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 walk in the woods with a bit of local history

Ken Moore IMG_6384© Maria de Bruyn resOn a sunny afternoon in mid-April, volunteers at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) had the chance to learn about Bill Hunt, a horticultural expert who donated hundreds of acres of land for environmental conservation to the University of North Carolina. Hunt’s work laid the foundations for the expansion of the Garden with the Hunt Arboretum and the Piedmont Nature Trails in woods behind the cultivated gardens. The trails were “re-dedicated” during a walk to commemorate the Garden’s first public offering, which was originally dedicated on 10 April 1966. A walk in the woods was quite a nice way to help celebrate the NCBG’s 50th birthday.

Ken Moore IMG_6398© Maria de Bruyn resWe learned about how the Nature Trails were created and maintained from Ken Moore, retired assistant director of the NCBG and the Garden’s first employee.

Moore was accompanied by other Garden staff who offered other interesting tidbits of information. For example, Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation, told us about how Mr. Hunt visited his rhododendron bushes along Morgan Creek and invited friends to swim at Elephant Rock and to forest picnics at his personal grill located creekside, all the while wearing a suit and tie in his beloved woods.

elephant rock IMG_6443© Maria de Bruyn resHunt barbecue IMG_6436© Maria de Bruyn res

Staff pointed out some of the lovely native plants seen in the springtime woods, including plants that were rescued from other sites such as the trilliums.

Sweet Betsy IMG_6405© Maria de Bruyn res Virginia pennywort IMG_6411© Maria de Bruyn res

Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)                 Virginia pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

The woodsorrels have three-lobed, clover-like leaves.

Common yellow woodsorrelIMG_6429© Maria de Bruyn   Violet woodsorrel IMG_6423© Maria de Bruyn res

.Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta)   Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea)

Indian plantain IMG_6439© Maria de Bruyn res         Spotted wintergreen IMG_6434© Maria de Bruyn res

Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum)   Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

We also heard about the non-native and invasive plants that were planted along the Nature Trails before conservationists were aware of how they out-competed native plants for space and nutrients. They pointed out that we should remove such vegetation during our volunteer hours and from our own gardens at home, such as Oriental false hawksbeard (Youngia japonica (L.)), which I realized is nestling in in my yard, too.

Special attention was given to the plant with the delightful name of Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum). There were many clumps of these large-leaved flowers and numerous specimens were blooming. While Ken told us how to identify male and female plants so we could eradicate them, other staff demonstrated how to uproot them with gusto.

Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6481© Maria de Bruyn res          Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6494© Maria de Bruyn res

Listening IMG_6499© Maria de Bruyn res

As we climbed out of the woods after a couple hours, some last words were said about invasive plants and then Ken sped ahead to greet everyone as we re-entered the demonstration gardens. He kindly offered participants a small booklet about Bill Hunt’s life, a nice gift to commemorate 50 years of the Garden. It will be interesting to think about what the next 50 years might bring.

Ken Moore Ed Harrison IMG_6524© Maria de Bruyn resrue anemone windflower IMG_6450© Maria de Bruyn res                       IMG_6466© Maria de Bruyn res

IMG_6468© Maria de Bruyn res                   IMG_6458© Maria de Bruyn res Wild comfrey (right, Cynoglossum virginianum)

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!