Friday, February 24, 2017

Goodbye Winter

Star Magnolia in Bloom

I'm pretty sure that Winter is finished here in Athens. Sure, there could still be some more cold snaps coming, but the temperatures here are balmy, in the 70's and 80's. In fact, it almost feels like Spring will whiz past without giving us a chance to savor the "just right" temperatures between frigid and roasting. We may be in for another record breaking scorcher summer and drought. I sure hope not, but signs are pointed that direction. Meanwhile, though, it's a lovely Spring, and the camellia bushes and ornamental magnolias are blooming like mad and the daffodils are standing tall and dreamy yellow in patches all over the city. The Cedar Waxwings can still be seen bopping through the treetops, but they have polished off most of the choice winter berries and I expect that they will be leaving soon, along with the masses of Grackles and Robins. By the way, in case you were wondering, the collective noun for a group of Grackles is "Plague". They certainly do swarm in, like a plague of locusts, and eat everything in the feeders and throw the leaf mulch all over, but I still like them. I enjoy their raspy sounds and iridescent blue/black feathers. And it is amazing to watch hundreds of them launch in unison from the trees when they decide it is time to move on to the next yard. The celebrity Baltimore Orioles and the Rufous Hummingbird that have stuck around our yard all winter are still sticking around. Lots of people have come by to look at them, including some Ornithology Classes from UGA! Friends asked us why we had crowds of people with binoculars in our yard. It makes me smile every morning to see the hummer perched at our kitchen window feeder, guzzling away. And, as they did in Gainesville, the Orioles chatter at me when I refill their grape jelly feeders. They also like to drink from the hummingbird feeders, so it is a challenge to keep them all full. It was exciting to see 3 Orioles last week for the Backyard Bird Count.

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Ligustrum berries

Plague of Grackles

3 Orioles at the Feeder!

Rufous Hummingbird takes a rain bath

When I see the Hummingbird in his usual spot in the bushes, where he can keep a watch over the whole yard, I wonder what is going on in his mind. He is so far away from where he should be. Does he know it? Does he care? Does he miss being with his own species? He looks kind of lonely, but hopeful. Always on the watch. Is he looking for other hummingbirds? Does he miss having other birds to hang out with? Do hummingbirds even do that? I imagine that he'll decide to fly home one of these days soon. But where exactly is home? For summer breeding season, that would somewhere in the upper Northwest and into Canada and Alaska. Migration season they would mostly be in the Mountain West, California and Mexico. And for winter, mostly Mexico. That's a long way from Georgia for a tiny bird, but Rufous Hummingbirds are tough. I was reading more about Rufous Hummingbirds and found that they live 4-5 years and are one of the hardier species that can withstand some cold winter temperatures. In the Q&A section of one website, someone asked if it was true that hummingbirds migrated on the backs of geese. I really laughed at that one. The answer is no. But I do wonder when the hummer will go back to be with "his people" or if he'll stick around for a while longer. The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are ready to begin their migration back north again and when they arrive, he'll have lots of competition at the feeder, if he stays that long. I wish him luck on his trip back home, wherever that may be, even though I will miss seeing his little silhouette through the bushes. He needs to get back to breed. I will miss all the winter visitors, but the seasons change and nature calls on them to move on. Now it's time to welcome the next seasonal guests.

Surveying the Yard

And speaking of the next season, the butterflies are here! I saw these Azures and my first Mourning Cloak at the Botanical Garden the other day. Spring is here for sure.

Spring Azures

Mourning Cloak (terrible picture but first sighting for me in Georgia!)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We All Need a Little Green

Path Through the Woods

In my mind, one of the most important gauges of the livability of a community is whether or not there are greenspaces within easy walking or biking distance. Greenspaces are open patches of undeveloped land within an urban area, with trees and/or grass and minimal structures, and are generally open to the public. Parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens and nature parks come to mind. It takes some vision to create and maintain greenspaces. They are often on land that could be developed into something that could make lots of money, like a subdivision or an apartment building or a strip mall or a parking garage. Imagine how valuable the land in Central Park could be, located right in the middle of Manhattan. But, luckily, there are people out there who have understood the importance of having communal space available for connecting with nature. They understand the need for people to breathe fresh air, to walk in the beauty of trees, flowers and bugs, the need for children to run and play outside, for people to exercise and walk their dogs, to ride bikes, to watch birds, and to take nature photographs. Countless studies tell us that being in nature is good for us. Spending time in nature calms our jangled nerves, lets us keep healthy through exercise, and even helps our children concentrate better in the classroom. Imagine New York City without all its city parks, small and large, where people can go to escape from small apartments and crowded streets and subways. Without them people would go nuts. It's the same in every city. In addition to everything else, trees and plants in greenspaces clean our air, and the natural areas themselves provide critical habitat for urban wildlife. It is really important to me that nature is accessible to other people in my community, too. And this is one reason that I am involved on the board of Sandy Creek Nature Center where I also volunteer as a trail guide.

