Wednesday. I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.
But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.
For you. Because I’m selfless and committed like that.
Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one? Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.
We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.
We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.
Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.
I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants. It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!
More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.
I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format. I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.
Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet. Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:
“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag. There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets. He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond. That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird. I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!
“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked. My first answer? It’s an LBB.
Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another! I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right. The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging. It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs. The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties. What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.
As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh. And then they moved. Suddenly. Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them. We all got excited. I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers. Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t. Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.
I didn’t this time, either. What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings. And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.
I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America. I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare. They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them. In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!
I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest! I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge. That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!
And it did: I’m still grinning. But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!