The Allure of Moving Water

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.  

~Lao Tzu

One of our refurbished pools has a small waterfall. Since the pool was dug on a slope, a waterfall seemed like a logical addition. Besides the aesthetic aspects, there is an added benefit of the sound of moving water, a soothing background element that we can hear from open windows or the screen porch. But one of the main reasons for creating the waterfall was to entice birds to drink and bathe in it. This is especially important in freezing weather when bird baths will ice over. And it is a magnet for a variety of birds, especially warblers, during migration. I’ve moved a lot of tall plants that were growing near that pool to maintain an open view from our house so I can keep tabs on what visits (this will be continuing process since plants often have a mind of their own about where they should be growing).

We can see the activity from the kitchen windows, the porch, and the sun room, places we tend to spend a lot of time in, especially in spring and summer. I thought I might set up a blind outside to try to photograph any birds that came in, but the lighting on the waterfall isn’t great for much of the day. It turns out that many of the birds that visit do so early and late in the day when the low light makes it even tougher to get a decent image. But one day, I looked out the side door and there was male Rose-breasted Grosbeak taking a bath on the large rock that hangs out above the pool. I grabbed a camera and took several shots through the door glass before it flew off (it had finished splashing around, but sat in the water and took several drinks). That convinced me to at least try to get some images, so now I have a tripod set up in the sun room with a telephoto lens pointing out at the waterfall. If I am going to be sitting in the room for any length of time, I crank open that window and hope for a visitor. The down side of that is the open window does provide occasional access to unwanted guests (usually insects of various sorts that I catch and release, although a wren did try to land on the lens one morning). Other times, the window is closed and, if we see something, I shoot through the glass (less than ideal for a sharp image). We left that screen out so I can at least get a quick shot.

Camera set up at the window (click photos to enlarge)

Here are some of the birds that have visited the past few weeks…

–A female American Goldfinch comes down to the top rock of the waterfall and gets a drink

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, the bird that got me to try to photograph our waterfall visitors
Most of the resident yard birds, like this Tufted Titmouse, are regular visitors, especially if the usual bird baths are not filled or are occupied
The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are regular visitors to the waterfall. They often hover in the spray from the waterfall or sit in this location or on the orange-ish rock to the right and splash around. Unfortunately, they tend to come early in the morning before there is any appreciable light on the pool, making it very difficult to get a sharp image with the telephoto lens.
A female Northern Cardinal gets a drink. I have yet to see a male at the water. They seem to prefer the flower pot base bird bath over near the feeding station.
A female Brown-headed Cowbird stops by for a drink
A few of the birds, like American Goldfinches and this Carolina Wren, hang down off the rocks above to get a drink. Others, like in the next photo, usually stand at the edge (or in) the water and dip in for a drink from a more horizontal position
Yellow-rumped Warbler taking a sip from the large rock just above the main pool
The Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to come in waves
We have had a lot of Northern Parula Warblers near the pool the past couple of weeks
We were excited to see this Cape May Warbler in late April, as it is a new species for the property, giving us 112 species on our woodland bird list
A stunning visitor this week – a male Scarlet Tanager. Unfortunately, like several of the birds above, this was taken through glass instead of an open window, so the image is not as sharp. If I try to crank open the window once a bird is already at the pool, they usually fly off due to the motion

Note that we have seen several other waterfall visitors that I have not yet managed to photograph (did it really happen if you don’t get a photo?). They include Wood Thrush (including a male sitting on top of the waterfall one evening singing his beautiful flute-like song), Yellow-throated Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Carolina Chickadee, Purple Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch, and some non-birds – Eastern Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk. A few of the these warbler species landed on nearby twigs (like the goldfinch in the photo below) and were checking out the pool before getting chased off by another bird.

Male American Goldfinch (not yet in his full breeding plumage) on a Baptisia stem just above the pool

A lot of birds hesitate and sit and look at the pool before coming into the waterfall. It probably is a bit scary at first with all the rocks that could provide hiding places for predators. But once they have been a few times, they move right in. Looking forward to seeing what else might be attracted to the sound of moving water as the seasons pass and the vegetation around the pool matures. If you don’t have a wildlife pool with a waterfall, you can still get some moving water by placing a small solar-powered fountain in a bird bath or plastic tub. There are also a variety of drip hoses and fountains available at local bird stores for attracting birds. I once poked a small hole in the bottom of a plastic milk jug filled with water and hung it above a flower pot base to provide a slow drip for an hour or so before needing to be refilled. Whatever your method, I’m sure you will find that, just like us, birds have a hard time resisting the allure of moving water.

