Muir’s Mountains

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

~John Muir

It is appropriate to start this post on Muir’s beloved mountains, with one of his most famous quotes. We use it often when referring to what happens when you enter that other famous Y park, Yellowstone…”while cares will drop off like autumn leaves”. A long-time friend who is a ranger in Yellowstone teased us about perhaps changing our favorite Y park to this one, Yosemite. But I assured her that while it is spectacular, it can never replace the special place that Yellowstone has in our hearts.

Bridal Veil Falls

A rainbow atop Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We headed to Yosemite after the relative quiet of Kings Canyon/Sequoia, expecting large crowds and uncertain of our destination, but hoping to get lucky with a campsite outside the park and then a back-country permit the next day. Unfortunately, we could see smoke from a nearby new forest fire as we approached, so we once again feared obscured views of the famous valley.

sunset Yosemite Valley

El Capitan

But as we drove in, the sheer granite walls surrounding Yosemite Valley towered above us in sharp detail, with the smoke merely adding color to the background. I can’t imagine what this valley must have been like in Muir’s time, without all the roads, construction, and people. Even now, Muir’s mountains are breathtaking and you feel you should just stand there in silence and stare at the various peaks.

sunset Yosemite Valley 2

Sentinel Rock at sunset

But we needed to find a place to lay our heads. The Forest Service campgrounds on the way in had all been small and full (although an interesting guy had offered to allow us to share his site at one of them as we drove in). As we drove through the valley, to our surprise, we spotted a vacancy sign at one of the valley lodging facilities with the odd name of Housekeeping Camp.

Housekeeping Camp 1

The tent cabins at Housekeeping Camp seem quiet early in the day

We stopped and snagged one of three remaining units for two nights and thought ourselves lucky to get a place while having no reservations. When we drove into our site, you suddenly start to wonder what your stay might be like…crowds of people, often with large groups gathered around a campfire, music booming from various electronic devices, kids riding bicycles through the camp, dogs, cars jammed into every nook and cranny, and facilities that look a bit…rustic (that may be too nice a word).

Housekeeping Camp

Our little “home” (thankfully, for only one night)

The units are two back to back rooms with three thin walls. The fourth “wall” is a  large shower curtain-looking partition, which also serves as an entrance. Each room has a bunk bed, a double bed, one small shelf and one light bulb. There is a picnic table inside a small privacy fence area that separates you from the next block of two camp units about 5 feet away. Togetherness is the phrase that comes to mind (if you are of a positive mindset). I was feeling some other thoughts, although people around us seemed to be enjoying themselves and ignoring the cramped feeling I was getting. The room cost $98, plus, for a few dollars more, you rent sheets and pillows if you don’t have them. The restroom was nearby along with a shared shower house. Signs warning of the potential for Hanta virus and plague (from fleas of the many rodents in the region) added to the surreal nature of this camp experience.  I compared this to my many times staying at the aptly named Rough Rider cabins in Yellowstone, and suddenly they seemed like luxury accommodations. I guess many people enjoy this closeness and the imagined step-up from tent camping, but I felt sorry for these visitors, for Muir’s legacy, and for the stunning landscape of the valley, that this is the way so many people experience this sacred spot. We debated the pros and cons of this type of lodging – the number of units, their price (seemed high for what you get), the crowded conditions, etc.  These are difficult choices – allowing affordable access for the masses to this incredible valley versus providing a lodging experience that might be more in tune with the sense of reverence that such a landscape evokes, a choice that would likely be more exclusive. Is that an “elitist approach”? I don’t know. People certainly seemed to be having a good time, but, is it in tune with the spirit of the place, its history, its majesty? I guess I came away disappointed that the National Park Service has not done a better job of providing clean, comfortable, and site-appropriate facilities in one the gems of the park system.

sunrise Yosemite Valley with Black-eyed Susan's

Sunrise in Yosemite Valley

The next morning we headed out before sunrise to watch the valley come alive in the morning sun. The usual colors of the morning sky had an assist from waves of smoke from the wildfire just outside the park boundary.

sunrise Yosemite Valley

Smoke moving into the valley at sunrise

This is the huge advantage of lodging in the valley – the ability to be there at sunrise and sunset and still be able to access your lodging without a long drive. The sky turned orange red as the sun peeked over the famous peaks. We were alone in the meadow, another advantage of viewing the world at sunrise.

smoke toward half-dome

Smoke blocks the distant view of Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point

For reasons mentioned above, and the added smoke we saw at sunrise, we decided to forfeit our second night at Housekeeping Camp (with only the loss of a $10 handling fee). We packed up and headed to the back-country office to get a permit for hiking the high country. Being third in line when they opened helped us secure a permit for an area near the famed Tuolumne Meadows. As we drove high into the Sierras, we realized the smoke was following us, which would make hiking less than ideal at these elevations (9000 ft+). We made the difficult decision to forego our back-country permit (we turned it in at another back-country permit office so someone else could use it) and to try to find a campsite in one of the campgrounds just outside the park boundary. Again, we got lucky and ended up with a lakeside campsite in a Forest Service campground less than a mile outside the park.

campsite outside park

Our campsite on Tioga Lake in Inyo National Forest

It was on a beautiful lake with 13 primitive campsites and very convenient to the park’s high country. Once we set up the tents, we drove back into the park with our stove and freeze-dried food for a dinner with a view.

Lembert Dome

The view from Lembert Dome

As luck would have it, the veil of smoke seemed to stop before reaching all of the high peaks, so we had an amazing view after our hike up Lembert Dome, a popular destination, but one devoid of fellow hikers this time of day.

Lembert Dome at sunset

Sunset from Lembert Dome

We ended up having one family from Belgium pass us on the mountain, but, aside from hundreds of migrating yellow-rumped warblers, we ate our dinner with nothing but the spectacular scenery and each other as company. To me , this is the best way to experience this majestic park.

