Sunday, April 20, 2008

Out of the Unknown

Part of the fun of tuning in to nature is the learning. With my memory it's especially rewarding because I get to learn the same things over and over again. Tavia's Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher was a new one for me. I'm now wondering if the little gray bird with white tail stripes that I saw from a distance the other day might have been a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher instead of a Slate Colored Junco like I assumed at the time. I'll never know but next time I'll look a little more closely before jumping to conclusions. I remember thinking at the time, "Haven't the Junco's left yet?"

The picture posted here was named "UnknownRedShrubFlower" in my pics folder until I stumbled upon it while browsing The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants - Eastern/Central. The picture in the guide slapped me "upside the head." Because it's such a distinctive flower I knew it was a match. The unknown shrub has been transformed in my mind to Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpurious). I've seen this plant before, I think, but never took time to look it up. The picture here was taken last fall at Floyd's Fork Park in Jefferson County KY right along the creek. Hailed by it's exotic shape and brilliant red/scarlet foliage, flowers and berries I was compelled to stop the car and snap off a couple of pictures. I looked in the rear view mirror first, of course.

It turns out the plant is considered to have numerous medicinal uses and the fruit, seeds and bark are considered poisonous. I have to laugh. A beautiful unknown plant now has a personality. Not only is the personality bestowed with a history of herbal medicine, it has an absolutely intriguing name. Why in the world would it be called Wahoo? Could it be for it's tonic, laxative and diuretic properties? Perhaps, but I won't to jump to conclusions.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Today is the Day!

My redbud has begun to open!

And my crabapple too!

Thanks to Cheri, this beautiful poppy is blooming in front of my house!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Singing Their Hearts Out!

Everything is changing quickly. When Buddy and I went for our morning walk in George Rogers Clark Park, I could tell that we had new aerial visitors, just since yesterday!

For many of these birds, I heard them before seeing them. While the dog sniffed and snorted around, I stood perfectly still so that I would be alerted by the flash of a wing, and hoped that more birds might reveal themselves to me.

Here are some of the newer birds that were busily feeding, showing breeding displays, and staking their territories:

BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER - I heard the sweet burry "pweee" of this fella before spotting him. The Blue-grays used to live near my mountain cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, so it was like hearing the voice of an old friend again. The burry call was rather quiet today and endearing.

GOLDFINCHES! - The call of the Goldfinch, to me, is the song to accompany the dipping flight of a swallow. It is so plaintive and distinctive, especially when they "sweeee." I adore this call and also their gentle and elegant flight patterns. Usually, I've seen them in larger groups than today, but there were a few. Most were blending into the yellowish catkins where they were eating the hatching worms. In the morning chill, their feathers were fluffed to provide warmth, and looked very healthy.

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROWS - These birds also have a beautiful song and call. The odd thing is that I've counted six White-crowns and all of them have a Big-Bird yellow patch between their inner eyes and their bills. I can not find this marking in my National Geographic field guide, and so am stumped. However, I recognize their singing and they have the distinctive black and white striping on the head, along with the somewhat rosy wing feathers. The throat is white ... anyone have any ideas? I still need to consult with some more guides.

CHIPPING SPARROWS - I was walking by a dell of cherry trees and was startled by the sweet scents and so stopped to deeply breathe and enjoy the moment. It was then that I heard an almost shy "chip" and then spotted the male nearby. He had the tell-tale rusty cap and then let out a louder "chip," as if in greeting.

CAROLINA WRENS - Let me tell you that I had difficulty hearing past the Wrens because they were so gung-ho about singing this morning! It was as if they had a contest to see which bird among them could call or shout the loudest. Their boisterous song belies their tiny size, and always makes me laugh when I see the tiny body with the head thrown back and suddenly this gargantuan voice bursts out. The equivalent in the dog world would be for a Miniature Chihuahua to have the bark of a St. Bernard.

