Wildflower Wanderings

This spring I’ve spent more time than ever before searching for wildflowers around northwest Ohio. I’m a novice at identifying them, but I’m having a blast and am learning new things every day.

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Large-flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) — it’s so delicate-looking! (Goll Woods)

One rainy day in April I took a road trip west to visit Goll Woods in Butler County. I’d read that it’s the place to go for spring wildflowers in this corner of the state, so I grabbed my rain jacket and headed into the woods. One thing I always tell people when they look at me like I’m nuts for walking in the rain: “Hey, if you want to have a place almost to yourself, then walk in the rain.” And it was true on this day too, as I only saw two other people there for the two hours I walked.

Admittedly, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle two cameras, binoculars, and an umbrella, but I made it work. Luckily it wasn’t a heavy rain, so occasionally I could put the umbrella on the ground in order to take some flower photos. I could have left the binoculars in the car, though, because birds were few and far between on this day. I guess I have such a habit of always carrying the binoculars that I didn’t even consider leaving them behind.

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White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

There were hundreds and hundreds of White Trillium in bloom, and a few pinkish ones, which I believe are still White Trillium but they turn pink as the flowers age. I’m still investigating this.

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Pinkish Trillium - Goll Woods (800x533)
White Trillium turning pink as it ages (I think)

After I got accustomed to all the trillium, I was able to begin to look at things that were not trillium. And that’s when I found one of my most-sought-after wildflowers of the day. This is Dutchman’s Breeches, which I’d never seen in person before.

Dutchman's Breeches wildflower at Goll Woods
Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

They really do look like pairs of pants hung out to dry, don’t they? Apparently there was some controversy in Victorian times about calling them “breeches,” as it was considered rude to refer to clothing that covered the–ahem–lower portion of the body. (A little tidbit I learned from one of my favorite books, The Secrets of Wildflowers, by Jack Sanders.)

And then I found another surprise, a white variety of Bleeding Hearts:

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Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis) – closely related to Bleeding Hearts

I later learned from my friend Kelly that these are commonly known as Squirrel Corn. I couldn’t understand where that name came from until she told me that if you dig just below the soil surface, you’ll find little bulblets that look like kernels of corn. I wish I’d known that while I was there so I could have seen them for myself. But here’s a link to Kelly’s blog where she shows you a photo of the “corn” kernels.

Ent from Lord of the Rings - Goll Woods (682x1024)Goll Woods has some of the oldest trees in Ohio, with some as much as 400 years old. And trees that live that long tend to get pretty darn big. Some of them are 4 feet in diameter. This one made me think of Ents from Lord of the Rings. (Ents are a race of tree-like creatures…read more here if you like.) My imagination instantly saw that tree as a sleeping Ent who might, at any moment, rise up and tower over me. Fun stuff.

A couple weeks ago I was on my way home from Cleveland and decided to take a slight detour south near Sandusky to visit Castalia Prairie. I wanted to see White Lady’s-slippers for the first time and I was not disappointed. I saw hundreds of them all over the place. I had my macro lens and tripod but wasn’t sure about what the rules were there for going off the trail. To be honest, there was barely a “trail” at all, just a path where I could tell someone else had walked and flattened the grass down.  I did my best to get some photos without stepping on anything endangered, and had a great time discovering new things. (And the next morning I made a less-welcome discovery, as a tick had hitched a ride on me…shudder. Reminder to do a tick check immediately, not the next morning. Duh.)

White Lady's-slipper orchid, Cypripedium candidum (1280x853)
White Lady’s-slipper (Cypripedium candidum)

I also found a bunch of these one-inch snail shells scattered around. I didn’t find any evidence of the former inhabitants of the shells though.
Snail shell from Castalia Prairie v2 (1024x749)

It’s funny, I just realized that I’m traveling around to see flowers in much the same way I would normally search for birds. Except the flowers are easier to find and to photograph because they can’t fly away. It’s a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically, and it’s great to be learning about an entirely different part of the ecosystem.

I’m excited to be heading down to Urbana this week to meet a friend and see the Showy Lady’s-slipper orchids at Cedar Bog. And I may also be going up to Ann Arbor to see the magnificent peony garden at Nichols Arboretum. If I could only have one type of flower in my garden for the rest of eternity, it would be peonies. I can almost smell them now….sigh. So stay tuned for more botanical beauties!

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.

 

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.

bur-oak-collage

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!

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.

Pearl Crescent butterfly -Phycoides tharos v2
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.

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?

Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies

Brown Thrasher at dripper at BSBO (800x484)
Brown Thrasher in dripper pond

Ok, first things first: No, I didn’t fall off the face of the earth. Although I do feel like I’m sort of in the twilight zone lately, what with all the craziness in the world. Violence, hatred, and sadness seem to permeate everything these days, and I’ve been struggling with mustering up the motivation to write anything. My personal life has been challenging in the past several months as well, so I’ve basically just been trying to get through it one day at a time. But after a couple friends mentioned that they’ve missed my blogging, I decided to try to find something positive to write about and get myself back into a more cheerful state of mind.

Brown Thrasher after bathing at BSBO pond (800x589)
Brown Thrasher after bathing in our pond at the office
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Blue Dasher, female

So…welcome to “Thrashers, Dashers, and…Mayflies,” my attempt to use nature to heal the parts of my heart that have been hurting.  I’ve been regaining some of my enthusiasm for photography too, thanks to a hot summer loaded with dragonflies. Just when the birding gets really slow in the breeding season, the dragonflies come out in force, giving me plenty of opportunities to try for better photos of these fast-moving and skittish insects.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male close crop (800x533)
Eastern Pondhawk, immature male only partially blue at this point

All of these photos were taken at Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in Oak Harbor, Ohio. During springtime, this area is a world-renowned hotspot for songbird migration, but in summer it’s virtually deserted. Or, I should say, there are very few people here, but there’s still an enormous amount of life happening here if you’re willing to look for it.

One recent day I spent some time on the Magee Marsh boardwalk with a couple of friends, just taking pictures of dragonflies — and mayflies (but more about them in a moment).

I’m fascinated by dragonflies — Odonata for the scientifically-minded — but I’m certainly no expert at identifying the various species. I have a couple of field guides and make my best guesses, but that’s about it. For example, the picture above I’ve labeled an immature Eastern Pondhawk. The females and immature males are a bright green, but at about a week of age, the males begin to turn blue, first on the abdomen and then on the thorax. The color change takes a couple of weeks, so this guy is perhaps two or three weeks old. Here’s a closer crop of this photo, just because I love looking at their intricate body structures.

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Closer crop of the immature Eastern Pondhawk male

And this next picture shows the difference between the completely green female (or immature male) and the immature male that is in transformation to blue. I don’t know how to determine if the one on the left is a female or young male, but it really doesn’t matter to me. All I know is that he/she is gorgeous!

Eastern Pondhawk - female on left and immature male on right (800x363)

And another one, taken just outside my office on an unbearably hot day:

Eastern Pondhawk female at BSBO (800x534)
Eastern Pondhawk, female or immature male

Oh, let’s not forget the mayflies. Being new to this area, I’d never witnessed a mayfly hatch before. I started hearing people mentioning how there are so many of them that they cover houses and pile up in rotting mounds of carcasses everywhere. I thought they were exaggerating until I saw it for myself. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos of them covering buildings, but if you want to see some examples, check out this Google image search. Ick, ick, ick.  Can you imagine having to walk through those piles, or having to clean them off your house?

There were days last month when I’d walk outside the office to my car, and come back inside with a dozen mayflies hanging on my shirt. That might sound creepy to some, but they’re harmless (they don’t even have any mouths in their adult form, so they can’t bite), and they’re pretty darn cool. They begin life as aquatic insects, and once they emerge as adults with wings, they only live about a day, just long enough to mate.

Mayflies belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which apparently comes from the Greek words ephemera meaning “short-lived” and ptera meaning “wing.” And I read on the Freshwater Blog that Mayflies are an important food source in parts of Africa, where they make protein patties out of them. Interesting, isn’t it?

Mayfly on tent at BSBO
Mayfly

This next picture was taken on the Magee Marsh boardwalk after most of the mayflies had died. If you look closely you can see all the dead mayflies piled on the boardwalk and hanging from the railings. It was really something to see.

Amy and Ryan on boardwalk with dead mayflies everywhere (800x533)
My friends Amy and Ryan on the mayfly-carcass-covered boardwalk
Mayfly in spiderweb (800x533)
Mayfly carcass in spiderweb

Although there is one insect that I met recently that left a much different memory than the mayflies. I had my first encounter with chiggers a few weeks ago, when I naively walked around in the long grass outside the office and woke up the next morning with dozens of swollen bites all over my body. I’ve been bitten by fleas and mosquitoes many times in my life, and I thought I knew what misery was. But those chiggers ravaged the most tender spots on my body, and I thought I was going to lose my mind for about two weeks until they finally stopped itching. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone!