Winter Wonderland

Through the weeks of deep snow, we walked above the ground on fallen sky…

~Wendell Berry

I alluded to this trip in our last post when I whined about missing our “big snow” at home while we were away. Well, we were away in our happy place, Yellowstone. And, even though it is experiencing a relative snow drought this winter, there was still plenty in most places. We were asked by a teacher friend at the NC School of Science and Mathematics last summer to lead a winter Yellowstone trip for high school juniors and seniors. With the ups and downs of Covid, we were unsure about the prospects for making the trip happen, but, eventually, it came to fruition with all participants fully vaccinated and everyone agreeing to adhere to Covid protocols before and during the adventure. Melissa and I went out a few days early to scout things out and make final arrangements for lodging and meals. Melissa managed to find lodging in a hostel so we were isolated as a group and we had all our meals but one catered to minimize being in crowded indoor spaces. I will admit we were both a bit nervous about our first flight since the start of the pandemic, but, we were careful and everything turned out fine.

This is the first of a few posts about the trip. We had a nice mix of snowy days and bright sunny days, so we experienced both the quiet beauty of snow falling from gray skies and the glistening allure of diamond dust. That latter phenomenon occurs when a ground-level “cloud” of tiny ice crystals sparkles in the sunlight. Diamond dust usually occurs only in temperatures well below freezing. It is one of my favorite atmospheric conditions in Yellowstone in winter.

Below are a few of the scenic highlights of the trip…

Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)
There’s always more snow in the northeast portions of the park
Icy morning in the interior (on our snow coach ride to Old Faithful)
An all but frozen Soda Butte Creek
It was a very good year for Snowshoe Hares. Their tracks were everywhere! (pop quiz – which way was this animal going?)
The group on a snowshoe hike on the Thunderer Trail
Rime ice on trees along a waterway impacted by a thermal feature
The steam phase of the eruption of Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest geyser. The impressive water phase had happened the day before our trip to the interior. The water phase can be major or minor in length, with the geyser height in a major eruption reaching over 300 feet. The steam phase can last from a few hours to several days. Over the years, Steamboat has been unpredictable in its schedule with intervals between eruption ranging from 4 days to 50 years. The largest number of recorded eruptions in a year occurred twice, with 48 eruptions in both 2019 and 2020. This is the first time we have ever seen Steamboat erupting and it was a thrill!
The nearby Cistern Spring is believed to be connected to Steamboat Geyser. Cistern’s discharge increased in 1965, when Steamboat’s major eruptions were becoming less frequent. This surge in heat and water was so great that all vegetation immediately south of Cistern was killed, The water level in Cistern changes when Steamboat erupts.
The Lower Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from Lookout Point. This waterfall is 308 feet high and, in winter, the ice mountain at the base of the falls can be over 100 feet tall.
Old Faithful geyser erupting. The beauty of this winter sunrise sighting was that only four other people besides our group were there to witness it. In summer, there can be several thousand people crowded on the boardwalks viewing an eruption.
Rime ice on trees in the Upper Geyser Basin

One of my favorite thermal hikes is the Fountain Paint Pots Trail where, in a short walk, you can see all four types of Yellowstone’s thermal features – geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. My favorite are the mudpots. They are like a natural double boiler. Water collects in a shallow, impermeable depression (usually due to a lining of clay). Heated water under the depression causes steam to rise through the ground, heating the collected surface water. Hydrogen sulfide gas is usually present, and certain microorganisms use the smelly gas for energy. Microbes help convert the gas to sulfuric acid, which breaks down rock into clay. The result is a goopy mix where the gases gurgle and bubble. Minerals, like iron oxides,color the mudpots leading to the name “paint pots.” I find myself taking a ridiculously large number of photos here on every visit, hoping to capture an unusual shape as the mud erupts.

