Discovering Diversity

Bringing nature into the classroom can kindle a fascination and passion for the diversity of life on earth and can motivate a sense of responsibility to safeguard it.

~David Attenborough

We are finishing up summer camps at work and the adult group tours are starting to ramp up. In a few weeks, our school field trips will begin. While I have always believed in the value of bringing the outdoors indoors for observation, I prefer taking the student outside the classroom to see the diversity of life that surrounds us, no matter where we live. There is so much happening in the Garden right now as we begin to wind down the summer season – fall wildflowers staring to bloom, butterflies and other pollinators abound, seeds and fruit are becoming more noticeable, and visitors seem anxious to stroll our trails and take it all in (especially after all the rains we have had). After work yesterday, I decided to take a stroll through this native plant wonderland before heading home, camera in hand, to see what I could see. There were plenty of things I did not photograph – the stunning stand of cardinal flower that is concentrating hummingbirds along our Piedmont trail; the snapping turtle awkwardly grazing on lizard’s tail leaves in our vernal pool surrounded by hundreds of gray treefrog tadpoles; or the flashes of yellow as goldfinches fly up from their dinner on the seed heads of yellow composites and purple coneflowers. But I did stop to observe and digitally capture a few things that caught my eye, and called me and my macro lens over for a closer look. The diversity of life in this Garden is amazing (and is something we can all do on our own property, at least in some small way, if we plant a variety of native plants).

Pandorus sphinx moth

A beautiful Pandorus Sphinx moth resting on a building wall (click photos to enlarge)

question mark butterfly

Right next to the moth was a Question Mark butterfly on a chair arm (see the mark on the underside of the wing for which it is named?)

Few-flowered milkweed seed pod

A seed pod of a Few-flowered Milkweed releasing its treasure

Hummingbird clearwing moth at garden phlox

Hummingbird Clearwing moth feeding at Garden Phlox

Pine lily

Pine lily (Lilium catesbaei) in our carnivorous plant collection

Green lynx spider malegg

A male Green Lynx spider

Green lynx spider with wasp prey

A female Green Lynx with a large wasp as dinner

Take a stroll and discover some of the diversity outside your own door. It will be worth it!

Our Yellowstone

In such surroundings – occasional as our visits may be – we can achieve that kind of physical and spiritual renewal that comes alone from the wonder of the natural world.

~Laurence Rockefeller

To celebrate our wedding, Melissa and I did something we have never done – went to our favorite place, without a group. While we have had a day or two to ourselves here and there over the years, we were always prepping for a group’s arrival. This time, it was just us, and we were going to do another first – camp and backpack in Yellowstone. Even though I have been there over 40 times, I had never camped in the park or backpacked. So, this was going to be something special…except the weather decided maybe we needed a reminder of our inability to control things in this amazing landscape. It decided to rain, and rain, and rain a bit more. An entire day of rain on our first full day in the park and that was something I had never experienced in all my trips. But, it turned out to be just fine as we had a chance to spend time with friends and relax a bit, which has always been tough when leading a group.

Here are a few of the highlights of our time in our shared paradise (oh, and I just returned from dropping Melissa off at 4 a.m. at the airport so she can lead a trip to Yellowstone with a youth group from the museum, lucky her)…

eagle nest cliff

The Slough Creek cliffs held a special treat again this year (click photos to enlarge)

Golden eagle in nest

Golden eagle nest on cliff face

It was a great trip for birds…

Swainson's hawk with snake

Swainson’s hawk carrying a snake

White-faced ibis

White-faced ibis

Yellow warbler

Yellow warbler at the beaver pond

Cliff swallows in rain

The cliff swallows had just returned and did not seem to appreciate the rain either

