Thursday, December 17, 2015

Spanish Moss

Bearded Tree
Last week we took a quick trip to Gainesville (my first since we moved) and I was hit with the realization that Athens does not have Spanish Moss! Driving down I-75 and into Florida, we passed some magic line where the vegetation changed and then there were Saw Palmettos and Palm Trees. Suddenly Spanish Moss Draped Bald Cypress and Live Oak trees appeared on both sides of the road. I'm not sure I had thought about the presence or absence of Spanish Moss in Athens much before last week, but there it was. This is not to say that Spanish Moss doesn't grow in Georgia. It does. Think Okeefenokee Swamp. And certainly no picture of Savannah is complete without Oak-lined boulevards, draped with the gray-green moss. But after doing a little research I learned that Spanish Moss prefers to live in the warm, humid Coastal Plain, which covers pretty much all of Florida and the coastal regions of the Southeastern US from Texas up to about the Carolinas and down into Central and South America all the way to Argentina. Athens, however, though very close, is located in the cooler, drier Piedmont region, and therefore, no Spanish Moss for us. Spanish Moss also likes to grow on Live Oak and Bald Cypress, which we don't really have up here in the Piedmont, either.

Mossy Campground at Paynes Prairie

Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is an interesting, and often misunderstood plant. Some people think that it looks creepy, that it kills trees and that it is full of bugs. None of this is true. It is not a moss, nor is it Spanish, but is actually a type of Bromeliad, related to Pineapple. Spanish Moss is not a parasite and does not harm the trees it lives in, unless the clumps get too big and heavy with rain and pull down a weak branch. Spanish Moss is an epiphyte (an "air plant") with no roots, that hangs in long drooping chains from the tops of trees, taking its moisture and nutrients from the humid air and rain. Early French explorers called the plant "Spanish Beard" to insult their rivals. In turn, the Spanish called it "French Beard". Reminds me of the French and English knights in Monty Python.

Spanish Beard
I think Spanish Moss is beautiful, soft and gray, hanging down and waving in the wind. I enjoy watching large clumps tear off and fall softly to the ground in a light breeze. Sunlight shining through gray curtain is very pretty. Spanish Moss blooms in the springtime with tiny flowers. It reproduces from seeds or grows from broken-off sections. When the plants die, the gray-green scaly outer layer sloughs away leaving the thread-like fibers that people have used for millennia to fashion into cordage or cloth and to temper clay pottery. The fiber was also used in the past to fill cushions for car seats, for horse blankets and was even made into pads for evaporative "swamp" coolers used out west. Spanish Moss was used medicinally as a tea for fevers and other ailments. Click here for a link to an article about a woman in Tampa, Florida who is keeping the dying art of Spanish Moss weaving alive.

Wet Barred Owl Drying in the Spanish Moss

Spanish Moss Flower

Spanish Moss Fiber

I have been told by reliable sources that Spanish Moss does not harbor chiggers. I've never seen "red bugs" in the moss and haven't had any trouble with them, though I have been run into chiggers in grass many times. I know their itch all too well! But there are still people who insist that they've gotten chiggers from Spanish Moss, so I'll let them keep thinking it. Maybe the moss was on the ground. Many other kinds of animals from bats to birds to snakes to spiders make their homes in Spanish Moss. It makes good nesting material, too.

Camouflaged Spider in Spanish Moss 

Carolina Wrens use Spanish Moss to make a soft nest
So after so many years of taking Spanish Moss for granted, now that we've moved away from Florida, Spanish Moss has a new, distinctively "Southern" look to me, more southern even than my home in Georgia! It evokes images of bayous and swamps, gators and wading birds, steamy summer days and the slow droning buzz of cicadas. Spanish Moss means exotic travel and adventure, which is quite an interesting change.

