Birding Behind the Wheel

DO NOT, under any circumstances, look at birds while driving.  (The title just had nice alliteration.)

Concentrate on the road, for heaven’s sake!

Trust me on this.  Please – do as I say, not as I do.

However, if you should happen to be riding shotgun down our state’s highways and byways and want to identify some of the most common of our fine feathered friends with just a glimpse from the moving car, here’s how I do it:

Observation 1:  Wow, that’s a big bird.

Observation 1a:  It’s black.  If it’s mostly black, you’re likely looking at a vulture.

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A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

 

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Note the white “arms” on the turkey vulture and the white “hands” on the black vulture.  Photo provided by Jim Conrad via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

 

 

  • If it’s not really that big and it flaps when it flies (rather than soaring), its a 
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    Sihlouette of a crow, photo provided by Naama ym via Wikimedia Commons.

    Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) or Raven (Corvus corax).  There’s practically no wayto tell the difference between the two at a distance, so call it whichever you like.  On the Chesapeake, Ravens are more often sighted around Baltimore.  (Maybe there are too many Washington Redhawks fans in southern Maryland for the ravens’ taste?)

 

 

Observation 1b:  It’s almost black. . . No, wait, it’s dark brown. . . with a white head and tail. . . and huuuge.  This bird is our big, beautiful, Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)!  Don’t worry if the head and tail are still brown or mottled brown and white, that just means it’s a young’un – bald eagles don’t get their adult plumage until they’re about four years old.

 

Observation 1c:  It’s got a dark back and a light tummy, it’s perched on a pole or wire, and it’s judging me.  Congratulations, friend, you’ve caught the wary eye of a hawk!  Hawks don’t usually soar (vultures do), they usually park it on a perch and watch an open area (e.g. highway medians, crop fields, meadows) for rodents running around – when they spy their four-legged food, they swoop down and snatch it up in their talons.  The hawk was only judging you (your car really) as not food, but something which might run over and animal and, therefore, be a source of free food.  Since you noticed it first as a big bird, it’s likely you’ve spotted one of these two hawks:

 

 

 

 

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Look at the tail stripes on this juvenile red-shouldered hawk.  Photo provided by cuatrok77 via Wikimedia Commons.  

  • If its fan-shaped tail is black with slim white horizontal stripes, it’s the Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus).  It does, of course, also have a brick red patch on its shoulders, but this is hard to spot from the car.  (Which you are ABSOLUTELY not driving, right?!)

 

 

 

Observation 1d:  This bird is trying to screw me up – it looks like a cross between a hawk and an eagle!  Soaring above the water (like an eagle or vulture), but distinctly hawkish in appearance, the Osprey is a thrill to watch as it surveys the water’s surface, then suddenly drops into the drink like a stone, only to come up with a huge fish in its talons.

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Ospreys soar, then dive.  Photo provided by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Observation 2:  Wow, that bird is shaped just like the seagulls I’ve seen in so many paintings of the shore!  Yes, you’ve got yourself a gull, but not a “seagull” – there is no single bird with the moniker “seagull”; they’re just called gulls.  (Say it five times fast and you’ll make a funny sound.)  Maryland boasts several species of gulls, depending on the season:

 

Observation 3:  Holy moly, that must be a gazillion little black birds in that flock!  Whoa – look at the shapes the flock makes as it flies!  Here it is crucial that you not be driving.  Seriously!  Watch the road, not the bird show!  Or, better yet, pull over to a safe spot and take a few minutes to watch the bird show, because you’ve found a murmuration of European starlings (Sturmnus vulgaris)!  These birds are native to Europe, introduced to North America by a well-meaning human who had no idea the havoc that invasive species create in an ecosystem.  Despite the starlings’ total takeover of the lower 48 states and the obnoxiously noisy chatter that their huge flocks inflict wherever they roost, you’ll be hard pressed to find a person who will complains about them while watching a flock’s evening aerobatics.  If you were a good driver and didn’t stop to watch, check out these great murmuration videos on NPR and YouTube.

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Murmuration.  Photo provided by Tommy Hansen via Wikimedia Commons.

 

So those are the birding-from-the-car basics.  And here’s the bonus:

When writing the section on hawks, I couldn’t decide whether to include the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) or not.  It’s not as big as the red-tailed and -shouldered hawks, it tends to stick to the forest (and backyard bird feeders) more. . . but I have seen one or two at the side of the road, so . . .  Well, as you can see, I decided not to include it.  Then I had to interrupt my writing to run out and get errands done before picking up my daughter from basketball practice, and who should I spy sitting on a wire right next to my little post office?

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Forgive the lack of zoom on my smart phone.  This Cooper’s Hawk looked much bigger in person!

