“Scream By Tree”

This is a story of irony, hypocrisy, and maybe hilarity. You be the judge.

I spent last week in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of New York, indulging in a personal writing retreat. I’d chosen an isolated place where I would have privacy and quiet, planning to spend most days writing and walking in the woods.

My cabin at the top of a steep hill

I’m always a bit anxious before I arrive at a new vacation rental, not knowing if it’s going to live up to my hopes and expectations. But I found the place easily and my car managed to make it up the steep gravel driveway. Check. The cabin was cozy and had everything I needed. Check. So far so good.

Hammock. Check.

I enjoyed reading the magnetic poetry left behind by previous guests.

I circled a couple of my favorites. (Click to see it bigger)
Hmm, sounds like they had an interesting visit — scream by tree?!

After a quick exploration of the cabin, I walked up through the woods to the top of the hill to see the wind turbines. I’d been concerned about being so close to these monstrosities, but after I saw them I felt okay about it. And I couldn’t see them from the cabin, so they didn’t bother me too much. Although when I was outside I could hear a steady hum and occasional clicking sounds from them, so I know I could never live near one of those things. My sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) would cause me to fixate on the noise and it would make me crazy.

After I settled in, I got plenty of writing done and enjoyed taking breaks to photograph insects in the nearby woods and meadows. As to be expected, the cabin also had its share of insects and spiders inside. I’m used to seeing the occasional spider or beetle in my own house, and I always enjoy trying to identify them before releasing them outdoors or just letting them go about their business. A rustic cabin in the woods is a whole different experience though. I knew it would be a challenge for me to live up to my “do no harm” policy toward the larger numbers of six- and eight-legged critters.

I didn’t mind the numerous moths who found their way indoors, as they mostly ended up on lamp shades or in the window screens, and I know they pose no threat to me anyway. But on my last night there, I was sitting in bed reading when a large wolf spider ran across the sheet beside me and scared the bejeebers out of me. I jumped out of bed so fast I almost hit my head on the loft ceiling. I shook out all the bedding and shivered as I wondered where the heck it had gone. After a minute or so, I reluctantly got back in bed and picked up my book. Two minutes later I felt something on my head and reached up to find another spider in my hair. Out of bed again…not happy at all at this point.

I know, I know. I constantly write about how we shouldn’t fear insects and spiders, and we should leave them alone to live their lives if they aren’t hurting us. But as tolerant as I want to be, if a spider startles me by running across my bed or my head, that’s where I draw the line! I’m not saying I’d purposely kill a spider for this egregious violation of my personal space, but I take no responsibility for any accidental injuries they might sustain from being flung across the room when I panic.

Ha, it seems someone else had a similar experience here: “Why spider me”

At the end of my week, I’d had several sleepless nights in the cabin and was looking forward to returning home and getting caught up on my sleep. (Don’t judge me, but I was scared being alone in the woods and couldn’t sleep well. And there were two days of steady pouring rain and wind that made me worry about getting down off of that hill alive….) My drive home should have taken six hours, but it ended up being closer to eight because of weather-related detours and multiple stops for caffeine. The area I’d been staying in was impacted by tropical storm Fred, and on the day of my departure there was a state of emergency due to flooding in local communities. Travel was prohibited along the route I’d planned to take, so I changed my route to avoid the flooded areas.

I finally arrived home in the evening and greeted my happy cats, who then “helped” me unload my luggage. My plan was to quickly throw all the dirty laundry in the washer, get a quick shower, and fall into bed.

That’s not how we unpack, Sophie!

But as I walked into my kitchen, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the windows were covered with flies! There had to be a couple hundred of them — it was like a horror movie. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again.

I texted my friend who had been in the house that morning to take care of my cats. “Um, did you see any flies in my kitchen today?” “Yeah, there were four or five and I killed them.” Based on that information, I figured they had all emerged that afternoon from…someplace…in the house. But there was no rotting food or any obvious source, so I still don’t know where they came from. I suppose a fly could have laid eggs on a dead mouse in the walls or the attic. Gross. (I swear, I don’t live in a filthy house!)

I opened the windows and swatted about 80% of them out within the first half hour. That left me to deal with a few dozen of them. As I started slamming them against the windows, I admit I got great satisfaction in watching each lifeless body drop to the windowsill or floor. I’ve spent many happy hours watching other types of flies, but these nasty ones are a different story. If they’re the common greenbottle flies, as I suspect, they can lay up to 200 eggs per clutch, so it was important to get rid of them before they were able to lay more eggs.

Random sunset picture to contrast with the mental image of the flies. You’re welcome.

As I was killing them (and saying “sorry” to each one), I realized the hilarious irony of how I’d been looking forward to coming home to get away from the excessive numbers of insects and spiders in the cabin, only to walk into my own personal Hitchcock movie. I also wondered why my two lazy cats weren’t showing the slightest interest in helping me catch the flies. Useless felines.

Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. It’s so easy to tell people to respect insects, but I don’t deny that there are definitely some exceptions to that. I still believe we shouldn’t just reflexively kill any insect we see — without good reason. But I decided that 200 flies in my kitchen was a good reason to use any means necessary to get them out.