Tree swallow

Tree swallow eyeing the camera

Mountain bluebird male

A male mountain bluebird looking fine

Peregrine on nest close view

Peregrine falcon on her precarious nest on the edge of a cliff

peregrine nest

Peregrine nest location from overlook near Calcite Springs

immature bald eagle

Immature bald eagle

elk carcass and birds

Bald eagles and ravens on elk carcass in Soda Butte Creek

Other wildlife made an appearance as well…

red fox on snow 1

Red fox on snow field at Dunraven Pass

Pronghorn buck

Pronghorn buck surveying his domain

Pronghorn eyes from behind close up

Pronghorns can even survey the scene behind them due to the placement of their large eyes

coyote

Coyote on the prowl

bison and person

Sometimes signs are not enough

bison cown and calf

Newborn bison calf gets cleaned by mom

Black bear and cub in tree

This mom finally had to climb the tree to retrieve her baby

Black bear and cub

A discussion on tree-climbing behavior once they were back on the ground

And, as usual, the scenery was fantastic…

snow from Dunraven

Late season snow at Dunraven Pass

Daisy geyser and rainbow

Daisy geyser erupts creating a rainbow in the mist

bison and reflection

Reflections near Junction Butte

Rainbow at soda butte

Double rainbow along Soda Butte Creek

sunset along Lamar River

Sunset along the Lamar River

Full moon seting in Lamar Valleygg

Full moon setting in Lamar Valley

Special Place, Special Season

Yellowstone in the summer changed my life and teaching direction.  Revisiting in the winter was like going back to an old friend’s house when all the ‘guests’ have gone home and you get to sit in the den and have long quiet conversations with the residents.

~Mike Leonard, an educator that attended both a summer and a winter field experience in Yellowstone with the museum

I had hoped to go to Pungo yesterday, but the weather had other plans for me. A day trip with all day rain just didn’t seem the thing to do. So, I sat home, did chores, and wished I was someplace else – with Melissa. She is leading a museum trip to our other special place – Yellowstone. Winter is probably my favorite season out there – so quiet, a living Christmas card, and the wildlife spotting is much easier against the snow.  And so few people, relative to summer, it’s like having your own private park at times. She has sent a few notes about what they are seeing, and, today, the group heads to my favorite place – Lamar Valley. She said it has snowed every day. Not ideal conditions, since the landscape can seem so vast and sparkling when the sun is out, but not a bad way to spend your days – the softened sounds, the way the world seems to embrace you when it snows, everything (you, the wildlife, the scenery) all draped in a cloak of ever-changing white. And, she has discovered a new favorite thing – cross-country skiing. Guess I had better start getting in shape and practicing my balance for our next visit. As I sat reminiscing of past trips, I decided to share some images from our previous winter adventures to this special place in its special season.

Ice-covered tree in thermal basin

Sunlight catches a lone, ice-covered snag at Mammoth Terraces (click photos to enlarge)

sunrise through mist at Canary spring

Sunrise at Canary Springs at Mammoth Terraces

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Lodgepole struggles

Struggling to stay above the snow

Patterns 2

A weathered tree trunk

Patterns 1

Edge of ice on the Yellowstone River

Melissa in deep snow at Canyon

Melissa in deep snow at Canyon on a previous trip

Hayden Valley scenic

Hayden Valley on a gray, snowy day

Hayden Valley

The majestic landscape of Hayden Valley

Coyote along Madison River

A coyote and shadow along the Madison River

Bison repetition

Bison patterns

Bull elk

Bull elk in Lamar Valley

Pine Marten in tree trunk

Pine Martin in Silver Gate

Moose valley

Moose in Silver Gate

Wolf pack in snow

The once-dominant Druid Peak pack in Lamar Valley

Bison plow

Bison snow plow

Magic mist YNP

A low fog hangs in Lamar Valley, highlighting a lone Cottonwood tree along the Lamar River.