Olmsted Point

The view toward Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point, minus the smoke

The next day, our last in this whirlwind tour of three parks, we wanted to hike up to one of the classic mountain lakes. We started by driving out to Olmsted Point where we heated up water for coffee, tea, and oatmeal. The view was what we had hoped for the previous morning – looking out toward Half Dome. The skies had cleared up in the high country, but we heard all day from people coming from the valley that it was still shrouded with thick smoke.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily along a trail

The area around Tuolumne Meadows is not as crowded as Yosemite Valley, but is still a place where it can be tough to find a parking spot at a trail head. We opted for the trail to Cathedral Lakes. One guidebook said “if you only do one hike in the high country, do this one”.

alpine lily

Alpine lily

The trail starts at about 8500 ft and winds upward to the lower lake at an elevation of 9200 ft. It is about a 7 mile round trip hike. We saw plenty of other hikers along the route and on the eastern shore of the lake which is a wide, flat, granite outcrop.

Cathedral Peak with reflection in granite

A reflected view of Cathedral Peak, elevation 10,912 ft

There are many places to capture a beautiful reflection of nearby Cathedral Peak in a pool on the rock or in the adjoining marsh. We decided to hike around to the other side of the lake for lunch since we did not see anyone on the far shore.

bathtub with a view

Pool with a view

Melissa never misses a chance to take a dip in mountain water, no matter how cold, so, once again I was convinced to cool off in a gorgeous pool at the far end of the lake. This particular pool probably had the best view of any spot we have ever dipped our toes in. Not far beyond our swimming hole (well, really just a splashing hole due to temperatures and water depth) the lake water left its calm existence and plunged down a waterfall, exposing a view off to the mountains and valleys beyond. Megan managed snap the shutter at just the right moment to capture that quintessential expression we often have when first squatting down in a mountain stream.

Cathedral Peak 1

View of Cathedral Peak on the Lower Lake

After a relaxing lunch, we headed back down the trail and off to our campsite to pack up. It had been an amazing trip, full of quiet beauty, crowded tourist spots, cold water, smoky skies, and majestic scenery. These mountains are truly spectacular. Muir wrote “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” I can only imagine what it was like to have tromped over these granite domes before the crowds descended on the now iconic places of Yosemite. Melissa and I are thrilled to have finally made it, and we hope to return and hike the backcountry without the threat of clouds of smoke obscuring the peaks. The “other Y park” is definitely special.

Hiking Among Giants

Walk in the Sequoia woods at any time of the year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth.

~John Muir

I am far behind in posting about recent events, sightings and travels. But I guess that is a good problem to have – doing and seeing so much that I don’t have time to write about it! So, here is the first of several  posts on our travels this past month. We finally made it to see the giant sequoias and the incredible high country of the Sierras. Melissa was awarded a trip for an interpretive training session in California, and I flew out to join her and Megan for a rather unplanned camping trip afterward. Our first planned trip had been postponed a few years ago when wildfires blanketed the area with smoke, so we made some last minute changes and hiked the Lost Coast Trail instead. Now we had the time, but little in the way of concrete plans (no reservations for campsites, since they fill up months in advance and this trip had been planned on much shorter notice). I flew into Reno, Nevada, and we drove several hours into the Central Valley of California, home to what looks like our country’s largest source of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with mile after mile of irrigated farmland. After an overnight near Fresno, we were up early and headed into Kings Canyon National Park. We lucked out and got a back-country permit for a 10-mile hike in Redwood Canyon, home to some large groves of giant sequoias. Since we only planned to hike a couple of miles before pitching camp our first evening, we decided to first take in a few of the iconic sites accessible by road.

deep canyon over 8000 ft deep

Junction View looking into Kings Canyon (click photos to enlarge)

Kings Canyon is considered one of, if not the, deepest canyons in North America. Just outside the park boundary, the canyon is almost 8200 feet deep from the Kings River to the top of an adjacent mountain peak. It is incredibly rugged and dry. The latter was the big surprise to me. No wonder forest fires are such a part of this landscape.

Zumwalt meadow Kings Canyon NP

Zumwalt meadow

The wettest habitats are, of course, along the waterways. We stopped at one of the classic Sierra landscapes, Zumwalt meadow, and arrived just in time for a ranger-led walk. The ranger was a young seasonal who had an amiable style and almost immediately shared a new learning.

Ranger next to incense cedar

A huge incense cedar was one of the first stops on the guided walk

What I at first assumed was a young, yet still substantial, giant sequoia, turned out to be an incense cedar, a common species in these habitats. There are several notable features that distinguish the two species, so it was a good lesson for our hikes to come.

Lorquin's admiral wings open

Lorquin’s admiral butterfly

At the meadow proper, we saw several butterflies – a few monarchs flitting about some milkweed out in the meadow, add a striking Lorquin’s admiral along the trail. We continued around the loop after the ranger finished his talk, but not before he gave us a good tip on a feature to look for on our drive out of the canyon.

chevron folds Kings Canyon

The famous geologic fold in Kings Canyon

A geologic highlight no less (those that know me know how unusual this is for me). The ranger (who had a degree in geology) told us about a distinctive fold on the highway which I now know is famous as the Kings Canyon Fold. He said it was the textbook example of how rocks can be deformed at high temperatures and pressures. Sure enough, it is not only on textbooks, but is also an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. The canyon does provide incredible views of a landscape shaped by glaciers, rivers, and huge geologic forces that have occurred over the millennia. But what I most wanted to see were the living things that have survived the millennia – the giant sequoias.

General Grant Tree

General Grant tree

A must stop for anyone in Kings Canyon is the General Grant tree, the second largest tree  (by volume) on Earth. Coastal redwoods are the tallest living organisms, but giant sequoias are the most massive. Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) grow naturally only on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada range. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow naturally only in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast.

A few facts about the General Grant tree

  • It is the widest sequoia known, being 40 ft across at its base ( with a circumference of 107 ft, it would take 20 people holding hands to completely encircle its massive trunk)
  • 268 ft tall
  • Estimated age – 1700 years (a full 1500 years younger than the oldest known sequoia)
  • First branch is 129 ft above the ground
Ranger hat with sequoia cone

Giant sequoia cones as symbols on National Park Service hat

The cones of these massive giants are a little larger than a chicken egg, and the seeds are like oak flakes. The ranger pointed out that the giant sequoia cone is one of the symbols on every National Park Service ranger’s uniform – on the band of their iconic wide brim hats.

Huge sequoia

A forest of giants

Late that afternoon, we finally made it to the trail head into Redwood Canyon (Giant sequoias are sometimes called Sierra redwoods). We started our climb and immediately passed through groves of huge trees that included giant sequoias, sugar pines (with the largest pine cones in the world), and Douglas firs.

