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!!

 

 

 

 

More spring flowers – at home and in the wild

Up until 2 a.m. crocus IMG_3724©Maria de Bruyn resworking on an advocacy paper and then awakened by a tornado alert on my cell phone at 5 a.m. a few days ago, seeing bright flashes of lightening through the blinds and hearing rumbling thunder as the rain poured down. After what seemed like a somewhat lengthy and lingering winter, we’ve had a rather wet spring with temperatures yo-yo-ing. The flowers seemed a bit confused, too, but they have been blooming albeit not always when expected!Pear blossom IMG_3985©Maria de Bruyn res

 

My yard is quite enjoyable in the spring, with a variety of cultivated and wild-growing flowers. The cheerful violet crocuses (Crocus) were the first to greet me in delightful profusion, while the early blooming pear tree (Pyrus) only had a few blossoms this year, apparently confused by warm spring days alternating with freezing mornings.

A rapidly spreading invader, the purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) has moved into my flowerbeds, obviously feeling that it should be nestled in among the African daisies and tulips. It’s fine with me; I leave them be with their lovely little blossoms. The cute little Persian speedwell (Veronica persica) is sticking to the “lawn” – I wouldn’t mind if the grass were gradually all replaced with this wildflower, clover and moss.

Purple deadnettle IMG_4522©Maria de Bruyn res Persian speedwell IMG_6519©Maria de Bruynres

Painted buckeye IMG_3887©Maria de Bruyn resThe painted buckeyes (Aesculus sylvatica) have now bloomed but were also very pretty when they first began growing, like this specimen near Bolin Creek. Sweet Betsy (Calycanthus floridus) had reached a good size at the Botanical Garden, where the mountain witch alder (Fothergilla major) was also showing off its flowers. The foamflower (Tiarelia cordifolia var. collina) was half-way through its cycle and being visited by lots of bees.

sweet betsy IMG_4263©Maria de BruynresMountain witch alder IMG_4552©Maria de Bruyn

Foamflower IMG_4532©Maria de Bruynres

At Mason Farm Biological Reserve, the dogwood (Cornus) was lovely; the tree in my yard didn’t flower this year but the leaves still look healthy. On the ground, the Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) was really abundant in places, some plants with green “tubes” and others with purple-striped ones.

dogwood IMG_9380©Maria de BruynresJack in the pulpit IMG_0833©Maria de Bruyn res

Two plants were a bit mysterious. When I first saw the violet word sorrel (Oxalis violacea), I stared at it for a time as it seemed to be growing out of a clump of clover leaves. However, the flower didn’t look like clover; I finally decided it must be an unusual kind. The man in charge of Mason Farm, a botanist, set me straight fortunately. The other mystery concerned some clumps of red globules. An entomologist who was present told me they were insect eggs; bug experts on BugGuide, however, concurred that this had to be a slime mold. Interesting that insect eggs and slime mold can look so similar!

Violet wood-sorrel IMG_0827©Maria de BruynresSlime mold IMG_4092©Maria de Bruyn

Next blog – some spring wildlife and then back to birds!