Truck Camping 101

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.

~Douglas Adams

Melissa and Mike’s top ten tips (plus) for camping in your truck…

  1. Don’t run your truck through a mud hole that tops the hood on the first day. And if you do, hope for really good luck and that there are no adverse effects on your truck. Go ahead and camp at the end of a paved road, rather than the end of a mudhole-ridden gravel road.
  2. Download and study the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) available from pretty much all National Forests (find the website for the forest you’re looking at, then click the Maps and Publications link in the left bar and look for the MVUMs there; most can be downloaded as a PDF). For the most part (and especially in western states), they show where you’re allowed to dispersed camp on National Forest lands. Then, use Google or another satellite view option to look for likely spots to camp. If there’s too many RVs where you are, just drive further over the bumpy, rocky, muddy stretches (contradicting rule 1), and you’ll probably find a spot you can camp without a next-door RV!
  3. Find a water container that doesn’t leak. Good luck with that. If you find it, let us know.
  4. Jury-rig any and everything. This may include:
    • creating a gasket for your above-mentioned leaking Igloo water cooler made from window gasket material
    • using some tubing to direct the water from your leaky water cooler out the truck door so even though the area around your water cooler is already pretty wet, you don’t make it any wetter while actually using the water as intended (rather than as an unintentional interior car wash)
    • adding a shelf for under your tailgate (for wet shoes and extra gear) made from a $6 piece of closet shelving and a few bungees
    • installing a cargo net between the roof handles in the back seat/storage area of your truck cab to shove your jackets, hats, bug shirts, rain gear, paper towels, etc. Use zip ties if necessary.
    • bringing along leftover bits of decking boards to use for leveling your truck on uneven campsites. Also use said boards for holding your extra water jerrycan up so it doesn’t tip over when you move the leaky Igloo water cooler (we could carry about 12 gallons of water at a time between the two water containers and water bottles).
    • covering most of the bed liner of your truck with super sticky gorilla duct tape so that the rough surface doesn’t catch on your mattress, sheets, clothes. etc. Then, use Velcro on top of said duct tape to attach all sorts of things – mosquito netting, battery powered fans, storage containers for your glasses and phones, curtains, etc.
    • sealing your truck bed camper with any and every material including silicone caulk, RV waterproofing tape, and yes, duct tape. If you use black tape it blends in better…
  5. Get over your aversion to dirt and dust before you leave. You’re just going to have to live with it!
  6. Prepare for all sorts of weather. This includes ice and snow. In August. And if you didn’t, just wear all of your clothes at once, get your sleeping bag out of the car top carrier, and hunker down to keep warm. Warm beverages and whiskey are both effective for internal warming in cold and snow!
  7. Go to the west. There’s amazing mountains, and it’s dry (just avoid the parts that are on fire, please)! If your water cooler leaks all over your truck, it’ll dry. If you wash your really dirty jeans in a bucket with some Dr. Bronner’s, they’ll dry. If you take a bucket shower with frigid water, you’ll dry. When you breathe at night (which I hope you do, no vampires allowed please), it’ll dry… or turn to frost (see rule 6 for pointers on this problem).
  8. Get a bucket, a pool noodle, and some wag bags. Use some of that jury-rigging expertise already mentioned and make yourself a toilet. As Mike said, “The bucket changed my opinion about pooping in the woods.” You’re welcome.
  9. Make sure you don’t try to use your newly constructed toilet in a really flat area of Wyoming. You’ll have to get down in the dry stream bed to get out of sight of the road, and those really huge mud cracks created as the water evaporated from the clay soils that you thought looked really cool until you stepped into them and sank more than 6 inches into some of the stickiest mud you’ve ever experienced in your entire life — yeah, you should avoid them. Should you not heed this warning, note that it’ll take a lot of washing, including using sand and pebbles as an abrasive, to remove the mud from your shoes, socks, and pants. Even then, you may never remove all of the mud. You think I’m kidding. I’m not.
  10. Every single day you’re out there, thank the native peoples that lived on these lands and stewarded them for centuries. Recognize that most of the places you’re reveling in belonged to someone else and were stolen. At the same time, thank the people who fought to protect these lands from development — native peoples, local and non-local advocates, earlier (and perhaps more statesmanlike) politicians, and many others. And revel in the natural beauty and vastness that comprises the United States of America.
Truck with tarp set up. This is the 2 pole set-up for shade and easy viewing from back of truck – when rain (or snow) was likely, we set it up with one pole to better shed the water. (click photos to enlarge)
Rear view showing bed (6-inch tri-fold foam mattress) folded into couch, shelf underneath tailgate, PVC pipes to help hold up rear window, one of 4 tubs for organization of gear, and boards under tires for leveling (plus one of our favorite snacks). This was at Pebble Creek campground in Yellowstone prepping for snow.

