Natural Art

All nature is but art unknown to thee.

~Alexander Pope

Earlier this week, I accompanied some friends on a stroll through one of my favorite local natural areas – Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County.  This area is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy and is one of their more popular sites. I love exploring this beautiful tract, especially in early spring when sections are carpeted with wildflowers like trout lilies and spring beauties. But, this time of year, a stroll through the bare forest allows you to notice and appreciate other details of the landscape – tree bark, fungi, textures, shapes, and, on a warm day like last Monday, the early stirrings of insects, amphibians, and other animal life.

mossy tree trunk

Vibrant green moss at the base of a tree trunk (click photos to enlarge)

I appreciate the winter woods for their openness and the ability to see the bones of the landscape – the trees, vines, and boulders that give character to a forest. The trails at Johnston Mill are well-marked and pass through a variety of habitats from bottomlands to beech bluffs to open meadows along a power line. My favorites were the new Aphid Alley Trail (not yet marked on the kiosk maps but available on their maps online) and the Beech Loop. They highlight beautiful American beech trees and some steep slopes along creeks with wonderful vistas.


A beautiful stream flowing through a beech forest is a trail highlight


Boundary lines between crustose lichens on a tree trunk

Beech trees often provide a perfect canvas for a variety of interesting lichens. These flattened colonies of symbiotic algae and fungi are known as crustose lichens. I learned a new word when looking for information on lichen competition online – corticolous. This refers to lichen communities that grow on tree bark (those on rocks are known as saxicolous). Melissa mentioned she had learned in a lichen course that the distinct lines that you can see between some colonies could mark sort of a DMZ between warring lichens and that lichens may use chemical warfare to guard their boundaries. My online search shows some evidence for this but it still seems a bit controversial. It is a bit mind-boggling that these slow-growing assemblages set up zones of defense to ward off intrusions by their neighbors.

lichen patches on tree trunk

Modern art or lichen competition?

Tree trunks rarely get their due outside of winter, and even then, few hikers probably pay them much attention. But I find them fascinating, especially when covered in moss and lichen or when sporting unusual growths like the numerous burls we spotted on a few maples.

gnarly maple trunk

A knotty Red Maple trunk adds modern sculpture to the forest

Burls are a bit mysterious in origin with common causes believed to be infection by bacteria, virus, fungi, and perhaps certain insects.

shagbark bark

Peeling plates of bark help to identify this tree as Shagbark Hickory

The peeling bark of American sycamore and shagbark hickories are another tree trunk treasure easily observed in the winter woods. Once again, the reasons for this phenomenon are not clear cut. Some trees may exfoliate (the term that describes shedding of bark) to rid the trunk of parasites, others to increase gas exchange or photosynthesis of bark tissue, but I’m mystified as to the ecological advantage of peeling plates of bark on a shagbark. Undoubtedly, it makes for good habitat for a host of associated organisms from insects to bats, but I’m not sure what the advantage is to this species of hardwood (I welcome your thoughts or references).

odd hollow tree trunk

An unusual hollow trunk beckons a closer look

Sycaore roots in crrek

The gnarly texture of the root mass of a blown over sycamore along the creek bank

japanese honeysucj=kle vines twisted

Entwined honeysuckle vines

Celtis bark

One of the most noticeable tree textures along the trail – the warty bark of a Hackberry

I have  hard time passing by the knobby bark of a hackberry without pausing to look closely, or rub my fingers across it. I took a few quick images of the layered bark bits and moved on. As often happens, when I was reviewing images and adding some sharpness (I usually magnify the image for this), I saw something I had missed earlier. Even with magnification, I was lucky to notice these ragged shapes hidden among the stacked hackberry bark pillars. After searching online I believe they are larvae of fireflies in the genus Pyractomena. Their distinctive head shape and the fact that they were out this time of year is pretty diagnostic. Larvae from this group are known to climb tree trunks to pupate in late winter or early spring and emerge as the first firefly adults of the season. They apparently hunt snails and other soft-bodied critters.

insects hiding in Celtis bark

A closer look reveals some hidden surprises

lacewing larva

A lacewing larva carries its texture on its back wherever it goes

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk 1?

We thought at first that these tiny fruiting bodies were from a slime mold, but experts are now suggesting otherwise…

During a brief pause, I glanced down and saw a line of tiny mushroom-like structures on a nearby tree trunk. Our first thought was slime mold fruiting bodies. My friend, Jerry, submitted some pictures to his local fungi expert who thinks it is probably a fungus, maybe Phleogena faginea. One common name I saw for this species is Fenugreek stalkball. When warmed, the fruiting bodies apparently smell like fenugreek (another new word for me), a curry-like powder derived from a plant of that name.

slime mold reproductive structures on tree trunk close up?

A local mushroom expert suspects these are the fruiting bodies of a fungus,

fungi on log

Patterns of fungi on a fallen log

slime mold?

