Finding Spring

This year’s transition from winter to spring has felt decidedly odd in the Washington, DC area. We’ve had eighty degree February weather, a windstorm that literally blew away the Potomac River, and alternating bouts of warmth and snow. Last Saturday I took a walk and was sleeted upon; Sunday I hiked for hours in temperatures approaching sixty degrees. Tuesday brought more sleet, which transitioned into several inches of snow on Wednesday almost all of which melted on Thursday. I’m paraphrasing my wife in saying that this March came in like a lion and went out like a second, bigger lion that ate the first lion.

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The weather, and some other obligations, have kept me from spending as much time exploring nature as I’d like in 2018. So, I made an effort last weekend to hunt spring deep into all the darkest corners where it might be hiding. Good news! Despite the weird weather patterns, it’s not really in hiding. I just needed to go outside and pay attention.

IMG_6003What did I find in my search for spring? Mostly the expected. Spring migratory birds haven’t really returned yet (although some of the earliest arrivals, like eastern bluebirds and tree swallows, are starting to pop up). I haven’t noticed any amphibian eggs. So, the signs of spring are mostly relegated to plants. The perennials in my own yard are starting to come back. Red maples are blooming abundantly now, making an odd cranberry accent to the snowfall. Skunk cabbage is up; daffodils and crocuses are emerging. Lesser celandine is blanketing the streamside woods and choking out native plants. Snowdrops are a lovely non-native that is also in bloom. Perhaps the most exciting are the nascent Virginia bluebells I found along the Northwest Branch Trail. I didn’t recognize them at this early stage, but a passing jogger remarked on them as I was lining up a photo.

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I was less than thrilled to find just how many of these early-blooming flowers and other plants are non-native. I already mentioned the lesser celandine and snowdrops, but the daffodils and crocuses are also escaped ornamentals. I also came across lenten roses (Helleborus sp.), Japanese spurge, garlic mustard, and ground ivy. I know the mile-a-minute and porcelainberry explosion is well on its way. Oh, and English ivy is a whole thing, too. It’s enough to make me want to sign up for every single invasive plant removal event, or maybe even start my own vigilante effort.

A gimmick I used to get myself going is the iNaturalist smartphone app. I had downloaded it some time ago but never really used it. It allows one to upload photographs and crowd-source the identification. You can suggest your own ID (or not) and other naturalists will weigh in. You can also explore existing photos in a given area for guidance and help others firm up their IDs. Various citizen-science (and some just-for-fun) projects are available to join. Virtually all of my observations so far have received corroboration or clarification the same day, so the community is definitely active enough to make it worthwhile.

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A patch of Japanese spurge – a plant helpfully identified by iNaturalist.

I suspect this will be a tremendous tool for expanding life lists, especially plants, as it can effectively serve as a hyper-localized field guide. It has already helped me identify species from more than twenty old photos that had been bugging me, and resulted in quicker and easier identification of some new photos. I think I have already helped others with a few, too. If naturalism is your bag, I highly recommend using this app. That recommendation is partly motivated by self interest, to be sure. The more data points I can talk others into providing, the better tool it will become for all its users.

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A nickernut tree (Guilandina bonduc) in the Everglades. iNaturalist made this identification possible for me years later.
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drooping star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum nutans), another retro-ID

In other spring news, this year’s crop of seedlings is well on its way. This process always feels a little like grabbing spring by the scruff of its neck and dragging it into place. This year I’ve got heirloom tomatoes (a line Laurel’s grandfather started in Maine), morning glories, and sunflowers. I’m also trying to start a few more perennials – various milkweeds, bee balm, goldenrod, and New York ironweed – for the butterfly garden. I cleared quite a bit more space in the fall so I am looking to fill much of it this year. I also bought a butterfly feeder (basically a stand with a bowl and a sponge for nectar). I think this year’s garden is going to be very close to the full vision I had several years ago.