But seriously, if you think you might want to start camping in a truck, here’s a few of our best hacks and favorite pieces of gear that made our truck camping experience more fun and comfortable (note that we are not sponsored by or getting anything from any of these links below – we just liked the gear!):

  • Take a test run. My sister and I spent one night in a torrential rainstorm in the truck a few weeks before the big trip. This helped us realize a few things that really helped us out on the long trip, including the need for the jury-rigged under-tailgate shelf and having a small collapsible table that we could cook on under the tarp.
  • Speaking of tarps, our Slumberjack tarp provided a place to get out of the sun or rain (and to keep the rain from coming in the back window while sleeping with the tailgate open).
  • Though we didn’t use it until our return to the east, something like the Dac Inc. Truck Tent can help keep mosquitoes out (unless you’re camping in the western US, which you should be, in which case you won’t need this because you can sleep with the back completely open and not worry a bit about insects! This is what we did for most of the trip.)
  • If your truck has an extended cab, remove the backseat to provide you with more storage area. We added some plywood platforms to level things out and give us space to shove stuff like shoes and tools underneath.
  • Organize your stuff in tubs so you don’t have to dig too far to find what you need. We had a big food tub sorted into brown bags for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; but then had our daily food tub on top for easy access to the things we planned to eat over the next couple days inside. (Jerry, you would approve of this system! We didn’t quite reach your standard of organization, but it was MUCH better than our normal approach of throwing everything into a huge pile!)
  • Along the lines of the previous tip — don’t let you stuff pile up! Put it back where it belongs or you’ll make yourself miserable!
  • Limit the items that need to stay cool. That way, if you forget to get ice one day and then can’t for a couple days, nothing will spoil because, really, things like cheese, jelly, and pre-cooked bacon are pretty much shelf-stable. I also dehydrated lots of things before departing, and packaged meals (especially dinner) for easy preparation. A little experimenting with quantities of water and cooking times led to some pretty decent homemade dehydrated meals!
  • Think about how you want to try to stay clean. We swam a few times in the southeast, but we also enjoyed using a portable shower with a 5 gallon bucket and some biodegradable soap. We didn’t heat the water (honestly, we just couldn’t heat enough to make a difference), so showering was definitely a warm-day only phenomenon (though we did shower near the Tetons with snow on the ground – but back to that thing about weather in the west: if the sun is out, it can be REALLY warm in the sun even when the air temp is in the 50s!).
  • Research how you can power the gadgets you need. We purchased a sine wave inverter that had enough power to charge my laptop so I could reference the aforementioned Motor Vehicle Use Maps as well as search for places to camp and hikes to take on the internet (using my cell phone as a mobile hot spot). It was also perfect for charging our phones, the small rechargeable fan, and the portable shower.
  • Be prepared for trouble. We had a full size spare tire with us (though we realized we hadn’t checked it in a while, so thankfully we didn’t need to use it) and a portable jump starter in case we accidentally killed the truck battery with all of our recharging (which we fortunately also didn’t need).
  • Even if it’s cold, keep the windows and tailgate open, if at all possible (I refer you back to rule 6…). Condensation is a real thing while camping in a truck.
  • Get off the interstate when you can! Some of our favorite spots were along back roads across the plains and into the Rockies.
Okay, we know this is what you really want to see…our battery-powered shower on the left and the private privy bucket on the right using a large pool noodle for a seat and wag bags for the business part of it. We rigged up a secondary tarp off the main truck tarp when we needed privacy.
Truck tent. We only used it once, on the last night, but now realize we like the extra room it gives us (compared to a roll of mosquito netting that comes down at rear of truck bed with tailgate outside of it) and will use in combination with tarp as needed in the future. You also see our folding table and step stool, along with camp chairs.
One of the many delicious dehydrated meals Melissa had prepared before our departure – this one is lentil and dumpling soup.

If you want to try something like this, Mike and I would be happy to share more ideas, lessons learned, favorite places, and other tips. Just send us a note!

