Saturday, April 21, 2018

Hug a Tree

Tall Water Oak

A group of 1st graders and I were walking up the path back to the nature center yesterday. We had been on the trail for nearly an hour and they were happy but tired and hungry and ready to get back. We were almost there when we noticed something interesting on the trunk of a water oak tree just past the trailhead. There was some sort of circular blob on the trunk, and from a distance it appeared to be about the same color as the tree. As we got closer to examine we realized it was a cluster of caterpillars! Being first graders, many of them wanted to touch the wriggling shape. But I held them back and we watched for a couple of minutes, noticing the hairs that could irritate the skin and the pretty bright blue color that was not as noticeable from a distance. One of the kids said that it was the neatest thing she had seen on the walk. (Actually, she said it was the only neat thing she saw on the walk, but I didn't believe her!)

Nothing to see here?

The Cluster

After the children were reunited with their teachers and heading off to lunch, I walked back to the tree to have another look. I had never seen this behavior in caterpillars before. Up close, they were also incredibly beautiful. The blue color with white diamonds reminded me of fiber art and weaving patterns. I took a lot of photos.

Gorgeous colors and patterns

As always happens to me in situations like this, the more I looked, the more I saw. A pair of mating Milkweed Beetles crawled by just above my head. Right next to the caterpillar circle, a stream of ants was traveling up the tree from the ground, following cracks in the bark. A different kind of caterpillar moved down the trunk from above. This one was twice the size of the individuals in the caterpillar bunch, and had a very different pattern. The children and I had seen quite a few of these caterpillars in the park that day. When I got home I looked up both species in my "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" book and learned that the clustering caterpillars are Forest Tent Caterpillars, and are known for clustering like this. Despite their name, they do not make web tents. The other caterpillar was an Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and they are do make the web tents. 

Milkweed Beetles


Two species of Tent Caterpillars on the same tree

There was so much going on right in front of me in this little area of the tree that I decided to investigate the rest of it and see if I could find anything else. But the tree was tall, so I could only look closely at my own eye level and below, which was only a tiny portion of the whole. It was a big and old tree, so there was a lot of moss and lichen on the bark in an assortment of colors and patterns. Some of the lichen looked to me like it had writing on it (I like to think they are hidden forest messages). A few feet away, a firefly climbed over lichen and moss, and seemed to be searching, though I don't know what for. Google tells me that adult fireflies eat pollen and nectar.


Forest Messages


As I made my way around the tree trunk I looked up and saw a row of holes, perhaps made by a sapsucker or some other woodpecker. Down below I saw the lumpy bark of the base of this mighty tree. Below that the frilly green of a tiny pine sprout peeked out from behind one of the big roots. In another root crotch I found a pink redbud blossom, probably one of the last left from this spring's blooms. On the other side, an Eastern Tent Caterpillar tiptoed by the star-shaped leaf of a sweet gum.


Craggy Base

Pine Sprout

Redbud Blossom

Sweetgum leaf with an Eastern Tent caterpillar photobomb in the upper corner

Just when I was starting to think I knew that trail pretty well, all it took was a closer look to see how much more there was to see and know. It reminded me of an activity we used to do when I worked at the nature center in Florida. We gave each of the kids wire coat hanger that had been pulled into a square shape and had them lay it on the ground. Then they were given a magnifying lens and a paper and pencil and were instructed to observe what happened in the square for a specified amount of time. At first some of the children balked. They said, "there's nothing here but dirt and some leaves".  But we told them to keep looking and to try to count everything they saw. Pretty soon even the most skeptical ones were hooked. An ant would walk through the square, or a grasshopper or a spider. They might see a seed, or a sprout, or a feather or a tiny flower. Then they used the hand lens and saw the shiny bits of sand and shell and rocks and broken insect wings. The more you look, the more you see.

Caterpillar Silk

I am also reminded of a book I recently read called "The Forest Unseen", by David Haskell. The author visited a square meter area in a forest weekly for a year and observed what happened in that space. He wrote about animals large and small, wildflowers, seasons and ecosystems. Its a lovely book that encouraged me to look closer, and made me think about what can be learned by observing one place again and again over time. As much as I like to travel and explore, there is a lot to be said for getting to know one place really, really well.

