Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My New Gig

Trail Through the Woods at Sandy Creek Nature Center

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had some activities in the works and am happy to say that I am now a Volunteer Trail Guide at Sandy Creek Nature Center! My main job will be to take school groups on nature hikes through the park and to help with environmental educations classes inside, too. I love sharing nature with children and I am very excited about this new opportunity.
Claypit Pond (Formed when clay was excavated for a brick factory on the property)

Sandy Creek Nature Center is a county park with a nature center, miles of hiking trails, an ADA interpretive boardwalk, a historic cabin, a bird blind (built by the Audubon Society) and more. The nature center has several classrooms and a large hall with live animals and interpretive stations, as well as a planetarium, a gift shop, and more educational exhibits outdoors. The staff are excellent and welcoming, and they have a wonderful attitude! There is a solid core of volunteers to help with operating the programs. Volunteers assist at the front desk, the gift shop, educational programs, maintaining the trails and much more. The nature center hosts programs all year long and serves as a meeting place for groups such as the local Audubon chapter. Sandy Creek is a vibrant place and I'm so happy to be involved with it.
Audubon Bird Blind on the Pond

Educate by Example--Cistern, Little Library and Mantis made from metal scraps outside the Education Building

Teachable Moment--Poop Info in the Bathrooms!

In preparation for leading my first trip, I have spent many hours exploring and familiarizing myself with the trails. It would not be good to lose a group of kids in the woods! As you can see from the map below, the trails twist and turn to cover most of the property. It would be easy to get turned around. But the intersections are well marked and maintained. I only got lost on the first day, and even then I wasn't too far off.

Map of Sandy Creek

The weather this week has been rainy, so it was overcast when I was on the trail. The cloud cover enhanced the colors of the greens and the browns in the deep woods, and the red Georgia clay looked even redder. It has been a wet year and there is abundant fungus, of all shapes and sizes. Turkey tail fungus sprouts out of downed trees and branches and puffballs and tall mushrooms poke out of the leaf litter. The low light makes it harder to see the birds, but they are there. I heard a Kingfisher clacking near the pond, and Nuthatches, Bluejays, Titmouses, Chickadees, Cardinals and Carolina Wrens were making a racket just about everywhere I walked. I saw a couple of Phoebes, Catbirds, and what I think was a Magnolia Warbler and a Swainson's Thrush. (I need to hook up with those Audubon folks to learn these birds!)

Beautiful Turkey Tail Fungus on a Twig

Swainson's Thrush

Magnolia Warbler

There are often a few frogs and toads on the trail and I saw one fast Red Bellied Snake (about 8 inches long). Down at the pond, I finally saw a turtle. I've been shadowing school groups for the past few weeks and the noise usually scares off wildlife, especially turtles. Sometimes we get lucky, though. On the hikes we try not to dwell on danger or fear in the outdoors, but it is smart to be aware of likely hazards such as poison ivy, which is abundant. We teach them the old "leaves of three" rhyme, but Sandy Creek has also added "hairy is scary" because the vines don't always have leaves, such in the winter or fall, and sometimes the leaves are high up in the tree canopy. But the vines are distinctively hairy. I saw one yesterday that looked like an animal pelt!

Tiny Red Bellied Snake

Painted Turtle Basking

Hairy is Scary
I passed numerous squirrels and surprised a group of 3 deer. It always makes me laugh when they snort and stomp their hooves. They just don't seem that scary. They are big, though, and if they weren't deer, I'd be more cautious around them. But they're about as scary as rabbits. The pond has a beaver lodge, and it would be great to see a beaver sometime. They are mostly nocturnal, though, so chances are slim on field trip days.

Someone is Watching Me

Beaver Gnaws--They girdle big trees to encourage small, tasty sprouts

One of the trails in the park leads through a small section of restored Piedmont Prairie. According to the interpretive sign, prairies (De Soto called the "savannas") were once much more common in the Southeast. Native Americans used them for farming and hunting and they managed the land with fires to inhibit dense plant growth. Over time, prairie plants and animals from the midwest migrated and adapted to the area. With the arrival of European settlers, that management by fire ended and forests encroached on what was previously prairie. The restored area is small, but it is a beautiful example of the difference fire makes in a landscape.

Restored Prairie

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum sp.) After the Rain

Luna Moth found on a Field Trip

Gold Moth Caterpillar on Frostweed

The park is in the process of implementing a management plan to improve habitats for wildlife and the health of the forest. It involves eradicating invasive plants, thinning of trees, prescribed burning and replanting for more diversity. It will be exciting to be able to watch the changes from the beginning. I helped out with a program at the park last weekend called "Forest Fun Day" to increase public awareness of the importance of forests and of the new management plan at Sandy Creek. I went on a hike led by a forester who explained how the general health and diversity of the woods could be improved with the removal of invasive plants and the use of prescribed fire. Crews have already begun cutting down Privet and Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) and plowing fire breaks. The cut vegetation will provide fuel to keep the fire burning across the forest floor.