Sugar Pine cone

Sugar pine cone

Grasses on ex[posed slope in Redwood Canyon

Grasses along a dry ridge in Redwood Canyon

Dead shrub twig pattern

Patterns of twigs

Late in the day we reached a rocky ridge line overlooking a small canyon. A few open areas provided great views and some interesting patterns in the growth form of plants.

campsite in Redwood Canyon

Our first campsite in Redwood Canyon

We finally settled on a spot near the edge of the ridge with a panorama on one side and a grove of giant sequoias on the other. The forest was incredibly quiet, a fitting silence in such a place of reverence.

Giant sequoias at sunset silhouette

Sunset among the giants

View from campsite B&W

The view at sunrise from our camp

Megan initially planned to sleep in the hollow base of one of the giants, but ended up setting up her tent in the middle of the night when the scurrying sounds of small mammals, and the more worrisome sound of some larger species, interrupted her sleep (we found what we assumed were three bear day beds on the slope above our campsite).

Sasquatch shadow

Origin of Sasquatch?

On a morning walk I discovered a surreal figure on one of the sequoia trunks – a burn scar that had an eerie resemblance to a human form, especially when viewed at a distance.

Sugar Bowl trees 1

We spent a lot of time looking up at the canopy in awe

Tunnel tree from far end

A tunnel tree

Tunnel tree with hiker

Walking through the downed giant with our backpacks and room to spare

Giant sequoia with Megan for scale

Megan standing at one of the giants in Redwood Canyon

Our second day was a longer hike ( about 7 miles) through incredibly beautiful terrain that included dry ridges, clear mountain streams, and more giant sequoias. Along the way we spotted a variety of birds, some deer, and an array of wildflowers.

Columbine flower 1

Crimson columbine against a backdrop of a small waterfall along the trail

Indian paintbrush

Indian paintbrush was a common splash of red on our hike

Whisker brush

The beautiful flowers of whisker brush in a sunny spot

Sequoia stump

Our camp the second night was in the vicinity of an old logging camp dotted with massive stumps

We camped the second night along a stream surrounded by the weathered stumps of sequoias cut long ago in the age of loggers in these mountains. I can’t imagine cutting down one of these giants – both the physical effort and time required (it often took a couple of days just to cut through the trunk), and the process of getting the wood out of this steep terrain. We hiked out the next morning and headed to the adjoining Sequoia National Park (our second oldest national park) with the goal of seeing the General Sherman tree.

General Sherman tree outline

Melissa stands in the “footprint” display of the General Sherman tree

The largest tree (by volume) on Earth, the General Sherman tree is in a forest of behemoths, appropriately known as the Giant Forest. Described by John Muir when he entered this grove in 1873 – A magnificent growth of giants…one naturally walked softly and awe-stricken among them. I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble…this part of the Sequoia belt seemed to me to be the finest, and I then named it “the Giant Forest”.

General Sherman tree

The General Sherman tree from a distance

We all are thankful for the efforts of Muir and the many others who saw the majesty in these trees and fought for their preservation. There is something magical and humbling about walking among them, and it is a feeling you cannot find anywhere else. As Muir noted after walking the ridges of this area …it seemed impossible that any other forest picture in the world could rival it. I will have to agree with him, there is no place like the sequoia woods.

 

 

King of the Marsh

Wherever there are extensive marshes by the sides of sluggish streams, where the bellowings of the alligator are heard at intervals, and the pipings of myriads of frogs fill the air, there is found the Fresh-water Marsh-hen…

~John James Audubon, as described by his friend, John Bachman, 1840

This post should have been written a month ago, when I made these observations. But, one thing leads to another these days, so it is a bit late in getting on the blog. It started as I was searching for bears at my favorite haunt, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I paused to look for bears in trees at a spot I had seen them the day before, when suddenly, something ran out into the dirt road ahead of me. It was a King Rail! I fired a couple of quick frames, but blew the shots, as the rail moved quickly into the tall grasses between the road and the canal. As I was searching the vegetation, my eye caught another movement out in the open…

king rail chick

Juvenile King Rail pauses at the edge of the dirt road before disappearing into the grass (click photo to enlarge)

I was thrilled! I had only seen adult King Rails, and only three times over my many years of traipsing these haunts. I had heard their distinctive calls on many trips, but they tend to be an elusive critter and blend in very well in the dense vegetation of their marshy homes. The little one quickly disappeared, probably trailing its mom. I moved the car toward the edge of the canal, hoping to see the birds if they crossed.

king rail and reflection

Adult King Rail crossing a log on the canal

She suddenly appeared on a log sticking out into the canal, turning briefly to look back toward where the young bird had been, then walking across and onto the far bank. I looked up from the camera, and saw five tiny black forms swimming across the canal, all partially obscured by some tall grasses.

king rail chick struggling on log

Young rail clawing its way up onto a log

I quickly moved the car forward and managed to get one shot of the straggler as it struggled to climb up onto the log where its mom had been moments before. I could see the little gang of rails following the adult as she wound her way through the vegetation and back into the dense shrubs. These things can happen fast, and I guess I was lucky to have managed a few images, but I was thankful for the chance to see this family at all. I waited for a few minutes, but imagine she had ushered her brood far away from the road. So, I started to drive on, and then…

King Rail

Another rail feeding next to the canal, just a few yards down the road

There was another rail, just across the canal from me. This one was just threading its way through the vegetation along the canal, probing and feeding. King rails feed on a variety of invertebrates including aquatic insects, crayfish, and other small critters like frogs and fish.

King rail in alligator weed

I spent about 45 minutes with this cooperative bird

I ended up spending quite a bit of time following this bird as it moved back and forth along the canal bank, seemingly unconcerned about the car inching along on the opposite bank. This was when another vehicle pulled up, realized I was watching “just a bird” and drove off. I reported on what I saw when I turned back around to look at the rail in an earlier post.

king rail showing feet

Check out those feet

On two occasions, the rail stopped to stretch and preen. At one point it came out onto a mud bank where its huge feet were clearly visible, a great adaptation for walking on the top of marsh vegetation.

king rail calling

The rail graced me with a few calls while I watched

But, the highlight for me was when the rail let loose with its distinctive, harsh and loud kik-kik-kik call. As I mentioned, I have heard this call many times and tried more often than I can count to find the caller, and here was on out in the open, with just me as an observer. Life is good!