Images of the South

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Blueberry Blossoms and Fall Foliage

Sometimes I feel discouraged. There is so much sadness in the world. Terrorism, war, violence, famine, poverty, suffering, pollution, climate change, habitat loss, extinction...the list goes on. The problems are so huge and I feel so small. There are days when I have a hard time mustering the strength to hike or photograph or write. They all take caring, and when you care you become vulnerable. What's the point in caring if it can all be taken away with a back room deal or a toxic spill or a semi-automatic rifle? It's enough to drive a person to despair. But then come the reminders that the world is also full of beauty and goodness--an act of kindness from a stranger, laughter, love, golden autumn leaves, the sweet sound of sparrows, a breath of cool, fresh air. When I look for the good, the beautiful, the amazing, the things that I am grateful for, I regain that strength to care again. I feel again like it is all worth loving and fighting for. Gratitude needs to be practiced. It doesn't just happen. I read this quote from William Faulkner that summed it up for me: "Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all." Though it is not yet the New Year, I resolve to search for that ray of sunshine every day, even when the daily news just sucks. And maybe I'll just turn off the news for a while, too.

Flowering Moss 

Dried Thistle

Here is what has been making me feel grateful this past week: Spending Thanksgiving and my birthday with my wonderful daughters and their husbands, the love and companionship of my own dear husband, having a warm home and food on the table and having enough to share, our loving and funny pet dogs and cat, good health, a warm wood stove on cold nights, the stark beauty of a dried wildflower, the season's first flock of Cedar Waxwings (11/22/15 for the almanac) and a Northern Slimy Salamander in the basement. That's a good jumpstart. I feel better already.

Northern Slimy Salamander found in the Basement--Salamander Habitat almost makes up for the wet basement issues

Friday, November 20, 2015

Water Oak Undone

White Throated Sparrow

When my husband and I were looking for houses in our neighborhood, one of the things that attracted us was the trees. The tree canopy is thick and the roads are lined with huge Oaks and a scattering of Pines, with Dogwoods and Maples in the understory. It wasn't until after we had lived in our house for a while that I noticed that one big Water Oak in the front yard didn't look especially vibrant. But I didn't worry much about it because there were so many other details to take care of. Finally about a month ago, I had an arborist come look at our trees. We'd had some summer storms and falling branches around the neighborhood took out the power on several occasions. I didn't want our trees to do that to our neighbors. The arborist climbed up our two big trees, one in the front and the other in the back yard. I was relieved when he told me that he thought the backyard tree could be ok for 5-10 more years. The front yard tree, though, was another story. It had a huge cavity on one side that I had not seen until he pointed it out to me. He estimated that he could fit his entire body in the rotted space. Not a good thing to have at the base of a 60 foot tall oak tree. To make matters worse, he said that cavity extended into the large branch that hangs over the street (and all the cars and buses that pass under it every day). We agreed that the tree had to come down.

Arborist Checks Out the Tree

Big Cavity We Hadn't Seen Before

Our neighborhood is older. Most of the homes were built in the 1930's, which is when most of the trees in the neighborhood, Water Oaks, were planted, too. Water Oaks grow fast and live about 70-80 years. They don't heal especially well, so a broken branch can lead to rot and decay. Therefore, there is almost an epidemic of old Water Oaks falling during storms or needing to be removed.  So I knew that removing the tree was the right course, but I still feel bad about the giant gap in the canopy that this tree leaves behind. It was a huge tree. And because it was so rotten, I'm certain that Nuthatches and Woodpeckers were nesting in it. I had thought after moving to Georgia that Nuthatches were very common birds here, but it turns out that they are losing habitat and so Georgia Audubon has designated them as a species of special concern. Nuthatches are cavity nesters and need rotten trees. Rotten trees are hazards to homeowners and most people don't leave the old dead trunks in their yards when they cut down the trees. We couldn't leave the trunk, either. It was rotten too close to the ground and too big. To help boost the amount of Nuthatch habitat, Georgia Audubon is selling special Nuthatch Houses. I plan to buy a few and place them around the yard.