A spire of mud
Intricate patterns in an erupting mud bubble
A combination of spire and bubble
Grand Prismatic Spring from the boardwalk, the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and the third largest in the world.
I love the incredible sunrises and sunsets in Yellowstone, especially in winter. Here is a flame orange sunset toward the end of our trip.
Melissa looking at wolves at sunrise

The next posts will cover some of the amazing wildlife we encountered during our adventure…

Wishing You a Wonderful Holiday

He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter….

~John Burroughs

May you find happiness and peace this holiday season. A few images from winters past…

Winter day along the South Fork of the Holston River, dsamascus, VA
Reflections in our creek on a cold winter day
Hungry bluebird gulping a dogwood berry
My one and only ever Snowy Owl on the OBX in December 2013
Bear track at Pungo
Icicle on Blue Ridge Parkway
Winter sunrise on Lake Phelps
Tundra Swans at Pungo

Yard Missiles

Stare hard at the hummingbird, in the summer rain,
shaking the water-sparks from its wings…

~ Mary Oliver

With a thunderstorm kicking up outside and rain (much needed rain) starting to fall, I sit inside watching the yard missiles go at each other at the four feeders we have scattered around the house. It still baffles me how their daily energy budget balances out in their favor with all the zest and fury that they exhibit for most of the day. The calmest feedings occur when I am outside near one of the feeders, apparently keeping at least one of the bejeweled jets at bay (although this doesn’t always hold true). They also tend to dine unbothered when they sneak into the yard vegetation and partake of sips of nectar from the lone surviving Cardinal Flower (a favorite of the yard bunnies I’m afraid) or the abundant Jewelweed. We have plenty of the latter growing just outside our kitchen/sun-room window. I love this up close jungle because it allows me to watch our hummingbirds as they deftly maneuver through the tangle in search of the bright orange flowers. It also gives us a great view of the many butterflies and other insects that visit the nearby Joe-Pye-Weed and Ironweed. The recent appearance of a pair of Green Treefrogs clinging to the look-alike plant stems is an added bonus.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes refuge in a shrub near one of our feeders (click photos to enlarge)
One of three male hummingbirds that have staked a claim to our yard
That darned background stick…would have been nice if this male had landed a bit off to one side or another

My favorite encounter with our yard missiles happened a couple of weeks ago when I went out to bring in a feeder for a cleaning and refill. The hummers frequently zoom close when I am putting up or taking down feeders, but this time, as I grabbed the feeder and lifted it off the hook, a hummingbird landed on it and started feeding. It was an immature male and it occasionally glanced my way as I stood there with bird at arm’s length. They usually only stay a few seconds at a feeder, but this one kept on, so I slowly pulled the bird and tube closer. I finally had it about 8 inches from my face! What an incredible sight. They are so tiny and so beautiful up close. He finally streaked off (my arm thanked him) when another adult male came in for a challenge but veered off when it realized there was a new hanger for the feeder.

A heavy crop to show the delicate beauty of the bright red feathers of the male’s gorget (iridescent throat feathers)

While that was a special moment, my mom told me this week about one that tops it. She loves to sit on her front porch in the evening and watch the hummingbirds as they contest the air space around her feeder. She happened to glance down and saw that one had landed on her knee and was just taking it all in. She said it sat there for several seconds until she gently moved her leg and it zoomed off. Here’s hoping we all get such special moments with these flying jewels before they head south in the coming weeks.

Of Moose and Men (and Women)

Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

~Henry David Thoreau

This is a post about the final leg of our journey last fall on our truck camping adventure. From the deserts of Utah, we herded into familiar territory of Kebler Pass in the Colorado Rockies. We had camped there the year before in peak color of the aspens and it had been glorious. This year, we were just past peak and a wind storm two days before our arrival had stripped the trees of most of their leaves. But, the scenery is still magical and the wildlife put on quite a show.

We wanted to camp at the same site as before, with a view into a beaver dam filled creek surrounded by high mountain peaks. As we were driving to our site, we saw some folks gathered down by the stream and Melissa soon spotted a large dark shape in the tall willows. We pulled in and got the scoop from the others that a bull was following a cow as she was browsing in the dense vegetation.

A bull keeping an eye on a cow as she feeds in the willows (click photos to enlarge)

She finally headed to the edge of the creek and broke out in the open in front of a beaver dam.