In about two weeks I’ll mark the one year anniversary of my move to the flatlands of northwest Ohio. Time has really flown by this year. I’m learning a lot about the natural world as I experience the seasons in this new landscape. But I’m still learning things about myself as well. I’ve discovered that I’m braver and stronger than I ever thought I could be. I’ve discovered that I can still allow myself to love and be loved, to have my heart broken and be able to get up and put a smile on my face and try again. And I’m so proud of me. 🙂

 

 

April in NW Ohio

Life has been pretty busy for me lately, as evidenced by my lack of posts here on the blog. I’m sort of frustrated that I’m losing touch with some of my regular readers because I just don’t have time to keep up with anything outside of work anymore. But I’m really hoping to get back to writing more after the Biggest Week in American Birding isn’t absorbing all of my time. At BSBO we’re burning the candle at both ends these days, attending to all the details that make this festival so successful. It’s a lot of exhausting work, but the carrot at the end of the stick is the joyful ten days next month when our birding friends from across the country will gather here on the shores of Lake Erie to celebrate the spring migration. This is very satisfying work, and even when I’m drop-dead exhausted, I’m so thankful to be where I am, doing what I’m doing. 🙂

But what I wanted to write about now is the wonderful afternoon I just had. We had a very mild winter here in northwest Ohio, with only a couple snowfalls of about two inches at a time. But last night we got whopped with more than seven inches of heavy, wet April snow. I wasn’t liking it very much when I got caught driving home in the worst of it last night, but this morning everything was so beautiful. Here are a couple pictures from my backyard:

Seven inches of snow on patio April 9 2016 (800x533)

Snow in backyard April 9 2016 (800x533)

After my driveway was plowed at lunchtime, I decided to go run a couple errands. My intention was to be back home in less than an hour, so I didn’t take my camera (…cue dramatic music that tells you that was a BIG mistake…).

As I ran my errands I noticed how pretty the tree-lined streets were around this little town, and I took a few cell phone pictures. Then I impulsively decided to drive over to Spiegel Grove, the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to take a quick walk around their lovely grounds. It’s a pretty place very close to my home, and I’d like to visit there more often. And I knew my cell phone camera would be fine for taking some pictures of the huge snow-covered trees.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v1.jpg

As soon as I stepped out of my car I heard a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the evergreens beside the parking lot. I quickly counted at least a dozen of them, and stood there watching them for a few minutes. There were also a couple Eastern Phoebes in that spot. I was already kicking myself for leaving home with out my camera. But it seems that I get the best views of birds when I don’t have my camera, so I decided to just enjoy the birds and make mental images. (I’m sharing a couple bird pics from previous years, just so you can see which species I’m talking about.)

Eastern Phoebe
Eastern Phoebe
Golden-crowned Kinglet - best crop (800x541)
Golden-crowned Kinglet

I loved this tunnel of trees, even though it was a bit treacherous when huge clumps of heavy snow came crashing down near me several times.

Hayes Memorial - April snow v5.jpg

And halfway down this tunnel of trees, I looked off to my left and saw a female Cooper’s Hawk just sitting calmly in a tree, surveying the area below her. There were a couple phoebes flitting around here too, and I wondered if one of them would become her next meal. Later, when I returned along this same path, a male Cooper’s had joined her on the branch. I was happy that I was able to share those birds with a woman who happened along just about then with her dog. I pointed out the hawks and let her use my binoculars to get a good view of them. And then we had a nice chat about a variety of things, including small town living and the process of adjusting to life after divorce. She gave me some tips on places to go and things to do, which I appreciated. It was really nice to meet someone who could relate to some of the things I’ve gone through in the past couple of years.

I continued walking…

Hayes Memorial - April snow v3

…and just around a bend I saw a woodpecker fly into a tree beside me. I stopped and lifted my binoculars, expecting to see a Downy Woodpecker. But what I saw was even better because it’s a bird I’ve only found once before: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s not that uncommon really, but I think it’s a really cool bird. It’s easy to mistake for a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker if you don’t look closely enough, but it’s got that bright red throat patch that gives it away, and the yellowish tint to the belly area too (thus the name). I stood there smiling from ear to ear, wishing there’d been someone with me to share this bird with. But it’ll just have to remain “my” bird for now. And that’s okay. (Sorry I don’t have any good pictures of sapsuckers, but you can find lots of them on the Google-machine.)