Sunset

The incredible winter sky in Lamar Valley

 

Heron Dreams

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

We all have dreams, some bigger than others. I dream of experiences, being in wild places, and seeing the spectacles that nature has to offer. I have often wondered if other species dream. Having had dogs much of my life, and watching them as they seem to chase something in their sleep with paws twitching and soft barks, I think they do dream. I’m not sure about other species – whether, for instance, herons dream, but we met one earlier this week that seemed to dream big…really big.

Great blue heron

A stately great blue heron at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

We did a quick day trip on Monday down to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I just haven’t been able to get away as much as my soul needs, so a day-trip would have to do. A friend from work (who had never been) was able to travel with us so I was hoping for a good show for her sake. After a bitterly cold morning at Pungo (more on the Pungo portion of the trip in the next post), we headed over to Mattamuskeet mid-day to see what we could find. As is often the case, there was a stately great blue heron at the pool near the entrance along Wildlife Drive. But I noticed something different this time…

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

A huge fish! A mullet! Even though Mattamuskeet is a freshwater lake, this bird was on a canal outside the lake proper, one that connects via a long (~7 mile) system of canals out to Pamlico Sound, where striped mullet are very common. My apologies for posting so many images of this epic struggle, but I have always wanted to see a heron swallow a huge fish, and here it was, out in the open, a “dream” come true.

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

We watched as the bird tried to grab the still-flopping fish. It was a lot to get your beak around.

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

The heron would work at grabbing the fish, then drop it, and almost every time dip the tip of its bill in the water. Was it taking a drink, removing slime, washing out a bad taste…who knows?

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

The heron used its stiletto beak in a series of quick jabs to try to subdue the mullet.

How do I get this thing off

Now…how do I get this thing off my beak?

It sometimes took a few shakes to get the fish off. After several bouts of spearing the fish, the mullet stopped moving.

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

Curiously, in between efforts to swallow the fish, the heron would every now and then grab some roots, sticks, and shoots of vegetation on the island. Is this some sort of displacement behavior? Taking out its frustrations on plants?

Almost there

A lot to lift

Not only was this fish a challenge in terms of its girth, it was a heavy lift for the heron. A typical adult great blue heron weighs about 5 pounds. Their upper bill is about 5+ inches in length. Looking at this photo, I estimate this fish to be about 14 inches in length (compare bill length to fish length). I found an online length-weight conversion estimator for fishes in Texas and used that to estimate the weight of this fish at about 1 pound – 1/5 the weight of the bird. So, that’s like me trying to gulp down a 40 pound hamburger!

eye to eye

Eye to eye

This photo “caught my eye”…the juxtaposition of the eye of the predator and the prey, now resigned to its fate. Our friend, Janna, suggested this caption…””that feeling you have when you realize who you have been trying to kiss”.

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

We watched the struggle for about 20 minutes and reluctantly decided to head off to see some other areas of the refuge, wondering if the heron would ever be successful. We came back about an hour and a half later, and the heron was still at it. Another couple of photographers had stopped, but the heron was paying us no mind. It had eyes only for the mullet. While we were gone, the heron seemed to have figured out a better strategy for lifting the fish, and came oh-so-close to swallowing it a couple of times.

almost lost it

Almost lost it

But it almost lost it into the water at one point, managing a quick grab to pull it back onshore.

stand off

Pondering your dreams

The heron was starting to tire. It took longer breaks between feeding attempts. We watched another 20 minutes. The proud bird twice turned its back (maybe hoping we woudn’t see?) and caught tiny fish and gulped them down.

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

It was getting late. The heron had been at this for at least two hours. We had spent almost 45 minutes watching the struggle, camera shutters firing away (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I took 892 photos of this battle), and there was no end in sight. It was time to leave and head for Pungo for what we hoped would be a great sunset show.

Really really big

Dream big

I hated to leave without knowing whether the heron realized its dream. But I guess I had achieved mine, even though I didn’t witness a successful end to the story. Perhaps the important thing, for both heron and human, is to dream in the first place.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

~Walt Disney

 

Petals of Ice

[W]hat a severe yet master artist old Winter is…. No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel.

