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.




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…


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”).


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).


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.


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


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


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.


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


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.


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


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


Captured fish were quickly added to the menu.


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).


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).


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.


Dippers frequently stick their heads underwater, looking for prey.


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.


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


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.


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


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


…and stretch…


…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.


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.


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).


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.


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





The mountains are fountains, not only of rivers, but of men. Therefore, we are all, in some sense, mountaineers, and going to the mountains is going home.

~John Muir

Back in October, Melissa and I spent a glorious ten days traveling throughout the grand state of Colorado. We didn’t have much of a plan, other than to start in Rocky Mountain National Park, and then see what else we could discover as we wandered the state. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to post something on it, but these have been busy times. One excuse was I was trying to wrap up some things before I re-retired from the NC Botanical Garden (yes, it is now official, I have worked my last day, although, to be fair, I have had the best jobs in the state over my 36+ years). I will miss the people and the place, but, it is time to see more of the wild world and I look forward to more travels, more adventures, and many more posts. Thank you for your patience.

Below is a quick pictorial summary of some of the highlights of our Colorado trip.


We lucked out and nabbed the best site in the Moraine Park Campground in Rocky Mountain National Park (click photos to enlarge)


Buck mule deer next to our car one morning


Bear Lake


Nymph Lake


Dream Lake


A small lake along the trail


A great view for our lunch break


The trail above what is the highest elevation visitor center in the National Park System, the Alpine Visitor Center, in Rocky Mountain National Park


Bull elk watching his harem


A coyote passing through got the elk’s attention


Spectacular views along the Tundra Communities Interpretive Trail


We saw a couple of pika at the end of the trail, dashing among the rock piles as they gathered grasses for winter


Our amazing campsite along East Inlet Trail (more on this spot in the next post)


Colorado National Monument was like another world, and just a half-day drive from Rocky Mountain National Park


We saw several Desert Bighorn Sheep along the road


Devil’s Kitchen Trail


A stunning Bush Katydid, Insara sp.


The trail just below the visitor center at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


The Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park


Our beautiful campsite in Kebler Pass, near Crested Butte, CO


The view at sunrise from our campsite


The gold of an aspen forest in October


I have never seen aspen trees as big as these – it is humbling to walk through a grove of these beautiful trees this time of year


Artsy take on the aspens


Orange and yellow of aspens in peak color


The strange juxtaposition of dunes and mountains at Great Sand Dunes National Park


Melissa atop the highest dune on a very windy afternoon


Early morning at Garden of the Gods


A view of distant Pike’s Peak through a rock window at the Siamese Twin formation at Garden of the Gods

Wishing all of you a wonderful holiday. Melissa and I hope to see you out somewhere in the wilds soon.



Change is in the Air

Summer is a promisory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.

~Hal Borland

There is a change in the air…it doesn’t seem as humid; hurricanes are in the news; and at our house, we are starting to look for caterpillars. Yes, Fall must be coming and with it, the museum’s BugFest event (and some other caterpillar-related programming at both Melissa’s work and mine). Our annual love-hate relationship with “caterpillar wrangling” is starting and will continue for the next three weeks. So, our labor for this Labor Day, was to start looking for some interesting larvae. If things run true to form, we will find a lot of really cool caterpillars in the next week or so, and then many of them will pupate before their big day (this year, BugFest is September 21…really pushing it to be able to find many of our caterpillar species still in their larval state). But, the fun is in the finding. Here are a few highlights from recent searches.

spicebush swallowtail larva

Peek-a-boo look at a last instar Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar in it folded leaf lair (click photos to enlarge)

hemipteran eggs and parasitoid wasp

While looking for Spicebush Swallowtail larvae, I spotted this colorful array of insect eggs on a twig

hemipteran eggs and parasitoid wasp 1

It appears as though some parasitoid wasps were first to hatch in this batch of what look like eggs of some Hemipteran bug (perhaps a stink bug)

cvariable oak leaf or double-lined prominent

This is one is tough to identify – either a Double-lined Prominent or a Variable Oakleaf caterpillar (they can look very similar and are both quite variable)

freshly moled luna moth

A luna moth larva just after a molt. This one is feeding on a hickory. instead of the usual Sweetgum

puss nmoth arva next to last instar

A Puss Moth caterpillar (do not touch these as they have painful “stinging” spines hidden under that “fur”). This is probably a next to last instar


One of our most common “stinging” caterpillars, the Saddleback

monkey slug

One of the more bizarre-looking slug caterpillars – the Monkey Slug

Imperial moth early instar

An early instar Imperial Moth larva feeding on American Beech. Will it last until BugFest?

pawpaw sphinx

A brown form of Pawpaw Sphinx on Deciduous Holly

hog sphinx and wasp cocoons

A Hog Sphinx with parasitoid wasp cocoons

drab prominent

The defensive posture of a Drab Prominent on the underside of an American Sycamore leaf

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.