And here is a very brief clip for you to enjoy…

 

Just a Bird…

Spend time every day looking and listening without any ulterior motive whatsoever. Look not as a writer, or as a philosopher, not even as a scientist or artist—look and listen, simply, like a child, for enjoyment, because the world is interesting and beautiful. Let in nature without the vast and complicated apparatus of duty, ambition, habit, morals, profession—look and listen like a child to the robin in the tree.

~David Grayson

Much of my time outdoors is spent wandering, not for something in particular, but just wandering and being open to whatever I discover. Even in a place like Yellowstone, known to wildlife-watchers as one of the premier places in North America to observe charismatic megafauna like bison, bears elk, and wolves, there are many treasures that await those who are open to them.

Western tanager

Western tanager male (click photos to enlarge)

Before my guests arrived, I stopped at a pullout in Lamar Canyon to scan the far ridges for some of those magafauna I mentioned, but what caught my eye was brilliant flash of yellow and orange in a nearby conifer. A male Western tanager, one of the most beautiful birds in Yellowstone! Suddenly, there was another, and then another. I raced over to the van for my camera, long lens, and tripod, and that caught the attention of a passing motorist. The common refrain when someone sees a spotting scope or long lens pointing at something is “Whaddya have?” or something similar. I responded with “a  couple of Western tanagers”, and got that look, the one I often get when I am photographing a bird, insect, or something besides one of the big mammals. It is even sometimes accompanied by that phrase, “It’s just a bird”, and then they drive off. Well, I have had many memorable just a bird moments over the years, too many to recall really, and that goes for birds in Yellowstone as well. And a few Western tanagers are sure to catch my attention anytime. A couple of other park visitors even came over to try to photograph them once I pointed them out.

Below are a few more of those moments from this trip.

Hawk attacking eagle

A hawk dive bombs a bald eagle that was flying too close to its nest

sparrow nest 1

The ground nest of a vesper sparrow that we accidentally flushed while walking through the sagebrush

Fledgling American robin

A fledgling American robin near my cabin in Silver Gate

Red-naped sapsucker in hole

A red-naped sapsucker peers out of its nest cavity in an aspen tree

Flicker male at nest 1

A male Northern flicker at its nest cavity after feeding a young bird

Flicker at nest

Female Northern flicker feeding young

American avocets

American avocets feeding in Floating Island Lake

American avocet

American avocet

Osprey at nest

Osprey nest with one bird  sitting on eggs, and the mate sitting nearby

Osprey coming in for fish

Osprey making a strafing run on cutthroat trout spawning in the creek at Trout Lake

Osprey catching trout

Osprey snags a trout just behind the tall grass along the creek

Osprey catching trout close up

It looks like the fish is caught by only one talon

Osprey catching trout 1

The osprey tried to lift off with its struggling prey

Osprey flying off with trout

Right after this photo was taken, the trout wriggled free and fell back onto the water

Bird species observed in and around Yellowstone National Park – June 10-18, 2017

60 species:

Trumpeter Swan; Canada Goose; American Wigeon; Mallard; Cinnamon Teal; Green-winged Teal; Northern Shoveler; Ring-necked Duck; Lesser Scaup; Bufflehead; Barrow’s Goldeneye; Common Merganser; Ruddy Duck; Ruffed Grouse; Western Grebe; American White Pelican; Osprey; Bald Eagle; Red-tailed Hawk; American Coot; Sandhill Crane; Killdeer; American Avocet; Wilson’s Snipe (heard); Wilson’s Phalarope; California Gull; Rock Pigeon; Great Horned Owl; Williamson’s Sapsucker; Red-naped Sapsucker; Northern Flicker; American Kestrel; Peregrine Falcon; Gray Jay; Stellar’s Jay; Black-billed Magpie; Common Raven; Tree Swallow; Violet-green Swallow; Cliff Swallow; Barn Swallow; Mountain Chickadee; House Wren; American Dipper; Mountain Bluebird; American Robin; European Starling; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Chipping Sparrow; Vesper Sparrow; White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Western Tanager; Red-winged Blackbird; Western Meadowlark; Yellow-headed Blackbird; Brewer’s Blackbird; Brown-headed Cowbird; Cassin’s Finch; Pine Siskin

Baby Buffalo

Are you there? Can you hear me? Somewhere near me?
In the morning, long ago, had to hold you so close, had to never let go.
Time on the river sliding on by. Hard to believe, wink of an eye.

Where’d you go, Baby Buffalo?

~James Taylor – song lyrics from Baby Buffalo

Bull bison laying down

Large bull bison striking a regal pose (click photos to enlarge)

I have always been fascinated by bison – their size, power, protective instincts toward their young, and seemingly total indifference to us humans. Herd size is certainly larger now than when I first started visiting the park, so much so that there are now efforts to control the population to avoid overgrazing in their prime habitats in the park. Plus, the larger the herd, the more conflicts arise with state officials and local ranchers when bison migrate out of the park in winter to graze in areas of lower snow cover. Last winter, park officials and hunters outside the park culled more than 1200 animals from the herd. It is tough for me to accept these management decisions, but that is the agreed-upon Interagency Bison Management Plan at this point. More details on this can be found on the park web site.

Baby bison running

Baby buffalo frolicking in the herd

According to the park web site, “Yellowstone bison currently reproduce and survive at relatively high rates compared to many other large, wild, mammal species. The bison population increases by 10 to 17% every year.” Simply stated, bison are killed each year because there are too many animals in too small a space in the park. It is hard to state these cold statistics in the same post that I am glorifying the beauty and playfulness of baby bison, but that has been the state of bison management in Yellowstone for many years. The good news is that the herd is doing well.

bison cow and calf

Bison calf sticking close to its mother

May and June are the primary birthing months for bison and I took every opportunity to watch them on this trip. Newborn bison weigh 40-50 pounds and are able to move with the herd within a few hours of being born.

Baby bison head shot

Baby buffalo giving me the once over as the herd moves by my parked car

They are a reddish-orange color for the first few months of their life, changing to more brown by the end of summer. When they are active, they tend to frolic and jump or play with other calves in between bouts of nursing. Then they seem to run of gas and plop on the grass and sleep.