~John Burroughs, 1866

Yesterday’s post shared some of the intricate beauties of a frosty morning – objects adorned with tiny crystals that reveal new patterns and create sculpted coats on everything in the landscape. One of my coworkers saw me out taking photos and asked if I had seen any frost flowers. He then went on to explain they usually occur on a couple of species of plants (he threw the Latin names out and they escaped me) in the garden, but he couldn’t remember exactly where they were. I replied I had not seen any, all the while searching my memory bank for an image of what a frost flower looked like. We parted and I put the camera away and went out to fill the feeders in the bird blind. As I was walking back, something caught my eye in one of the garden beds…

Frost flower 1

My first frost flower (click photos to enlarge)

That has to be one – a frost flower! I ran and got the camera and told our communications assistant about it so she could get some photos as well. The sun was hitting that area so it would not last long. There were two plants with these unusual structures. A quick web search helped explain this bizarre phenomenon.

Frost flower with pen for scale

An ice flower with a pen for scale

More commonly called ice flowers, these structures go by a variety of other local names – frost flowers, ice ribbons, and rabbit ice to name a few. Several resources mentioned that although they are often called “frost flowers”, these formations are not a type of frost. It seems as though these beautiful creations are caused by a process called ice segregation. Under certain conditions of temperature and humidity in late autumn and early winter, super cold water moves through a medium toward ice, freezes at the interface, and adds to the ice.

Frost flower

Ice flowers typically have curved “petals”

At this time of year in some species, water is still being brought up from the soil by the roots or through capillary action. When conditions are right, the water expands in the dried stems, fracturing thin slits in the stem wall. Water squeezes from cracks in the stem and becomes ice, pushing the previous ice further out. Ice crystals on the outside of the stem may be a prerequisite for the formation of ice flowers. There are quite a few resources online with many beautiful photos of this phenomenon – see Ice Flowers and Find an Ice Flower Before it Melts for samples. For reasons that are not fully understood, this has been found in relatively few species of plants. I hope to get some help identifying this one by its basal leaves when I get back to the office. And now that I have seen my first ice flowers, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for these delicate, ephemeral beauties on cold frosty mornings in the future.

Frosty Morning

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.

~John Burroughs

It has finally turned cold, the true feeling of winter is now in the air. Walking in to to my office yesterday morning I could see the early hour handiwork of an special artist whose work is only available certain months of the year. Everything within a few feet of the ground was delicately sculpted with miniature pillars of ice – a heavy frost covered the plants and ground, painting the world with a crystalline white palette. I couldn’t resist and grabbed my camera for a walk-about to see the frosty splendor. Below are some of my favorites from a stroll through a temporary world of frozen masterpieces.

blueberry leaf

A native blueberry shrub with one frozen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Southern maidenhair fern

Southern maidenhair fern

Phlox flowers

The last delicate phlox flowers of the season

Creeping blueberry?

The tiny leaves of what I think is a creeping blueberry

Lotus leaf upside down with frost

The last leaf on an American lotus droops over towards the water

bushy broomsedge seeds

Grass seeds

There are so many interesting seed heads now and they were all covered by ice crystals, adding another layer of beauty to these minute botanical sculptures.

seed head

bushy seeds

Coneflower seed head

Maryland golden aster seed heads?

Partia seed head

seed head 2

The frosty detail of a single stem of horse tail is simple, yet elegant.

Horse tail

Horse tail (scouring rush)

My favorite icy hosts were the pitcher plants. Their unusual shapes and colors seem an unlikely companion to a coating of ice crystals, but they manage to pull it off.