Hayes Memorial - April snow v6
Looking skyward….

I took a short video as I walked through that tunnel of trees earlier. It’s a little jiggly while I’m walking at the beginning, but I wanted you to hear the crunching of the snow under my feet.

Isn’t that pretty? I wish all of you could have been there to experience this quiet moment in time.

The One Thing

Red-winged blackbird calling Everyone has it, right? That one thing that is your sign that spring has finally arrived. For some people it’s seeing the first bulbs poking up from the mulch in their gardens. Others might be more attuned to the day the sap starts to flow in the maple trees. For me, it’s the first day I hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds or Killdeer. And today was that day, so I hereby declare the end of winter. Finally. Yes, there’s still snow on the ground here in Michigan and we’ll most likely have to endure more of it before we’re through. But now that I’ve heard the calls of both of my avian harbingers of spring, I feel the weight of winter melting off my weary shoulders. Hallelujah!

Great Horned Owl in bucket 2015Today I went to Lake St. Clair Metropark because I knew I could find these birds there.  I walked the trails for a half hour, passing the marsh where the blackbirds were already trying to out-shout each other from the tops of the cattails. I visited the Great Horned Owl bucket and found one of the adults already sitting there, as expected. I went over to check out the lake and found it still frozen solid, its surface speckled with ice fishermen and their tents.

Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair
Ice fishermen on Lake St. Clair

So I decided to drive up to Port Huron, where I knew the river was ice-free. I wanted to see if I could find the King Eider that’s been there lately. I didn’t find it, and there wasn’t much other duck activity on the river today either. I spent a couple hours driving to various little parks and viewing areas along the shore, finding only scattered small groups of a half dozen species. There were Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Redheads, a few Scaup, and some Buffleheads. And the only ones that weren’t really distant were the Redheads, so they’re the only photos I didn’t have to crop a great deal. Aren’t these beautiful ducks? Just look at the golden eye on this male…and the water droplet on his back (you might have to click on the pic for the larger version).

Male Redheads on the St. Clair River
Male Redheads on the St. Clair River

Redheads are diving ducks, so they’re always entertaining to watch as they leap out of the water and dive below in search of tasty morsels.

Now you see me....
Now you see me….
...now  you don't!
…now you don’t!

 

 

 

 

 

 

But the most entertaining group of the day was this gathering of seven Common Goldeneye, five males and two females.

Common Goldeneye
They seem rather calm, don’t they? Well, don’t forget, it’s spring. And that means one thing to them: It’s time to find a mate. The mating display of this species is quite the spectacle, even for us humans. I made a video of it but something happened to that file, so I’ll just have to share some still photos.

The males display to the females by flipping their heads backward and forward repeatedly in a sort of “head dance,” as you’ll see in this series of pics:

Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Ah, he seems to have her attention with this first fancy move.
Now let's show her how tall I am....
Now let’s show her how tall I am….
...and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?
…and then the big finish! So baby, what do you think? Wanna date me?

Let’s hope his efforts were enough to keep her away from his competition. (Here’s a video on YouTube if you want to see them in action.)

Here are a couple views of the river at Port Huron, looking across toward Canada:

Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario
The sculpture is called "Sugar the Iron Horse"
The sculpture is called “Sugar the Iron Horse”

Even though I didn’t see lots of birds today, the ones I saw were special and interesting. And even if I hadn’t seen any of these birds, this still would have been a great day — exercise, fresh air, sunshine and–most importantly of all–melting snow!!

I hope you’re finding time to get outdoors too. Being outside is always a good thing, but right now, at the end of winter, it’s really and truly good for the soul.

So what’s your “one thing” that means Spring?

Foggy Day in the Park

I love fog. There are usually a few days each year, in the late winter or early spring, when we wake up to find the landscape around our house shrouded in mist. In a really good fog we can’t even see the road, and our property becomes a wooded island far from anywhere.

Trees in fog - banner styleI wrote about one of these a while back and showed you some of my photos, and now I want to share some new ones, taken just a few days ago. I’d predicted we’d get a foggy day soon, because we still had lots of snow on the ground and the temperatures were slowly inching up into the 40s and 50s. I’m no meteorologist, but I think that’s a pretty good recipe for fog. So when we had a foggy day last week I high-tailed it over to the park as soon as I could, knowing that the 500-acre lake would make for some interesting shots. I removed my 400mm birding lens and put my wide-angle lens on the camera for some landscape photos.

