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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Galapagos Islands, Part 2

Galapagos Yellow Warbler

Now where was I? Oh yes, the rest of our 8 day tour of the Galapagos Islands! Refer to my previous post if you missed the details of the first days.

On day 4 we got out very early and headed for Punta Pitt, near San Cristobal. We hiked a narrow and rocky trail to high, dry territory. The scenery reminded me a bit of Southern Utah. The rocks were even reddish brown in some parts of the island. The structure of the island is compressed ash, tamped down by rain. We saw frigate birds and pelicans overhead and lots of Red-footed Boobies on nests. There are two "phases" of Red-footed Booby and we saw both the white phase and the brown phase of these birds. There were also plenty of Blue-footed Boobies and we saw a pair that we thought might be courting because they were doing a little dance. Mockingbirds and Yellow Warblers moved among the bigger birds, searching for food. The red leaves of the carpetweed made a beautiful backdrop for the pretty birds.

Red-footed Boobies, White and Brown Phase

I skipped the afternoon snorkel that day because I was tired, but I rode along in the dinghy and saw dozens of Marine Iguanas and Crabs clinging to the rocks at the waterline. There were also some shorebirds near the rocks--Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings. My husband reported that the fish underwater were more spectacular than ever. Figures!

In the afternoon we took a very long hike on San Cristobal to the "Galapaguera", where the San Cristobal Tortoises can be found. It was hot and dry that day and hiking was difficult as we were walking over large lava rocks much of the time. We saw 10 or more tortoises along the way and at the end of the trail. We were visiting in the dry season and food was hard to find for most of the animals on the island. Many of the trees were bare but would leaf out again when the rains started. We saw lots of dried tortoise scat and it wasn't clear to me if the tortoises were eating dried leaves or if this was left from last season. We saw signs of the goats that are exotic pests on the island, competing with the tortoises for food. The goats are very difficult to catch or control. We also saw San Cristobal Mockingbirds and several finches.

San Cristobal Galapagos Tortoise at the Galapaguera

On day 5 we swam and then traveled. Our big adventure was snorkeling around Leon Dormida, aka Sleeping Lion or Kicker Rock. The rock is far off shore from San Cristobal and the water is deep and cold. The waves are also rather rough, rocking up against the huge rock. I decided to wear a life jacket and it turned out to be a mixed decision. On the one hand, I had some extra buoyancy when I felt out of my element (which was most of the time because I am not a great swimmer), but on the other hand the jacket made me bob around like a cork and it was hard to direct myself against the waves. But nonetheless, our group made our way around and between the huge rocks. The colors were stunning. Steep rock walls were covered with bright, fat starfish, coral and urchins. And huge schools of colorful fish of many sizes and shapes, including pufferfish, swam past our group, sometimes close enough to touch. We also saw a Sea Turtle and 2 Sharks, and we were pretty sure that the larger of the two was a Galapagos Shark. It was very exciting but kind of scary, too, and I decided to limit the rest of my snorkeling to areas where I could touch or at least see the ocean floor.

Leon Dormida (Sleeping Lion)--if you look carefully you can see the lion's head on the right, its haunches in the middle, and its tail is the pointy rock to the left

Day 6 took us to the island of Española, at Punta Florez. We were up and exploring very early, even though we were tired after snorkeling the day before. But our guide explained to us that we had to be off of the island by 10am so that the National Park could bring in their own groups of tours, and the number of visitors at any time is limited. Just as well--we were met at the dock by noisy Sea Lion mamas and lots of young babies. Several appeared to have been born that morning. It's good to be out early! The mother Sea Lions stay close to their newborns for several weeks, letting the babies get to know their call and scent. After that they can leave the babies on their own while they hunt for fish. Click here for a video of the sea lions. Just past the sea lions were big piles of pinkish Marine Iguanas that we had to shuffle through the just to walk to the trail. The Iguanas were fairly passive, mainly just sunning themselves. But we did see a few that were interested in the placentas of the newborn Sea Lions. Our guide told us that though the Iguanas were primarily vegetarians, they would eat the placentas for the valuable moisture in an extremely dry environment. A little further down the path we found a rather gruesome looking Española Mockingbird and an Iguana partaking in a bloody drink.