Tree Bark Wrinkle

So when was the last time you took a good close look at a tree? Looked deep down into a knothole or under bark, or felt a newly unfolded leaf? When was the last time you hugged a tree? Have you ever wrapped your arms around the trunk and felt the texture and sturdiness of a massive oak? Or buried your nose in a Ponderosa pine bark crevice and breathed the sweet vanilla scent? If it's been a while, I hope that you can take a few moments in honor of Earth Day and get to know a tree. There is a lot they can tell you if you just watch and listen.

Fresh Leaves

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Wild Thing

Blossoms and tufts of green leaves are sprouting all over in our garden. I've got spring fever and want to be outside as much as I can be! I've been cleaning out last year's old growth from the front yard flower patch and realized that I needed to be sure that the seedlings I was thinning out were not from the Georgia Asters that I want to encourage. So yesterday I headed to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, which is just a short trip from home, to take a look at their aster patch for reference. I'm so lucky to live close to one of my favorite places to hike and photograph, as well as a source for gardening and botanical advice!

I think these are the leaves I was looking for

I made my way to the garden and found and photographed what I believe to be the aster leaves so I could compare at home. And since I was already there, and it was supposed to rain in the afternoon, I took the opportunity to try to get some photos of birds and wildflowers. The woods are teeming with color and life, brought about by warmer temps and spring rains. I was just heading off toward a nice trail to catch a look at a heron rookery I had discovered last week, when I heard a wild ruckus from a group of people walking up from that area. Weekends at the gardens are very busy, which is both good and not so good. Good for lots of people to be out enjoying a wonderful nature area, and not so good for people (like me) who are hoping to quietly observe the wildlife. But it's a big place and there is room for all of us. I am always happy to see families who allow their children to explore and experience nature. Quiet observers and rowdy explorers can easily compromise and even share some teachable moments. The kids were hollering and having a great time, shouting "hup, two, three, four" at the top of their lungs as they marched. It was pretty clear to me that the birds and wildlife would scatter for a while in their presence, and I didn't want to lose time before the rain. So instead of heron hunting, I turned around a took a walk through the wildflower garden, which I wanted to visit anyway.

Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia)
Eastern Redbud popping out all over (Cercis canadensis)
Trillium trio (Trillium maculatum)

As I entered the garden, something small scurried up a tree up ahead of me. It seemed too big for a chipmunk but too small for a squirrel, so I followed it and found, to my surprise, that it was a squirrel after all, just a very tiny one. A baby squirrel!

Cute little guy

I wondered if it had fallen out of a nest, but it seemed fully able to climb and scurry away, however awkwardly. It was young enough that it really didn't know what to do when faced with danger. First it froze. Next it scuttled maniacally around in the leaves at the base of a tree, like it had no idea where to go. Then it climbed just a little higher up on the trunk and stared at me. I looked around for upset parent squirrels and didn't hear or see anything. Usually, when I startle squirrels, they scamper to a high branch and screech and bark at me. But this baby was new to the whole stranger thing. He moved to the back of the tree trunk and peeked at me from first one side and then the other. It was adorable. I was having so much fun with this tender baby animal encounter.

So curious!

Right then, the loud kids arrived at the garden gate and were soon rumbling up the path toward me and the baby squirrel. Surely the quiet, tender moment was doomed. But thinking quickly, I stepped back and caught the attention of the three chattering teenage girls. I waved at them and made the "shhhh" sign while gesturing to come closer. They heeded my warning and quietly hurried over to me, intrigued. When I whispered, "baby squirrel" and they saw where I pointed, we became a nature observation team. The young humans and the young squirrel studied each other carefully for a long while. The little squirrel stayed on its tree, about 2 feet off the ground, peering from side to side as before. The encounter generated lots of "awwws" from the girls and parents. Definitely a good nature moment. As they were leaving, the parents and I discussed that it was unusual to see such a young squirrel out on its own and that it had better watch out for hawks. Indeed, there are plenty of hawks in the garden, and a pair of red-shouldered hawks have built a nest a short way up the path in this very section.

