Nature and Anxiety/Depression

A recent emotionally difficult situation has triggered a return of some anxiety and depression I have lived with off-and-on for a decade or so. Many others – celebrities, acquaintances, and unknown strangers – have used online outlets to share their experiences with these types of mental illness. These have helped me become more comfortable with this part of me. They have also pushed the zeitgeist regarding mental illness to one of mainstream acceptance. Now is the time for me to fulfill an obligation by adding my voice to the chorus.

To those close to me, this is not a cry for help. I am fortunate in that I recognized my old nemesis early. My therapist already has me on the path to recovery that has worked before, and I can feel it working now. Of course support is always welcome, but I will be OK.

IMG_6646One thing to understand about anxiety and depression is that the triggering event doesn’t matter. It’s not “I’m very sad or upset about this thing.” In my case (this time) it was a sudden serious illness of a much-beloved dog. I am very sad about it and the continuing maintenance and care is stressful. That’s not depression, though, nor is it exactly the source of the anxiety (in my case, the more pronounced of the two issues). My mental illness is not caused by having other intense life problems. I live a very comfortable life. It’s aided by straight white male privilege, only lacking the “obscene wealth” checkbox (but neither do I live in poverty). None of this matters to anxiety brain. The knowledge of the utterly incomparable suffering of so many others layers guilt for feeling bad in my position of comfort atop the existing depression.

When my brain gets word it’s time to be anxious, everything becomes difficult. Work is hard: can’t focus, feels pointless, seems overwhelming. The same applies to home obligations. At the worst moments, it even applies to carrying out basic bodily functions and routine daily tasks. Escapism into my hobbies doesn’t really work – too transparent for that asshole brain. It knows I’m trying to fool it. The anxiety and slowdown of accomplishments makes me depressed, which leads to additional anxiety about the depression itself. Anxiety about depression makes me feel stupid, which depresses me – you see where this is going. It’s all a big ugly feedback loop of nothing. Since it’s not rational to begin with, rational thinking is no escape.

What does help – for me, and for many others – is the right combination of medication and psychotherapy. In general those of us suffering from these conditions do not need non-professional advice, except for this: if you think you may be experiencing mental illness, seek help. Call a licensed therapist and explain what you are feeling. They’ll know whether you should come in, and once you go they’ll know whether you need continuing treatment. It’s not an easy step. You may go down many other avenues of identifying your problem first (I sure did, the first time). But calling for and accepting help is the single most important step.

There’s no instant fix, and progress won’t be wholly linear. But while the meds and/or the therapy are still taking hold, I’ve found some tricks that help. Keeping myself busy is one, to occupy my mind and keep it from spiraling. Most human contact – even when I don’t really want it – helps some. If I enlist rational brain in the fight firmly enough, sometimes together we can subdue anxiety brain for a time. All of these methods can be draining and hard to keep up for long. Of course different things will work for different people, and we all have to find our own allies against our demons.

It’s my intense appreciation of nature which may be my own strongest ally. Whether it’s getting some exercise in the fresh air or just basking in the immensity and complexity of the natural world, it can ground me. It brings a feeling of significant insignificance. I am so small, and yet connected in so many ways to such elegant and harmonious beauty.

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One such boost came while taking our other (healthy) dog for a walk in a local park. It was a lovely day, and I was enjoying the sounds of the birds. We took a familiar route along a paved path and past a small lake. Nearing the end of our loop, we passed a family with a little girl who pointed and said “what dog?” or some similar question. All I got from it was “dog!” so I smiled and kept walking. The father said, “I think it’s a dachshund mix.” I turned around and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t quite catch the question. Yes, he’s a dachshund and… ‘something.'” We all laughed and I moved on. Such a tiny interaction, but my spirits were nonetheless lifted.

Another instance involves my medication. The short-term fix, Xanax, does its job. However, the first few days of taking it, while my body adjusts, keep me pretty sleepy. For now I need a couple doses to productively get through a work day. So one of those first days I timed a dose around lunchtime, took my lunch to a local park and ate quickly. Then I let the birds sing me through a thirty-minute nap and returned to work much fresher and clearer.

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It doesn’t always work. I’ve tried gardening, which usually leaves me fulfilled and energized, but sometimes even that feels as pointless and overwhelming as anything else. Right now I am in an adjustment period, and during that time there doesn’t appear to be such an animal as a thing that always helps.

