Friday, July 4, 2014

June Challenge

The June Challenge Trophy!

Another June Challenge has come and gone, and as usual, I did not win. This comes as no big surprise or disappointment to me because I am not a particularly knowledgable birder, and that's ok. I'm interested and enthusiastic about birding, but I'm also interested in flowers, butterflies and other animals. I don't know the intricacies of Empidonax Flycatchers, Sparrows and Warblers, but I do recognize the usual, obvious birds. My list is growing each year, so I am learning and getting better. A friend reassured me by quoting renowned birder Kenn Kaufman, who said “Birding is something we do for enjoyment; so if you enjoy it, you’re a good birder. If you enjoy it a lot, you’re a great birder.” I do enjoy it a lot, so I must be a great birder! But by that measure, I'm a great botanist, lepidopterist and herpetologist. But seriously, there are people out there who know so much more than I do and spend so much more time birding that I will always be in the middle to back of the pack, and I don't mind a bit because the June Challenge gives me so much more than the challenge. 



Green Heron All Stretched Out
A little background on the June Challenge: this is a friendly competition created by a member of our local Audubon chapter to keep birders busy and engaged in the hot, quiet summer when the migrants have passed through and there is little going on. The challenge is to see as many species of free-flying birds as possible in the month of June. The birds must be seen within the boundaries of our county and they must actually be seen to be counted. Hearing is not enough! (Damned Bobwhites.) On June 1st some of our most experienced birders usually lead a birding field trip that helps get our lists off to a good start. And then for the rest of the month people text, email, and call about daily excursions to look for rare and difficult to find birds. It takes a lot of stamina to win, but everyone is eager to share a special sighting. This is a very congenial group. For example, I usually have White Winged Doves at my bird feeders, and a Cooper's Hawk often hangs around the pine trees in the yard. I told a few friends and saw more than one car slow drive by slowly, checking for other birds on the list. I think it's all a lot of fun. And it's been so popular that people outside of our county have started their own June Challenge!
Great Blue Heron
In the end, the 2 winners (both are my friends, and one was my photo buddy, Maralee!) each counted the phenomenal number of 116 birds of the total 128 birds reported. I saw 77, which I don't think was too bad considering that I wasn't able to attend the kickoff event and took a trip out of town for a week. I missed some of the easier birds, but I saw some special ones, too. There were some rare off-season American Robins nesting just up the street from me, but I never saw them. And several people spent an astonishing amount of time camped out hoping to see a Broad Winged Hawk. I didn't see it either. But I did see 3 Burrowing Owls (first time! Yay!) and finally got a Bobwhite to show itself. I see Bobwhites all the time, but for some perverse reason, never in the month of June. 
It's too bad that you can't count feathers because I saw several from birds I didn't get on my list
But for me, the June Challenge is about so much more than seeing and counting birds. It pushes me to get outside and explore as often as I can. It helps me get out of the rut of visiting the same old places, and it helps me meet new friends who are also out and about and of like mind. In the course of my month of bird searches, I woke up before dawn, hiked in the blazing mid-day sun, and hunted for owls at dusk. I walked by Lakes, Ponds and Creeks, through Sandhills, Flatwoods, Wet Prairie, a Cow Pasture and Cypress Swamp. I staked out parking lots, bird feeders and a medical park in the rain. Each day out was an adventure and I felt more alive with every excursion. 
Early Morning in the Cow Pasture, in Pursuit of the Burrowing Owls

Pine Flatwoods

Cypress Swamp at the End of a Trail

Red Tailed Hawk in the Rain at a Medical Park
Because I was out so often, in addition to my 77 birds, I was able to see lots of flowers, insects, mammals and herps. I saw Sandhill Crane colts (that's what  their chicks are called), baby Grackles, Gallinules and a Fish Crow chick. 
Sandhill Crane and Colt

Boat-Tailed Grackle Chick

Common Gallinule Chicks

I crossed paths with Rabbits, Raccoons, Wild Horses and their colts (the 4 legged kind), Feral Hogs, White Tailed Deer, a Bobcat (!) and a Fox Squirrel! 
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit

Raccoon

Wild Horses and their Colts

White Tailed Deer

Flying Fox Squirrel
I saw a Corn Snake, Water Moccasins, Lizards, Alligators, Soft Shell Turtles and numerous Toads and Frogs, including a Gopher Frog--another first for me! 
The Corn Snake Stuck Around Even After Being Stepped On!