The cow walked out in the open in front of a beaver dam

We waited, and, sure enough, he followed.

Bull Moose following his female

The next morning we drove back down to the site and found her again, out in the willows. She bedded down and we waited, but did not see the bull anywhere.

She is almost impossible to see, but is bedded down along the shore in thick brush

We waked around to the other side of the creek for better light and sat for quite awhile as she lay in the sun, but almost invisible to our eyes. She finally got up, and, then, nearby, so did the bull, who had been there the whole time but hidden from our view.

She finally got up, started feeding, and then waded across the creek
The bull follows again

After crossing the creek, she began running in tight circles in the willows and snorting, and finally went into thicker vegetation and disappeared (maybe she had had enough of this young male?). The bull ended up crossing back across the creek and vanishing in the huge willow thicket upstream.

Having spent a couple of hours with these moose, we felt privileged and couldn’t imagine having that kind of luck again. But, when we found ourselves in a beautiful valley of the Taylor Park region, we picked a campsite along a meandering stream valley full of beaver dams with lots of moose and elk sign in the surrounding forest.

Sitting near our campsite looking out over the beaver marshes

That afternoon, we went out looking for wildlife and Melissa soon saw something and whispered, “I see a moose, no, two moose, wait, three, no four moose!”. Indeed, there was a group of four moose feeding in a beaver pond downstream of our campsite – a cow, two young ones, and a bull. The late day light flooded the area and we spent a long time basking in the sight of these magnificent animals doing what they do, wading in a beaver pond, feeding on vegetation, and looking regal.

Melissa spotted the Moose in a nearby beaver pond
The cow was ever alert as she dipped her huge snout into the water for vegetation
As soon as the cow and young ones moved off, the bull followed
After the moose departed, we sat next to a beaver dam and soaked in the scenery (what a vista these critters have)

After the phenomenal moose encounter, we relaxed by a large beaver pond just upstream. Soon, we were rewarded with an eye level view of one of the inhabitants.

A beaver swan out of the lodge and eyed us before deciding we weren’t bushes that sprang up during the day
The resounding slap of a beaver tail as it sounds the alarm

We decided to leave the beavers to their kingdom and retreated back to our chairs with a view of the incredible surroundings.

Sunset from our campsite in beaver and moose country

The next day, we headed out, bound for home, with three stops along the way at familiar types of campsites – a state fishing lake, a state conservation area, and the gorgeous Red River Gorge in Kentucky.

Another restful Kansas State Fishing Lake campsite
A Missouri campsite next to a vernal pool
A view of the unusual landscape of Red River Gorge
Our final two nights on the road in crowded Red River Gorge, but we managed to backpack in a short distance and find a secluded ridge-line

It’s always good to get back home after an adventure, but it definitely whet the appetite for more, especially in isolated-truck-camping-loving Melissa. So, stay tuned for more…

Dry, Dusty, Beautiful

There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount , a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.

~Edward Abbey

Hard to believe it has taken me this long to finish posting about our second road trip way back last Fall, but it has been a busy several months since our return with a lot happening. It sort of slipped my mind after a month or so, but I figured I better write this up before things start to get too busy as the weather warms. So, here is a continuation of our last truck camping adventure (some of you may have thought we were still in Colorado!). I’m going to share this post and the next one (the last from our journey last Fall) without much commentary and will let the images speak for themselves.

From where we left off on our last western truck camping post, we drove from the mountain scenery to a very different landscape – the dry and starkly beautiful deserts of southwest Colorado and adjoining Utah. It was a sharp transition and the scenery seemed to grow more grandiose as we drove. We debated our options and then decided on a slight meander to visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. Evidence of fires over the past few decades were evident throughout our drive into the park. Due to Covid, most of the facilities were closed and there were no tours into the amazing structures. Mesa Verde was established in 1906 to preserve the truly remarkable cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Archeological site at Mesa Verde National Park (click photos to enlarge)
A large buck Mule Deer casually strolling alongside the park road.

Our next destination was the vast stretch of BLM lands outside Canyonlands National Park. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore! The land stretches on forever, the rocks now become the dominant feature of the landscape, with patches of green scattered to the horizon.

