New Year, (Mostly) Old Birds

As I enter my age-33 naturalism season,* I find myself seeking new challenges to keep me on my toes. One of those is to continue the improvement and expansion of my butterfly garden. Another is to keep the momentum going on this blog. Most of the rest are general, like “continue to learn about nature” and “ride my bike more.” So far there is only one challenge for the coming year that I’ve put a number on, and that is birding.

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A northern cardinal at my in-laws’ feeder

I was at my in-laws’ home to celebrate the New Year, and I couldn’t help but sit and watch their feeders for big chunks of each day. The common feeder birds there aren’t all that different from those here, but they had this chair in the window and I didn’t have any pressing tasks to accomplish, so I indulged. I was also able to work in some nature walks and talk the family into joining me for some of them. I suppose in winter on Cape Cod it is all about the birds. In addition to the backyard birds I saw an abundance of interesting waterfowl at the Cape Cod Canal. The abundance and diversity inspired me to formulate a personal challenge; in 2017 I want to document more species of birds than I have confirmed in my life prior to 2017.

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An enormous flock of common eiders at one end of the Cape Cod Canal. This was the largest of four or five flocks we saw.

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Even Franklin and Oscar were in on the birding.

That probably sounds like a lofty goal, but it’s no Big Year. I am still learning to distinguish many types of birds, so it’s certain that I don’t have confirmed sightings of many of the birds I have actually seen. As of 12/31/16 my lifetime list stood at 160 species, setting my challenge bar at 161. By contrast, North American birders’ Big Years go well over 500 species (and the top ten are all over 700). So my goal is a Modest Year by expert standards which just happens to be a big one for me.

I think the target is attainable. I reached 33 species over the first five days of the year, and I really only had free daylight hours in which to look on two of those days. More significantly, three of those species were new to my lifetime list. The real challenge is going to be finding enough new-to-me species to make up for those I’ve recorded before but have virtually no chance of finding this year. There are another 30-50 no-doubters which I will see just by virtue of spending time outside in Eastern North America, and frankly the vast majority of the 160 pre-2017 species are relatively common birds. After logging only duplicates yesterday, this morning before even leaving my home I saw 18 total species, checking off 5 more for the year. A short walk in late afternoon added 4 more for the day, two of which were new for the year. That puts me at 25% of my goal with 2% of time expended. The redhead I saw in Wheaton Regional Park’s Pine Lake was another addition to my lifetime list.

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An eastern towhee, mourning dove, and a pair of white-throated sparrows beneath one of my feeders this morning.
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The best shot I could get of the redhead, spotted keeping to the outskirts of a small flock of Canada geese.

Me from a few years ago would find it odd that birding is such a focus for me in 2017; as recently as 2011 or so I’d say that birds (especially the everyday birds of suburbia) were of little interest to me in comparison to other wildlife. That’s not to say I didn’t like birds, but they were a lower priority to me for some reason. I think it was partly a surrender after struggling to ID them in the field. Then I got the Sibley Guide to Birds, discovered the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds” website (and later, their app) and got a good pair of binoculars. Trips to the Everglades and Costa Rica didn’t hurt, either.

Now that I’ve spent a few years studying the birds I see with a careful eye (and ear) some things which seemed hopelessly murky are much clearer to me. Small, drab birds used to all look alike to me, but now it only takes a couple of seconds to pick out a house sparrow, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, dark-eyed junco, house finch, or winter-plumage American goldfinch. Birdsong also once sounded to me like a complicated mishmash of high-pitched squeals, but I can reliably identify many common species by ear these days.

I’ll wrap this up with my 2017 list so far (in order of first sighting).First-time sightings in bold.

  1. white-breasted nuthatch
  2. black-capped chickadee
  3. northern cardinal
  4. house sparrow
  5. dark-eyed junco
  6. tufted titmouse
  7. American goldfinch
  8. downy woodpecker
  9. white-throated sparrow
  10. song sparrow
  11. red-bellied woodpecker
  12. Carolina wren
  13. American crow
  14. mallard
  15. Canada goose
  16. hooded merganser
  17. hairy woodpecker
  18. common eider
  19. ring-billed gull
  20. bufflehead
  21. red-breasted merganser
  22. lesser black-backed gull
  23. American black duck
  24. great black-backed gull
  25. common loon
  26. surf scoter
  27. white-winged scoter
  28. mute swan
  29. American wigeon
  30. Carolina chickadee
  31. European starling
  32. rock dove
  33. American robin
  34. mourning dove
  35. Eastern towhee
  36. northern flicker
  37. blue jay
  38. northern mockingbird
  39. redhead
  40. house finch
*shout-out to all my sports nerd readers who get that joke, by which I am pretty sure I mean one dude.

