He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter….
May you find happiness and peace this holiday season. A few images from winters past…
He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter….
May you find happiness and peace this holiday season. A few images from winters past…
If one could take the cover off the ground in the fields and woods in winter, or have some magic ointment put upon his eyes that would enable him to see through opaque substances, how many curious and interesting forms of life he would behold in the ground beneath his feet as he took his winter walk.
I spent a lot of time outside this past week enjoying our woods. The trail cameras definitely help me spend more time exploring, walking slowly, or simply sitting and watching as I try to find new places for them or go every couple of days to open the surprise gift that is the record caught on the memory card. The week started sunny and mild (you remember that thing called sunshine, right?) and ended wet and cold. On those bright cloudless days, I spent some time observing the grosbeak frenzy at the feeders and tried to capture some more moments of birds in flight. I came close to getting the shot I had hoped for, the dueling grosbeaks in mid-air, but focus was a tad off. Here is a sampling…
Melissa participated in a museum live event yesterday with cameras on the bird feeders to make observations for the Great Backyard Bird Count. I spent some time watching the behaviors and tried to estimate the time it takes for a grosbeak to eat one seed. After many trials, it averaged between 4 and 5 seconds for an Evening Grosbeak to pick up, open, swallow the kernel, and discard the shell of a single sunflower seed. No wonder our bird seed budget has tripled since they showed up.
Throughout the week, we have spent time walking the winter woods, appreciating their quiet and beauty.
With the apparent onset of the monsoon season these past few days, it seems a perfect time to go out and search for lovelorn amphibians. Our friend, Alvin, called us Thursday night to remind us it was an ideal situation for the salamander run. Spotted salamanders breed on cold, rainy nights from January through early March. They migrate from their upland underground hideouts to vernal pools (that are fish-less) to breed. See a previous post for more on this fascinating behavior. We bundled up and headed out, and immediately found a group of swirling salamanders in one of our small pools out front. They are hard to see in the vegetation in this pool so we wanted to check some other likely places. We drove a couple of miles to a spot where they traditionally cross the road (or at east try to) to reach a nice vernal pool. We found some egg masses and one salamander near the pool but no large gathering. We did manage to help several across the road and saw a few that did not get any relief from oncoming traffic. I texted a neighbor to see if we could check his pool and when he welcomed us over, we stopped and walked up toward this created wetland. As we got close, we started seeing salamanders marching with us toward the water.
There were dozens of writhing salamanders in the water in what is known as a breeding congress. We were mesmerized by all the action. I was able to count 37 at one point but I’m sure there were many more out of sight in the fallen leaves and aquatic vegetation. Wow!
I’ll leave you with this short clip of action in the pool as an amphibian reminder that, in spite of it all, life goes on and we should enjoy what time we have on this magical planet. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Go to the winter woods: listen there, look, watch, and “the dead months” will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest.
Our two trail cameras have given me a new excuse to walk in our woods every couple of days (to retrieve images) and it has reminded me how lucky we are to live where we do. We have a little over 14 acres of hardwoods on fairly rugged terrain. There is a simple wooden bench (two boards) set on stones down slope from the house and it provides a nice view of the creek bottom and opposing south-facing slope in winter.
Yesterday, I wandered down to reset the cameras and took some pics with my phone of the winter woods. I like the expanded views in winter, the crisp air, the sounds of mixed flocks of birds moving through the trees, and the subtle signs of life that appear when you stop to look closely.
The creek bottom extends along the back side of a number of large wooded lots in two neighborhoods and offers an oasis for birds and other wildlife. It also provides a reprieve from many of the human noises we can hear from the ridge top (distant sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, neighbors out in their yards, etc.). For that reason, I decided to haul a cedar log from our yard down to the creek and create another sit spot. Again, nothing fancy, but rather something from the land that blends. This tree trunk had once stood along what I assume was a property line on our ridge and had barbed wire nailed to it (you can see the grooves in it from the years of wire being attached). It now sits on some of the countless irregular-shaped rocks scattered about the tract and is placed up against a beech tree facing the creek. I like to imagine we will spend many hours here contemplating the beauty that surrounds us.