The Needles overlook on BLM land
Campsite on BLM land outside Canyonlands NP
Spectacular sunset at our campsite
There are lots of pokey things in the desert
One of the so-called Six-shooters just east of Canyonlands National Park
The Needles section of Canyonlands NP
Sandstone weathered into columns
Our second campsite at Mineral Canyon on BLM land outside the park

The public lands were being well-used while we were in the Canyonlands area. We tried to get into Arches National Park, but the extremely long wait line at the entrance, and the large numbers of unmasked people we encountered in Moab, caused me to turn around and head back to the BLM lands. We drove around to some more of the incredible sites in Canyonlands and did some short hikes, but then headed back to our campsite.

Vastness, another word for this landscape
Islands in the Sky in Canyonlands NP

And this is when we had our only mishap of the trip – a flat tire on a Saturday evening. Luckily, we noticed it as we were turning around on a large flat rock slab on the otherwise sandy back country road. After changing the tire, we knew we had to head out the next day to try to find a place where we could repair it or buy a new spare. Sunday is not the best day for such things, but in looking online (glad we had cell service) we found a place in Grand Junction, Colorado, and off we went. That meant staying in an Airbnb, and we were lucky to find one with good Covid protocols (and no recent guests) close to the tire place. We ended buying a totally new set of tires since these were the original tires on this 2003 truck (you my remember it was my dad’s truck and he had used it sparingly as a farm vehicle).

While the beauty and expansiveness of the desert landscape is appealing, I must confess I found myself wanting to head back into the forests and mountains. Our last leg of the journey took us through some familiar territory and some encounters with one of my favorite animals. More next time…

Spring Birds

The presence of a single bird can change everything for one who appreciates them.

~Julie Zickefoose

An annual highlight for us living in these woods is the arrival of the spring migrants. They all bring a touch of excitement and joy when you see or hear the first of their kind arriving at the breeding sites (our woods) or passing through to places higher up or farther north. Our woods have been alive with the sounds of Wood Thrushes, Ovenbirds, and a few warbler species these past few weeks, plus the calls of our local nesters, the bluebirds, wrens, and cardinals. Last weekend was the first screeching call of a Great Crested Flycatcher, and two nights ago, the booming sound of a Chuck-wills-widow, one that I have not heard here in over a decade. But certain birds carry a special excitement for me – the first hummingbird, the first melodious Wood Thrush, and the first tanager among them.

And so, this past week we heard the calls of Summer Tanagers, and two days ago, while I was loading some stuff into our truck, I heard the chip-burrrr call of a Scarlet Tanager just behind me. I turned, and there was a female, snagging a mulberry not 10 feet from me! No camera, of course, so I just watched as she ate one more berry, and then flew off. The mulberry has al lot of berries, but few are close to being ripe, so there is not a lot for them to feed on just yet. Plus, the squirrels have discovered the tree and, true to their nature, have decided to claim it by eating the unripe berries and cutting the tips of many branches off and letting them fall to the ground. I’m afraid the berry buffet will not be as large this year for the birds.

On my next walk by the tree, a male had flown in and sat for a minute while I watched. That was enough to prompt me to take a break from the chores, get the camera, and sit at the shop entrance to see what might happen. A few minutes later, he returned.

A male Scarlet Tanager snagged a fly in the mulberry tree (click photos to enlarge)
Their red color is so intense against the green background of leaves
A rare pose out in the open while he looks for ripe berries
There are only a few ripe berries right now so he had to come down close to me for this one
Stopping for a moment in full sun

The male put on a nice show as he searched the branches for ripening fruit. The tree usually makes for a busy background, but I’ll take that as long as I can watch these incredible beauties up close. A pair of Summer Tanagers flew in at one point, but were chased away by the male Scarlet Tanager. Just another day in the woods.

Oh, and the grosbeak show continues, now with the arrival of the migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. I’m amazed that there are still a few Evening Grosbeaks still making regular forays to the yard. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks seem a bit intimidated by the noisy big beaks, so it is somewhat rare to see them both on the feeder at once. Of course, as I was writing this, a male of each species shared a few moments on one feeder, until I reached for the camera. But, I”m not going to complain. The Carolina Wren singing 3 feet from the kitchen door and the bluebirds sitting on the garden gate right now are telling me that it’s all good, that spring is here, and so are the birds.

