Paddling at Lake Kissimmee State Park

Without a doubt, Lake Kissimmee state park is a little piece of paradise, just awaiting those who love to explore. It’s located in the mid-central part of Florida and is quite literally, stuck in “the middle of nowhere” which is exactly where its charm lies. It’s where you go when you want to detach from the world and find your own brand of inner peace.

The photo above is the Zipprer Canal in Lake Kissimmee state park. It connects the park to Lake Rosalie. The canal is shallow but is perfect for kayaks or canoes, with Great Blue herons and Snowy egrets a common sight along its banks. And yes, the water really is that blue.

Paddling Lake Kissimmee is always enjoyable but there’s a wonderful 12-mile loop that lets you start at Zipprer Canal and take creeks and a couple of lakes to get back to Lake Kissimmee. The scenery is varied and absolutely amazing. Come on along on our journey…

ZIPPRER CANAL

Once you begin paddling on the Zipprer Canal, the terrain changes a bit (like the photo above) and offers areas that are habitat for Black-crowned night herons. I wasn’t fortunate enough to capture a photo of the heron just mentioned, but we did see several immature Little Blue herons.

IMMATURE LITTLE BLUE HERON

And several majestic Great Blue herons like this one, which was undisturbed by our presence and much more interested in finding breakfast.

GREAT BLUE HERON

Towards the end of the canal and closer to Lake Rosalie, we came upon this scene with overhanging branches dripping with Spanish moss that invited one to continue on. Doesn’t this remind you of something from a movie? Almost mesmerizing…

Add to that a wonderful little Kingfisher bouncing from tree to tree just in front of us. No great photo of it, of course, but here’s a very bad one just to give you an idea of what this little character looks like.

KINGFISHER

It was a rather foggy morning, so we hugged the shore of Lake Rosalie as we paddled the short distance to Rosalie Creek with friends. Kind of mesmerizing. And very very quiet.

PADDLING LAKE ROSALIE

But luckily the fog began to clear and made paddling the winding, narrow Rosalie Creek an absolute joy to experience. Not many power boats dare to enter this little creek, though we did encounter one brave soul who was lucky enough to find a place to turn around and safely retreat.

ROSALIE CREEK

Paddling this little creek required a few maneuvers to wind your way through, but there was essentially no current and the scenery was absolutely glorious. Eagles and ospreys circled overhead, and the ever-present Anhinga’s kept one company, like this female in the photo below.

FEMALE ANHINGA

And herons of course, Great blues, Little blues (photo below), and Snowy egrets.

LITTLE BLUE HERON

After Rosalie Creek, we moved into Tiger Lake which was blissfully calm and allowed us to paddle directly across to Tiger Creek. I’ve heard tales of having to paddle in strong winds across Tiger Lake at a 45 degree angle away from the creek in order to make it to that destination. I was certainly glad it was a calm day as our canoe weighed 69 pounds and could not be considered a lightweight one by any stretch of the imagination.

We encountered a bit of current paddling Tiger Creek, but it was very enjoyable. Blue skies with puffy white clouds above, the canoes moving smoothly through vivid-blue waters, bright green vegetation helping shore birds believe they’re totally hidden. What more is there to wish for?

PADDLING TIGER CREEK

Of course some birds come out to explore, like this Common Galenule.

If you’re exceptionally lucky on a paddle you might get to see this Snail Kite. It’s a majestic bird of prey. I’ve seen them flying before but have never been able to get a photo of one until now. I believe this one to be an immature Snail Kite based upon photos I’ve seen online, but don’t quote me. Snail kites (as well as Limpkins) feed on freshwater apple snails.

SNAIL KITE

And we couldn’t have a blog about paddling without throwing in at least one photo of an alligator. They’re a fairly common sight when one is near water here. Most are pretty peaceful and just hanging out, till a bird gets close enough to become dinner.

ALLIGATOR

And once through Tiger Creek, you get to Lake Kissimmee, which is big – nearly 35,000 acres. But our paddle is just a short jaunt from the creek into the other end of the canal which lets you return to Lake Kissimmee state park.

It’s been an absolutely wonderful 12-mile paddle beginning and ending at Lake Kissimmee state park. If you enjoy paddling, you will love this one. Put Lake Kissimmee state park on your “to do” list, but be sure to save a camping site for us! Hope to see you there sometime soon.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A View of Nature with a Florida Twist

In mid-January, we loaded up the camping trailer and headed to Myakka River state park near Sarasota Florida. For a week now I’ve been challenged with acclimatizing my eyes to the radically different change of environment. Very different from Ohio. Palm trees, live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and saw palmettos everywhere you look. And beautiful river scenes like this one of the Myakka River, with shore birds and alligators a common sight.