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Still, yesterday’s brief trip to McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area was another success. It was a hot day, but beautiful. A Washington Post piece Laurel shared with me reminded me of the huge sunflower fields they plant there. The section known as “Hughes Hollow” is also one of the better birding sites in the county, so I was all-in for an excursion. We went around midday, so the birds were less active than I’d hoped, but I saw quite a few common yellowthroats and two yellow-billed cuckoos as highlights. Of course the sunflower fields themselves were filled with darting goldfinches. The Post article did its job – quite a few people made the same journey on Saturday, but not quite enough to make things feel over-crowded.

I do think that when my brain chemicals are in the right balance and my mind mostly settled, my love of nature is one of the major factors keeping them that way. Combined with the medication, anxiety brain is no match for hikes through the woods with the sights and sounds of other living things all around me. Trees, mountains, lakes, streams, oceans and beaches all confer a placidness I would otherwise struggle to find.

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Outer Banks 2018: Unbirds

My impulse was to wait until I’d identified all my photos from this trip – or as many as I’m going to – before writing this post. Now that I’ve realized just how silly that is… well, here we are! Our fantastic vacation to the Outer Banks is still with me. I’ve already written about the bird life I encountered, but what else did I see in sandy paradise?

Strikingly, the plant life of the Outer Banks is completely different from the what I’m used to. Whether it’s the sea oats, the beach grasses and sedges, or the wildflowers and vines, I’m always noticing plants I don’t see very often. This year I tried to snap a photo or two of as many plants as I could, since I’m not too well-versed in what grows on the islands. I do know a few on sight – common yucca, Indian blanket, and trumpet vine, for example – but others I know only by feature or not at all. Here are a few snaps of what I saw on this trip (click image to expand).

That’s a tiny sample of the native flora and fauna one wouldn’t see in in-shore environments. As barrier islands, and with the influence of the Gulf Stream, the Outer Banks are ecologically different from many other beaches on the East Coast. I’ll spare the details but there exists a plethora of further reading that can do the job better than I can.

I couldn’t possibly have gone to Hatteras Island without at least one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. My dad and I set out on Wednesday morning for an all-day trip. The fishing itself is always fun, and the success rate of this particular boat is frankly incredible, but the trip alone is worth the price of a seat. It’s a lovely ride out into the Gulf Stream which offers a great opportunity to see things like pelagic birds and flying fish. In many trips spanning more than two decades I’ve spotted dolphins, squid, a sea turtle or two, and more. I relish the feeling of expansive freedom which comes over me that far from land.

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And sometimes: rainbows!

Learning about the fish that are reeled up can be quite interesting, too. This year almost all the fish caught on the boat were grey triggerfish – a funky-looking but delicious bottom feeder. I did see one guy land a red snapper, and another hauled up a remora. The remora is not a desired game fish, but it was the first I’d ever seen. On previous trips, red snapper and black sea bass were pretty common, and the catch has often been peppered with all manner of interesting species, both edible and otherwise. This year our personal catch was a tad light, but it was still enough to feed four with a bit left over.

We spent our last couple of nights on Ocracoke Island. I can’t recommend this place highly enough to anyone seeking a real “get away from it all” vacation. The island is quite small, and accessible only by ferry. (It’s free! You can take your vehicle!) There are miles of out-of-the-way beaches, plus a tiny village with good food and shops, an operational lighthouse, and more. Lodging options include a primitive campground with beach access and several motels, hotels, etc. It’s a popular destination that seems to never feel over-crowded.

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Some least terns on one of those empty Ocracoke beaches

Near the campground is a lovely and very accessible nature trail, the Hammock Hills Nature Trail. I hiked it alone one afternoon at a leisurely place, and had the whole trail to myself. This was quite an experience. Birdsong filled the air. Butterflies and dragonflies galore flitted about among the less pleasant insects (yes, bug spray is a must). Toads hopped aside at seemingly every third step. About halfway through, I nearly trod upon an eastern hognose snake. Even as someone pretty experienced with nature, this was a somewhat startling experience. The snake displayed quite emphatically – it flattened its head to resemble a venomous snake, hissed loudly, and threw in some mock strikes for good measure. All of this is why I’m confident in the species ID. Unfortunately it took a few moments to recover from my initial caution and subsequent marveling until after the snake had progressed to hiding, so my photos are post-display. Oddly, I seem to collect sightings of one species of snake on each visit to the Outer Banks. I’ve photographed a cottonmouth and copperhead on my previous two visits, and I remember a blacksnake and a northern water snake from separate childhood vacations.

