Glade Cress and Butterflies

There’s a spot just down the road from where we live that’s known locally as ‘the quarry’ – though one old timer told me it was a former Civil War salt mine – a limestone quarry seems more likely.  Not that there couldn’t have been salt here, but I can find no evidence of it.  But then again, I know zip about salt mines.

Anyway, this area has become one of my favorite spots. There’s always a puddle or two, which attracts birds and butterflies, and it is surrounded on all sides by woods.  Last summer literally hundreds of butterflies gathered in the quarry, supposedly gleaning minerals from the ground. Among the most common that I see there are these red spotted purple butterflies (which are actually orange-spotted and blue).

It’s also one of only a few places in this large county where the delicate wildflower known as glade cress blooms in March and April.  I learned this from the same state herpetologist that told me about the horsehair worms.

I’d never noticed the glade cress before – maybe because I wasn’t there in March or early April, spending most of my time banding..or maybe because I wasn’t paying attention.  I thought about the not paying attention part, and decided on a little experiment.  I chose my own woodsy backyard as the spot, sat on my back steps with coffee and hand, and took inventory of what plants were growing there.  Dogwoods, redbuds, the willow and beech trees, Virginia creeper, poison ivy….but what is that?  And that?  And that?

It took mere seconds for me to realize that I don’t know the identity of most of the wild plants growing in my own back yard, and so my personal challenge is to actively become familiar with my own surroundings, in addition to exploring other areas of this magnificent forest, of course.

We’ll see how I do…

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Mountain Lions – Revisited

Received a comment from Brian in Sparta, NJ on my post about mountain lions – and I still have no doubts that mountain lions could be roaming around portions of NJ – or KY.

As a matter of fact, I was visiting a neighbor last week (going to be banding on his property next season, but that’s another story) and he showed me a plaster cast he made of a mountain lion print found near one of the rock shelters.  Seems to verify the local tales of “black panthers” and other “wild cats” that supposedly inhabit this area of the DBNF – at least according to the locals.   I think I’d rather have bears roaming around than lions, but it is pretty cool…. I think.

Cold Sleep and Sunshine

I was tending nets on a chilly, foggy morning a few days ago when I noticed several bumblebees on the underside of the goldenrod flowers.  These particular goldenrod plants were still in the shade, and a bit frosty. The bees were pretty frosty too.  Apologies for the blurry photo, but it was pretty difficult to get a good macro shot of the underside of a goldenrod swaying in the breeze – but if you look closely, you’ll see the beads of frost on the flower – and on the bee – especially its legs, wings and butt end.  Of course I know that lots of insects find shelter and go dormant on cold nights and I’ve often watched butterflies in particular, but this was the first time I’d found bumblebees on goldenrod.  It was sort of fitting.

As I watched the sunshine sliding down the field and the flowers beginning to warm, little bee antennae began waving, ever so slowly.  Then first one leg, then the other, in slow motion, but moving nevertheless.  In no time at all, both bees and flowers were nearly thawed.  It never ceases to amaze me the way Nature takes care of its own.  This is fast becoming my favorite field ever – can’t wait for spring!

What I Learned Today

That you don’t watch a documentary on the Kentucky Bigfoot the night before you go banding alone before sunrise in a foggy misty field.  That squirrels cutting walnuts from trees are potentially dangerous monsters.  That howling coyotes and vocalizing barred owls are creepy when it’s dark and foggy.  That you have to have a sense of humor and real dedication to be doing this…or be a little bit nuts.

The day warmed quickly and more birds started moving after the fog lifted.  A new species for me was this lovely yellow-throated vireo.

Also banded a nice hermit thrush, easily separated from other thrushes by the noticeably reddish tail.

The colors are beginning to show and I’m enjoying the changes taking place in the field where I’m banding.  I set up the feeders at home and I’m getting the first regulars – Carolina chickadees, white and red breasted nuthatches, tufted titmice, and red-bellied woodpeckers.  Waiting for the goldfinches.  They are in the fields, but haven’t hit the feeders yet.

