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!!

 

 

 

 

Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

Venturing forth on overcast days

Our area has been inundated with rain for 9 days straight now – not a big deal if you live in a region with monsoon seasons but it is not really usual for us. We also had two hurricanes and several severe storms the past 5.5 months as well as other rainy periods and the ground – much of it clay – is just not absorbing all the water anymore. My yard (which I am fortunate to have, don’t get me wrong!) currently has patches that are simply sodden mud and clay with no vegetation to be seen. Paths in the nature reserves are slick and slippery. Still, if you’re a person who gets “spiritual sustenance” by going out into nature, you venture forth on those days that might have a few overcast but rain-free hours to see what is out and about. Though I haven’t seen beavers lately, I did see their tracks in one reserve. A father had brought his children out and they made plaster casts of the tracks – a wonderful outdoor nature lesson.

Because we have also had some unusually warm days for this time of year, the flowers began budding a bit earlier than other years. Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are blooming profusely and a few of my neighbors have lovely flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

 

 

A winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) at one park had some lovely blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

At another reserve, an apple tree (Malus pumila) has lovely flowers emerging.

 

Unfortunately, the tree is right next to a grove of cedars that are laden with mature cedar apple rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). When they emit their spores, they will kill the apples. I used to have an apple tree in my yard but the nearby cedars also got apple rust and now the tree has died. I’ve planted a plum tree and hope that that one will thrive and survive.

With the leaves having fallen from most trees, it’s possible to see the cocoons of some of our larger moths. So far, I’ve found three cecropia moth cocoons, two polyphemus moth cocoons and several bagworm moth cocoons in three different places. The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases are also showing up better with little foliage to hide them.

Getting nice shots of birds is not easy on those dull and gray days. Many of the smaller birds were huddled in bushes and trees, puffing themselves up to trap some body heat as a means of coping with the cold and wet conditions.

 

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

I tried to get close to a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius), who kept flying just a bit further away when I slowly approached it. As I was walking back to my car, it suddenly turned and flew right by me – I swung up my camera and got one shot, which was not perfect but still a bit of a reward.

 

A gorgeous great blue heron (Ardea herodias), on the other hand, deigned to entertain me with a protracted grooming session at a local pond. S/he first perched above a couple turtles and watched them until they plopped down underwater.

Then the bird began picking at its feathers, showing off how its long neck can be twisted to enable that long beak to reach where it wants.

Note where the beak is peeking through in the photo above right! Flexible neck!

The preening activities gave me a chance to get what I considered to be a series of nice portraits.

 

The weather forecasters predicted that the rain would end, it would get very windy and the sun would shine this afternoon – they were right! They also say we will have a week of sunny days coming up – I certainly hope that that’s the case so I can exchange my muck boots for regular walking shoes again. Hope you are enjoying some pleasant weather!

 

Soothing my spirit, seeking solace for the soul

leaf-i77a2875-maria-de-bruyn-resAlthough more people in the USA voted for the Democratic ticket than the Republican one, the electoral college system will likely lead to the installation of a Republican presidency unless election re-counts affect those designated votes. This distresses me greatly given the persons who have been announced as top administration advisers and cabinet members. My work on social issues and on behalf of vulnerable people will continue and is increasing. But in the meantime, to keep from going into a 100% depressed mode, I have sought solace in nature walks and spiritual strengthening in the flora and fauna I see.

painted-turtle-i77a2277-maria-de-bruyn-resToday, I will share some of words of wisdom from a conscientious spiritual leader with you, along with some photos of nature’s beauties seen during my walks at the Cane Creek Reservoir, Sandy Creek Park and Mason Farm Biological Reserve just before and since the November election. It’s a bit of a long blog but offers some visual sustenance to ponder, like the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta, above) at Mason Farm and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) at Sandy Creek sunning in the morning sun despite chilly temperatures. (From a distance, the slider looked a bit as if there was something with open jaws in the pond!)

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Early in the morning, you can find frost- and dew-covered plants and a few remaining flowers glistening in the sun.

 

 

blanket-flower-i77a1309maria-de-bruyn-res  henbit-i77a0825maria-de-bruyn-res

Blanket flower (Gaillardia)                           Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule)

leaf-bird-i77a2906-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

Later in the morning, the autumn-colored leaves make nice patterns as you search for birds high and low. And occasionally you get to see the fabled “leaf bird”.

 

 

 

leaves-i77a2893-maria-de-bruyn-res   leaves-i77a2882-maria-de-bruyn-res

When looking high, you may find the birds looking down on you; face-level stares as you gaze straight ahead may also occur!

white-throated-sparrow-i77a6365-maria-de-bruyn-res                     eastern-towhee-i77a1659maria-de-bruyn-res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

killdeer-i77a0916maria-de-bruyn-res

 

At Cane Creek, the killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) make their presence known by their distinctive calls and you can enjoy their gorgeous appearance as they fly over the lake.