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This trip also allowed me to personally confirm an odd little fact I wasn’t quite sure I believed. You see, I’d read somewhere that eyes as small as a spider’s can reflect a flashlight beam at night. I don’t recall the source, but kudos to whoever you are because they unequivocally can. I first noticed it while walking one of the dogs. I saw a tiny green fleck on the pavement of the campground loop road. Assuming it was a tiny shard of glass from the sand, I took a closer look anyway and found this handsome lady carrying her babies:

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Later I sat reading at the campsite and noticed several of these tiny green specks at the edge of a patch of vegetation. I followed them several times, and each time I found a spider at the exact point. The very first one leapt from its cover and snagged a June bug just after I got close. For what it’s worth, June bugs’ eyes reflect reddish-orange pinpoints of light.

I don’t have any pithy observations to tie the whole thing together, so I will just say that Outer Banks wildlife is cool and leave you with a few more photos.

Outer Banks 2018: Birds

My wife and I have just returned from a much anticipated trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The trip was filled with beach time, fishing, family, seafood, and exploring. I’ll cover some of that (and some other nature) in a future post. Every trip is an opportunity for birding, though, so I will toss off a few keystrokes on that topic first. The Outer Banks, lying on the coast and a few hours south of home, hosts bird life a great deal different from what I’m used to. A trip there is always a good opportunity for a neophyte birder like me to expand life and year lists, and to get a little more practice identifying birds outside my usual range of experience. This year’s trip was no exception – I upped my life list by six and my year list by 39, notching 64 birds for the week.

Gulls

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A herring gull scolding a fish cleaner for not giving all the guts directly to its mouth.

I always think when planning a beach trip that I will have an opportunity to see a plethora of gull species. In all reality, during June only three species of gulls are particularly common on the Outer Banks – the laughing gull, the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. I did see all of these (repeatedly) but didn’t spot any others. The ring-billed gull is reported on just over five percent of Dare County* checklists in June, and the lesser black-backed gull on about two percent, but all other gull species would be quite rare.

Terns

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Royal terns in the Florida Keys, Feb. 2014

By contrast, quite a few tern species are common on the Outer Banks in late spring and early summer. Ten species (lumping in the black skimmer – technically not a tern but closely related) are in the top 100 Dare County birds for June, according to ebird. Of those I saw eight on this trip – unsurprisingly the top eight: royal tern, least tern, black skimmer, common tern, Forster’s tern, Sandwich tern, gull-billed tern, and Caspian tern. Of those, the gull-billed tern was a life bird for me. The two I missed – bridled tern and black tern – would also have been lifers, but as the 91st and 99th most reported birds for the area I’m not feeling too frustrated over those misses.

Shorebirds

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Reusing an old photo of a shorebird I missed this time.

Shorebirds are another diverse group on the Outer Banks. Most of these I could nab on a closer trip to the Delmarva Peninsula, but the Outer Banks with its miles of uninterrupted beaches and Sound-side mudflats is an exceptional place to view these birds. This is probably the category where I was most disappointed in my results for this trip. I didn’t spend much time looking in the ideal spots, and when I did there were several groups I couldn’t get close enough to ID even through my scope. I did tally eight species but left a lot on the table. There are a total of 19 shorebirds at least as common as the “rarest” I tallied. Those I saw: willet, killdeer, American oystercatcher, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, sanderling, least sandpiper, and red knot. I suspect that some of those fuzzy groups at the edge of my sight included semipalmated plovers, short-billed dowitchers, black-bellied plovers, and dunlins but I just wasn’t quite able to say for sure.

Pelicans and Cormorants

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Pelicans from a previous OBX trip

This is quite simple: brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants are very common on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in June, and I saw many of both.

Pelagic birds

This is where I made some real progress on this trip, notching four species of pelagic birds on one fishing trip aboard the Miss Hatteras. Previously I had only seen one: the magnificent frigatebird. Other than the few species which can commonly be observed from land, I just haven’t had many opportunities to view these birds – and this was my first chance since I started “seriously” birding around the end of 2016. First I spotted a few Wilson’s storm-petrels on our way out to sea, and soon after I saw a couple of Cory’s shearwaters. While at sea the captain noticed my interest and pointed out a great shearwater, and on the return trip I got a good look at a sooty shearwater. Of course I also missed several fairly common species, including petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, skuas, and jaegers, but for one trip (and that not really a birding expedition at all) I was quite satisfied.