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This phone close-up doesn’t help much, but you can at least see the mottled breast.

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Trail Shots: Calvert Cliffs Red Trail in the Snow

Today, the thermometer passed 40 and we’re quickly saying goodbye to the snow that has covered the area for the last five days.  I was lucky (determined) enough to get out to Calvert Cliffs State Park for a quick hike on the red trail before the white stuff waved goodbye.  Here are my shots from the snowy trail:

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Plenty of folks had gotten out to hike the trail before me; I only met two other hikers while I was out, but there were plenty of footprints and pawprints – and even one bicycle track! – in the snow.

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The fishing pond was frozen solid . . . except where footprints lead out into the snow and onto the thin ice, where the end of the track was punctuated by a giant hole.  

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One of the great things about snow is that it outlines the shape of the land.  Where in summer I might not even notice the hill beyond the trees, now it’s impossible to miss and has got me thinking about this trail as more of a stream-side hike.  

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Itty bitty hidey hole.  The single digit temperatures we’ve had over the last week have got me thinking about how the wild animals survive the cold.  They all must find places to crawl into to be safe and warm.  Thank goodness for rotting logs and shallows made by the upturned roots of fallen trees.  

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A frozen stream emerges beneath the trail, heading down to join the main stream in the bottomlands between the hill I’m on and the one pictured above.

The red trail follows this stream closely for 100 yards or so as the water splashes down over a few mini-falls.  The covering of ice over the moving water created the most wonderful gurgling sound.  Check it out in this short video I took:

Gurgling

 

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Just after the mini-falls, the stream becomes only partially iced, but what beautiful ice it is!  Blow up the photo on your screen and see the beautiful wavy patterns.

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The even horizontal lines of quarter-inch holes drilled in this pine tree are likely the work of a woodpecker called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius).  Unlike most woodpeckers, which feed on insects and larvae found beneath the surface bark of a tree, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (say it five times fast and you’ll get the giggles) is drilling holes to tap the tree for sap, which it then licks up with its brush-like tongue.

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The bottomland, with stream running on the far and near sides of the middle, has widened out in a classic floodplain pattern, the contour of the land revealed by snow and bare branches where for three seasons of the year it would be masked by leaves.

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Gum ball polka dots.  The sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) above my head has dropped a good portion of its mature fruits, making a nice polka-dotted pattern in the snow.  I’ve always called the fruit “gum balls”  (while simultaneously warning children not to chew them if they want their mouths uninjured) but, according to Wikipedia, the fruit are also called by a number of nicknames, including “burr balls”, “space bugs”, “monkey balls”, “bommyknockers”, and “goblin bombs”.

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I am sending out cosmic thanks to whomever cleared off one butt’s-worth of space on this trailside bench.  It gave me a chance to sit and listen to the forest for a minute.  I’ve just started an excellent book, What the Robin Knows by Jon Young, and used this opportunity to further my studies in “deep bird language”.

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The stream gets wider and wider until . . .

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Wetland!  This view is between mile markers 1.1 and 1.2.  I had planned only to walk half way down the trail (0.9 miles), but I couldn’t bear the thought of turning back without seeing the frozen marsh.  I was rewarded for my perseverance by a mixed flock of birds foraging in the grass tufts that break through the ice.  I saw several white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and at least two other types of LBB (Little Brown Bird).

Opportunity Taken: The Bloodroot Trail

No question about it, it had to be today.

It’s been windy and in the teens for two weeks, we’re expecting snow tonight and tomorrow, and then even more frigid temperatures to follow.

This afternoon, however, was a balmy 33 degrees with gentle breezes that kept the “feels like” temp in the upper 20s.  For a gal still learning to be “weatherproof” today was the day to get out for a hike.

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The trailhead sign for the Bloodroot Trail, which winds around the ridge inside and above the Stream Loop I hiked a few weeks ago.

Or, rather, a walk in the woods.  Hiking, to me, carries a connotation of physical exercise.  This makes me feel obligated to move quickly along the trails, keeping up my pace and heart rate.  Walking quickly on the trails is also a great way to miss everything going on in the woods that I came out to see in the first place.  So, my “resolution” for this year is to quit hiking and just walk (slowly, pausing often) in the woods.

(Exercise will have to be accomplished at home on my NordicTrac elliptical machine.  I call it “Hellga” for obvious reasons.)

So today, despite a hip-deep mound of unfolded laundry and before the urgent grocery run, I hit the Bloodroot Trail in the American Chestnut Land Trust’s (ACLT) Parker’s Creek Preserve.

It was a good choice.  Nature never disappoints.

I started the trail walking way too fast.  Three weeks of holiday preparation and family visits, the last two of which I was basically stuck indoors, had me in my head.  And my head up my backside.  (I could tell because my thoughts were all crappy.)