And then there are the grosbeaks

Swarms

What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bees.

~Marcus Aurelius

Earlier this week I was walking down in our woods mid-day, switching out the memory cards in our trail cameras, when I came across a termite emergence near the opossum hole. What I noticed first was a group of large dragonflies, maybe 30 or more, swarming in a sunny patch down by the soon-to-be-dry creek. There were a couple of species of dragonflies, though the larger ones (probably some species of darner) were by far the most abundant. They were zooming back and forth snagging winged termites as they fluttered up from the ground in their nuptial flight. I sat mesmerized for several minutes watching the proficiency of these aerial hunters. I thought I should try to capture some video of this spectacle, but then walked on, figuring I couldn’t capture anything worthwhile with just a phone (boy, was I wrong about that, as you will see later).

I walked about 150 feet along the creek and encountered another, smaller, termite swarm, but with few dragonflies present.

The second termite emergence spot where alates (that’s the caste of winged, reproductive termites in a colony) gathered on a twig tip before taking flight with more on the log below (click photos to enlarge)

I wrote about termite swarms a few years back and pondered then about the triggering mechanism for such synchronous swarms. I found suggestions that temperature (air and/or soil), humidity, conditions before or after storms, etc. as the causes for nearby termite colonies all emerging around the same time. Well, this happened on Tuesday last week, with no significant change in weather before or after that day, so I am still baffled (and in awe) of this phenomenon. After taking a couple of pictures, I continued on up toward the house for lunch.

As I reached our little footbridge, there was another emergence (probably 300 feet from the last one). Interestingly, they were emerging on the same log that I had photographed them on when I wrote that last termite post. When I looked at the photos from that blog post, I saw the date they were taken was May 2, 2015.

Termites emerging on the same log I photographed some on in 2015

The alates followed the same path along the log as they had back then, working their way up toward the tip (the highest point) where most of them took flight.

Here’s a short video clip of the tip of that log and the emerging brood of termites (almost identical to the video clip from 2015).

Termite emergence in our woods last week

As I had found back in 2015, these emergence flights don’t last very long (15-30 minutes), and many predators, both terrestrial (ants, spiders, lizards, etc.) and aerial (dragonflies, birds, bats in the evening, etc.) gather to take advantage of this slowly flying buffet. As this swarm started to thin, I walked up the trail, only to encounter one more emergence. This one was smaller, in deep shade, and had only two dragonflies in attendance. Still, the number of dragonflies I had seen in our woods on this walk was way above any number we normally see, especially down by the creek.

I soon got to the top of the ridge and walked through our side gate to find Melissa out in the yard with her phone making video clips of a cluster (one of the proper collective nouns, although I prefer the more fanciful, dazzle) of dragonflies attacking yet another large termite swarm. There were at least 50 dragonflies (mostly large darners, and we both think they were probably Swamp Darners) swooping to and fro in our side yard out near one the water gardens (this area is basically a small, sunny hole in the forest canopy. I was impressed by the quick clip she showed me and we continued to watch and marvel at the aerial capabilities of the dragonflies as they turned on a dime and snatched a hapless alate out of the air. After a successful snag, a dragonfly would munch in the air (you could see termite wings drop from on occasion) before continuing the hunt, with success after success in grabbing an in-flight meal. Once inside, I was blown away by what Melissa captured on video (and her editing abilities).

So, we present this short video of the amazing airy antics we witnessed (too bad the Oscars are this evening). The first segment is actual speed, but she filmed the rest in slow-motion video. Watch the sharp turns the dragonflies make as they hunt. And keep your eyes on prominent termites as they fly through the screen…do they make it?

Melissa’s iPhone video of a dragonfly swarm feeding on emerging termites in our yard near one of the water gardens and campfire ring (the large stumps)

Once again, we have witnessed synchronous termite swarms in our woods – five swarms over a distance of about 1/4 mile and a time span of about 45 minutes from creek bottom to the top of the ridge. This probably helps with genetic diversity by allowing mates from different colonies to find each other during the short nuptial flights (they drop their wings shortly after landing). But what triggers this synchrony over unknown distances and seemingly varied micro-climates?