YELLOW-SHAFTED FLICKERS - They were particularly busy today. I saw 16 and they all seemed more productive than usualy - flicking from tree to tree (are they hoping to "steal" a nesting hole of another or from a previous year?) and foraging constantly, flying from the base of trees and then to the older trees and snags for their particular delicacies.

BROAD-WINGED HAWKS - There is now a pair. I have been keeping my eye on a male for some time now and was very pleased to see him joined recently by a female. The hawks seem determined to fit in ... I know this is odd for me to say, but the male really has seen like an outsider for some time. I have a pair of Cooper's Hawks who are nesting in my back yard pine trees and they immediately seemed to belong. The claimed their feeding branches, and began the routine of building their nest and snatching songbirds out of our feeders. The Broad-winged hawk never seemed comfortable and was skittish even to humans walking far beneath him as he perched on a branch. I've been watching him and he didn't seem to pick a certain tree to feed, or develop a pattern. I hope having a mate will put him more at east so that he can focus on his tasks at hand.

The birds have such little "security" or "insulation" against weather, cold temperatures, and going hungry. I hope that the rest of spring will be kind to them ...


The Art of Nature

By Patty Wren Smith

Her hands cup the poppy blossom –
then open. Everyday she does this somewhere -
filling the world with fleeting things,
mountains, stars and summer rains.

In the dark edge, she sees the luminous.
Out of discarded flesh and gold-
she fashions new works and
gives to each its own fruit
and its own hidden stone.

No one tells this artist, “you can’t do that”—
besides, it’s too late,
her forms are flying from tree to tree,
some, the tiny ones, are munching on leaves -
others are leaping through the mist
on hoofs that sound like thunder.

Can we learn from such brave exuberance
how to be still amid the storms, how to take heart,
how to create in this world
a life that is truly ours?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Bernheim keeps us in our salad days

"Salad days' is used in modern times to refer to the days of carefree innocence and pleasure of our youth. It has also been used to refer to the time of material affluence in our more mature years, when the pressures of life have begun to ease - something akin to 'the golden years'. Source: The Phrasemaker.
Last Saturday, April 12, 2008, Wren's ITO 202 opportunity was making our own salad
from nature's wild bounty. Picking redbuds, dandelion heads, violets, chickweed, and more was such a delight. The taste was far more sensually enriching that I had even imagined. "Carefree innocence and pleasure" are two states that
the NIT program often delivers. As for the "pressures of life beginning to ease", what a blessing Bernheim is in that area as well. Writer's privilege- a special note of thanks to Susan Baker, who passed up Wren's stellar opportunity in order to volunteer at Bernheijm's least-known jewel. That jewel is the aresearch library located in the horticultural building.
Dick Dennis

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spring Thoughts on Trees

With redbuds just opening around our area, we are once again threatened with the possibility of an untimely freeze. I'll be anxiously looking each morning for the next couple of days, afraid of seeing damage from the temperature going too low. It does seem to me that some blooms are running later this year, perhaps because of late frosts the last two years.

Spending a day at Bernheim gave me a chance to do a little reconnoitering. I spied the precious catkins of the river birch. I'm reminded that even with so many trees in bloom right now, that so few are even noticed individually. And how pressed even someone who thinks of themselves as a naturalist is to identify a tree by its early bloom. Now is when a guide such as "Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky" by Wharton and Barbour really shines. Color photos of the blooms of many of the trees (and in some cases, photos of the fruits which will come later) precede the black and white photos of the trees that cause many to shun the book.

Some may have heard me yammer on about the color of bark on trees (bark is almost never "just brown"). Wharton and Barbour point out that the bark of young branches on the river birch is "pinkish tan". I must admit that I didn't notice that color, so I'll have to look closer on my next visit. The same book notes that the bark of the tulip tree is gray, though I see younger trees with a distinct pink or rosy cast. Though I don't have a copy, the Audubon guide to trees features a photo of each tree's bark. And I find it difficult to leave the visitor center gift shop without perusing "Tree Bark: A Color Guide".

