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.

12 Months of Nature: March

Tundra Swans

This month’s candidates included three different birding adventures, all of which required a trip to central Pennsylvania. After careful consideration, looking for migrating tundra swans at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area seemed like the most likely to pay off, and also a good choice to mark off a handful of new birds on both my year and life lists. Since other migratory waterfowl were likely to be found in the same area, this seemed like a two-for-one deal, as well.

For a number of reasons, this one was a Ben solo adventure (the lower-case ‘s’ here is key). I missed my normal companions but there is also something great about being alone in nature. Somehow it makes one feel more connected to the wildlife one is observing, and more capable of appreciating the beauty of the environment for its own sake. That said, there were a number of other birders at and around the refuge that day, and one in particular who was very excited to show me what he’d found with his scope. I had picked out most of what he had to show me, but I have to admit the view through the scope was superior.

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Tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) are remarkably similar to trumpeter swans but smaller and with subtle differences in the bill and neck. Middle Creek has become an important stopover for them in their Spring migration back to their breeding grounds on – big surprise, here – the tundra. What may be actually surprising is that many of the birds who winter along the Atlantic coast breed in eastern Alaska, adding a huge East-West component to their migratory pattern. That’s just not something my brain is wired to consider as part of the picture, given the ceaseless repetition of the phrase “fly south for the winter.”

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View of the lake from atop the Millstone Trail

The photo above can give you a good idea of the number of swans present last Saturday. This was taken from atop the Millstone Trail looking North across the lake. In the middle distance, along the north bank, each of those white dots is a swan. The second group of airborne white dots farther in the distance is a medium-sized flock of snow geese. I arrived a bit late to see the peak migration; thanks to our early spring this happened in late February this year. At that time the snow geese numbered around 70,000 and the tundra swans about 2,500 birds. By the time I visited the numbers had dropped to a still-impressive few thousand geese and few hundred swans. For those interested in catching the full spectacle in future years, you can check the WMA’s official migration update page.

I mentioned this was also a great opportunity to see other migrating waterfowl (another March activity in the book I’m following) and this too was a wild success. In addition to the ducks and geese, I got good looks at dozens of American coots, about 30 common mergansers and 20 green-winged teals, a half-dozen elegant northern pintails, plus a handful of American black ducks, gadwalls, ring-necked ducks, and American wigeons. I guess I’ve skipped over the Canada geese, but there were plenty of those too. I also caught a glimpse of a golden eagle that has been a continuing rarity, and watched some American tree sparrows (new to my life list) for a bit. Side note: we really like to name birds “American” whatever, don’t we? On this day I also saw the less noteworthy American crow, American robin, and American goldfinch.

There was more to appreciate than birds. It was still a wintry scene, but in the wooded areas was a gorgeous carpet of princess pine. There were quite a few stands of evergreens amid a light layer of snow, and in some of the low-lying wet areas near the lake shore were pockets of skunk cabbage. Finally, the water of the lake itself created some beautiful attractions. As small waves washed over low-hanging tree branches and roots in the twenty-degree air, lovely patterns of icicles formed. I admit that at two-and-a-quarter hours each way from Silver Spring, this is a bit of a hike for a day trip, but I found the experience well worth the effort.

 

Prior months of nature:

January – Bald Eagles
February – Winter Beaches

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