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.

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 1

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.

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.

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

Today I met every orb-weaving spider on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park.

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This two foot diameter web was practically invisible until I was right next to it!  Luckily it was set high and off to the right side of the trail, so I was able to duck under it’s attachment strands.

I call all spiders Charlotte.  It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web and makes me feel friendlier to our little eight-legged allies.

To most of the Charlottes I was exceedingly polite, making no more indent in their day than that of a short, thick, oddly mobile tree.  (This is what I think humans look like to spiders.)

A few, however, I rudely insulted by walking face first into their web.

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Most of the Charlottes I met today looked like this.  This is a member of the Verrucosa genus of spiders. Commonly called “Arrowhead” spiders, they are thoroughly harmless and easily identifiable by the big, white triangle-shaped abdomen.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of getting web on your face, it’s a bucket list activity.  You’ll never know if you could have been a ninja until you see what martial arts your body produces in response to walking through a web.

I could’ve been a ninja.   (Click for hilarious spider ninja video compilation.)

My husband could’ve been the shogun.  FYI: it’s not productive to the marital relationship to double over laughing and nearly wet oneself when one’s husband displays his spider-induced ninja skills on the trail.  Maybe that’s why my hubby hasn’t been hiking with me in a while. . .

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I can’t be sure of this Charlotte’s species, because she skittered off right after this shot.  I can, however, be relatively sure she’s a she – male spiders don’t spend much time in their webs, they’re usually wandering hunters and maters.

I’ve come to the level of nature appreciation where I don’t mind going first as we hike, though, because my training (Master Naturalist in two states, thank you very much) has nearly eliminated my fear of these web encounters.  I wrote a lot about spiders and their webs in an earlier post, Weaver’s World.  But here are the basics you need to know so that you don’t have a ninja-style web freak out, either:

  • North American orb weavers are tiny (usually smaller than a nickel, legs included) and generally regarded as totally harmless.  Black widows and brown recluses DO NOT make orb webs.
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Meet Charlotte, the Micrathena.  Spiders in the genus Micrathena have really cool, spiked, triangular bodies.  They look like the devil’s own minions, but are just as harmless as all of the other North American orb weavers.

  • The vast majority of spiders build their webs next to the trail, not over it.  Those that do build their web on the trail usually center the web to one side or the other.  A web destroyed by human, deer, or bird walking in the middle of the trail is just more work for the spider to have to rebuild.
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These two trees stood about 20 feet apart on the left side of the trail.  A tiny orb weaver managed to build her web by attaching long strands of silks to both trees.  

  • When you hit web, you’re usually running into the long silk threads that the spider uses to attach the web to a nearby tree.  These threads are only the tiniest bit sticky, and you can easily (and calmly) pluck them off of yourself and rub your fingers together to release the strand.
  • When its web is disturbed by something large, the spider will flee, usually by quickly crawling up and away from the disturbance (you) to hide in nearby foliage.  If the spider chooses the wrong direction, it’s not coming to get you, it just doesn’t recognize that you’re not a slow, thick, oddly mobile tree.  Drop the strand and/or your whole hand to the ground and the spider will happily skedaddle.
  • By flailing your arms and legs in a “coordinated” ninja-style attack, you are more likely to destroy the center of the web and accidentally scoop up the spider.  Do you want the spider on you?  If not, Daniel-san (note the classic 80s movie reference), when you walk into a web follow these steps:
  1.  Do NOT panic.  (Classic 80s fiction reference.)
  2.  Back up a few steps.  The less sticky attachment strands will likely stretch a little (they’re so stretchy!) and then pop off of you, no harm done.
  3.  If you can see the strands, you can duck under them or grasp a strand with your finger, thus detaching the main orb web, and then move the entire web to the side.

Remember, we love spiders – our Charlottes eat mosquitos and flies and all sorts of other insect pests!

If you still want to be a ninja, that’s cool, just keep it off the trails, eh?

 

Bonus:  There are about 4,000 species of spiders in North America.  Of those, only two are considered potentially harmful.  Learn more about Maryland’s spiders here.

 

Tiny Steps

Even a tiny step forward is better than standing still, right?  

Here are my first steps toward regular posting again – cloud photos from the past few months:

November 14 – thick stratus over Solomons.

November 20 – cumulus and blue sky over NAS Pax River

January 13 – a variety of sunset-lit purple and pink, heading home.

Abigail Birch Guest Post: Spiders – the Creepy Crawlies of the Heroes

Dear readers,

I know many of you probably have Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. But these eight legged guy (and girls) aren’t what you think. What do you hate worse:spiders or MOSQUITOES?! If I were you I would say mosquitoes. Well fun fact: Spiders eat mosquitoes!! YAYYYYY! I know what most of you are thinking”but still spiders are scary and venomous ” Most spiders don’t have venom powerful enough to hurt humans.2 venomous spiders live in this part of the USA,the black widow and the brown recluse. i get it they’re not the best to look at face to face,but if you get to know them I think you’ll get along quite nicely. so don’t kill spiders just for fun, don’t be a hater. ( Just don’t let them crawl in your pants;trust me there are many ways spiders are great but crawling crawling on you isn’t one of them.)