Denver Trip: Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak

We closed out last year’s trip to Colorado with visits to Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak,* two geological marvels. By this time we had moved our base of operations to Mueller State Park, which was delightful in its own right. The Park offers excellent campsites with access to good facilities, hiking trails, and gorgeous landscapes. During these few days even our downtime was filled with breathtaking natural scenery.

This was all during my 2017 bird blitz, so of course I can’t talk about any part of the trip without including some birding notes. In Mueller State Park we were welcomed by turkeys and pygmy nuthatches, and harassed by uppity gray jays. It was here I saw my first Williamson’s sapsucker. We also shared the space with crows and magpies, as well as mountain chickadees and Steller’s jays. At Garden of the Gods I only tallied seven bird species, but four of them were life birds for this East Coaster. High above the rock walls flitted many white-throated swifts, and I spotted a soaring prairie falcon. Closer to the ground I was introduced to a pair each of spotted towhees and Woodhouse’s scrub-jays. My Pikes Peak list was even shorter: American pipits and Lincoln’s sparrows were the only birds I could identify.

Birds were but a small piece of the overall majesty of the area. The view from our campsite in Mueller State Park spoke of the beauty and wonder that was to come. We enjoyed a few short but lovely hikes in the park between our ventures farther afield, and all were rewarding. I would spend a few days here again, given the chance. More forested slopes, broad vistas, and sheltered beaver ponds await my return.

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The view from our campsite

A few more views from the park

It’s hard to do justice to impressive rock formations with still two-dimensional images, but Garden of the Gods is a heck of a place to try. The reddish stones loom over vast acres of fields, pockmarked with holes and crevices. Even in September, ice can be seen peeking out from some of these hideaways. A loop drive offers several access points to hike through the interior, and the access to the public is well set up and seamlessly integrated into the landscape. Pikes Peak beckons as a backdrop to the whole stunning scene.

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Pikes Peak standing behind some of the Garden’s formations

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Speaking of Pikes Peak… that was our next (and final) destination. I admit I had some reservations, fearing it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It felt like maybe it was cheating to just drive up such a tall mountain. I was wrong. I couldn’t categorize anything about Pikes Peak as disappointing. It was stunning. If you seek one of those places that makes you feel small in the face of the universe, this is a place for you.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this concept is to show you what Garden of the Gods looks like from the summit of Pikes Peak.

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Yep. It’s those few pieces of gravel there under the arrow. I don’t think I can say much more except to throw a lot of superlatives and let them run down the page, so I will close with a collection of photos from our ascent and the summit.

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This beautiful lake sits at the foot with the peak in full view

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An alternative means for ascending the mountain

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*Yes, apparently the lack of an apostrophe is correct. Huh.

 

 

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR & Florissant Fossil Beds

It’s hard to choose a favorite site from last September’s trip to Colorado. As amazing as Rocky Mountain National Park was, I perhaps equally enjoyed our time at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. This is a place with engaging natural history and fascinating human history. Once a biological weapons facility that dealt untold damage to the local ecosystem, the site is now a refuge and a shining example of conservation. There is an excellent wildlife drive and plenty of available hiking trails. It also has one of the better visitors’ centers I have seen at similar facilities.

After the mountains, there was a different but equally real sense of immensity to this place. In this habitat, one can see the whole place opening before you on approach. Despite the openness, the wildlife can be hard to spot at first. This visit was just one more time I was struck at how adept animals can be at not being seen.

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I think the first critter we spotted (and definitely the one we saw the most of) was a black-tailed prarie dog. I realize these adorable guys rate somewhere between “background presence” and “irritating pest” to the locals, but I couldn’t help but enjoy every one that scurried away or fixed me with a wary gaze. They’re so easy to anthropomorphize, with their social behavior appearing so comically playful. One imagines they are the true inspiration for the game “whack-a-mole.”

Other than the prairie dogs, the drive was largely uneventful for the first twenty minutes or so. We crawled through mostly open plains, scaring up the occasional vesper sparrow (identified by a flash of white outer tail feathers). Eventually we spotted a red-tailed hawk posing atop a telephone pole and paused for a photo.