Shore birds are quite eye-catching. Like these two Black-necked stilts. They prefer shallow wetland that allows them to search for food such as dragonflies, small fish and sometimes floating seeds. I’ve read male and female stilts share nest building and only have one brood per year, with usually 2 to 5 young. It’s mesmerizing to watch them racing through the shallow water.

The Limpkin is one bird you won’t be able to ignore, even if you wanted to. Its loud siren call can be heard from great distances; it is the “town cryer” letting all know that non-birds (such as humans) are in the area. This one seems to have had a successful fishing adventure this morning. Limpkins live in the wetlands in Florida as well as in central and south America. They’re large birds – about 27 inches long and a wingspan of about 40 inches.

The alligator is one of their primary predators, and there’s plenty of those at Myakka River. The park is filled with weekend visitors whose primary purpose may be to see gators. On a recent paddle on Myakka Lake we saw about 50 of those “floating flotillas” slowly easing off the bank and into the water just ahead of our canoe. But there’s really nothing to worry about; though caution is required so you don’t inadvertently surprise one of them. (And yes, I have a great zoom feature on my camera to capture this photo.)

There are so many beautiful shorebirds to amaze the eye. I loved watching the antics of this Lesser Yellowlegs. It has bright yellow legs with a mottled gray back and white belly. Of course there’s also a Greater Yellowlegs – and yes, you guessed it, they’re a larger version with a bit longer and thicker bill.

White pelicans are fun to see. Big magnificent impressive birds. Beautiful in flight.

Not to be confused with Wood Storks. Which are also large and predominantly white with some black on the wings. But the heads of the two are extremely different. In flight, the Wood stork is beautiful but not so much when on the ground and one gets a closer look. Not sure why but its head sometimes reminds me of a turkey vulture. Now I feel the need to apologize to the poor Wood stork.

One bird that everyone will fall in love with is the Roseate spoonbill. It’s a glorious combination of white, pink and rose – hence part of its name. These creatures are so fun to watch when they’re “fishing” as they put their spoon-like bill beneath the water and then swing back and forth, rather like they’re dragging the bottom for food – hence the “spoonbill” part of the name. This photo was taken on a quite foggy morning, but I was thrilled to be able to get the picture nonetheless.

Another bird we find here is the Black-crowned night heron. This one we also see in Ohio.

On this morning, the big guy was roosting in a tree, snoozing away. As their name implies, they are primarily active at night. This is a medium sized heron, but fairly stocky as compared to others. Like this Little Blue heron below. Both are about 24 to 25 inches long.

Oh, by the way, the phrase “birds of a feather flock together” does seem to be true like these American White pelicans and the Black Skimmers in the foreground. We would frequently see various types of birds along the shore sharing habitat generally, but still staying within their own grouping. Black Skimmers are amazing to watch as they skim along the water with their lower mandible (which is longer than their upper mandible) slightly under the water until they contact a fish and snap their mandibles closed. Breakfast; check!

One of my favorite shore birds is the Snowy Egret which has black legs and yellow feet. These egrets are about two feet long and have a black bill with yellow around the eye. I love their plumage. Almost looks long enough to be combed.

Another white bird you will frequently see is the White ibis, though it is not all white as it has black wing tips. This one won’t be confused with other white birds if you look for the curved reddish bill. It’s almost of a similar size to the herons previous mentioned, being about 25 inches long.

And not to be outdone, here is bird I learned more about just today…the photo below is of a jake. No, I didn’t name it. It’s an immature male tom turkey. And yes, I had to look it up to see if what someone told me was accurate. According to what I read, a jake turkey is differentiated from a tom by its beard, tail feathers, head color, spurs and behavior. And it can sometimes be confused with a hen turkey. It becomes a tom turkey officially at two years of age. The jake has more of a pale red or blue head rather than a vivid red or blue head. And its beard is 2 to 3 inches rather than the 10 inches of the tom. But, don’t quote me on this one!

There are so many other photos I could share of the wildlife at Myakka River state park. It’s a fabulous place to visit, and one that we enjoy immensely. And just in case you want to canoe Myakka Lake, it’s absolutely beautiful, even with the alligators!