Baby bison darker color

Laying down for a nap

Pair of baby bison interacting

A pair of calves nuzzling each other

Baby bison trying to get another to play

It can be tough to get some sleep when another calf wants to play

Baby bison head shot small horns showing 1

The horn buds are more prominent on male calves

Baby bison head in flowers

Cuteness bisonified

A couple of mornings I was out by myself early and enjoyed just sitting and watching (and listening) to these magnificent animals and their playful young. And it wouldn’t be a trip to Yellowstone without a bison jam – a herd moving across or along a roadway. Below is a brief video clip so you can get a feel for what is like sharing the road with these behemoths.

Most of this herd had already walked by us by the time I got my phone out for the video. It can be a bit disconcerting when these huge animals lumber by your car and look into your window as they walk past. But such is the Yellowstone experience – a connection to an iconic animal of the West and a chance to appreciate their power and beauty in their landscape. I can only hope bison managers can figure out some other solutions to these bison population and political issues.

 

Our Special Place

The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know… Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard…To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within it as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.

~Barry Lopez

I just returned from eight days in my favorite place, Yellowstone National Park. If you follow this blog, you know I have a love affair with this park and its wildness. I have been to the park over 40 times in the last 30 years, in every season, and still can’t get enough of the scenery, wildlife, and the big skies of Wyoming and Montana (a small part of the park is also in Idaho). Melissa is out there right now with a group of educators on a museum trip, and I know she feels the same way.

I arrived a couple of days ahead of a group of friends and their family, and we spent the first part of our trip in the wildlife-rich area of the Northern Range. My first day, I soon encountered what turned out to be a bear jam at the bridge over the Gardner River. The next morning, there was another bear jam at this same location. Now, look at the first two images and decide what type of bears I saw.

Grizzly 1

My first animal in the park- a blank bear (click photos to enlarge)

Cinnamon Black Bear

My second bear – a blank bear

So, what did you decide? The first sighting was a grizzly bear. Note the shoulder hump and dished facial profile. The second bear is a cinnamon-colored black bear. The facial profile is much straighter from the forehead to the nose, and there is a lack of a shoulder hump (although that can be tricky depending on the angle you see the bear and how it is standing). Unlike here in North Carolina, black bears in Yellowstone vary quite a bit in color. The park web site states that “about 50% of black bears are black in color, others are brown, blond, and cinnamon”. Later in the week we saw a black bear sow (black in color) that had two cubs of the year that were cinnamon.

Red fox at YRPAT

My second animal upon arrival in the park was a beautiful red fox

It turned out to be a very good week for fox sightings with a total of 8 (one or two may have been the same fox on different days). The reduction in coyotes after the reintroduction of wolves in 1995 has apparently led to an increase in the red fox population. Again, from the park web site – there are 3 native subspecies of red foxes in the western United States. Most foxes in the lower 48 states (especially in the eastern and plain states) are a subspecies of fox introduced into this country from Europe in the 1700s and 1800s for fox hunts and fur farms. As luck would have it, a couple of us had the sought-after “three dog day”, where we saw a fox, coyote, and wolf on the same day. Several of us saw the pups at the wolf den along Slough Creek, and I watched the Junction pack chase a herd of bison (but give up after failing to catch a calf twice). But all the wolves were too far away for decent photos.

Pronghorn buck 1

Pronghorn buck

The population of pronghorns seems to have increased in the 30 years I have been visiting the park, especially in the Lamar Valley and Little America areas. This time of year, bands of bucks tend to hang out together in small groups, often practicing their skills for future battles for females. Both sexes have horns, but bucks have longer horns, a black cheek patch, and black nose.

Pronghorn with twins

Pronghorn doe nursing her twin fawns

Pronghorn does are giving birth now and we saw a few females with fawns, most often twins. Mothers nurse their young a few times each day, then leave them laying in cover, in grass or sagebrush areas, and go off to feed, usually staying within a hundred yards or so of the young. Young pronghorn supposedly have no scent and will lay still until you almost step on them before running off. This particular doe may have lost one fawn to a predator (coyotes, wolves, and bears, among others, prey on pronghorn young) as we saw only one young with her later in the week (she was using a particular stretch of sagebrush near the road all week). Adult pronghorns use their keen eyesight and running ability (they can run up to 60 miles per hour) to escape predators.

Uinta squealing

Uinta ground squirrel scolding me from the right…

Uinta squealing 1

from head-on….

Uinta squealing 2

and from the left.

One of the most abundant mammals in the park is the Uinta ground squirrel. These little rodents inhabit open habitats throughout the park and are particularly common in the Mammoth area and out in the sagebrush flats of Lamar. They live in burrows and you see the holes they make scattered throughout the sagebrush flats. Larger holes indicate where something, often a badger, has dug out a ground squirrel for a meal. I think everything preys on these little guys (raptors, snakes, coyotes, badgers, foxes, bears, wolves, and anything else with a taste for meat). That may be why they often perch atop a prominent rock or bush and scan for danger. When they see something, they let out a high-pitched squeak or trill. The fellow above certainly did not approve of me parking so close to his boulder, and he let me, and the rest of the world, know it.

Coyote

Coyote that was being followed by…

Badger

a badger.

A case in point was a coyote I spotted one afternoon near the road in Lamar Valley. When I slowed for a look, one of the teenagers in our group spotted a badger trailing close behind. These two predators will sometimes work in tandem, one taking advantage of anything scared up or missed by the other. We watched the badger for several minutes as it furiously dug a hole in the bank and disappeared. They often dig a new sleeping den every night, and can make short work of that, or digging out a ground squirrel, using their powerful shoulders and claws.

Yellow-bellied marmot watching fox

Yellow-bellied marmot assumes the pose as it watches a red fox nearby

Another, larger, rodent in the park is the yellow-bellied marmot. It looks and acts somewhat like our groundhog, but prefers rockier terrain. This one had spotted a hunting red fox and alerted the area with a sharp whistle, and this somewhat laid back pose.

