too. I just love the deep green of leaves when they’re wet, don’t you?

White Baneberry - native to Eastern N.A. - poisonous

White Baneberry (poisonous)

Also because of the rain, and maybe because of the remote location of this preserve, I was the only person there today. Yep, had the whole place all to myself.

It was pretty dark in the thick woods, so I didn’t manage to get many good pictures of the birds, but I took a few plant and insect pics and came home to identify them. One of the most interesting plants I saw was this one with the white berries. It’s called White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda)–also known as Doll’s Eyes for obvious reasons–and it’s highly poisonous to humans. But birds can (and do) safely eat the berries.

I should say here that I’m doing my best to gather information about these plants from reliable sources (and provide links for you), but please do not eat anything based on my identification alone. I’m not an expert!

False Solomon's Seal  - safe to eat (533x800)

False Solomon’s Seal (edible)

And then there was this other interesting cluster of berries, which I found out is called False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa). These berries, however, are safe for humans to eat. These unripe berries are beige speckled with red, but they’ll be solid red when ripe. While researching this plant I discovered the blog of Tara Rose, an urban foraging expert based in Oregon. She’s written a very interesting  post about False Solomon’s Seal if you care to pop over there and read it.

I have to admit to being a bit uncomfortable about going to this remote and unknown place alone. I’m always conscious of the potential dangers to a lone woman hiker, and in the past I’ve let that fear keep me from enjoying the outdoors as much as I wanted to. I’m trying to find a balance between responsible caution and confident fearlessness, if that makes sense. Maybe I’m finally at the point where I’m more afraid of missing out on a good experience than I am of the potential for danger.

When I pulled into the isolated parking lot today, this is the trail entrance I saw:

Trail entrance

Trail entrance – a little bit scary, right?

I hesitated for a few seconds and then decided to just go on in. And this is what I saw after I got around the first bend:

Trail through woods at Collier State Nature Preserve (594x800)

Winding trail through the woods

And shortly afterwards I came to the wooden stairs that would take me down the steep hill to the river:

Boardwalk at Collier State Nature Preserve

Stairway to the river

It was so liberating to stand there among those giant trees, listening to the gentle sound of rain pattering on the leaves, knowing that I was completely alone. I felt so proud of myself that I took a selfie right then and there:

Dorky pic to prove how brave I was, LOL

Dorky pic to prove how brave I was, LOL

And here’s a 30-second video so you can hear the rain and birds in the woods:

American Pelecinid wasp

American Pelecinid wasp

Oh, I almost forgot a few more of the cool creatures I saw today. I don’t remember ever noticing this wasp before. In fact, when I first started noticing them today, I thought they were a dragonfly or damselfly. But as soon as I got a close look at one, I knew it was a wasp. And after I got home and consulted a field guide, I knew I had an American Pelecinid wasp. This female has such a long abdomen so she can probe in the soil for May beetle grubs and lay her eggs on them. When her larvae hatch, they feed on the beetle grubs as parasites.

You know, the more attention I pay to insects, the more I see how interesting they are. Each species plays a role in the ecosystem, using its unique adaptations to feed and reproduce using the available food sources. I can easily understand why some people decide to become entomologists — what an endlessly fascinating subject to study! It’s a shame so many of us think of insects as “creepy crawlies” or “things to be squashed.”

Speaking of things that some people find “creepy,” here’s a close up of one of those Turkey Vultures from the road after he flew into a tree right beside my car.

Turkey Vulture in a tree

I find these birds so interesting, and it’s not often I get such a close view of one. Although a few years ago we had a program at my local Audubon meeting where we got to see a live Turkey Vulture brought in from a wildlife rehab place. This bird sat on the outstretched arm of its handler and spread those giant wings and I was shocked at how incredibly big it was. It’s one thing to read in your field guide that a bird has a 6-foot wingspan, but it’s another thing when you get to see that wingspan from a few yards away and feel the rush of air as it flaps those wings. I’ll never forget that day. In fact, any day that I get to see a bird up close is a privilege.  Just as I mentioned about the insects, bird species have unique adaptations for their habitats and food sources too, and learning about them adds dimension to your experience of the world. At least I think it does…but you may still cringe at the sight of a Turkey Vulture….