Red-shouldered Hawk with a freshly caught vole that I saw in the garden last week

I felt happy to have shared a sweet nature moment with the family, and to have salvaged my own photo op! Everyone was happy. Win! And the baby squirrel stuck around for me to take more pictures. He seemed wary but did not scamper away. I kept waiting for him to climb up high to his nest (wherever that was), but he seemed interested in me and would climb up a bit but then would come back down. Then up again, then down.

Climbing up

Then down

Then back up

Then back down again

After a few minutes curiosity got the best of him and he began inching closer and closer to me. And before I knew it, the little rascal was at my feet, and then climbing my leg! As cute as it was, I realized that this was not good for either of us, and I shouted. The baby squirrel scurried back to his tree, and I knew it was time to walk away. For 1 or 2 seconds afterwards, I entertained the idea of taking him home and rescuing him. But I quickly came to my senses and remembered: 1) wild animal, 2) illegal, 3) pets at home, and 4) squirrel. What was I thinking? So I finished off my afternoon with lots of fun photos and no new mouths at home to feed. Thank goodness reason prevailed. I hope my little furry friend gets a bit more wary of humans and that he doesn't climb the legs of any other people. I also hope that he quickly learns some hawk smarts. He'll need it--it's a wild world out there. But he sure was cute.

Inching closer

Closer still

Ready to jump on me!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Spring Cleaning

My shame: the filthy feeder

I took some photos of birds in our yard the other day, and when I was looking through them to pick the ones I wanted to post to Facebook, I realized how gross and dirty our bird feeders had gotten. I will admit now that before I posted it, I cropped one of the photos to hide the mildew that I was too embarrassed to show. My excuse was that the winter has been cold, and also there had been a lot of rain in the last couple of weeks and the bird seed had turned soggy and nasty. But in truth, it has also been a very long time since the last cleaning. After looking at the grime on the feeder, I felt very guilty. But no more! Today I rolled up my sleeves and tore into those filthy feeders.

Lots of opportunity to swap germs

Feeding birds is a great hobby. I love seeing what birds we can attract to the yard throughout the year. But it is important to keep the feeders clean, as well as filled. All those birds moving in and out can bring and share germs and disease. And wet or spoiled seed creates a breeding ground for bacteria that can make the birds sick. So, ideally, it is recommended that you give your feeders a good cleaning once every month. Or quarterly. Or at the very least, twice a year. I'd like to aspire to cleaning monthly, but I doubt I can be that diligent. But I know I need to step up my routine, because I don't want to attract birds just to make them sick or even kill them.

The Big Bucket and other tools

My personal feeder cleaning set up is not complicated. I use a large utility bucket, biodegradable dish soap, some bleach (to kill germs and viruses), a scrub brush, a plastic putty knife, rubber gloves, rubber boots, and the hose. It's a bit of a chore, because we have quite a few different kinds of feeders and several feeding stations. And some of the feeders are rather large. I think in the future I may pick up a small kiddie pool in order to soak the larger pieces.

Stripped down and scrubbed clean

First I strip the feeding stations down to the pole, removing attachable "branches". Then I take down and empty the feeders, using the putty knife to scrape out wet or caked on seed, and put the old food in the trash. I will spare you photos of the nasty wet seed today, but it was putrid. It can go bad in a fairly short time in rainy and warm conditions. Sometimes it even sprouts in the feeder trays. Today I was glad I had the rubber gloves.

A plastic putty knife is a wonderful tool for scraping out caked on bird seed

Next, I take apart all the tube feeders and clean out the inevitably clogged feeder ports. Good quality feeders will come apart to allow access to these places where water gets in and wet bird seed builds up and spoils.

Tube feeder taken apart

Then I scrub all the feeder surfaces with soapy water mixed with some bleach. I add about 1/4 cup of bleach to my big bucket. I scrub the tube feeders, suet feeders and remove and clean all the trays. Then, I scrub the poles, baffles and attachments, because the birds leave seed and waste residue on everything. After everything is scrubbed clean, then I rinse well and let the parts sit in the sun to dry. You do not want to put dry seed into wet feeders or you'll get mildew and caked food inside.

All clean and drying in the sun

While I'm waiting for the feeders to dry it is a good time to clean out the bird bath, scrubbing out algae and any old seed and bird poop.