A Big Water Oak

Sturdy, Old Roots

Nuthatch Heaven

Hazard Hanging Over Road

Removing a tree this size was quite an endeavor. First we had to have the arborist climb and assess the tree. The gas company had to come track down all the gas lines (2, it turns out, because we're on a corner). Then we had the power company remove branches close to power lines before the tree crew could come in. Next, because we live on the corner of two busy streets, we had to hire a flag crew to re-direct traffic around the large equipment that blocked traffic a bus route. Any snag, like weather, could have fouled up the whole thing. But it came together.

Utility Company Cuts Away Branches from Power Lines

The morning the tree came down it was overcast with a slight chance of rain. The darkness made the whole thing just a bit more depressing for me because it was so dreary. But it all went well and sun finally broke through around noon. It took about 7 hours to bring down the tree. It was carefully orchestrated by an able crew. It is amazing to watch the rigging and leverage work so perfectly. Bit by bit, branch by limb by trunk, the tree came apart. I did not see scurrying birds and wildlife as I'd feared. And, in fact, I have seen lots of nuthatches and woodpeckers in other trees in the days following. I think the wildlife adapted. Still, when the tree came down, I couldn't help but think of Obi Wan Kenobi saying "I felt a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced." I'm overly dramatic, I know. But I know that this tree was full of life on so many levels and its absence will be felt. So, goodbye tree. I'm sorry to see you go. But we will plant a new, slow growing tree where the Water Oak once was. And in the meantime, the gap in the canopy will let in lots of sunshine for the wildflower garden we will be planting in the front yard soon.

The Tree is Ready

Work Starts

Bit By Bit

Until There's Not Much Left

The Trunk Goes Quickly

And Then It's Down

The Sunlight Shines Through

The Cavity was About 12 Feet Long

Athens Almanac Update:

Fall colors are still with us, late into November, though many of the large trees are now bare, making it easier to see squirrel and bird nests in the branches. We've had some cold nights and days, dipping down to the 30s, but real cold is forecast this coming weekend. I've been told to be on the lookout for Frost Flowers! Fall wildflowers are gone, but ornamentals like Camelias and Roses are blooming. I was pleasantly surprised to see yellow blossoms of Carolina Jessamine in the yard today. I am still puzzled by Georgia seasons. Carolina Jessamine is an early Spring bloomer in Florida, so this seems very early. But I'll take yellow flowers any time.

Animal life is quieting down with the cooler weather. A few straggler butterflies are still hanging around--mostly yellow Sulphurs and Cabbage Whites, and the occasional Gulf Fritillary. The larger swallowtails and are gone now and it's been a while since I've seen a monarch. Daddy Longlegs are on the prowl in the leaf litter, but I see fewer Orb Weaver Spiders each week. I've found quite a few Carolina Mantle Slugs under logs while exploring with the kids at the Nature Center where we've been learning about habitats. We finally saw a couple of beaver after the heavy rains. The high water must have flooded their dams and the beavers were active, carrying branches up the creek and this made some 3rd graders very excited. We also found a cluster of about 10 Carolina Anoles hanging out on the side of the Nature Center where the sun shone and heated the concrete cinder blocks. Another cause for excitement for 3rd graders.

Birdwise, large flocks of Robins and Grackles have been moving around the neighborhood. The Robins search for berries in the tree canopy above and rifle through the leaf litter below, while the grackles squeak like rusty hinges from way up high. At the Nature Center, the kids and I saw a gigantic flock of blackbirds and I was able to use the word "murmuration" to describe their organismal movement. We also saw a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker after I had shown them the rows of holes the birds leave on a tree trunk to catch insects in the running sap. The White Throated Sparrows are still singing about "Sweet Canada" every morning and the "usual suspects" are at the feeders every day. A walk in the woods yesterday brought me to a flock of Chipping Sparrows, several Dark Eyed Juncos and a Hermit Thrush, and I saw a Kestrel a few days before. It seems that the Sandhill Cranes have come and gone, and I'm kind of disappointed that they don't really stick around here, but prefer the marshes of Florida. The sound as they fly overhead on their migrations is one of my life's special thrills and reading reports from Friends has made me feel quite wistful. Fall doesn't seem right without hearing them. I guess it's time for a visit down South.