Cedar Waxwing 

But this is not about Sandy Creek. I consider myself very lucky to live in a lovely, livable community with greenspaces all around. I live a short walk from another pretty great greenspace--Oconee Forest Park and Lake Herrick on the UGA campus. Oconee Forest Park is a 60 acre wooded area that is managed by the school of forestry. It serves as a teaching area for foresters, biologists, ecologists and other natural scientists, but is also open to the public as a recreation area with trails for walkers, bikers, dog owners and nature lovers. Located next to Lake Herrick, there are benches, picnic tables, docks, outdoor exercise equipment and even a ropes course for teambuilding, as well as a beautiful ADA compliant boardwalk. It's a great place to be in and observe nature. I have seen deer, squirrels, snakes, turtles and beaver. And it is full of birds! The forest and lake area are birding hotspots. On a recent walk I counted 26 species without trying very hard. A sunny, cleared utility easement under the power lines is a superb place to find butterflies and other insects in the summer and fall. There are even labels on some of the trees to help people like me learn about Piedmont dendrology. All in all it's a pretty great place.



Power Easement

Lake Herrick at the Bottom of the Hill

Lots of Recreation and Healthy Activities

Helping Me to Learn My Trees!

ADA Boardwalk Bridge Across the Lake

Forestry Students

Unfortunately, the park and lake suffer somewhat from misuse and neglect. There is a lot of litter from careless hikers or just blown in from the road. And like many other natural areas around town, sections of the woods are overgrown with exotic plants like English Ivy and Privet. The lake itself has been closed for swimming and boating since 2004 because of poor water quality due to factors such as storm runoff and bacteria from dog feces. The park is a very popular place to walk dogs, but it has been difficult to convince owners to clean up after their pets. (I think it would help to have more garbage cans and poop bag dispensers, but that may already be in the works.) Another problem is erosion caused by unofficial bike and running paths. Renegade paths may give a fun and fast ride down a steep hill, but it also gives a quick channel for storm runoff. Properly designed paths minimize erosion. But the University is acting to address the problems, with mitigation projects starting as soon as this spring, which is great news. It will be nice when the lake can be used for recreation again. I read that a small lake on the far side of the property that has become filled with silt from runoff may be developed as an improved wetland and I find this very exciting. I've had great experiences viewing nature in manmade wetlands around the country and have become a big fan.

Small Lake that Could Be Turned into a Wetland

Creek Runs Through the Forest to the Lake

Entrance to the Forest

Our family gets a lot of pleasure from using this resource. My husband likes to run through Oconee Forest Park, and we sometimes bring our dogs there. I love living close enough to just walk over to the park when I feel like birdwatching or taking photos. Some times, like weekends and evenings, the place is packed. But during the day it can be fairly quiet. I can easily spend hours there, wandering the meandering trails. Every visit I notice something new. This past time I found a big beaver lodge. Last visit, I heard and saw an unseasonably early White Eyed Vireo. Most times I see interesting fungi, plants or wildflowers. One day I hope I can roll a log or lift a rock and find a salamander. (I still haven't found one in the wild yet.) And as I get to know the park better, I get lost a lot less often. Or maybe I worry less about it. Being on campus, it is fairly well used and safe. And since it is in northern Georgia, I don't have to be afraid of being trapped on a trail by an alligator or a cottonmouth, as happened to me sometimes in Florida.

Beaver Lodge in the Water (Middle Right)

Eastern Phoebe

Texture on a Rotting Log

This unusual Deer Sculpture is the only deer I have actually seen here in the park, although I have seen tracks.

I guess the point here is to encourage everyone to seek out your own local greenspaces. Spend time outdoors and commune with the trees and the rocks and the bugs. Even in winter, go enjoy the snow and the muffled silences. Even in the sweltering heat of summer, go listen to the cicadas while you lie on the grass, watching the clouds roll by. Get out often enough to see the changing seasons. Learn those places as well as you know the plots of your favorite TV shows and you will not have wasted your time. Share them with children. We all need a little green.

