Trail Shots: Calvert Cliffs Red Trail

A stroll along the red trail was my Halloween gift to myself.

(All of the candy I steal from my daughter’s enormous trick-or-treating stash is my November gift to myself.)

Here are a few shots from the trail to add to the celebration of the season.

 

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Both moss (the yellow-green hairy stuff) and lichen (the blue-green frilly stuff) have made a home on this fallen branch.  Both mosses (a type of plant called a bryophyte) and lichens (a symbiotic organism containing both a fungus and an algae) have lived on planet Earth for 400 million years.

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What happens to a root trodden by innumerable feet.   Tree roots that stretch across the trail develop interesting, flattened surfaces and knobs in response to being worn down by hikers’ shoes.

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A marsh is a beautiful place to be in the autumn.  Turtles basking in the last of the year’s warmth, minnows dashing among the lily stems, and geese heard but not seen behind the hillocks of sedges.

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Autumn is a very romantic season.  These two Ruby Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum rubicundulum) are taking time to make time, and the next generation.  They will continue to fly in tandem while mating and even while the female deposits the eggs at the water’s surface.  Dragonflies live most of their lives as aquatic insects that eat mosquito larvae.  (Thank you, dragonflies!)

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Sun shining through crimson maple leaves at the edge of the marsh.

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A reminder not to lose your shoelaces . . . or maybe just to spend more time in nature.

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A view of the Chesapeake Bay at the end of the trail.  Most visitors spend their beach time searching the sand and wrack for fossils.  

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This visitor, a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) has also stopped at the beach, but she’s here to soak up warmth in a patch of autumn sunlight.  Her hind wings are a bit worse for wear, but she had no trouble flying.

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You never walk the same trail twice, even if it’s literally walking back out the trail you just walked in.  As the sun’s rays change their angle, different treasures are highlighted in the forest.  I wish I hadn’t been in a hurry on my way out – if I had stopped to check underneath the fancy tops of these shelf mushrooms to see if their undersides were gilled or toothed, I could say for certain whether they’re Turkey Tail fungus or Violet Toothed Polypore.  Either way, though, they’re still gorgeous.

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Heart In Two Places

Well, it’s really happening.

I’m moving.

My husband met with his future colleagues last Monday at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (“PAX” to the larger world, “NavAir” or “the base” to the locals) in southern Maryland and it was a mutual admiration fest.

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A view of the Patuxent River through the car window from the Thomas Johnson bridge on a cold and rainy February afternoon.  Look how big!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we went house hunting and found not one, but two homes we love, both with woods in the back yard.

Our daughter has picked out her room in either home; one of them has a dormer window and we’ve promised to build her a little window seat so she can have her own special reading nook there.

The most amazing part?  I’m actually excited.

I have been dreading this move for four years.  NavAir paid for my husband’s advanced degree, allowing us to move back to Blacksburg for four years – a dream come true for me.  I’m a Hokie, my husband’s a Hokie and a townie, my sister and brother-in-law are Hokies, as are my brother and sister-in-law.  We know why the trees turn orange and maroon in the fall, because Virginia Tech is heaven on earth and God’s a big fan, too.

These mountains, this old New River, this small, smart, bustling town – here is the home of my heart.

I knew when we moved here that our allotted four years would fly too fast, but I never imagined that these next four (or hopefully, 10) years might be seriously lovely, too.  And it turns out they really might.

On our short, rainy, cold visit to southern Maryland, the natural world reached out and pulled me right in.

There are woods – real woods! – complete with sturdy old white oaks, maples in early bud, and countless sweet gum trees and loblolly pines.

There are hills!  I had expected only flat marshland, which would be fine, but I love hills – I think it’s the surprise of not knowing what comes next.

There are jetties and breaks made of chair-sized boulders.  There are sandy beaches strewn with clam shells and claret colored seaweed.

There are three rivers all coming to meet the Chesapeake Bay:  the Patuxent, the St. Mary’s, and the Potomac, all big and wide and deep and powerful.

And the place is just as truly alive as my mountains are.  I can feel it pulsing just below the limits of my hearing, keeping time with my heart.

On our short visit, I saw and heard:

  • A juvenile bald eagle buzz less than 20 feet over the roof of the car at Point Lookout State Park.
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A bald eagle (Haliaeeatus leucocepphalus) must wait four years for its brilliant white head feathers, but identifying a juvenile isn’t so hard; the size of the bird is one thing and the size of that schnoz is another! Photo taken by KetaDesign and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

  • A flock of at least 100 bufflehead ducks, who, by the way, look exactly like duckie stuffed animals dressed in white-on-black tuxedos by a five-year-old putting on an imaginary gala.

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    A bufflehead duck (Bucephola albeola) captured by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Now imagine a hundred of them floating on little bay waves, chattering. Quite the fancy dress party!