Sitting there, I started noticing things all around me that spoke of the quiet beauty of winter…
When I returned to the house, I looked in some mushroom field guides, and reminded myself of the awe I feel for those that can easily identify our varied fungi. I plugged a couple of them into iNaturalist and labeled the photos as it suggested. If anyone has other ideas, please let me know.
Before I left, I noticed a group of tiny dancers, some sort of fly, probably involved in a mating flight, bobbing up and down in a small animated troupe highlighted by the sun. It reminded me that even in winter, life is striving to continue, to take advantage of any opportunity of warmth, of sunlight, of the future. Here’s a quick phone clip…
After spending time with the flies (it’s not often I get to say that), I walked along the creek, noticing the tracks of deer and raccoon, the diggings of squirrels, and then was startled to see a true sign of spring – the first wildflower of the season – a Round-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica americana.
All the field guides talk about it blooming from February-March in the Piedmont, but here it is showing its striking purple colors in January. I had seen a friend’s social media post recently of one blooming elsewhere nearby…indeed, climate change in my lifetime. But, troubling as it may be, it is amazing what finding a hint of a season to come does to your mind. I think it is universal among observers of nature as this quote from 19th century naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, so eloquently states…
Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an individuality it has! No two clusters alike; all shades and sizes. A solitary blue-purple one fully expanded and rising over the brown leaves or the green moss, its cluster of minute anthers showing like a group of pale stars on its little firmament, is enough to arrest and hold the dullest eye.
The hepatica reminded me we had found some other early signs of spring a few days ago – the first Spotted Salamander egg masses of the season in our small pools and an adult salamander waiting her turn for the next rainy night hiding under a rotting log just outside our deer fence. So, in spite of the abundance of winter birds at our feeders (the grosbeaks, siskins, and finches are still abundant), the march of time carries us toward the green and warmth of the next chapter in our wooded landscape’s story. I’m hoping to read many more pages as this year passes.
Yellowstone in the summer changed my life and teaching direction. Revisiting in the winter was like going back to an old friend’s house when all the ‘guests’ have gone home and you get to sit in the den and have long quiet conversations with the residents.
~Mike Leonard, an educator that attended both a summer and a winter field experience in Yellowstone with the museum
I had hoped to go to Pungo yesterday, but the weather had other plans for me. A day trip with all day rain just didn’t seem the thing to do. So, I sat home, did chores, and wished I was someplace else – with Melissa. She is leading a museum trip to our other special place – Yellowstone. Winter is probably my favorite season out there – so quiet, a living Christmas card, and the wildlife spotting is much easier against the snow. And so few people, relative to summer, it’s like having your own private park at times. She has sent a few notes about what they are seeing, and, today, the group heads to my favorite place – Lamar Valley. She said it has snowed every day. Not ideal conditions, since the landscape can seem so vast and sparkling when the sun is out, but not a bad way to spend your days – the softened sounds, the way the world seems to embrace you when it snows, everything (you, the wildlife, the scenery) all draped in a cloak of ever-changing white. And, she has discovered a new favorite thing – cross-country skiing. Guess I had better start getting in shape and practicing my balance for our next visit. As I sat reminiscing of past trips, I decided to share some images from our previous winter adventures to this special place in its special season.
One of the reasons there are so many terms for conditions of ice is that the mariners observing it were often trapped in it, and had nothing to do except look at it.
― Alec Wilkinson
I must give credit to our friend, Bill, for the title of this post (hope he doesn’t mind). He is a poet and a wordsmith and used this phrase in an email about a hike along the Haw River we took this past Sunday with his godsons, Turner and Charlie. We hiked along the Lower Haw State Natural Area from the Hwy 64 bridge over the Haw up to our neighborhood, a distance of a little over 2 miles. Temperatures were in the 20’s when we started, but mostly sunny, and the air was still. The river, always special, was especially beautiful, with a fringe of ice along her shores that often extended far across her rocky breadth. From the outset, the river provided visual delights and mysteries.
