Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Spring Robins, Part 2

I vowed to leave the robins alone and was true to my word until today. But this morning, after being out of town for a few days, I had to peek out the window to see if all was well with the nestlings. The nest was empty but one of the chicks was sitting on a branch next to it, sporting very very mature looking feathers! What a difference a week and a half makes! I really hoped nothing had happened to the other, but that is the reality of baby birds.

Later in the morning I went out to get the mail and happened to look out at a tree about 20 feet from the nest. A robin chick was perched in the crook of a branch, holding perfectly still. After only a few seconds of my gazing, one of the parents flew to the ground and began an alarm chirp and hopped toward me, I think in an attempt to redirect my attention away from the baby. I brought out the camera and fired off a few quick shots, then went inside to look because the tree is right next to a set of windows and I could get a clear view. From inside I saw a healthy juvenile robin with 2 concerned parents perched in separate trees about 10 feet from their baby. And then another lump caught my eye--the second chick sitting on a higher branch in the same tree! They have both made it so far and appear to be very close to being able to fly. Lots of potential dangers on the horizon still, but things are looking good for this robin family.

First Baby Robin, Holding Still

Protective Parent

Robin Chick #2, Safe and Sound!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Happy Earth Day, It's Robin Season!

Robin Distracting Me

I've been watching a pair of robins in our front yard for the past few weeks. I first noticed them because they were spending a lot of time together, hopping around in the branches outside of our sunroom and making our (inside) cat hyperventilate. Then one day I went out to water some plants and came face to face with one of them sitting on a beautiful nest, carefully hidden in the shadows of a camellia bush. I got a photo of what I presume to be the mama sitting on the nest and the papa nervously watching from a magnolia tree 10 or so feet away. As I expressed more interest in the nest, the father became very agitated and flew down to the grass and ran the other direction toward some bushes. I think he was trying to distract me and guide me away from his family. I got the message and tried to steer clear, though it is a little difficult as they built their nest by our front door and mailbox. I changed my strategy and made most of my observations from the living room window, though the very safe location of their nest made it very hard to see well. And the parents can still see me through the window, which makes them nervous.

Sitting on the Nest, Tucked in the Dark Camellia

A week or so later, the sitting parent was off of the nest and I saw at least 2 pretty blue eggs! Unable to control my urges, I decided to try to get a photo of the eggs. But as I came in closer to the bush, I saw that the robin parent was sitting again and was very scared, so I gave up on the egg shot.

Over the weekend I saw a chance to peek in the nest and saw a couple of tiny fluff balls. They had hatched! But I felt terrible after getting this shot because I scared the parent away from the nest and into another tree where he/she remained for 5-10 minutes. I went inside to give them some space and security and watched cautiously from the window, hoping that nothing happened to the unattended chicks.

Fluff Balls

The next day I heard a bluejay scolding some crows that were marauding nests in another part of the yard and I was very worried about our little robins. Later that afternoon I found blue eggshells on the sidewalk, probably the result of the crow raid earlier. We have quite a few robins in the yard this year. I resolved to stay away from the camellia bush so that I would not to give away the location to the crows. They are very smart and observant.

Robin's Eggs

Today I went out to get the mail and saw (from a distance) the open beaks and fuzzy heads of two hungry chicks, mom or pop standing alert at the edge of the nest. The other parent was busy gathering bugs from the leaf litter. I hurried inside and got my camera and long lens and caught some shots of both parents feeding the youngsters. I hid myself against a wall and stayed as far away from the nest as I could to still see the action. It was so sweet to see the hungry mouths open and be filled with yummy bugs, and then see the tiny creatures settle down in satisfaction and exhaustion. It is hard work to hold your head up when you are so tiny! And those poor, dedicated robin parents--they will be running most of the time for the next few weeks until their chicks fledge and move on.

Delicious Lunch from One Parent

More Food from Other Parent

Open Wide!

Finally--We Were Starving!