Dark Eyed Junco

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Here Comes the Sun!

An amazing thing just happened. I was sitting at the computer, typing and editing photos, when the window lit up! After 10 days of clouds and rain, the sun FINALLY broke through the clouds. I can see blue skies all around! It's kind of amazing how instantly and drastically different that made me feel. Instead of moping at the computer in my sweater, holding a hot cup of tea to warm my fingers, I'm already itching to get outside again! It is such a relief to feel the sun, albeit through the windows. Light! Color! This week really has been dreary and miserable, which is hard to get my brain around because a mere 10 days ago, my husband and I drove an hour and a half up to the mountains to hike and see the fall leaves and the weather was perfect. The sky was the bluest blue and the leaves were spectacular yellows, reds and oranges. And then the next day, the rain set in.

Fall Colors from Blood Mountain, Georgia

People here insist that our weather has been unusual and that it is not normal to get 7 inches of rain in the first week of November. But what do I know? I'm just a recent transplant from the sunny south. It's all weird to me. Before the rain even happened, to help acquaint myself with my new environs, I had decided to keep an almanac of sorts so I could see for myself what should and should not be happening here. I thought November 1 would be a good day to start because I had missed August, September and October. And the end of Daylight Savings seemed like a convenient demarcation. As luck would have it, that's also when the rain started. It let up for brief periods, just long enough for me to rake up piles of leaves and acorns so we wouldn't slip and die when walking outside, or to take a group of school kids on a habitat hike at the nature center. But it rained so much during the week that several schools cancelled their field trips. It was just as well because most of the usual trails were underwater, anyway. The high water flooded the Beaver lodge at the Nature Center and the children and I were able to see several Beavers swimming with sticks in an effort to rebuild. Rivers all over town overflowed, water mains burst, basements flooded. I skipped my weekly nature hike with the Ramblers, a group that explores the Botanical Gardens every week. The dark cloud cover, fog and drizzle made photography next to impossible and the trails were slick and muddy. It was cold and wet. The fungi were delighted, but the birds hid in the bushes. Even my dogs just lay around in the house and napped. Yuck.

Two Nature Center Trail Signposts, Submerged

So here's my Athens Almanac report for the first part of November, observed mostly through the kitchen window. Rainy. Really rainy. Followed by sun today! 7.36 inches have fallen in November so far, with the month's average being 1.05 inches. Daytime temperatures have ranged from the high 70's to the low 50's, falling to mid 40's overnight. The butterflies and insects have been mostly absent due to the rain. They may appear again now that the sun is out, though most of the wildflowers have finished blooming and there will be little (for butterflies) to feed on. There are some Asters hanging on, and a few landscape plants such as Azaleas and Camelias are starting to bloom. This seems early to me, but there are early blooming varieties. All of the Camelias in our yard have big buds and a few have big flowers. The rainstorms caused many of the trees to drop leaves, but there is still color in the landscape, Poplars, Oaks, Maples, Ginkos and Dogwoods providing most of the brightest tones. It was a "mast" year for our Water Oaks and we have pounds upon pounds of acorns on the ground. I wish we had some hogs to feed them to! The birds I'm seeing at the feeders are mostly the usual crowd: Mourning Doves, Cardinals, Bluejays, Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, House Finches, Brown Headed Nuthatches, Chickadees, Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, Downy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers. The Towhees are not as active in the yard now as in summer, but I have heard them from the bushes. I have not seen a Catbird in the yard for some time now and the Hummingbirds have headed South. I have not seen a White Breasted Nuthatch for a few weeks. New charming additions with the onset of fall weather are the Dark Eyed Juncos and the White Throated Sparrows. I love hearing their "Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada" calls from bushes. I've also seen several Ruby Crowned Kinglets flitting in the bushes near the feeders. Around the neighborhood I'm still seeing Bluebirds, and we hear Barred Owls when we walk our dogs in the evenings. Flocks of Canada Geese fly overhead and land to feed on big lawns. I haven't seen many hawks in the past month, but there are plenty of Crows, Cowbirds and Grackles. I am hopeful that I may see a Hairy Woodpecker in the neighborhood one of these days. I saw my first at the Nature Center a few weeks ago and have been told that they are not uncommon in the tree canopy where I live.

