Finding joy in troubled times

While working on photos for other blogs, it occurred to me that it might be more productive right now to focus on what we, everywhere, are facing with the current pandemic. It’s my hope that as many of us as possible will survive, thrive and overcome the distress we are facing. As we hunker down, like this beautiful mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), we can intensify our nature observations – or begin paying more attention to the wildlife around us when we do go for walks.

 

Practicing social quarantine and distancing is essential –- even if we live somewhere where authorities are not yet requiring this. Keeping away physically from those outside our households can protect them as well as ourselves. In most places, social distancing rules still allow us to get outside for walks in the fresh air and nature. I have never seen so many people, including families with children, in the local nature reserves and that is a welcome sight. Hopefully, a side effect of this will be much more social support and advocacy for environmental conservation and expansion of natural areas, parks and reserves now and in the future -– that would be an unexpected positive outcome to the measures we are taking to get through these troubled times! (Yellow trout lily above, Erythronium americanum).

For people who haven’t had the pleasure of getting out much on walks, I wanted to share something about how to possibly enjoy nature even more. From my perspective, a key element is learning to practice patience and to stop, wait, watch and explore frequently. Here are some examples of what you might find. (Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia)

Looking down at the ground can be a fruitful exercise, especially in spring. Fresh new blooms are emerging and can delight us with their beauty (like the Eastern spring beauties, Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – the leaves look like jigsaw puzzle pieces

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)                  Tiny bluet (Houstonia pusilla)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

   

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

   

Ground ivy – also known as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

If you are out with kids, you can pay more attention to the plants –- take photos of them (most reserves and parks don’t want people to dig up and pick flowers) and then look them up at home and learn about them. Or make a game out of fallen leaves –- find three with very different shapes and identify the trees.

If you look closely at the flowers, you might glimpse small bugs flitting around the blooms. If you have a camera or phone camera, try to get a photo. When you enlarge it, you might find that you have actually seen a beautiful fly, bee or other insect whose shape and colors you couldn’t see with the naked eye. If you want to identify it, post the photo to the site BugGuide.net, where entomologists can perhaps tell you what species you saw.

Parasitic fly (Goninii, above)

 

 

Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

Various species of syrphid flies are shown below; they are often mistaken for small bees. The first photos are all of the species Toxomerus geminatus.

 

Male                                                               Female

And below the male and female together.

 

A species of syrphid fly with a striped abdomen (Syrphus torvus) is characterized by “hairy” eyes (more so in males, like this one). Click to enlarge and see the hairs.

A larger species, Brachypalpus oarus, is not so colorful.

Even if you can’t get outside much, you might see an interesting insect around your house. For example, this male brown-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops) appeared on my porch when I was sweeping.

Butterflies are really starting to fly around now. The bluish spring azures (Celastrina ladon) are abundant right now.

I’ve been seeing falcate orangetips (Anthocharis midea), too.

Damselflies are also starting to appear; we tend to see them earlier than the dragonflies, who spread their wings horizontally when they alight on vegetation. This fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) was getting covered in yellow pine pollen –- much of North Carolina’s Piedmont region is bedecked in yellow dust during the spring weeks when the pine trees emit clouds of pollen.

 

Looking in the water can be productive, too. One day, I spent some time scanning the edge of a pond where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. As I watched little fish darting to and fro, I suddenly noticed something larger moving about quickly. I looked more intently and discovered Eastern newts (also called red-spotted newts, Notophthalmus viridescens) down there – the first time I had seen these amphibians!!

When you see an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scurrying across the leaves in the forest or even alongside a road, stop and watch a bit. I did the other day and saw the mammal locate a winter stash and dig up some food it had stored. This article describes their storage process and reveals that they can probably remember where up to 95% of their stashes are hidden!

Paying attention to fallen logs can reveal beauty, too. This tree that fell across a creek ended up providing a growing place for common blue violets (Viola sororia).

As I walked by some other fallen trees, a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) popped briefly into view, gave me a pensive look and then disappeared into the leaf and twig litter.

Looking up at the trees, you might be lucky to see a wasp nest. The paper wasps (Polistes) make compartmentalized nests, with a place for each individual egg.

Or you may see a large bald-faced hornet’s nest (Dolichovespula maculata).

               

If you take the time to watch birds, you may see them engaged in looking for food (like insects, nuts, berries and seeds).

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)         Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

 

Black & white warbler (Mniotilta varia)    Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

On one of my latest walks, I heard rapid knocking and was able to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) engaged in beginning a new series of sap holes, which provide sweet drinking spots for themselves and other birds.

If you’re able to look at trees, bushes or nest boxes during walks or from your windows, you might catch birds collecting materials for their nests. Just the other day, I saw a Carolina chickadee gathering up some spider web to use in a nest.