Even though I tried to be respectful and careful, the robins always knew I was there and held back from returning to the nest with food. They didn't want to lead me or any other predator to their nest. So this will probably be the beginning and end of my robin nest photos. Even though I would love to get photos of them eating and maturing, I also want them to survive. It seems that all my attempts to observe them cause a change in their behavior, and they have a hard enough time without my help. So I'll just leave them alone. This is one of the messages I try to convey to children on our nature center trail walks--to love AND respect nature. I'll show my love for these robins by respecting them. Happy Earth Day Everyone!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

New Neighbors!

Get Ready! 
I'm so excited! I have been waiting for the new neighbors to show up since we arrived in Athens this past summer and saw a sign about them on a wooded lot just down the street. For weeks afterward, then months I kept checking for them, then found their Facebook page and read articles online to learn more about the project that was bringing them here. And at long last, on April 1 (no joke!) the Chew Crew arrived! The Chew Crew is a UGA project that is enlisting the services of a group of goats to eat invasive bushes, weeds and vines in 2 natural areas on campus, Tanyard Creek and Driftmier Woods.

Welcome Party at Driftmier Woods

Eating Oak Leaves With Gusto!


Goat at Work
The goats were everything I had hoped for in new neighbors--friendly, helpful and fairly quiet. There was a big party when they arrived and UGA students and staff and people in the neighborhood turned out to greet them. The crew at our neighborhood site (Driftmier Woods) consists of a big white Billy Goat and 7 smaller (female?) goats. I know they all have names, but I haven't learned them yet. (I think there may even be a mama and baby, but I'm not sure--I have some detective work to do!) They will stay at Driftmier for 3 weeks, then move back to Tanyard Creek for some touch up work. When they're not eating at UGA, they clear residential property. They are very busy goats! Their first day here the goats were already working hard on improving their wooded lot. Driftmier Woods is a small old growth Piedmont Forest on the UGA campus that over the years has become overgrown with invasive plants. Underneath and behind all the invasives there are huge white oaks (probably 150 years old), beeches, sweet gums and other hardwoods and pines. It is a wonderful hilly spot with hiking trails and picnic tables and a small creek that runs along a low area. It is tucked between the engineering building and graduate housing apartments and people use it to hike, cut through to campus and even ride mountain bikes. I've seen hawks, songbirds, insects, ferns and pretty wildflowers. I've heard that owls, deer and foxes have been spotted in the evenings.

Tall White Oaks

Forest Path

Cranefly Orchid Leaves
Right now the woods remind me of those jungle movie scenes where someone with a machete chops away a clump of vines and uncovers the lost kingdom. There is a lot of work to do here to remove the tons of Chinese Wisteria, Japanese honeysuckle, English Ivy, privet, nandina, lyriope, ligustrum, and a host of other invasive species that are literally covering the forest. The proximity to campus buildings and homes makes the area a poor candidate for prescribed fire, but it is perfect for prescribed grazing. The goats can get into rough terrain and eat and clear vegetation where it might be tough to bring in machinery (though something will need to be brought in to take care of larger bushes and trees). So the goats chew the forest back to health. And volunteers pull, chop, dig and saw. After the site is rehabilitated, it has the potential to be a fabulous small nature area, providing important green space and urban habitat. The project is a collaboration between several UGA departments and involves faculty, students and interested citizens (like me!) Project organizers secured a $25,000 grant to fund the operation and many people are volunteering time to make it a success. They have done such great work with the other site, Tanyard Creek, that I'm sure this will be successful, too.

Overgrown with Invasives

Hidden Jungle Ruins

The Chinese Wisteria that Ate the Woods

The project coordinators are carefully measuring and documenting the effect that the goats are having on the natural areas. At Tanyard Creek, where the goats have been clearing since 2012, the Chew Crew has done a great job and there are not many invasive woody shrubs left. I spent a lovely morning there last month helping to identify and measure herbaceous plants within defined grids. At Driftmier Woods, in addition to clearing the invasives, the concern is that the goats will eat the oak seedlings and will have an adverse effect on the regeneration of the forest when the invasive cover is cleared, so I spent an afternoon tagging and measuring oak seedings. Now that the goats have arrived, it is pretty clear that they LOVE to eat oak seedings, so I imagine that lots of wire cages will be needed to protect them to ensure new forest growth. It is a huge project and only one section of the woods have been fenced for goat foraging so far. Much more work is yet to come. It makes me appreciate how much effort has gone into all the existing natural areas that I enjoy so much.