That same log had a patch of what looked to me like a slime mold…but…

It’s not only upright, living tree trunks, that are adorned with interesting garb, but also fallen logs in various states of returning to the soil. One large log had a variety of mosses, lichens, fungi, and a mysterious orange blob that we thought might be a slime mold. It turns out to be a fungus in the genus, Phlebia (thanks, Van Cotter, for the fungi ID assistance). Once again, when I looked at the image on my laptop in higher magnification, my eye caught something I had missed in my quick field photo. Along the upper edge of the picture are some dark elongate “mini-bugs”. They look like springtails of some sort.

slime mold close up with springtails?

When I looked at the image on my computer, I saw some tiny dark-colored organisms along the edge – Springtails

Springtails are members of the Class Collembola and most are defined by an usual forked appendage called a furcula. The furcula is tucked up under their abdomen and acts like a spring to propel these tiny beasts many times their body length (not all Collembola can spring). These are abundant creatures and play an important role in decomposition and may also graze on molds and mildews. Many species are aquatic and some are active in the dead of winter where they aggregate on the surface of snow (snow fleas).

ceramic fungi (Xylobolus frustulatus))

The aptly named Ceramic Fungus looks like broken pottery

deer skull

An eight-point buck skull found near the trail

running cedar

Discovering a patch of Running Cedar always brings a smile

Spissistilus festinus - Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper ?

I believe this is a Three-cornered Alfalfa Hopper, Spissistilus festinus

Three-cornered alfalfa hopper

Characteristic shape of this hopper group can be seen from above

spring beauty

My first spring ephemerals of the season, a few Spring Beauties in bloom along the trail

We ended up spending a few hours hiking a little over 4 miles (a naturalists’ pace) and found several mysteries, natural sculptures, and other natural art to provide a memorable sensory experience on a warm winter walk.

Wherever I Go, I End Up At Pungo

Every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there…

~Christopher Alexander

On Day 3, my last day of this coastal adventure, I drove down Hwy 12 to Pea Island NWR. But, as I had feared, the predicted winds were also there, blasting 15-25 mph with sand piling up on the highway. It wasn’t looking good for exploring the refuge or photography. At the visitor center, white caps in the pond were a sure sign that bird life would be elsewhere. I did spend some time at the next pond watching some American white pelicans in their delicate feeding ballet, but they were far out on the water and the wind was shaking the car, so I reluctantly headed inland. I drove through Alligator River without much to see (waterfowl far out in the flooded fields and an occasional raptor) and then on to Mattamuskeet. The winds seemed to have every living thing laying low. I spent a few minutes walking around and observing some cormorants as they came in for a post-breakfast siesta, but I soon decided to head on towards “my” refuge, the Pungo Unit.

Cormorants on log

The only thing I photographed at Mattamuskeet that last morning was a group of double-crested cormorants getting out of the water onto a fallen tree (click photos to enlarge)

I drove through the refuge scouting for bear, otter, or beaver, but saw none. So, I settled into the corner of Marsh A where a small group of tundra swans was feeding alongside a few ducks (mainly Northern shovelers, mallards, and Northern pintails). The sandhill cranes out toward the middle of the marsh were the main attraction for the two other cars at the site, so I had my little corner all to myself. I pulled my car in at a slight angle (off the road enough to allow easy passing by other cars), got out the camera, and sat and watched and waited. When I first pulled up, the pintails flew off, and the swans swam slowly away, but then stopped when I stopped. This is where so many people make the mistake of getting out of their car which often causes any nearby ducks to fly, and may send the swans swimming even farther off. Your car is definitely your best blind, and patience is your ally.

pair of swans in late afternoon light

I apparently can’t get enough of the tundra swans in Marsh A

northenr shoveler drake

Northern shoveler drakes remind me of mallards dressed up for an evening out on the town

The longer I sat there, the closer the birds came, and the more other birds started to join them. The wind was still blowing but it became a photography assistant as birds were held in suspension as they flew in to join those on the water.

northern shoveler landing

A Northern shoveler drake with landing gear down

black duck in flight

Black ducks can be recognized in flight by the silvery patches under the wings

pintail flying over

A Northern pintail drake flies by checking out the marsh

pintails setting their wings to land

Northern pintails coming in for a landing

pintail landing

A Northern pintail setting down in the marsh

I was amazed when I heard the snow geese lift off the lake that I had spent the last two hours sitting in that spot watching birds come and go. But, the geese soon settled back down, so I continued my vigil. Then I heard the sounds of just a few snow geese overhead, and saw a small flock of 100+ flying south. Over the next 30 minutes, small groups of snow geese lifted off and headed out. It was earlier (about 3:30 p.m.) than my previous visits, and unlike before, a few hundred here and a few hundred there were flying off, instead of the massive flock all at once.

snow geese lifting off from lake

Snow geese lifting off but settling back down from an unknown disturbance

I finally decided it was time to head out toward the entrance for the evening show. As I pulled up to join a few other carloads of goose watchers, the snow geese were doing their thing, circling in large numbers and gradually settling into the field alongside the swans.