Birdbath is clean, too

Then, everything goes back together again. The birds were annoyed with me while I was cleaning and then seemed confused by the missing and empty feeders while everything dried. But 5 minutes after I had set it all up again and refilled the feeders, they had forgiven me.

"Wait, where is everything?"

So now our yard has clean, sparkling feeders and I can rest assured that I am providing a wholesome and helpful environment for the birds I love. This will be especially nice for the Great Backyard Bird Count that starts this weekend. And I'll be able to post my photos with a clear conscience and no cropping.

Sparkling Clean and Ready for Visitors!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Searching for Feathers

"Hope" is the thing with feathers
-- Emily Dickinson

In our consciousness, there are many negative seeds and also many positive seeds. The practice is to avoid watering the negative seeds, and to identify and water the positive seeds every day.
--Thich Nhat Hanh

Cardinal watching me through the rain

I'm so very glad that it is finally 2018. 2017 was a spectacularly crappy year, for many reasons that I won't go into. Some were the obvious troubles that we're all faced with these days, and others were very personal, but it was definitely a year that I would like to put behind me. 2017 was a year of too many challenges. Sometimes I felt scared, sad or angry. There have been days and weeks where I was filled utter despair and anxiety, where the future seemed dark. But I believe that I am an optimist at heart and didn't want to succumb. I didn't want the negative things to drag me down with them. I tried various coping strategies for dealing with my feelings, with varying degrees of success. Not surprisingly, the best one so far has come from within. I made an attitude adjustment. I'm working to replace all that negativity around me by flooding my brain with the positive things. Rather than allowing myself to wallow in the "why me's", I've been trying to be thankful, to look for the good, and to appreciate the beauty around me. It's not easy, especially when I'm feeling down, but when I can actually pull this off it works really well. And when I need inspiration, I often turn to birds. Birds are easy. They're everywhere and yet each time I see them I find something new to appreciate and that turns my attention from my own brain and focuses it outward to the world.

Carolina Wren singing

Even in freezing cold, sweltering heat, or on a gray rainy day, I can look out my window and see these beautiful, interesting, and sometimes funny creatures moving around in the trees and shrubs.

White-throated Sparrow cocks his head

We have installed bird feeders all around the front and back yards and they are active year round. Usually it is just birds, but sometimes a lucky squirrel hurls itself from a bush and lands in the tray, and of course, there are always spilled seeds on the ground for the chipmunks (and our dog). Sometimes I will look out and see nothing but mourning doves or house finches, gobbling away in the feeders.

Doves, House Finches, Pine Warbler and Oriole all sharing a meal

Other days, great flocks of grackles descend on the yard, chasing the rest of the birds off of the seed and even away from the jelly that I leave out for orioles. In the spring, cooper's hawks come to hunt at the bird feeders. And it's all good. I love watching them all. Each one has its good points. I don't mind the responsibility of buying food, filling the feeders and keeping them clean, because it gives me the opportunity to watch these little feathered miracles up close.

Hermit Thrush in the driveway

The bright red on a Downy Woodpecker is always a thrill

House Finches are beautiful

Making an EBird report from the kitchen window takes my mind off of everything but watching the birds to complete my list. And after making these lists for several years now, I know which birds come and go with the seasons and wait in joyful anticipation for the return of the robins and waxwings, the juncos and sapsuckers, and the occasional rarity.

Long whiskers on a Pine Warbler

Unusual coloration on this Carolina Wren caught my eye

Ruby-crowned kinglet turns its head to find seeds

Last winter we "hosted" a rare rufous hummingbird and a trio of also rare orioles. It took a lot of work to keep the feeders full, thawed and clean through the winter so the hummer wouldn't starve. Knowing that he might return this year has given me much to look forward to. So far, no sign of the little guy, but his friends, the orioles, came back last week. When I hear their cackling calls and catch a glimpse of bright orange, it gives me a thrill and is just another reminder that life is good and that I am lucky indeed. I'm still hoping to see a rusty brown hummingbird blur zipping across the yard one of these days, and even though he hasn't shown up yet, just knowing there is a chance is good enough. So I'm searching for feathers--the beauty, goodness and joy in life--and watering those positive seeds, and I think it's working. I'm looking forward to a great year to come.

The vivid orange of a male Baltimore Oriole takes my breath away