Pair of pitcher plants

Large crystals formed on the top of pitcher plants that have “lids”

Hooded pitcher plant 2

The hooded pitcher plants developed a “spinal column” of tiny frost crystals

Hybrid pitcher plant top

The ice enhances the details on this hybrid pitcher plant

 

Hooded pitchers

The hooded pitcher plants have such artistic forms

Hooded pitcher plant 1

A shape that could make a sculptor envious

Tops of pitchers

If plants huddle for warmth, this was a day to do it

But the most unusual ice feature of the morning is one I had never seen before…I will share that mystery with you in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

Dewy

You are an ocean of knowledge hidden in a dew drop.

~Rumi

The chilly nights this time of year lead to dewy mornings, and the world is decorated for a time each day with droplets of glass pearls. One morning last week I took a short stroll through the gardens at work searching for jewels. Here are a few of my finds…

seashore mallow seed pod with dew

Seashore mallow seed pod (click photos to enlarge)

Maidenhair fern with dew

Maidenhair ferns

Unid seed head 1

Wildflower seed head

aster with dew

Asters

Lynx spider with hatchlings

Female green lynx spider with recently hatched young

Unid seed head

Wildflower seed head

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning

Male carpenter bee hanging onto phlox flower

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning close up of head

Closeup of carpenter bee head covered in dew

Catching Gnats and Plucking Lichens

More than with most species of small birds, the attention and interest of the observer center about the nesting habits of the blue-gray gnatcatcher because of the great beauty of its nest.

~Francis Marion Weston, 1949

One of my favorite spring arrivals is the plucky little blue-gray gnatcatcher. It is tiny, but bold. It looks a bit like a tiny mockingbird, but builds a nest like a large hummingbird. My friend, Mary, found a nest at the Garden recently and emailed me where to look as I prepared for a program. I never did find that one (they are often very well camouflaged on a branch). But, a week later, as I was leaving work, I heard the familiar “Steeve” call, looked up, and saw one fly into a small tree. I got out my binoculars, and was pleased to see a nest in progress.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest empty

Blue-gray gnatcatcher nest (click photos to enlarge)

A few evenings later, I brought my camera and spent some time watching this industrious duo go about the business of finishing what is certainly one of nature’s most beautiful nests. By this time, it looked like the nest was nearing completion, but the gathering of materials, and fine-tune adjustments, continued for over an hour as I watched.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher with spider silk on bill

Female bringing in spider silk

The nest is a deep (about 3 inches) cup about 1.5-2 times the size of a ruby-throated hummingbird nest. Otherwise, they look almost identical – a somewhat high-walled, elastic nest covered on the outside with lichens and held together with spider silk. The inside is lined with soft materials like plant down, hair, and fine feathers.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 2

Male checking the feel of the nest

As I watched, both adults were busy contributing to the efforts. During the breeding season, the male blue-gray gnatcatcher (photo above) can be distinguished from the female (photo below) by the presence of their black forehead and supercilium (a stripe that runs from the base of the birds beak and above its eye). The female’s head is plain gray.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 3

Female inspecting the progress

I had my big telephoto plus a teleconverter, so I was well away from the nest. The birds chose a very busy location for their activity, right next to a road and walkway that is popular with Garden visitors, so I don’t think they minded me watching them.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 5

Male placing a lichen

There were times when nothing happened at the nest for 10 minutes or so, then there were bursts of activity with a bird bringing in materials (especially pieces of foliose lichens – they look like lichen cornflakes) every minute or so. The usual routine was to fly into  a branch next to the nest, pause, then hop into the nest and place whatever material was brought in. Then there was often some fine-tuning, placing the lichen just so, inspecting it for a second, and then off again. Time spent in the nest on any one visit was usually less than 20 seconds. References say it takes about a week to complete a nest, but I think this pair could do it much faster based on what I saw.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher singing

