What’s in a Name?

It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things.

~Oscar Wilde

I enjoy cold winter days as I tend to pay more attention to the little things in our woods like patterns, surprise colors, and living things that I sometimes pay less attention to in warmer months when birds, insects, and flowers seem to always demand my attention. Mosses, lichens, slime molds, and fungi suddenly take more prominence (although they really deserve our appreciation all year).

This has been a good season for fungi in our woods, and one group, in particular, really caught my eye. In November, I spotted several clusters of round white blobs on downed trees or the mulch in our yard. As Fall progressed, I began to recognize them as puffballs, so named for their spore dispersal mechanism. As they dry, they develop splits on the surface and any physical disturbance, such as raindrops, the tap of a finger, or an accidental footstep, will send clouds of brownish spores up in a tiny billow of “smoke”. I photographed one on a pathway in our yard back in November and again right before the holidays. Below are the photos and a short video of the spores being released.

A cluster of Wolf-fart Puffballs in our yard in early November (click photos to enlarge)

The same cluster in December

When I came across some drying puffballs in the woods a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t resist making puffball smoke by gently poking them with my finger. Here’s a slo-mo clip of puffballs doing their thing.

— A slow motion video of what happens when you touch ripe puffballs

Thinking I might want to post this, I decided to learn more about these unusual fungi. When I put the photo in SEEK, the all-things-natural identification app, I loved the common name that came up – Wolf-fart Puffballs. Yep, that’s what I said, wolf fart. The scientific name is Lycoperdon pyriforme. It turns out the translation of that name defines the common name – “Lyco” means wolf in Greek; “perdon” means to break wind. Together, they mean wolf fart! People understand how the word fart came to be favored given the visible puff that comes up when one is touched, but why the association of wolves? Who knows. And “pyriforme” means pear-shaped referring to the shape of some of the structures.

After laying next to a clump to get the ground level video, and having a breeze blow some of the spores my way, I thought that perhaps it is not a good idea to breathe in the spores. And with some research I discovered that I was right! If you inhale large numbers of spores you may suffer from respiratory problems. But, medical experts say it requires inhaling a large quantity of spores to show any signs of lung distress, so I suffered no ill consequences.

As always, I am amazed at the wonders just outside our door. Take some walks this winter and see what catches your eye.

Ice Art

Ice has a social life. Its changeability shapes the culture, language and stories of those who live near it!

~Robert Macfarlane

I went for a walk in our cold woods on Monday and came across some remnant ice patterns left from a combination of heavy rain followed by frigid temperatures while we were away for the holiday. Our little creek is a wet weather stream, usually only flowing after abundant rain in winter when most of the trees lining the creek bed are dormant.

Our now dry stream bed held onto some beautiful ice sculptures for a few days after the rains (click photos to enlarge)

It looked a bit odd to see ice art in a dry stream bed. There was even a perched ice shelf over a depression that had held a foot of water only a few days before. With the warming temperatures, the intricate ice patterns are retreating, leaving only memories of the ephemeral beauty they added to our woods. I’m glad I was able to enjoy them for a day at least…

Ice columns on rootlets where a small waterfall forms after heavy rains

A shelf of ice suspended almost a foot above a now dry pool

I held the phone underneath the ice shelf and took a photo up through the ice to capture the tree outlines above

Self portrait from below the ice shelf (the least glamorous photo of the day)

The Birds Are Back

Many people think of winter as bereft of birds after autumn migrations, but in fact this can be a bountiful season for bird-watchers.

~Val Cunningham

It is the time of year when I yearn to be with the birds of Pungo. There is something magical about their abundance, their flight, and their sounds. And the cast of characters that accompany them is pretty great too. So, this past week, I headed east early one morning to eventually meet up with some friends of a friend to show them some of the wonders of our coastal refuges in winter.

I arrived early on Monday and spotted some activity on the far side of the crop fields at the entrance to the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Snow Geese! I drove over and pulled in slowly so as to not spook the feeding flock. To my delight, I was the only human present (a true rarity these days).

I stayed in my vehicle (most wildlife seem to prefer that behavior from us humans, but few of us abide their wishes). The sounds of a feeding flock of Snow Geese are raucous and somewhat mechanical, like a feathered combine moving through a field. The flock jumped up a time or two as they always seem to do (I am amazed at how they manage their energy budget with all this jumping up, flying in circles, landing, repeat).

