Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unicoi State Park

Unicoi Lake

This weekend my husband and I spent a couple of days at Unicoi State Park in North Georgia. He had a departmental retreat and I came along to get more Georgia exploration under my belt. I have a lot to get to know about our relatively new home state! Unicoi is not far from Athens--only about an hour and a half, around the same distance we used to drive to go to the beach when we lived in Florida. We used to pack up the beach towels and go to the coast for a relaxing day-trip, but now we grab our backpacks and head to the mountains! We had actually been to Unicoi before, about a year ago, but didn't get much time to explore. This time I had a day and a half in the park and I walked 3 of the 5 main trails. Unicoi is pretty, but is probably less wild and more oriented toward active recreation than I would usually prefer. Newly installed zipline courses lead from the lodge and all over the woods. It is probably exciting to ride on the ziplines, but I found them to be loud and not very compatible with birdwatching and quiet contemplation. And the bolts they drill all the way through the trees to hold the cables looked like tree torture. Also, a highway runs through the middle of the park, bringing loud trucks and fast traffic that you can hear from quite a distance away.

Zipline Platforms in the Trees

That said, I still had a very nice time. Art and I took a short evening hike and surprised 5-6 deer and saw a wet trail that we think was left by an otter moving from a pond to a creek, and I submitted a bird count on eBird.  Although it is early, I still found a few spring wildflowers. Spring has progressed more down in the Piedmont, where we live (I love saying that--it sounds so geographically specific!) and the plentiful Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels were still a month or so away from blooming. We drove to the mountains when we bought our home 2 year ago this May and the Mountain Laurels were stunning then. I think I'll have to take a trip up in the next month or so to check on their progress.

Rhododendron Bud

Mountain Laurel from 2015

Southern Barren Strawberry (Geum donianum)

Starry Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)

Tiny Bluets (Houstonia pusilla)

Most Likely a Three-Parted Yellow Violet (Viola tripartita)

Most of my walks on Saturday were quiet and peaceful and I saw all sorts of interesting things, but it started getting more crowded around lunchtime. On the way back from a very satisfying and long loop hike where I had just seen 6 Flickers in a tree (probably 2 adults and their 4 offspring), a raucous family came up behind me on the trail. It had been so quiet all morning and suddenly all around me there was laughter and loud talking, kids running and throwing sticks and general disruption, not caring at all about me and my bird and butterfly watching. I could hear the family a few minutes before I saw them. I felt enormously irritated and moved off the trail onto another fork to let them pass. Grrr. Didn't they have any trail manners? As they passed me, I gave the loud family a pained smile and nod of the head and tried to carry on with my noble nature observation. Just then, the clouds broke and the sun shone through to the woods for a few magical moments. It had been overcast all weekend up until that instant. The bright sun brought the woods to life and I was there at the perfect time to see a big feeding flock of tiny birds who had been waiting for the light--kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, blue-headed vireos, nuthatches, chickadees, and my nemesis bird for this year--a brown creeper. The sun shone for a few minutes, and then the clouds closed up and it was overcast once again. All of a sudden I wasn't mad any more. In fact, I was thankful for the loud people. Their presence had caused me to move to the fork in the trail where I wouldn't otherwise have been, giving me the opportunity to see the brown creeper. I don't know why I had let them annoy me so much. Maybe it was because I wanted to have the woods to myself, to continue my peaceful nature encounter, and perhaps be lucky enough to see something amazing like a bobcat or a fox or just hear the bees buzz. But after I came back to my senses, I remembered that I did actually get to see quite a few amazing sights, and that also, it is a good thing for families with happy, loud kids to come run around in the woods. People who spend time in nature are more likely to value it and protect it. These might have been junior environmentalists! Or at least future park pass buyers, which supports the parks system.

Bluebird

6 Flickers! (I didn't realize I had 6 until I saw the photo with the one at the top cut off)

Gemmed Satyr Butterfly
Dead Vole in the Field

Good Day, Sunshine!

Brown Creeper, my 2017 Nemesis Bird Seen at Last!

After lunch I hiked around the lake, in good spirits and ready to share the trail with anyone and everyone. It was good exercise, but there weren't as many flowers or birds to see because the trail wound around the cabins, beaches and fishing piers. But no matter--I heard loud American Toads at the lake's edge and even found some of their weird coiled egg ropes. I never saw the toads, which surprised me because they were so vocal. And near the end of the hike I spied a pair of wood ducks. I wish I had gotten a clearer photo, but they were shy and moved away quickly.

Egg Coils from American Toads

Wood Ducks

Georgia has an extensive state park system and national wildlife refuges, covering the mountains, rivers, Atlantic Coast, Piedmont, coastal plain and even the Okeefenokee Swamp! We have a lot more to explore and as we do, you can count on me to share.

Running Pine (Diphasiastrum digitatum), Clubmoss Family

Blue Turkey Tail Fungi

Fern Fiddlehead








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.

Turtles

Crow

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