Field (Camp) Notes

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can't quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree.  Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a waypoint to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

This panoramic photograph of the Keffer Oak can’t quite capture the massive height and girth of the tree. Appalachian Trail hikers often use this ancient white oak (Quercus alba) as a way point at which to meet friends who live in the southwest Virginia area.

For the past three summers I have been overjoyed to help teach two weeks of the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center summer field camps, which I would modestly, yet accurately, describe as the Best Camp Ever.

By The Numbers

Ten kids ages seven to nine, two teachers, two dogs, and one 12-passenger dually van, “Big Bertha”, ride out into the local wilds every day for a week, spending 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hiking, wading, swimming, catching, identifying and enjoying nature to the fullest.

This year the record for most species (plant, animal, and even fossil) identified was 104.  104!  (The other camp “only” got 87.) Sure, there were thousands more that we could have looked up, but this wasn’t a BioBlitz, these identifications came from the things kids noticed that they wanted to look up.

Lessons Abound All Around

There is so much to be learned and taught in nature, but the teaching often requires only the direction of attention toward something that Mama Nature will perfectly illustrate and channel into the child’s brain through some fantastic magic by which we all gain a “sense” of things.  These are a few that I can put into words:

    1. Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you'll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look closely at this chicory flower (Cichorium intybus) and you’ll see a bright yellow crab spider (Misumena vatia) waiting to catch some pollinator prey.

      Look!  No, really look. – Observation skills are paramount in nature.  Since humans are such visual creatures, we practice looking closely and noticing detail, whether it’s an edge, a texture, a color, the placement of a fin, the shape of a wing, the pattern of scales, or the number of legs.  When you look closely, the opportunity to be amazed grows by orders of magnitude.
    2. Are you listening? (And smelling, and feeling, and tasting?) – We use all five senses to observe nature, knowing not just by the look of things, but, for instance, black birch trees by the spicy wintergreen smell of a snapped twig, an Eastern Towhee by it’s “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee” song, or the presence of microscopic diatoms by the extreme slipperiness of the rocks in the creek.
      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      If you were to accidentally brush up against poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) or stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), the juices from the stem of this orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) would reduce the skin irritation.

      Sometimes we have to refrain from using some senses, such as learning not to touch poison ivy and never eating an unidentified mushroom or plant.
    3. Nature does not want to hurt you.  – Everything in nature is just trying to go about its life, preferably without getting eaten too soon to create the next generation.  We are the big, clumsy, scary ones that often cause a fight-or-flight reaction in animals.  Don’t want to get stung?  Don’t step on or poke the bee.  Be careful where you put your hands and feet; look first.  We are not afraid in nature, we are aware.  We can be curious and cautious at the same time.  For instance, we learned that bright colors (red, orange, yellow, and black among the insects) and patterns (the white and black of a skunk) in nature are often warning signs to predators:  “Try to eat me and you’ll be sorry!”
    4. This bracket  or "shelf" fungus could be Artist's Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).  I didn't look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      How beautiful is this?!  This gorgeous bracket or “shelf” fungus could be Artist’s Fungus (Ganoderma applanatum) or Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor). I didn’t look closely enough to tell for sure because we were on the hunt for orb weaving spiders!

      Superlatives are appropriate. – Nature is awesome.  Recognizing that fact, out loud, inspires greater learning about and deeper respect for nature.  One of the very few rules of the camp was “If you find something cool, show Ms. Dee!”  The kids would shout “Rule 4!” and I would come straight over to see whatever insect they’d caught or wildflower they found or the shocking size of the crayfish in the net.  Nomatter how many times I may have observed that species before, there’s always something new to notice, something cool/neat/awesome/interesting/intriguing/fantastic/amazing/incredible to make note of and discuss.
Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock above Craig Creek.  Catching the rain, finding nutrient from fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

Years ago a small seed found a safe niche on an outcrop of sedimentary rock high above Craig Creek. Catching the rain, finding nutrient from decaying fallen leaves of larger trees, and hanging on with many strong roots, that seed has made its life and is now a small tree.

  1. Nature is everywhere. – Whatever we learn out in the “wilderness” areas also applies in our back yards, school yards, driveways, parking lots, towns, and farms.  Once the sense of nature gets inside you, it’s a lasting framework for understanding that never fails.

I could go on and on (and on and on) about the student-directed learning opportunities in nature, and chances are that throughout the life of this blog, I will.  For now, though, I’d rather take the time to direct you to some of the great places we went  – check out the links below:

Flushing

No, not that kind of flushing!

What kind of nature writer do you think I am?

Sicko.

I’m talking about flushing birds out of their hiding places among the leafy branches and briar tangles.  Apparently, I’m great at it.  I found this out a few nights ago while taking an evening walk in Heritage Park.

Heritage Park is a former dairy farm, with wide meadows covering its hills, complete with old silos and broken down wooden outbuildings turning silver with age.  There’s a farm pond in the forested upland and the hills,roll down to a wetland floodplain on the side of Tom’s Creek.  In short, every bird habitat you could hope for, all with mown, traveled, or paved trails.