The next day I found a couple dozen more, and on the third day just two or three. I hope they’re gone now. But something really cool happened on the third day. I was sitting in my sunroom talking to my parents on the phone. I saw a lone straggler fly on the window. I also saw a little jumping spider on the wall. I’d been watching that jumping spider for a couple days, enjoying having him in there. (You’ll remember me writing about the cuteness of jumping spiders before.)

Anyway, it happened so fast I couldn’t believe it., but the spider ran over and grabbed the fly. The spider was no bigger than the fly, and yet he caught it easily. My parents laughed as I interrupted our conversation so I could use my phone camera to try to get photos of the capture. That didn’t work because the spider and fly were backlit by the bright outside light. So after I ended the phone call, I got my real camera and tried to get better pictures as the spider continued to dine on its bounty. I went outside to tape a piece of green construction paper behind them, then went back inside and got some decent photos.

I’m grateful to the spider and I say “good riddance” to the fly. Hosting this jumping spider in my house makes me feel somewhat redeemed for my unwarranted fears of the spiders in the cabin. I’m telling you all of this so you’ll understand that (most) spiders are awesome and you should be happy to have them in your house (unless they’re venomous, of course).

In the end, I suppose I understand and accept my hypocrisy as part of being a human in a complicated world. I’m doing my best to help other people get over their fear of insects by teaching about them here, but it’s clear I still have some work to do on my own fears. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so fire away in the comments!

Let’s Get You Aired Out!

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently. ~Lewis Carroll

Icicles on my sunroom…pretty…for a short time.

Today was the first in a welcome string of warm days that will help melt the massive amount of snow that has accumulated here over the past two weeks. In fact, the forecast predicts that our temperature will climb above freezing every day for the next two weeks. I could jump for joy!

Some people love snow. I’m not one of them. Sure, I can appreciate the beauty of a fresh snow and the purifying feeling of breathing cold winter air. But I can do that for one or two days and then I’m done for the year. Once the pristine white snow has transformed into dirty ice chunks, I’m so over it.

One of the prairies at Wildwood Metropark, under a cerulean February sky

But despite those feelings, in most winters I manage to get myself outside regularly for birding or walking in the woods. Not so much this year. I partly blame my new jigsaw puzzle obsession, but I’ve settled into a routine of keeping myself busy indoors and not even thinking about venturing outside. But that’s not good for my physical or mental health, so I’m very grateful for this warmup. Today I skipped out early on a Zoom meeting so I could get myself out into the sunshine for a much-needed walk. As an old friend told me once, “Let’s get you aired out!”

I headed a couple miles down the road to my nearest metropark, Wildwood Preserve. This popular Toledo park has many miles of hiking and biking trails. It can get crowded on nice days like today, so I headed into the woods where I knew the trails would still be snow-covered and that would discourage most walkers. And aside from an immortal 20-something who went fearlessly jogging past me in the uneven snow, there was hardly anyone out there. And I had a wonderful time. I walked slowly and stopped often to look for barred owls and pileated woodpeckers. Both of these species nest in this park, so there’s a decent chance of running into them if you spend enough time to listen and look.

I didn’t find either of them today, but I found evidence of the pileated woodpeckers. These freshly-excavated holes appear to be slightly squarish, one of the signatures of a pileated woodpecker. Just a short distance past that first tree, I found some older holes that were definitely made by this species.

Freshly-excavated woodpecker feeding holes
Older pileated woodpecker holes — note the distinctly rectangular shape

In case you’re not familiar with this bird, it’s the largest woodpecker we have in this part of the world, measuring about 16-19″ long. It’s always a treat to see them, or even to hear their distinctive calls echoing through the woods.

This photo is a good comparison of the size of a pileated woodpecker to the white-breasted nuthatch on the other side of the tree. (Taken in my yard in 2014)

Although the pileateds were elusive today, I watched this much smaller female red-bellied woodpecker foraging up and down a tree snag. She was thorough in her inspection of every branch before flying off to try another.

Female red-bellied woodpecker possibly listening to the cawing of some crows nearby

There’s one particular section of this woodland trail that I especially like. As I come around a bend in the path, there’s a nice memorial bench on the right, and a deep ravine on the left. I often sit there just to listen to the rhythms of the woods — branches squeaking as they rub up against each other, tufted titmice calling out ‘peter-peter-peter!,’ and the water gurgling through the ravine.

I do like how shadows are longer at noon in the winter.

Long shadows just after noon today, due to the low angle of the sun in winter.

I came upon this scene, which I imagined to be fluffy snow cushions on tree stump chairs–perhaps in preparation for a meeting of the Woodland Critter Council?

And then a slightly odder sight…

The aftermath of a Saturday night Blue Jay kegger?

And you know I can’t finish without mentioning my first insect sighting of the new year — winter crane flies were out and about too.