Great Blue Heron Enjoys the Small Pond

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Take a Breath

Red Smilax Leaf

The last 2 weeks have been very hard. I knew that there would be a lot of changes with the new presidential administration, but I never expected the extent of what has happened so far and I fear that the future will be much, much worse. Every day I wake up and look for some new bombshell in the news. This past week it was all coming so fast and furious, and the rhetoric, both pro and anti, was assaulting me from every direction. My health was beginning to suffer. I felt sick and anxious, awful, like my head was going to explode. It all got to be too much and I needed to make some changes. First, I stopped looking at Facebook for a while. I love following my friends--their families and accomplishments (the animal videos!), but every time I checked in I felt like I was in a hornet's nest. It wasn't helping me. Next, I cut back on checking the news. We live in a 24/7 news world and when there isn't something actually happening, there are stories about what might happen, or how worried we should be. I don't watch TV, but I am a public radio junkie, and this still took some discipline. But I could feel my anxiety level speeding to a boil whenever I listened, so I had to cut back. I believe that it is important to be informed, so I still read the paper and listen to the morning and evening news, but I stay away from it during the day, and in the evenings. So now, when I ride in the car or work at home, I relish the quiet or listen to music.

Cardinal in the Forest

I've been trying to spend more time hiking, nature watching and photographing because every time I go out, I come back home feeling good. I've been saying this for years, but nothing beats time spent outdoors for soothing a troubled soul. Fresh air, sunshine and the sound of rustling leaves are the best medicine for just about anything. Even pulling weeds and doing yard work can be therapeutic. Ending the afternoon with dirt under your nails and a full bucket of spurge is really satisfying. Just try to worry about problems when you are keeping a bird list. Try to feel sad when a chipmunk scrabbles across the hillside, cheeks bulging and tail flashing. Try to be angry when you see the first purple blooms of spring Violets pushing up through the leaf litter. You can feel the pulse of the earth in the sound of your footsteps and the rippling water of a stream and you remember that life is good.

Meandering Creek

First Violet

Skittish Chipmunk in the Yard

I am trying find ways that I can take action rather than just stew about things. Worry without any recourse can eat you alive. Your fight or flight mechanism kicks in and if you can't run away or fight, it becomes internalized. I didn't attend the Women's March in Washington, but my husband and I did participate in the Martin Luther King Day of Service and March in Athens. It felt great to connect with our community and to do something positive. I have called and emailed all my representatives (and will keep on doing so) so that I feel like I am at least voicing my opinions. I always try to do little things like picking up trash around our neighborhood, recycling and buying local and organic food as much as we can. And because we are very concerned about climate change, air pollution and use of fossil fuels, we are now driving an electric vehicle that we charge at home in our garage.  Big movements begin as small changes at home. Think globally, act locally.

Mobile coop and chickens at the farm where we get our eggs and beef
I feel better now that I decided to take charge of my mental wellbeing. I think it is healthy from time to time to step back and get a little perspective. It is important to remember what really matters, to spend quality time with friends and family, to take care of your health and to enjoy life. But you can't hide your head in the sand. These are weird and dark times we are living through, unlike anything I've known before. New policies from our new administration threaten the very core of my understanding of what it means to be an American. They are existential threats and it is exhausting trying to be vigilant and speaking out. People are scared and are afraid of losing basic rights. We need to take care of ourselves so that we can continue to have the strength to stand up for what we believe in. We also need to remember to be kind to each other and not let fear divide us, even if we disagree. It's ok to have different opinions. It is not ok to hate because of our differences. It is so easy, especially in the echo chambers of social media, to get sucked into the rhetoric of the day--bullying, scapegoating, fear mongering. But I believe that at the heart, most Americans basically want the same things and if we are kind and remember our core values, if we try to talk with each other, maybe we can work together to steer our nation back on course and build a community for the good of all of us. But it is going to take a lot of work, which is exhausting. A friend reminded me that it is ok and necessary sometimes to rest and take time away from the fight because there are many, many more people ready to step up. Other people have your back, she said. It was so reassuring.