Tanyard Creek Plant ID

The Grid for Counting Plants

Cages to Protect Baby Oaks

As a new person to town, I have been looking for ways to get involved and find my niche. I think this is a good fit. I have only pitched in a little so far, but they will need a lot more help over the coming years, clearing, pulling, counting and measuring. Independent of the Chew a Crew project, I'm making a personal project of observing and photographing birds, plants and other wildlife in Driftmier Woods and have added it to eBird as a birding location. It would be nice if over the years I could document an increase in the diversity of species. I hope that I can become as intimately acquainted with these woods as I did with the Ditch and Morningside and La Chua Trail in Gainesville. I've already met some friendly and interesting people and it feels great to be part of a big community project. This one is perfect for me, given my interests in native wildflowers, invasive plants, wildlife and environmental education. It will be exciting to see the changes and I'm really happy to be part of it. Chew on, goats!

Chew On, Goats!

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Winter State of Mind

Frozen Thistle Leaves
And just like that, winter doesn't seem so bad. Last fall I joined a nature group (the "Nature Ramblers") and we had our first walk of the season today. It was chilly at 8:30am when we gathered and folks were dressed in winter coats and hats. But there was a giddy excitement in the air as we headed out as a group for the first time since November "seeking what we find" (the group motto). As we walked I realized that today was not unlike so many other sunny, chilly days this winter when I felt cold and unable to peel myself away from my warm house.  The difference was the sense of purpose and desire to learn and be with friends.  During the season, we meet every week, guided by wonderful leaders, knowledgable in botany, biology and anything else. There is so much to see and learn that I don't want to miss anything! With morning temperatures still in the 30's, many low growing leaves were wilted or covered with frost. Frozen Trillium sent out hopeful buds. We strolled along the shady garden path, spending time to learn about Witches' Broom, a growth on Hop Hornbeam trees caused by fungus, and the Medieval medicinal origins of some common plant names. Then we beelined to the prairie and found a few tufts of Frost Flowers that had not quite melted as the sun rose and warmed. And in the process kicked up the biggest Puffball Mushroom I've ever seen!

Wilted Trillium

Frosty Leaves

Frost Flower

Ginormous Puffball

Down in the lowlands we discovered great gobs of amphibian eggs, which we initially believed to be from salamanders. (Several days later one of the Ramble leaders identified the eggs as most likely coming from Southern Leopard Frogs.) Some had hatched and were immobilized by cold but moved a little when held in a warm (and brave) hand. On the other side of the ephemeral pond we found coils of toad eggs, probably from American Toads. Small hatchlings next to the curlicues waited patiently for the day to warm up.

Amphibian Eggs--Probably Southern Leopard Frogs

Warmed by a Hand

American Toad Eggs

Hepatica, Rue Anemone and other early spring flowers brought excited shouts and we all gathered in for a closer look. Robins, bluebirds and nesting hawks provided the soundtrack. Bare trees reached up into brilliant blue skies.

Rue Anemone

Spotting the Hawk's Nest

Bare Trees, Blue Skies

Driving out of the Botanical Gardens I passed swaths of green Daffodil leaves, the first sunny blooms just beginning to pop out. They made me smile. Winter in Georgia is a state of mind.

Sunny Daffodil

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Baby, It's Cold Outside! And Then It's Warm Again. Then Cold...