All I heard was the crunch of leaves and the rustling of my many layers against the extra blubber I’d built up over the holidays (warm, but bad for my self-esteem) as I barged down the trail.

Luckily, I ran into another woods-walker, an ACLT volunteer who was out to bow hunt the evening hours in order to check the local white-tailed deer population.  He didn’t know me.  He didn’t care about my holidays.  He was just glad to be in the woods, and glad for me that I was there, too.  We chatted for a minute about the beautiful lacy leaves still decorating the beech trees, about how Parker’s Creek had frozen solid and so the raft crossing is closed, about how some unwise soul would probably try to cross it on foot anyway and be sorry for it.

I thanked him for his good trailwork – the ACLT trails impress me more on every visit – and wished him luck in his hunting, eager to move on now that our chat had stopped my inner monologue and successfully removed my head from my rump.  (I kept that last part to myself.)

That’s maybe the best part of the woods; once you wake up and tune in, the sights and sounds overtake the tempest-in-a-teapot of human thought and push it aside.  The questions the woods ask are so much more interesting that anything I already know.

Still, as long as I was moving, the forest remained silent.  Strange.  Or not.  If I were a critter in the winter woods and a nosy human was clomping through, I’d save my warm breath and enjoy my hiding space until the clumsy clomper had passed.

It is counter-intuitive to pause in the wilderness when the weather is cold.  There’s some mammalian drive that wants your feet to keep moving until you reach warm cabin or safe car.  Today I fought that urge, and nature rewarded me.

Just as I rounded a corner, I saw on the bridge over the valley stream a cat-sized bit of furry, rusty-red motion.  As the creature in question trotted away I caught sight of four black paws and snow-white tipped tail.  A red fox (Vulpes vulpes)!  My first trail-sighting!

I’ve seen many furry friends from the driver’s seat of car as they dashed away from the road (and a few that didn’t make it across), plenty of orange-red eyes glowing in the night at the edge of the field, but I’d never seen one on a trail until today.  Though the normally nocturnal fox was likely out hunting early to avoid the coldest hours of night, its appearance was full-on magical to me.  Worth the whole trip.  But the walk wasn’t even half over yet, and the pictures below reveal some of the questions and answers the woods gave me.

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I paused to admire and photograph the two trees at center before I came upon the fox.  It was probably the fact that I had quit making so much noise that encouraged the fox to stay long enough for me to catch a glimpse when I rounded the corner.

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I really am developing a thing for beech trees.  Look at this giant!  Too wide to wrap my arms around, but still showing off that “muscles under skin” appearance.  To me, this looks like the inside of a bent elbow.  I wonder what caused the bend.

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This is the standing snag of a dead giant.  Though I didn’t examine the bark at the base closely enough to know what kind of tree this was, I love how easy it is to see the tree’s natural twisting-as-it-grows pattern.  Why do trees twist as they grow?

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The fox’s view.  A frozen streamlet taken with a hand still slightly shaky from the excitement of seeing a fox.  If the streams are frozen, where will the fox find water to drink?

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Who will this shelter tonight?  How do the feathered ones and furry ones survive these arctic blasts?  

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How gorgeous is this split cherry trunk?!  What makes it so red?

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Is this American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) offering its bright red fruit to the birds, or is it its invasive cousin Oriental Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus) getting a toehold in these woods?  Is there enough water in these shriveled berries to help keep the animals hydrated while the stream is frozen?

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Why do the birds wait all winter to eat the holly berries?  Do they taste so bad that they’re the kale of bird cuisine (only eaten as a last resort) or do repeated freezes somehow make them more palatable or nutritious come March?

Tomorrow I’ll snuggle in under the blanket of snow and research more answers. . .and more questions to ask on my next walk.

 

 

 

Foggy Morning on the Laurel Loop Trail

Sunshine lifted the fog from my house early Monday morning and its clear rays combined with energy from a really good night’s sleep to get me in the car and headed to the trail before 9:00 a.m..

It seemed the sun had only worked on my rooftop and nearby hilltops, though, and as I drove north to the American Chestnut Land Trust’s Parker’s Creek Preserve, I found myself deep in the misty gray.

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The meadow at the Southside Trailhead as I began my hike.  You can just make out the white birdhouse though the fog at center right.

Hiking in the fog is a near-miraculous experience.  It is, quite literally, walking in a cloud.  Sounds are at once hushed and also heightened – the noise of the human world seems unable to penetrate the cloud, but reduced vision makes hearing all the more acute.  Also, because the mist obscures the larger vistas, the eye is drawn to all the tiny marvels of nature that are so often overlooked.

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The fog condenses on every surface.  Here, water molecules have drawn together and rolled to the curled tips of dried grass leaves.