birds in front fields

The flock settling into the field late in the day

snow geese landing

Snow geese landing in late afternoon light

The light was perfect on the circling birds, causing them to blink their whiteness as they turned at different angles to the setting sun. The sounds of thousands of birds flying and feeding in the fields is somewhat mechanical, like being inside some huge factory with rumbling machinery. Then, a lull in the noise, followed by an explosion of wing beats as the snow geese lifted off in waves.

sno geese flying over field

Thousands of snow geese suddenly exploded into the sky

As I watched them circle, I saw a dark form flying far out over the field. This was what spooked them, an eagle! I snapped a few pictures, trying to get the eagle in the same field of view as the panicked snow geese, and then resumed watching the birds quickly return to the field to feed as the eagle disappeared. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at the images that I got a nice surprise…I’m pretty sure that potential goose predator was a golden eagle! Golden eagles are not common sights here in NC, but I have seen them several times in winter over the years here at Pungo, lured no doubt by the thousands of waterfowl on the refuge. This is a heavily cropped image, but all indications are it is a golden eagle, not an immature bald eagle. The lack of any whitish mottling under the wings and what looks like a golden neck sure seem diagnostic, but if any of my bird nerd friends have a different opinion, please let me know

eagle fly by

Then I saw the cause for concern – a lone eagle flying over the fields looking for an easy meal

As the sky turned orange I once again drove to the other side of the fields, where I sat, alone, watching silhouettes head back to the lake. Once again, the sights and sounds of Pungo filled me with awe and a sense of place that I seem to find in only a few other locations (Yellowstone being the other that I visit regularly). I know there are magical things to be found in so many natural areas throughout this land, but, for me, there are some special places that always evoke wildness, freedom, and peace. Familiarity is probably part of the reason for holding these places close to my heart. Pungo is such a place. No matter where I travel, I will always return to sit in wonder at the spectacle that is Pungo, and will feel the need to share and protect this land and the wild things that call it home.

Cruising the Coastal Plain

Never stop wandering into wonder.

~Suzy Kassem

Day two of my wanderings started at sunrise at Marsh A in the Pungo Unit, watching the swans’ world awaken. There were two other cars enjoying the start of the day as hundreds of swans started to stir.

Swans at sunrise

The colors of sunrise provide a gorgeous backdrop to the stately shapes of swans (click photos to enlarge)

Swans landing at sunrise

A staircase of swans coming in for a landing.

When the orange backdrop faded to white light, I drove down the road hoping to see, well, anything really. I did find some birds and lots of signs of critters (deer tracks, beaver-chewed logs, etc.). I headed back toward Marsh A and found the seven sandhill cranes preening in the middle of the swan flock, a bit closer to the road than the day before. They soon started walking around and then suddenly took flight, headed to the same field of corn stubble I had seen them in last week.

Sandhill cranes

The sandhill cranes have been a big draw for visitors to the refuge this winter.

Sandhill cranes in flight

The cranes (6 of the 7 in this photo) heading out to feed in a nearby field. One bird had its legs oddly tucked as it flew.

As I sat in my car enjoying the scene I saw a man trotting down the road toward me, camera in hand. He stopped, pointed his lens toward the canal and fired a couple of shots, then resumed heading my way. I soon saw the object of his obsession, a beaver swimming in the roadside canal. I got out and fired off a few myself as the beaver swam by, probably heading to the chewed trunks I had seen earlier.


A beaver swims purposefully up a roadside canal.

A cold wind had most of the songbirds puffed up, hunkered down, or trying to find a sunny spot to stay warm.

Northern mockingbird

A Northern mockingbird is fluffed up in the cold.

red-bellied woodpecker male

This male red-bellied woodpecker posed nicely in the morning light.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah sparrows tend to stick close to the ground and are found foraging along roadsides and the shorelines of canals at Pungo.

I saw a stopped car down the road with people out looking at the canal. Based on the location, I guessed otter. As I headed that way, they got back in their car and drove off leaving me thinking whatever critter it was had given them the slip. But as I got to the spot, I saw a ripple in the canal where something dove underwater. In a few seconds, up came an otter and then, just as quickly, it disappeared. I got out and waited. There were three otter! But they were being skittish and moving quickly. Finally, one came out on the bank opposite me and started munching on something (it looked like a fish). The otter made quick work of it and was back in the water.

otter eating crayfish

One of three river otters I saw in D-canal.

After a few minutes of hide and seek, two otters came up and one was loudly crunching its catch. This happened a few more times in that same spot and after carefully looking at the images I could see this hungry fellow was catching large crayfish.

river otters in D-canal

One otter caught and crunched three crayfish while I was watching.

After spending several minutes with these furry dynamos, they went underwater just across the canal from me and vanished. I looked up and down the canal and waited, but they did not reappear. Even though one had hidden under some overhanging vegetation at one point, I don’t think that was the case this time. I can only guess there is a hole in the bank that is their refuge once they have had their fill. So, I decided to head out and wander to my other destinations for the day – Mattamuskeet and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges. Driving into Wildlife Drive at Mattamuskeet, I stopped at the usual spot near the entrance and watched a stoic great blue heron surveying its world.

great blue heron at Mattamuskeet

A great blue heron looking rather dapper in its feather finery.

heron catching minnow

The heron made a quick move and nabbed a tiny minnow snack.