Year-End Recap (Obligatory)

I don’t really like those year-end recaps that everyone does. I am doing one of those year-end recaps that everyone does. Enjoy my year-end recap that everyone does.

2016 sucked, right? That seems to be a pretty widely-held opinion. I don’t disagree, but this trend didn’t really apply to me in direct and personal ways, for which I am grateful. I hope that 2017 is friendlier to a lot more people the world over, but for now I’m going to focus on the good in my own life in 2016 by sharing some nature stories and photos.

I’ll begin, appropriately enough, in January. We in the DC area had quite the snowstorm early this year. We’ve been seeing more of these in recent years to a degree that the area’s snow removal infrastructure is simply not prepared for. Of course it would be fallacious to attribute any one storm to climate change (that’s weather), but the increase in frequency and severity is exactly what the models project.

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Wheaton under a couple feet of snow

My nature story of the year is definitely the progress of my butterfly garden, including the bench I built in February. I was able to use natural wood and just one long 2 x 6 board. We’d been forced to cut down a dead maple in our backyard in November, so I had an ample supply of logs.

March was a time for more garden prep, but it also yielded my first photos of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), found on the Rachel Carson Trail amid the vernal pools and wood frog eggs. I was also pleased to find some beautiful narrowleaf blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) in Wheaton Regional Park.

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Skunk cabbage is a very cool – if a little bit gross – flower, and one of the area’s earliest bloomers.
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Some of that blue-eyed grass I mentioned, found near the parking lot for the Brookside Nature Center.

The early planting, weeding, and digging continued into April and May, interspersed with short hikes around the neighborhood and to other local destinations. One pleasant walk in late April brought me sightings of much of the common local fauna and flora at its springtime finest.

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A cheeky little eastern chipmunk
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some lovely azaleas

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A family of Canada geese
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A redback salamander
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A red-eared slider

The late spring and early summer was mostly marked by studying visitors to my butterfly garden, most of which were not yet butterflies or moths.

 

Above are a handful of the flowers these bugs were visiting; below is a surprise garter snake (not found in my butterfly garden).

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An eastern garter snake seen on a branch of the Rock Creek Trail in Rockville

I think my favorite new-to-me species in 2016 was the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). I saw several of these on a few different trips to Brookside Gardens and they really were spectacular. They look like hummingbirds, sound like bees, and dazzle like orchids but they’re really large moths.

Narrowing down which landscapes and wildlife photos to share from our August trip to Vermont’s Green Mountains was a real challenge. I’m not confident that I’ve picked the best or the most interesting, so maybe I’ll come back to it in a later post. It really was a fantastic trip.

The rest of the summer and into the fall, I began to really see the payoff of my butterfly garden. Butterflies and moths, birds and squirrels, some surprise visitors, and the flowers themselves were all quite rewarding sights.

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Caterpillars! These are more or less the point of all the work. (These in particular are monarchs.)

 

I’ve hardly included everything that I could have (I’m saving a few things from this winter for a future post or two, for example). We took a late fall trip to Shenandoah National Park and I generally try not to let my interest in nature take a total nosedive through the winter. Regardless, I hope you enjoyed my year-end recap that everyone does.

More Year-End Recaps That Everyone Does

Happy Holidays!

That’s not a political statement… it’s Christmas Eve, so Merry Christmas as well. It just happens that this post deserves the more generic title because there’s nothing exceptionally Christmas-themed about it. In the spirit of the season I am sharing some winter-themed photos and links.

As always, click an image below for an expanded view.

Birds sure have a way of making themselves seem holiday-appropriate in the winter. These blue jays provided a nice show during last January’s heavy snowfall.

And this cardinal in Wheaton Regional Park made a spectacle of himself for me, too.

And finally, I loved getting the chance to view this red-shouldered hawk (quite common in our neighborhood) on a snowy day.

There’s more to winter than just birds in the snow, though! For one thing, there are seemingly pointless hikes (which therefore telegraph their purpose) taken in February for the sole purpose of proposing.

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Winter hikes are great! Apparently I didn’t stress this enough to be convincing.
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But one gets some nice views, beautiful in a different way from other times of year.
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And there is always some surprise greenness somewhere.
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Not to mention much more obvious tracks!

So, I like going out in the winter, but what about my companions?

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What about them, indeed?
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Oh, they’re OK with it.
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Especially this one.