  • A loon and a grebe and innumerable ring-billed gulls.
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Ring billed gulls (Laurus delawarensis) are the Goldilocks of gulls; not too big and not too small. Easy to spot by their black wingtips and the black “ring” around their bright yellow beak. Photo taken by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • A jellyfish with a peachy-pink center, likely a moon jelly, but I haven’t positively identified it yet, slowly bouncing through crystal clear waters.

 

Redhead, Laguna Madre Nature Trail, South Padre Island, Texas

Redhead (Aythya americana) duck photographed by www.naturespicsonline.com and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The challenge for the next few months will be making enough room in my head and heart to be fully present in mountain spring while imaging a bright, bayside summer.

Nature Girl Goes to the Beach: Part 2

The more human animals you see at the beach, the fewer wild animals you’re likely to see.

Unless some kid is feeding Cheetos to the gulls*.  Nobody can resist Cheetos.

But, if you look closely, there are plenty of wild animal nature experiences to be had.  These are my favorites from our last trip to Myrtle Beach.

The two dark blue spots in the middle distance are schools of fish.  Or, perhaps, one school that's been momentarily split in two.  As I watched, the schools drifted north with the long-shore current.

The two dark blue spots in the middle distance are schools of fish. Or, perhaps, one school that’s been momentarily split in two. As I watched, the schools drifted north with the long-shore current.

School Spotting

As the ocean water deepens, its color changes – the greenish brown of the tumbling surf zone becomes turquoise over the outer sand bars, then teal, then, finally, navy.  But, wait, what are those odd splotches of navy in the turquoise waters?  They’re schools of fish!

The higher up you are, the easier the schools are to spot, which is an excellent excuse to spend a little quiet time staring out your hotel window.  The schools can stretch the length of a football field or more, and if you look closely, you may see the sun flash silver off of the fish at the surface as they jockey for position.

From beach level, you can be fairly sure of a large school nearby if you see a number of pelicans diving to catch fish in the same area.  Important to note here that fish schools are preyed on from above by pelicans (and other birds, such as terns) and from below by larger fish and sharks.  No matter how tempted you are to try to swim out to the school to see the amazing synchronization of thousands of fish, don’t.  1)  It’s farther than you think, and 2) you don’t want to confuse the sharks, who might accidentally think you’re included in the buffet.

Though these pelicans are flying in a V formation, flocks are more often seen flying in long, undulating lines.  The largest such line I've ever seen comprised 18 individual birds.

Though these brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) are flying in a V formation, flocks are more often seen flying in long, undulating lines. The largest such line I’ve ever seen comprised 18 individual birds.

 

Pelican Parade

Brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis) are incredible to watch as they dive into the ocean to snatch up a snack (and up to 17 gallons of water around said snack) in their roomy throat pouches.  They may catch many small fish (such as anchovies or menhaden) or a singular, large fish (up to 12 inches long).  They then squeeze the excess seawater out of the pouch as they sit on top of the water while keeping their beak closed to trap the fish.  Large fish must then be thrown up in the air and re-caught, head first, so that they can be swallowed.  You can see this dramatic throw even from shore, as the pelican jerks its entire neck and head to toss the fish.

As if this weren’t enough, pelicans tend to flock as they ride the onshore breeze (sea breeze) down the coast over the beach.  Why?  They, like geese that migrate in large V-shaped flocks in the fall and spring, are drafting:  all of those following the leader have to expend less energy because the leader diffuses the headwind.  The birds take turns being the leader so that everyone can conserve energy.

Most often, these flocks fly in undulating lines, which I have always thought of as the Pelican Parade.  Years ago, when I lived in Florida near the Gulf Coast and was studying to become a National Wildlife Federation Habitat Steward, they assigned us acrostic poems to help cement our memories for identification.  Inspired by the birds at hand, I wrote this about the brown pelican**:

Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

Breeding commonly on our coasts, though

Rarely found on freshwater, preferring the salty shore, we find them

Often begging for food on piers, trained by soft-hearted humans or

With friends, flying in long straight lines, low over the water and

Near the waves, looking for small fish to eat.

Plunging into the sea, they snap up their prey with an elegant,

Elongated beak, outdistanced only by its own

Long wings, broader than a basketball player is tall.

Immature is uniformly dull brown above, lighter below, but

Chocolate brown on the back of the neck highlights the breeding male.

An excellent flier, powerfully stroking, then gliding, looking out with its

Neck drawn back.

Coquina clams come in a variety of beautiful shades, from white to orange and blue to purple.  Shell color, however, seems to have no correlation to speed in racing.  Never judge a clam by its cover.

Coquina clams (Donax variabilis) come in a variety of beautiful shades, from white to orange and blue to purple. Shell color, however, seems to have no correlation to speed in racing. Never judge a clam by its cover.