— Snow Geese circle a field at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR

A wall of wings as part of the flock circles the field (click photos to enlarge)

I sat alone with the birds for a good 15 minutes before another vehicle pulled up. The driver got out and set up his tripod and camera and the birds started moving away.

A diminutive Ross’ Goose at the edge of the flock

Suddenly, a large portion of the flock blasted off, filling the sky with wing beats and a “chorus” of their nasal honks, one of the loudest sounds you encounter in winter bird watching. The flock headed back to the safety of the lake, and just like that, the scene was quiet, with only a handful of American Robins flitting across the field.

This happens often it seems, I arrive before friends, and Pungo puts on a show, and I have to say, you should’ve been here… For the next two hours, I drove the refuge roads, shared by only two other cars. Perhaps because of that, I managed a couple of nice wildlife photography opportunities of often secretive birds – a Red-shouldered Hawk and the ever-elusive Belted Kingfisher.

An adult Red-shouldered Hawk perched along one the roadside canals, searching the edges for a meal

A female (note the rust-colored breast band, males lack this) Belted Kingfisher cooperated for several quick images before darting off and scolding me with her rattling call.

My crew arrived before lunch and we set off to see what we could see. Along the edge of D-canal was a lone Tundra Swan, sitting on the bank. It had not moved all morning so is undoubtedly injured or sick (it was in the same spot the next day as well). Its fate is most likely to serve as food for the likes of the two Bald Eagles I had seen nearby at first light.

A sick or injured Tundra Swan along a roadside canal

Driving toward Marsh A to view the swans, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye and backed up to see a huge ball of gray fur on a snag in the swamp. I was very light-colored and had its head and tail hidden, so I opened my car door and got out to get a better view. A very fat Raccoon raised its head, gave me that look, and disappeared into a hollow below its perch. I apologized for disturbing its sleep and we moved on.

A sleepy Raccoon awakes from its bed atop a tree snag and crawls into a hole on the side of the tree

The afternoon was spent on “Bear Road”. I was surprised to find only one car parked at the gate, an increasingly unusual occurrence these days.

Searching the fields for bears

Another beautiful sky at Pungo

We walked past two photographers standing near the corn, waiting for bears to come out. We moved down toward the “tree tunnel” and suddenly, out pops a bear. She came out of the woods, slowly walked across the grassy road and headed into the field, a ritual she has no doubt done countless times in her life. Seconds later, two cautious cubs followed. One had an unusual injury to its left flank, something I had seen posted earlier on social media. That one moved a bit awkwardly but managed to keep up with its bigger sibling. I hope the little guy recovers

A large sow bear comes out of the woods, crosses Bear Road, and heads into the adjacent corn field for dinner, giving our group a glance before disappearing into the cornstalks

Two cubs followed their mother into the corn field. The smaller one has an injured hind quarter.

It turned out to be a very beary afternoon and when it was over, we had counted 13 bears! On the way out, I saw the Snow Geese feeding in the same field as that morning, so we pulled over and watched and listened to them for a few minutes before they blasted off, circled, and flew off toward the lake for the evening.

After a great afternoon of wildlife watching, we headed to the nearby town of Belhaven for a wonderful dinner at Spoon River. Check it out if you are in the area. The next morning, we were back at Pungo for sunrise. The developing pink sky and the soft coos (plus a few loud calls) of a few thousand Tundra Swans is a great way to start your day.

— A peaceful sunrise at Pungo with swans calling

The Snow Geese flew off the lake about 7:30 a.m. so we headed out to the front fields in hopes of witnessing the show. But, they fooled me and apparently had flown elsewhere, off the refuge, for their morning meal.

Next stop was Mattamuskeet NWR, where we saw thousands of ducks (mainly Northern Pintails) in the impoundment. It was a duck hunt day on the refuge, so a portion of Wildlife Drive across the canal was closed until early afternoon, so we spent some time in the wonderful Visitor Center and drove the open portion of the road, searching for birds. A highlight was a pair of Anhinga resting on a fallen tree in the canal. It is becoming more commonplace to spot a few of these impressive birds on this refuge every winter. The Cornell website, All About Birds, shares that the name, Anhinga, comes from the Tupi Indians in Brazil, meaning “devil bird” or “evil spirit of the woods.” But, I find them to be elegant as opposed to devilish, and very adept at hunting fish with their dagger-like bills.