From the parking lot, the hike commences via a mown track through grassland to the edge of the woods where the Stream Loop, Ridge Loop, and Laurel Loop diverge.

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One of my favorite aspects of fog is how it gathers like pearls along spider thread.  This panicle was hung so profusely with pearly strands that it reminded me of the rigging of sails on a tall ship.

I enjoyed the Stream Loop last week in buttery sunshine, but was excited to experience the Laurel Loop under a layer of cool silver gray.

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Into the mist at the beginning of the Laurel Loop.  The lacy brown trees in the middle distance are young beeches (Fagus grandifolia), which keep their leaves all winter.

The leaf litter was thick, but the moisture of the fog made it soft rather than loud and crackling.  Just beyond the view of the picture above, it becomes obvious how the trail was named – it winds through hillsides full of mountain laurel that arch over hiker’s heads.

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In this laurel I found a small, delicate orb web coated with dew.  This was one of only two webs I found (the other was a bowl and doily web), and I’m glad I took the time to make my phone’s camera focus correctly – what a beautiful job this spider has done, and what a survivor she must be, still alive and weaving after several frosts.

Scampering beneath the laurels and over the leaf litter off the sides of the trail, gray squirrels went about their autumn nut gathering, but didn’t seem frightened by my heavy footfalls or the bright turquoise of my sweatshirt.  They kept a wary eye but didn’t skitter up the nearest tree.  Of course, none held still long enough or close enough for me to get a picture, either.

No matter; I hiked along in a state of peaceful joy, and the woods rewarded my positive attitude with two excellent fungi as still-life subjects:

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A beautifully colored turkey tail fungus growing on a downed hardwood trunk.

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Pear shaped puffballs!  I learned these on an earlier hike at Flag Ponds this season, and knew them immediately this time from their pea green innards.

Just after this shot I looked up to see a serious uphill climb.  Not large compared to the inclines I used to hike in the Appalachians (the Gateway Trail comes to mind), but I haven’t been mountain hiking in over a year now, and my leg muscles have gotten lazy.  I would have taken a picture of the hill, but I didn’t think of it until half way up, when I stopped to huff and puff and my heaving lungs prevented me from holding the camera still.  Had I been able to get a shot, I would surely have captured the man-made miracle at the top of the climb:  some wonderful worker or volunteer had built a bench there, hallelujah!

Though the temperature was in the low 40s, the uphill section had warmed me up enough to ditch my sweatshirt and sit on the bench with my notebook for ten minutes without feeling the chill.  This is what I wrote:

“A chickadee calls “fee-bee, fee-bay” in the beginning of December?

The woods in fog seem even more magical – cloistered, protected – all the sounds amplified because the visual details are muted.

Drops of condensation fall from leaves.  The rat-a-tat-tat of a persistent woodpecker at work.  The squeaks and bell calls of innumerate little brown birds.  Squirrels bounding through leaf litter as deep as they are tall.

I want time to stop so that I can sit on this quiet bench for hours – till the birds and squirrels trust me, till they hop on and over me as if I were a statue.”

I even took the time to get videos of two woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).  Not great videos, mind you, but you can catch the motion of the little trunk hoppers:

Quick Nuthatch Clip

Quick Red-bellied Woodpecker Clip

And by the time I was done writing and birdwatching (starting to feel fairly competent with my binoculars), the sweat had evaporated out of my shirt, so my upper half was refrigerator chilled, and my butt was numb with cold.  Totally worth it, but time to get moving again.

I hiked the one mile loop in an hour and twenty minutes total, moving at a pace easy enough to touch the trailside trees with gentle gratitude, marvel at a flock of migrating robins in the canopy, and take a few more pictures.  It was sublime.

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My favorite part of the trail:  a hill steep enough to run down (though I’d probably trip if I did), a gully to explore, and at the top of the opposite rise, you have to duck under an immense fallen tulip poplar (Liquidambar styraciflua) trunk.

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This moss grows at the base of a trailside tree.  Up close it looks like a field of emerald stars.

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Back at the parking lot meadow, the fog was finally beginning to lift.  The silvery mist of morning rose like a curtain to reveal another golden autumn day.

 

 

If you liked this trail story, check out some other great southern Maryland trails:

 

A Gift of a Day

Yesterday was not going to be ignored.

Morning dawned at a mild 47 degrees with gentle sunshine and no wind, and the Weather.com app promised the day’s temperatures would peak in the mid 60s.

I struggled with my urge to hike, which was tamped down by both irrational fear (I’m reading a book where a woman gets clobbered on a trail) and rational fear (gun hunting season is open), not to mention the burden of a mountain of laundry to do.

