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.

First in Flight

Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?

~Frida Kahlo

I think I can answer that after spending an afternoon watching my favorite winter resident, the tundra swans, at the Pungo Unit this past weekend. It turns out, if you are one of North America’s largest waterfowl (weighing in at 18-20 pounds), you need your feet in order to get airborne. I arrived late morning when things tend to be a bit slow in terms of wildlife, spent some time chatting with three groups of friends down for the holiday weekend, and then settled in for some wildlife watching at my favorite impoundment (Marsh A). Cloudy skies soon gave way to bright blue and sunny conditions, and the several hundred swans at Marsh A were doing what they do best – preening, some feeding, squabbling with nearby groups, and filing the air with their peaceful calls. As the afternoon wore on, more and more swans started taking flight, headed out to nearby fields for their last meal of the day before retiring back to the safety of the water. As they did so, another sound echoed across the water – the slapping of their huge webbed feet and splashes as they run across the water flapping their nearly 6-foot wingspan to gain lift. Their approach to the runway is usually preceded by head-bobbing and calls, slow at first, and then more intense. I wonder if this is a signal to their family (they tend to stay together as family units on the wintering grounds) that we are about to leave? Maybe it also serves as a warning to birds along the potential runway to look out, ’cause we are headed your way. They almost always take off into the wind which helps give their huge wings a needed boost. I spent a couple of hours sitting with these magnificent birds, watching, listening, and admiring these long-distance travelers. I also practiced swinging the big lens along my window bean bag as the swans slapped the water to take off. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.

Juvenile tundra swan taking off

Juvenile tundra swan running across the water to take flight (click photos to enlarge)

Pair of swans taking off

A pair of adult swans (all white, no grayish head and neck) about to be airborne

Pair of juvenile swans taking off

It must be tough being third and fourth in the take-off line with all that muddy water being kicked up in your face by your parents

Swan running to take off

It can be tough to isolate one bird as it takes off with so many on the water

lift off

Swans typically run across the water surface 50 to 100 feet before lifting off

swan flapping wings

The late afternoon light filled the marsh and caused the swans to almost glow with elegance

As was the case last week, I heard the snow geese lift off the lake (you can’t see the lake from this location) at about 4:30 p.m. I soon saw a huge flock headed south, presumably to the fields near the front entrance to the refuge. So, a few more minutes with the swans, and then I headed out.

snow geese landing

By the time i got to the front fields, most of the snow geese were already on the ground, mixing in with a large flock of swans

Snow geese landing with swans in field

A jet flew over, startling the snow geese, and causing them to blast off in a whir of black and white

Snow geese coming into a field

The energy balance of these birds baffles me, as they tend to circle several times after each blast off before returning to the ground to feed

Swans at sunset

As the sun set, I moved to the far side of the field to look for bears and to enjoy the sight of thousands of birds silhouetted against the orange sky, headed back to the lake

This was day one of a three day wandering among wildlife refuges along our coast. More on some other sights and sounds in the next post.

 

 

Wanderings

Retirement is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of the open highway.

~Author unknown

I mentioned in my last post that this retirement thing is starting to feel real. To confirm it once and for all,  I decided to make a trip to the coast this past week. The weather looked good, the crowds should be less, I had no real itinerary, and had the camera gear loaded in the truck, so off I went. I ended up hitting four wildlife refuges over a two day period – Pocosin Lakes, Mattamuskeet, Alligator River, and Pea Island.

Ring-necked duck

This lone Ring-necked Duck drake was swimming in a canal at Pocosin Lakes and was my first wildlife encounter for the trip. Often called Ringbills by hunters, these ducks can be recognized even at some distance due to the white triangle coming up from the waters’s surface in front of the wing (click photos to enlarge).

Tundra swans in flight

My first stop was the impoundment known as Marsh A on the southwest corner of Pungo Lake. There seems to be a little less water in it this year, but it was still full of tundra swans and…

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Seven Sandhill Cranes were on the far side of Marsh A. This is the largest number to overwinter here in recent years.