And now I have another big question…how the heck do all these dragonflies suddenly appear at these termite emergence sites? We are both amazed that so many dragonflies appeared seemingly out of nowhere (the greatest number of darners I have ever seen patrolling the yard is probably 3 or 4 at any one time). Our friend and researcher at the museum, Chris, has studied dragonfly swarms, and states that this type of swarm is probably a static swarm (feeding swarm), although she speculated these may also be related to migratory swarms (yes, many species of dragonflies migrate). One study showed that the number of dragonflies you see in a swarm is just the tip of the iceberg, with those you count representing fewer than 20% of the number in the vicinity. Where are all these dragonflies on a normal day? Are they cruising the treetops, out of our sight? Can they communicate with one another in some way to take advantage of a short-term food bonanza? I’m hoping Chris sees this and comments with any updates from dragonfly researchers that may shed additional light on how dragonflies can gather so quickly for such ephemeral feeding frenzies. However it happens, it is something special to behold, so be on the lookout for a swarm near you (and have your phone ready).

Almost Normal?

…It is always my place to come back and feel normal again.

~Alana Blanchard

That quote referred to a special place for its writer, one of the Hawaiian islands. For me, one of the special places I seek is Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern North Carolina. I had not been in many months, so, when our good friend Scott paid a visit (the first overnight guest we have had in over a year), he and I decided to make a road trip back to normal (we are vaccinated now).

Arriving at the refuge, we found a large section of the road system remains closed. which concentrated the many carloads of visitors even more. We soon managed to spot some birds along one of the canals and pulled over for a closer look. Sitting alongside a trio of large turtles was a oddly paired duo – a Blue-winged Teal and an American Coot. We sat with these birds for almost an hour, watching their feeding behaviors and reactions to what was happening around them.

Blue-winged Teal along a canal at the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Blue-winged Teal are so named because of the blue visible in their wings when in flight. In the photo above, you can see a tiny hint of that baby blue color.

The teal was dabbling along the edge as it fed. Check out the sheen on its head feathers.
American Coot hanging out with the teal – those lobed toes are incredible!

Field guides almost always describe the American Coot as a plump, chicken-like bird (if the shoe fits…). It is North America’s largest rail and is found near wetlands throughout much of the country. They tend to be gregarious (I have seen hundreds together at Lake Mattamuskeet in winters past) but this one had decided to just hang with his buddy, the teal. Coot feed primarily on aquatic vegetation which they grab from the surface or dive to get. They don’t nest here in NC, but undergo nocturnal migrations to freshwater marshes in western and northern states.

These two hung out together and alternately fed, preened, and rested while we observed them

While we were watching the bird buddies from the car, I looked down the road and saw a Raccoon heading toward us. It swam across the canal and began foraging in the shallows fifty feet or so behind the birds, who seemed unconcerned. It was the first of four Raccoons we saw that morning, all searching for a meal at the edge of a canal.

A Raccoon pauses to check us out before continuing to search for food
This Raccoon, the second of four we saw at Pungo, was intent on finding a meal
Two of the Raccoons we watched used the same hunting technique – rapidly walking in shallow water and doing short lunges with both front paws out, flailing around for anything that moved or felt right

Though there were several cars at “Bear Road” each time we drove by, we finally decided to check out the fields, and, right away saw three bears out from the edge of the far woods. They soon went back in and we hiked a bit to see what we could see. As we rounded the edge of a tree-line we spotted a mother bear with three of her yearlings coming out into the field. Though she was a considerable distance away and the wind was in our favor, she apparently spotted us kneeling along the edge of a well-worn bear path, one she has no doubt walked many times in the past. I am guessing she recognized that there were two new bumps sticking out near her favorite trail and wasn’t quite sure what they were. She didn’t rush away, but did stop and stare at us and her cubs soon became a little nervous, so they all sauntered back into the woods.

A mother bear with three of last year’s young

That would be the first of a total of nine bears we saw, the others being on the stretch of pocosin on the south shore of Lake Phelps.

A Palamedes Swallowtail nectaring on a thistle

One of the highlights of any springtime trip to Pungo is the abundance of butterflies. Palamedes Swallowtails were everywhere last weekend, with most preferring to nectar on the scattered thistles instead of the large swaths of ragwort blooming along the roadsides (the yellow in the background in the photo above). I spent several minutes watching one thistle that was quite popular with the passing swallowtails (when I first saw it there were four of them fluttering on it).