But a day like this?  Sunny and 60s at the end of November?  I can weatherproof myself till I’m winter-immune, but to reject the gift of a glorious, warm, free day with no scheduled appointments because of irrational fear or dirty laundry is an insult to Mother Nature herself.  (I called the organization, checked trail conditions, hiked at mid-day, and wore bright colors to make sure I wouldn’t run afoul of hunters.  I’m enthusiastic, not stupid.)  There are going to be plenty of times that commitments and chores keep me inside, but not today.

I made the short drive to the south side of the Parker’s Creek Trail System created and maintained by the American Chestnut Land Trust, and I was rewarded with a brand new trail and all the joy that comes with spending two hours in the woods.

After parking in the gravel lot and signing in, I strode out across a field to begin the Stream Loop in the clockwise direction.  Beginning counter-clockwise on a new trail seemed counter-intuitive.  I’ll have to walk it that direction next time, though, to see what I missed this time.

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The beginning of the Stream Loop in the Parker’s Creek Preserve.  Warm sun on my shoulders and crackling leaves underfoot, I felt I could finally breathe deeply.

 

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Choosing the low road and feeling good about it:  the upper trail, to the right, is the Bloodroot Trail.  I chose to hike the Flint & Swamp Trails, which are collectively known as the Stream Loop.

 

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With the sun in my eyes, it was hard to make out the words scrawled on this log and at first I was frightened it said “Closed”, but the graffiti actually advises hikers to Look Closer – a sentiment I can totally get behind.  

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And this is what I found when I followed instructions and did look closer.  Perfectly round little holes made by some insect or animal.  Now I just have to figure out which insect or animal makes perfectly round little holes.  

If this log had been smaller or more decomposed, I would have rolled it and looked closely underneath.  There are always all sorts of critters -from salamanders to millipedes – living in and underneath decomposing wood.  Rolling logs is one of my all time favorite activities to do with kiddos.

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The Stream Loop’s stream.  I took this picture to show how wide the stream’s floodplain is.  All of the flat land stretching out to either side of the stream has been made flat by floods year after year for generations.  They’re incredibly important for riverine ecosystems.  

One should note, however, when hiking in any floodplain or bottomland, unless the area is in the middle of a major drought, there will be muddy areas on the trail.  This is not a reason to avoid the “low road” hikes, though – you’ve got to remember that hiking boots aren’t ruined by mud, they’re baptized by it.  And, while you might not want to wear your newest, most expensive clothes on a muddy hike, a little mud does a body good.  (And human skin is wonderfully washable, too.)

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One of my favorite aspects of this trail was the number of tree gateways though which it winds.  

Though I have always taught kids to look first before touching something in the wild, I won’t stop them from touching.  The urge to reach out and lay your hands against the bark of the tree gate sentinels is overwhelming, and if you take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply while touching these forest elders, you get the greatest feeling of peace and joy.

 

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A place for Pooh sticks.  

Whenever I hike with kids, and especially when I hike with my daughter, we play Pooh Sticks.  Named for Winnie the Pooh, it’s a game of dropping sticks on the upstream side of a bridge and seeing whose stick reaches the downstream side of the bridge first.  I’ve played it a lot with toddlers, but I can now vouch that kids as old as 11 (my girl) still get excited by the competition.

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And, on the same bridge where Pooh Sticks was a good idea, I also found scat (wild poo) and used a stick to investigate it’s contents.  I’ve spared you from the close up picture, but examining scat and trying to solve the mystery of what animal left it is also great fun on the trail.

In researching the scat I found on the trail, I first leaned toward bobcat as the source.  Bobcats are known to leave scats right in the middle of the trail.  However, my stick investigations revealed that the contents of the scat belonged to an herbivore.  After looking at dozens of scat identification pictures and descriptions, I think this scat was made by a raccoon.

Important note:  I did not, and one should never, pick up or examine scat with bare hands or put the scat close to your face where you might accidentally ingest or inhale even the tiniest bit of scat.  Scat can be rife with parasites and diseases.  (This is a long way of saying please don’t touch, sniff, or taste wild poo.  Obvious to many, but an important thing to watch out for when hiking with the very young!)

 

I found nut shells left by some critter and, further down the trail, a black walnut (I think – see the caption) half eaten by another.  A hiker clomping through the crackling fallen leaves has little chance of interacting with wildlife; they hear us coming and high-tail it to safety or hiding.  However, you can often delight in a close encounter when you find tracks, scat, or seeds.

On this particular hike, I did get to observe wildlife for a little while, because I found a fallen log at the side of the trail on which to sit still and be quiet.  I rarely take the time to pause mid-hike because I’m usually trying to get some exercise but, based on this experience, it’s going to become a part of every hike.