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Spring Floods

muddy water flows
trash and trees rushing downstream
ducks swim peacefully

With much thanks to Bernheim

Today I took a nature walk that I probably would not even have thought about before Bernheim heightened all of my senses. I'm still dealing with the aftereffects of four inches of rain in the basement, including no functioning clothes dryer. This morning I took a lot of items to the commercial laundromat for drying. Nearby is a suburban office park that emphasizes its green space. At a two-acre lake I saw killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, geese, ducks, peewees, mockingbirds, and more. The red deadnettle was everywhere, as were catkins on many blossoming trees. The smells of lightly falling rain and the sounds of wildlife complimented each other very well. Two and 1/2 years ago, I would probably have stayed in the laundromat with my nose buried in a book. Thanks for keying me in to what's really fulfilling.

Nature is man's teacher. She unfolds her treasures to his search, unseals his eye, illumes his mind, and purifies his heart; influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence. ~Alfred Billings Street
Dick Dennis

Still Opening My Eyes

On April 9, 1962 the cottonwood trees were in bloom in Kentucky. Harlan Hubbard recorded it in his Payne Hollow Journal. And I'm reminded that I've never seen a cottonwood tree in bloom. In fact, I've only seen a few cottonwood trees in any condition. Harlan notes that some of the blossoms are reddish in color; my research indicates that male blooms (the trees are dioecious) are deep reddish with the female blooms usually being yellowish-green in color. Is the red color related to insect attraction? Yet I think trees that bloom before leafing are usually wind pollinated. Perhaps this tree's pollination strategy has changed over time. I have seen a very large cottonwood tree in town, and I'm inclined to walk out tomorrow to see if it is in bloom.

I've read that the sex ratio is 1 to 8 for cottonwood trees. Man, some trees are just lucky! I can always tell when it's spring; it doesn't matter whether you favor plants or animals, there's more sex going on in the spring than at any other time of the year. That's not a scientific fact, but it's my observation as a naturalist.

My redbud tree is still cautiously swelling its buds, while other redbuds are nearly bursting their flowers. It was the same last year. I guess that's where they get the expression: a "late bloomer". I like homely looking puppies too. But honestly, I didn't know it was a late bloomer when I brought it home. I know the color of those blooms exactly in my mind (more purple really than red), and I can close my eyes and see my tree in bloom. Soon I'll be able to open my eyes and still see the blooms. Then I'll write an entry in my journal.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Opening My Eyes

I looked back in my journal today and saw that the very first entry was made on April 16, 2007. I remember that I was anxiously awaiting the chance to move into the Bean house at the first of May, and I celebrated by beginning with my first entry. The first thing that I thought to write down was the weather (sunny skies and temps in the 60's with slowing winds) because we'd just suffered a killing late frost; one that must have occurred around this date. "This year's freeze interrupted the redbud bloom, though dogwoods seemed to defiantly hold onto their blooms." And mention was made that a late freeze had also been suffered the year before. I'm so glad reading it now that I made the effort to write a year ago.

All winter long I wait for a day like this one to come again, as if the days of winter are somehow inferior. And then when spring arrives, the season begins to speed by with the impatience of a teenager. I stopped to think today that the mid-afternoon temperature was as perfect as any that I'll see again all year. And having noted that here, I'll stop to remember what I wrote today in the heat of an August morning.

My first quote was also recorded that day: "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." Those words of Henry David Thoreau still strike me as worth writing in my journal today. It's a lesson that I think has been taught to me in part by the very act of journaling. And it reminds me that time is often wasted hurrying to the next sight, when so much can be learned by dallying over the sight we already have in front of us. And I'm reminded too that even when we must use the exotic Panda to stir the hearts of those who might contribute to our cause of nature, it's the ants under our own feet, the moths flying in our night sky, the trees in our neighbor's woodlot, or the invisible air that we breath that we should perhaps most concern ourselves with. I'm still learning to see every day, but at least I feel like my eyes are beginning to open.