Ephemeral Forest Art by Chris Taylor ("Portal"), at the Forest Fun Day

Invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) Cut and Waiting to Burn

Forest Plan Interpretive Signs on Trail
I'm learning a lot and I have a lot more to learn, and it feels great to get back into environmental education. There is nothing like seeing that spark of excitement when a child discovers something amazing in nature. I can't wait for tomorrow!

A Child's Collection from a Forest Scavenger Hunt
(Many thanks to Rex Rowan for helping me identify the wildlife!)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

La Florida

Giant Swallowtail on Tropical Sage (Salvia coquina)
This July, as my husband and I were neck deep in the middle of our move to Georgia, I happened to run into a friend at the grocery store--fellow nature lover and composer, Zach Neece. We were neighbors but we hadn't seen each other for a while. I got to know Zach when he came to the members of "Audacity", an a cappella group that my husband sang with and asked them to sing a piece that he had arranged. It was amazing! Later I learned that he lived down the street from us, had a native plant garden, and had a long relationship with Morningside Nature Center, where I once worked. We operated in the same circles.

Zach told me that he was working on a project and wanted to know if I would collaborate with him. He had written a piece for strings, inspired by his love for the natural beauty of Florida. He had arranged with conductor Raymond Chobaz and the University of Florida Orchestra to play and record the piece and was wondering if he could use some of my Florida nature photos to illustrate his video, "La Florida". The project would also include beautiful landscape photography by Larry Reimer, a retired minister from United Church of Gainesville, someone I do not know personally but respect very much as a long-time, outstanding community member. In light of the many environmental challenges facing Florida's natural areas--springs, parks and undeveloped land, as well as celebrating the 500th anniversary of the first Europeans in Florida, this would be an especially timely and meaningful work and I was honored to be asked to take part. This was a no brainer for me. Of course, I said yes!

Every artist expresses their feelings in a unique way. Some people paint, others write poetry or dance, and some, like Zach, use music. I express myself very literally, using words and photography, but I love and appreciate an artist's ability to turn those emotions into an abstract form. From the first time I heard Zach's composition, I was overwhelmed by the beauty welling up from the rich strings, rising and falling, feeling the sweet optimism and grand spaces, but with a sense of sadness, too. And when I watched the finished version of the video, the beautiful music joined with scenes from the places I know and love, I felt a lump in my throat and tears filled my eyes. I ached for the beauty of those unspoiled places and wanted with all my heart to keep them safe.

Please enjoy and share this magnificent work.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Baby Steps

American Lady Butterfly

Well, it's been just over a month since our big move and we're about 80% unpacked. I'm afraid some things may stay in boxes forever. Seemingly endless trips to big box stores for supplies and calls to contractors and repair people have slowed to a trickle and the place is starting to feel like home. Now that the dust is settling, I have started to take note of my surroundings. I've been spending more time checking out the yard, and have ventured out some short distances to explore the city and county. But every time I think I have it figured out on my own, I get lost and find myself heading out a highway towards Atlanta. I am so thankful for a smart phone with Google Maps.

Red Spotted Purple Butterfly in our Yard

I am happy to report that there are birds, butterflies, other insects, animals and native plants in Georgia! The trick for me is in trying to get to know them, and in trusting my own instincts about the things that I already do know. Most of what I know about nature I learned in nearby Florida, bolstered and coached by knowledgable friends and teachers until I became comfortable with the information. Now I am in a new place and everything is out of context. Things seem familiar, but I'm just not sure. For example, I was not used to seeing Eastern Towhees at my Florida feeders, but here, I see them every day. Is this normal for this part of Georgia? It appears so from my personal experience, but I'll have to do some research to see if this is true in general. Catbirds and Robins that would be unusual at this time in Florida are all over up here. When we first got to town I would go outside and kept hearing familiar sounding bird calls. I thought they sounded like Brown Headed Nuthatches, but in my old Florida world, I had only heard them in parks and preserves. I kept telling myself that they were probably Carolina Chickadees. Sure enough, the Chickadees showed up and I doubted my first intuition. But I kept hearing what sounded like a "squeaky rubber duck sound" and it gnawed at me. Then one day I looked out at the backyard feeders and saw an unusual bird--it was a White Breasted Nuthatch! I was very excited and listened to a recording of the call to see if this is what I'd been hearing. No, it was not. Doubt took over once again. I felt like a I had no idea what I was doing birding-wise. Then one morning I heard the "rubber ducky" sound from the trees and a pair of Brown Headed Nuthatches flew down to the feeder. I should have trusted myself. Both types of Nuthatches and the Chickadees are regulars at my house now, especially since I brought out the suet.

