The Leeks are Up

Path in the WoodsI walk the woods behind Bergman Park at least once a week.  It is amazing to see how much changes in a day or two at this time of year.  It will be a while before leaves appear on the trees.  But on the forest floor, things are happening.

If you take a step off the trail in this damp, rich woods, you are hard-pressed not to step on leeks.  Someone has been timbering in here and there are places where I have to leave what used to be the trail and climb over branches to get to where the trail picks up again.  Today when I did that, a fresh oniony smell drifted up to my nose.  It’s too early to dig them up for soup, though.

The Leeks are UpUsually, I hear the pileated woodpeckers that live here, but I rarely see them.  Today, they were silent, but the put on a little flying demonstration for me.  Lolli and I were down by the creek and they were investigating the lower trunks of the trees up on the ridge above us.  I nearly caught a shot of one of them, but Lolli chased him off.  Just as well.  I still don’t have a long enough lens to have done the photo justice, and I would have been disappointed.

Pennsylvania BittercressTo round out the woodpecker experience, a downy found its way to the upper branches of the same tree, and a red-bellied reminded me of it presence with a song.  I also heard crows, chickadees, kinglets, and (my favorite) a barred owl.  It reminded me of a walk at Rheinstrom Hill Audubon Center when the barred owls were calling at noon!

I learned a new flower yesterday:  Pennsylvania Bittercress.  It’s growing in a couple of patches near the Nature Center building.  Finally saw Colt’s Foot today, too, and some Narcissus.  Spring is here!  Let the march of wildflowers begin!
Colt's FootNarcissus

Farm Dump

Farm DumpIf you had a couple hundred acres of land, would you devote some of it to a dump?  Is that even legal any more?  I wonder…

The property owned by the Nature Center where I work was a farm once – many, many years ago.  We have found two spots that served as dumps.  They are noticable only in early spring, before the skunk cabbage leaves grow up tall enough to hide them.  There are amazing treasures in there… and a lot of junk.  Bed springs, an old metal headboard, pieces of old crockery, a battery, and lots and lots of glass…

Farm Dump-Blue Bottle

Many of the bottles are colorless.  Some are beautifully colored – blue, brown, green.  Some are clear, others cloudy.  Some are still whole, most are broken.  Most are empty, but some are still capped and contain – who knows what?  What came in all these bottles and jars?  Food?  Medicine?  Cosmetics or perfume?  Liquor?

It’s interesting to watch how nature reclaims the dump – so very slowly.  This area floods, then dries up, then floods again.  The stuff gets moved around a little, buried with silt, surrounded by dead plant material – but slowly, so slowly.  The bedsprings are rusting and as plants grow up through them it is hard to tell what is metal and what is organic.

Farm Dump-TerrariumsMy favorites are the mini greenhouses formed by the clear glass artifacts.  Today, Sarah lifted a broken glass pie dish to reveal an amazing stand of moss.  Then we found these two jars – each with its own ecosystem inside.

There is beauty to be found everywhere – even in a dump.  But here’s the question:  if this were your nature center, would you clean up the dumps?  I’m curious to know your opinion… the pros, the cons…  Do you work at a place or own some land where stuff has been dumped?  What did you do (or do you plan to do)?

Just a Nice Spring Day

Maple BlossomYesterday made me irritable.  Don’t know why.  It was too hot for one thing.  I really like cooler weather.  Today was cooler, so I took a long leisurely walk after work with camera and no particular mission.

I wish I could record sounds for you.  The sanctuary was full of peepers, wood frogs, and plenty of birds – all calling “This is my territory!”  or “How about me, babe?”

Each day, something new is out…  plants sprouting, insects emerging, birds returning…  Today was a day that made me long for a longer lens.  So much I didn’t capture, except in my memory…  The ground bees bubbling up out of underground winter shelters, a groundhog ambling through the woods, a phoebe, hairy woodpecker, chickadees, a muskrat.

It was warm enough for a few turtles to be out basking.  Most dove into the water before I could get a decent shot.  But this one…Painted Turtle  I took a shot from several yards away.  Then I sneaked in closer.  I took another shot, then sneaked closer still.  Repeat.  Repeat.  This final shot was taken from less than a foot away.  The sound of my shutter didn’t seem to bother it at all.  And as I looked, I realized, the left eye was missing!  The shell was rather beat up, too.  Eventually, he turned his head toward me, looked right into the lens of the camera, then turned and dove into the water.  It was a nice close encounter.