Monday, April 7, 2008

new spring morning

the orchestra tunes
no pushing the snooze this dawn
the birds are back!

rhetorical question

how many branches
can we cut off the life tree
before it falls down?

smell of wild garlic
common blue violets fade
under the twilight
nature neatly trimmed
with everything in its place
sound of a mower

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Bustling Bernheim

Bernheim was very active today! The many different flowering species of magnolias and fruit trees were humming with pollinators, mostly bees. Birds were singing and calling to each other, and some were showing mating displays. Wildflowers were springing forth. Oh, and lots of humans and dogs were celebrating the warm and sunny day.

I spotted many Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers in full display, and will post some photos in the next few days. If you want to see them yourself, I'm sure they are in many forested locations throughout Bernheim. You may have to wander off trail a little (and tread gently, of course).

If you want to navigate to the spots I did, walk to the southwest meadow off Lake Nevin, to the west of the Cypress Tupelo Swamp. As you walk in the mowed area of this small meadow, before you take your first right turn heading north, veer off into the forest. You'll see some downed branches, and there will be the smiling, white, diminuitive faces of the Bloodroot flowers.

Also, I saw two tiny (about 1/2") green "helmets" of the first Mayapple sprouts. These are such magical plants. Their colonies will soon be blanketing the forest floor.

The beavers are active, too. We were happy to come upon Nancy (a fellow NIT), who was soaking up the sun and being her highly observant self. She was studying the Cypress Tupelo Swamp and pointed out a lot of small branches -- approximately 1/3" in diameter and averaging 2.5-3' long -- that had clear teeth marks. Several branches had been debarked and were white. A tried and true whittler couldn't have done a better job of stripping the bark.

What a wonderfully restorative day.

Friday, April 4, 2008

thunder rolls above
sound of rain in the darkness
water runs away

Raining On My Parade

Rain ... and more rain. That has to be the topic for today. I've been keeping a simple weather log just as a way of making myself more aware and also as a way to develop an understanding of how weather can be predicted. Or you can just note the current weather whenever you make an entry in your nature journal. (You do have a nature journal?!) As I write this, the humidity is 98% and the barometer is 29.94 and falling. I can report that this situation makes rain fairly likely. :-)

The forecast for today is rain with possible thunderstorms. I must admit that severe weather can scare me. I've seen the destruction of tornadoes and they can be humbling if not deadly. And lightning can be just as dangerous. But as scary as weather can be, what an interesting thing it can be to study.

Did you know that they've actually assigned genus and species names to clouds now? I'm fascinated by altocumulus mackerel sky (mackerel sky is the specific epithet). A cloud that looks like a fish? Yeah, sort of. It's named for how that cloud pattern resembles the pattern on the side of a mackerel. It can mean that a change in weather is on the way.

I also must admit that Allen and I have sat on the grass in front of the Education Center and just watched clouds together. (I see little lambs, Allen sees wood.) But my own favorite clouds are the ones that are bathed in the pastel colors of sunset. I've been taking many photos of the sunsets to study them and as a kind of phenology study. Though we've all seen beautiful sunsets before, I think there's a tendency to believe that most of them look pretty much the same. Check out my photos for proof that each sunset is as unique as a fingerprint.

At dinner time, with a break in the rain, I saw a flicker in my yard. No moustache means that it was probably a female. Having seen a male a week or so ago, I'm hopeful now that a pair may be setting up house in the area.

Following up on yesterday's thoughts: all that we know about social insects makes one wonder. Can insects think? Today's essay by Hal Borland (in his Book of Days) suggests that they can't, only depending on instinct. But some new evidence suggests that it might not be that simple. I saw an ant crawling on my kitchen counter this afternoon. I wonder if he thinks the food is good at my place.

To get started:

The Weather:







Northern Flicker:

Thinking Insects?:


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Copyright 2008 Bob Lenning

We Begin

I've started this group blog as a place for amateur naturalists, especially those who volunteer or work at Bernheim Forest, to gather and share their nature writing.