Coquina Racing

My daughter and mother-in-law invented a great shore game on a trip to the beach when Abbey was four:  fizzle.  They would sit, legs extended, at the edge of the surf zone, in no more than an inch or two of water and let the waves wash over them.  Most of the waves would just “fizzle out”, but quite a few knocked them clear over.  This inspired fits of giggling in both girls, and they’d sit and “play” for an hour.  (Anyone who’s had a four year old knows that a whole hour of playing at one activity is a miracle.  Way to go, Grandma!)

In between waves or just a few feet up the beach on the wet sand, Abbey would dig down three to six inches to find dozens of coquina clams (Donax variabilis).  Each clam is only about an inch long and most are brightly colored – magenta streaked with butter yellow, sunset orange streaked with ivory, and all shades of purple and blue, too.  But their colors aren’t what make them awesome – their speed is.

When these clams are dug up and exposed to surface sunlight and temperatures, their first order of business is to hold still to avoid the prying eyes (and beaks) of their shore bird predators.  Their second order of business is to dig back down into the sand (fat end up) and resume their filter feeding in dark protection.

Noting this movement and, feeling that competition is at the heart of everything American, we, of course, raced them to see which coquina could re-bury itself first.  If you’d like to try racing coquina at the beach, let me give you the following advice:

  1. Children pick the winners and, therefore, win most of the time.  I can only surmise that this is because Mother Nature just likes kids better than grown ups.
  2. The color of the shell and size of the clam have nothing to do with speed.  At least, not that I’ve observed in my highly scientific studies.  (All scientists conduct serious studies in their bathing suits, right?)
  3. Clams out of water do seem to move faster than clams in water.  I haven’t repeated the study enough to get statistically valid results, but we’re heading to the beach again next week, so make sure to read upcoming science and biology journals for my next paper.

Shell Mysteries

I envy committed “shellers” – those folks who collect shells so avidly that they comb the beaches at dawn and after storms, and know all of the best beaches where they’re likely to find the rarest, most beautiful shells.

Sadly, I have neither the travel allowance nor the ability to rise early to become a serious shell collector.  Instead, I choose to delight in the beautiful pieces of shell that are plentiful at the tideline.  Grabbing a handful of these is like holding the whole rainbow of color and texture.  From each handful, too, I can extract several of the larger pieces to take back to my chair under the beach umbrella, break out my shore guides and identification books, and try to solve the mystery of the shells’ true identities.  Here are a few of my best mysteries from this last trip:

Going clockwise, starting in the upper left we have an unknown, possibly clam, shell.  But look at all of the cool mother of pearl on it - other shelled creatures were beginning to grow on it!  On the upper right we see part of a whelk shell.  On the lower right, my best guess is a part of a blue mussel shell (it wasn't white inside, which would indicate oyster).  Finally, on the lower left, based on size and vertical ridges, I think it's a cockle shell.    I photographed all of these shells against the white background of my 9x6 inch travel journal. The color of the page looks a bit pink because my chair sat beneath the fuchsia section of our rainbow beach umbrella.

Clockwise: Upper left – an unknown, possibly clam, shell. But look at all of the cool mother of pearl on it – other shelled creatures were beginning to grow on it! Upper right – part of a whelk shell. Lower right – my best guess is a part of a blue mussel shell (it wasn’t white inside, which would indicate oyster). Lower left – based on size and vertical ridges, I think it’s a cockle shell. Note: I photographed all of these shells against the white background of my 9×6 inch travel journal. The color of the page looks a bit pink because my chair sat beneath the fuchsia section of our rainbow beach umbrella.

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Clockwise: Upper left – I think we have another cockle shell Upper middle – an ark shell Upper right – a piece of a northern moon shell Lower right-I’m going to go with clam of unknown type for now, I’ve got more research to do Lower middle – a giant bittersweet clam Lower left, a shell that looks like a cross between a cockle and an ark – a “carkle” perhaps?

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Clockwise: Upper left – a piece of quahog clam shell that was turned into swiss cheese by something – the overly acidic ocean? Another animal? Another mystery to solve. Upper middle – worm tubes – creepy in a good way Upper right – a thick piece of quahog shell; I wish I could have tilted it more for better perspective – it was at least 1/2 inch thick! Lower right – a piece of granite! Not a natural item for a sandy east coast beach. Perhaps it is the remnants of a granite counter top reclaimed by the sea in a hurricaine. Lower middle – no idea what this shell was, but check out the remnants of the cool shelled animals that were starting to grow on its lower right corner! Lower left: a cockle whose color and pattern have been lost to waves and time?

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A fabulous handful. All spread out, I see a coquina still joined in the center (folks sometimes call these angel wings), a partial quahog and a hunk of a much larger quahog, pieces of mussel shells, a piece of giant heart cockle, and maybe a piece of scallop. Any true shellers out there? Help me out!