Wild Ginger Leaf

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Winter Visitors

No More Cookies

January is here and people are returning to normal work and school schedules after a long holiday season. Our house was bustling this year with visiting family and happy celebrations for about 2 weeks. It was lots of fun and the house seems pretty quiet now as we put everything back in where it belongs and clean and tidy up. The cookies and treats are just about all eaten up, the tree has gone to be recycled into mulch, and the laundry is almost all washed and folded. Pretty much back to the old routine.

But one of our visitors decided to stay a while longer and so I've been making some accommodations. We were very lucky this year to find a Rufous Hummingbird in our yard in mid-December. I checked today and it is still here, and probably will be for the rest of the winter. It was pure luck that I even found it in the first place. On December 12 I stepped out on the front porch and a small bird zoomed past me and landed in a tree. I saw that it was a hummingbird, which is pretty unusual for winter here in Georgia. Little did I know that it was not one of our typical Ruby Throated birds, but at that moment I couldn't see it well enough to know. I had left out a nectar feeder hoping for this very possibility because I read that some birds will straggle behind during migration and need refueling stations. But I hadn't seen anyone feeding in our yard since fall and the nectar was old and yucky. I ran inside to brew up some fresh nectar (dissolve 1 part sugar into 4 parts water, cool and serve. No food coloring, please) and brought it out in a fresh, clean feeder. Then I proceeded to clean and refill all of our feeders.  I posted an excited message on Facebook that day and the next day I was rewarded with a beautiful view of a Rufous Hummingbird from my kitchen window. According to my Sibley Field Guide, Rufous Hummingbirds are rare in our area. They live in the Pacific Northwest, winter in the Gulf Coast and Florida, but don't really live in my part of the world. What a treat! If I hadn't seen him fly by and hadn't refilled the feeders, who knows if he would have stayed around?

Male Rufous Hummingbird from the Kitchen Window

I proudly reported my bird (note how protective I'm getting!) to the local Audubon group and on eBird and promptly had requests from other birders who wanted to know if they could come see him. We've had a regular stream of Rufous fans ever since. To make it even better, one of the groups of observers also noticed a pair of Baltimore Orioles in our bushes. I had no idea they were there and had given up all hope of hosting them the way we did in Florida. I had understood that they didn't winter here, and I left our jelly dishes behind in Gainesville when we moved. When I put out the hummingbird feeder, the Orioles came to drink from it and the Rufous was furious! He chased them away and chattered at them. But I found another dish, bought some grape jelly, and now there is peace once again. There are only 2 Orioles, not the jelly gobbling hordes that we had in Gainesville, and there are none of the older, brilliant orange males. But I'm happy, and maybe these 2 will bring friends.

Baltimore Oriole Eating Jelly


He's Awfully Pretty, Don't You Think?

Last weekend, after the Rufous had been with us for a few weeks, I noticed mildew on the feeders. I was hoping they'd stay clean longer in cold weather, but fungus loves sugar and sun so it was time to clean. On New Years Day, I pulled down all the feeders and gave them a good scrubbing with brushes, biodegradable soap and a vinegar water rinse. Then I filled them again with fresh nectar. The seed feeders probably need a good mid-winter cleaning, too, but I'll get to them when the rain clears up. I guess it's going to be a busy New Year!

All Taken Apart

Brushes to Clean the Gunk

Mini Brushes for the Small Spaces

Refilled with Fresh Nectar

Happily Feeding

I hope your New Year is filled with happy days, exciting discoveries, interesting visitors, plenty of food and very little mildew.

Mockingbird doesn't understand what all the fuss is

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Kindred Spirits

Cook's Trail

Earlier this fall I was the winning bidder for an item at a silent auction to raise funds for our local nature center (Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens). The item? A guided day hike to the place of our choosing by one of Athens' most famous trail blazers, Walter Cook! I bid on the item because I thought hiking with an experienced person like Walt would be a great way for my husband and me, 2 relative newcomers to Georgia, to get acquainted with the local hiking scene. Walt and I tried originally to set up a day for a hike somewhere in the mountains while the fall leaves were still beautiful, and before hunting season started, but our busy travel schedule kept getting in the way. Finally he and I settled on a date in December. Walt had several ideas for local trails and made sure I knew that he also had a few favorite BBQ places in mind for lunch after the hike. I had no idea we were signing up for the full package! In the end, Walt decided on a trail and lunch combo that kept us closer to Athens so we wouldn't have to travel too far or watch for hunters. We would be hiking the north end of Cook's Trail and the Oxbow Loop in Sandy Creek Park, about 5 miles, followed not by BBQ, but by tasty Mexican lunch at a roadside eatery near the park. (It was delicious!) I was secretly thrilled because the trail we would hike was built by him and named for him and we were going to get to hike it with him! How cool is that??