Soon after, we began to see them: small, black dots on the horizon, yet unmistakable through my binoculars. American bison! Perhaps, like the prairie dogs, these creatures are not very exciting to anyone from the Great Plains region. I admit I would give some side-eye to anyone similarly amazed by a herd of cattle. Something about the buffalo (not this oddity of grammar) just strikes all the right chords of natural wonder. Especially once you see them up close. Clearly these beasts were the stars of the refuge.

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With the wildlife drive completed, it was time to slow things down for a closer look. We chose the Lake Ladora loop trail for our hike, and were well-rewarded for this choice. We took our lunch at a picnic table near the trail’s namesake, watching cormorants dive and California gulls circle. Then we strolled through a naturalist’s paradise. Avifauna was a theme, but the flora was stunning as well and butterflies were omnipresent. The variety of bird life really spoke to the overall productivity of the environment here. I only counted 23 species of birds on our 2-hour hike, but the varied niches they occupied were the real story. I notched three species of raptor (red-tailed hawks, a Swainson’s hawk, and an American kestrel). Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and belted kingfishers shared the lake with ducks, geese, grebes, and American coots. The fields were interspersed with vesper sparrows, song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds and western meadowlarks. I even found one rock wren along the dam. All too soon it was time for us to be going.

Our next destination was Florissant Fossil Beds. I have to admit, this place somewhat disappointed me. It just felt like their public face was dedicated to all the wrong things. There was a brief video, which did a fine job of presenting the context of the site and building anticipation. Ancient fossils of fish, insects, leaves and more! Wonders of natural science unmatched anywhere! After the video, we joined a ranger-led tour group, anticipating all manner of scientific nuggets would be revealed to us. What we got instead was mostly stale repetition of the video, plus tales of Walt Disney purchasing a petrified stump and thieves stealing pieces of petrified wood. There was a good ten minutes on why metal bands were looped around the largest stumps (an early, ill-advised effort to excavate with dynamite).

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I mean, the petrified wood was pretty cool on its own, but…

These stories of course have their place, but they were related at the expense of learning much about the actual fossils or the window into ancient life they gave us. Eventually we slipped quietly away from the group to explore several of the short hiking trails on our own. This improved the experience somewhat, allowing us to see more of the grounds and picture the modern natural landscape in juxtaposition with the ancient one.

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This mormon cricket seemed an echo of the giant insects represented in the site’s fossil record.

I think the biggest disappointment was the limited array of fossils available for viewing. Apart from the stumps there was a small room with perhaps fifty specimens on (confusingly presented) display, but absent was the staggering variety described in their video. I’m sure some of that is due for the need of research and study, but very little information seemed available about said research, except as it related to petrified wood.

The value and importance of Florissant Fossil Beds to the natural sciences is immense and unambiguous, and usually I try to write positively about such places. Here, though, something vital was missing in the presentation. Even with those shortcomings, the landscape was beautiful, and taken together with the refuge this made for a couple of great days exploring nature.

Denver Trip: Rocky Mountain National Park

Our recent trip to the Rockies was really about people. An old college friend and his wife had moved to Denver  and we’d been meaning to go visit them. Another friend’s wedding in Lincoln, Nebraska got us about two-thirds of the way there so we tacked a Rocky Mountain vacation onto those travel plans. It was a fantastic trip with great company all around. Yet for me, any trip to that part of the country without exploring nature is unthinkable.

From the moment we landed at DIA (no, not a spell dealing light holy damage… an airport) the Rockies beckoned. It’s a challenge to do justice in words or photos to the awe these mountains inspire in a Mid-Atlantic mind. They grab one’s concept of “mountain,” stuff it in a canvas bag, and swing it against a brick wall. No lens angle is wide enough to bring back the proof of this. Numbers like 12,005 and 14,115 (feet above sea level) or 35 (miles of visibility) don’t really do the job either. The photos below almost capture my earliest impressions.