One of two Anhinga we spotted perched on a downed tree in a roadside canal at Mattamuskeet

Driving on Hwy 94 north of Mattamuskeet, we spotted two more bears, bringing our total for the trip to 15. Our last stop was going to be Pettigrew State Park. On the way we passed through the small town of Creswell, and, to my surprise, there was a new coffee shop in town, Big Blue 252. I made a quick stop and we went in for some delicious coffee and pastries. This will definitely change my itinerary on future trips as good coffee is important on long days in the field (and is hard to come by in these parts). I normally don’t promote businesses in my blog, but, this is an exciting find and the owner, Alfreda, is great. Check it out if you are in the area.

My new go-to place when in the vicinity of Pettigrew State Park

And I was so excited by this find, that I didn’t even see a new small restaurant that has opened up across the street until we pulled away. These new businesses will make my stays in bear and bird country all the more enjoyable.

All in all, a great couple of days in my favorite public lands in North Carolina. Great birds, lots of bears, and good friends (and coffee!!). Wishing you all a wonderful holiday and hoping you have a chance to get outside and enjoy the beauty of a winter day, wherever you may find yourself this week.

December in the Woods

Wild is the music of the autumnal winds amongst the faded woods.

~William Wordsworth

I’m trying to get into our woods every few days to see the changes that are occurring as autumn transitions to the bones of winter. The big change this week was the sudden accumulation of oak leaves on the forest floor. It seems they all fell at once, carpeting the ground in a crunchy brown rug. Meanwhile, the trail cameras are still getting lots of deer videos, but the rut has quieted and things are not as frantic as a few weeks ago. Here are a couple of forest vignettes from this past week…

— Our family of Raccoons (I believe it is a mother and three youngsters that are now about as big as she is) continue to dig up the leaf litter every night. They have a regular path they follow, grubbing around for who knows what (worms, grubs, other insects, acorns??).

— This young buck is curious about the camera. He has a somewhat irregular set of antlers.

— This majestic buck has appeared on a few video clips during the rut. I think it is a 9-pointer (the antler spread is greater than the 8-pointer I regularly see on the trail cameras).

I’ve noticed a lot of variation in the antler size and shape in our deer herd. White-tailed Deer typically have fairly symmetrical antlers with an equal size, spacing, and number of points on both sides. But, so-called atypical antlers, are not uncommon. The young buck in the video shows a strange bend on one side and some waviness in the point of its antler. I can’t tell from the video if a point was broken or it is just an odd shape. Antler deformities can occur in three major ways: injuries to the pedicel (the antler growing base attached to the skull); injuries to the antler when it is in velvet (the soft, hair-like membrane rich in blood that covers the antlers during their growth phase in spring and summer); or leg injuries. This last one caught me by surprise when I read it. Apparently, the mechanism for the relationship between leg injuries and antler deformation is not well known, but scientists think it may be the result of reallocation of nutrients from antler growth to healing the bone in a leg injury. Oddly, an injury (such as a car collision) to a front left leg can cause a deformity in the left antler, but an injury to a left rear leg may result in the right antler being misshapen. Observing our wild neighbors always seems to bring up more questions and the resulting online searches usually reveal many surprises.

What the Cameras See

The trees will tell their secrets to those who tune in.

~Steven Magee

I check the trail cameras once a week or so and am always anxious to see what secrets they uncover in our woods. The past few weeks it has mainly been squirrels chasing each other around and deer, lots of deer. November is the peak of the mating season (aka rut) for deer in our area and they have been busy. The abundant acorn crop is giving them plenty of food so they all look in their prime. There is a herd of about nine does that I see regularly on the cameras. Several bucks (at least four or five that are 6-pointers or larger) are making the rounds, chasing does and challenging each other and nearby tree saplings. Here are a few of the highlights from this month.

— Three large bucks (look for one to come in from the left) check each other one morning behind the house before one big guy becomes the obvious king

— One large buck comes in near the end to chase a doe. The cameras have caught many cases of bucks chasing does in the last few weeks.

