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.

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:

 

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.

 

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.”

 

 

 

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.

The Clampetts Move to Maryland

So long, Virginny.

We moved into our new home near Solomons Island, Maryland on June 3.

It is a beautiful beige colonial with a forested backyard, the smell of freshwater in the air,  box turtles aplenty roaming around the undergrowth and songbirds in the trees.

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The house the day before the moving truck arrived. Lovely, of course. But I’m done with grass – it’s a monoculture of almost no value to wildlife that requires enormous inputs of chemicals and energy. It has to go. (Insert villainous, maniacal laughter here.)

I cannot wait to explore the nature of the Patuxent River, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac River!  I start my new job as a naturalist for Point Lookout State Park  – getting paid to love and share nature! – on Wednesday.

But first things first:  setting up house.

It’s an unholy mess.

A godawful, ridiculous disaster of boxes and deliveries and donations and pee-soaked carpets and unhung art pieces.

It’s overflowing into the front yard.  Between the empty boxes and the old, broken washing machines, we look like the Beverly Hillbillies, the Clampetts.

And now I’m making it worse.  I’m flattening the cardboard boxes and laying them on top of the lawn in order to kill the grass.

Lawn mostly covered with cardboard. Poor neighbors.

This is a great way to kill grass without using chemicals.  Mulch will be delivered soon to cover the cardboard for prettiness’ sake.  Beneath that mulch, the cardboard eventually biodegrades, mixing with the dead grass to make a nice organic layer in which to plant native perennials, shrubs, and trees.

Eventually.  But I just met a kind neighbor who lives catty-corner (I’ve never written out that idiom before – have I spelled it correctly?) to us, who is trying to sell his home and is having his open house tomorrow.  Catty-corner from the yard that looks like the Clampetts’.

As soon as I hit publish, I’m going downstairs to make a couple of nice, hand-lettered signs that will read:

“Beautiful, botanical-garden style front yard coming soon!”

and

“We promise, we are not the Clampetts.”

 

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.