Eastern Towhee 

Catbird Taking a Bath

Brown Thrasher--Georgia State Bird

White Breasted Nuthatch

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Another example of this came last week when I was trying to identify butterflies in the yard. The first one was a Question Mark. Once again, an animal I would never have seen in my yard in Florida, but one that I have since seen several times in Georgia. I guess from my experience so far that they're common here but had only seen once or twice previously in Florida.  I was baffled by another butterfly that showed up a few minutes later. It had a familiar shape, but I couldn't quite place it. It looked like a Snout Butterfly, which would have been an unusual one for me anyway, but it didn't have the snout which would have made identification totally obvious. Finally it sat still long enough for me to take a couple of good photos and I was able to figure out that it was indeed a Snout, but the snout was missing. I just have to learn to trust my intuition. Some butterflies here are entirely foreign to me and I'm reaching out to my new resources to help learn them. And I think it's time to stock my library with some new field guides!

Question Mark Butterfly in the Yard

Snoutless Snout Butterfly
I turned to my new NABA friends to help ID this one--A Silvery Checkerspot.
I've identified some of the plants in the yard, and through talking with butterfly and native plant enthusiasts I have learned that many of the plants that are invasive exotics in Florida are a problem here, too. English Ivy, Privet and Heavenly Bamboo will all be leaving our yard shortly. The Lantana, however, can stay, for now. Turns out it isn't quite as big a problem here as it is in Florida, and the butterflies and hummingbirds love it. It can stay until I find something better and native to replace it. There is a native plant sale in October and I will see what I can find to get the garden started. The new yard is pretty and manicured, and I want to keep it looking nice, but I do not plan to water a lot or use lawn chemicals, so grass may not be practical. I'll keep as much as will stay alive on its own and will slowly add wildflower patches to shrink the green desert. I've planted some nectar plants in pots and the butterflies and hummingbirds are happy. I put up bird feeders with seeds and suet, and hummingbird nectar, too. It took a while, but now it's like a busy highway outside with birds flying here and there, gobbling and drinking as fast as they can. When we lived in Florida I didn't have a good place to put hummingbird feeders where I could watch them, so we're really enjoying seeing them here. I'm surprised that hummingbirds can ever eat enough to survive what with their furious chasing off of intruders. They must burn off a lot of calories.

Hummingbirds During Rare Truce

I miss walking out the door and seeing the Anole lizards scatter. But up here, instead of scuttling Anoles, we have chipmunks. They're pretty cute, and move very quickly too. I may change my mind about them because there seem to be gangs of them roaming the yard, gobbling birdseed. Our dogs are fascinated. And I was happy to discover that the green Carolina Anoles do live up here, though in small numbers. The invasive Brown Cuban Anoles haven't made it up here yet. And I have seen tree frogs. Alas, no Alligators up this far north, though. We have lots of gray squirrels, and I still do what I can to keep them out of the bird feeders, but I have a soft spot in my heart for a 3 legged squirrel that hangs around our yard. If he can make it into the feeder, he is welcome to it. We have hawks and owls in the neighborhood and he probably made a lucky escape.

Cute Little Chipmunk

Three Legged Squirrel

I have spent a couple of nice days at the State Botanical Gardens in town and know it will become one of my favorite spots. It has nice hiking trails, lovely flowers, and is a great place to photograph butterflies and insects. They have a lot of hummingbirds and praying mantises right now. We have visited 3 Georgia State Parks so far, though I haven't spent long hours in any of them with my camera. There are waterfalls and mountains and I'm not used to hiking uphill, so that will take some getting used to. I haven't explored the wildflowers much yet, though I did find Orange Jewelweed at Fort Yargo State Park. It's in the Impatiens family and is reported to be a remedy for poison ivy. They conveniently tend to grow near each other. There will be many more new flowers and places to explore.  I have made connections with NABA (North American Butterfly Association) people and am now a member of the Piedmont Chapter. I plan to start attending Oconee Rivers Audubon field trips soon. And I may have worked out a gig as a volunteer nature trail guide. More on that later if it happens. I still miss my old home and my friends, but I can see that Georgia has a lot to offer, and as I head off to bed, I can hear a group of Barred Owls caterwauling in the back yard. This seems to be a good place and I'm looking forward to getting to know it better bit by bit, baby-step by baby-step.

Goldfinches at the Feeders

Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar from NABA Field Trip

Praying Mantis at the Georgia State Botanical Gardens