And finally, no summer nature walk is complete without a butterfly picture, so here’s the beautiful Eastern Tiger Swallowtail I found feeding alongside the road as I left the park.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (5) (640x539)Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly (42)

So, have YOU been outside today?

Posted in Birds, Insects, Ohio, Walking in the Woods | 14 Comments

There’s This Place I Like to Go…

Boardwalk at Blue Heron Reserve (800x600)This week marked the one-year anniversary of my move to northwest Ohio. And although I don’t have as much time as I used to for exploring and being in nature, I have managed to find one spot that has become my nearest “go to” place when I need to get away. It’s called Blue Heron Reserve, and it’s a 160-acre park with meadows, fens, and woods. The best part is that it’s only 18 minutes away from my home and I’ve been able to find all sorts of interesting plants and creatures there over the past 12 months.

Cabbage White butterfly on clover flower at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x644)

Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae)

A recent visit turned up this Cabbage White butterfly feeding on a clover flower. This highly-cropped version shows the pretty green eyes and the long proboscis that he uses to sip nectar from the flower.

Wasps to ID (800x516)I also found quite a few of these wasps crawling on the ground. I haven’t been able to identify them yet, but I think they’re really pretty, don’t you? I like the combination of that rich brown with the gold rings on the body. Hopefully I’ll be able to find them in one of my insect field guides soon so I can read more about them. (Update: I think they’re Northern Paper Wasps, a very common native wasp in Ohio.)

Tiger Bee Fly (1) (800x645)

Tiger Bee Fly (Xenox tigrinus)

I also found a fly that I don’t remember ever seeing before — this is a Tiger Bee Fly. I think the wing markings are really pretty. This fly was large, probably an inch long. I found one of these hanging around on our mailbox at the office the next day, and was excited that I knew what it was right away.  I learned that this fly is a parasitoid of carpenter bees. That means that it lays its eggs at the entrance to carpenter bee nests, and the larvae eat the carpenter bee larvae. A parasitoid is different than a parasite because a parasite doesn’t necessarily kill its host, whereas a parasitoid does actually kill the host (prey?) animal. Interesting stuff, isn’t it?

Mink at Blue Heron Reserve (2) (800x592)Oh, and look who ran across the path in front of me! This little mink was too fast for me to get a good photo, as he hesitated for only about a second before disappearing into the meadow. I’ve only seen a few mink in my life, so it’s always a thrill to catch a glimpse of these elusive mammals.

Summer Azure butterfly - Celastrina neglecta (1) (800x727)

Summer Azure butterfly (Celastrina neglecta)

Another butterfly, a Summer Azure. I stood there with the camera focused on this one for several minutes, hoping to get a shot of the pretty lavender wings opened. Alas, I didn’t get that shot, but I’m pleased just to get any shot at all because these little purple creatures don’t often sit still for me.

Blue Heron Reserve meadow v2 7-31-2016 (800x594)

More of the one-mile long recycled plastic boardwalk around the meadow. It looks like the park maintenance crew might have been overzealous in killing vegetation along the edges…not sure that’s really necessary in an area like this, but I can’t be sure of what their reasons might be for this.

Bullfrog in water (2) (800x597)

Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

On this day I found several bullfrogs in the small spring-fed pond inside the meadow loop. I’ve always been unsure of my ability to differentiate between Green Frogs and Bullfrogs–until now. This is a Bullfrog because the glandular fold wraps around the tympanum (that’s the round spot on the side of its head that functions as a sort of external eardrum). On a Green Frog the glandular fold would continue in a straight line down the back. That makes it really easy for me to tell them apart now. Cool. Here’s another larger Bullfrog:

Bullfrog in water v2

Blue Heron Reserve signI took lots of photos of wildflowers too, hoping to identify some of them later. Maybe I’ll share some of them in another post. The bird activity was slow on my recent visit (because the temperature was in the 90s), but I still saw a couple beautiful male Indigo Buntings singing, and lots of Tree Swallows lined up on the power lines. The swallows are beginning to “stage” for migration now, which means that it’s common to see larger numbers of them gathered together, waiting for some signal that it’s time to head south. It’s

Indigo Bunting male singing (6)

