Sunday, April 23, 2017

Earth Day 2017

Luna Moth found on nature walk with a school group

I usually love the hope and energy of Earth Day, but this year I was feeling pretty discouraged. Every day I read the news in horror and dread, seeing the slashed budgets, eliminated programs, reversed regulations. It's hard to think that so many important ecological and conservation gains made over my lifetime may be undone. I fear for our health, our wildlife, our clean air, clean water, clean oceans and public lands. I can't believe that we're fighting these battles all over again. I mean, really, who is against a clean and healthy planet? I'm not that old and I remember when our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, was endangered because of DDT and habitat loss and how populations were brought back. And I have traveled enough to know that clean water and air are not something to take for granted. I have been on board with ecology and conservation and environmentalism since I was a kid. But somehow, the message has not gotten to everyone.

Bee exhibit at Sandy Creek Nature Center. The day before Earth Day I was able to talk to the children about bees, habitat, pollination and recycling all in one lesson!

Earth Day 2017 was perfect and beautiful. The skies were clear blue, the temperature was warm and the trees were green. A cool breeze dried my sweat as my husband and I walked to the Athens Science March on this glorious Saturday. We joined a crowd of like-minded people, concerned but happy to be alive, watching the birds and butterflies as we listened to speakers talk about the reasons we need science. Again, it's hard to believe that we have to fight for these things--the tools, verifiable information, inventions that help us understand our world and maybe make our lives better along the way. Who is against science? It just seems crazy. I know who does support science--millions of people who gathered and marched in cities all over the US and all over the world. On Earth Day it felt especially important to stand up for the environment and this planet, the only one we have.

Praying Mantis Egg Sac spotted by children on nature hike

Later in the afternoon I heard Bill Nye (the Science Guy) on NPR talking about the main march, the March for Science in Washington, DC. The interviewer asked if Bill was worried about the future. He said, "First of all, as I say to everybody, if you like to worry about things, you are living in a great time. But you've got to be optimistic people, you've got to think that you're going to solve these problems or you're not going to solve them. And we can do this people--it's cool! The future's going to be exciting!"

Gray Treefrog--temporary pet

Bill Nye was right--there is still reason for optimism. It gives me hope to remember that I have a special opportunity when I work with children and with the general public teaching about nature. The groups of school children that I walk through the woods may or may not have spent much time in the woods before, but when they are with me, I try to calm their fears and to spark an interest in the processes around them. I try to teach them something, while at the same time having fun and exploring with all their senses, sharing and challenging. We watch for movement and colors and look at tiny things with hand lenses, smell wild onions and flowers, feel rotting wood and slimy fungus and hug trees, and listen to the sounds of birds and insects and the wind in the trees. Some kids love it, some can't wait for lunch and to get back to school. But at least they've been exposed to the ideas. And many will return and learn more. Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioum, said "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught." I hope that I am helping people to understand and appreciate nature, and in the future they will grow up to love and conserve it.

A child shows his treasure--a pine cone covered with tiny mushrooms

Black Rat Snake spotted in the woods. We had the opportunity to talk about how snakes are helpful and that you don't need to fear them. What do they eat? Rats and mice! Who wants rats and mice around the house? Not me!

Witches' Butter Jelly Fungus--fun to see and touch

Carrion Beetle in dog poop on the trail. A great opportunity to talk about decomposers, and trail etiquette.

"It's a great day for cocoons!" We found several that day.

You can see the mental gears turning when the children see this flower and learn that hummingbirds and butterflies use it for a nectar source. Long flowers, long bill, long mouthpart. Hmmm...

Looking at this giant and memorable Cherry Millipede is a good way to reinforce what the children are learning about insects and spiders. 6 legs, 3 body parts = insect. 8 legs, 2 body parts = spider. With all those legs, this is definitely not an insect or spider! Arthropod is a great vocab word.

This boy had the Copperhead Snake at the nature center following his every move. 

We stopped our walk to watch these termites erupting from the soil and flying away to form a new colony. We discussed their role as decomposers and observed their part in the food web as the birds and lizards feasted.