This is why you dispersed camp in a truck…look closely and you will see our truck in our beautiful (and isolated) campsite in the Bighorn Mountains. We loved it there and spent a couple of nights because of its scenery, quiet, and just the feeling of being in such a magnificent place with no one else around.

Woods Wandering

Forests are places where we can get back in touch with our inner selves, where we can walk on soft ground, breathe in natural cents, taste berries, listen to the leaves crackling – all the senses are awakened in the subdued light…

~Pierre Lieutaghi

I decided to wander away from the house one morning and stroll through the “back 14”. The bulk of our 14 acres of forest is on some steep terrain, with a ravine and an intermittent stream “valley” making up the lowlands. Earlier this spring I spent a lot of mornings down slope from the house cutting and painting Eleagnus shrubs to try to kill off some of this terrible invasive. I have let up on those pursuits with the onset of the sweltering heat and humidity of summer, but I thought it was time for a leisurely stroll to see what I might find. Spiders and snails dominated the scene and I found myself picking up a branch to wave in front as I walked (although I tried to step around any webs that I saw).

Arrowhead orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata
Arrowhead Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata (click photos to enlarge)
Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum wrapping be
Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum, wrapping beetle in silk

Two spider species seemed to be the most abundant – the unusually-shaped (but accurately named) Arrowhead Orbweaver and various sizes of the more common Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver. The largest specimen I encountered was busy wrapping its overnight catch of a large May Beetle in silk.

Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum 1
The spider stopped spinning its prey and settled in for a meal

As I walked, I started paying more attention to tree leaves and what I might find on them. If I saw chewing, I flipped it over to see if I could discover the chewer. On one hickory tree, I found a cluster of neat little eggs underneath a leaf. I think these may be moth eggs of some sort, although a species of true bug eggs is also a possibility (stink bugs, etc.). But, they seem to lack the usual lid associated with eggs of the latter group.

eggs an parasitoid wasps
A cluster of insect eggs under a hickory leaf

I also noticed some other insects associated with this egg mass – tiny parasitoid wasps of some sort diligently laying their eggs. They were purposeful in their movements and spent some time with each egg they parasitized. I saw six of the wasps, so I wonder how many of these insect eggs will actually hatch out the species that originally laid the cluster.

eggs and parasitoid wasps
Parasitoid wasps laying eggs in the insect eggs

A Spicebush leaf yielded a member of one of my favorite groups of mini-creatures, a treehopper. These tiny jumpers are often adorned with strange appendages that help them mimic thorns or other features of their background, giving them both some armor-like protection and camouflage. As usual, I went to my go-to resource for this type of insect, Hoppers of North Carolina. There I learned that this is probably a female based on the long length of its horn (males have short horns). There are apparently several species in this group that look alike and may be separated primarily by host plant. Though Spicebush is not listed as a host plant, this one was next to a small Redbud tree, which is a known host plant. Right after I snapped this photo, this one leaped onto the Redbud. Another interesting tidbit is that these little hoppers can communicate by vibrating the substrate they are on. Research has shown that they communicate mating calls, food sources, and danger from predators using these vibrations (inaudible to the human ear).

Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex
Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex

Chewed leaves on a maple branch caused me to stop and look, leading to this discovery – one of the twig mimic caterpillars. This fairly large larva is distinguished by the dark stripes on the head capsule, the dark line on the slight hump near the far end, and the first two pair of prolegs that are noticeably reduced in size. It is the caterpillar of a really cool-looking moth, the Maple Looper.

Maple looper caterpillar 1
Caterpillar of the Maple Looper Moth, Parallelia bistriaris

As always, there were plenty of other macro surprises and delights along the way…

land snail
These small land snails were everywhere on my walk
maple seed embedded in pawpaw leaf
A maple seed has pierced a Pawpaw leaf

As I neared the house, I spotted something new to me in a patch of Microstegium – a dark-colored stink bug with prominent spines. I leaned in and saw it was missing most of one antenna. Online information said little is known about the life history of this species although it appears to eat both plants and other insects, but is not an agricultural pest like some of its relatives. What struck me most was the stark beauty of this species and its textured exoskeleton. Once again, a close look at our surroundings yields many surprises.

Black Stink Bug, Proxys punctulatus

Flower Parts: The Iris’ Have It

In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;

In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

~Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Siberian iris, Iris siberica

I’ve been meaning to take a look at this more common backyard flower for a couple weeks now, ever since the Siberian iris (Iris siberica) began blooming in our yard. It’s almost done now, but the native blue flag iris (Iris virginica) is just beginning to open up in big numbers in our pond, so we should have irises around for a number of weeks yet.

