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!!

 

 

 

 

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!)