That’s a lot of white up there. Like, really a lot of white. So I guess I’ll add one last thing, overtly Christmasy after all.

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Enjoy the season, and these fun holiday wildlife links!

Some winter wildlife webcams

Christmas Bird Count

Wild Reindeer

Mistletoe and Birds

Scat Cat Spat About Cat Scat (And Other Fecal Matters)

I confess, I’m just posting about the skill of tracking, specifically as it applies to identifying and interpreting animal scat, tracks, and other “signs.” I didn’t write a rap song, nor do I think Scat Cat ever “spat” about any such thing. I have one more confession: I do not have much skill as a tracker despite my interest in the outdoors. Learning more about it is on my bucket list, but here in my 30s I am discovering that the bucket is probably too small to hold everything.

I spend a lot of time outside, so I’m not particularly squeamish about animal poo. Yet, I’ve never been interested enough to overcome the ick factor and study it. It’s still poop. With regard to tracks, all of my attempts to learn have been stymied because it seems I rarely find tracks complete enough to give me a clue much beyond “some kind of bird” or “a smallish mammal.” When I do, it’s usually because I just saw the animal that left the tracks in the first place. Beyond those first two basics, other elements of tracking have eluded me as well. “What kind of bird is this feather from?” Shrug “A brown one?” “What’s the difference between deer ‘rubbing’ and ‘scraping’?” “Wait, aren’t those synonyms?” These are exchanges I have had. As far as scent cues go, I know what skunk spray smells like – that’s something, right?

Self-deprecation aside, I realized when preparing this post that I know more about tracking than I think I do. If you’re a naturalist, an outdoorsman, or whatever other type of person would read this far, you probably do too. A portion of this is subconscious and/or automatic and so I’m not really aware I possess the knowledge unless I really think about it. This applies to a lot of tracking skills, but – bully for you, readers! – the clearest and most numerous examples seem to relate to poop.

As I mentioned before, I haven’t made any sort of robust study of feces. Somehow, though, I seem to have a surprisingly vast scatological catalog. I’ve had dogs all my life, so I’m quite familiar with dog shit. Wild canines produce somewhat similar excrement. I’ve never owned cats, but my friends and neighbors have and I’ve been known to cat sit; cat crap is also a known quantity. I frequently hike or bike on multi-use trails (and I have marched in parades) so I can identify a pile of horse turds without a second thought.  Growing up I rode a school bus past thirteen cow fields each way (I know – I counted) daily, so many times I’ve glimpsed the nightmare apple pie crust that is a cow patty. Rabbits are common both as pets and in the wild, making their relatively innocuous pellets familiar. The occasional annoyance of mouse droppings in a home, office, garage, or shed has bred some familiarity. Then, too, I was recently acquainted with the dung of Norway rats when a couple took up residence under my house. In my efforts to rid myself of these visitors, I learned to distinguish their leavings from roof rat logs. Deer scat is easily identified because it is abundant in this area and distinctive. I’ve been to a pond somewhere that is a place in the world, so I know the green menace that is goose poop. Similarly beach trips have acquainted me with the milky paste ejected from seagulls and car ownership with passerine bird mess. One of my dogs once luxuriated in the pungent leavings of a black bear, so add that to the list. I’ve seen Jurassic Park, so I know that triceratops shit comes in “one big pile.”*

I chose to focus this post on scat because I kept coming up with examples – monarch caterpillar frass, aquarium fish poo, earthworm poop, the list goes on. What I’m really talking about, though, are unconscious, automatic observational skills. We all have them – and if pressed we can consciously call upon them. Don’t worry – I’m not getting mystical or piping the debunked theory that we don’t use most of our brains – there’s just a ton of information in our brains we don’t realize is there. Learning to tap into that is as important to tracking as acquiring the knowledge in the first place. Some of it’s even primal evolutionary stuff. If something looks, sounds, or smells odd it probably is, but most of us are way out of practice at interpreting those signals.

Another example: I used to think I was so terrible at differentiating birdsong that learning was a lost cause. I’m still no expert. But, I can pick out quite a few songs and calls now and it gives me a baseline to narrow my focus to the interesting ones worth listening to. Sometimes that’s even as simple as hearing a call I can’t place but know I hear all the time. I still can’t distinguish very well, without a recording, among the various types of sparrows or finches, but I can reliably identify the shrill call of the Northern cardinal, the song of a robin, the “mep mep” of a white-breasted nuthatch, the coo of a mourning dove, and several others. I can call to mind perhaps fifteen or twenty without thinking too hard. As with the silly list of waste product data, I’ve come to realize that much of this I already knew and it was just a matter of thinking hard enough to access the information.