My guess is winter crane fly, perhaps genus Trichocera

I’m glad I was able to motivate myself to get outside to enjoy this day. Even though I say I don’t like winter or snow, if I just give it a chance, there’s always something out there to appreciate. If you’re like me, I encourage you to give winter a chance too! #GetOutside #FindingTheJoy

And before I go, I’ll share this video from our Toledo Naturalists’ Association program this week. In 2014 I spent a week birding in Panama, and it was such a great experience that I invited the tour company to do a program for us. I thought it would be a great way to escape the snowy Ohio winter and pretend we were in the warmth of Central America looking at beautiful birds. So we took a one-hour virtual trip to Panama. During the past year I’ve had to overcome my strong reluctance to appear on camera, but I’ve come to terms with it now and think I did just fine. I hope you enjoy it. (Just pretend you don’t notice my pandemic non-haircut, LOL.)

Wee Folk Wednesday

Faeries, come, take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame!

~William Butler Yeats, “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” 1894

In my last post I wrote that I regretted that I hadn’t continued my fairy photo project, so I headed to the woods today to remedy that.

The pumpkin fairy and the gnome are old friends, so when she found him napping with his sheep on a bed of moss, she stopped by for a visit. “What,” you say, “gnomes have sheep?!” Why yes, they certainly do. At least in my enchanted forest.

The violet fairy made her first visit to the woods today too. She rescued one of the errant sheep from this mossy mountain, and soon returned him to the gnome’s herd. I would assume he’ll be grateful…when he wakes from that long nap. (It’s strange that every time I come across that guy, he’s sleeping.)

Speaking of sheep that need rescuing…these two somehow got stuck on fungus mountain. Since the fairies were busy and the gnome was, well, you know…I helped them down.

It may seem silly for a grown woman to be playing with fairies in the woods, but this little project helps take me out of my head when it’s too “grown-up” in there. And it sure does entertain passersby in the woods (“What is that crazy lady doing with those sheep?”).

I hope this brought a smile to your face today. Happy Wee Folk Wednesday!

And the Trees Hugged Me Back

I went for a walk in the woods in the late morning last Wednesday. I knew it would be a long and stressful day as we endured planned protests to the certification of the electoral votes for our new president, and I was trying to do some self-care to keep my stress level in check. Every new day seems to push me to what feels like a new limit to my endurance, and I worry about the long-term health consequences of constant high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in my body. I really miss being able to go to the gym.

On this walk, I stopped often to look skyward and enjoy the feeling of being comforted by the trees “hugging” me. Maybe they’re repaying me for all the times I’ve hugged them?

I’ve been off my photography game lately, but on this day I decided to snap some cell phone photos of mosses and lichens. At this time of year they’re a welcome pop of color in the mostly-brown-and-gray woods. I don’t know much about these organisms and can’t identify most of them, but I love looking for them.

On this walk I found lots of large trees with moss socks going up several feet from the ground. I often stopped to pet them and enjoy the tactile aspect along with the verdant feast for the eyes.

This tree is wearing a moss sock
A wood fern, another nice green surprise in the winter woods. (Maybe dryopteris genus.)

As I drove home from my walk, I turned on the radio and heard the news of the domestic terrorists invading the US Capitol. I finished my drive in a state of shock, anxious to get home and see what was on the tv news. I remembered that I had ended my last gratitude post with a statement that now seemed like a dare: “Show us what you’ve got, 2021. We’re ready.” I have to take that back now…we were not ready. At. All.

I think this is the first time I’ve photographed this particular lichen. It appears to be one of the rosette lichens in the genus Physcia. It occurs to me that this might be the reason I’ve been craving mint chocolate chip ice cream…you see it too, right?

And here we have a lichen sitting on a soft bed of moss. The moss is a plant, but the lichen is not. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga, allowing the fungus to benefit from the photosynthesis ability of the alga, and thus retain a constant source of nourishment. (At least this is how I understand it at a very basic level.) Luckily for me, it’s not necessary to understand the science in order to enjoy them.

I need to get back on board with my fairy photo project soon. I used to carry little fairies and gnomes with me so I could pose them on big mushrooms or tucked into beds of lush moss. That project gave me a lot of pleasure, and it should be one more thing I continue to help keep my mind off of all the scary things that I have little or no control over. I hope you remember to take good care of yourselves too. I can highly recommend being hugged by trees.

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.

Large Flowered Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) (1024x682)
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.

White Trillium - Goll Woods (1024x768)
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:

Bleeding hearts v2 (1024x955)
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.)

marsh-view-at-sheldon-marsh-resized

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!

brown-creeper-at-stony-creek-w-sig-4-17-14
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.

trail-signs-and-virginia-creeper-at-sheldon-marsh-resized
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.

steyer-sign-collage

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.

spiderweb-big-one-in-sunlight-1-800x533

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.

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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.

Brown Thrasher (800x701)
A young Brown Thrasher

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

Cape May Warbler fall female v2 (800x629)
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.

Red-legged Grasshopper - I think (712x800)
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.

Turkey Vultures in the road (3) (800x533).jpg
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

Blue Dasher female (800x534)
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.

Eastern Pondhawk - immature male - close crop of thorax detail and back of head (800x622)
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. 🙂