— Sometimes a buck is just looking, hoping for a doe to be near. This beautiful 8-pointer likes the camera

— It is not all about the deer. Here, my oldest camera model captures a grainy night-time image of four raccoons (one adult and three young) climbing the large Tulip Poplar that serves as a den tree

— It has been a few weeks since the cameras caught a coyote. Here is a slow motion view of beautiful canine trotting along a favorite coyote pathway in our woods.

November Treat

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

It’s been awhile since I posted. Not sure where the time goes, but here we are. Last week I had a last minute idea to run down to my favorite wildlife refuges for a wildlife observation and photography fix. The weather was supposed to be nice and cold on Friday, so I thought whatever birds have arrived this early might be active as would the bears. I didn’t get out as early as planned but arrived at the Pungo Unit about 9 a.m. I went straight to “Bear Road” and there were 4 cars there so I headed elsewhere. As I approached the impoundment, I could see two trucks and several photographers out in the vicinity of last year’s Eastern Screech Owl roost so I figured it was still there. Several people were getting back into their vehicle as I drove up, so I just slowed down and stopped for a second to take a photo – yup, still there!

This beautiful Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) is still using the same roost as last year (click photos to enlarge)

It is always nice to spend time with the swans on Marsh A, so I pulled up and sat for awhile, window down, listening to their soothing sounds and watching them preen, bathe, feed, and interact.

Tundra Swans have arrived on the Pungo Unit

I scanned the back side of the water and saw what I had hoped for, a few Sandhill Cranes preening amongst the swans.

The gray colors of the Sandhill Cranes separate them from the mostly white Tundra Swans

The light was pretty bright, the water in the canals is low, and the vegetation along the canals high (making it difficult to see anything in the canals), so I decided to head over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge for a couple of hours to see what was happening there. The deterioration of the water quality in the lake the past several years means that now there is almost never anything to see on the causeway road across the lake (I used to see plenty of swans and other waterfowl feeding or resting on the lake near the causeway, but not now).

As I approached Wildlife Drive I saw movement along side the shrubs lining the road – a Virginia Opossum! It was grubbing through the short grass out from the shrubs, pausing every now and then to munch on something it found. I pulled a U-turn and stopped near it. It scurried to the cover of the shrubs, but soon came out and started feeding again. It gradually came closer and I took a few photos before it headed back to the edge of the cover and stared grooming itself.

I noticed that it had a tooth exposed on both sides of its mouth. I don’t know if this is typical for an opossum to be snaggle-toothed, but I think it is a good look.

You’ve got to admit, opossums are just cute

At the lodge, I saw one Great Blue Heron in the usual roosting spot grove of trees across the canal. There are some ducks, but not much else yet and water levels are low in the impoundment.

A Great Blue Heron surveying its world

After talking with a friend I saw near the lodge, I headed back to Pungo for the remainder of the afternoon. Driving near Marsh A, I stopped to take a couple of photos of the screech owl since no one else was around. The little guy seems oblivious to any admirers and just sits in the late day sun, soaking it all in.

A couple of quick photos and then I moved on, leaving his little guy to its peace and quiet

I had seen three bears near the entrance when I first drove in, so I figured I might as well head over to “Bear Road” and see what I could see. There were 5 cars already there and I could see a group of a dozen or so photographers at the far end of the field. Oh well…I walked down and then slipped into the woods for some quiet time before I reached the crowd. I sat down on a log to enjoy the golden light flooding the forest and soon heard the tell-tale heavy tapping of a large woodpecker behind me. I eased around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a vine encrusted tree trunk.

— A Pileated Woodpecker hammers on a tree snag looking for dinner

After watching it for a few minutes, it suddenly flew off and landed in a tree above me, frozen against the trunk. Did it see something I had missed – a predator like a hawk or owl? It remained motionless for a minute or two before finally moving up and around the tree.

This view clearly shows the toe placement (like an X) and stiff tail spines that are woodpecker adaptations for clinging to vertical surfaces

I eased out of the woods as the crowd was headed back to their cars, excitedly talking about the bears they had seen and sharing images from their cameras. Out in the field were three bears, a sow and two cubs, grazing in the light of a setting sun. Swans returning to the lake were highlighted in the golden light as they called their soothing ou, ou sounds. As I walked by one of the people on the road, he asked if I had any good shots of the bears. I responded that I hadn’t really tried, I just wanted to be out there with the sights and sounds of the refuge. I’m not sure he understood…but every time I am there, I just want to sit quietly and take it all in. I do love to take photos, but I am realizing that I love the quiet, solitude, and the memories even more.