Just a short way upriver from the bridge, we started seeing some winding “trails” on the ice, looking as if someone had pulled a tiny sled in an erratic route across semi-frozen ice.
Just beyond those first mysterious ice trails, we saw a partially open channel that had a similar irregular path. This one led over to an island in the river where we could see evidence of beaver chewed sticks piled along the bank. Mystery solved! The initial trails were frozen over beaver channels.
From that point on, we encountered many active beaver chewed trees, some quite large. Years ago, when I was doing programs for state parks, I remember reading some facts about beavers – the largest one ever trapped weighed about 105 pounds (although my current reference on mammals says the largest on record was 86 pounds – still a huge rodent). Average weight for an adult beaver is around 50-60 pounds. I once saw a photo of the purported record tree felled by a beaver – a tulip polar a little over 5 feet in diameter! None of the trees along the trail approached that, although the busy beavers have been gnawing on some pretty large specimens. Beavers are somewhat generalist vegetative feeders in warm months, but this time of year they feed almost exclusively on the inner bark of tree trunks and branches. Other wildlife we saw included a variety of birds – great blue herons looking for open water along the river, and a variety of songbirds trying to find something to eat along the trail. American holly berries seemed a favorite and we saw several hermit thrushes and American robins feeding in some of the large trees. Mixed feeding flocks of other species including Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, and pileated and a yellow-bellied sapsucker), some feisty yellow-rumped warblers, and a few ruby-crowned kinglets. A beautiful red-shouldered hawk, a blue jay, and some of its cousin American crows, rounded out our bird sightings.
As I have said before, ice fascinates me. Life as we know it depends on the unusual characteristics of water and one of these is that, unlike most other chemical compounds, when it gets cold enough to turn into a solid, the solid floats (the solids sink in most cases).
I remember a discussion I had about ice with a museum co-worker back in 2006. I was lucky enough to get chosen as part of an international science and education team to spend a month in the Arctic aboard a Russian ice-breaker (no collusion, I swear). She asked me if I thought I would get bored spending a whole month out on the ice, with nothing but an expanse of white to view. I had said no, and was justified when I realized the incredible variety of forms that ice can take – all beautiful. The ice along the Haw was no different, and showed us its many faces as we gazed upon it from the bank – all magical.
The weather is warming, and ice is melting, but memories of a cold hike along the Haw, with good companions, will stay with us for quite some time. I spoke to our group of my appreciation for those that fought to set this corridor aside, and to the dedicated folks, like those of the Haw River Assembly, that continue to work toward its preservation. Haw-inspiring indeed.
We are not the only species who lives and dreams on our planet. There is something enduring that circulates in the heart of nature that deserves our respect and attention.
~Terry Tempest Williams
I ended my winter tour season last weekend, a little earlier than usual, but it finished on a spectacular note. I had two groups of wonderful people; one all day Saturday, and one Sunday. It was beautiful weather, and both mornings started out cold, just the way it is supposed to feel in winter at Pungo and Mattamuskeet. There continued to be a couple of things this season that baffle me. I am still seeing the fewest number of bears of any winter since I started visiting this wildlife-rich region. And the snow geese are still acting strange, coming and going at a very high altitude, and I never saw them feeding in any of the refuge fields all winter. If the few remaining stands of corn are knocked down before they head back north, perhaps the snow geese will make a late appearance.
We did finally see six bears on Sunday, five of them the first thing as we drove in past one of the few remaining fields with standing corn. The last was seen after sunset on another field along D-Canal Road at Pungo. Still, no bears the past few weeks along the one-time sure spot, North Lakeshore Drive, aka Bear Road. There is still plenty of sign in the woods, but some of it may be from a month or two ago, before the bear hunting season on adjacent private lands. Almost every pawpaw tree in the woods along that road has been climbed, clawed, or snapped in half by the bears. They must really like pawpaws, and, who knows, maybe there is something in the bark they like as well, because many of the mid-sized trees have had their bark pulled off in strips.