Palamedes Swallowtails loading up with nectar on a thistle flower

We also saw some Black Swallowtails, a few Zebra Swallowtails, and my second Monarch Butterfly of this spring season.

My second monarch sighting of this spring, this male was feeding on the abundant ragwort flowers

Late in the day, we decided to head over to Mattamuskeet NWR via the long route through the other section of Pocosin Lakes NWR. It requires heading over to the south shore of Lake Phelps and driving for an hour or so on gravel roads through a landscape of thick pocosin and swamps. You never know what you might see but our main sightings on this day were a ton of turkeys, doves, and other birds (and the five bears we saw before we got back onto the refuge roads).

A great way to end a day, a spectacular sunset at Lake Mattamuskeet

Our quick drive around Mattamuskeet as the sun was getting low on the horizon yielded no wildlife, but it did provide a very nice sunset to cap off what was almost a normal day for two old friends that finally got to spend some time together doing what we love to do. Get your vaccine and you can get back to almost normal too.

Opossum Hole Happenings

The opossum hasn’t changed since the days when European explorers captured it and proudly sent it to their kings. We’ve just lost a bit of our wonder.

~T. Edward Nickens

NOTE: I think this has now been corrected to show thumbnails (I hope)

I admit to always having had a soft spot for these unusual mammals, North America’s only marsupial. I, as probably many of you, have encountered them in trash cans, had one in the crawl space of a house, and, unfortunately, one beneath the car I was driving when a wayward opossum ran (who knew they could move fast) out in front of me one night.

But I owe my newfound fascination to the work of our friend, Jerry, who has had trail cameras out on a opossum den for quite some time and has documented the goings on in his Possum Hole Chronicles Facebook posts and in a wonderful YouTube program that was originally presented as a Lunchtime Discovery Series talk with the NC Office of Environmental Education.

Because of Jerry, I now have three trail cameras and have been putting them out on our property since the start of this year. I move them around quite a bit and have been pleased with the variety of creatures they have recorded. A little over a month ago, I put one on a large fallen double-trunk tree that crosses our little creek. The usual Raccoons showed up and one Virginia Opossum, although they all took the trunk without the camera for their path. On my next memory card exchange, I moved the camera to the other trunk and faintly recorded something exciting off in the distance one night – the opossum gathering leaves. I figured this meant a den nearby, so I placed all three cameras around the root ball of the tree which had a couple of holes at its base.

That was the start of my version of a ‘possum’s life – Opossum Hole Happenings (I like Jerry’s title better). So, below is a series of short video clips of what has been happening in the vicinity of this one opossum hole in Chatham County for the past two months.

The fallen tree is a superhighway in this part of our woods. Most nights, the ‘possum does this – comes out of the hole on the left of the tree in the root ball, crawls up and walks across the log for a night of foraging.
This was an unusually late return to the hole since it was after daybreak. Most returns are while it is still dark.
I have lots of footage of at least two different Raccoons traversing the tree.
One night, a Coyote sneaked by the tree, obviously on the prowl.
I had not recorded the Red Fox in quite some time, but it spent a few minutes one night checking out the ‘possum log.
Three deer lounge around the ‘possum tree – I wonder if they are aware of the sleeping opossum nearby…
An opossum rubbing a stick near the den entrance. I assume it is scent marking by rubbing secretions from glands in the head and neck region. If so, this is probably a male. I think I have recorded at least two different opossums at the hole based on slight differences in tail shape.
One thing I was hoping to capture – the opossum carrying leaves into its burrow in its tail. Jerry had filmed them collecting leaves with the front paws, transferring the leaves under the body to the hind feet, which then gather them into a ball in the curved tail for carrying.

There have been many other critters around the ‘possum hole over these past few weeks. I have only one camera on the hole now (the view is that of the first few video clips in this blog). The most common day-time visitor are Gray Squirrels, followed by White-tailed Deer, Eastern Chipmunks, and various birds (especially the feathered equivalent of chipmunks, Carolina Wrens). At night, Raccoons, lots of deer, mice, moths, and a stray cat. I’ll leave this camera up for the next few months and will share anything new and interesting that happens at the ‘possum hole. Thanks, Jerry, for the inspiration.