After catching one small minnow, the heron flew off down the canal with dreams of bigger fish. There were the usual hundreds of ducks, Canada geese, and swans in the marsh along the drive, but the light is usually too harsh for very good images, so I drove on to the end of the dirt road. There is a small loop trail at the end that crosses a canal and leads to a large marsh. A few ducks were scattered in the marsh and several songbirds were moving around the thick brush along the trail.

white-throated sparrow eating privet berry

A white-throated sparrow helping to spread invasive privet by munching on one of the fruits.

Things were kind of slow, no doubt in part due to the blustery conditions. On my way out, I spotted an anhinga drying its wings on the bank. It was shivering in the cold and any time a cloud passed, it pulled its wing in against its body, then stretched them back out when the sun returned. Though not common in this part of the state, I often find these ‘snake birds” at Mattamuskeet in the winter. I think this one was wishing it was in Florida.

anhinga drying wings

A shivering anhinga drying its wings in the sun.

From Mattamuskeet, it is about an hour drive to Alligator River NWR along Hwy 264. You pass through some of the most desolate (but hauntingly beautiful) landscapes in our state. Once on the refuge, I spotted groups of waterfowl (mainly mallards, pintails, and swans), one bald eagle, and a few other raptors, but all were pretty far out, so I just observed sans camera in the rapidly fading light. As I headed out toward the Outer Banks for my night’s lodging (mainly so I could dine at Tortugas Lie restaurant – I highly recommend it), the sun dipped below the bank of clouds, setting the landscape to the east on fire with red light, and painting the western sky with bold swaths of orange. Another good day of wandering.

sunset glow on trees

A setting sun created a glow on the pocosin vegetation.

sunset at ALRNWR

A beautiful sunset at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

First in Flight

Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

~Frida Kahlo

I think I can answer that after spending an afternoon watching my favorite winter resident, the tundra swans, at the Pungo Unit this past weekend. It turns out, if you are one of North America’s largest waterfowl (weighing in at 18-20 pounds), you need your feet in order to get airborne. I arrived late morning when things tend to be a bit slow in terms of wildlife, spent some time chatting with three groups of friends down for the holiday weekend, and then settled in for some wildlife watching at my favorite impoundment (Marsh A). Cloudy skies soon gave way to bright blue and sunny conditions, and the several hundred swans at Marsh A were doing what they do best – preening, some feeding, squabbling with nearby groups, and filing the air with their peaceful calls. As the afternoon wore on, more and more swans started taking flight, headed out to nearby fields for their last meal of the day before retiring back to the safety of the water. As they did so, another sound echoed across the water – the slapping of their huge webbed feet and splashes as they run across the water flapping their nearly 6-foot wingspan to gain lift. Their approach to the runway is usually preceded by head-bobbing and calls, slow at first, and then more intense. I wonder if this is a signal to their family (they tend to stay together as family units on the wintering grounds) that we are about to leave? Maybe it also serves as a warning to birds along the potential runway to look out, ’cause we are headed your way. They almost always take off into the wind which helps give their huge wings a needed boost. I spent a couple of hours sitting with these magnificent birds, watching, listening, and admiring these long-distance travelers. I also practiced swinging the big lens along my window bean bag as the swans slapped the water to take off. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.

Juvenile tundra swan taking off

Juvenile tundra swan running across the water to take flight (click photos to enlarge)

Pair of swans taking off

A pair of adult swans (all white, no grayish head and neck) about to be airborne

Pair of juvenile swans taking off

It must be tough being third and fourth in the take-off line with all that muddy water being kicked up in your face by your parents

Swan running to take off

It can be tough to isolate one bird as it takes off with so many on the water

lift off

Swans typically run across the water surface 50 to 100 feet before lifting off

swan flapping wings

The late afternoon light filled the marsh and caused the swans to almost glow with elegance

As was the case last week, I heard the snow geese lift off the lake (you can’t see the lake from this location) at about 4:30 p.m. I soon saw a huge flock headed south, presumably to the fields near the front entrance to the refuge. So, a few more minutes with the swans, and then I headed out.

snow geese landing

By the time i got to the front fields, most of the snow geese were already on the ground, mixing in with a large flock of swans

Snow geese landing with swans in field

A jet flew over, startling the snow geese, and causing them to blast off in a whir of black and white

Snow geese coming into a field

The energy balance of these birds baffles me, as they tend to circle several times after each blast off before returning to the ground to feed

Swans at sunset

As the sun set, I moved to the far side of the field to look for bears and to enjoy the sight of thousands of birds silhouetted against the orange sky, headed back to the lake

This was day one of a three day wandering among wildlife refuges along our coast. More on some other sights and sounds in the next post.