Iris is one of those flowers that a lot of people have in their yard, so it might be a little more accessible to some to take a closer look at than wood poppy or Jack-in-the-pulpit. And it has large parts that are fairly easy to see… but they’re a little bit complicated, and figuring out which parts are which was more challenging than I expected!

As usual, I started with a hunt for the sepals. But my typical sepal-finding technique, seeing which parts enclosed the flower before opening, didn’t work quite as well as it has for some of the others flowers I’ve examined. The iris flower emerges from a swollen fold in the leaves of the plant (there’s probably a proper botanical term for this but I don’t know what it is!).

Opening iris bloom

I was pretty sure that the green around the flower was leaf and not sepal. So I had to refer back to the real definition of a sepal, which is the outer whorl of the corolla (petals + sepals). Here’s the base of the flower where the sepals and petals join the stem:

Base of iris flower

This was still confounding, as it looks like all six parts of the corolla are attached at the same level on the stem. Finally, I had to give in and check out a favorite flower reference, A Guide to Enjoying Wildflowers by Donald and Lillian Stokes. According to Stokes, the three larger and frillier parts are the sepals and the smaller, more upright ones are the petals.

The lowest part is this photo is the sepal. Two of the petals are to the right and left of the sepal. Ignore the bit in the middle, directly above the sepal, for the moment…

So with an iris, it seems the showiest “petals” are actually sepals! I found another good botanical word to describe this: the sepals are “petaloid.” The three petals are the slightly more modest, plainer parts situated between the sepals (you can see them well in the very first picture).

I felt like I needed a little more proof to help me understand this all better, so I went out for a look at our blue flag iris, which is just beginning to open up and had a better variety of flower buds.

On this larger flower bud, note the green color at the base of the sepals. If you refer back to the photo of the base of the flower, you can see how there is some green at the outside base of the sepals that is lacking on the petals. This is the case on the open blue flag iris flowers as well. This helped me feel more confident in what I read in the Stokes guide – that the larger, showier petal-like structures are the sepals. Phew. Sepals are definitely the toughest!

The reproductive structures in an iris are also a bit different from some of the other flowers I’ve looked at. The stamen has the fairly typically eye shadow applicator appearance, but it hides under another petal-like structure. It starts out fairly elongated and smooth, but shrinks and shrivels as it produces its white pollen (see below).

The white, pollen-covered anther at the tip of the stamen hides under another petal-like structure.

So what’s the petal-like part above the stamen? It turns out that’s the pistil. Or more technically, applying my new vocabulary, a petaloid pistil. The curved lip directly above the anther (pollen-producing part of the stamen) is actually the stigma. The feathery bit above the stigma (the end of the petaloid part) is part of the style (the part that connects the stigma to the ovary). As a pollinator crawls down the “throat” of the flower, following the striped nectar guides on the sepal, any pollen it’s carrying on its back is scraped off by the stigma. Then it hits the anther and picks up more pollen to carry on to the next flower. Mike described this process well in a post about one of our native iris species, the crested dwarf iris, in a post from a few years ago. In both the crested dwarf iris and the blue flag iris, the pistil lays tightly against the sepal, so a pollinator really has to force its way in. On the Siberian iris, the pistil is more upright, providing easier access to the stigma and anther, but perhaps it is less efficient at ensuring pollination?

If all goes well, the flower is pollinated and a pollen tube grows down the petal-like style to the ovary. In our yard, many of those ovaries are already beginning to swell.

Ripening ovary; the shriveled brown bit attached at the tip is the former flower!

Inside, the ovules are developing, getting ready to seed in the next round of iris.

Dissected ovary with developing seeds.

Of course, this species tends to spread more easily via underground rhizomes, making it a prolific perennial in our yard!