Beaches and Birds

You have to admit, there are some pretty strange-looking sea and shorebirds out there, especially when you’re more accustomed to the beautiful little songsters we’ve handled and featured here in the past.

For instance – I went out to do some birding yesterday near Honeymoon Island, which is very close to where I live now – and one of the first birds I found was this American Oystercatcher.

American oystercatcher

American oystercatcher

The photo doesn’t do it justice though.  Remember now, I’m reduced to taking photos of birds at a distance, at least for now.  Until I get a better camera, these will have to do.

Black, brown and white plumage is actually quite lovely – but what gets your attention is the long, bright red-orange bill and the yellow eyes on the black head.  Shades of Halloween.

Well, yes, you say, doesn’t my new favorite bird, the black skimmer, also have these Halloween colors?  Yeah, but skimmers have a lot more character

Honeymoon Island is a state park and the beach is condo-free and breathtaking.  This particular section has a lot of rip-tide currents, and is not recommended for swimming, so there are few people.  I suppose that the winds are ripping today and the water temp has dropped into the mid-60s also kept folks away.  Fine with me, I had the beach to myself.  Dressed in warm layers, I enjoyed exploring this beautiful place.  I’ll share more of it with you another day.  Life is good.
natural beach

natural beach

Life at the Beach

I’m finally settled and back online after a wonderful, leisurely drive from NJ to Florida.   I spent a few days with family while I looked for a place to call home – and then I found it.  A little blue cottage, one short block from the Gulf of Mexico.  Works for me….

black skimmers and assorted terns

black skimmers and assorted terns

I already have a new favorite bird – the black skimmer.  Can’t be helped, after spending an hour a couple of days ago sitting in the sand on the beach, surrounded by about 100 of these weird but amazing birds.  Sorry I don’t have a better photo, but I didn’t have my camera with me on the beach that day.  Above photo is from a birding trip yesterday, in very cold and windy conditions, but a great birding day nevertheless.  BUT, Lynne at Hasty Brook has posted a great photo of a skimmer on her blog, so check it out there. 

Needless to say, given my new surroundings and some other changes taking place, the focus of Natural Notes is going to change.  But first, some explanations are in order.

Raccoon Ridge Bird Observatory will discontinue year-round banding and band only during the spring and fall migrations.  Two major changes have adversely affected our ability to function as a constant-effort banding station.  First, the YMCA camp where we are located has doubled its camp attendance in the last year and a half, resulting in more people and more noise on a more consistent basis.  The increased noise and disturbance is having a detrimental effect on our breeding and migrant species. Most of the juveniles of resident species banded this season showed signs of stress, as evidenced by depigmented feather barring or stress lines.  Numbers of birds caught and observed were significantly reduced from the first year of operation. 

Second, if you’ve been reading this blog at all this spring and fall, you are already aware of our black bear problems.  The bears are becoming increasingly unafraid, and even though they do run away – far too many times it’s been through our nets.  Bear cubs seem to like to play with closed nets, sometimes knocking poles to the ground.  If bears weren’t enough of a problem – add the deer that like to run through nets as well.  Most of the new nets purchased last year have huge holes in them now, and at close to $100 each, it’s no longer amusing.

So, instead of my staying in NJ and enduring yet another cold, dreary winter, I opted to move to Florida.  Cailin, who has been banding with me at RRBO, will continue the banding program there during the seasonal migrations.  I will be working here in a seabird hospital, living on the beach, writing, and banding occasionally with other established stations. 

So, Natural Notes is going tropical, and I’ll be writing more about seabirds and Florida nature.  Trust me, it’s awesome!  And of course, Cailin and I will be in close communication, so come spring, I will share any unusual banding info from RRBO. 

Well, enough for today.  Thanks to all my loyal readers.  Time to hit the beach.  Life is good.

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