A sow and one of her cubs feeding in a field along “Bear Road”

Happy Halloween

Like delicate lace, so the threads intertwine, oh, gossamer web of wond’rous design! Such beauty and grace wild nature produces…

~Bill Watterson

Yes, ’tis that special holiday, ’tis Halloween. And we manage to gravitate toward all manner of spooky things and transfer our fears anew to many elements of the natural world such as bats, wolves, and spiders. One of my favorite arachnids is aptly particularly evident this time of year – the Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. It’s relatively large size and bright yellow-orange colors make it particularly noticeable in October and gives rise to a couple of its other common names – Pumpkin Spider and Halloween Spider.

Last week I was changing cards in my trail cameras in our woods and took my camera along in case I saw anything interesting. I’m always checking for spider webs in my path this time of year as many orbweavers reach their peak size and, therefore, apparent abundance, in October. I try to avoid the silk-in-my-face greeting of most of these weavers by doing the forest side step if I spot the web or one of the often long anchor lines. This species creates a hide outside the main web, a fact that I appreciate as it means you are much less likely to have a crawling spider on your head or face if you should miss seeing their gossamer handiwork in your path. When a prey item lands in the web, she can feel the vibrations and rushes out of the hide to subdue her meal. I suppose if you are such a noticeable bright color, it pays to have a place to conceal yourelf from would-be predators.

I soon spotted a beauty highlighted in the the dappled sunlight in her holly leaf shelter on our south slope. I stopped to admire her intricate black patterns on a bold yellow background and grabbed a few photos.

Marbled Orbweaver in her silken hide (click photos to enlarge)

Walking a few feet more and I missed seeing another silken line and got entangled in a large web of another Halloween Spider. When I pulled on it to free myself, the owner dropped out of her hide onto the ground and scuttled away (a common defense strategy), but not before I managed a photo as she crossed an equally colorful fallen leaf.

This Halloween Spider dropped from her web and scurried under some leaves on the ground, allowing me only a photo before she disappeared.

As it turns out, this beautiful species is the subject of an article I wrote for the October issue of Walter magazine. Last year I was approached by the magazine editor (at the suggestion of some of my former co-workers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) and asked if I would be willing to write a monthly nature column. I had heard of this publication, but wasn’t that familiar with its content. After looking at it, it struck me as a quality magazine that I likened to being similar to an Our State magazine for the Triangle area. They have high production values and I am impressed by the quality and range of topics covered. I encourage you to take a look and subscribe if you agree. Here is a link to this month’s spider article with more information and photos. You can search for my other monthly articles (starting last January) in the archives by putting Nature in the search box on their website and scrolling through the articles. I must admit, I never thought I would have my photos of spiders and the like next to advertisements for Rolex watches, but, it’s a good chance to reach a broader audience.

A beautiful Marbled Orbweaver spotted on the ground one Halloween weekend long ago on a museum educator workshop about elk in Cataloochee Valley.

And here’s wishing you all a safe, sweets-filled, and Happy Halloween!

September Deer

I don’t have to take a trip around the world or be on a yacht in the Mediterranean to have happiness. I can find it in little things, like looking out into my backyard and seeing deer in the fields.

~ Queen Latifah

It is deer season. They are very active in our woods as the weather changes to bring on fall. The trail cameras have picked up almost nothing but deer the past few weeks (except for a raccoon family, the occasional opossum and squirrel, and, unfortunately, my neighbors cats). Here are a few of my favorite clips from last month.

— A fawn demands some nursing time

Fawns born in May weighed about 7 pounds at birth and are approaching 60+ pounds as fall begins. Still sporting a few spots, a fawn gets in some nursing from its mother. This is about the last month it will be nursing.

Below are some scenes of bucks, now reaching their prime for the rut. A couple of nice bucks have been seen together frequently. One spent several minutes testing a sapling with its antlers while another enjoys the bountiful supply of acorns on the forest floor this season.

— A buck thrashes a sapling

— Two nice bucks ease in front of one of the trail cameras

— A nice buck crunching on an acorn

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…