Indigo Bunting singing

always bittersweet when the birds start to show signs of leaving us for the winter. It was just a few short months ago that we so eagerly anticipated their return for the breeding season, and now they’re finished with that important business and getting ready to go again. But fall migration is a long process, so there are months of excitement ahead as various groups of birds come back through here on their way down from Canada….the shorebirds are showing up here already, the warblers are coming, and it won’t be long before it’s November and we have ducks galore.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live in a more moderate climate, someplace where it’s always 70 degrees and sunny, you know? The extremes of hot and cold in this part of the country are a challenge to deal with sometimes. But then again, without our four distinct seasons we wouldn’t have the constantly changing plant and animal life that makes the natural world so interesting. So I suppose it’s a fair trade. 🙂

Swallows staging for migration (800x281)

Tree Swallows staging for fall migration

Posted in Ecotherapy, Insects, Migration, Ohio | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Macro Nature Therapy

If you’ve ever worked with a macro Yellow flower macro - one-tenth of an inch acrosslens on your camera, you know how addictive it can be. It can even change the way you see the world.  Just look at this little  yellow flower, for instance. I found this Black Medic while pulling lawn weeds a couple years ago, and it was something I had often just yanked without a second glance. The whole thing was only about an eighth of an inch across, so you’d normally never even see all these beautiful details. Isn’t it stunning?

So yesterday, after a difficult week that left me wanting to hide from the world, I took my macro lens to the backyard and found the perfect way to distract myself from dwelling on my problems — by focusing on the tiniest details of the natural world.

First up are Locust exoskeleton - head on view (800x533)these cicada exoskeletons I found in my crabapple tree. Here in northwest Ohio we didn’t have any of the 17-year periodical cicadas that emerged in the eastern half of the state earlier this summer, but the annual cicadas are coming out now. These insects have a fascinating life cycle, part of which is spent as nymphs living underground feeding on tree roots. At some point, whether it’s after only a couple of years or 17 years, the nymphs emerge from the ground and climb the nearest vertical structure to begin molting.

Locust exoskeleton back view (800x710)They shed their exoskeletons, or exuviae, and begin the adult phase of their lives. In this photo you can see the split in the back where the adult exited the exuvia.

As winged adults, they live a few weeks, during which time they mate, lay eggs, and die. When their eggs hatch from the tree branches where they were laid, the tiny nymphs drop to the earth and burrow underground, where the whole process is repeated. Isn’t that cool?

Next up, lotus flowers. My friends and I came upon this huge “field” of lotus flowers while kayaking along the Toussaint River the other evening after work. It reminded me of the giant fields of tulips in Holland, stretching as far as you can see.Lotus flowers on Toussaint River (800x446)

Lotus flower seed pod (1) (800x533)Most of the flowers hadn’t opened up yet, but I found some that had already dropped their petals, exposing the pretty seed pods inside. So I took some macro shots of the pod, which I found out is actually called the “carpellary receptacle.” After the flower is pollinated, the petals fall off, exposing the carpellary receptacle full of seeds. It eventually turns brown and the seeds spill out into the water.

Lotus flower seed pod (2) (800x533)
Closer view of the not-yet-ripe lotus seeds.

Cicada exoskeleton on lotus seed head (771x800)And while I was playing with these things, I couldn’t resist the totally unnatural “exoskeleton on the carpellary receptacle” shot. Pretty cool stuff, isn’t it? Yeah, I thought you’d like that.

Speaking of which, I’ve yet to find one of the newly-emerged adult cicadas to photograph, but I’m still looking….

 

 

 

This afternoon I was checking my milkweed plants for Monarch butterfly eggs (none found yet), and decided to take a macro of the dainty pink flowers. First the wider view —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (2) (800x533)

And then a closer look —

Swamp milkweed flowers from my yard - macro (800x711)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

I absolutely adore the structure of these dainty little flowers. I took these shots hand-holding the camera, so they’re not as sharp as I’d like. Next time I’m going to use the tripod and hope to get some much better photos of these beauties. And who knows, maybe I’ll still find some caterpillars feeding on the leaves. I had such fun raising Monarch butterflies last year — it would be great to do that again.

Well, that’s all for today. I hope you learned something from this macro nature therapy session. I sure did.

#DistractingMyselfFromHeartache #NatureTherapyReallyWorks

Posted in Insects, Kayaking, Photography | 9 Comments