Yet another way this phenomenon hits me is in the form of knowledge I have but can’t put a name to or express with the correct terminology. This most often relates to field observations which I haven’t formally recorded. It might be a spider with specific markings that I’ve seen a hundred times but don’t have a name for. It could be knowing that some mushrooms has a bump on top of its cap before knowing that it’s called an “umbo,” or that it can  help identify the specimen. It’s been plants I walk by every day, certain that they look similar in some way I can’t quite pick out but unsure if they’re the same species, or even related at all. Itemizing this nameless knowledge can be a useful exercise for a naturalist; it can start one on the right track toward knowing what you don’t know.

So, where was I? Right. Poop. I lied. I did write some (terrible) rap lyrics.

Scat Cat spat about cat scat
‘cuz the scat his brat shat left a splat where it sat
so Scat Cat spat: “brat, you best clean that scat stat
You can’t leave that fat pat just to chill where it’s at

It don’t matter clean that splatter ‘fore I rip you to tatters
Got me mad as a hatter it’s gon’ be batter up
and your body will shatter, ain’t no more pitter-patter
I’m a be your bad luck like you walked under a ladder

Then rat-a-tat tat I’ll come at you with my gat
This ain’t no tit for no tat, I ain’t gonna live like no rat
So brat clean that scat ‘fore I lay you out flat
and if you gonna do that next time put down a mat, drat!

*There’s no way that this was an accurate depiction of triceratops poo. This even bugged me when I was a kid. How is the top of the pile higher than the animal’s anus? Why does it look like an anthill?

A Naturalist’s Library

As an amateur naturalist, I need to rely heavily on the work of professionals and more experienced amateurs if I want to know what the Hell I’m doing. To that end, I’ve tried to assemble a pretty sizable library of natural science information. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s impossible to appreciate nature without these resources, but they certainly help. I wouldn’t be able to, oh, say, write a blog about nature without them, for example.

009My starting place is a wide array of field guides. Call me  a Luddite if you will, but I do think this is one area where print volumes remain superior in some ways. Yes, it is impractical to take a whole shelf of guides into the field, but I find them indispensable when I return home. It can be quite difficult to achieve good results Googling an animal or plant from a description (although odds improve as one learns more naturalist jargon) and the ability to page back-and-forth can be a tremendous asset. In general I prefer the Audubon series of guides, though The Sibley Guide to Birds may be the single best of these publications. I do think that choosing one series of guides vs. another is largely a matter of personal preference but have found that keeping it consistent can be advantageous. The presentation of information can vary pretty widely from one publisher to the next, and familiarity with a given format develops one’s research speed. For topics of particular interest it’s a good idea to have more than one guide. It might sound excessive, but different authors tend to focus on different features and the multiple perspectives can be the difference between “this is one of these seven species” and “oh, definitely this one.” One last thing about field guides: when I’m about to take a significant trip I like to prepare by browsing a guide or two to the common local wildlife at my destination. Knowing what I’m likely to spot goes quite a long way. It’s how, for example, I ultimately figured out that the odd “bird calls” I was hearing in Vermont’s Green Mountains were in fact produced by flying squirrels.

The next resource you’ll need is a good set of trail maps and hiking guides. Again the old-fashioned print version is often preferable – no device’s battery lasts forever and you may find yourself without a signal for your GPS but still needing to get your bearings. A lot of great maps are published by the US Geological Survey and/or local trail clubs (the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in this area). For guided hikes, I have found the Falcon and “50 hikes” series particularly well done in general, but there are countless options and I have rarely encountered one which was terrible.

Beyond the field guides, maps, and hike collections the contents of a naturalist’s bookshelf are really captain’s prerogative. What topics most interest you? I’ve chosen, among other things, a few volumes on gardening and landscaping, some additional mushroom guides, and a variety of environmentalist manifestos. I’m a major bibliophile in addition to a naturalist, so I am always on the lookout for that next perfect fit.

In the digital age, the word “library” has taken on a vastly expanded definition. This new breadth of meaning begins with our friend the internet, and naturalists benefit as much as anyone else. Even Wikipedia can serve as an excellent beginning – sure, it might be wrong, but it’s usually not hard to corroborate or debunk. Most parks and other public lands have their own websites (and social media presences). Localized species lists can also often be found. The sheer volume of available web resources is staggering, but below are a few of my favorites.