On Saturday, we saw plenty of birds at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR, in spite of the closure of the entire road along the south shore of Pungo Lake. The past few weeks have had heavy rains and some vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud, causing the closure. My advice to visitors is, if the roads look too bad to go through in your minivan or sedan, then don’t attempt it (you may be right). The refuge tries to repair the really bad spots if and when they dry out enough to allow their heavy equipment to get in to do the work. Mid-day we ran over to Mattamuskeet NWR where we found high water again limiting the number of birds in the usual spots. But, there was a good diversity of ducks that cooperated with our efforts to view them through a scope, and we were rewarded late in the day with the first wave of great egrets coming to roost in the trees across the canal from the lodge. That is quite a sight to see them sailing in on cupped wings, squawking as they juggle for space in the soon-to-be-crowded branches.
Both days were full of interesting sightings ranging from bald eagles near a swan carcass, to pied-billed grebes hiding in the brush along the canals. We had a nutria with 3 young in one canal, plus a very unusual blonde-colored nutria at sunset. Finally, back at Pungo late in the day, we witnessed an incredible sunset show of tundra swans flying in and out of the lake. The strange thing was that as we drove in about 4:30 p.m., there were thousands of swans leaving the lake, which seemed late for so many to be headed out. But, they all returned (plus thousands more it seems) as the sky turned orange-red at sunset…spectacular.
Amazing what a difference a day makes…Saturday morning was windy, causing the birds (numerous ducks, snow geese, and tundra swans) to seek shelter on the lee side of the west shore, which left the area in front of the observation platform a void, without any waterfowl readily visible. Sunday morning was calm, and our arrival at the platform before sunrise was greeted by thousands of birds just beyond the lake shore in front of us, seemingly filling almost every square foot of the lake’s surface. As the sun climbed higher, the dark shapes became a sea of brilliant white objects that filled the air with their sounds.
After the sunrise show at the platform, we headed over to “Bear Road” for a walk. Along the way, I spotted a pair of river otter in the roadside canal. They tend to raise up and snort a time or two when they first spot you, and then often disappear beneath the waters with a distinct kerplunk, only to reappear near or far, depending on how much they feel like tolerating your presence. These two were busy searching for fish in the thick mats of vegetation in the canals, and by the looks (and sounds) of things, they were quite successful. One guy caught several small fish while we watched, tossing his head back and crunching them in his jaws, the hapless fish seemingly gazing at us asking for help. But each fish disappeared rather quickly, with the otter then glancing our way before disappearing into the floating green mat.
After the otter, we walked down Bear Road, but didn’t see much other than lots of bear sign, and a couple of groups of red-winged blackbirds. Once back at the car, we were starting to grab a bite to eat when a car pulled up with folks I knew from Christmas Bird Counts at Goose Creek State Park years ago. They said they had just seen a wood stork feeding in a canal around the corner. I must admit, a thought raced through my mind…I responded, a wood stork?, as if questioning their ID of this somewhat unmistakable bird…but a bird I have never seen anywhere near this part of the state in over 30 years of birding. Wait, I told myself, these are people that used to come to the Christmas Bird Count, and they should know a wood stork if they see one. Yes, they said, a wood stork, and they had stayed with it so long that they got tired of taking pictures. They drove off, and I interrupted our lunch break and said, Sorry, but we have to check this out.
We quickly loaded up and drove around the corner and could see a car stopped down the road. As we approached, I saw it, and indeed, it was a wood stork! It was a juvenile, distinguished by its straw-colored beak (instead of black of an adult) and it fuzzy feathers on the head and upper neck. It totally ignored us as it went about its business of feeding along the canal edge.
I have watched storks feeding in a group in Florida and South Carolina, but this one was doing something I had not seen – slowly walking, shuffling one foot, then the other, beak agape. The strategy is to startle a prey item by kicking the substrate with your feet, and if a fish, crayfish, or whatever hits the beak, it snaps shut.