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The color of winter

Winter has color? Isn’t it always just drab gray in Ohio? Not really…

Granted, winter doesn’t have the wondrous colors of spring, summer or fall, but it offers something that isn’t as readily noticed in the other seasons. Textures. For those of us who love to be outside, it forces the senses to see beyond color and observe more deeply. It does take effort, and practice. But it’s well worth it.

Take for example the colors and textures of goldenrod (Solidago). It’s a perennial plant with more than 100 species. Its pollen is heavy so while it is transported by insects, it is not transported by wind and really can’t be blamed for seasonal fall allergies. Goldenrod is practically everywhere if you look in winter. It’s seeds provide food for many birds including chickadees, finches and juncos. At this time of year, its seeds are just waiting for the wind to distribute them far and wide. The fluff on these seeds are soft to the touch. It’s easy to see how the wind can carry the seed away so effortlessly.

Sometimes it’s the combination of plant seed that catch the eye, like this Mullein foxglove alongside goldenrod. Mullein foxglove has small bright yellow flowers in summer, can grow to 5 feet or more and has hundreds (if not thousands) of seeds per plant. The black seed pods are quite unique in shape and are actually pretty hard.

Lichen readily retains color in winter. No surprise here. I’m sure you’ve seen it in a number of places. Trees both alive and dead may have lichen growing on it, but you sometimes find more color and variety on dead limbs like this one. This lichen has fruiting bodies (apothecia) which are the cup-like organisms with the dark brown centers. There are a tremendous number of lichen species. I haven’t even begun to learn enough to try an identification as yet. But I do find the mixture of colors and textures amazing.

While walking in the woods at this time of year, it’s very easy to identify beech trees. They’re one of the few trees that retain their leaves, which appear almost paper-like. As the leaves age, they fade a bit to a lighter shade. If you look closely, you can see buds at the branch terminus.

I’ve always wondered why beech trees (and some oaks) retain their leaves while other deciduous trees drop theirs. Seems this is a question many people ask, and according to various websites and research there are many suppositions. Some believe that retaining leaves or dead plant matter (known as marcescence) could be because these trees are on dry, infertile soil – such as where oaks and beech trees typically grow. Retaining leaves during the winter could help beech trees to slow decomposition of leaves so they deliver organic matter to the soil in spring when it’s needed most. Some think retaining leaves helps hold snow for more moisture for the tree. I’ve also read that retaining leaves could be a frost protection for buds, and that it is also a deterrent to deer browsing. Are any of these accurate? No one seems to know definitively, at least based upon what I’ve read.

With leaves off most trees and plants, it’s much easier to see some of the berries that remain. Unfortunately most of those remaining red berries may be from invasive honeysuckle (at least in Ohio). That is a food for some birds but mostly described as “junk” food as they don’t have the nutrition that berries from native plants provide. Recently I ran across some black berries – no, not the good tasting blackberries we have in summer. These were small and slightly oval, clustering somewhat like grapes and almost a blue-black color. I wasn’t sure what these might be. But based upon cursory research, I believe these are privet. Yes, another invasive plant unfortunately. But colorful nonetheless.

Plants are not the only thing providing color in the winter. Animals do too and sometimes you don’t know what you may find – or learn. I heard something skittering in the leaves and stopped – motionless – to watch this squirrel. It was frantically digging at the leaves and then upended itself so it’s entire head was covered by leaves. And it stayed that way for awhile. Looking for acorns? No. My guess is it was burying a nut. After completion of the burial procedure, it meticulously arranged, and rearranged, and rearranged yet again the leaves over top of the area. Then he was gone like a shot.

Birds offer color in the wintertime. Bright red Cardinals. Colorful Blue jays. Eastern bluebirds. Even (what some call) the lowly sparrow provide color, though granted, some (like this Song sparrow) are not very vivid with their tan, brown and black coloring. But their song more than make up for it.

And sometimes there is drama to add to the color. Like when this Cooper’s hawk swooped in to catch breakfast in my backyard. One can admire the color and magnificence of this hawk. And also realize, all creatures need to eat to survive. Hopefully it didn’t eat one of my favorite birds.

Winter color is everywhere if one looks closely enough. And it has its own dramatic beauty, like that of the bird above. Or perhaps it’s the magnificence of a small stream rippling through a winter woodland with hushed quiet all around. The color and texture of winter is all around us. And it’s up to us to find that beauty and recognize its value in our lives. Winter has much to offer, if we only take a closer look.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A year like none other…

This past year has been a hard one for us all. We have had to step away from family and friends, isolating ourselves in an effort to not spread Covid further than it already has been. Isolation can be one of the cruelest forms of punishment, and unfortunately this has happened to us all.