Naming Nature Part 2

Here is the answer to yesterday’s quiz along with things to note as you make your observations. The snake is a Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata). It is a small snake with adults ranging up to about 12 inches in length. They are fairly common, but somewhat secretive, in wooded areas and edges of old fields. They are harmless, and don’t bite, even when handled. Their diet consists primarily of slugs and small snails. They are quite variable in coloration as you will see if you peruse a field guide or online source, ranging in color on their dorsal surface from gray (can be almost black) to brown to reddish.

red-bellied snake 2

Red-bellied Snake (click photos to enlarge)

Their common name stems from the reddish coloration of their underside. They can be confused with a number of other local snakes. Just in terms of their name (and reddish underbelly) some may think they are Red-bellied Water Snakes (Nerodia erythrogaster), another common (but much larger) species in our area that is usually found near waterways.

red-bellied snake belly

The underbelly of a Red-bellied Snake is red or orange, often with some dark dots along the edge

People also often mistake this snake with two other small species – the Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) and the Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus). I will admit to occasionally having called these guys ring-necks on first seeing one as they tend to have a yellow or orange collar behind the head, much like a Ring-necked Snake. But, with a closer look you can see some distinctive characteristics that will separate them…

red-bellied snake 2 close up of head

A close up of the head showing the distinctive white dot

Red-bellied Snakes have a conspicuous white spot under, and just behind, the eye. They also have keeled scales (scales that have a small, raised ridge, running down the middle). The Ring-necked Snake has smooth scales (no keel). The Brown Snake lacks the reddish underside and the yellowish spots behind the head.

red-bellied snake keeled scales

The keeled scales can be seen in this photo and in the way a Red-bellied Snakes seems to have a rougher texture than non-keeled snakes

And speaking of keeled scales, that is what the mystery photo from yesterday was – a close up view of a beautifully patterned Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).

mystery skin

Close up view of the scales of an Eastern Garter Snake

Garter snakes are another common species in this area and can grow to over 3 feet in length. We often have them around our small water gardens since amphibians are a favorite food item. They are not venomous, but will emit a strong musk, and may bite, if handled. This particular snake is a beauty and is hanging out near a decaying log in the front yard.

Eastern garter snake

This snake seems to have an opinion of me and my macro lens

Whatever your opinion of snakes, they are an important part of our ecosystem and deserve to be left alone. You might even find them fascinating and beautiful if you give them a closer (but not too close) look.

 

 

Plant Parts Part 3: Wild Columbine

Ephemeral

Delicate, perfumed phlox;
A mist of columbine, clinging to earth;
Phoebe’s gravelly voice,
Titmouse — tender, sweet;
A dogwood cloud hover above
Vibrant, fresh leaves.

Fleeting
Falling flowers, already spent;
A garden, no longer my own.

A spring, a garden, will come again;
At home in the hope, the beauty.

Bittersweet
and fast-fading.

Always returning!

Mike has shared some of my poetry on his blog in the past; the poem above is another of mine. In fact, it’s the first I wrote as an adult. I went to a poetry session at an Outdoor Classroom Symposium at the NC Botanical Garden that was taught by a couple of teachers from South Carolina. The teachers gave us a few templates to get started, and sent us out along the garden paths to write. I found a spot amid a patch of beautiful columbine flowers. The first activity was simple – use your senses to observe the world around you, and pay attention to how that makes you feel. The poem above is the result of that short, sweet writing exercise. I have used the same simple steps many times since then in my own writing, and I’ve shared that activity with numerous teachers through my work. I’m incredibly grateful to those two teachers for reintroducing me to the world of poetry-writing!

But now, it’s time for our next flower parts adventure… this time we’ll take a close look at wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Wild columbine is one of my favorite spring wildflowers, and we have an abundance of it in our yard. The flowers hang on delicate stems and look like they’re floating above the ground. Each plant produces numerous blossoms over the course of  at least a month in our yard. In fact, a couple of years ago, one of the earliest blooms managed to get caught in a late winter snowstorm…

Wild Columbine in snow, March 12, 2017

Because its so ubiquitous, it was an early target for my plant parts explorations – I didn’t feel too terrible taking a few blossoms off the plants when they were so numerous! Like the wood poppy, it is a simple flower, but because of the odd shape of some of its parts, it’s a little more challenging. As with the wood poppy and dogwood flowers, my first task was to find the sepals.

Columbine flower
Columbine flower

Given the overlapping nature of the flower’s structure, this was tricky. Which are the sepals, which are the petals? I took off one of each to see if I could tell…

Columbine flower with two outer parts removed
Columbine flower with 1 sepal and 1 petal removed… but which is which?

It was still difficult to tell which was which, even after removing one of each part, though it seemed as though the smaller, leaf-shaped parts were attached higher up on the stem than the long, spurred ones, which would make them the sepals. I looked for some flower buds for confirmation, and indeed, the leaf-shaped part enclosed the bud before it opened. Mystery solved!