This past month, I have tried to find 5 or 10 minutes each day at work to walk around the building breezeways to photograph any moths that were attracted to the lights the previous night. I hope to create a library of images of some of the common species. As I have reported before, I am relatively new to “mothing” and am still struggling to learn some of the more than 2600 reported species in NC. The release of the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Southeastern North America last year has made a huge difference in my ability to identify what I find. My copy is already showing signs of wear from the frequent page-flipping. I also refer to the Moths of North Carolina or Bug Guide web sites to confirm an identification.

Now I have another ally in my quest to learn more. It may be a game-changer, in fact. It is the Seek app by iNaturalist. Using the millions of observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. You don’t even need to take a photo, just open the camera and scan whatever you want to know more about. It instantly gives you information, and if it can’t ID it, it may suggest looking at the subject from a different angle. It is usually at least gets you to the family level or beyond even if it doesn’t ID to species. This free app is available for both iOS and Android. I have found it to be particularly useful for moth identification, most likely due to the countless recorded observations of several local moth enthusiasts. In order to get the best possible image, I usually take the photo with my normal camera set-up (100mm macro and twin flash), download the image onto my laptop, and then scan it with my phone and the Seek app for ID help.

I have double-checked many of the early identifications using the other references mentioned and found them to be accurate. A few times, Seek has not been able to provide anything but a family recommendation. But, overall, I have been very impressed with the results thus far.

Here are a few of the highlights from this past month. Note the variety of shapes, colors, and patterns. One thing you can’t tell from these images is the huge range in size – the Common Tan Wave has a wing span of about 20mm while that of the Io moth is about 80mm.

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria 1

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria (click photos to enlarge)

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis 1

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis – one of the more striking species this month

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis – a delicate beauty with hints of iridescence

One-spotted variant, Hypagyrtis unipunctata

One-spotted variant moth, Hypagyrtis unipunctata  – quite variable indeed

Tulip-tree beauty 1

Tulip-tree beauty, Epimecis hortaria – a common bark mimic

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella 3

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella – a very common species right now

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis – this is the adult form of the puss moth caterpillar

Juniper twig geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Juniper geometer moth, Patalene olyzonaria

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoroedes lineata

Io moth, Automeris io

Io moth, Automeris io – a large female

Io moth, Automeris io with wings spread

Io moth, Automeris io, with wings spread to reveal the false eye spots


Wow, what a planet!

~Mary Ann Brittain, May 20, 1942 – March 17, 2019

I’m going to post something a little different this morning. A brief tribute to my dear friend and mentor, Mary Ann Brittain. We attended her memorial yesterday at her beloved Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was a beautiful, hopeful, memorial to one of the most amazing people I have ever known. She was full of grace, kindness, laughter, and had an endless curiosity about the natural world (and all another aspects of the world we live in). In looking for some images to include, I sadly realized that most are in the files of the museum as digitized slides from my early years at that amazing institution. So, I’ll just share a couple I still have (those who know me, know I have few people pictures among my thousands of images, and this is one of those times I regret that). And I will only share a tiny bit of Mary Ann’s impact on me this morning (to tell it all, would require a book, a book that is still being written).

I met Mary Ann while I was working as a naturalist/educator for NC State Parks. Back then, we were sometimes stationed at popular parks far from our usual station on busy holidays to serve as roving interpreters or to provide programs to visitors. I was at Mount Mitchell State Park one Fourth of July when this woman approached me and asked about the skeletons of fir trees scattered across the mountain. Scientists were discussing the impacts of acid deposition on high elevation forests in the southeast at that time and the impacts of the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid as a factor in the die-offs of Fraser Firs. But, many visitors assumed there had been a fire. After discussing this with Mary Ann, she emphatically said we should be interpreting the science to the public to make them more aware of the issues. What could I say? I had to agree. So, we discussed it back in Raleigh and over the next several months a display was developed and installed on Mount Mitchell about “What’s Killing the Trees?”.