But I continue to believe that we must seek a positive outlook, regardless of circumstances. Please don’t get me wrong. My life has had plenty of sadness, death and discouragement; I’ve not led a charmed life. Nor I believe does anyone…not really. We all have our crosses to bear in one form or another. But I believe it’s extremely important to our well-being to step back from our worries and find things that make us happy. Things that bring a smile to the face. Things to be grateful for. Appreciation of what is.

For me, that’s my escape to nature.

Earlier this year I started this nature blog you’re reading, Nature Views. And it’s been a true blessing for me. Because it’s let me explore nature more diligently, taking a camera with me wherever I go. Looking at things up close. Researching things I don’t know much about. Continually learning. And sharing what I’ve learned with you. Something I hope you’ve enjoyed.

Nature offers so much to us all. Research has shown that a walk in the woods can improve our physiological well-being. It can lower blood pressure. Decrease stress. And in some countries is even being written as a prescription. For me, I find I can breathe easier. Sounds strange I know. But there’s just something about being in a woods that restores me.

The peace, quiet and essence of just “being” surrounds you. You slow down to really listen to the birds. Hear a squirrel up on tree branch gnawing on a walnut. See the Tufted Titmouse rustling in the leaves on the ground. Hear the Blue Jay calling overhead. Notice the striking color of a Northern Cardinal amongst snow-covered branches – almost like a Christmas card. Or perhaps find a group of wild turkeys eating peacefully in a meadow. And if you’re extremely lucky, you get to see the very rare occurrence of a visiting Snowy Owl.

Nature offers us so much more than we can even imagine. It costs us nothing, yet provides a wealth beyond measure. If we only reach out to embrace it.

I hope you take some time to explore nature soon. Go to a local park. Visit a lake. Take a walk in the woods. Explore something new. You’ll be happy you did.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The colors of my world…

The colors of nature never fail to amaze me. Sometimes it’s as if someone had a 128-pack of crayons and went a bit wild. That’s especially true when you’re talking about the color of macrofungi which have large fruiting bodies, such as the ones you will see in this blog post.

Fungi (also commonly known by many as simply “mushrooms”) provide a valuable service in decomposition on the forest floor. Some fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees or plants, while others cause disease and the ultimate death of a tree. Usually this is as a result of some kind of stress to the tree which blocks its defensive responses and allows insects and/or fungi to attack. Fungi are also a food source for wildlife. I once observed a slug eating one – not the most fascinating thing to watch, but it was something I had never seen before. And by the way, this slug was not a fastidious eater.

A large part of fungi are actually found underground in very dense threadlike hyphae found in the soil. When there are multiple interconnecting hyphae, it’s called mycelium. This is what allows fungi and trees or plants to develop a symbiotic relationship – one that is good for them both.

BRACKET FUNGI – PERHAPS A CINNABAR POLYPORE NEXT TO LICHEN

I discovered a new-found fascination with fungi a few years ago when I took a class that not only taught about the various types, but also had us exploring the woods to find them. Unfortunately I’m still not adept at good identification, but I certainly enjoy photographing them and I am continually learning. The colors, shapes and sizes are as amazing as the common names…names such as Bleeding fairy helmet, Eggs in a nest, Northern tooth, Witches butter, Turkey tail and Chicken of the Woods.

Speaking of which, here is what I believe to be Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), although I typically see these much more brightly colored with shades of coral and orange. It could be this is drying as it loses some of its color at that time. Chicken of the Woods attacks the heartwood of the tree, so when you see this fungi, the poor tree is a goner.

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) fungi is very prevalent in almost any woods with hardwood trees. The colors vary greatly – brown, gray, green, tan, rusty brown, even purple. It’s a very delicate looking fungi that reminds me of ruffles on clothing. The underside of this fungi has white to yellowish pores.

And of course, there’s also False turkey tail (Stereum ostrea) which can appear somewhat similar. It’s found mostly on dead hardwood species. Colors vary from tan to rust to greenish gray. The underside is generally light tan and smooth without gills, teeth or pores.

FALSE TURKEY TAIL

There are times when hiking in a woods that the fungi is so prominent it almost jumps out to grab you like this Northern Tooth (Climacodon septentrione) which prefers to grow on standing maple trees and is usually high above the ground. It’s pretty unmistakable. I’ve read that it enters the tree through some kind of wound and causes heartwood rot. It’s a parasitic fungus and is rather disheartening to see.