In these two images, you can see how the petals’ spurs extend and start turning red very early in the flower’s development. In the image on the right, you can even notice the developing stamens inside the flower bud; and in the right-hand image, the elongated stalks extending out of the flower bud are the undeveloped pistils (more on that in a moment). The spurred petals have a nectar reward in the bulb at the top where long-tongued pollinators like butterflies and hummingbirds can access it (while conveniently rubbing their bodies or heads on the stamens or pistils).

Since columbine blooms for so long in our yard, it was easy to trace the development of different parts of the flower by finding a sequence of ripening flowers.

In an early bloom, the stamens, with club-like yellow anthers on the end, slowly uncurl, with the interior stamens dropping first. Notice how, at this point, the stamens and pistils are about the same length. As the flower continues to develop, that changes.

The flower in the next two pictures is further along than the last one, and you can see how nearly all the stamens have fully uncurled. The pistils have also lengthened, and their tips have opened up as they’ve become receptive to pollen.

An interesting pattern among many flowers is that their parts often occur in multiples. The columbine is a great example of that. It has 5 sepals, 5 petals, and 5 pistils. And when I took the time to count the stamens on one flower, there were 40 of them (which is a multiple of 5!). Another example of this is with Easter lilies, a flower you might be familiar with, and perhaps appropriate to mention as we approach Easter weekend. Easter lilies (as well as other lilies) have 3 sepals, 3 petals, 6 stamen, and 1 three-pronged pistil. Maybe this is a new tool for teaching the multiplication tables for those of you who are now homeschooling your kids?

When the columbine flower is finished blooming, the sepals, petals, and stamens fall off, leaving only the 5 pistils behind. They slowly turn upright and the ovaries at the base begin to swell. Eventually, they will open up like 5-sectioned cups, full of dark-colored seeds that bounce out when you brush up against the plants. But for now, the seeds are still developing.

Upturned pistils with swelling/ripening ovaries

As with the wood poppy, I gently opened one of the one of the ovaries to see the seeds developing inside.

As with the other species, I was again fascinated by the way the columbine has adapted its structures to an entirely different arrangement. Flowers are so cool!

Whether you want to or not… Parts of a Flower

When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.

~Georgia O’Keeffe

So far this spring, I’ve had to cancel workshops that I was planning for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences taking educators to the swamp along the Roanoke River and to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ve always been a huge proponent of sharing real experiences in the natural world with others, in large part because I learned the value of that so well from Mike. But in this challenging time when I’m no longer able to do that, I’ve decided to finally try to embrace the power of sharing things in a virtual way, while still encouraging people to get outside and experience the world around them. To that end, my colleague Megan and I have begun creating a series of online workshops for educators where we share some information through a video and then give them a couple nature journaling activities to guide their exploration of the nature in their backyards or local parks. My most recent endeavor in this series was to teach the parts of a flower and send folks out to apply that knowledge by observing flowers in their yard and recording what they notice. Looking closely into the world of flowers is fascinating, and particularly timely with the arrival of spring. So I wanted to share some snippets of what I’ve discovered with the Roads End Naturalist crowd!

Let’s start with a quick primer on flower parts. I spent time during a recent online meeting sketching one of the wild geranium flowers in our yard (ah, the wonders of turning off your video during a zoom meeting!) and created a diagram of the parts of a simple flower.

Sketch of wild geranium flower with sepals, petals, pistil, and stamens labeled.

Parts of a wild geranium flower, as well as enlarged drawings of a stamen and the pistil.

The main parts of a flower are the sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils. Let’s take a look at the arrangement of these parts in a simple flower that is abundant in our yard right now, the wood poppy, or Stylophorum diphyllum. This species is native to the eastern US, though technically not the Carolinas. However, it is native to the surrounding states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia. I chose this flower as a starting point because it’s one of the larger flowers blooming in our yard right now, and it demonstrates most of the flower parts well.