Orbweaver Spider

One Last Aster

I took advantage of the rotten weather and put in much-needed work my photo website. As days of rain turned to a week or so, my cabin fever fueled my compulsion. I labeled entries in the Plant and Bird sections taxonomically to take advantage of the built in ordering on the website. Crazy, I know, but it makes it so much nicer to have like grouped with like. Not that I know that much about taxonomy, either. It took a lot of work to find the references (and they can still be wrong--let me know!) I poured over my favorite nature books and websites--Sibley, Butterflies through Binoculars, Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and their Neotropical Bird site, to name a few. I could see the order and structure taking effect and it made me a little giddy.  It gave me a little sense of control. The rain kept falling and I couldn't stand to go outside, but my website looks great! Check it out here. Nature Photography by Katherine Edison. And now that the skies have cleared, I will be out again observing, taking photos, and learning more about what to expect in Georgia. More Almanac reports to come.

One Benefit of Rain--Dewy Spiderwebs

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fall Colors

Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and Tiny Spider in the Native Plant Garden
It has been raining here on and off for over a week and while I appreciate that we need the water, I have had a terrible case of cabin fever. I was so sick of gray skies and wet weather. What a relief when I looked outside this morning and saw blue sky and sun! It seemed like a perfect day to go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and scout around the native plant garden and the wildflowers growing along the power line easement.

Bee-Fly on Goldenrod
Very Hairy Fly on Goldenrod
Hungry Carpenter Bee on Yellow Crownbeard

Bright yellow swaths of Goldenrod, Camphor Weed and Golden Crown Beard dominated the sunny, open space and the hungry insects fed furiously. Days of rain had kept them from their primary tasks of eating and reproduction. They had to make up lost ground.

Buckeye on Yellow Crownbeard

Mating Fritillaries

At the edges, tall purple Ironweed beckoned to starving skippers.

Silver Spot Skipper on Ironweed

Another Skipper on Ironweed

Down below, tiny Eastern Tailed Blue butterflies the size of my thumbnail danced on the grass, while further down the path a giant Praying Mantis, nearly 5 inches long, swayed back and forth as it tried to focus on its catch. I kept distracting it and it would look at me disapprovingly. I have seen so many mantids since moving here!

Eastern Tailed Blue in the Grass

Praying Mantis 

In the wildflower understory, smaller plants provided additional color and nectar, as well as perches for dragonflies, grasshoppers and a doomed Tussock Moth Caterpillar, parasitized by a wasp.
Pearl Crescent Butterfly on Blue Mistflower

Blue Faced Meadowhawk Dragonfly

Tussock Moth Caterpillar with Wasp Larvae Cocoons

Just about everywhere I looked there was movement and color. What a contrast to the past week!

Gulf Fritillary on Crownbeard

Liatris sp.

I saw bright colored grasses and berries and watched the yellow leaves fall from tall trees. More signs of fall presented in the form of the dried summer flowers. Cotton Puffs of Fireweed seeds hung on dried stems. Spiky thistles. Soft fuzz on Pluchea. Brown River Oats.

American Burnweed (Erechtites hieraciifolius)

Thistle Head (Cirsium sp.)

Fuzzy Pluchea

Dangling River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)

At the end of my trip I felt like I'd been treated to a spa session. Nothing lifts the doldrums like blue skies, sunshine and nature's beauty.

Button Asters