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Our first direct exposure to the mountains was a couple of days spent hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is so majestic that it was tempting to compare its eastern cousin (and one of my favorite places), Shenandoah National Park, unfavorably. Really everything about the two parks, except for the well-maintained road and facilities, is just different. Indeed I learned early on that even the seemingly familiar was subtly otherwise. On our first hike alone, before we got to a really high altitude, I picked up on a lot of this. I spotted wild geraniums, but these would prove to be the Fremont geranium (Geranium caespitosum), as opposed to the G. maculatum I am used to. The least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) is much bolder than its eastern relatives. Of course the trees at these elevations are also quite different, dominated by species like quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. White-tailed deer are present but joined by the similar mule deer.

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A least chipmunk inquires if I might have something to offer it

This first hike to gem lake was a perfect introduction to hiking at altitude. It was a short, moderate-difficulty hike with a gorgeous destination. It taught us that in addition to the flora and fauna both the landscape and the very air are alien to dwellers of the coastal plain.

In the evenings, we made camp at the Lumpy Ridge Campground. Here our education on the eccentricities of our temporary new environment continued. The camp host regaled us with stories of the local black bear population. Apparently one small group learned to identify and target a specific make and model of car whose doors would pop open if a bear jumped on the roof in just the right way. For this and other reasons bear safety seems to be taken about thrice as seriously as in Shenandoah, despite Shenandoah’s higher population density of bears. We also learned that a bull moose had been spotted in the campground the previous day, and were cautioned to give him, too, a wide berth. Alas we did not get the opportunity to decide just how wide. It was also here that I started to spot the local bird species: Steller’s and gray jays, mountain chickadees, and red-breasted nuthatches.

We spent the second day driving the Trail Ridge Road and pausing for several short hikes. Eventually the alpine forests give way to tundra, and here the views are stunning. I will never forget my first time standing above the treeline looking down at it, or my first glimpse of one of the beautiful montane lakes. Nor will I forget our encounter with a pika (Ochotona princeps) – a sort of rabbit-gerbil only found at very high elevations. This part of the trip also included my first sightings of mule deer, elk, and yellow-headed blackbirds.

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Treeline from above
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A lake at the Continental Divide

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It’s unlike me to include so many landscapes and so few wildlife images, but it was the landscape that had me reaching for the camera in this park. I haven’t run out of things to say or images to share about Rocky Mountain National Park, so if you’d like to see more feel free to look me up on Instagram (where I am also wildlymistaken).

 

 

2017 Bird Blitz: Final Species Count

Good news! This is the last time you’ll have to scroll past a post about my 2017 bird blitz. To briefly recap, early this year I decided to do a personal “big year” of sorts. The goal I set was to see more species of birds in 2017 than were on my life list prior to 2017. I learned a lot about birding through this effort, and subsequently revised my life list to remove a few species I was no longer sure of (but kept the original target number). I blew past that original goal (in part because my life list was missing quite a lot of fairly common species for this region) and set a revised target of 200 species. So, how did I do?

I almost made the revised goal, and here’s the (rest of the) list:

163. magnolia warbler
164. bay-breasted warbler
165. black-billed magpie
166. Steller’s Jay

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A skittish Steller’s jay

167. mountain chickadee
168. red-breasted nuthatch
169. ferruginous hawk
170. gray jay

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A very much not skittish gray jay

171. lesser scaup
172. yellow-headed blackbird
173. white-crowned sparrow
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174. Swainson’s hawk
175. California gull
176. American kestrel
177. rock wren
178. vesper sparrow
179. western meadowlark
180. pygmy nuthatch
181. Williamson’s sapsucker
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182. mountain bluebird
183. white-throated swift
184. prairie falcon
185. Woodhouse’s scrub-jay
186. spotted towhee
187. American pipit
188. Lincoln’s sparrow
189. sharp-shinned hawk
190. little egret
191. spotted dove
192. Japanese tit
193. light-vented bulbul
194. common tailorbird
195. Oriental magpie-robin
196. crested myna
197. Eurasian tree sparrow

It was really the trips to Colorado (birds 165 to 188) and China (birds 190 to 197) that gave me the opportunity to expand the list. Species new to my life list are in bold above – which is all but three of the birds since my last update. Regrettably, I have very few good pictures of these species, but I’ve included what I could find.