Other cool beach finds:

Whelks are a kind of sea snail (cousins to the conch found in warmer waters) that can grow as large as 16 inches.  Based on the points that circle the crown (on the left side), I think this was a knobbed whelk or lightning whelk.

Whelks are a kind of sea snail (cousins to the conch found in warmer waters) that can grow as large as 16 inches. Based on the points that circle the crown (on the left side), I think this was a knobbed whelk or lightning whelk.

Look at that beautiful, delicate peach on the inside of the whelk shell!

Look at that beautiful, delicate peach on the inside of the whelk shell!

In looking through my identification guides, the only name I found for this is "Deadman's Fingers", a type of sea sponge.   Hey beach folk out there - help a mountain girl out and tell me more?

In looking through my identification guides, the only name I found for this is “Deadman’s Fingers”, a type of sea sponge.
Hey beach folk out there – help a mountain girl out and tell me more?

A hunk of sargassum seaweed is a whole mini cosmos to explore.  If something brushes against you in the water and it feels leafy, try to snatch it up!  Sargassum is a nursery for myraid sea creatures - you'll find it covered with bunches tiny shelled creatures and even hosting tiny fish!

A hunk of sargassum seaweed is a whole mini cosmos to explore. If something brushes against you in the water and it feels leafy, try to snatch it up! Sargassum is a nursery for myraid sea creatures – you’ll find it covered with bunches tiny shelled creatures and even hosting tiny fish!

Obviously, I still have research to do.  It’s hard to buckle down with your feet buried in the sand.  But I’ll try.  (Heavy sigh.)  Next up: the Outer Banks!

*Buzz kill:  The reason I write “gulls” here instead of “seagulls” is that there is no such thing as a “seagull”.  They all live on or near the sea or ocean, so that word is redundant and vague.  The gulls most likely to be seen on mid-atlantic and southeastern beaches are laughing gulls (Larus atricilla), herring gulls (Larus argentatus), and great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus).

** Previously published in a National Wildlife Federation newsletter.

Nature Girl Goes to the Beach: Part 1

Guess where I’ve been this week?

That’s right – I’ve been buried under piles of dirty laundry!

Two weeks worth of laundry, in fact, because we went on vacation to the beach last week.  I hate laundry.  But this was sooo worth it.

The mountains hold my heart and always will, but, in the summer, the ocean calls.  And, yes, I did make just a few nature observations in between swimming with my daughter and sleeping late and gorging on incredible seafood dinners.  The first and biggest observation I made was . . .

Moon Phases & Tides

The moon made the high tides and low tides incredible while we were at the beach!  This was  because we arrived on the night of the new moon.

The new moon, or “no moon” occurs every month (28 days, actually) when, from our perspective here on earth, the moon is directly between us and the sun.  The sun shines on the half of the moon facing away from us, and the moon rises and sets at the same time as the sun, so we see “no” moon at night.  During the new moon and, two weeks later, the full moon, when the Earth, sun, and moon are all lined up, the gravitational pull on the ocean waters (what makes tides) is greater.  This creates very high high tides and very low low tides, and that’s called “spring tide” because of how the tide springs forth so high.  (Has nothing to do with the season.)

Had we come to the beach at first or last quarter, the gravitational forces of the moon and sun would be split in two directions, causing unimpressive high and low tides, which is called “neap tide”.  The word “neap” seems to have no other applications in English and its origins are old and sketchy, so we’ll have to remember it not by logical association, but by repetition.  Neap, neap, neap, neap, neap.  (That’s no help, I’m picturing a frog calling.  Oh, well.)

Perhaps the drawings I made will help.  Emphasis on the perhaps.

The moon travels around the Earth once about every day.  Throughout the full moon cycle, though, it occupies many different positions with respect to the sun, and those different positions, from our perspective, make the moon appear to change shape because of what proportion of the moon is lit by the sun.

The moon travels around the Earth once about every day. Throughout the full moon cycle, though, it occupies many different positions with respect to the sun, and those different positions, from our perspective, make the moon appear to change shape because of what proportion of the moon is lit by the sun.

Here, the oceans are represented in the light blue layer surrounding the green Earth.  During the new and full moons, the oceans are pulled into spring tides, and at the quarter moon the tides are softened into neap tides.

Here, the oceans are represented in the light blue layer surrounding the green Earth. During the new and full moons, the oceans are pulled into spring tides, and at the quarter moon the tides are softened into neap tides.

For more diagrams of moon phases, simply search “moon phases” in Google Images.  For an even better explanation of tides, check out the MarineBio.org website.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss some of the flora and fauna at the beach, including schools, sargassum, and shells.

As soon as I get the laundry finished.