Here’s the wood poppy flower. It’s about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and displays four vivid yellow petals. Petals are perhaps the most recognizable part of the flower. They are typically the most colorful part of the flower and often play a key role in attracting pollinators.

close up image of wood poppy flower

Wood poppy flower

But what about the sepals? According to Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James and Melinda Harris (yes, we own a copy of this book… what does that say about us?), a sepal is “a segment of the calyx.” So what’s a calyx, you ask? “The outer perianth whorl.” And a perianth is “the calyx and corolla of a flower, collectively.” I still don’t know what a calyx is… but corolla? “The collective name for all the petals of a flower.” Ah… botanical jargon. (Picture the eye-roll emoji here.) It just might be worse that geologic jargon. (In case you don’t know, I am NOT a botanist – my degrees are in geology, and I like to joke that you have to like big words, as well as hitting things with hammers, to be a geologist). At least I know what petals are (“an individual segment or member of the corolla, usually colored or white”)! The easiest way I’ve found to explain it is that the sepals are arranged outside of the whorl of petals. Sometimes they are green, other times they look a lot more like the petals. And I’ve noticed that they often seem to enclose the flower bud before it opens, which can be a helpful clue in identifying them.

So where are the sepals on the wood poppy? Normally, they would be underneath the flower, and might even be visible from the top-down view (some sepals act more like petals when the flower is open). But the wood poppy flower presented a mystery because underneath the petals is just the stem – no sepals! So does this flower lack sepals? To solve the mystery, I went looking around the yard to find some unopened flowers.

close up photo of a wood poppy flower bud with hairy sepals surrounding the yellow, unopened flower

Notice the two hairy sepals surrounding the unopened yellow flower.

In this picture of a flower bud, you can see two hairy, translucent sepals just beginning to open, exposing the yellow flower inside. I also looked around underneath the flowers and found a few sepals lying beneath the plant. So it turns out that for this species, the sepals fall off as the flower opens.

wood poppy flower form the side

I removed two petals and about half the stamens so that you can better see the structure of the wood poppy flower. Notice the lack of sepals underneath the petals.

So now we get to the important parts of the flower, the stamens and the pistil. Because why do we really have flowers, anyway? Not just to look beautiful in a vase on my kitchen counter. Flowers exist to produce new plants. Without flowers, there would be no fruits and seeds. Many flowers, like this one, rely on pollinators and put a lot of work into attracting them through vivid colors, nectar rewards, and sometimes even trickery (check out the part of this earlier post about the grass pink orchid). Other flowers rely on the wind to disperse their pollen (anyone else’s screen porch covered in pine pollen right now?), and some can self-pollinate. But back to the wood poppy, and most simple flowers…

Stamens are the male part of the flower that produce pollen. They are comprised of a stem-like filament and a pollen-producing anther. As the flower ripens, the anthers tend to shrink and shrivel as they produce pollen. An education student at East Carolina University once described a stamen as looking like an eye shadow applicator, and ever since then I’ve used that analogy, especially for ripe stamen that have granules of pollen (eye shadow?) on them.

riper wood poppy flower with brown antherns

This wood poppy flower has been open longer and is riper. The stamens are browned and shrunken, though a few at the center are still yellow.

In the center of the flower is the female part, the pistil. At its top is the pollen-receptive stigma. In some species, like the big star-gazer lilies that are often in grocery store bouquets, the stigma opens and has a sticky coating as the flower ripens, making it more likely that pollen grains will stick to it. Below the stigma is the thin style, connecting the stigma to the ovary, which is the swollen part at the base. When a grain of pollen reaches the stigma, it grows a pollen tube all the way down the style to the ovary, where it fertilizes an ovule (which I like to call a pre-seed).

ovary of a wood poppy

Wood poppy ovary that has begun to swell as it ripens. Notice the stigma and style still visible to the right side of the image.

Eventually, the wood poppy drops its petals and stamens, and the ovary begins to swell. Inside, the fertilized ovules are developing into seeds.

cross section of a wood poppy ovary showing white ovules inside

You can see the white ovules developing into seeds inside of this wood poppy ovary.

This ovary had swollen from about 1/4 inch long to about 1 inch long, and the ovules likewise had enlarged, making them much easier to see. In the closer, backlit photo below, the developing seeds are even more obvious, and you can notice how each one has a furry-looking edge on one side.

backlit close up of wood poppy ovary showing ovules

This backlit photo of the ovary shows the developing ovules in more detail.

Apparently, this species’ seeds are dispersed by ants and that furry bit is a fatty appendage called an elaiosome that ants like to eat. For more information on elaiosomes, check out a couple of Mike’s previous posts on seed dispersal by ants in bloodroot and trillium.