Tundra swan preening

I love spending time with the swans, watching them preen and have “group discussions” over who owns what patch of water.

Tundra swan wing flap

The start of an elegant wing flap where a swan stands erect, and flaps its magnificent wings a couple of times before settling back down in the water.

Tundra swan wing flap closer view

I can’t help but think that if angels really have wings, they must look like these.

After lunch, I drove over to Mattamuskeet to see what I could find. There were the usual hundreds of ducks on the impoundment, but not much else. I did find a group of tail-bobbing Palm Warblers and more Eastern Phoebes than I think I ever seen.

Palm warbler

Palm warblers were flitting in and out of the shrub thicket along Wildlife Drive.

Great blue heron crop

A Great Blue Heron serving as a backdrop for the dancing light of ripple reflections from the canal.

With only a couple of hours of daylight remaining, I decided to head towards Alligator River NWR and made the snap decision to spend the night on the Outer Banks. I didn’t take any images at Alligator River that afternoon, but did see good numbers of waterfowl and a couple of cruising Bald Eagles.

The next morning was windy and cold, typical coastal winter weather. Workers were out with their never-ending task of keeping the dunes and ocean off of Hwy 12. Pea Island had lots of birds and more variety than I had seen elsewhere, but the wind was brutal. I did stop and admire a cluster of American Avocets and some American White pelicans looking for breakfast. They were pretty far out, but I enjoyed watching their breakfast ballet as they swim and feed in unison.

White pelicans at Pea Island

An American White pelican joins the breakfast club as they swim together, dipping their bills into the water to capture corralled fish.

The wind helped me decide to head inland so I decided to head back through Alligator River and finish the day at Pungo. Within a few minutes, I had my first bear of the trip.

Black bear ARNWR

A large bear lying in a field at Alligator River NWR, surveying its domain.

Red-tailed hawk ARNWR

A Red-tailed Hawk gives me the eye for interrupting its morning food search, so I moved on, letting it tend to its business.

I arrived at the Pungo Unit in time to eat lunch while watching the swans at Marsh A (I really never tire of spending time with the swans). The cranes were nowhere to be seen, but I did hear the Snow Geese lift off the lake once and then settle back down. One thing that surprised me was the number of people on the refuge considering it was a weekday. At one point I had two groups of what I assume were photography club folks (lots of telephoto lenses and no spotting scopes) totaling 13 car loads at Marsh A. So, I headed over to North Lake (aka Bear Road) and walked down to the far end where this year’s corn crop is planted. While there was obvious signs of bears feeding on the corn, there certainly is not as much scat as I am used to seeing here. I have to think the increase in bear hunting is having an impact on this population. Even though there is no hunting on the refuge, this hot spot for bears is only a half-mile or so from private lands where bears can be taken. I walked back through the woods and noticed a large number of trees that came down in the storms this past year. The good news is that it has given the bears a lot of new areas to play and climb as evidenced by all the claw marks on the leaning trunks. I looked for “our winter rattlesnake” in the usual hollow tree, but saw no sign of it this year.  As I walked back to the car, I did see one bear at the edge of the woods across the field. But the best part of the trip was yet to come…

white-tailed deer

I saw a few White-tailed Deer out in the afternoon, browsing along the road edges.

Late in the day, I was out of the car watching some sparrows in the brush when I heard the Snow Geese lift off. I was near the road to the old banding site and was in a good position to see the huge flock fly south, headed out for their last meal of the day. Hoping that they would stay on the refuge, I headed toward the fields near the maintenance area. When I pulled up, I could see a few hundred swans in a wheat field, but a huge flock of geese in the adjacent corn stubble. As I was getting the camera out, a military jet flew over kicking up the flock. They circled for a few minutes and finally settled back down.

snow geese landing in field

Snow geese landing in a field late in the day.

Snow geese take off afer jet flyby

There is nothing quite like the sight and sound of a flock of Snow Geese lifting off and flying around you.

Snow geese in flight closer view

As the sun caressed the horizon, the golden light was reflected on the thousands of wings beating the air.