If you find a nest, be sure to maintain a good distance, but then watch the parents bringing food to their nestlings after they hatch. If you’re lucky, you may even see the babies fledge! And if you are not near any trees, watch some birds at their nests through webcams online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/ – https://www.audubon.org/birdcamshttps://birdwatchinghq.com/live-bird-cams/
https://birdcams.live/

If, at some point, we are “stuck” inside, we can follow this link to international wildlife days. If we find one to celebrate during our quarantine, we can spend some time learning about that animal and drawing or painting it. And we can do the same for other environmental days as well at this link.

To end, I’d like to share some resources with free online nature activities – for children and adults! Not all the sites require having a yard; even readers living in apartments could get out for a short walk and find something to see, investigate, etc.  Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

A wildflower walk with surprises!

owl IMG_3036© Maria de Bruyn resThis past Saturday morning, we awoke to water streaming from the heavens in quite a heavy downpour. A local conservation group, Friends of Bolin Creek, had scheduled a wildflower walk to see some of our ephemeral spring blooms but the wet conditions were not inviting. A decision to postpone the walk to early afternoon was taken – and the weather-people had gotten it right – the sun began shining at mid-day and the temperature rose, creating lovely conditions for a walk after all. A large owl (later revealed to be granddaughter Kate of the group’s president) greeted the small group of intrepid walkers and we set off to see what we could find.

Southern arrowwood IMG_3039© Maria de Bruyn res

Our first flowers were the not-yet-open blooms of a Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum). We passed numerous black and yellow millipedes on the paths and then found another millipede species (Narceus americanus) curled up next to a little brown jug (also known as arrowleaf heartleaf, Hextastylis arifolia var arifolia).

millipede IMG_3052© Maria de Bruynlittle brown jug IMG_3048© Maria de Bruyn

We came across other nice specimens of the plant, including one with four small flowers.

little brown jug IMG_3138© Maria de Bruynlittle brown jug IMG_3141© Maria de Bruyn

The painted buckeye trees (Aesculus sylvatica) were blooming profusely with their greenish-yellow flowers.

painted buckeye IMG_3070© Maria de Bruynpainted buckeye IMG_3492© Maria de Bruyn

 

Eastern spring beauty IMG_3089© Maria de Bruyn

 

Clusters of Eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were in their vicinity.

 

 

star chickweed IMG_3095© Maria de Bruyn

 

Some of the star chickweeds (Stellaria pubera) were near another white bloom, the rue anemones (Thalictrum thalictroides).

 

 

rue anemone IMG_3110© Maria de Bruyn rue anemone IMG_3109© Maria de Bruyn

Both the trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor) had already bloomed, the trout lilies about 7-10 days ago and the orchids in the winter (when there are no leaves). One orchid had left behind its brown stalk as a witness to the flower that had seen the light.

trout lily IMG_3156© Maria de Bruyncranefly orchid IMG_3148© Maria de Bruyn

Tiny bluets (Houstonia pusilla) in clusters here and there provided some variation from the ubiquitous white blooms that we were seeing. The mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) were just emerging and it will be a little while before we see their flowers emerge underneath the leafy umbrellas.

tiny bluet IMG_3118© Maria de Bruynmayapple IMG_3196© Maria de Bruyn

 

Bolin creek IMG_3165© Maria de BruynThe creek was running high and fast and we debated on crossing it at the first branch. Only two of us had wellingtons (and one lady found that her boots leaked); others were wearing running and walking shoes but everyone made it across by using stones, canes and walking sticks that some of our group had brought along. Our immediate reward was a view of a gorgeous pinxterbloom wild azalea (Rhododendron periclymenoides).

pinxterbloom azalea IMG_3174© Maria de Bruyn

foamflower IMG_3180© Maria de Bruyn

 

A sighting of a foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), followed by a cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata) provided a bit more color, as did the littleleaf buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus), although its blooms were not fully expanded yet.

 

cutleaf toothwort IMG_3187© Maria de Bruynlittle leaf buttercup IMG_3092© Maria de Bruyn

Only the jigsaw puzzle-like leaves of the bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) were in evidence as that flower had stopped blooming already. A tufted titmouse singing overhead (Baeolophus bicolor) gave us a nice little concert as compensation.

bloodroot IMG_3198© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse IMG_3201© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3428© Maria de Bruyn resAnd then we came across our three surprises of the walk. We had already seen several Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) fluttering by in one’s and two’s and we remarked how welcome they were because of the paucity of butterflies we had had the past couple years. But then across another branch of the creek, we spotted some 12-20 butterflies congregating over some delicacy of unknown (to us) origin.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3259© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3263© Maria de Bruyn res

The water was fairly deep and flowing fast, so we did not cross but we surmised that someone’s dog had left a pile of poo to provide a mud-puddling butterfly feast.

Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3443© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail IMG_3447© Maria de Bruyn res

Then we noticed on a rock just below the bank under the butterflies where two Northern watersnakes (Nerodia sipedon) were having a little rest.

northern watersnake IMG_3406© Maria de Bruyn

northern watersnake IMG_3408© Maria de BruynThey were a bit dull in color, which became quite obvious when compared to a third northern watersnake that we spotted on a rock closer to the creek – perhaps a younger individual who had decided that a sunbath was just the thing for a Saturday afternoon.

northern watersnake IMG_3241© Maria de Bruyn northern watersnake IMG_3349© Maria de Bruyn

While we were all enamored with the flowers we’d seen, the butterflies and snakes gave our walk a special feel.

bugleweed IMG_3501© Maria de Bruyn

 

On our return trip through the woods to reach our transportation, we came across an invasive plant, the bugleweed (Ajuga reptans). We had already seen plenty of Japanese wisteria, mahonia, privet and autumn olive and agreed that another volunteer day to weed out some invasives would be a good contribution to the preserve. But that is for the future – right now, we are happy to think back to our surprise spottings!

Spring has sprung – at last!

While we did have some nice days during the past winter months, we also had some very cold and icy periods in North Carolina. The way the temperatures were yo-yo-ing up and down (70s F and then 20s, 60s then 30s, etc.), the cold and nasty days seemed even worse than usual. I was going to post photos of birds in the snow but “life got in the way” and my time was preoccupied with other tasks. So I’ll jump right into spring with some floral beauties that are blooming.

Eastern spring beauty IMG_7866©Maria de BruynThis past Sunday, I went on a wildflower walk organized by the Friends of Bolin Creek and led by Dave Otto, who helped point out and identify the blossoms we were seeing. The Eastern spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) were exactly that – some almost completely white, others with lots of pink and a few with pink stripes on white backgrounds (below left). Some butterflies but especially different types of bees and flies collect nectar and pollen from these flowers and I have been told that the stripes help guide the insects to the pollen. I haven’t found confirmation of that theory, but it’s a nice idea.

 

Eastern spring beauty IMG_7876©Maria de Bruyn resRue-anemone IMG_7903©Maria de Bruyn resRue-anemone

Another small bloom that can be white or with shades of pink is the rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides). Its leaves are more rounded, in contrast to the elongated leaves of the spring beauties.

Rue-anemone IMG_7899©Maria de Bruyn res

We saw a few that looked almost lavender in color, stunning little blossoms that sway to and fro as the breeze moves their stems, undoubtedly contributing to their nickname of windflower.

Star chickweed IMG_7858©Maria de Bruyn

A third white springtime flower is the star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), a cheerful springtime bloomer. While they appear to have 10 petals, the flower actually only has five that are almost split in two.

 

Crane-fly orchid IMG_4312©Maria de Bruyn res

The crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) only has one or two leaves (with dark purple undersides) that emerge in the fall and begin to die off in the springtime. By the end of summer, when the leaves are gone, the flower emerges.

Large-flower heartleaf IMG_4308© Maria de Bruyn

Large flower heart-leaf IMG_4306©Maria de Bruyn res2

The large-flower heartleaf (Hexastylis shuttleworthii), also known as wild ginger, does produce a flower in the spring that resembles a small brown jug.

 

 

Even thViolet IMG_7868©Maria de Bruynresough they are fairly common, the violets (Viola sororia) are among Azure bluet IMG_7864©Maria de Bruynmy favorites. Their deep blue or purple blooms look wonderful against the deep green leaves. The azure bluets (Houstonia caerulia), on the other hand, have a very subtle bluish tinge.

 

Slender toothwort IMG_7881©Maria de Bruyn resThe slender toothwort is known by two scientific names (Cardamine angustata and Dentaria heterophylla) and depends on an appropriate habitat for survival. It can disappear as a result of land development or changes in land use.

 

 

Another favorite of mine in spring are the fiddleheads of the ChristmasChristmas fern IMG_4322©Maria de Bruyn ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides). These curled fern fronds are collected to be cooked and served as vegetables, although the fiddleheads of this particular fern are not recommended as being particularly edible. It is a useful fern, though, as the full-grown leaves lie flat on the ground and contribute to controlling erosion and conserving soil by keeping fallen leaves in place as they decompose.

 

 

The heath woHeath woodrush IMG_7871©Maria de Bruyn resodrush (Lazula multiflora) is not such a spectacularly beautiful flower from my perspective but perhaps it is because of the muted colors. The turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) also often appear with browns, rust and blackish colors but I find that they always create a beautiful image as they grow on stumps with bands of different colors.

Turkey tail IMG_7909©Maria de Bruyn res

All the spring bloomers brought smiles as we walked. Next blog, I’ll describe some of the other spring harbingers and then feature some of the wildlife emerging into the sunlight these days. (And hopefully have more luck with layout; this remains challenging!)