Retirement is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of the open highway.

~Author unknown

I mentioned in my last post that this retirement thing is starting to feel real. To confirm it once and for all,  I decided to make a trip to the coast this past week. The weather looked good, the crowds should be less, I had no real itinerary, and had the camera gear loaded in the truck, so off I went. I ended up hitting four wildlife refuges over a two day period – Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Alligator River, and Pea Island.

Ring-necked duck

This lone Ring-necked Duck drake was swimming in a canal at Pocosin Lakes and was my first wildlife encounter for the trip. Often called Ringbills by hunters, these ducks can be recognized even at some distance due to the white triangle coming up from the waters’s surface in front of the wing (click photos to enlarge).

Tundra swans in flight

My first stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake. There seems to be a little less water in it this year, but it was still full of tundra swans and…


Seven Sandhill Cranes were on the far side of Marsh A. This is the largest number to overwinter here in recent years.

Tundra swan preening

I love spending time with the swans, watching them preen and have “group discussions” over who owns what patch of water.

Tundra swan wing flap

The start of an elegant wing flap where a swan stands erect, and flaps its magnificent wings a couple of times before settling back down in the water.

Tundra swan wing flap closer view

I can’t help but think that if angels really have wings, they must look like these.

After lunch, I drove over to Mattamuskeet to see what I could find. There were the usual hundreds of ducks on the impoundment, but not much else. I did find a group of tail-bobbing Palm Warblers and more Eastern Phoebes than I think I ever seen.

Palm warbler

Palm warblers were flitting in and out of the shrub thicket along Wildlife Drive.

Great blue heron crop

A Great Blue Heron serving as a backdrop for the dancing light of ripple reflections from the canal.

With only a couple of hours of daylight remaining, I decided to head towards Alligator River NWR and made the snap decision to spend the night on the Outer Banks. I didn’t take any images at Alligator River that afternoon, but did see good numbers of waterfowl and a couple of cruising Bald Eagles.

The next morning was windy and cold, typical coastal winter weather. Workers were out with their never-ending task of keeping the dunes and ocean off of Hwy 12. Pea Island had lots of birds and more variety than I had seen elsewhere, but the wind was brutal. I did stop and admire a cluster of American Avocets and some American White pelicans looking for breakfast. They were pretty far out, but I enjoyed watching their breakfast ballet as they swim and feed in unison.

White pelicans at Pea Island

An American White pelican joins the breakfast club as they swim together, dipping their bills into the water to capture corralled fish.

The wind helped me decide to head inland so I decided to head back through Alligator River and finish the day at Pungo. Within a few minutes, I had my first bear of the trip.

Black bear ARNWR

A large bear lying in a field at Alligator River NWR, surveying its domain.

Red-tailed hawk ARNWR

A Red-tailed Hawk gives me the eye for interrupting its morning food search, so I moved on, letting it tend to its business.

I arrived at the Pungo Unit in time to eat lunch while watching the swans at Marsh A (I really never tire of spending time with the swans). The cranes were nowhere to be seen, but I did hear the Snow Geese lift off the lake once and then settle back down. One thing that surprised me was the number of people on the refuge considering it was a weekday. At one point I had two groups of what I assume were photography club folks (lots of telephoto lenses and no spotting scopes) totaling 13 car loads at Marsh A. So, I headed over to North Lake (aka Bear Road) and walked down to the far end where this year’s corn crop is planted. While there was obvious signs of bears feeding on the corn, there certainly is not as much scat as I am used to seeing here. I have to think the increase in bear hunting is having an impact on this population. Even though there is no hunting on the refuge, this hot spot for bears is only a half-mile or so from private lands where bears can be taken. I walked back through the woods and noticed a large number of trees that came down in the storms this past year. The good news is that it has given the bears a lot of new areas to play and climb as evidenced by all the claw marks on the leaning trunks. I looked for “our winter rattlesnake” in the usual hollow tree, but saw no sign of it this year.  As I walked back to the car, I did see one bear at the edge of the woods across the field. But the best part of the trip was yet to come…

white-tailed deer

I saw a few White-tailed Deer out in the afternoon, browsing along the road edges.

Late in the day, I was out of the car watching some sparrows in the brush when I heard the Snow Geese lift off. I was near the road to the old banding site and was in a good position to see the huge flock fly south, headed out for their last meal of the day. Hoping that they would stay on the refuge, I headed toward the fields near the maintenance area. When I pulled up, I could see a few hundred swans in a wheat field, but a huge flock of geese in the adjacent corn stubble. As I was getting the camera out, a military jet flew over kicking up the flock. They circled for a few minutes and finally settled back down.

snow geese landing in field

Snow geese landing in a field late in the day.

Snow geese take off afer jet flyby

There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of a flock of Snow Geese lifting off and flying around you.

Snow geese in flight closer view

As the sun caressed the horizon, the golden light was reflected on the thousands of wings beating the air.