Alligator Tracks and Skid Marks

Florida Soft-Shelled Turtle, Perhaps Laying Eggs

Little Southern Toad

Gopher Frog and its Many Admirers!
I saw huge Regal Darner Dragonflies and tiny Damselflies, Spiders and Grasshoppers. 
Regal Darner

Jumping Spider
Walking along those trails, we saw numerous butterflies: Buckeyes, Monarchs, Sulphurs, Giant Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, Zebra Longwings and a Red Spotted Purple sunning in the parking lot. 
Red-Spotted Purple Butterfly
I found a new wildflower, the Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora), found Tarflowers blooming in the flatwoods, and was thrilled to see a stunningly beautiful display of Pickerelweed on Paynes Prairie. No one around here has seen the Prairie covered like this for years. It's really been a fabulous month.
Largeflower Rosegentian (Sabatia grandiflora)

Tarflower (Bejaria racemosa)

Pickerelweed (Pontedaria cordifolia) As Far as the Eye Can See
Now that the challenge is over, I am looking for new adventures to get me out in the field. Sometimes it's hard to motivate myself. I get tired after a work week and my tendency is to just blob out at home in my free time. But I feel so much better when I get out and battle the chiggers and heat. All it takes is a seeing a raft of frog eggs floating in an ephemeral pond on a trail, or a perfect Hooded Pitcher Plant and I forget all about itching and sweating. At those times I am exhilarated and feel completely alive. 
Egg Shell Under the Pines
At the June Challenge celebration on July 1st, I heard someone suggest that we do a July Challenge, too! As fun as it sounds, I don't know if most of us can keep up the grueling pace for 2 months. Especially in the heat and humidity of Florida in July. But I'll be looking for opportunities wherever I can. Butterflies and Hummingbirds like this hot weather, and as I walk the trails, I can already see signs of fall wildflowers to come. It's going to be a good fall. And winter. And spring. It's always good!
Happy Trails in My Future




Saturday, June 21, 2014

Blueberry Solstice

Happy Solstice! I celebrated the first day of Summer in the summeriest way I know--picking blueberries! It turns out that Florida is a great place for growing blueberries. There are lots of wild, native varieties, but cultivated berries also do very well here and there are many blueberry farms around Gainesville. I do my picking at a You-Pick farm. We've tried several places and they were all great, but I've come to love my June excursions to the Blueberry Woman.

Blueberry Season!
Blueberry season comes at the end of the school year, just as the summer is beginning to really heat up. It's usually hot, humid, sunny and buggy. When we first moved to Florida, the whole family went berry picking together. We usually lasted about an hour before the group was tired out. But as the years went by and the kids grew up and moved away, I found myself going out alone. I actually prefer it this way because I just embrace the pure, drenching heat and can stay out for hours. And I can pick a lot of berries! I slather up with sunscreen, put on my hat and sunglasses, fill the water bottle, and settle in to work.

Most berry farms provide buckets, and the seasoned pickers tie the buckets to their waists with a rope so they can pick with both hands. With my bucket firmly attached, I head out into the rows. I like to walk to the back to get away from any groups of people because there is no sense bunching up together when there are so many rows of bushes to pick from. And I just enjoy being alone out there with my thoughts and my bucket.

The First Kerplunks
There are so many great sounds on a berry picking day. I just love the "thunk" sound of the first berries as they drop into the plastic bucket. The cicadas drone on in the background all day, making it sound even hotter. Blueberry season and the rainy season overlap, so you can often hear distant thunder, especially in the afternoon. I usually hear people talking from other rows. Children really love picking blueberries and you can tell from the excited sounds of their voices. You can also tell when they are tired and ready to go home. There are always sounds from the birds in the surrounding trees. Today I heard Cardinals, White Eyed Vireos, Great Crested Flycatchers, and a Yellow Billed Cuckoo. And this farm is near some cattle and donkeys and I could hear them heehawing today.