Newborn Baby Sea Lion

Iguana Road Block

Getting Moisture

An interesting thing about the Española Mockingbirds is that they have learned to associate tourists with water and will tap on the lids of water bottles and pester people for drinks, mewling piteously. Even though we were supposed to stay 2 meters away from the wildlife and not touch or bother them, it was hard to avoid birds that came up to us! They are unafraid of people and will poke around gear and climb into bags and backpacks. They are very smart.

There were lots of wonderful birds and more Marine Iguanas at every bend in the path. We had our first view of Albatrosses up close and saw some of their scruffy chicks. Near the end of the hiking loop we stood on the edge of a sheer cliff wall and watched water spouting up from a natural blowhole in the lava rock. Albatrosses, Masked Boobies, Frigatebirds and Tropicbirds flew and hovered in the wind. You can watch the soaring birds here. We watched a Yellow Crowned Night Heron chasing after Sally Lightfoot Crabs and saw a big Galapagos Hawk cruise overhead.

Masked Boobies with Carpetweed Background

Waved Albatross Chick

Later that afternoon we swam at a beautiful beach called Bahia Gardener. We saw more sharks, some rays and a sea turtle. The Española Mockingbirds there were rather cheeky and rifled through our bags. A Galapagos Flycatcher and a Lava Lizard tried to join in, too. It is so strange being around animals that don't fear us (that aren't raccoons!). I saw a Wandering Tattler at this beach, and watched a Marine Iguana gnawing on the seaweed growing on a rock.

Española Mockingbird Thugs

That night we had rocky seas as we traveled to Floreana. The boat rolled back and forth and sometimes I felt like I would be rolled out of bed and right onto the floor. Happily, I didn't feel especially sick, just tossed and turned. When we motored at night the pelagic birds followed alongside the boat. I could see the white forms of Swallowtail Gulls, Boobies and Albatrosses moving just outside the window of our cabin. It reminded me of the cyclone scene in the Wizard of Oz movie, with the rocking chair and wicked witch and cow floating by as Dorothy watches from the swirling house.

Day 7 took us to Floreana at Punta Cormoran, where we started the morning by walking around a brackish pond that was home to a few American Flamingoes and some Pintail Ducks. From there we walked to a soft sand beach with Sea Turtle tracks and nests. There were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and a Semi-palmated Plover. Back at the landing beach, we watched diving Pelicans compete for fish with Boobies and Penguins and Sea Lions. Click here for a short video.

Pelican With a Full Pouch and Penguin Nearby

That afternoon we visited the "Post Office" at Floreana, which is really a barrel full of postcards. Folklore has it that the pirates and whalers would leave an addressed letter in the barrel and anyone coming through would look through the letters and if they found any addressed to the place they were going, they would take it and deliver it in person. The modern version is for tourists to leave post cards and take one or two home with them, but Art and I didn't get the message and had no post cards when the time came, so we wrote notes to our daughters on folded paper with the address on the outside. And amazingly enough, one of the letters made it to Brooklyn! Time will tell if the the other, going to Arkansas, makes it. We delivered 2 cards when we got back home to Georgia. After the mail, we swam. The final snorkel trip of the cruise that afternoon was my favorite. We were in shallow and clear waters and swam with Sea Turtles and Penguins. They are fast and fun! What a blast! I wish we had photos, but the good memories are lasting.

Sea Turtle

Day 8, the last day, was a little melancholy because the trip had been such a special experience. For one final excursion before our flight out, we took a quick tour of the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz and saw examples of some of the other kinds of tortoises from islands we didn't have a chance to visit. It was also good to learn a little about some of the research and conservation projects going on in the Galapagos Islands. They're doing great work caring for these world treasures. It is an extremely difficult job, but it is clear that they love and care about the islands very much. I feel so fortunate that I was able to visit them myself.

Saddleback Galapagos Tortoise

One Research Project at Darwin Station


These are only a few photos from the trip, but if you are interested in seeing more, you can see them here on my photo website. Thank you for reading and watching.