12 Months of Nature: April

Early Spring Wildflowers/Blue Ridge In Blossom

As always, this month’s journey was selected from Seasonal Guide to the Natural Year. The advantage to “early spring wildflowers” as a topic is that one can experience them more or less anywhere, without the need to target a specific destination. I chose Shenandoah National Park (specifically Big Meadows and the Mill Prong Trail) because it’s one of my favorite places and because it happened to coincide with another chapter in the book: The Blue Ridge in Blossom, also wildflower-related. Laurel, Frosclin and I hopped in the car on Good Friday and made our way there.

I have to admit, when we arrived at Big Meadows the wildflower prospects did not look quite like I had hoped…

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Yeah. I later learned that this was a “prescribed” burn, meaning it was initiated and controlled by the Park Rangers. This is good for the environment but bad for people hoping to spot some exotic wildflowers in the meadow. Instead the meadow was charred and desolate at first glance. However, it was bursting with song sparrows (somehow still able to hide quite well) and other birds. At the woods’ edge one could almost feel the life poised to spring back out onto the open plain as soon as the time was right. Seeing the place like this was a mixed bag of emotions. We’ve been there in all four seasons and it shows stark differences from one to the next. Now we can add “fire season” to that list. It was fascinating, and I know the fire wasn’t “bad,” but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit wistful standing there among the ashes.

Things immediately returned to normal once Laurel chose the Mill Prong Trail as the locus for the bulk of our trip. At first I thought we’d be looking at a bit of a thin selection of flowers while seeing mostly not-yet-flowering plants. It was a little early and despite the mild winter the mountains of Shenandoah tend to lag a couple weeks behind the DC area in blooming. For the first half-mile or so of our hike that rang mostly true: we found dandelions, purple and downy yellow violets, more bloodroot, cutleaf toothwort, and spring beauties in bloom alongside the greenery of mayapple and false hellebore (and some other green plants I lack the skill to identify without their flowers).

I was having that exact conversation with Laurel after spotting some trilliums that were just not quite ready to blossom when suddenly these kinds of plants began to give way to large-flowered trillium and trout lilies. scattered among them were a few wild geraniums and a smattering of star chickweed. Then we happened across a small patch of golden ragwort. Clearly spring had truly come to Shenandoah, and clearly Franklin had some sort of ragwort-related apprehensions.

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trout lily
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large-flowered trillium
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golden ragwort, one needlessly wary dog, and one regular dog

Rounding out the blossoms as we approached the Rapidan Camp (more on that in a minute) were buttercups, mock strawberries, wood anemone, chickweed (of the non-astral variety this time), garlic mustard (boo), phlox, red maple, redbud, and one bush with tiny yellow flowers which I couldn’t quite identify.

The Rapidan Camp, which I had either never heard of or at least not known its significance, is a collection of cabins on lovely grounds just a few miles south of Big Meadows. This was apparently Herbert Hoover’s retreat during his Presidency and it is now largely as it was then. Apparently one of our worst Presidents at least had good taste! We happened upon an archaeology class there and chatted for a few moments about their project and our dogs. It was all just a wonderfully pleasant pause before we commenced our return hike.

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redbud in bloom on the Camp grounds

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches
March – Tundra Swans

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

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.