Another birding accomplishment I pulled off this year was identifying my first hybrid:  the relatively common mallard x American black duck. I actually encountered this individual several times in Wheaton Regional Park, and he is pictured in the header image from this post.

Of course, a list like this wouldn’t be complete without the misses. So, I saw 197 species of birds this year… but how many could I have seen? There are a few major rarities that occurred in my area which I didn’t get the chance to go see: a Eurasion wigeon on some private land in Poolesville and a shiny cowbird hanging out near Beach Drive in Kensington are recent examples. For a list of more common birds I just didn’t happen to spot, I turn once again to ebird.org.

With their data, I can see that there are 155 species which have been recorded in Montgomery County at least once which I didn’t see in 2017. Of course, no one could expect to cross off all those records in a single year – many are one-off vagrants or extreme rarities. I will focus instead on the most common of these. The most reported Montgomery County bird I missed is the Prothonotary warbler, occurring on 3.4% of submitted checklists. A total of 21 birds of the 155 are historically reported on at least 1% of MoCo lists. Nine of these are warblers, but also included are the hermit thrush, purple finch, red-headed woodpecker, and rusty blackbird (among others).

So what about 2018? I don’t think I will try for any specific birding goal next year, but I’d like to fill in some of those blanks and keep expanding that life list. I pushed it forward from 160 to 245 this year, so I think I can coast on that for a while.

Featured Species #5: Monarch

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the classic poster child of butterflies, at least in North America. There are plenty of good reasons for this. It’s large and gorgeous. Its annual migratory pattern is a stunning story. Its life cycle is easy to observe and study, making it ideal for classrooms and amateur naturalists alike. The monarch is also an object lesson in conservation, as it has been endangered by a once-systematic elimination of its only host plants (milkweeds). Its lookalike, the viceroy, is the classic example of Batesian mimicry. In short, the monarch is a biology and ecology lesson all neatly wrapped in a beautiful package.

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The monarch also just so happens to be the only butterfly species I have documented in my garden through all of its life stages. I have also collected its caterpillars to raise. I learned (or possibly relearned?) the term “instar” by way of the butterfly garden, and had the privilege of viewing monarch caterpillars at each of these stages. If you ask me, the caterpillars are almost as attractive as the adults. It’s pretty astonishing to watch them eat and grow so rapidly from the moment they emerge from their eggs as tiny pinheads of life.

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Caterpillars, from first to fifth instar

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Adults

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If you want monarchs, all you need do is plant milkweeds (flowers in genus Asclepias). Several species are native and/or do well in the Mid-Atlantic region. I have common milkweed (A. syriaca), butterfly weed (A. tuberosa), swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) and bloodflower (A. curassavica) in my garden. Bloodflower is not native in Maryland, but it  grows well here and the monarchs still eat it. Additional milkweeds for your area can be found here. The fact that “weed” is in the name must be what turns folks off, because it really is an attractive plant available in a variety of colors. Milkweeds support a wide variety of other native insects, as well, so they are an excellent choice for anyone desiring to plant natives.

As picky as the caterpillars are, adult monarchs seem to be pretty gregarious feeders. I have seen them take nectar from the milkweeds as a one-stop shop but also from joe-pye weed, butterfly bush, and zinnias. It seems the best strategy for helping monarchs find your milkweed is to plant a variety of perennials and annuals that flower at different times throughout the summer. With the right mix of plants you can expect to see several generations between their mass migrations. If you want to protect them from predators and watch them through a full life cycle, all you really need is a clear, ventilated box or jar, some sticks, and milkweed leaves.

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Monarch Links

Wikipedia
Maryland Biodiversity Project
BugGuide
MonarchWatch

Butterfly Garden Progress Report Part 2 of 2

I shared Part 1 of this piece back in August. To recap, by “progress” I mean “how much wildlife has my habitat garden brought to my yard?” Last time I covered the most obvious category – butterflies and moths – and today I will focus on everything else. This all comes with the same caveat as before: I have no baseline wildlife survey to compare this to. I’m really just making a self-congratulatory list of wildlife sightings in my yard. Somehow, I am OK with that!