Conewango FloodingIt bothers me that the Conewango River is still so high, backing water up into our woods.  The vernal pool is literally connected to the river because of the high water.  Uh oh… am I going to get irritable again over not being able to see the salamanders and their eggs?  I had better stop dwelling on it!

Vernal Pools

The spring peeper is our region's smallest frog.  This is an adult.

I first learned about vernal pools when my boss called one night to leave a mysterious voice message on my answering machine:  “Meet me at the nature center at 9pm.  Wear a raincoat and boots.  Bring a good flashlight.”  We walked out around the Big Field to the far side of Big Pond, into the woods a ways, then off the trail to a pond surrounded by trees.

All along the way, the spring peepers were deafening.  Mixed with their song was the half quacking, half barking call of the wood frog.  When we got to the pond and Ruth shone her flashlight into the water, my jaw dropped.  I had never seen one spotted salamander before this, let alone the hundreds that were performing on this night.  It remains for me the most bizzare nature event I have ever witnessed.

Spotted Salamander.  Imagine hundreds of these swimming around in a pond...  Wild!

Ever since that night, spring just isn’t spring without a pilgrimage to a vernal pool to see the salamanders, woodfrogs, and spring peepers.  Last night, I headed down to Sarah’s to check out the pools on the top of the hill behind her house.  I took tons of pictures…  As you can see, I still have plenty to learn about how to get the best out of this camera at night.

Where the Salamanders Breed

Here is a view of the pool taken last November when the water was at a normal level.  In spring, the woods around the pool are often completely flooded.  That is the case today, making it hard to get to the pool to see if the salamanders have arrived…

Learn more.  Google “Vernal Pools”.

Taking Things for Granted

Tree with KneesI learned about Trees with Knees from my Girl Scout camp counselor back when I was a very young girl.  We were taking a tour of our tent unit when we found a tree similar to the one pictured here.  “Pickles” explained that a long time ago, a seed landed on an old stump and began to sprout.  Since it had not landed in soil, the roots had to grow over and around the stump to get to the forest floor.  Over time, the “nurse stump” slowly rotted away, leaving the roots in their original positions – looking like the legs (with knees) of a strange, long-necked animal.

The first time I encountered this tree with a group at Audubon, I was surprised to discover they didn’t know what caused the “knees”.  I had lived with this knowledge so long I just assumed everyone knew.  When I gave the explanation and saw how amazed my group was,  I realized that I had lots of that kind of knowledge that I could share… that there were plenty of things I had learned about the natural world over the years that might not be common knowledge… things people might be fascinated to know.

This goldenrod has both a midge gall and a fly gall!Another favorite misconception I love to clear up for people is the nature of that bump in the middle of some goldenrod stems.  I’ve heard people call it a seedpod, or a disease…  The truth is even more fascinating.

There is a fly that lays eggs on the stems of  goldenrod in the summer.  When a larva hatches, it bores its way into the center of the stem to find everything it needs to survive:  food, water, and shelter.  The plant responds to the activities of the larva by growing extra thick layers of tissue in the shape of a ball around it.

The fly emerged...When fall comes, the larva creates an exit hole – right up to, but not breaking through the outer skin of the gall, then returns to the center to spend the winter.  In spring, the larva will pupate and eventually use the exit hole to emerge as an adult.  If you find a gall with a smooth small hole, the adult has emerged.

A downy woodpecker had lunch here.Sometimes the fly is not so lucky.  There are too many creatures out there that know about this secret life.  Birds, such as chickadees or downy woodpeckers, may peck holes into the gall to find a tasty lunch.

And, of course, there is the overzealous naturalist who finds a gall with no hole at all and wants to show her charges the contents.  (Who me?)

Fly larva in center of gall...Would you believe there’s more?  For example, there are wasps that drill into galls to lay eggs so that the wasp larva can feed on the fly larva.  It’s all too fascinating… and I never tire of teaching people about it!  (While hiking with the Cub Scouts, we also found oak leaf galls and willow galls.)