My career with Mary Ann began with a call about this…

I don’t remember the exact timeline, but some months after that, I got a call from Mary Ann. We chatted for a moment about our meeting at Mount Mitchell, and then she got to the reason for her call. She had a farm in Franklin County with a small cottage on it as a weekend retreat, and she needed to build an outhouse up there. She had pondered who might have plans for an outhouse. State Parks has outhouses, she thought. Who did she know in state parks? That guy she met at Mount Mitchell (me). During the conversation, she mentioned the potential for hiring an education position at the museum. Thus began my 24 years in the best job that state government has to offer (and she got her plans for an outhouse).

I put this in her tribute only because Mary Ann loved to laugh, and helped everyone around her to find the humor in our daily lives. Her friends and family shared many stories yesterday about the crazy shenanigans that Mary Ann got us all involved in over the years.


“Laugh often”, a life lesson she shared

She was a woman of vision (my nickname for her was “The Force”) and worked tirelessly to make good ideas into reality. Her background in social work helped shape her amazing abilities at bringing groups of people together for a common purpose, be it reaching across social barriers, or helping you get outside of your comfort zone to see the world with a new set of eyes. All of her former museum co-workers smiled as we entered the church yesterday and saw a flip chart with instructions to make a name tag for the service. As our friend, Liz, mentioned in her tribute to Mary Ann yesterday, if only the pews could have been arranged in a circle…the classic arrangement for seating a group of people and classic Mary Ann.

UTOTES school

Habitat components at a UTOTES school

When I started at the museum, I went with Mary Ann all over the state for 3-hour workshops that took teachers outside the classroom walls to get them excited about using plants and animals to teach all sorts of subjects. She lamented the fact that 3 hours just wasn’t enough time to make a real difference, so she came up with the idea for a program to provide teachers with workshops at their schools over the course of many months. After convincing some people in the state’s education department of the value of such a plan, the successful UTOTES (Using The Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science) program was born with a huge NSF grant. Thousands of teachers have now been through the program, helping to introduce tens of thousands of NC students to the wonders of nature with the simple idea of exploring and teaching outdoors. I like to think that it has helped shift the views of a lot of people for the need to learn about, care about, and help conserve the world we live in. The signs shown below went up at UTOTES schools after teachers took their students outdoors to learn about some common schoolyard critters we had shared in the workshops. To me, it is just one example of how powerful direct experience with nature can be. When observed closely, even the sometimes unloved wild creatures can be beautiful and fascinating, and those experiences can foster an understanding and appreciation for the entire natural world.

dirt dauber preserve

Perhaps the only mud dauber preserve in the state

spider sanctuary

This sign went up after sharing a math activity involving spritzing  (with water) the spider webs in the bushes around the school. The kids fell in love with the diversity of spiders they found.

Years before UTOTES, she had started taking educators to amazing natural areas from NC to Belize to get them turned on to the natural world. She believed that sometimes it requires taking people to far-away places to help them understand the beauty in their own backyards.

early Belize

Mary Ann, with the first museum educator group to go to Belize, 1987

The Educators of Excellence program has profoundly influenced hundreds of teachers across the state and still lives on at the Museum, over 30 years after it began.


Wolf-watching at sunrise, Yellowstone (another Educator of Excellence program that continues to influence teachers and their students)

Several years ago, after her husband, Bill, died, she decided to write some words for her own eventual obituary. Here is a selection of those powerful words shared at the service yesterday…

The purpose of life is not to be happy but to make a difference – to have it matter that you lived at all.

You only have to do your part to help with the overwhelming need and hurt on this planet; and you do not have to live wracked with guilt that you cannot do more.

Be full of gladness, and cherish your deep connection to all living things from bugs to bears.

Great words from a great person. As I reflected (something she always encouraged everyone to do) on what I learned from Mary Ann over the years, I realized how hard it is to pay tribute to someone that is larger than life. But, the Mary Ann I knew was always helping people see the world around them in new ways, turning them on to the mysteries and beauty of nature. That is how we first connected. I think back to one of my favorite snippets from a Mary Oliver poem. Mary Ann embodied the spirit of these words…

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

And tell about it she did, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Thank you, Mary Ann, for helping me (and so many others) find ways to tell about it too, to follow our passion to share the wonders of nature with others, and for being such a tremendous role model and friend. And to all those who knew her, and will miss her, I truly believe she will continue to inspire and shape us. Remember, she never gives up on anything…

May “The Force” be with you.