Silent Woods
Chilly Morning

Walt shows Art where we'll be going

I had heard a lot about Walt over the year we've been in town, but somehow we never seemed to cross paths, even though we know a lot of the same people and hang around in some of the same nature circles. He is a retired Forestry Professor from UGA with a passion for beautiful forests, parks and trails. He has built countless trails all over Georgia and the Southeast. He was also one of the co-founders of Sandy Creek Nature Center in the 1970's where I am a happy volunteer trail guide, member and new board member. I have a deep respect for many people in the nation who had the vision to come together to purchase land and build nature centers during that time in our history. There was a real sense of connection with the land and new understanding of the importance of ecology and environmental education, combined with a strong community spirit and belief in the future generations. Much of the construction at Morningside Nature Center in Gainesville, Florida--another one of my favorite parks--was also done then.

Cook's Trial Marker and one of Walt's Benches

Because we didn't know each other yet, we agreed to meet at the gate of Sandy Creek Park. He said we should look for his little red car. When my husband and I pulled into the gate that cold morning and saw his little red car, covered with liberal and conservation bumper stickers just like our car, I knew we were going to get along fine. He led us through the park to the the trailhead and we made our introductions and headed off on our adventure. Walt seemed a little surprised that we didn't bring our kids with us. He had scoped out the trail the day before and as we later found out, had flagged a number of things he thought would be of particular interest to kids. I explained that our kids have grown and flown the coop, but that I loved fun nature discoveries and that he should still share them with me!

Osage Orange with Long Thorns--Cool for Kids (And Us!)

A Rotted Tree Stump with Thick Walls 

Empty Cocoon

It was a quiet morning in the park and we only ran into 2-3 other people on the trail. It was peaceful and the light was beautiful. Did I mention that it was cold? Temperatures didn't get much over 40 that entire day and in the morning there was still frost covering the grass and leaves. Slow sections of the stream were frozen and clusters of frost flowers (not actual flowers, but ice extruded through the stems of hollow plants) dotted the banks. The birds were quiet most of the morning, getting louder as the sun warmed the woods.

Frosty Grass

Frozen Creek

Free Standing Frost Squiggle in the Path

Frost Flower with a Brave Spider

Delicate Frost

As we walked (rather briskly, I might add--I had to run to catch up whenever I stopped to take photos!) Walt talked about the history of the trail and the nature center. He told us about the people who had the brilliant idea to buy the property, and the determination that it took to raise funds and do the hard work. He told us about the aesthetics of managing forests and about carving trails with hand tools--shovels, saws and clippers. He showed us special trees and favorite views from the trail. He pointed out benches and bridges that he had designed and the ones he hadn't that didn't work as well. He told us about the people with whom he had walked and who had said, "we need a bench here".

Archway over the Trail

Cold Blue Heron on the Frozen Pond

Tall Trees

Aerial Roots from Muscadine Grape Vines

Some Kind of Seed Pod on a Vine--Milkweed Family?

We talked about our families and our histories, about the importance of parks and nature education, and about how difficult it is to protect them. He stopped a few times to measure trees and another time took us into the now dry flood plain to measure the height of the roots of the trees, showing signs of the drought. He knew exactly how long the stretch of Christmas Ferns was along the Oxbow loop because he had measured it. He knew this trail like an old friend.

Measuring Trees

The Water has Dried Up

Stand of Christmas Ferns that Stretches Across the Entire Hillside

When he saw something particularly pretty or interesting he would pull out his camera to photograph it. Of course, I had my camera working the whole time. We were both getting shots of one pretty and mossy log and he told us that his philosophy was that beauty can be found where you look for it, in the small things. I blurted out, "I feel exactly the same way!" and I knew we were going to be friends long after this walk.

Cluster of  Mushrooms

More Tiny Mushrooms on a Cold Morning

Lush and Gorgeous Mossy Log

Near the end of the hike he came to a place where he had stashed a beaver gnaw stick the day before, with the idea of giving it to our kids. I kept it for myself, instead, a special memento from a beautiful day.

Nearing the End of the Trail

My Gnaw Stick