 

 

killdeer-i77a0913maria-de-bruyn-res  killdeer-i77a0911maria-de-bruyn-res

Taking care of our planet is like taking care of our houses. Since we human beings come from Nature, there is no point in our going against Nature, which is why I say the environment is not a matter of religion or ethics or morality. These are luxuries, since we can survive without them. But we will not survive if we continue to go against Nature.  – Dalai Lama

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a2988maria-de-bruyn-res

 

Many birds, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), are busy finding seeds and nuts for their meals.

 

 

tufted-titmouse-i77a1965maria-de-bruyn-res  white-breasted-nuthatch-i77a2671maria-de-bruyn-res

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)          White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

song-sparrow-i77a1499maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a8444-maria-de-bruyn-res

Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)                 Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Sometimes, it involves hanging upside down to snag a tasty morsel and their wings help in balancing.

carolina-chickadee-i77a2699maria-de-bruyn    ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2565-maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina chickadee                                    Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

If we unbalance Nature, humankind will suffer. Furthermore, as people alive today, we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other. It is therefore part of our responsibility towards others to ensure that the world we pass on is as healthy, if not healthier, than when we found it. – Dalai Lama

american-crow-i77a6327-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

At Sandy Creek, a group of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) flew down to investigate what had dropped to the ground from an overflowing garbage can but they soon flew off to seek more normal food elsewhere.

 

 

great-blue-heron-i77a1936maria-de-bruyn-res

 

A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) was stalking the pond for fish; after I saw him (or her) snag a medium-sized fish, he turned his back so I saw the fishing technique from the rear.

great-blue-heron-i77a1438maria-de-bruyn-2-res  great-blue-heron-i77a1440maria-de-bruyn-res

flowering-dogwood-i77a0882maria-de-bruyn-res

 

The flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) at Cane Creek still had a few blossoms; at Sandy Creek and Mason Farm, they offered bright berries. On one tree, they made me think of a movie-inspired alien peeking out of the branches with eyes on stalks.

 

flowering-dogwood-i77a5820-maria-de-bruyn-res       flowering-dogwood-i77a1012maria-de-bruyn-res

Destruction of nature and nature resources results from ignorance, greed and lack of respect for the earth’s living things. – Dalai Lama

Up until the first morning frost this autumn, butterflies were still around, like this sleepy orange (Eurema nicippe); now that we have had several mornings of below-freezing temperatures, the butterflies are mostly gone as are the majority of bees. A scorpion fly (Panorpa) was in evidence at Cane Creek to my surprise.

sleepy-orange-i77a1003maria-de-bruyn-res  scorpion-fly-i77a0991maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a2505-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

In between bird spottings, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) chittered at me at all three parks. And I was pleased to see some ruby-crowned kinglets since the one that has enjoyed the suet at my house the past three years hasn’t appeared yet.

 

 

 

ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a6241-maria-de-bruyn-res     ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a2574-maria-de-bruyn-res

…until now, Mother Earth has been able to tolerate our sloppy house habits. However, the stage has now been reached where she can no longer accept our behaviour in silence. The problems caused by environmental disasters can be seen as her response to our irresponsible behaviour. She is warning us that there are limits even to her tolerance. –  Dalai Lama

Some of the birds common in my yard are welcome sights at the nature reserves, too.

northern-mockingbird-i77a2312-maria-de-bruyn-res    dark-eyed-junco-i77a0624maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

carolina-wren-i77a6358-maria-de-bruyn-res   yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a2780maria-de-bruyn-res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)   Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

northern-flicker-i77a2485-maria-de-bruyn-res          eastern-bluebird-i77a0688maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)               Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

chipping-sparrow-i77a2915-maria-de-bruyn-res    chipping-sparrow-i77a2925-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Many of the earth’s habitats, animals, plants, insects, and even microorganisms that we know of as rare or endangered, may not be known at all by future generations. We have the capacity, and the responsibility. We must act before it is too late.    Dalai Lama

And the occasional or rare visitors to my yard are appreciated in the woods and fields, too!

field-sparrow-i77a1587maria-de-bruyn-res      field-sparrow-i77a1634maria-de-bruyn-res

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

rusty-blackbird-i77a3199-maria-de-bruyn-res rusty-blackbird-i77a3110maria-de-bruyn-res

Rusty blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)

swamp-sparrow-i77a6063-maria-de-bruyn-res      golden-crowned-kinglet-maria-de-bruyn-i77a1711maria-de-bruyn-res

Swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)             Golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)

I feel that it is extremely important that each individual realize their responsibility for preserving the environment, to make it a part of daily life, create the same attitude in their families, and spread it to the community. – Dalai Lama

hermit-thrush-i77a6034-maria-de-bruyn-res  cedar-waxwing-i77a5945-maria-de-bruyn-res

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

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What a great quote and slogan material:

 

Preserve the environment, make it part of your daily life and spread it to the community!