After I’d sat for a few minutes, not really moving and not making any noise, a squirrel skittered down the hill and stopped on the streambank opposite me.  It sat on its haunches and looked straight at me.  As I returned its gaze with a gentle, passive expression (no toothy smile to advertise my status as a predator), the squirrel examined me first with its left eye, then its right.  It scratched its belly absent-mindedly with its arms and then dropped back down onto all fours, beginning to move in a circuitous path at least 10 yards away from me.  Springing from ground to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to nearby log, the squirrel didn’t hurry or panic, but kept me always in sight.

The squirrel escaped my sight, though, within about five minutes.  Another three minutes after that, a second squirrel (or it could have been the same one – they’re not like whales with individualized, identifying tails) followed the exact same path the first took, just a little faster.

Finally, I heard two squirrels chittering in a nearby tree.  I’m fairly sure I interrupted an afternoon of warm, productive foraging.  I put my nature journal away and calmly got up to finish my hike.

My fungus ignorance hasn’t dampened my mushroom love one bit.  Before the squirrel(s) appeared, I found this little purplish brown beauty in the leaf litter at my feet.  I photographed it against the pages of my nature journal so that I could get approximate measurements for cap diameter (30mm) and stalk width (7mm) when I got home to a ruler.  I observed the gills and their attachment to the stalk.  Still, I can only narrow the identification down to group level – either a Milky or a Russula.  I think.

But once your eyes are opened to mushrooms, you see them everywhere!  I found four more great examples – my attempt at identification is in the caption for each.

And, last but certainly not least, two videos from this hike:

Leaf Showers – every time the breeze ruffled the tree branches, I was showered with fall leaves like confetti.  A great autumn game for kids is to try to catch a falling leaf in midair.  It’s best to play this in an open field, though – on the trail it’s a tripping accident waiting to happen!

Flow Under Protozoans – Don’t be grossed out by the oily film on the water, it’s just millions of microscopic organisms called protozoans.  They’re feasting on bacteria blown onto the water’s surface by wind.  As long as there’s no nearby sewage input to the water body (and there certainly wasn’t here) there’s nothing to worry about.  In fact, if you’ve got a kid and a microscope, a sample of this “scum” is an educational treasure trove!  I just love how you can see the stream water swirling and flowing underneath the protozoan film.

Yesterday’s hike was really wonderful and I’m so glad I went.

Now on to the (one day bigger) piles of laundry.

 

Adventures in Brown

The transition from the color riot of summer’s greens and early autumn’s red, orange, and yellow – that final stage before the world refines itself into the black and white of winter – is brown.

Late November is brown.  Or, more accurately, browns.

Today I had a scant half hour to get myself some much-needed wilderness time, and I chose a walk around Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, where all of November’s browns are on display.

It was like walking through a sepia-toned photograph, where everything held still or flowed slowly, like molasses.

The swamp was unearthly quiet; there were no sounds but for the thud of my own boots on the boardwalk, the trickle of water, and an occasional chirp between birds.  (Brown birds, no doubt.)

It was heavenly.  Brown is a highly underrated color.  Here are some shots from the trail that illustrate this point:

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The trail begins with a long staircase that spans the hill from the visitors’ center to the boardwalk.  This type of ecosystem is known as a Coastal Plain Bottomland Forest – it’s in the land that’s literally at the bottom.

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Browns abound.  From wispy stalks of dried grass to the carpet of cypress needles and other leaves, the landscape is warm and welcoming.

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I can already hear you arguing “those leaves aren’t brown,” but consider this:  Leaf color is really a factor of distance.  From inches away, these leaves were splotches of carmine red in a citrine yellow background.  From a foot or so away (and backlit by the sun) they appear dark orange.  From a few feet away, they’re brown.  And, just to fully finish blowing your mind:  brown(s) are actually just a darker shade of orange.

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Like a lichen, but not quite!  Lichen are green because they are an algae (which is a green plant) united with a fungus.  This is just fungus.  It’s called reddish-brown crust (Hymenochaete badio-ferruginia) – an on-the-nose common name if ever I saw one.

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When the eye isn’t distracted by a variety of colors, it can focus on intricate details, such as the texture of this tree bark.  I’m not 100% certain on the identity of this tree – it’s branches were well above my head and all tangled with other trees’ limbs – but I think it’s a dogwood. 

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Here’s a view back down on the swamp from the end of this circular trail.  Yes, I see the green holly leaves at the right and the golden gum leaves at center left.  Don’t they look wonderful against all of those browns?

And now, because it’s my blog and I can, a list of some of the beautiful browns I saw today:

acorn

tan

beige

caramel

walnut

maple syrup

copper

umber

russet

sepia

taupe

wheat

rust

auburn

otter

cardboard

mink

kraft paper

fawn

mahogany

cinnamon

football

clove

oatmeal

brown sugar

molasses

khaki

cafe au lait

terra cotta

Feel free to add some of your favorite browns to my long list by submitting them as comments!