P.S.  After showing my Cub Scout group the gall, we happened on this water snake – the first I’ve seen in 2007.  After I explained that while water snakes are not poisonous, I don’t like to pick them up, since their saliva has an anti-coagulant that keeps your blood flowing after they bite you, which they almost always do… one young Cub Scout decided he wanted to try picking it up anyway.  Water SnakeHis first attempt made the creature turn it’s head toward the boy, then slither a little way down the bank.  That movement was enough to convince the dad that his son was not going to get a second chance.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Yesterday the ground was hard as asphalt beneath my feet and patches of it were covered with ice.  After a day with temps near or in the 60s, the ground receives my feet… indeed sucks them down with loud squishy noises.  The snow remains only in places where the piles had been very high.  If it were raining tonight, I’d be at the vernal pool.  Instead, as sunset approached, I headed to Bergman Park with the dog and the camera, hoping for a colorful shot.

After snapping this picture, we almost started down into the hickory woods, just to see how muddy we could get.  But something pulled me back up – convincing me to walk the edges of the mowed area.

When a patch of clouds moved on, I was rewarded with a pretty view of moon and stars.  (I wish this picture did it justice!)  And then I heard it… the reason I wasn’t to go into the woods.  “Peent.  Peent.”  Patiently I edged along the edge formed by the remnants of last year’s tall field plants, following the song.  It wasn’t long before the whistling sound began.  I kept searching the sky for the male woodcock, which sounded like it was directly over my head – between me and the moon.  But I couldn’t see him until he returned to earth to strut and say again, “Peent.  Peent.”  Read more about woodcocks here:

A single spring peeper called behind me.  A pair of killdeer seemed to be having a conversation about whether or not this was the same field they nested in last year.  A robin complained of nightfall come too soon.

If it rains tomorrow night, you’ll find me at the vernal pool.  If not, I’ll be trying again to watch the woodcock.  Won’t you join me?

No Salamanders Yet…

Trails remain frozen on March 24th at Jamestown AudubonLinda O was so kind as to come down to the Center yesterday to help with a Cub Scout program.  I was really hoping last night might have been the big Salamander night.  We had a few hours before the boys would arrive, so we hiked out to check the usual spots.  Alas, the trails were pretty hard and frozen, the ponds flooded and still pretty icy.  Maybe later this week…

When we got back to the Center, there was a bird singing its heart out in the Scots Pine in the back yard.  He wouldn’t show himself and he had us baffled.  Later, another visitor told us what we may have heard:  Brown Creeper.   Who would think such a little, plain bird could make such a lovely song?

When I took the boys out for their night walk, we heard more than a few Spring Peepers and I really thought I heard one Wood Frog.  If the temperatures stay warm, maybe you’ll be seeing some Salamander pictures on my blog in the very near future…

Confessions of a Reluctant Birder

When I started working at Audubon in 1998 I could recognize a few birds by sight – just a handful.  You know the ones:  cardinal, blue jay, chickadee.  All the little brown ones were simply “LBB” for Little Brown Bird.  Just as I know the difference between a truck, a car, and a van, I also knew the difference between a goose, a duck, and an owl.  And just as I can’t tell a Chevy from a Ford, I couldn’t tell a great horned from a screech owl.

One day I came to work so proud!  “I saw a hawk,” I told my colleagues.  They were excited for me, “That’s great!”  Then came the crushing question:  “What kind of hawk?”  I hung my head.  I thought I was doing well just to know it was a hawk.

“That’s OK,” I told myself.  “You don’t want to be one of those nerdy birders anyway… never finishing a sentence because something flashed past the window… binoculars hanging around their necks on every walk… completely oblivious to the cool wildflower on the ground or the wild beetle on the bark of the tree…  Nope.  Don’t become one of Them.”

In the spring of 1999, the folks at Roger Tory Peterson Institute asked if they could hold a teacher workshop at Audubon on bluebirds.  Always delighted to get more people visiting Audubon, and not knowing anything about bluebirds, I said sure – as long as I was allowed to attend.  Those three or four hours turned out to be life-changing.