The geese jumped up one more time as the late golden light flowed over the field. Only one other car shared this experience with me. We sat along the edge of the road, watching and listening to the magic of thousands of birds as the sun settled and the almost full moon became visible through the developing haze.

Snow geese and moon 1

Small groups of swans and geese dotted the sky so I tried to capture them flying across the moon.

With daylight fading, I was surprised to hear and then see another huge group of Snow Geese drifting down from the sky. As is their usual pattern, they circled the field several times before settling in with the rest of the flock. I am guessing there were 25,000 or more in the field at this point. I stood by the road, listening to their incessant sounds, thankful to be in one of my favorite places doing what I love to do. Wandering is apparently good for the soul. I look forward to more of it.

last flock of evening

Another huge flock of Snow Geese circled the field before landing.

Snow geese and moon 2

A great ending to my trip…birds flying across the Wolf Moon.

 

 

It Must Be Real

Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.

~Fred Rogers

I guess it is really true…I am retired (again). I haven’t had much time to think about it until the last few days what with all the holiday goings-on with family and travel. I have made a long list of chores that need attention, but I also have that precious thing called time, my time. So, naturally, I managed to spend some of it (in spite of the so-so weather last week) testing out my new camera, my first full-frame DSLR. I managed to spend a few hours over a couple of days just sitting and watching birds come to our feeder on the deck. And then a short trip over to B. Everett Jordan Dam in the hopes of seeing some eagles. Here are the results – nothing all that dramatic, but it sure does feel good to spend time watching wildlife and not worrying about that list of chores (I will get to those “tomorrow”).

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White-breasted Nuthatch males have a black crown, females are more grayish. Note the extra long rear toe claw which is useful for clinging to tree trunks as they forage (click photos to enlarge).

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Hermit Thrush breed in northern states and in the high mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. They occur in the Piedmont from about mid-October through April.

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One of my favorite winter feeder birds, the energetic Ruby-crowned Kinglet,

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Kinglets have a lot of personality and are fun to watch as they flit about.

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They can be a challenge to photograph as they are always on the move, but the new camera does a great job in capturing motion.

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The most common woodpecker at our feeders is the diminutive Downy Woodpecker.

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It isn’t always easy to tell why Red-bellied Woodpeckers are so named, but you can actually see the color in this pose as it jumps off the branch toward the feeder.

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A Great Blue Heron takes off as a fisherman walks by at B. Everett Jordan Dam.

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The Double-crested Cormorants were catching a lot more fish below the dam than the human fishers.

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Captured fish were quickly added to the menu.

Dipper

Bird and stream are inseparable, songful and wild, gentle and strong – the bird [water ouzel], ever in danger in the midst of the stream’s mad whirlpools, yet seemingly immortal.

~John Muir

I want to share one more highlight from our Colorado trip this past October. The trip was filled with beautiful places, great hikes, amazing campsites, and surprises at almost every turn. But this hike, this place, and this encounter with a magical bird, stands out for me – and so, I give you an ode to the ouzel (water ouzel, that is).

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The view from our campsite on a calm evening after a very windy previous night along East Inlet (click photos to enlarge)

After a few days on the east side of the park, we headed toward Grand Lake and a short backpack recommended by a ranger. We hiked in on the East Inlet Trail a little over 1.5 miles to a wonderful tree-covered site perched on a slight rise above the river and surrounding marshland. There was only one problem…the wind was howling a steady 25+ mph and was predicted to remain that way through the next morning. The young conifers were swaying noisily above the tent site, giving us pause about pitching our tent. We looked around and saw a flattened site down in the marsh where someone had obviously pitched a tent. We discussed the pros and cons of camping a little distance from the site marker, when a tree came crashing down nearby. That settled it, we were not going to sleep under the trees that night, and we would just have to explain ourselves if questioned. After setting up our camp, we were sitting looking at the incredible view when Melissa heard the bubbling call of an American Dipper, one of our favorite Western birds. Soon, the little dynamo flew closer and started hunting. Their normal food is aquatic insects, but this guy soon came up with a small fish, then another, and another! We had never seen one catch fish in all our years of watching dippers in Yellowstone, so this was something I really wanted to photograph. Only problem was I had left my telephoto in the car since we were backpacking. So, the next morning I decided to hike back out and retrieve my camera gear while Melissa explored farther up the trail. It was definitely worth it (after waiting a few hours for the dipper’s hoped-for return).