Mary Ann on sunrise canoe trip on Turner River, FL

Mary Ann on a sunrise paddle on the Turner River, Florida




The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

Into the Interior – Day 1

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.

~Anamika Mishra

A trip into the interior of Yellowstone in winter is truly magical. Most of the extensive road system is closed in winter to all but over-snow travel via snowmobiles or snow coaches. We had chartered a snow coach for our group so we could travel in comfort and have more control of our route and stops. We set off early in the morning with a first stop at Swan Lake Flats, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high peaks.

Sunrise at Swan Lake FDlats

Sunrise at Swan Lake Flats (click photos to enlarge)

Cold temperatures and our first full sun morning made for beautiful conditions, including sun dogs at sunrise.

Mountains at Swan Lake

Snowy mountains surrounding Swan Lake Flats

Ice crystals on grass

Ice-encrusted grasses greeted us on our first stop

Moon setting at Swan Lake Flats

Full moon setting at sunrise

Driving toward Canyon, you soon realize the interior of the park receives much more snowfall than much of the northern range. There are meadows covered by an untouched blanket of deep snow with only hints of what lies beneath – a sinuous line shows a creek channel and tips of tree branches reveal a partially buried conifer.

Meadow and creek near Canyon

A carpet of deep snow lies throughout the interior

When we drove into the parking lot at Artist Point at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the main reasons for my love of winter in Yellowstone became obvious – there was no one else there. In summer, this lot would be at capacity with hundreds of visitors crowding the trail and summit of the overlook. Today, our own private viewing of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the geological wonders that helped convince Congress to set this area aside as the world’s first national park.

Lower Falls and ice mountain

Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (308 ft)

If you take a closer look at Lower Falls in winter, you notice a huge dome-shaped mound in front of the falls. This is “ice mountain”, a large pile of frozen mist, water, and snow that accumulates every winter at the base of the falls, sometimes reaching heights of well over a hundred feet. One source I read said that it tends to vanish quickly in the spring, often collapsing on itself in just a few hours as temperatures warm.

Rolling hillside of untouched snow

Undisturbed snow field at Canyon

Tree top sticking out of snow at Canyon

Backlit conifer peeking above snow

Yellowstone River at Chittenden Bridge

Yellowstone River viewed from the Chittenden Memorial Bridge

Heading out of the Canyon area, we stopped and walked out onto the Chittenden Memorial Bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River just above the Upper Falls. In summer, this is a tranquil-looking area, with small rapids giving just a hint of the watery chaos that occurs just downstream as the river thunders over 100 feet at the Upper Falls and plunges another 308 feet at the Lower Falls. In winter, it is a great place to see signs of river otter hunting the open waters. The trails in the snow along the water’s edge you can see in the photo above were made by otter.

Trumpeter swans on ice

Trumpeter swans relaxing on the ice

Just upstream, we encountered our first trumpeter swans of the trip, a pair resting quietly on the edge of the ice.

Trumpeter swan in river

Trumpeter swan in the Yellowstone River

They were soon joined by another pair that flew in and landed near them, but that stayed out in the open water of the river. Trumpeters gather in the park in winter to take advantage of the many waterways kept open by thermal activity.

Tree in Hayden Valley

The majesty of Hayden Valley in winter

The trip down through Hayden Valley is always my favorite part of a winter journey and I was so glad that it had turned out to be a clear day for it. Massive snow-covered hills, many devoid of any visible vegetation, give a seemingly horizon-less world view. Here and there, isolated trees give perspective and some scale to the immensity of this windswept terrain.

Steam and ice at Mud Volcano

Frozen steam coats the trees at Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano provides a hint of things to come with our first major thermal features along the route. Cold temperatures enhance the steam production and nearby trees are coated with thick cushions of ice. Wildlife often congregate in these thermal areas to avoid the bitter cold and deep snow elsewhere.

Coyote at Mud Volcano

A coyote warily eyes our group

Ice crystals in parking lot

Ice crystals at thermal spots in the parking lot

West Thumb pool

Hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

By the time we reached West Thumb Geyser Basin, a thick cloud cover had helped create a world of stark contrasts of black and white with occasional tinges of thermally induced color. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to charter a snow coach, as this trip is something more people need to experience. Being surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cold and ice, punctuated by otherworldly thermal activity, and having the opportunity to observe how wildlife adapts and survives in such a hostile place, gives one pause to consider the meaning of wildness, of beauty, and of life itself.

West Thumb trees

Overcast skies help paint this frigid world in tones of black and white