The really odd thing it did was once a minute or so, it would extend one wing (almost always the right wing) and pivot, without pulling its beak out of the water. Some waders will spread a wing to supposedly startle prey, so maybe that is what was happening, or maybe it was to help balance the bird as it did a tight spin.
Here is a quick video clip showing this behavior, although the extended wing here is not as prominent as in most of the spins we witnessed. And my friends were right, we stayed with this bird until we got tired of taking photos…what a treat.
Another trip over to Mattamuskeet with similar results to the day before, although there was one highlight that made me think this trip might go into the record books for unusual sightings. As we drove in the back entrance of the refuge, a mink ran across the road in front of us. Wow, a mink, one of the most elusive mammals in our state, out in the middle of the day.
We headed back to Pungo later than usual and, once again, thousands of swans were flying out of the lake around 5 p.m., much later than in past winters. But this time, some were landing in a cut-over corn field right next to the refuge road. We stopped, got out, and stood in awe of the sights and sounds.
This short video gives you some idea of the spectacle, but imagine this going on all around you, the sky full of birds. As it grew darker, thousands of ducks came out of the swamps and circled a field of standing corn next to the swan field in what one young guest the evening before had called a “ducknado”. Birds everywhere in the sky…amazing.
To top it all off, the sunset was painting the sky with broad brush strokes of orange, gray, and pink, with long lines of the black silhouettes of wings, most still heading west, away from the lake.
As the fire in the sky smoldered, preparing for darkness, we looked out on the horizon with our binoculars and could see the lines of swans returning. Who knows why they flew out so late, only to turn back a short while later, filling the sky with their wing beats and whoops. Whatever the reason, it made for an amazing finish to another winter season at my favorite place, and I was so glad to be able to share the experience with others. Until next year…
Here is a species list total for our weekend outings:
Birds (56 species):
Double-crested Cormorant, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, Tundra Swan, Mallard, Black Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Hooded Merganser, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Wood Stork, Great Egret, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night Heron, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Merlin, Ring-billed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Wren, White-throated Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Rusty Blackbird, Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black Bear, Gray Squirrel, White-tailed Deer, Nutria, Mink, River Otter, Gray Fox
What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.
Over the weekend I made a quick trip to my parents’ home in southwest Virginia . Like many regions in the East, their area has had a long cold winter. But, I am one of those strange few that likes cold weather. And this was the first year in several that I did not get my snow fix by spending time in Yellowstone, so I was happy to see a few flakes start to fall on Monday. This might be my last snow for this winter (although as I write this, I am hearing about chances for a wintry mix in portions of the state later tonight). It began slowly, about mid-day, then picked up in intensity.
I did not have my camera on this trip so I grabbed my iPhone and walked down the hill toward the river below the house. This is the South Fork of the Holston River. One of three major branches of the Holston River, the South Fork flows over 100 miles through the hills and valleys of southwest Virginia before joining the North Fork near Kingsport, Tennessee. This serene waterway forms the back boundary of my parents’ property and provides a glimpse into the former wildness of these mountains amidst the current patchwork landscape of pastures and wood lots.
I love the quiet and the starkness of a snow, especially along a river. Black and white images appeal to me in these settings, helping to define the world into its basic shapes and patterns.
Snow also helps bring things into focus. A beaver-chewed tree trunk that might blend into the scene under normal conditions now jumps out of the landscape like a monument to the work of a master builder.
And the edges of a fallen leaf suddenly make your eyes notice the detail in their pattern.
Walking upriver beyond the riffles, the river gets quiet and silky. The snow is falling harder, a burst of larger flakes that are eaten by the river, but gather on the dark branches and the sleeve of my coat, causing me to pause and admire their delicate beauty.
I stood quietly on the bank of the river…It was so peaceful watching the snow fall as the river rushed toward a destination far beyond this tranquil scene. The early naturalist and writer, John Burroughs, described what it is like to have a small river flowing near where you live…One can make a companion of it; he can walk with it and sit with it, or lounge on its banks, and feel that it is all his own. This snowy river gave me a glimpse of that feeling, and it reminded me of the powerful connection we all have to water and the landscapes that embrace it.