The geese jumped up one more time as the late golden light flowed over the field. Only one other car shared this experience with me. We sat along the edge of the road, watching and listening to the magic of thousands of birds as the sun settled and the almost full moon became visible through the developing haze.

Snow geese and moon 1

Small groups of swans and geese dotted the sky so I tried to capture them flying across the moon.

With daylight fading, I was surprised to hear and then see another huge group of Snow Geese drifting down from the sky. As is their usual pattern, they circled the field several times before settling in with the rest of the flock. I am guessing there were 25,000 or more in the field at this point. I stood by the road, listening to their incessant sounds, thankful to be in one of my favorite places doing what I love to do. Wandering is apparently good for the soul. I look forward to more of it.

last flock of evening

Another huge flock of Snow Geese circled the field before landing.

Snow geese and moon 2

A great ending to my trip…birds flying across the Wolf Moon.



It Must Be Real

Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.

~Fred Rogers

I guess it is really true…I am retired (again). I haven’t had much time to think about it until the last few days what with all the holiday goings-on with family and travel. I have made a long list of chores that need attention, but I also have that precious thing called time, my time. So, naturally, I managed to spend some of it (in spite of the so-so weather last week) testing out my new camera, my first full-frame DSLR. I managed to spend a few hours over a couple of days just sitting and watching birds come to our feeder on the deck. And then a short trip over to B. Everett Jordan Dam in the hopes of seeing some eagles. Here are the results – nothing all that dramatic, but it sure does feel good to spend time watching wildlife and not worrying about that list of chores (I will get to those “tomorrow”).


White-breasted Nuthatch males have a black crown, females are more grayish. Note the extra long rear toe claw which is useful for clinging to tree trunks as they forage (click photos to enlarge).


Hermit Thrush breed in northern states and in the high mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. They occur in the Piedmont from about mid-October through April.


One of my favorite winter feeder birds, the energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet,


Kinglets have a lot of personality and are fun to watch as they flit about.


They can be a challenge to photograph as they are always on the move, but the new camera does a great job in capturing motion.


The most common woodpecker at our feeders is the diminutive Downy Woodpecker.


It isn’t always easy to tell why Red-bellied Woodpeckers are so named, but you can actually see the color in this pose as it jumps off the branch toward the feeder.


A Great Blue Heron takes off as a fisherman walks by at B. Everett Jordan Dam.


The Double-crested Cormorants were catching a lot more fish below the dam than the human fishers.


Captured fish were quickly added to the menu.


Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong – the bird [water ouzel], ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal.

~John Muir

I want to share one more highlight from our Colorado trip this past October. The trip was filled with beautiful places, great hikes, amazing campsites, and surprises at almost every turn. But this hike, this place, and this encounter with a magical bird, stands out for me – and so, I give you an ode to the ouzel (water ouzel, that is).


The view from our campsite on a calm evening after a very windy previous night along East Inlet (click photos to enlarge)

After a few days on the east side of the park, we headed toward Grand Lake and a short backpack recommended by a ranger. We hiked in on the East Inlet Trail a little over 1.5 miles to a wonderful tree-covered site perched on a slight rise above the river and surrounding marshland. There was only one problem…the wind was howling a steady 25+ mph and was predicted to remain that way through the next morning. The young conifers were swaying noisily above the tent site, giving us pause about pitching our tent. We looked around and saw a flattened site down in the marsh where someone had obviously pitched a tent. We discussed the pros and cons of camping a little distance from the site marker, when a tree came crashing down nearby. That settled it, we were not going to sleep under the trees that night, and we would just have to explain ourselves if questioned. After setting up our camp, we were sitting looking at the incredible view when Melissa heard the bubbling call of an American Dipper, one of our favorite Western birds. Soon, the little dynamo flew closer and started hunting. Their normal food is aquatic insects, but this guy soon came up with a small fish, then another, and another! We had never seen one catch fish in all our years of watching dippers in Yellowstone, so this was something I really wanted to photograph. Only problem was I had left my telephoto in the car since we were backpacking. So, the next morning I decided to hike back out and retrieve my camera gear while Melissa explored farther up the trail. It was definitely worth it (after waiting a few hours for the dipper’s hoped-for return).


The next morning, I hiked out for my camera and telephoto lens, hoping to capture some images of the dipper. After waiting and watching a couple of hours, the dipper returned.


Dippers frequently stick their heads underwater, looking for prey.


Dippers have tiny white feathers on their eyelids, which flash a brilliant white when they blink. This may serve as a visual signal and territorial display to other nearby dippers. The persistent dipping behavior may be another way of communicating to other dippers in an environment so noisy that the usual songs may not be sufficient.

Dippers are the only truly aquatic songbird. At first glance to an easterner, they look like a squat, truncated gray catbird. But their habits and habitat quickly distinguish them from any familiar Eastern birds. They are almost always found in the company of fast-flowing waters where they forage by plunging into the rapids and literally swim underwater in search of prey. Their eyes are able to adapt quickly to vision both above and under the water due to highly developed iris muscles. They also have a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capabilities in their blood, and a dense covering of feathers, all of which give them an advantage in their harsh environment.