Red fox at Junction Butter

This red fox just finished caching some food

This fox had caused the marmot to be on alert, but did manage to catch a small rodent (probably a ground squirrel or vole) while we watched. It gulped down its catch and then trotted off. We saw it again a few minutes later with something else in its mouth, which it proceeded to cache by burying it in the dirt. After digging a hole with its front legs and stashing the prize, it used its long nose to scoop and shovel dirt into the hole. The fox even used its nose to pound down the disturbed soil to help hide its future meal. Unfortunately, we also saw foxes that were being fed in one of the towns just outside the park. As is usually the case, this often leads to tragedy as the animals become habituated to humans.

Canyon

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on a rainy day

I admit, I have a preference for the northern part of the park and its wide open vistas, waterways, and abundant wildlife. Once you head into one of the more developed sections around the famed thermal features, life can get a bit more (actually, a lot more) hectic. But, as a ranger once told our group, no matter what you thought you came to see in Yellowstone – the wildlife, the scenery, the incredible skies – you actually came to see the geology. That’s because the incredible geologic past (and present) of this landscape is what has created all of these features and allowed them to be preserved for us to enjoy as the worlds’ first national park. As we headed south, we did, indeed, pick up more crowds, although our stop at Canyon was rather tranquil due to a light rain keeping most people away. In fact, this was probably the second wettest trip in all my years of going to the park. We even had two days with snow! I would definitely trade this NC heat for some of that cool June weather.

Old Faithful crowds

The bleachers at Old Faithful are full, waiting for “the show”

Our day in the geyser basins proved more typical of summer – large crowds, limited parking, and some not-so-great visitor behavior including walking off boardwalks in thermal areas and getting way too close to large animals for selfies.

Mud pot bubble

Bubbling mud at Fountain Paint Pots

Mud pot bubble 1

Aliens in the mud

Fountain Paint Pots continues to impress me, partly due to my fascination with the mud pots and my obsession to photograph interesting shapes as the mud bubbles pop. I was unable to walk my favorite thermal feature, Grand Prismatic, because there was no parking, so I had to drop off my folks and let them walk while I waited down the road to return and pick them up. Still, even from several hundred yards away, the prismatic pool lives up to its name with rainbow colors rising in the dense steam above this, the largest hot spring in the park.

This is the first of a couple of posts about this trip that I will try to get to this week. Looking through the images helps me to relive those moments, to find peace in knowing that these wild creatures and wild places still exist. And, in spite of the crowds, Yellowstone is a place where we can all find something we need now more than ever – a chance to experience the best that our planet offers to those willing to just take the time to walk, watch, and listen. Below are a few of the other wild creatures we encountered last week. I’ll post something about the birds and the ubiquitous bison soon.

Chipmunk with dandelion seed head close up

A chipmunk grazes on wildflower seeds

Red squirrel and cone

Red squirrel with a mouthful outside my cabin in Silver Gate

Columbia spotted frog

A Columbia spotted frog, one of only 5 species of amphibians in the park (in 2014, a breeding population of Plains spadefoot toad was found in the park, raising the number to 5)

Bull elk laying down

Bull elk in velvet taking a siesta

Bull moose

One of many moose we saw in the northeast section of the park and vicinity

A Festival for Bears

May this intelligent animal always have a place. We need to better understand bears.

~Mike McIntosh

Last weekend was the third annual Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC. I have missed the previous ones due to trips to Yellowstone, but I finally managed to visit this year. I was curious how the festival was organized and what messages might be going out to the public about one of my favorite mammal species. My old workplace, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, had been asked to provide guided tours of nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Luckily, I was able to join as a volunteer guide for the tours on Saturday – three 3-hours tours starting at 5:30 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 6 p.m. A full day! Between tours on Saturday we visited some of the festivities that ranged from the usual festival goofiness to interesting information about local wildlife.

Bear festival entrance

Entrance to the NC Black Bear Festival in Plymouth (click photos to enlarge)

Bearicade

Lots of plays on words at the festival

Bronco bear

Festival mascot taking a turn on the bronco bear. As the guy in charge of this ride said, you will not see this anywhere else.

Kiddie bear ride

The coolest kiddie ride I have ever seen – the bear train

The tours themselves turned out to be a great learning experience for all involved. During the three tours on Saturday we had 34 bear sightings, only a few of which were the same bear on different tours. I didn’t take many photos during the tours, but highlights included 3 cubs of the year in a tree, and, on a later tour, an adult lounging in a tree.

Black bear in tree

Black bear lounging in willow tree

Sunday morning, I decided to head over to the refuge by myself and then head home early. I spent a few hours cruising the roads looking for bears and whatever else the refuge might offer, and I was not disappointed. I ended the day with 14 bear sightings for a personal total of 48 for the two days I was down there. The 7 tours by the museum over the three festival days yielded an impressive 71 bear sightings, including several very close to the bus.

Below are some of the highlights of my time on the refuge:

Large black bear at sunrise

Sunrise bear

Large black bear at sunrise in soybeans

Sunrise bear in soybeans

Large black bear at sunrise on new bear rd

Sunrise bear checking me out before heading into woods

large bear on canal bank

Surprise bear

I was photographing a king rail (more on that in a later post) along a canal bank. A truck pulled up and stopped next to me to see what I was seeing. When they realized it was “just a bird”, they drove off. I glanced at their truck as they drove away. When I turned back to the rail, this huge bear had popped over the canal bank less than 30 feet away and was looking at me. The people in the truck never saw it.

large bear on canal bank 1

I have seen this big fellow before

I quickly switched lenses and managed a few photos of the “surprise bear” before it lumbered off.

tundra swans in summer

Tundra swans still hanging out at Pungo

This is the largest number of “lost swans” I have ever seen on the refuge after the migration season. Would love to know their story of why they are still here.

northern bobwhite in tree

Northern bobwhite quail

bear along road

Roadside bear

My last bear of the day was a small guy feeding along the roadside. It had a slight limp caused by a crooked left hind leg. I sat in the car and watched this bear for about 30 minutes as it grazed on vegetation and pulled at a few downed logs looking for a snack. It didn’t seem too hampered by its limp. I saw a couple of other bears on this trip with leg injuries – my sunrise bear had what looked like a swollen knee (see photo early in post); I saw another large male that had probably been in a fight with another male for breeding rights and had a severe limp and gash on a hind leg. But most of the bears we saw looked quite healthy. It is always a treat to be able to watch wildlife doing what they do – living their lives, feeding, resting in the shade high up in a tree, cooling off in a canal to beat the heat, or caring for their young. I think this is the real value of the festival, giving people a chance to see wild bears as beautiful creatures that have lives and struggles in some ways not all that different from ours. I hope it helps us all learn to share our habitats with these magnificent animals. And, once again, the Pungo Unit has proven itself to be one of the best places I know to share the magic of wildlife with others. I look forward to my next visit.

