Sunday, May 14, 2017

Motherly Musings

Sandhill Crane Family

The older I get, the more I appreciate moms. And being the product of a long line of mothers (as most of us are), as well as being a mother myself, I think I am in a position to have something to say about the topic.

There are all sorts of ways to mother, ranging from simply depositing eggs and moving on, to full on over-involvement and smothering. I hope my kids see my own personal mothering style as falling somewhere to the "more involved" side, but to the left of driving them crazy. There moms who do everything alone and those who have a nurturing partner, or a posse of friends and family to share in the important task of raising young. There are moms who just aren't up to the job, but there are also those who step into the role of being a mom, even though the children are not their own offspring. There are good moms and bad moms and everything in between. In nature it is less a matter of good or bad mothering, but rather adaptations and strategies for successfully passing on one's genes. In some species, quick development or mass quantities of eggs may lead to success, while in others, shared parenting or lengthy maturation and nurturing may be necessary. Humans fall into the lengthy nurturing and shared parenting category. But no matter what kind of mother, it is a tough job. It takes smarts, strength, tenacity and nerve. Motherhood is not for wimps.

It all begins in much the same way, with an encounter: a coupling, maybe just a moment of passion, or possibly a beautiful relationship.

Mating Red Shouldered Hawks

Mating Ladybugs

Then comes the urgent matter of preparing a safe place for that next generation. Butterflies search hard for the perfect host plant on which to lay their eggs. The hatching caterpillars will eat the plant they are placed upon, and as they grow they become targets for predators. The plant itself may provide a chemical defense for the caterpillar, as in the case of a Pipevine Swallowtail or a Monarch Butterfly. The mother butterfly needs to pick wisely because after she lays the eggs, her work is done.

Gulf Fritillary Eggs and Caterpillars on Passion Vine

Likewise, with toads and frogs, many of whom lay their eggs after lots of singing and fanfare, but hop away after the deed is done. With luck, the puddle doesn't dry up or the eggs aren't eaten before they hatch. It's a risky business, which is why they lay so many.

Southern Toad Eggs Strands in a Pond

Some ray and shark embryos are encased in hard egg sacs called "Mermaid's Purses" that they lay and leave on the ocean floor. The young animal hatches from the egg and the empty "purses" sometimes float on the waves to the shore, like the one pictured below. The Common Octopus, on the other hand, lays clusters of eggs (200-500,000) in her lair and stays with them, fluttering moving water over the eggs to keep them oxygenated and safe while they grow. She doesn't leave them, even to eat, and may consume some of her own arms while she waits. When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies soon after from exhaustion and starvation.

Mermaid Purse

Woodpeckers and other cavity builders like Nuthatches scope out the right tree and then spend hours excavating and spewing out sawdust with only their bills as tools. Gnatcatchers and Hummingbirds construct nests made of lichen and spider silk, while Boat Tailed Grackles hide their grass and stick nests in shrubs and Gentoo Penguins make rock nests on the ground, with the Skuas watching nearby. In these cases, both parents work together to build the nest and care for the hatched chicks.

Nuthatch Excavating a Nest. Note dust plume to the left.

Pileated Woodpecker pitches out the debris from a nest cavity

Gentoo Penguin Nest Colony, with some chicks hatched already

Boat-tailed Grackle Sits on Nest

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher sits on nest constructed of lichen and spider webs

And then the waiting begins. Sitting and warming and guarding the eggs. Or in the case of Alligators, letting the heat from the decomposing grass nest warm the eggs while the mama watches nearby. Animals that give live birth must eat for two or three or more as the young inside them grow larger and larger, kicking and squashing bladders, changing their mother's body with the chemistry of hormones and the impact of sheer volume. Being pregnant is uncomfortable.

Blue-footed Booby nesting on the ground. It is sitting on one egg while guarding a hatched chick.

Sometimes careful tending and watching is in all vain and the eggs or young are taken as food for another creature. Birth itself is perilous and painful, sometimes taking the life of either mother or baby. The newborn babies are so small and vulnerable. I am not sure if spiders or frogs notice or care if their young are eaten. But birds are noticeably disturbed when a chick is taken or dies, and mammals like dogs and elephants will mourn and become depressed at the loss of a baby.

Yellow Rat Snake has cleaned out a woodpecker nest (count the eggs)

Mother Sea Lion mourns newborn dead pup.
Tiny Opossum Baby fell off the mother and didn't survive, despite our efforts.

Result of a raid on a nest

Skua and Chick near the Gentoo Penguin colony. Skuas eat penguin chicks.

Despite the best efforts of the watchful parents, Otters ate most of these Black Swan chicks.

Successful hatching and birthing brings about the next challenge of keeping the baby fed and safe until it is ready leave the nest. Those tiny hatchling octopuses and toads will have to make it on their own. But birds and mammals rely on parents, sometimes both mother and father. According to one article I read, Chickadees need over 9000 caterpillars to raise a batch of chicks, so two parents and abundant caterpillars come in handy.

Hungry Swallows see Mama

Nursing takes calories and mama mammals, such as Monkeys, Manatees, Maras constantly search for food. Try eating enough to nurse a baby Rhino! Or an elephant!

Nursing Monkey

Mama Manatee

Mara Family at the Bueno Aires Zoo

Baby and Mama Rhino at the Berlin Zoo

Parents guide the youngsters as they learn to forage for themselves, watching carefully and warning them when danger is nearby. Beware a protective mother bear or alligator!

Mama Bear and Cub in Desolation Canyon, Utah. We had to be very careful not to leave food in the camp because the bears were hungry and knew that people had food in camps.

Turkey Family teaching chicks to forage

Watchful Mama Gator

And then the youngsters try life out on their own. Sometimes they take missteps and have close calls. Often they have protection from a herd or from helpful people. But eventually they are really ready to spread their wings and be independent.

Robin Fledgling

Twin Armadillo babies whose mother had been hit by a car. They were in the care of a wildlife rescue organization.

Wild Horse herd stands guard around newborn

Baby White-breasted Nuthatch I rescued from my curious dogs. It flew away later.

Baby Black Racer sunning on the sidewalk and shooed away from pedestrians.

Baby Snapping Turtle on the trail. I moved it out of harms way but couldn't tell if it was injured, sick or just small and tired and lost.

Speaking as a mother, I find this whole business of raising children to be at the same time very hard, scary, wonderful and rewarding. I adore my daughters and am in awe of the capable and fabulous adults they have become. I don't know if other creatures feel the same after their young have left the nest--whether or not they have longing memories of snuggling sweet smelling babies or spend long nights worrying about them when the going gets tough. I do know that there is a strong instinct to protect our young, to ensure the success of the next generation. Though my daughters are grown, I still feel protective, worrying when they are sick, stressed or sad. I continue to have great hopes for their futures. I imagine that I will feel the same way for the rest of my life, as I imagine my mother feels for me, and her mother before her. Like I said, I come from a long line of mothers, and for that, I am very thankful.

Newly emerged Black Swallowtail, getting ready for its first flight

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