Another hunting technique is to swim in swift water, head down, searching for food.


The dipper managed to catch several fish while I tried to photograph this feat, but it always swam away from me and swallowed its finny meal far across the river.


Finally, the dipper came up on a rock not far away and beat the fish a few times before gulping it down.


Between bouts of fishing, the dipper took long breaks to preen…


…and stretch…


…and preen some more. This is an essential behavior for all birds, but especially one that spends its days diving in ice cold mountain streams.

After spending several hours watching and photographing one bird, another dipper flew in and this made for a frenetic feeding time with both Melissa and I trying to anticipate which was bird was going to catch something and where they would be when it happened. There was some squabbling but they both seemed intent on catching the seemingly endless supply of fish, so they shared the riffle area adjacent to our tent until late in the day.


At long last, a dipper caught a fish and flew toward me, pausing on a rock in perfect view.

We lost count of how many fish these two captured, but they were quite efficient (and very fast swimmers when pursuing their prey). If anyone can identify the species of fish (I assume these are fingerling trout of some sort), I would greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.


Then, it flew even closer before swallowing the final meal of the evening.

The light was fading fast but the birds had provided what I had hoped for, some great views of a species that is incredibly adapted to its unique habitat of rushing waters and boulders (and a few decent pics). As darkness fell, both birds flew off downstream beyond our view. But the next morning they had a special treat for us. As the light started pouring over the marsh, we heard scratching on our tent. Melissa looked up and there was a pair of feet – bird’s feet, struggling to get a grip on the sloping top of our tent. We looked out and there was a dipper on a boulder along the shore….and there was still one on our tent! Before jumping off, the first bird deposited its calling card! Then the next dipper flew up, scratching on the surface and leaving a “gift” for us as well. The other dipper returned and they both danced around before leaving us for good. Our tent is a gray dome, which I suppose looks like a big boulder alongside the river. Were they communicating with each other on the biggest “rock” on the shoreline? Or telling us they wanted to hunt for food some more and we should leave (or maybe get ready to take more photos)? Whatever the meaning, it was magical (and a fitting and funny way to end our stay).


A  great way to wake up in the wilderness – with dippers dancing on your tent.

The connection with these two dippers was transformative. It is exactly this type of experience I seek and want to share with others – to witness wild creatures in their element, living their wild lives, but granting us moments of oneness, of peace with wild things. I will end this tribute to my favorite Western bird with the next lines from the John Muir quote that started this post…And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as through a window look into Nature’s warm heart.


A dipper admiring its reflection and rightly so…these are amazing birds living in an incredible place.





The mountains are fountains, not only of rivers, but of men. Therefore, we are all, in some sense, mountaineers, and going to the mountains is going home.

~John Muir

Back in October, Melissa and I spent a glorious ten days traveling throughout the grand state of Colorado. We didn’t have much of a plan, other than to start in Rocky Mountain National Park, and then see what else we could discover as we wandered the state. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to post something on it, but these have been busy times. One excuse was I was trying to wrap up some things before I re-retired from the NC Botanical Garden (yes, it is now official, I have worked my last day, although, to be fair, I have had the best jobs in the state over my 36+ years). I will miss the people and the place, but, it is time to see more of the wild world and I look forward to more travels, more adventures, and many more posts. Thank you for your patience.

Below is a quick pictorial summary of some of the highlights of our Colorado trip.


We lucked out and nabbed the best site in the Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park (click photos to enlarge)


Buck mule deer next to our car one morning


Bear Lake


Nymph Lake


Dream Lake


A small lake along the trail


A great view for our lunch break


The trail above what is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System, the Alpine Visitor Center, in Rocky Mountain National Park


Bull elk watching his harem


A coyote passing through got the elk’s attention


Spectacular views along the Tundra Communities Interpretive Trail


We saw a couple of pika at the end of the trail, dashing among the rock piles as they gathered grasses for winter


Our amazing campsite along East Inlet Trail (more on this spot in the next post)


Colorado National Monument was like another world, and just a half-day drive from Rocky Mountain National Park


We saw several Desert Bighorn Sheep along the road


Devil’s Kitchen Trail


A stunning Bush Katydid, Insara sp.


The trail just below the visitor center at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


The Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


Our beautiful campsite in Kebler Pass, near Crested Butte, CO


The view at sunrise from our campsite


The gold of an aspen forest in October


I have never seen aspen trees as big as these – it is humbling to walk through a grove of these beautiful trees this time of year


Artsy take on the aspens


Orange and yellow of aspens in peak color


The strange juxtaposition of dunes and mountains at Great Sand Dunes National Park


Melissa atop the highest dune on a very windy afternoon


Early morning at Garden of the Gods


A view of distant Pike’s Peak through a rock window at the Siamese Twin formation at Garden of the Gods

Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday. Melissa and I hope to see you out somewhere in the wilds soon.



Another Caterpillar Season

Look closely at nature. Every species is a masterpiece, exquisitely adapted to the particular environment in which it has survived. Who are we to destroy or even diminish biodiversity?