This nest box was built by Audubon Day Campers in Summer 2006.Elaine Crossley, the Bluebird Lady, guided us as we each made our own nest box.  The video we watched on bluebirds not only taught us where and how to place our boxes, but also about the bluebirds’ songs, courting, and the care of their young.  “These birds are so dear,” I thought.  I felt my heart melting; my love affair with the New York State bird had begun.  But I wasn’t totally hooked yet.

We hit the road to learn about monitoring.  The first box we visited on Elaine’s nest box route didn’t have bluebirds; it had tree swallows.  It also had a very foul and wet nest, possibly caused by a windy rain storm the night before.  “Hold out your hands,” Elaine told me.  Into my waiting hands she plopped four or five featherless babes, eyes still shut tight against the world.  Quick as can be, the damp, dirty nest was replaced with fresh grass and a few feathers.  Elaine inspected the babies one by one as she plucked them from my hands and returned them to the nest box, teaching the whole time about her experiences as a nest box monitor.

Now I was hooked… transformed!  Those babies in my hands… that did it.  I couldn’t wait to get back to Audubon and place boxes.  I couldn’t wait to monitor and to teach others what I was learning.  It was such an easy entry into birding.  There were only a few species I had to really know: the other cavity nesters who might use my boxes.  Chickadee, tree swallow, and titmouse.  House wren and house sparrow (and now two of my LBBs had names).

I still wasn’t a birder, mind you… still resisting, reluctant.  But a funny thing happened.  My concern for and interest in the handful of birds that use nest boxes began to expand to anything that flashed by the window or flitted in the bushes as I walked by.  During the summer, I learned about catbirds and yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds and kingbirds, kingfishers and screech owls.  Winter came and so did the feeder birds.  Could I learn the twenty-five top visitors?  I asked for binoculars and a field guide for Christmas.  More of my LBBs started to have names: tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows, song sparrows.  Spring came around again and I noticed bird songs more than I had ever noticed them before.  I even started being able to recognize birds by their songs… Crow, blue jay, chickadee, of course.  But also cardinal, oriole, catbird, red-winged blackbird, yellow warbler and more.  I didn’t even have to see them to know who was out there.

I’m not trying to become an ornithologist, or even a birder; I guess when you work at Audubon, it just starts to seep in – like osmosis.  I still don’t know my hawks, or my ducks.  I’m getting better with my owls.  I have a long way to go; there is so much to learn.  I’m not a birder.  I don’t take my binoculars on every walk.  I still notice the wildflowers and the bugs.  I’ll never be one of Them, but I don’t mind learning a bit about… hey, what just flew into that tree?

Vernal Equinox

equinox.JPGA day to reflect on the notion of balance.  The balance of light and dark.  The balance between cold and warm (that makes the sap run).  The turning from winter to spring.

And for the philosophical among you, a day to ponder balance in your life.  Are you taking care of yourself as you take care of the world?

I went searching for signs of spring today after work.  The day had started out sunny, but was cloudy, threatening rain by the time I could get out.  It was warm, making the snow heavy and wet – nearly slushy under my feet.  There were many spots where the green plants were trying hard to push their way through the snow.  And while some of the beech trees were clinging stubbornly to their leaves, many of the leaves had been pushed off by swelling buds.

Happy Spring!

Spring Approaches… Haltingly

Spring arrives slowly in Western New York.  March 15th was a sunny day and the snow was melting due to temperatures in the 50s.  I took a lunchtime walk with my colleagues to photograph the first wildflower of spring.  The skunk cabbage, a wetland indicator plant that generates enough heat to melt its way up through the snow, grows profusely at the Nature Center where I work.

It’s a weird little flower with a “spathe” (instead of petals) that protects a “spadex” inside.  It smells funny – thus attracting flies and gnats who like funny smells – and who play the role of pollinators.  Later in the spring, huge green leaves will completely overshadow these blooms.

Two days later, we’re back down in the teens and I need snow shoes again to make my way through the woods.  Puddles I tromped through the day before are buried under 10 inches of new, sparkling snow.  It doesn’t seem to bother the birds who are singing to declare their territories and attract mates.  I heard pileated woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and others whose songs I haven’t linked with names yet.

As I walk the familiar paths I find myself thinking, “That’s where the red trillium bloomed last year…  There will be hepatica next to that log…  The bloodroot always comes up right here…  This is where the wild geranium will be…”