Herons and allies

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Another cheat photo – snowy egret, Florida Keys Feb. 2014

On one moderate hike at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge I recorded seven species of herons, egrets, and ibis. None was a life bird, but all seven were year birds, and the two most common I missed (great blue and green herons) are abundant near my home and therefore not huge losses. It would have been nice to finally check off the glossy ibis as well, and I am certain there were some in my general vicinity. Still, one particular spot held a mixed flock of well over 50 great egrets as well as perhaps a dozen snowy egrets and as many white ibis, plus several tricolored herons. As a side note, I thought I spotted a pair of sandhill cranes flying from the sound side to the ocean side while driving home, just south of Oregon Inlet. The birds appeared too huge to be anything else, but we were cruising along pretty fast and I can’t even reliably report if they were the right shape. I haven’t found any recent reports of these birds in that area, so they were probably just some great blue herons or brown pelicans that looked oddly huge from my vantage point.

Other notable (to me) birds

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A juvenile barn swallow on Ocracoke

I didn’t see anything rare on my trip, but I was treated to one nice surprise. In our campground on Ocracoke, when night fell, I began to hear songs from several Chuck-will’s widows scattered among the marsh bushes. This was technically a life bird for me (because I had previously only heard them before I was recording sightings) and was something I was absolutely not expecting, although it turns out they are locally common in a few spots on the Outer Banks. Other year ticks for the trip included: boat-tailed grackle, purple martin, American black duck, brown thrasher, yellow-billed cuckoo, prairie warbler, and Eurasian collared-dove. While not “notable” in any real sense, I am always surprised by the preponderance of swallows at or near the beach. I shouldn’t be – they’re quite common – but there is always something incongruous to me about their appearance with the sand and waves.

What I missed

The single most abundant bird I did not see was fitting, as it is probably also the most common eastern North American bird missing from my life list: the eastern meadowlark. It’s a point of irritation for this East-coaster that I’ve ticked the western meadowlark but not the eastern. I also didn’t see any Carolina chickadees, which was odd but not that odd given the environments I frequented. Other than the shorebirds mentioned above the only other big miss is probably the prothonotary warbler, another bugaboo for me that always seems like it should be an easy add.

 

*Note: I am using a Dare County list as a proxy, but some of this vacation was on Ocracoke Island, which is in Hyde County (whose list is similar but different).

Butterfly Garden Plant Profile: Milkweeds

I thought I would try something new, and start profiling each of the plants (or plant groups) in my butterfly garden as a complement to some of the more macro-level discussions I started with. There seems to be no better place to start than with the milkweeds (Asclepias sp.) Plants of this genus are the only hosts for North America’s most iconic butterfly, the monarch. They also attract a wide variety of other insects, for a variety of reasons. Several species are native to the mid-Atlantic, and a few others grow well here. I haven’t found any of these on lists of invasives, so I have chosen to include a sampling of both native and non-native species in my garden. I can confirm anecdotally that monarchs will readily use all as host plants and that many species will take nectar from the natives and non-natives alike.

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common milkweed

Common milkweed (A. syriaca) is a native plant with lovely spheroid clusters of white-and-pink flowers. It can grow 5-6 feet (or more?) tall in good conditions. This is one of the first plants I started in my garden for perhaps obvious reasons. I have seen it in action hosting monarchs, milkweed tiger moths, swamp milkweed leaf beetles, small and large milkweed bugs, red milkweed beetles, and more. Seemingly every pollinator will make a stop at the flowers. It is fairly easy to grow from seed, especially if cold-stratified first. It seems to handle relocation well. This plant will thrive in moist but well-drained soils, but in my experience it will tolerate most conditions. I am always nervous about cutting back plants mid-season, but because monarchs prefer young leaves and breed in Maryland later than milkweeds emerge it is good practice to do so. The milkweeds can handle it.

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swamp milkweed (amid some partridge pea)

Swamp milkweed (A. incarnata) is quite similar. As its name suggests, it does prefer things a little bit wetter. Mine hasn’t taken off quite as well as the common milkweed, but it does return each year. Its flower clusters are smaller and not the same near-spherical shape, but do tend to a brighter pink. The leaves and seed pods are narrower. Other than the wetness, the same plant care notes apply to swamp milkweed. I know it hosts monarchs and the swamp milkweed leaf beetle and I suspect the other insects mentioned above can eat it as well. It’s a great alternative to common milkweed for a wetter space.