Big Snow in the Yard

I'm trying to get used to Georgia winters. After 19 years in more temperate Florida, our move to Georgia has me learning how to do it all over again. I haven't driven in ice or snow since 1996, and I've been nervous about even walking on the stuff since breaking my ankle on the ice a few years before that. Yes, I know that Georgia doesn't get that much snow and it doesn't get as cold as, say, North Dakota. But yesterday I pushed a disk of ice half an inch thick off of our birdbath. That didn't happen very often in Florida. I am not unfamiliar with cold winters, having grown up in the mountain west and spent 7 years in Wisconsin. But this time it is different. I'm afraid that, as they say in Florida, my "blood has thinned" and the cold days just feel really cold! Also, the weather is so variable that I don't get a chance to settle into a winter groove. One day it is sunny and in the 60's, and then a front rolls in and we have freezing rain and snow. And then it's back to the 60's again. Lucky for me, I held onto my warm sweaters, hats and scarves when we moved from Wisconsin. And my shorts and flip flops from Florida.

Icy Birdbath

So far this winter we have had a couple of small accumulations of snow, maybe 1-2 inches. And we've had some ice. We don't own a snow shovel yet, and don't know if it will really be necessary, but after the last ice which sent our poor clueless Florida dogs sliding off the porch and down the stairs to the driveway, I invested in some Ice Melt. The city does not own snow plows, so snow or ice on the roads will close everything down. It's kind of fun. Really, it would be just fine to go out and continue life as usual, minus driving. (I've been told that people don't know how to drive in snow and ice and it's better to stay off the roads). People play tennis and golf all winter, except maybe for the snow/ice days. When it's really cold, we prefer to hunker down in the house in front of a warm fire, but we still get out. I was rewarded last month when I braved the cold to take a brisk nature walk on one of the first freezing days of the year. I went out in search of "Frost Flowers". They are not really flowers, but are ice formed when moisture inside plants expands in freezing temperatures and extrudes through cracks in the hollow stems. Most of the Frost Flowers I've seen here were coming out of Frostweed (Verbesina virginica), but I've seen them on Salvia in Florida during an especially harsh winter. I found these ones in the restored Piedmont Prairie at Sandy Creek Nature Center and every Frostweed plant had a little bouquet of ice at its base. It was beautiful. Frost covered the leaves and grass on the ground and everything looked sparkly and magical. By noon, the temperatures were back in the 40's and 50's and the frost was all gone. 

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers


Around town most of the trees are bare, which makes it easier to see birds on the branches. I spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a nest in a leafless tree across the street from our house. In contrast, the bushes (mainly camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons) are green and leafy and dotted with blossoms and buds. Our holly bushes are covered with berries, too. Yet another example of the confusing climate here. It is not as green in the winter as Florida and not as stark as Minnesota. The birds, squirrels and chipmunks don't mind either way. They're on the hunt for food all day, cold or not. On the warmer days, it is fun to watch the Chickadees and Goldfinches scour the bushes, searching old camellia blossoms for hidden bugs. And the Robins and Cedar Waxwings gorge on the holly berries. The critters have me working hard keeping the bird feeders full. Every few days I put out scoops of hearty sunflower and other mixed nuts, suet and thistle seed. We usually have 20-25 species of birds feeding on any given day. The cold weather makes them very, very hungry and they need to fatten up before breeding time. I figure that they can use all the help they can get. We humans keep destroying their habitat and removing their food sources, so putting out some seed seems like the least I can do. A little feeding oasis in our yard will help give them a needed boost, and as a bonus, I get to watch them.

Brown Headed Nuthatch Refueling

Red Bellied Woodpecker and its Nest

On the colder days I do most of my birding from the comfort of my kitchen window. I am sorry to admit that my idea of a keeping a Georgia almanac has not panned out. I tried to make a daily record of weather, temperatures and wildlife seen, but I am just not that methodical or disciplined and I pooped out after just a few weeks. I did watch our birds all weekend for the Great Backyard Bird Count and made several reports, all from inside the house. But the times that I convince myself to bundle up and go birding away from home are almost always rewarding. And the birds in the woods are a little more varied than the regulars in my back yard. On my last excursion I saw flocks of Golden Crowned Kinglets and a couple of Brown Creepers, both new birds on my list. Today will probably be a good day to get out again. It was dark, dreary and frigid yesterday, but today the skies are clear and blue and I don't need my extra layers. And if I go out exploring I will feel like I earned the cookies and potato soup that I cooked up yesterday to beat the cold. Sounds good to me.

