Red and Black

Without black, no color has any depth…

~Amy Grant

A simple post this morning of something I rarely see, a top side view of a male Scarlet Tanager. They are still visiting the mulberry tree out back and have consumed all the easy to reach berries, so they are exhibiting some impressive acrobatics to snag the remaining fruit. This provides some great views of their amazing color scheme.

Scarlet tanager male dorsal view

Dorsal view of a male Scarlet Tanager (click photo to enlarge)

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.  I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop

ovenbird

An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

 

 

Bird Spot

Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.

~Franz Kafka

Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…

anhinga overhead

The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)

anhinga fly by

An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.

wood duck female

A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.

wood duck male

Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.

chimney swift

The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.

great blue heron overhead

A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.

great egret overhead

We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.

white ibis in flight

As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.

I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.

blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.

summer tanager singing

This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.

White-breasted nuthatch

A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.

White-eyed vireo

A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.

white-eyed vireo singing

He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.

These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.

Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler

Mammals: White-tailed Deer; Gray Squirrel; Southern Flying Squirrel; Nutria; Mink; Raccoon; (active Beaver lodges)

Herps: Painted Turtle; Yellow-bellied Slider; River Cooter: Brown Water Snake; American Bullfrog; Southern Cricket Frog

 

Attention to Detail

Details create the big picture.

~Sanford I. Weill

Back in the day, I worked for a truly remarkable visionary, Mary Ann Brittain. I learned a lot from her and (I think) we made a good team for the museum as educator/naturalists. I remember when I first started going on the road with her to do school grounds workshops all over the state, I was amazed at how she could take a long nap in the car (as I was driving), arrive about 15 minutes before the workshop, get out and race around the school building, and then be prepared to take a group of teachers out and show them what they could find and use to teach all sorts of subjects outside their classroom walls. Of course, I also figured out that I had to be sure to bring the essential supplies or they might get left behind. We soon came up with a moniker for ourselves – Broad-brush Brittain and Detail Dunn. Well, over the years, I learned some of her techniques for quickly assessing the potential subjects to share with others out in the field. I’m afraid I also started relying on others to help take care of the details (yes, Melissa, I know).

Though I occasionally (okay, maybe more than that) forget the details of a task, I still find the details of nature extraordinarily fascinating and beautiful. So, here are few up close looks at some details of spring in our yard. See if you can guess what each thing is before looking at the list at the end of the post. After your first guess, try to match a name on the list to a numbered photo (the names are not in the same order as the photos). Some are pretty obvious, others maybe not. Expect more of these nature in detail images in coming posts. Meanwhile, get outside and look closely at what nature is sharing each and every day.

Bead-like spore containing structures on Sensitive fern

#1 (click photos to enlarge)

top view of foam flower

#2

silk trail left by eastern tent caterpillars

#3

muscadine grape tendil from last year

#4

looking down on flame azalea buds

#5

dandelion puffball

#6

cluster of Eastern tent caterpillars

#7

close up of umbel of goldne alexander

#8

flower tip of red buckeye

#9

spotted salamander eggs near hatching close up

#10

tendril tips of cross vine

#11

dwarf crested iris flower bud

#12

The photos above show details of the following (match an ID with a number – answers tomorrow).

  • Golden Alexander flowers
  • Muscadine grape tendril (a threadlike part of climbing plants that attaches to or twines around another object to support the plant)
  • Azalea flower buds
  • Dwarf Crested Iris flower bud
  • Sensitive Fern spore-containing structures on last year’s dried fertile fronds
  • Spotted salamander eggs one day prior to hatching
  • Tendrils of Cross Vine
  • Cluster of Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Red Buckeye flower
  • Foamflower
  • Silk highway from Eastern Tent Caterpillars
  • Dandelion seed head

Wasn’t it Just Spring?

If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.

~Anne Bradstreet

The past couple of days have been warm and spring-like with highs around 60. Yesterday morning dawned with a gray coating of fog across our woods, coating everything in tiny jeweled droplets that highlighted the onset of early spring wildflowers. Today changed all that with high temperatures more than 20 degrees colder and a brisk wind. Even though I love the cold weather (and it is much better for tasks like chainsawing and splitting firewood which I did today), the taste of spring was appreciated. Here are a few photos of what was out yesterday and a hint at what is coming…

spider web in fog

The first spider web of the season on the arm of a twig (click photos to enlarge)

wild columbine flower bud

Wild columbine flower bud covered in “fog dew”

wild columbine leaves after foggy morning

A black and white of fog dew on wild columbine leaves.

spicebush blooms

The tiny spicebush flowers have opened.

bloodroot buds

Buried in snow last week, this bloodroot flower bud is now reaching high.

windflower

Windflower, one of my favorite spring ephemerals.

spring beauty

Spring beauties have been blooming for several days now, but are mainly closed today in the cold.

giant chicweed flower

The first giant chickweed flower of the season.

giant chickweed flower close up

When I looked at the image on the computer, I noticed a couple of insects I had missed while taking the photo.

Trout lily flower buds

Trout lily flower buds on our north-facing slope are a bit behind those in some other woodlands in the area.

yellow jessamine flower

A yellow jessamine flower. This is the first year (after climbing a dead snag a few years ago) that this vine has flowered.

 

Anniversary Escape

Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.

~Henry David Thoreau

Last month we escaped for a few days for our anniversary. Escaped may seem like a strange word for people that are lucky enough live in the woods, but, as Melissa has pointed out, when we stay at home, I often manage to find a few chores that just have to be done. So, for our anniversary, we escaped to a cabin in the woods in the mountains of Virginia along the New River. No plans, just a few days to do as we chose. It is always a good reminder that when you slow down, you can experience more of the wonders that surround you. Here are a few of the highlights.

pink lady slipper orchid

Pink lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium acaule (click photos to enlarge)

wood anemone

Wood anemone, Anemone quinquefolia

bluets

Bluets, Houstonia caerulea

Salt marsh caterpillar?

Salt marsh caterpillar (not the best common name – so far from a salt marsh)

painted trillium

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum

rosy maple moth emerging

Rosy maple moth just after emerging from pupa

rosy maple moth emerging ventral view close up

Close up view of a fuzzy moth

rosy maple moth pupal case

Pupal case found on ground next to emerging rosy maple moth

mayfly on tree 1

Mayfly adult (imago)

Mayflies are unique among modern insect groups in that they have two flying stages after the larval (or nymph) stage. The first is called the subimago, sort of a pre-adult flying stage. This is a unique feature of mayflies. The subimago often looks different from the final adult stage (imago), but in other species, can be difficult to separate. I found a couple of pale mayflies on the cabin windows and am assuming they are subimagos. This stage lasts for only a day or so, and then the mayfly molts again into the fully mature adult.

mayfly subimago?

Mayfly subimago (?)

parasitoid wasp

Unidentified parasitoid wasp

The cabin was quite welcoming for a couple of naturalists. In addition to all the cool insects and plants, there was a phoebe nest above the back door and a red-eyed vireo building her nest not far off the deck.

Red-eyed vireo on nest

Red-eyed vireo shaping her nest

This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open

painted-buckeye-bud-with-flower-stalk.jpg

The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging

painted-buckeye-bud-opening-wider.jpg

Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge

 

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