A Golden Hour

Every photographer knows that the hour or so before sunset is a “golden hour” for taking photos.  The slanted beams of the setting sun fall at a magic angle that makes everything seem to glow from within.

Today I got to take a walk at golden hour in what is also a golden month.  In November, here, the foliage of the autumn trees is mostly gold, amber, and honey.  So, to walk in the golden hour in November is to walk among the dark giants of forest trunks set against the dazzling topaz of leaves and cerulean autumn sky.

A few shots of my stroll around Annmarie Garden:

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I’m a sucker for leaves lit from behind by the sun, but this maple doesn’t need backlighting for its colors to burn like a fall fire.

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The sculptures at Annmarie Garden are amazing.  (One of dozens is shown at the lower left of this photo.)  They have to be, to compete with the sheer beauty of the forest around them.

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Strong, straight soldiers in the foreground protecting the treasure held aloft beyond.

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Never, never forget to look up!

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

My Saturday hike at Flag Ponds was fungally fruitful.   

(Get the awesome pun??  Because mushrooms and other visible fungi are the fruiting parts of the main body, or mycelium, of the fungus.  My family says my mom-jokes are even worse when I explain them, whereas I think they’ve got real pun-tential.)

My mushroom identification skills, however, still leave much to be desired.  There are at least 10,000 different species of mushrooms/fungi in North America.  I can reliably identify about five.  And that’s just not going to cut it on an average hike.  

The stakes are even higher for mushroom foragers who intend to eat what they find.  A misidentified mushroom in your stomach could mean a trip to the emergency room.

When trying to identify a mushroom, amateur mycologists must note myriad details, beginning with:

  • The shape, texture, moisture level, and color of the cap (pileus),
  • The shape and color of the stalk and whether or not it has a “veil”,
  • Whether the underside of the cap (where the spores come from) is smooth or has gills, tubes, or teeth, and
  • What kind of spore print the cap makes.

I took no caps home to make spore prints.  Knowing that the visible mushroom is only the fruiting body of the larger mycelium, I didn’t mind plucking a few to get a better look at, and photo of, their underside – I figure this is no worse than picking a flower or leaf – but I draw the line at taking home pieces of nature from a nature park.  I couldn’t do it.

So, here are the mushrooms I found and the rudimentary identifications that I was able to make with the help of my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the wonderful MycoKey Fungus Identifier website.  Click on the photos to read the full captions.

I cannot identify either for sure.  Seriously, I got nuthin’.

 

Maybe in the parchment fungus family?  I so badly need a fungus friend to guide me.

 

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Finally, one I know!  This bright yellow, delicate, slimy beauty is witches’ butter.  It is edible, but used in soups rather than to butter bread.

 

Fail.

 

Just enough success to keep me going!

 

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Check out this convoluted beauty!  It sure looks like a Bladder Cup. . . only it’s not yellow.  And it’s not growing on manure.

The mushroom gods are, for sure, laughing at me now.

 

Getting lucky with commoners.

 

 

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So, I may not be able to identify them to genus and species, but I’ve observed enough to know that there are at least four different fungi in this square foot of rotting log:  the delicate, dark brown mushroom sticking up just above center, the Clinker polypore coating the wood in a dark brown/black char, the false-turkey-tail-or-possibly-other-parchment-fungus in the upper right quadrant, and the three cute cup fungi lined up on the center right.

If you, too, are prone to fungus fails, take heart in the following quote:

“Think like a queen.  A queen is not afraid to fail.  Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey

I think I’ll go adjust my crown and forage for a few more fungus websites.

Weatherproofing

Ever since I read Marcia Bonta‘s four book series of nature writing about the seasons on her Appalachian mountain in Pennsylvania, I have wanted to be as nature-tough as she is.

She treks out to observe nature on her mountain several times a week, even through snow and rain and the cold of deep winter.  She can sit for hours in the chill and watch the behavior of wildlife with true intelligence and insight.  She is 77 years old, and she is still weather-proof.

I want to be like her when I grow up.  (I also want to be like my mom, Rachel Carson, Michelle Obama, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Anning, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.)

I’m forty now, so I figure I’d better get cracking.  It’s not that I haven’t hiked in inclement weather before.  I have; just not enough.  So, this season, that all changes.

I’m gonna get all out in it.

I started in yesterday’s stunningly sunny 36 degree temperatures at Flag Ponds.  I wore jeans with a long sleeve shirt topped with a sweatshirt, plus a knit cap and iPhone-friendly gloves.  There was little wind, so I didn’t need a windbreaker as my top layer, but I’m going to ask for an oversized windbreaker for Christmas so that I’ll have it for the rest of the winter.  I prefer layers to thick, heavy coats.  Clothing that makes it harder to move drives me nuts.