Bye, Abbey

Raindrops and Rain Clouds

It’s been raining here.  A lot.

It’s been pouring-off-the roof, making-streams-and-waterfalls-in-the-front-yard, drowning-the-potted-plants raining here.

The problem is, the underside of rain clouds are neither interesting nor photogenic, so I’ve not had anything to photograph for a while.

But, when I finally got brave enough (i.e. so sick with cabin fever that I couldn’t take it any more) to drive out in the rain to do some mindless errands, I got this picture near the top of the northbound lanes on the Thomas Johnson bridge over the Patuxent River:

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See that rain falling just to the right of the bridge? It’s going to make it to my house just as I pull into my driveway.

Based on the darkness of the cloud and the steady rain it produced for hours (about 120 of them, off and on, not that I counted), I’m checking it off as a nimbostratus cloud in my Cloud Collector’s Handbook.

Cloud Puzzle

They ain’t all gonna be easy.

Here’s my first little puzzle, a set of clouds headed at us from the west about a week ago:

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At least two different cloud types, possibly at two different heights?

 

The lower layer of clouds here – the part nearest the trees in the picture – looks like light gray icing smoothed over an upside down cake.  (Side note:  for the world’s best gray icing, see Steel Magnolias.)  It covers a large portion of the sky like a blanket, and this makes me think it’s some form of stratus cloud(s).

For those who aren’t total word nerds like myself, stratus (plural: strata) comes from the Latin for “a spreading” and refers generally to something spread out in a horizontal layer.  This bottom set of clouds definitely seems spread out, though the base isn’t completely uniform.

I’m guessing it’s stratocumulus, because perhaps the texture of the base indicates the “clumpy”-ness that The Cloud Collector’s Handbook talks about.  Also, stratocumulus are among the most common types of clouds, and as a naturalist, I know to guess that something new is the common thing, rather than a rare exotic.

Here I can’t help but quote the wise Dr. Theodore Woodward, of the Maryland (my new state!) University School of Medicine, who taught his students “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”

I think this horse is stratocumulus.

As for the awesome, diagnoal stripes of clouds in the upper portion of the photo, I’m going to be a little bit brave in identifying them as “undulatus”.  Six of the ten main cloud types have undulatus varieties.  Undulatus means exactly what you think it does – undulating like ripples or waves.

These undulations are often found at the upper edge of a set of clouds where the atmosphere is moving in a different direction.

I love what the Handbook’s author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, says about undulatus clouds:

“Their presence is a reminder, to any who might forget, that the atmosphere around us is just as much as an ocean as the sea below.”

 

 

 

Beginner’s Luck and a New Favorite Word

After two straight days of clear blue skies (oh, my life is soooo hard) I finally caught a photo of a new cloud to share.

Introducing . . . Cirrocumulus!

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A patch of cirrocumulus high in the sky over my street.

Not only is this bad boy worth 40 points in my Cloud Collector’s Handbook, reading the description introduced me to my new favorite word:  “cloudlet”.

A cirrocumulus cloud is actually composed of many little cloudlets, which gives it what the Handbook calls a “grainy” appearance, but looks to me more like foam left on the beach by a receding wave.

How does one tell a cloudlet from a cloud?  Stand back for the super-complicated scientific method here:  the cloudlet must be smaller than your pinkie finger when your hand is held out at arm’s length.

The cloudlets that make up cirrocumulus are made of tiny ice crystals – it’s too cold for water where these clouds live, usually more than five miles above our heads.

Cirrocumulus are also uncommon and evanescent – these fair weather fellows dissipate quickly, hence the high point value.  Glad I took a moment to look up!

 

 

 

Looking Up

It’s been a hectic summer dealing with two new jobs, a new school, and life in a new town/state/ecosystem . . . but the chaos has (at least temporarily) calmed down now and it’s time to capitalize on that by getting back outside.

But how to transition this Mountain Woman’s blog into a Water Woman’s blog?

By writing about something that covers them both – the big, blue blanket of clouds and sky.

Many years ago I purchased The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, promising myself that “one of these days” I’d start using the book to refine my knowledge of the different types of clouds and their implications regarding weather.

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The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney both teaches you about the different types of clouds (there are dozens) and provides you with journaling space so that you can keep track of what you’ve seen.  It even gives each type of cloud a different number of points, so you can keep score.

Well, folks, “one of these days” is today!  I turned 39 a few days ago and I’ve decided to spend my 40th trip around the sun quite literally looking up.

As if I ever needed an excuse to spend time staring into the sky.

I walked out my front door and took five steps down my sidewalk to capture the following picture of my first cloud collected.

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Cumulus fractus – the first cloud of a million-cloud journey.

It’s a simple cumulus – one of those bright white cottony puffs so familiar studding beautiful blue skies on happy, sunny days.  The Cloud Collector’s Handbook further educates me that this “species” is cumulus fractus – a broken cloud with ragged edges that appear as it evaporates.

It’s worth 15 points.

And, with those points in my pocket, I’m going out to enjoy the fair weather that those cumulus clouds indicate – it’s 75 degrees with 12mph winds (thank you, Hurricane Hermine) and a perfect day for gardening.  That is, if I can manage to keep my eyes on the ground.