Before I move on, I do want to briefly mention four additional lepidopterans since August: the eastern comma (Polygonia comma), tobacco hornworm, aka Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta), raspberry pyrausta moth (Pyrausta signatalis), and giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

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An eastern comma dining on some persimmons with yellowjackets.

Insects, Non-Lepidopteran

Insects are an overwhelmingly diverse Class of animal life. I will never be able to identify to species every insect I find in my yard. There are plenty I can, though (especially with help). I’m able to put many more into the appropriate Family or Genus. Based on that, I am able to confidently list 90 insect species for my yard, including the butterflies and moths from the last post. That number doesn’t precisely represent individual insects confidently identified to species, although there is only a little fluff. “Fluff” in this case just means an insect I am very confident is a different species from any of the others included. For example, my garden was visited by a juvenile praying mantis for about a week last year. I can’t tell the difference between a Carolina and a Chinese mantis at that stage, but I can certainly say it wasn’t an ant or a caterpillar. Bees and wasps I can treat similarly: I can spot the difference between a yellowjacket and a bumblebee but am not well-versed in recognizing the individual species of each.

Spiders

Spiders are tough. When I get a photo to review, I am often confronted with notes like “identification to species requires dissection,” or find that I need to be able to see a very specific detail very clearly. Consequently, despite encountering certainly thousands of spiders I only have 16 species on my life list. Of those, only six have I found in my yard. They are: marbled orbweaver, basilica orbweaver, orchard orbweaver, woodlouse hunter, broad-faced sac spider, and Pholcus manueli. I can add at least four “fluff” species (a green crab spider, a jumping spider, a grass spider, and a brownish orbweaver) for a total of ten.

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A basilica orbweaver tending its distinctive egg sacs

Other Invertebrates

Isn’t that specific? As much as I hate to lump all this together it’s so much more convenient than typing up categories for each individual kind of invertebrate. I am not enough of an expert to ID many of the included creatures precisely anyway. So what do I have here? The wood tick and house centipede are present for sure. I’ve found earthworms, pill bugs, harvestmen, centipedes, and millipedes of an unknown number of species each. At least three species of slug round out the list. That’s another ten animals in total, under the most conservative of estimates.

Birds

Thanks to eBird, I have very good data on the bird species I have spotted in my yard. It comes to forty-three species, and while none of these is particularly uncommon and five or so are merely flyovers, that feels like a pretty good number. And yet… just a few blocks away in Wheaton Regional Park birders have collectively tallied over 170 species. I’ve found more than sixty there myself. I won’t likely be attracting any, say, spotted sandpipers to my yard… but there is some room for improvement.

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A mourning dove, an eastern towhee, and some white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders.

Cardinalis cardinalis (21)

Mammals

This is a short and boring list (but try telling my dogs that!) Eastern gray squirrel, eastern fox squirrel, southern flying squirrel, eastern chipmunk, eastern cottontail, Norway rat, white-footed mouse, white-tailed deer, human, dog. Add some unidentified species of mice and bats, and it’s an even dozen. I do think the dogs somewhat cut down on the mammal population I might otherwise see here… I have after all come across groundhogs and foxes in the neighborhood and I know raccoons, possums, and skunks are about. As irritating as the rat population is, at least they’ve never made it inside.

Amphibians

An even shorter, but hopefully less boring, list:

Northern green frog

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gray (or possibly Cope’s gray) treefrog

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American toad (no one needs a picture of one of these, right?

And that’s the list! So to recap, that’s a grand total of: 90 insects, 10 spiders, 10 other invertebrates, 43 birds, 12 mammals, and 3 amphibians – 168 total animal species cataloged in my yard. All my instincts say that 168 is a big number, yet as I mentioned above more species of birds alone have been recorded in our neighborhood park.