Cows in the Distance
There is some skill involved in blueberry picking. I only practice a few times a year, so I know I'm not as good as the professionals, but I look for big, plump, black/blue berries. A bush will have berries in all sorts of stages of development and you need to pick the ones you want without knocking off the unripe berries. I'm always on the lookout for a cluster of ripe berries because it is very satisfying to grab a whole handful. It's important to taste the berries as you go. Some bushes have much yummier berries than others. And eating a sun warmed blueberry right off of the bush is one of life's perfect pleasures.

Finding the Perfect Clusters
As I reach, I keep my eyes open for wasps because they like the sweet berries, too. There are also big leaf-footed bugs that buzz and surprise me sometimes. They don't bite but they suck juice out of the berries and ruin them (for me), so I try to stay away from the clusters where they are feeding. There are often fire ants on the pathways, and it's easy to step in them with so many distracting berries all around. There are usually opportunistic spiders that weave webs to catch the insects that feed on the fruit as it ripens and rots, and I try not to put my hand through their webs. And I always figure that there could be snakes in the bushes and grass, although I am less worried than interested. It seems to me that the most likely snakes would be harmless black racers and garter snakes.

Watch for Wasps

Leaf Footed Bug and its Berry
The blueberry rows almost always have blackberry bushes mixed in, and I always come home with some scratches from the thorns. And there are pretty wildflowers and vines all around. Today I was surprised by a large dragonfly carrying a Gulf Fritillary butterfly that it had caught for a meal. It sat near me and held on to its treasure while I snapped photos. Someday I hope to see turtles or otters in the river at the edge of the farm.
Blackberries and thorns

Meadowbeauty in the Grass

Mock Bishopweed

Eryngium

Dragonfly and its Treasure

Blackwater River on the Farm
After 2 1/2 hours of picking, my bucket was full and I was hot and tired. I picked almost 10 pounds of berries! They aren't cheap--I can buy them for less at the grocery store. But then I would miss the experience of picking, tasting, listening and sweating for my food. And I know where they came from and so I can recall the heat and breeze and buzz of cicadas when I'm eating fresh berries for breakfast, blueberry pies and muffins and again when I dig them out of the freezer. What a great way to start the summer!
Perfect Summer Day!