Where Insects Fear to Tread

There is no exquisite beauty …without some strangeness.

~Edgar Allan Poe

Part two of our quest for carnivorous plants took us first to the Green Swamp, a well-known NC Nature Conservancy preserve site in Brunswick and Columbus counties. It was getting late in the day, so we went straight to the main access point, a small parking area next to a borrow pit along Hwy 211. We hiked in along the trail, through a short stretch of dense pocosin vegetation, and out into the open longleaf pine savanna.

Longleaf pine savanna, Green Swamp

Longleaf pine savanna in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

What you find here often greatly depends on the fire regimen – the year after a burn can produce spectacular wildflowers and make it much easier to see any in bloom. From the looks of it, I am guessing it may have been over a year since this particular tract was burned, but we could see some scattered spots of color poking above the clumps of wiregrass, especially along the pocosin edge.

Gras pink orchid

Grass pink orchid, Calopogon sp.

In addition to insect-eating plants, these pine savannas are well-known for their gorgeous orchids. Calopogon comes from the Greek words meaning beautiful beard, and refers to the bushy, yellow protuberances on the lip of this delicate orchid. These are designed to attract pollinators, thinking there might be a pollen or nectar reward, but it is a deception. The lip of the flower is hinged at the base, and when an insect lands, the lip drops and traps the insect among the flower parts, forcing it to wriggle its way out, and, in the process, hopefully pollinating the flower.

Butterwort

Yellow butterwort, Pinguicula lutea

Scattered along the edges of the savanna are small, bright yellow flowers of a carnivorous species, the yellow butterwort.

Butterwort leaves

Basal rosette of a butterwort

The business end of a butterwort lies at the base, where a tight cluster of sticky leaves serves to trap small insects by means of tiny stalked glands covered in mucilage. Other glands release digestive enzymes to help dissolve the soft tissues of the prey, with the nutrient-rich juices being absorbed by the leaf to supplement its nitrogen supply in this nutrient-poor environment.

Sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

A similar, but more active strategy, is employed by another insect-eater, the sundews. Tiny rosettes of red leaves covered in what look like dew-covered hairs dot the moist soil in the savanna, especially any place that is muddy along a trail or ditch.

Sundew with prey

Close-up of a sundew leaf with a trapped insect

When a potential prey touch the stalked glands, it gets stuck in the “goo”. Adjacent tentacles move toward the prey, further entrapping it. Digestive enzymes are released and the rest is history.

We finally had to head back to camp, but a good day of carnivorous plant exploration with sundews, two species of pitcher plants, butterworts, two species of bladderworts, and some Venus flytraps. The next day would prove to be even better.

Longleaf pine savanna Holly Shelter

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter

I had heard about Holly Shelter Game Lands for many years, but never managed to visit until now. It consists of over 63,000 acres of mixed forest, pocosin, and other wetlands in Pender County. Since it is turkey season, we were advised to visit on Sunday when there is no hunting. We drove along miles of dirt roads to several spots recommended by a friend for their plant diversity.

Carolina laurel

Carolina wicky, Kalmia carolina

Horse sugar

Horsesugar, Symplocos tinctoria

A few small shrubs adding splashes of color in the longleaf forests, including a Coastal Plain relative of mountain laurel, Carolina wicky (also known as Southern sheepkill). Small starbursts adorn another savanna shrub, horsesugar (aka sweetleaf).

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Small pond at Holly Shelter surrounded by yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava

Our first stop was amazing – hundreds of yellow pitcher plant flowers came into view as we approached a small pond. There was also the bright green of the emerging new leaves, so it was a perfect time to view this species.

Pitcher plant leaf before opening

An unopened pitcher leaf

It is easy to forget that in all of these carnivorous plants, it is the highly adapted leaves that are the trapping mechanism. In the case of the yellow pitcher plant, the leaf blade usually elongates a foot or more before the top splits open to form the deadly pitfall trap.

Pitcher plant opening

A leaf just beginning to split to form the pitcher

This pitcher has a hood (or lid) and usually has red veins that serve as nectar guides for potential prey, luring them deeper into the trap.

Fly going into pitvher plant

An open pitcher with an unwise fly

The trap is a simple one – lure your victim with nectar, a sweet reward concentrated along the rolled lip and down into the upper edges of the trap. Once inside, the walls of the pitcher change texture and become very slick, causing the insect to fall into the tube. Below the slippery zone, the walls have rows of down-ward pointing hairs that inhibit an upward escape. As the insect gets farther down into the trap, the tube narrows, making it more difficult for flying insects to use their wings to escape. Digestive enzymes at the base of the trap all but ensure the fate of the hapless insect.

Pitcher plant prey (2 pitchers)

Contents of two pitcher plants back at the NC Botanical Garden

A popular activity at work is for students to dissect old pitchers (last year’s leaves) and examine what the plant had for dinner. The enzymes only dissolve the soft tissues to release the needed nutrients, so the hard parts of prey remain – an assortment of wings, legs, and exoskeleton pieces. Coworkers gathered the insect parts from two pitcher plants in the Garden’s collection for the photo above: several moths (left side of photo); a cluster of flies (upper right); a wasp (top); some small beetles (lower right); and an assortment of unidentifiable wings, legs, and parts. A large amount of fine dust-like material from the trap is not shown in this picture. I need to collect a few dried pitchers from native habitats and see what the locals have been eating for comparison, but I have a feeling the menu could be similar based on that fly photo above. It was about to make a culinary misstep.

Purple pitcher plant

Purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and their pitchers usually contain rainwater. Prey fall into the pitcher and drown. Ironically, there is a species of mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose larvae live in these pitcher plants and feed on the microscopic community that exists in the water.