So, don't give up. Keep working. Change takes time. There will be inevitable set backs. But we are making incremental progress. Regardless of what any political administration does, millions of people have learned to care about the environment and they won't change back to the old ways now that they understand. Other nations and growing numbers of businesses see that Green is the future. Solar energy is mainstream, people drive electric cars that get better mileage every year and don't pollute, and there are charging stations in our public parking garages and bike lanes and better mass transportation. Scout groups clean trash from creeks, classrooms adopt manatees and plant butterfly gardens, and college sports events have recycling bins and aim to be carbon neutral. Big changes since when I was a kid. Bit by bit, with education and ever increasing numbers of supporters, and with good scientific principals and innovations, I have to believe that we'll keep moving towards a more sustainable future. Happy Earth Day.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Unicoi State Park

Unicoi Lake

This weekend my husband and I spent a couple of days at Unicoi State Park in North Georgia. He had a departmental retreat and I came along to get more Georgia exploration under my belt. I have a lot to get to know about our relatively new home state! Unicoi is not far from Athens--only about an hour and a half, around the same distance we used to drive to go to the beach when we lived in Florida. We used to pack up the beach towels and go to the coast for a relaxing day-trip, but now we grab our backpacks and head to the mountains! We had actually been to Unicoi before, about a year ago, but didn't get much time to explore. This time I had a day and a half in the park and I walked 3 of the 5 main trails. Unicoi is pretty, but is probably less wild and more oriented toward active recreation than I would usually prefer. Newly installed zipline courses lead from the lodge and all over the woods. It is probably exciting to ride on the ziplines, but I found them to be loud and not very compatible with birdwatching and quiet contemplation. And the bolts they drill all the way through the trees to hold the cables looked like tree torture. Also, a highway runs through the middle of the park, bringing loud trucks and fast traffic that you can hear from quite a distance away.

Zipline Platforms in the Trees

That said, I still had a very nice time. Art and I took a short evening hike and surprised 5-6 deer and saw a wet trail that we think was left by an otter moving from a pond to a creek, and I submitted a bird count on eBird.  Although it is early, I still found a few spring wildflowers. Spring has progressed more down in the Piedmont, where we live (I love saying that--it sounds so geographically specific!) and the plentiful Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurels were still a month or so away from blooming. We drove to the mountains when we bought our home 2 year ago this May and the Mountain Laurels were stunning then. I think I'll have to take a trip up in the next month or so to check on their progress.

Rhododendron Bud

Mountain Laurel from 2015

Southern Barren Strawberry (Geum donianum)

Starry Chickweed (Stellaria pubera)

Tiny Bluets (Houstonia pusilla)

Most Likely a Three-Parted Yellow Violet (Viola tripartita)

Most of my walks on Saturday were quiet and peaceful and I saw all sorts of interesting things, but it started getting more crowded around lunchtime. On the way back from a very satisfying and long loop hike where I had just seen 6 Flickers in a tree (probably 2 adults and their 4 offspring), a raucous family came up behind me on the trail. It had been so quiet all morning and suddenly all around me there was laughter and loud talking, kids running and throwing sticks and general disruption, not caring at all about me and my bird and butterfly watching. I could hear the family a few minutes before I saw them. I felt enormously irritated and moved off the trail onto another fork to let them pass. Grrr. Didn't they have any trail manners? As they passed me, I gave the loud family a pained smile and nod of the head and tried to carry on with my noble nature observation. Just then, the clouds broke and the sun shone through to the woods for a few magical moments. It had been overcast all weekend up until that instant. The bright sun brought the woods to life and I was there at the perfect time to see a big feeding flock of tiny birds who had been waiting for the light--kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, blue-headed vireos, nuthatches, chickadees, and my nemesis bird for this year--a brown creeper. The sun shone for a few minutes, and then the clouds closed up and it was overcast once again. All of a sudden I wasn't mad any more. In fact, I was thankful for the loud people. Their presence had caused me to move to the fork in the trail where I wouldn't otherwise have been, giving me the opportunity to see the brown creeper. I don't know why I had let them annoy me so much. Maybe it was because I wanted to have the woods to myself, to continue my peaceful nature encounter, and perhaps be lucky enough to see something amazing like a bobcat or a fox or just hear the bees buzz. But after I came back to my senses, I remembered that I did actually get to see quite a few amazing sights, and that also, it is a good thing for families with happy, loud kids to come run around in the woods. People who spend time in nature are more likely to value it and protect it. These might have been junior environmentalists! Or at least future park pass buyers, which supports the parks system.


6 Flickers! (I didn't realize I had 6 until I saw the photo with the one at the top cut off)

Gemmed Satyr Butterfly
Dead Vole in the Field

Good Day, Sunshine!

Brown Creeper, my 2017 Nemesis Bird Seen at Last!

After lunch I hiked around the lake, in good spirits and ready to share the trail with anyone and everyone. It was good exercise, but there weren't as many flowers or birds to see because the trail wound around the cabins, beaches and fishing piers. But no matter--I heard loud American Toads at the lake's edge and even found some of their weird coiled egg ropes. I never saw the toads, which surprised me because they were so vocal. And near the end of the hike I spied a pair of wood ducks. I wish I had gotten a clearer photo, but they were shy and moved away quickly.