The park is a regular haunt for the local birding club, whose expert members can pick out migrating warblers (tiny, flitting sirens who tease with sweet songs and bright feathers and then disappear behind a single leaf among millions) across a valley, sometimes only by call.  Unfortunately, the birders tend to hit the park to look for birds by 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, a time I have permanently reserved each week to spend looking at the backs of my eyelids.

So there I was, on my own (truly – in over an hour, I only saw three other people in the park) and with camera in hand, ready to capture the parks’ natural wonders in the golden hour before dusk.

I failed utterly.

Otherwise, this post would be titled “Fantastic Photos of Heritage Park Birds” and would be filled with said pictures.

Instead, I hope to do the birds I saw a modicum of justice by describing them and finding pictures on line.

Turkey Vulture

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.

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

Vultures often ride the updrafts rising off of the hills in Heritage Park.  I love to visit this park with kids because it gives me an opportunity to teach them e difference between vultures and hawks (hawks rarely soar outside of migration season; they hunt by swooping or diving from a high perch or chasing smaller birds through the forest with stunningly acrobatic flight) and between turkey and black vultures:

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are slightly larger, have red heads like turkeys, and the entire length of their underwings is divided by color, white toward the tail and black toward the head.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are smaller, have black heads, underwings that are black to the wrist, but with white “hands” at the wingtip.  Black vultures also fly with their wings held flat, whereas turkey vultures’ wings are held at an upward angle.

What I saw on that evening was a turkey vulture, but not alone.  The vulture was being chased and harassed by two red-winged blackbirds protecting their nest from the giant soaring intruder.  The vulture seemed more annoyed than concerned, as if the blackbirds were mosquitos buzzing around its ears rather than a real a problem.  A vulture would rather have a nice, stinky carcass for dinner than a plain meal of eggs.

The whole group flew in by me not fifteen feet away, but quickly, and directly in front of the sun.  Had I been quick enough to stop watching and aim the camera, I would have caught a dark blur in a blinding white frame of evening sun.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Indigo Bunting

I had forgotten how blue, and how many blues, the male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) can be.  They look like a tropical artist used their feathers to paint the ombré of the Caribbean Sea:  turquoise, electric blue, teal, royal, and, yes, indigo.  The birds spend their winters in the islands, Cuba, and Mexico and I can’t help but imagine a scene where the birds paint their own plumage, turning and dipping as they fly low above the warm sea waves, catching color on their wings and tails that spreads like summer tie dye.

The bunting was perched on a tall stalk of grass, and froze as I came around the corner.  I stopped moving immediately and stood to gaze for a few seconds, holding my breath.  I brought my camera up slowly in my right hand, and moved only my eyes to check my hand placement, and when I rolled my eyes back to the subject, the bird was gone.

A brown thrasher holding still.  My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds.  Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

A brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) holding still. My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds. Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Thrasher

I still remember the first time I saw a brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum), nearly ten years ago now.  I was teaching an environmental summer camp in the Florida panhandle, driving a 15 passenger van full of kids, and the thrasher swooped out from the edge of the forest and back in through a tangle of vines.  I was so excited – a new bird!  (FYI, I kept the van on the road despite the excellent distraction – the campers survived.)

Brown thrashers are so wonderfully not some of the more common birds.  They are the size of a robin, but where the robin’s back is black, the thrasher’s is a rich, milk-chocolate-with-a-hint-of-red-chili-pepper (like a Mexican hot chocolate) brown.  Its tail is long and slender like the mockingbird’s, but curves downward ever so slightly, like a sardonically raised eyebrow.  Its beak is likewise slightly curved downward, like a Carolina wren’s.  As I write, I can’t help thinking that if these three birds were evolutionarily smashed together just right, the resulting Frankenbird would be our beloved brown thrasher.

On this particular evening in Heritage Park, the brown thrasher flew from one tree to another and I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a swoosh of that warm brown, the right size, a glimpse of streaked breast.  Not even a chance of a shot with the camera, but still that sweet, delighted feeling of “I saw my new bird again!”

The northern flicker will give you a "flicker", a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground.  Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) will give you a “flicker”, a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground. Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Flicker

Spotting woodpeckers has never been easy for me.  Well, actually, I can spot them, but the little wiseacres always spot me right back and promptly hop around to the far side of whatever tree they’re on so I can’t get a good look at them.  Even the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – or it could be a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), or maybe I get both – that visits my suet feeder in the winter doesn’t stay long enough for positive identification.

But northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are different.  First of all, they’re big – 12 inches from top of the head to tip of the tail (compared to the downy’s diminutive eight inches).  Second, and even better, they feed on the ground a lot, using their beaks to dig for ants and beetles.

The flicker I flushed (ooh, that’s fun to say) had been feeding at the edge of the mown path on the hilltop meadow.  It flapped up to a tree on the other side of the path and, even in the low light of gathering dust, I saw the white patch just above its tail between wing beats.  It’s that white patch flashing that gave the bird it’s name “flicker”.

One of these days I’ll carry my best camera (I call her “Big Girl”) out to the park with me.  I’ll lug the tripod and the telephoto lens, too.  I’ll bring a chair and sit and be patient.

And, even then, I’ll still be distracted in all different directions by flits and flaps and flutters and flushes and photo opportunities missed.  Fortunately, I’m totally okay with that.