Monday, June 2, 2014

Lazy Summer Days

I guess I was lucky to be born when I was. It was a simpler time and a child in the 60's was still able to play outdoors and run free in ways that children just don't seem to do much any more. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in Salt Lake City. It was not near streams, fields or ponds, but we had lots of trees and yards, a neat cemetery nearby and a vacant field in the middle of our block. I remember very clearly being so excited about all the playing I was going to be able to do on the first day of summer vacation one year that I was awake and out of the door at sunrise. On any summer day it was not at all unusual for me to grab breakfast, say 'bye to my family, and run out the door, not to be seen again until lunch, and then again at dusk. I wasn't allowed to stay out after it got dark, but otherwise I was free to run and play and explore to my heart's content. We played hard. I'd come home sweaty and dirty.
Young Robin in the Tree
We played elaborate imagination games wearing dress up clothes and using our yards for our homes and castles. We gathered groups of neighborhood kids and played "kick the can" and "hide and seek". The boundaries of the game could be blocks long. We rode our bikes and roller-skated up and down the streets. I can still remember the buzzy feeling in my feet as I rolled down the old, rough sidewalks on those metal wheels. I felt extremely cool wearing a skate key around my neck. We lived across the street from our elementary school and my friends and I spent many hours swinging and hanging on the tricky bars and climbing on the jungle gym. I learned how to ride a bike there.
The Boundaries of Our Imaginations. This is the gate of one of the houses where I lived as a child.
One summer, my best friend and her siblings started a butterfly collection and the other neighbor kids and I joined in.  I can't remember if their mom made the nets for us or if we bought them (I tend to think she made them because their mom was very creative and she was always coming up with fun activities for a houseful of kids--like making box kites with tissue paper and straws), but we all had our nets and set about decreasing the local population of butterflies. We had blocks of styrofoam, maybe from coolers, and we would catch our unlucky butterflies and moths, put them in the kill jar (a jar with a turpentine soaked rag), and then pin them on the board. I don't remember a whole lot about my collection, except that Mourning Cloak butterflies were quite common, so I had a lot of them. And I remember stretching out the pink wings of Sphinx moths from Tomato Hornworm caterpillars. My friend and her brother had the prized Tiger Swallowtails, but I never seemed to be able to see or catch one.
Tiger Swallowtail--the Prize of my Childhood.
Now that I live in Florida, I see them all the time, but they always seem special! And I still collect them, but in photos.
We also collected rocks. Utah has a lot of great rocks. And they are easy to come by. We got to know our granite and mica, obsidian and quartz. We collected river rocks and sandstone and iron pyrite. Sometimes we would take a trip to the Natural History Museum and ooh and ah over the amazing mineral collection there. One summer we went to a rock and gem show and spruced up our collections with fancy store-bought minerals and polished stones.
Sandstone with Lichen
One of my favorite memories is of one day when my friends and I walked the few blocks from our street to the old cemetery. We wandered around the tombstones and crypts and marveled at the dates. Some were so worn that you couldn't read them. Others made us sad because we could see the ages of the children who had died or the mother or young soldier who was gone too soon. We climbed trees and chased butterflies through the soft grass. At some point we were tired and sat down to rest. Lying in the grass and looking up at the birds in the trees, I was so content and comfortable. I could smell the summer smells and hear the sounds of birds and insects and it was so peaceful. I watched the shapes of the clouds roll by and savored the pleasant summer day. I draw on that memory now that I am older and busier and less carefree.
Historic Map of my Neighborhood. You can see the Cemetery at the Upper End. Lots of Room to Roam!
Some days we didn't feel like being outside and we'd play with toys, or read, color or watch TV. But soon the adults would tire of our noise and quarreling and would shoo us outside again. We might sit on the front step, rejected and bored--for 5 or 10 minutes. And then we'd figure out what to do--play hopscotch on the sidewalk or run through the sprinklers. We roamed the streets in a pack, like coyotes, running and yipping and teasing. I'm sure we were not always well behaved and I know we sometimes got into mischief. But it was pretty harmless. And even though we were running free, our parents all had a pretty good idea of where we were. It was a good way to dip our toes into independence.
Magpies in the Grass
In July, it was often too hot inside the house to sleep, so my parents let us invite our friends and we'd all sleep out in the back yard. It was safe, with a block wall and a gate and a faithful dog, and we would lay out our big, thick sleeping bags on the lawn and count the shooting stars and identify the constellations that we knew. I remember watching the Space Station fly by on its regular orbit one summer. We watched Night Hawks and Bats trolling for bugs under the Big Dipper and the Milky Way. Sometimes the smell of a Skunk would waft down from the foothills. We'd talk and giggle and soon we'd drift off to sleep. Occasionally thunder and sprinkling rain woke us up in the middle of the night and the sleep out ended in the living room. Good memories.
Howling at the Moon
I read a great blog today by Nature Educator, advocate and author, ("Last Child in the Woods--Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder") Richard Louv . He has a list of 10 fun ways to get your children outside to play this summer, that you can read here. I'm especially fond of the Wonder Bowl--I guess I've always had one, but didn't have a good name for it! I'd love to see more parents who feel comfortable and safe enough to let their children play outside. I would love to see more parents dare to unschedule their children. I want to hear the sound of children as they laugh and yell and play in their yards, but sadly, it's not a sound I hear much. I am almost startled when I see children ride by on a scooter or play in the neighborhood creek without adults hovering over. It is just so unusual now. We've become fearful of letting children play outside because of our awareness of child predators and other dangers, and I understand that this is a genuine concern. Well meaning parents structure every minute of their child's day, worried that if they don't they won't be able to compete and get into good colleges. But I feel that parents have overreacted to these pressures, to the point where they don't let kids have a childhood. Couple this with our increasing addiction and dependence on electronic gadgets, and the result is that we are becoming detached from nature. We are generally more sedentary and less active and thus less healthy. I heard on the news this week that a third of the world's population is overweight now. But there's a better way. Playing outside helps children clear their brains. Letting them play freely boosts their creativity. Stepping away from the computer and the TV and moving around outside keeps them healthy and fit.  Playing and exploring in nature connects people with the earth and helps develop empathy for living things. I think parents would be advocates for playing outside if they understood what a difference it makes. As we move into summer vacation time, I remember my own childhood summers. These were good times, where I could be outdoors, creative and free. I wish this for every child.
Items for a Wonder Bowl