As I’ve refreshed my memory on flower parts, I’ve started looking at all the flowers in our yard with new eyes. Different species have developed fascinating takes on this basic structure. I’ll add more posts in the coming days highlighting some of the other flower species I’ve been examining. In the meantime, take advantage of this beautiful weather and head out into your yard with a magnifier and see if you can identify sepals, petals, stamens, and pistils on some of your flowers!

And if you’re an educator interested in the online workshops my team at the Museum has been creating, send me an email at melissa (dot) dowland (at) naturalsciences (dot) org.

Alien Life Form Answer

There were a lot of interesting guesses and a couple of what I believe to be correct answers. I will preface this post with the disclaimer that I am certainly no expert on fungi (or anything else, for that matter) , but here is what I think our mystery photo is…

alien yard item

Starfish Fungus (aka Anemone Stinkhorn), Aseroe rubra.

I thought it was a stinkhorn of some sort when Beth sent me the photo, but this is one I have never seen. This unusual species is native to Australia and some tropical islands but has been introduced to other parts of the world, most likely through in garden or soil products. In the U.S., it is found primarily in Hawaii and a few southeastern states.

It feeds on decaying organic matter and is usually found growing in yards or compost. I think the diagnostic feature for me is the bifurcate appendages – the split ends on the arms of the “starfish”. Some other stinkhorns just have single extensions at the tips. Check this link for more information on this bizarre species. As always, if someone has other suggestions on the identity of this life form, please drop me a comment. Thanks for participating and thanks again, to Beth, for sharing her yard alien with us.

Cherry Tree Mystery

He who finds a thought that lets us penetrate even a little deeper into the eternal mystery of nature has been granted great peace.

~Albert Einstein

Melissa and I have been talking about how we can help students and teachers during this time of online learning so I want to try to do some different things with the blog for a little while and see if it helps. Please comment if you find this useful or if you have other suggestions. Our goal is to provide content about nature that can be found in our area in backyards, greenways, parks, and other natural areas, and that can be used as learning experiences by people of all ages. So, here goes…

cherry tree mystery

Mystery item found on wild cherry tree (click photo to enlarge)

While we were out observing the Eastern tent caterpillars the other day, I noticed some tiny blobs on the emerging leaves and adjacent twigs of the wild cherry saplings in our yard. They are strange-looking little things just a few millimeters across (one would fit on top of a pencil eraser). They are dark and curved into a somewhat coil-like shape.

Pistol casebearer, Colephora sp.

Look for clues in the photo.

I had an idea of what they were, but I want you to use your observation skills and see if you can come to some rough conclusions. Are they from a plant, animal, fungus, or are they even a living thing? What clues can you see in the photos that might help you decide? What evidence do you have that supports your ideas?

cherry tree mystery 2

A last look…look for clues in the photos.

If you have cherry trees in your yard, go out and see if you can find any of these little blobs. I’ll also post this on social media so more people can answer. I’ll post more information and an answer tomorrow. If you already know, please wait until tomorrow to comment.

Wherever I Go, I End Up At Pungo

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

~Christopher Alexander

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

Cormorants on log

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

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

pair of swans in late afternoon light

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

northenr shoveler drake

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

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

northern shoveler landing

A Northern shoveler drake with landing gear down

black duck in flight

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

pintail flying over

A Northern pintail drake flies by checking out the marsh

pintails setting their wings to land

Northern pintails coming in for a landing

pintail landing

A Northern pintail setting down in the marsh

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

snow geese lifting off from lake

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

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

birds in front fields

The flock settling into the field late in the day

snow geese landing

Snow geese landing in late afternoon light

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

sno geese flying over field

Thousands of snow geese suddenly exploded into the sky

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

eagle fly by

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

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

Cruising the Coastal Plain

Never stop wandering into wonder.

~Suzy Kassem

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

Swans at sunrise

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

Swans landing at sunrise

A staircase of swans coming in for a landing.

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

Sandhill cranes

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

Sandhill cranes in flight

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

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

Beaver

A beaver swims purposefully up a roadside canal.

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

Northern mockingbird

A Northern mockingbird is fluffed up in the cold.

red-bellied woodpecker male

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

Savannah sparrow

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

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

otter eating crayfish

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

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

river otters in D-canal

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

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

great blue heron at Mattamuskeet

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

heron catching minnow

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

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

white-throated sparrow eating privet berry

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

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

anhinga drying wings

A shivering anhinga drying its wings in the sun.

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

sunset glow on trees

A setting sun created a glow on the pocosin vegetation.

sunset at ALRNWR

A beautiful sunset at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.