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butterfly weed (with oleander aphid infestation)

I am still trying to establish some butterfly weed (A. tuberosa). I had read that this species can take a little longer than the others to get going, and this is proving true. Butterfly weed has bright orange flowers and clear (as opposed to milky) sap. So far none of my seedlings from previous years has survived – I don’t know if I have been choosing the wrong location, experiencing a run of bad luck, or something else, but I will keep trying. The orange would really be a nice accent to the rest of my garden’s color pallette. It’s also reportedly a great nectar plant for many pollinators, and since biodiversity is my ultimate goal any native plant that fits the host/nectar profile is a plant I want.

The Maryland Biodiversity Project lists nine additional species (plus two subspecies of swamp milkweed) as Maryland natives. Some appear to be quite rare, and others are limited to the coastal plain. The remaining few species are on my list of potentials for future plantings – clasping milkweed (A. amplexicaulis) looks particularly attractive. I’ll have to balance diversifying the milkweeds with filling other niches, though, so they may have to wait in queue for a few years.

I did mention non-natives, and thus far I have tried two of these. Last year I added some bloodflower (A. curassavica), a more southern species that nonetheless grows well here.  I couldn’t resist the striking red-and-yellow flowers or the glossier green of the stems and leaves. I have observed monarch caterpillars munching on this plant and many insects taking its nectar, so I feel vindicated in sneaking in this non-native plant for variety’s sake. This year I am similarly experimenting with “showy” milkweed (A. speciosa), which is from the western half of the continent. I’m not sure if the seedlings survived the deluge we got earlier this month, but if they did I look forward to seeing if these perform as well as the bloodflower.

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Bloodflower

I haven’t had too many problems keeping milkweeds healthy once they’re established. One exception is the occasional infestation of oleander aphids. Perhaps coincidentally they have attacked my swamp milkweed most voraciously. The point of my garden is of course exploitation by animal life, but this non-native aphid does not contribute positively to the ecosystem so I don’t tolerate them. Fortunately they seem fairly easy to control. I have found manual removal to be very effective. I simply squish them by grasping the plant stems and rubbing, then rinse the gross yellow goo with a hose.

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All in all, milkweeds are low-maintenance flowers that add a lot of visual interest to a garden. They check a lot of boxes in terms of ecological niches as well, even excluding their well-documented relationship with monarch butterflies. There’s very little not to like.

Featured Species #6: Gray Catbird

CatbirdThe gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) may seem like an odd choice as a first bird to profile. Its plumage is drab gray except for a splash of rusty orange under the tail. It isn’t one of the handful of most widely recognized backyard birds. It is not nearly as notorious as its kin, the northern mockingbird. It is, nonetheless, quite common in our area from late spring through early fall, and quite distinctive in appearance and sound.

These birds start to show up in my yard sometime around late April or early May. I instantly know they’re back from the call: a loud, nasal whine that somehow always seems directed right at me. I know I am irresponsibly anthropomorphizing here, but the “Nyaaaaaaah! Nyaaaaaaah!” seems interpretable variously as “fill up your feeder already, lazy human!” “Go away!” and “I’m here, stop ignoring me.” I mean… just listen to this nonsense. It’s an irritating sound, but I think it’s what draws me to this bird. That harsh, insistent call makes gray catbirds somehow seem more intentional in their actions than most birds. A bogus impression, to be sure, but there it is.

Dumatella carolinensis (7)One small encounter not long ago served to endear me further to the species. I happened upon one trapped in netting and was able to free it. The bird relaxed when I held it, allowing me to easily free its legs and wing. I don’t know if this is typical behavior for a bird in distress, or if it represented intelligence, intense fear, or something else, but it was a nice feeling of connection to nature.

Like other mimids (around here, that’s the northern mockingbird) the gray catbirds song is a jazz odyssey of cobbled together sounds. Both species get a bad rap for “ugly” songs, but I honestly find them quite lovely most of the time. They do tend to go on and on, though, so much so that it can be frustrating to identify birdsong with a mimid in the mix. I’m still a bit of a neophyte at this, but I can’t count the number of times an unfamiliar song has turned out to belong to a mockingbird or catbird.