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The next morning, I hiked out for my camera and telephoto lens, hoping to capture some images of the dipper. After waiting and watching a couple of hours, the dipper returned.

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Dippers frequently stick their heads underwater, looking for prey.

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Dippers have tiny white feathers on their eyelids, which flash a brilliant white when they blink. This may serve as a visual signal and territorial display to other nearby dippers. The persistent dipping behavior may be another way of communicating to other dippers in an environment so noisy that the usual songs may not be sufficient.

Dippers are the only truly aquatic songbird. At first glance to an easterner, they look like a squat, truncated gray catbird. But their habits and habitat quickly distinguish them from any familiar Eastern birds. They are almost always found in the company of fast-flowing waters where they forage by plunging into the rapids and literally swim underwater in search of prey. Their eyes are able to adapt quickly to vision both above and under the water due to highly developed iris muscles. They also have a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen-carrying capabilities in their blood, and a dense covering of feathers, all of which give them an advantage in their harsh environment.

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Another hunting technique is to swim in swift water, head down, searching for food.

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The dipper managed to catch several fish while I tried to photograph this feat, but it always swam away from me and swallowed its finny meal far across the river.

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Finally, the dipper came up on a rock not far away and beat the fish a few times before gulping it down.

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Between bouts of fishing, the dipper took long breaks to preen…

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…and stretch…

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…and preen some more. This is an essential behavior for all birds, but especially one that spends its days diving in ice cold mountain streams.

After spending several hours watching and photographing one bird, another dipper flew in and this made for a frenetic feeding time with both Melissa and I trying to anticipate which was bird was going to catch something and where they would be when it happened. There was some squabbling but they both seemed intent on catching the seemingly endless supply of fish, so they shared the riffle area adjacent to our tent until late in the day.

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At long last, a dipper caught a fish and flew toward me, pausing on a rock in perfect view.

We lost count of how many fish these two captured, but they were quite efficient (and very fast swimmers when pursuing their prey). If anyone can identify the species of fish (I assume these are fingerling trout of some sort), I would greatly appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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Then, it flew even closer before swallowing the final meal of the evening.

The light was fading fast but the birds had provided what I had hoped for, some great views of a species that is incredibly adapted to its unique habitat of rushing waters and boulders (and a few decent pics). As darkness fell, both birds flew off downstream beyond our view. But the next morning they had a special treat for us. As the light started pouring over the marsh, we heard scratching on our tent. Melissa looked up and there was a pair of feet – bird’s feet, struggling to get a grip on the sloping top of our tent. We looked out and there was a dipper on a boulder along the shore….and there was still one on our tent! Before jumping off, the first bird deposited its calling card! Then the next dipper flew up, scratching on the surface and leaving a “gift” for us as well. The other dipper returned and they both danced around before leaving us for good. Our tent is a gray dome, which I suppose looks like a big boulder alongside the river. Were they communicating with each other on the biggest “rock” on the shoreline? Or telling us they wanted to hunt for food some more and we should leave (or maybe get ready to take more photos)? Whatever the meaning, it was magical (and a fitting and funny way to end our stay).

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A  great way to wake up in the wilderness – with dippers dancing on your tent.

The connection with these two dippers was transformative. It is exactly this type of experience I seek and want to share with others – to witness wild creatures in their element, living their wild lives, but granting us moments of oneness, of peace with wild things. I will end this tribute to my favorite Western bird with the next lines from the John Muir quote that started this post…And so I might go on, writing words, words, words; but to what purpose? Go see him and love him, and through him as through a window look into Nature’s warm heart.

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A dipper admiring its reflection and rightly so…these are amazing birds living in an incredible place.