Hybrid pitcher plant

Possible hybrid pitcher plant

We did see a few pitcher plant clumps that looked like hybrids between the purple pitcher plants and the yellow. The pitchers look like the S. purpurea, but are much more elongate, like an S. flava. The flowers also seem to be a combination of the colors of the two species – both maroon and yellow tints.

Sundew intermedia

Spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia

Along the path were large numbers of the pink sundews we had seen in the Green Swamp, but the edge of the pond had another species. The spoonleaf sundew is more upright in growth form and seems to do well extending out into the water’s edge.

Sundew close up

A tiny insect trapped in the sticky goo of the sundew

I leaned down for a closer look and could see more victims that had fallen for the glistening droplets that adorn these deadly tentacles.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

The Holly Shelter sites held two more species of butterwort – the blue and the correctly named small butterwort. The latter (which I failed to get a good photo of it turns out) has a pale, almost white flower, with a short flower stalk and a tiny rosette of leaves.

Purple butterwort group

Blue butterworts were very common

The larger, blue butterworts, were quite common and often occurred in patches of twenty or more individuals, scattered about the various sunny locations we visited.

Venus flytrap cluster

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and a small purple pitcher plant

The Venus flytraps were amazing, as always, and abundant. Melissa mentioned all of these carnivorous plants in a recent post about one of her museum trips, so I won’t go into all the details of this, “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”, but I will share a few interesting tidbits.

Slide1

Close-up of a flytrap leaf, showing the trigger hairs

The trap is a modified leaf and has 2 to 3 trigger hairs on each lobe of the trap. Two triggers must be touched in succession within about 20 seconds for the trap to “spring” (or one trigger twice). Closing in less than a second, the Venus flytrap is one of a group of very few plants capable of rapid movement (other local rapid movement plants include Eastern sensitive briar, Mimosa macrophylla, and bladderworts, Utricularia sp.). The fleshy “teeth” along the edge of the trap mesh together to form a closed cage around any prey (usually crawling insects and spiders). The whole trap squeezes together more tightly when the prey struggles. Enzymes are then secreted by minute glands on the inner surface of the lobes and the victim is digested over the next few days. Afterward, the trap reopens, awaiting its next target (each trap can only spring a few times before that leaf dies).

Venus flytrap

Emerging flytrap leaves

The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The genus, Dionaea, refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and the daughter of Dione. The species name, muscipula, is Latin for mousetrap. It really is remarkable that the only place this amazing plant is naturally found is in about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, NC.  This trip proved to be one of strange beauties and incredible adaptations, and is definitely one we will do again.

Bay Watch

Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.

~T. Edward Nickens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.

Jone Lake

Afternoon paddle on Jones Lake (click photos to enlarge)

Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

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Google Earth view of the area showing a small portion of the estimated 900 elliptical Carolina Bays found in Bladen County.

These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.

Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.

Jones Lake sunset 1 Lake sunset

Stunning sunset from our kayaks on Jones Lake

Jones Lake sunset 1

Cypress tree with Spanish moss at sunset

Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.

Horseshoe Lake wide angle

A sea of yellow pitcher plant flowers in the wetlands at Horseshoe Lake

It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.

Pitcher plants along shoreline

Yellow pitcher plants in bloom along the shoreline

The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.

Dragonfly shed on pitcvher plant flower

Shed skin of a dragonfly where it transformed  from an aquatic nymph into the winged adult

Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.

Lily pads on Horseshoe Lake

White waterlily pads dotted the lake surface in many areas

One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.

cricket frog

Southern cricket frog, Acris gryllus

The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.

Lilypad forktail male

Male lilypad forktail damselfly

Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.

Lilypad forktail imm female

Immature female lilypad forktail

Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.

white water ilies

The flowers of white waterlily

The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.

Common grackle

Common grackle

We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.

bladderwort

Bladderwort flowers

In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.

Bladderwort mass

Bladderworts, showing vegetative portions beneath the water surface

These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.

Being in the Moment

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Sometimes you just need to spend time in a wild place, in your special place. This weekend was such a time. Luckily, I had a magical trip to two of my favorite public lands this weekend – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My friend, Art, and several of his friends, were supposed to go with me the weekend of the snow/ice storm, but we had to reschedule because of road conditions. Once again, the weather did not look promising (rain this time), but we managed to dodge most of the storms, and enjoyed the subtle light and saturated colors of the overcast skies. Oddly, even though I had my gear with me, I only took about 20 images for the entire weekend, all with my phone. This weekend was for reflecting, for taking it in, for renewal. I wanted to experience the place, to feel land-rich.

duck feathers

Duck feathers along the bear trail (click photos to enlarge)

The swans are still putting on quite a show at Pungo and their sounds define this place. Gray skies and the occasional mist made the surroundings more intimate. The snow geese continue to be unpredictable and the low cloud ceiling made it even harder to see them. Several flocks went over us during our first day and we could hear them, but not see them, which I found both frustrating and somehow peaceful. We spent a lot of time with the swans, and all found a way to be in the moment as they returned to the lake by the thousands at sunset.

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

A walk in the woods revealed plenty of bear sign, but no bears (we finally saw one moving into a corn field after sunset). I am concerned about the lack of bear sightings this winter, but hope they are just spooked from the hunting season and so many people on the refuge, and things will return to normal later this spring.

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

This was a very visual group of people, with eyes trained by careers in design and time spent surveying scenes of the world. I enjoy being with folks like that, it encourages a slow pace, the pace of discovery and wonder. Lichens on tree trunks, the disheveled appearance of a cattail marsh after ice and snow, and the track patterns of a deer highway through the woods are all cause for quiet celebration and contemplation.

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

Water levels are still quite high at Mattamuskeet, so bird numbers seem low, at least in the areas accessible to the public. The variety of ducks did provide some excellent views, along with  couple of sleeping raccoons in a small tree, and a few white-tailed deer in the marsh. A gentle rain started falling as we walked the boardwalk, adding another pattern to the already elegant design of tree trunk reflections in the dark waters.

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

Gray skies and thick, low clouds helped us decide to bring our trip to a close. One last stop imprinted the message of the wildness in our minds – the stillness, the reflections, the stark beauty of the places we had witnessed. The abundance and proximity of life found here is to be cherished. I am thankful for these places and the opportunity to experience and share them. I have probably used this quote before, but it seems appropriate after a good weekend with good people in two of my favorite places…

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

~Stewart Udall