023Smartphone apps can also be wonderfully useful and are increasing rapidly in sophistication. The Merlin Bird ID Tool, for one, is excellent. I caution against (and may be guilty of) overusing the bird calls to attract birds in the wild, but they are a wonderful learning tool. I’ve heard that Leafsnap is also quite good, although I haven’t been able to get it to accept photos taken with my phone for some reason. I have just recently discovered Mushroom ID. It is well-reviewed but I haven’t yet put it through the paces myself. I’m sure there are plenty of other great apps and I welcome recommendations.

Rounding out the naturalist’s library are two more collections, one of which I have in abundance and the other something I’m a bit delinquent in. The former is a curated and organized collection of one’s own data. Some might say I am a bit anal-retentive in this regard, but I don’t think I take particularly good field notes. I just catalog whatever information (and photos) I do come back with to a pathological degree. The latter is a network of other naturalists. I’m a bit of a lone wolf in my hobbies and so I do not excel at making and maintaining these connections. However, when I do blunder into them I see why they are so valuable. Sometimes it is simply so much easier to learn when taught directly by someone with the same interest.

Featured Species #1: Black Bears

I promised charismatic megafauna, and it’s time I delivered! The American black bear (Ursus americanus) might be THE local example. They’re starting to be seen more often in nearby populous areas like Bethesda and Rockville, occasionally attaining local celebrity status. They’re large, adorable, a little scary but actually not all that dangerous, and have a tendency toward human-like actions. The smallest bear in North America and the least threatened bear in the world, they are also much less dangerous and aggressive than grizzlies and polar bears. Nearby Shenandoah National Park has the highest population density of black bears in the country, and I see at least one there almost every time I visit.

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A cub hanging out in a tree.

Often it’s easy to spot bears in Shenandoah because of the vehicles stopped in the middle of Skyline Drive, passengers either all pasted against the windows on one side or physically out of the car at the edge of the woods. You’re not supposed to do this, and the rangers will lightly scold you and break it up if they see it, but when confronted with an actual bear to observe this can be a hard rule to follow. The Drive is after all the most likely place to spot bears, since one covers a lot of ground quickly and the animals aren’t afforded enough time to sneak off. I’m comfortable with this rule being bent or broken as long as one isn’t openly harassing or feeding the animals. I can’t stress enough how bad it is to feed a wild bear, though. Just… don’t.

One such encounter came about because a driver in front of us had stopped to look at some deer in a field on the opposite side of the road. As we approached and slowed, the other car started moving again but I heard some rustling branches out my open window and asked Laurel to stop. I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car, expecting perhaps an opportunity for a photo of a bird or other small animal. As I took a couple tentative steps toward the pine in front of me, a furry black face emerged from the needles. I was startled, but the bear only looked my way long enough to see what I was before it resumed browsing. It was only a couple arms’ lengths away but couldn’t have given less of a damn about me. I watched for a moment, snapped a couple of hurried photos, and got back in the car. In terms of pure excitement, this was about the best thing that could’ve happened. That said, I shouldn’t have been so close to a wild bear – for my benefit and its as well – and had I known it was there I’d have stayed in the car, content to observe briefly and quietly from there. I’m still glad of the experience, though. It’s always oddly gratifying when a wild animal is aware of you yet unconcerned.

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Yeah, that was this guy. At first he was hiding behind that tree to the left.

By far our worst bear encounter didn’t even involve seeing the actual bear. Instead it was Franklin seizing an opportunity to roll in one’s feces while Laurel and I were distracted by something else (a small snake, if memory serves). It was during a long weekend camping trip, and we had little choice but to share our tent with him. The best we could do was give him a sponge bath, hold our noses, and refuse to snuggle him. I’ve never seen the little bastard so pleased with himself. I’m certain he brags about this to Oscar every time we go camping now. All of our other bear encounters have pretty much been textbook observation.

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The price one pays for that “textbook observation” is out-of-focus photos with stuff in the way. Low price.

American black bear links

I bearly restrained myself from all the ursine puns I wanted to make. Really stuck to the bear bones. Saved myself the embearassment. Bear in mind that I did this for you; it was quite unbearable. I can be pretty ursinine.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nothing much to say, just thought I’d share some wild turkey and harvest photos and express my thankfulness for the bounty of the natural world.

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Just a flock of turkeys hanging out in my in-laws’ front yard, circa August 2014.

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Wait, how’d THAT get in there? Well, probably useful for a lot of people this particular Thanksgiving…

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Not really what one expects to harvest in late November, but it’ll sure do!

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Just a small flash of fall color in Wheaton Regional Park

Enjoy your tryptophan comas!