Gray catbirds are ground foragers and nest in shrubs. I often find them at my feeders or taking mulberries and other small fruits. I see them anywhere there are patches of shaded understory plants, and they are often fairly abundant in neighborhood parks. I think they go overlooked because they occupy an in-between space. They don’t appear very high on trendy “most common” lists, but neither are they uncommon. So to a birder a gray catbird sighting (in range and in season, anyway) is not noteworthy, but a casual observer may not even be aware of the species at all.

Gray Catbird Links:

Wikipedia
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Cat Predation Study

Speaking of “Mistaken”

If you’re reading this, odds are you know a butterfly garden has been a passion project of mine for several years now. It has gone well, and increasingly so each season. I have obsessed over every plant (or other feature) included, constantly asking questions like “can I get away with this non-native?” and “Do I have room for more of this, or do I need to diversify?” Each species has been meticulously chosen and cared for. I have stood among the blooms in midsummer, certain in my hubris that everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

Then one day this summer I discovered it wasn’t. Hadn’t. Didn’t – whatever.

In one small spot beside the garden bench grow several plants with feathery leaves and clusters of white flowers. They have spread well and stayed green through the last two winters. I grew them from seeds marked “pearly everlasting.” When I bought these seeds, I searched by the scientific name Anaphalis margaritacea, because a common name is notoriously slippery thing. I marked the pots as pearly everlasting, treated the plants as pearly everlasting for garden planning and plant maintenance purposes, referred to them as pearly everlasting in this blog, offered pearly everlasting seeds to fellow gardeners, identified wild specimens of this plant as pearly everlasting… you can see where this is going.

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The “pearly everlasting” in all its glory.

Is there a worse feeling then finding out you have been confidently, defiantly wrong about a verifiable fact, and acted to perpetuate that wrongness? I’m sure there is, but this sensation always guts me when it happens. I try very hard to either be correct or admit uncertainty. It’s humbling when I am reminded that sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.

So how did I come to discover this error? There is a second flower that has been on my to-plant list for the past couple years: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium). This spring, a couple of different factors led me to realize I already have this plant! First, I was scrolling through some local observations on iNaturalist. I came across a plant with the suggested ID “yarrow.” I thought “gee, that really looks a lot like pearly everlasting.” I was tempted to suggest this, but a quick Something image search of the scientific name made me hesitate. I left this incident believing these two plants look awfully similar. They don’t, if I’m being honest. A few days later I was researching yarrow in preparation for adding it to my garden. This finally brought me to reality. Every photo of the white-flowered variety looked exactly like my familiar plants. This time I decided to also image search pearly everlasting and compare. Nooooooooooooope!

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Thinking back, it’s stunning just how much information a pre-conceived notion can brush aside. Those seeds were labelled “Pearly Everlasting – Anaphalis margaritacea,” and plants grew from them. From that starting point, my brain steeled itself against assault from any evidence to the contrary. I remember thinking the seedlings didn’t look quite like what I’d expected, and ignoring that. I remember thinking the flowers didn’t look quite right when they bloomed, and dismissing that. I remember seeing yarrow plants for sale and wondering why they looked so much like my “pearly everlasting.” I remember squinting at photos of pearly everlasting in field guides and gardening books until they looked close enough to satisfy me.

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Blooms of a colorful variety of yarrow I added this year.

What the hell, human brain? The tricks our brains can play on us in confirming our own biases are well-known, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of catching them in the act. It invites one to surrender to radical skepticism and cease trying. That’s not particularly productive, though. Instead I will try to re-instill some basic lessons of identifying organisms.

  1. Consider as many field marks or features as are discernible.
  2. Do not reject any details, whether or not they conform to expectations.
  3. Do not make assumptions about field marks or features you can’t see.
  4. Seek additional opinions if there is any doubt – and preferably if there is no doubt.
  5. Using dichotomous keys never hurts, even if it is especially tedious for familiar species.

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I could keep going, but it boils down to keeping an open mind and replacing assumption with observation. I suppose I could call it a scientific approach. I don’t think matching observations to existing literature is properly “science.” However, the process (question, research, hypothesize, test, analyze/conclude, communicate) can and should loosely be followed. It is also not bad advice to be skeptical of one’s own conclusions.

I did end up purchasing some colorful varieties of yarrow to complement the white-flowered crop. Now I find myself in need of a plant I thought I’d had almost from the beginning. I did name my blog “Wildly Mistaken” for a reason, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it when I find out I am exactly that.

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.