Egg Coils from American Toads

Wood Ducks

Georgia has an extensive state park system and national wildlife refuges, covering the mountains, rivers, Atlantic Coast, Piedmont, coastal plain and even the Okeefenokee Swamp! We have a lot more to explore and as we do, you can count on me to share.

Running Pine (Diphasiastrum digitatum), Clubmoss Family

Blue Turkey Tail Fungi

Fern Fiddlehead

Friday, February 24, 2017

Goodbye Winter

Star Magnolia in Bloom

I'm pretty sure that Winter is finished here in Athens. Sure, there could still be some more cold snaps coming, but the temperatures here are balmy, in the 70's and 80's. In fact, it almost feels like Spring will whiz past without giving us a chance to savor the "just right" temperatures between frigid and roasting. We may be in for another record breaking scorcher summer and drought. I sure hope not, but signs are pointed that direction. Meanwhile, though, it's a lovely Spring, and the camellia bushes and ornamental magnolias are blooming like mad and the daffodils are standing tall and dreamy yellow in patches all over the city. The Cedar Waxwings can still be seen bopping through the treetops, but they have polished off most of the choice winter berries and I expect that they will be leaving soon, along with the masses of Grackles and Robins. By the way, in case you were wondering, the collective noun for a group of Grackles is "Plague". They certainly do swarm in, like a plague of locusts, and eat everything in the feeders and throw the leaf mulch all over, but I still like them. I enjoy their raspy sounds and iridescent blue/black feathers. And it is amazing to watch hundreds of them launch in unison from the trees when they decide it is time to move on to the next yard. The celebrity Baltimore Orioles and the Rufous Hummingbird that have stuck around our yard all winter are still sticking around. Lots of people have come by to look at them, including some Ornithology Classes from UGA! Friends asked us why we had crowds of people with binoculars in our yard. It makes me smile every morning to see the hummer perched at our kitchen window feeder, guzzling away. And, as they did in Gainesville, the Orioles chatter at me when I refill their grape jelly feeders. They also like to drink from the hummingbird feeders, so it is a challenge to keep them all full. It was exciting to see 3 Orioles last week for the Backyard Bird Count.

Cedar Waxwing feeding on Ligustrum berries

Plague of Grackles

3 Orioles at the Feeder!

Rufous Hummingbird takes a rain bath

When I see the Hummingbird in his usual spot in the bushes, where he can keep a watch over the whole yard, I wonder what is going on in his mind. He is so far away from where he should be. Does he know it? Does he care? Does he miss being with his own species? He looks kind of lonely, but hopeful. Always on the watch. Is he looking for other hummingbirds? Does he miss having other birds to hang out with? Do hummingbirds even do that? I imagine that he'll decide to fly home one of these days soon. But where exactly is home? For summer breeding season, that would somewhere in the upper Northwest and into Canada and Alaska. Migration season they would mostly be in the Mountain West, California and Mexico. And for winter, mostly Mexico. That's a long way from Georgia for a tiny bird, but Rufous Hummingbirds are tough. I was reading more about Rufous Hummingbirds and found that they live 4-5 years and are one of the hardier species that can withstand some cold winter temperatures. In the Q&A section of one website, someone asked if it was true that hummingbirds migrated on the backs of geese. I really laughed at that one. The answer is no. But I do wonder when the hummer will go back to be with "his people" or if he'll stick around for a while longer. The Ruby Throated Hummingbirds are ready to begin their migration back north again and when they arrive, he'll have lots of competition at the feeder, if he stays that long. I wish him luck on his trip back home, wherever that may be, even though I will miss seeing his little silhouette through the bushes. He needs to get back to breed. I will miss all the winter visitors, but the seasons change and nature calls on them to move on. Now it's time to welcome the next seasonal guests.

Surveying the Yard

And speaking of the next season, the butterflies are here! I saw these Azures and my first Mourning Cloak at the Botanical Garden the other day. Spring is here for sure.

Spring Azures

Mourning Cloak (terrible picture but first sighting for me in Georgia!)

Saturday, February 11, 2017

We All Need a Little Green

Path Through the Woods

In my mind, one of the most important gauges of the livability of a community is whether or not there are greenspaces within easy walking or biking distance. Greenspaces are open patches of undeveloped land within an urban area, with trees and/or grass and minimal structures, and are generally open to the public. Parks, playgrounds, botanical gardens and nature parks come to mind. It takes some vision to create and maintain greenspaces. They are often on land that could be developed into something that could make lots of money, like a subdivision or an apartment building or a strip mall or a parking garage. Imagine how valuable the land in Central Park could be, located right in the middle of Manhattan. But, luckily, there are people out there who have understood the importance of having communal space available for connecting with nature. They understand the need for people to breathe fresh air, to walk in the beauty of trees, flowers and bugs, the need for children to run and play outside, for people to exercise and walk their dogs, to ride bikes, to watch birds, and to take nature photographs. Countless studies tell us that being in nature is good for us. Spending time in nature calms our jangled nerves, lets us keep healthy through exercise, and even helps our children concentrate better in the classroom. Imagine New York City without all its city parks, small and large, where people can go to escape from small apartments and crowded streets and subways. Without them people would go nuts. It's the same in every city. In addition to everything else, trees and plants in greenspaces clean our air, and the natural areas themselves provide critical habitat for urban wildlife. It is really important to me that nature is accessible to other people in my community, too. And this is one reason that I am involved on the board of Sandy Creek Nature Center where I also volunteer as a trail guide.

