Thursday, February 18, 2016

Winter State of Mind

Frozen Thistle Leaves
And just like that, winter doesn't seem so bad. Last fall I joined a nature group (the "Nature Ramblers") and we had our first walk of the season today. It was chilly at 8:30am when we gathered and folks were dressed in winter coats and hats. But there was a giddy excitement in the air as we headed out as a group for the first time since November "seeking what we find" (the group motto). As we walked I realized that today was not unlike so many other sunny, chilly days this winter when I felt cold and unable to peel myself away from my warm house.  The difference was the sense of purpose and desire to learn and be with friends.  During the season, we meet every week, guided by wonderful leaders, knowledgable in botany, biology and anything else. There is so much to see and learn that I don't want to miss anything! With morning temperatures still in the 30's, many low growing leaves were wilted or covered with frost. Frozen Trillium sent out hopeful buds. We strolled along the shady garden path, spending time to learn about Witches' Broom, a growth on Hop Hornbeam trees caused by fungus, and the Medieval medicinal origins of some common plant names. Then we beelined to the prairie and found a few tufts of Frost Flowers that had not quite melted as the sun rose and warmed. And in the process kicked up the biggest Puffball Mushroom I've ever seen!

Wilted Trillium

Frosty Leaves

Frost Flower

Ginormous Puffball

Down in the lowlands we discovered great gobs of amphibian eggs, which we initially believed to be from salamanders. (Several days later one of the Ramble leaders identified the eggs as most likely coming from Southern Leopard Frogs.) Some had hatched and were immobilized by cold but moved a little when held in a warm (and brave) hand. On the other side of the ephemeral pond we found coils of toad eggs, probably from American Toads. Small hatchlings next to the curlicues waited patiently for the day to warm up.

Amphibian Eggs--Probably Southern Leopard Frogs

Warmed by a Hand

American Toad Eggs

Hepatica, Bloodroot and other early spring flowers brought excited shouts and we all gathered in for a closer look. Robins, bluebirds and nesting hawks provided the soundtrack. Bare trees reached up into brilliant blue skies.


Spotting the Hawk's Nest

Bare Trees, Blue Skies

Driving out of the Botanical Gardens I passed swaths of green Daffodil leaves, the first sunny blooms just beginning to pop out. They made me smile. Winter in Georgia is a state of mind.

Sunny Daffodil

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Baby, It's Cold Outside! And Then It's Warm Again. Then Cold...

Big Snow in the Yard

I'm trying to get used to Georgia winters. After 19 years in more temperate Florida, our move to Georgia has me learning how to do it all over again. I haven't driven in ice or snow since 1996, and I've been nervous about even walking on the stuff since breaking my ankle on the ice a few years before that. Yes, I know that Georgia doesn't get that much snow and it doesn't get as cold as, say, North Dakota. But yesterday I pushed a disk of ice half an inch thick off of our birdbath. That didn't happen very often in Florida. I am not unfamiliar with cold winters, having grown up in the mountain west and spent 7 years in Wisconsin. But this time it is different. I'm afraid that, as they say in Florida, my "blood has thinned" and the cold days just feel really cold! Also, the weather is so variable that I don't get a chance to settle into a winter groove. One day it is sunny and in the 60's, and then a front rolls in and we have freezing rain and snow. And then it's back to the 60's again. Lucky for me, I held onto my warm sweaters, hats and scarves when we moved from Wisconsin. And my shorts and flip flops from Florida.

Icy Birdbath

So far this winter we have had a couple of small accumulations of snow, maybe 1-2 inches. And we've had some ice. We don't own a snow shovel yet, and don't know if it will really be necessary, but after the last ice which sent our poor clueless Florida dogs sliding off the porch and down the stairs to the driveway, I invested in some Ice Melt. The city does not own snow plows, so snow or ice on the roads will close everything down. It's kind of fun. Really, it would be just fine to go out and continue life as usual, minus driving. (I've been told that people don't know how to drive in snow and ice and it's better to stay off the roads). People play tennis and golf all winter, except maybe for the snow/ice days. When it's really cold, we prefer to hunker down in the house in front of a warm fire, but we still get out. I was rewarded last month when I braved the cold to take a brisk nature walk on one of the first freezing days of the year. I went out in search of "Frost Flowers". They are not really flowers, but are ice formed when moisture inside plants expands in freezing temperatures and extrudes through cracks in the hollow stems. Most of the Frost Flowers I've seen here were coming out of Frostweed (Verbesina virginica), but I've seen them on Salvia in Florida during an especially harsh winter. I found these ones in the restored Piedmont Prairie at Sandy Creek Nature Center and every Frostweed plant had a little bouquet of ice at its base. It was beautiful. Frost covered the leaves and grass on the ground and everything looked sparkly and magical. By noon, the temperatures were back in the 40's and 50's and the frost was all gone. 

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers

Frost Flowers


Around town most of the trees are bare, which makes it easier to see birds on the branches. I spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a nest in a leafless tree across the street from our house. In contrast, the bushes (mainly camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons) are green and leafy and dotted with blossoms and buds. Our holly bushes are covered with berries, too. Yet another example of the confusing climate here. It is not as green in the winter as Florida and not as stark as Minnesota. The birds, squirrels and chipmunks don't mind either way. They're on the hunt for food all day, cold or not. On the warmer days, it is fun to watch the Chickadees and Goldfinches scour the bushes, searching old camellia blossoms for hidden bugs. And the Robins and Cedar Waxwings gorge on the holly berries. The critters have me working hard keeping the bird feeders full. Every few days I put out scoops of hearty sunflower and other mixed nuts, suet and thistle seed. We usually have 20-25 species of birds feeding on any given day. The cold weather makes them very, very hungry and they need to fatten up before breeding time. I figure that they can use all the help they can get. We humans keep destroying their habitat and removing their food sources, so putting out some seed seems like the least I can do. A little feeding oasis in our yard will help give them a needed boost, and as a bonus, I get to watch them.

Brown Headed Nuthatch Refueling

Red Bellied Woodpecker and its Nest

On the colder days I do most of my birding from the comfort of my kitchen window. I am sorry to admit that my idea of a keeping a Georgia almanac has not panned out. I tried to make a daily record of weather, temperatures and wildlife seen, but I am just not that methodical or disciplined and I pooped out after just a few weeks. I did watch our birds all weekend for the Great Backyard Bird Count and made several reports, all from inside the house. But the times that I convince myself to bundle up and go birding away from home are almost always rewarding. And the birds in the woods are a little more varied than the regulars in my back yard. On my last excursion I saw flocks of Golden Crowned Kinglets and a couple of Brown Creepers, both new birds on my list. Today will probably be a good day to get out again. It was dark, dreary and frigid yesterday, but today the skies are clear and blue and I don't need my extra layers. And if I go out exploring I will feel like I earned the cookies and potato soup that I cooked up yesterday to beat the cold. Sounds good to me.

Golden Crowned Kinglet

Ginger Cookies, Hot From the Oven