Turkey in the fogWithin the first 100 feet of the entrance road I spotted this turkey strolling along beside me. I grabbed my little point-and-shoot camera and got a couple shots off before he fled into the mist. Turkeys are very skittish; I’d think such large birds would be a bit braver. But maybe it’s because they’re hunted and they know humans are bad news.

Big tree in fog
I really like this one.

I walked out among the scattered trees in a big field, looking for some good ones to shoot. This park is one of my favorites, and I usually feel that I know it pretty well. But walking in the fog made it all feel new and different, like someplace far from home where something magical could happen. It almost wouldn’t have surprised me to see a unicorn walk out of that mist, that’s how other-worldly it felt.

Believe it or not, there's a 500-acre lake out there somewhere.
Believe it or not, there’s a 500-acre lake out there somewhere.

Did you know there are various types of fog? I didn’t either. According to the National Weather Service, there’s advection fog, radiation fog, upslope fog, ice fog, freezing fog, and evaporation fog. So I’m thinking our fog was the advection type, caused by warmer air moving over the cool snow on the ground and ice on the lake. (If you want to read more about these types of fog, here’s where I found that info.) The National Weather Service website ends their fog page with a warning about driving in fog, saying that it’s important not to use your high-beam headlights in fog because your visibility will be reduced even more. I did know that. (Jeopardy, here I come….)

Road to Nowhere
Road to Nowhere

My family had a very scary experience while driving in heavy fog on a vacation many years ago. We were on the freeway with my dad driving–he’s an excellent and safe driver, so we were going verry slowly and keeping plenty of distance between us and the other cars. But suddenly a pair of headlights came out of the fog headed toward us — another driver had somehow gotten disoriented and was driving on the wrong side of the freeway. I remember how our hearts jumped into our throats as we watched that car pass beside us, knowing that we’d narrowly escaped tragedy as the other car disappeared into the mist behind us. A foggy day is not a day for driving, that’s for sure!

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

~ Carl Sandburg

Bikers in the fog
Bikers in the fog

Nature Photo Journal

Just wanted to share a few photos from our nature walks this weekend. Winter hasn’t released its grip on us entirely yet, but things are getting better. And a bit of fresh air and exercise always helps improve my mood, giving me a boost of endorphins in my winter-addled brain.

We saw some ducks on the pond and watched a male Belted Kingfisher flying from perch to perch, watching for a chance to swoop down and grab a meal.

Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully.
Four species of ducks here, coexisting peacefully (at least at the moment).
Kingfishers are Eric's favorite bird, so it's always fun to find one of them.
Kingfishers are Eric’s favorite bird, so it’s always fun to find one of them.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin' in the pond.
Male and female Ring-necked Ducks, just chillin’ in the pond.

We walked along the river banks, enjoying the now free-flowing water. This part of the river is very curvy, so the current is fast. There are beautiful sycamore trees here, displaying their mottled gray and brown bark and their pointy seed pods.

Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore bark and seed pods. I loved the heart shaped section of bark.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Sycamore seed pods decorating the tree.
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!
Those ducks are too far away for a good shot!

I almost walked right past these leaf cookie cutouts in the snow — aren’t they interesting?

Leaves making cookie cutter shapes in snow as they melt (2) (800x556)
I’m guessing that the dark color of the leaves absorbs more of the sun’s heat, melting the snow below the leaf faster and letting it sink down.
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow
Oak leaves making cookie cutter shapes in the snow

I’m trying to remember to take wider landscape shots occasionally instead of always zooming in really close, so here are some views of the scenery.

Landscapes at Stony Creek in early spring (6) (800x600)

Clinton River -- no more ice!!
Clinton River — no more ice!!
Can you see the guy fishing and his black dog on the bank?
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.
Stony Creek lake, still about 75% ice-covered.

Back at home I went into the woods to see if there were any signs of growth under the snow. I found 2″ shoots of daffodils and 3″ skunk cabbages. And then I found this half of a seed pod or maybe a nut shell — I have no idea what it is. Can anyone help me with an ID on this?

What is this? It's about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).
What is this? It’s about an inch and a half long (this is a front and back view of the same half shell).

Oh, and I finally was able to trudge through the remaining snow in the yard (about 6 or 7 inches) to remove the red bows I’d tied on some fir trees back in December. Up until now, access to our yard has been blocked by 4-foot-high hills of snow that the plow guy had pushed off the driveway. But enough has melted in the past few days that I was able to get up there easily enough. It felt great to pull off those faded symbols of winter, sort of like saying, “Ok winter, off you go now. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”