~E.O. Wilson

Yes, it is finally crawling to a close, another season of caterpillar searching, wrangling, and releasing. This one a bit less productive than some perhaps, but rewarding nonetheless. After a couple of caterpillar classes at the Museum and Botanical Garden, we ended with a bang at the Museum’s BugFest event last weekend. It was the usual phenomenal turnout with an estimated 25,000+ attendees. I am never sure how many folks we actually see at out caterpillar booth, but it was a steady stream of curious onlookers for a full 8 hours.

It was so busy this year, that I didn’t take the time to photograph some of our herd of larvae (around 50 different species). As usual, some of the best finds, like the Spun Glass Slug Moth caterpillar mentioned in an earlier post, pupated right before the big event.

spun glass slug close up head on

This strange beauty never made it to BugFest, preferring to pupate about a week before the big event (click photos to enlarge)

We start searching a week or so ahead of BugFest, and we always lose some of our herd  to the many hazards that caterpillars face –  a few larvae erupted with parasitoid wasps or flies, and some we discovered as they were being used as the larval lunch special of the day for some of the many predators out there. With as many hazards as they face, it is sometime amazing we find any caterpillars at all.

Stink bug eating snowberry clearwing larva

While searching for clearwing moth larvae on coral honeysuckle, I came across this scene – a Florida Predatory Stinkbug with its prey

But, butterflies and moths are prolific little critters, and enough survive to keep it all going. I enjoyed watching some egg-laying behavior of several species in the week leading up to our caterpillar classes, including a snowberry clearwing (aka bumblebee moth) laying her eggs on a honeysuckle vine. I collected one egg and photographed the tiny newly hatched larva five days later.

first instar snowerry clearwing

A newly hatched Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar

The show-stoppers this year were two Imperial Moth larvae, one brown in color, the other green. Melissa found both, the brown one when it was a second instar about two weeks before BugFest. She found the green giant the day before, and I wished I could share the looks on the faces of people as they walked along the tables and first laid eyes on that behemoth.

Imperial moth larva eating its shed skin

Imperial moth larva recycling its shed skin

The rest of the critters included a wide range of caterpillars found throughout our region. As I mentioned, I took only a few minutes to quickly photograph some of the larvae before the crowds started arriving and asking questions. Here are a few more of my favorites…

Smartweed caterpillar

The beautiful colors of a Smartweed Caterpillar

blinded sphinx

Early instar of a Blinded Sphinx (we think)

hog sphinx

A Hog Sphinx on wild grape

Though the Imperial Moth larva were crowd favorites, my choice for caterpillar of the day was the weird and wonderful Curve-lined Owlet. These bizarre-looking caterpillars feed on greenbrier and mimic the brown, curled edges of dying leaves (and perhaps the vine tendrils). They often gently wave back and forth, looking like a dead leaving moving in a breeze. When I pointed it out to people, most were stunned that it was a caterpillar, so their camouflage seems to be quite effective.

curved-line owlet

Curve-lined owlet, my choice for caterpillar of the day

The aftermath of all this larval love involves releasing the stars of the show onto their host plants from whence they came. A few that pupated will be housed in proper conditions until they emerge sometime next year, and then they will be released into favorable habitat with the hopes they will create more of their kind. Meanwhile, I may let the macro lens rest for a bit, and see if I can find something a little bigger to ponder while I wander.

Moth Jets

If you examine a butterfly according to the laws of aerodynamics, it shouldn’t be able to fly. But the butterfly doesn’t know that, so it flies.

~Howard Schultz

I’m not sure anyone could use that quote when describing the sphinx moths. They certainly look like they were made to fly and I have always been intrigued by their streamlined shapes. Last year, I managed to photograph the green beauty known as a Pandorus Sphinx, Eumorpha pandorus. It had come to a light along our breezeway at work.

Pandorus sphinx moth

Pandorus Sphinx Moth (click photos to enlarge)

The unique wing shape, colors, and pattern are very eye-catching and make this large moth look as though someone designed it for both fashion and night-time flight.

Last week we had a chance encounter (while grilling after dark) with another of the fighter jets of the moth world. This time it was the stunning Tersa Sphinx, Xylophanes tersa. The genus name combines the Greek words xylon meaning “wood” and phanes meaning “to appear” or “appear to be.” Indeed, the wings and body of this moth look like exquisite wood veneer.

Tersa sphinx

Tersa Sphinx

The larvae feed on weeds in your yard such as Madder, Poor Joe, and Virginia Buttonweed. I found one last year in our yard on Diodia teres (Poor Joe) and the caterpillar is also quite appealing to the eye.

Tersa sphinx larva

Tersa Sphinx caterpillar

I still have a few of these moth jets I want to see (the Abbott’s, Virginia Creeper, Hydrangea, and Azalea Sphinx’s to name a few), so I’ll keep looking around lights and setting out my moth sheets every summer. I suppose my bucket list actually is a bit different than most…