Male singing

Blue-gray gnatcatcher preening

Male preening

In between nest-building activities, the pair would pause for some singing, preening, or the important duty of nest protection. I am a bit worried about this particular nest, since it seems in a more open location than many I have seen. There are a lot of hazards to any nesting bird, especially one so tiny. I witnessed a few bouts of territorial defense as this pair chased after a crow and a pair of blue jays that flew through their air space. And a pair of brown-headed cowbirds received a lot of attention when they perched within 50 feet of the nest. Both adults repeatedly dive-bombed the cowbirds, who seemed uninterested. They eventually flew off, and nest building resumed about 5 minutes later.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest 1

Shaping the cup

The final stage of nest building is refining the shape of the cup. This is something they put their whole body into…the adult plops down into the nest with just their head and long tail (the tail accounts for about 45% of the total body length) visible and pushes against the sides of the nest, shaping it as they rotate their body around, flexing the sides until it is just right.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher pressing down in nest

Putting your whole body into getting the shape just right

At times, I could barely see their head at all, with just the slender bill projecting above the lichen wall. I checked on the nest the next few days and saw no activity, so I figured they had completed construction. And now, I see the female sitting in the nest for long periods of time, so I assume she is incubating her eggs. I will keep you posted on their progress.

Unfurling

Only spread a fern frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.

~John Muir

Before there is a fern frond, there is a fiddlehead. The curled tip of an unfurling fern frond resembles the curled ornamentation (called a scroll) on the end of a stringed instrument, such as a violin. It is also called a crozier (or crosier), from the curved staff used by bishops, which supposedly has its origins in the shepherd’s crook.

It is a ritual repeated every spring, and one that always catches my eye…the beautiful and detailed unfurling of the frond, starting at the base of the leaf blade and progressing outward and upward. It is one of the simple delights of spring.

A gallery of ferns unfurling from the woods behind our house, to the NC Botanical Garden to the Green Swamp…

Fern fiddlehead

Southern shield fern fiddlehead (click photos to enlarge)

early Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern

Cinnamon fern fiddlehead

Cinnamon fern fertile frond

Cinnamon fern unfurling group

Cinnamon fern group

Cinnamon fern unfurling 1

Cinnamon fern

Christmas fern fiddlehead pair

Christmas fern

Royal fern unfurlng 1

Royal fern

Royal fern unfurlng

Royal fern

Bracken fern unfurling 1

Bracken fern

Bracken fern unfurling 2

Bracken fern

 

 

Changing Weather

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

~John Ruskin

We have had a variety of “good weather” lately, including a brief return to winter white yesterday morning. It had been predicted for several days, but when I awoke, it was just cloudy and cold. As I sat sipping some coffee, I noticed the first few tiny flakes. There was soon a dusting covering everything but the stone steps and gravel driveway, which must have retained enough heat to prevent the snow from sticking.

forest after a brief snow

The view across the road after the “snow” (click photos to enlarge)

Spring has arrived a few weeks early this year so many flowers are in full bloom that would normally just be flirting with opening. It made for some odd sights as we walked the property. But, by the time we finished the walk about an hour later, the skies had cleared and almost all of the snow had melted. March in North Carolina…

Junco in redbud with snow

Strange photo partners – a dark-eyed junco and redbud flowers, with a dusting of snow

Ruby-crowned kinglet

A ruby-crowned kinglet was busy at the suet feeder

Columbine in snow

Wild columbine with snow crystals

Columbine bud in snow

Maybe I should stay closed

Phlox and snow

The first phlox are rethinking their opening

Red buckeye in snow

Red buckeye about to open

Unfurling painted buckeye and snow cruystals

Painted buckeye bud beginning to open

Christmas fern fiddlehead and snow

Christmas fern fiddlehead

Unfurling fern fron in snow

Unfurling with a blanket of snow

Bottlebrush grass in snow

Bottlebrush grass seed head from last season bent over with the weight of some snow

Spider web with snow

Bowl and doily spider web with snow. These were the last places the snow melted and as we returned, the woods looked like someone had dropped white rags everywhere in the low branches. Perhaps having the cold air swirl all around these little snow platforms allowed them to retain their wintry prize a little longer.