Cedar Waxwing 

But this is not about Sandy Creek. I consider myself very lucky to live in a lovely, livable community with greenspaces all around. I live a short walk from another pretty great greenspace--Oconee Forest Park and Lake Herrick on the UGA campus. Oconee Forest Park is a 60 acre wooded area that is managed by the school of forestry. It serves as a teaching area for foresters, biologists, ecologists and other natural scientists, but is also open to the public as a recreation area with trails for walkers, bikers, dog owners and nature lovers. Located next to Lake Herrick, there are benches, picnic tables, docks, outdoor exercise equipment and even a ropes course for teambuilding, as well as a beautiful ADA compliant boardwalk. It's a great place to be in and observe nature. I have seen deer, squirrels, snakes, turtles and beaver. And it is full of birds! The forest and lake area are birding hotspots. On a recent walk I counted 26 species without trying very hard. A sunny, cleared utility easement under the power lines is a superb place to find butterflies and other insects in the summer and fall. There are even labels on some of the trees to help people like me learn about Piedmont dendrology. All in all it's a pretty great place.



Power Easement

Lake Herrick at the Bottom of the Hill

Lots of Recreation and Healthy Activities

Helping Me to Learn My Trees!

ADA Boardwalk Bridge Across the Lake

Forestry Students

Unfortunately, the park and lake suffer somewhat from misuse and neglect. There is a lot of litter from careless hikers or just blown in from the road. And like many other natural areas around town, sections of the woods are overgrown with exotic plants like English Ivy and Privet. The lake itself has been closed for swimming and boating since 2004 because of poor water quality due to factors such as storm runoff and bacteria from dog feces. The park is a very popular place to walk dogs, but it has been difficult to convince owners to clean up after their pets. (I think it would help to have more garbage cans and poop bag dispensers, but that may already be in the works.) Another problem is erosion caused by unofficial bike and running paths. Renegade paths may give a fun and fast ride down a steep hill, but it also gives a quick channel for storm runoff. Properly designed paths minimize erosion. But the University is acting to address the problems, with mitigation projects starting as soon as this spring, which is great news. It will be nice when the lake can be used for recreation again. I read that a small lake on the far side of the property that has become filled with silt from runoff may be developed as an improved wetland and I find this very exciting. I've had great experiences viewing nature in manmade wetlands around the country and have become a big fan.

Small Lake that Could Be Turned into a Wetland

Creek Runs Through the Forest to the Lake

Entrance to the Forest

Our family gets a lot of pleasure from using this resource. My husband likes to run through Oconee Forest Park, and we sometimes bring our dogs there. I love living close enough to just walk over to the park when I feel like birdwatching or taking photos. Some times, like weekends and evenings, the place is packed. But during the day it can be fairly quiet. I can easily spend hours there, wandering the meandering trails. Every visit I notice something new. This past time I found a big beaver lodge. Last visit, I heard and saw an unseasonably early White Eyed Vireo. Most times I see interesting fungi, plants or wildflowers. One day I hope I can roll a log or lift a rock and find a salamander. (I still haven't found one in the wild yet.) And as I get to know the park better, I get lost a lot less often. Or maybe I worry less about it. Being on campus, it is fairly well used and safe. And since it is in northern Georgia, I don't have to be afraid of being trapped on a trail by an alligator or a cottonmouth, as happened to me sometimes in Florida.

Beaver Lodge in the Water (Middle Right)

Eastern Phoebe

Texture on a Rotting Log

This unusual Deer Sculpture is the only deer I have actually seen here in the park, although I have seen tracks.

I guess the point here is to encourage everyone to seek out your own local greenspaces. Spend time outdoors and commune with the trees and the rocks and the bugs. Even in winter, go enjoy the snow and the muffled silences. Even in the sweltering heat of summer, go listen to the cicadas while you lie on the grass, watching the clouds roll by. Get out often enough to see the changing seasons. Learn those places as well as you know the plots of your favorite TV shows and you will not have wasted your time. Share them with children. We all need a little green.

Great Blue Heron Enjoys the Small Pond