Golden Crowned Kinglet

Ginger Cookies, Hot From the Oven

Friday, January 1, 2016

Renewed Focus

World View

I find it increasingly difficult to concentrate, to "be in the moment". There are so many distractions coming from every direction, including internally, that I often find myself pulled away from my purpose or drifting into memories or fretting about something yet to come. I listen to the radio news every morning and evening, sometimes in the middle of the day, and the stories and images permeate my consciousness. Politics, war, terrorism, corruption, the environment, poverty, goes on and on. Far too often I give in to the time suck of smart phones, tablets, the internet and social media. I spend more time than I care to admit checking for new email messages, reading Facebook updates, watching cute animal videos and streaming TV shows on my iPad. I feel anxious when I can't check my messages and turn to the devices regularly during the day, just like a chain smoker. I will confess that I have checked my phone at dinner and even in the middle of conversations. I am addicted. And then there is the constant noise. Even in my relatively tranquil neighborhood, sometimes it's hard to think, let alone hear birds or other sounds over the steady hum and rumble of buses, cars, leaf blowers and heat pump fans. 

A couple of weeks ago I was on a walk at the botanical garden. I had gone to see if I could find and photograph a very early blooming Hepatica flower, a new flower for me. The weird warm weather brought them out a month early, and the gardens were going to be closed for the week between Christmas and New Years, so I made a quick trip so I wouldn't miss the blooms. I usually hike with several cameras--one with a telephoto lens for things that are far away such as birds, butterflies or deer, one with a macro lens for close ups of flowers or stationary insects, and another point and shoot camera for general shots. I had only brought that camera this time because it was to be a quick trip in the midst of holiday preparation.

Hepatica (Don't know which species)
As luck would have it, I did find the pretty Hepatica, and I got some photos of it. The weather was warming up after a week or so of cold, wet weather, and as I walked back to the car, I noticed a number of birds flitting through the bushes and around the branches of the trees, perhaps hunting insects that were perking up in the warming sun. I did not have binoculars or a telephoto lens, but I decided to sit and enjoy the birds for a while, so I found a bench and watched. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker hopped up the trunk of a tree. Chickadees zipped between branches. Crows cawed in the distance. Then I saw a tiny yellowish bird in a bush a few feet from me. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. And as I watched, I saw it flash its ruby crown again and again, something I rarely get to see. "Darn," I thought, "it's too bad that I don't have my long lens." But then it came to me. I am seeing this bird clearly because I am not distracted by trying to take its photo. As I thought more about the truth of this realization, I understood that I have been spending far too much time being distracted. I have been missing the whole point.

Sapsucker Holes

Reflection is essential, but when I spend too much time rehashing past missteps in my mind I am neglecting the here and now. Likewise, planning for the future is important, but worrying about things that have not yet happened keeps me out of the present. Cameras are tools to record and capture a moment, but while I am focused on a bird or flower, I risk missing the rest of the forest. I have to remember to take time to enjoy the moment as well as capturing it. And when I spend hours plugged into the virtual world, I neglect the actual sounds, smells and experiences. Years ago, a friend who was dying told me that in her last days she wanted "attractions, not distractions". What a mind blowing concept! Time is limited for every one of us. Attraction is what I want, too.

Quiet Winter Woods
So here is my resolution for 2016: I want to use my time on Earth wisely. I want to concentrate on keeping my attention on the present and real and remember to appreciate what I have here and now. I want to help make my world a better place. And I want to seek out peaceful spots that help me focus on the beauty that surrounds me.

Happy New Year.