I walked the South Ridge Trail in my usual direction and then did the North Ridge Trail in the opposite direction.  (I highly recommend reversing directions on a trail you hike a lot – you get all new views!)

And here’s my reward for layering up and going out – some of my favorite photos from the hike:

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Two different types of moss, completely undeterred by the season’s first freeze.  Though I can’t identify mosses on sight (yet), I find them a fascinating story in competition and natural selection ever since reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

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I’m intrigued by the way lichens have colonized the upper half of this knot hole but mosses have claimed the lower half.  There were several similar knot holes on this fallen trunk and they were all populated the same way.  Cool!

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“Spring” onions defied their designated season and popped up along several parts of the trail.  An anti-oxidant packed snack for the wild herbivores.

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Just sitting there, being beautiful.

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Walking the North Ridge trail beginning at the park entry road (don’t do this if you haven’t already paid your park fee, please) gave me a brand new view.

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Tree roots holding the world together.

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I love giant leaves!  (Particularly fall sycamore and tulip poplar leaves that are as big as your face.)  Unfortunately, this leaf fell from the exotic, invasive Royal Paulownia tree, which is an unwelcome and damaging invader in this ecosystem.  There are a few in the park, and I must remember to ask a ranger about a plan for their removal.

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A pristine white feather amongst the warm riot of fall leaves.  I hope it came from one of the migratory water birds that hang out at Flag Ponds each winter.  They’re my next incentive for braving the cold!

Trail Photos: Flag Ponds Nature Park North and South Ridge Trails

Friday was my day to check the salamander traps at Flag Ponds.  (Citizen science for the win!)  But, I arrived to discover that they’d already been checked by a teacher and school group.  (Educating kids about nature for the championship!)

So, what’s a woman with a free hour to do on a mild autumn day with cerulean skies and golden leaves?  Hit the trails, of course!

The best shots from the South Ridge and North Ridge trails on this particular day were of weaving ladies and fun-guys.  (Fungi!  Get it?!  Nerdy science puns rule.)

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A tiny “trail miracle” – I stopped for no reason and found myself eye-level with and six inches from this female Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus), busy making threads of sticky silk to complete the spiral of her orb web. 

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Efficient and capable from the underside, but absolutely stunning from the topside!  Her abdomen was sunflower yellow marbled with chocolate brown, contrasting nicely with her eight flame red, cream, and black legs.  Don’t let the bright colors scare you, though – this lady is completely harmless.  She was too busy with her creation to notice me, but if I’d scared her, she likely would have dropped to the ground or run to hide.

Watching the Marbled Orb weaver was mesmerizing.  She used one of her back legs to stretch the silk out from her spinnerets as she crawled to the next radial strand, then tucked her abdomen under to secure the thread to the radial strand with a dot of spider glue.  Her movements were efficient and economical, looking more like Monday office work than Saturday night fever.  I captured two short videos of her skills; check them out in the video links below.

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Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 2

Now, on to the fun-guys.

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After some light research in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, I have tentatively identified these as Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme).  Apparently they’re among the “choice” finds for expert mushroom hunters in terms of edibility.  Being a novice mushroom hunter, however, I’m smart enough to not put any wild fungus in my mouth; there are too many look-alikes that turn a great meal into a deadly dish.

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My Audubon guide (and some image searches on Google) lead me to believe that these convoluted, jelly-like masses are a fungus known as Pale Jelly Roll (Exidia alba).  The Exidia fungi are found on deciduous trees such as oak, willow, and alder.  How I wish I’d stayed to check what kind of tree this log had been!

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Thinking about how many times I say “I wish I’d taken the time to . . .” about something on the trail.  The trouble with hiking is that I’m always trying to make it double as a workout, so I go too fast.  (My idea of heaven necessarily includes an eternity to study nature in minute detail, unnoticed by all of the earthbound fauna.)  This particular section of the North Ridge trail definitely burns the calories, though.  Forty-five-ish steps climb from the bottom of the ridge to the top.  It’s.  No.  Joke.

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Sure, I stopped half way up the steps just for the awesome view of the marsh and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.  Not because I was dying or anything.

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I just love the curving, twisting contortions of the wood grain in this decaying log.  The beginnings of a moss colony – green flecks at center left – and the Clinker Polypore fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – black swaths that look like charred wood – highlight the complex landscape of decay.

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One of my all time favorite trail views.  This flat portion of the North Ridge trail is my dream of a magical woodland.  I sense surprises hiding all around, but it feels as safe and friendly as my own bed.  It will be a feast of sun rays in winter.