And then there’s these little guys which I almost walked on as they were growing directly on the trail – Ringless honey mushrooms (Armillaria tabescens). They’re an orange-brown color and usually like to grow on wood, such as oak and maple, so perhaps there was decayed wood beneath them just below the trail’s surface

RINGLESS HONEY MUSHROOMS

Sometimes mother nature throws a spotlight on something I believe you’re meant to see and observe, like this Bleeding fairy helmet or also called Bleeding Mycena (Mycena haematopus) which I found at a local park. The name refers to the red-like fluid that oozes from the fungi when it is cut. I didn’t test that fact, as I don’t like to disturb creatures in nature.

And this little orange guy I’m not sure what it is (perhaps witch’s hat?), but it reminds me of something that should have elves nearby. It’s the kind of thing you just can’t look at and not smile. Sometimes names just aren’t important.

And speaking of elves, how about a fairy ring like these? I’ve only seen fairy rings a couple of times. The photo below on the left shows a small one with the one on the right much larger. The fungi in the photos are the fruiting bodies with the mycelium beneath the soil. The mycelium is multiple threadlike hyphae that interconnect and grow throughout the soil – sort of like the roots of a plant. As the mycelium utilizes the nutrients in the soil at the center of the ring, the mycelium continues to expand outward, thereby making the ring larger each year, while the mycelium in the center of the ring dies, returning nutrients to the soil.

Sometimes you’ll stumble upon something that will truly amaze you, like these Ghost pipes, also known as Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). So delicate and practically translucent. They’re usually found in deep shady woods and can be up to about 8″ tall. They are not fungi, but rather a parasitic plant that gets its nutrients from trees, plants and decaying matter. They’re sometimes found near decaying trees and/or beech trees. But their color and shape was so interesting I just felt compelled to include them in this blog post.

I’m not sure of the identification of this colorful orange fungi. It was a little on the thin side and I didn’t get a good look at the underside of it. The color combination contrasting with the green plants, tree bark and moss is what made this one so dramatic for me. Like artwork in the woods.

And sometimes that artwork is rather unusual and reminiscent of something else in nature, like this Bird’s nest fungi (Family Nidulariaceae). It’s easy to see how it got its common name. Little miniature cups filled with tiny eggs, or so it appears. Those “eggs” are actually spore packets that will bounce out of their cup when hit by something as simple as raindrops. Nature’s pretty amazing at methods of reproduction.

And then there are these colorful translucent fungi known as Witches butter (Tremella mesenterica), a yellowy-orange type of jelly fungi. I’m not sure whether I love it because of its color or its common name. Both are appealing.

And finally, one last photo that had mother nature shining her light down on a particular spot again – my guess is this is a bracket fungi of some kind. But again, the contrast of colors made this particular photo one that stands out, at least to me.

So there you have it, some of the colors of my world as I continue to explore nature. With each new adventure there’s always something new. And always something new to learn.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Hiking down a different path

We’re probably like a lot of people right now, trying to find outdoor activities to keep us active in cold weather yet still keep away from crowded parks. That can be a challenge. The Ohio state nature preserves usually work quite well, and we’ve been visiting quite a few of these lately. But today our destination was to walk part of the bike trail west of Gambier. It’s a pretty trail. Quite scenic. But that’s not what we actually explored…

Just off the trail, past the first bridge over the Kokosing River, was a dirt path leading through the woods and beside the river. Interesting. Thankfully it was an invitation we did not ignore. And that was an excellent decision, as this was our introduction to the 500-acre Brown Family Environmental Center. Until now, I’d never heard of it.

The trail followed the river and offered benches that would have been inviting on warmer days. Huge Sycamores lined a portion of the waterway, no doubt loving the wet low ground.

Along the way we saw a few trees that still had green leaves, which was surprising. It’s December. Leaves should have already fallen or at least be brown and dried by now, like on Red Oaks or Beech trees which retain their leaves. These were green. What’s up?

These were not the leaves of a tree. It was Oriental Bittersweet vines (an invasive) that had wrapped around the tree and was prolific enough to resemble tree leaves at first glance. Luckily someone had recently cut the 3″ thick vine near the base of the tree. Hopefully this tree will live to see another year because an environmentally conscious person recognized the destruction vines pose to trees.

The Kokosing River is 57 miles long. It’s watershed is 435 square miles covering a good portion of Knox county as well as parts of Morrow, Richland, Ashland and Coshocton counties. If you’re near in the summer, you’ll undoubtedly see kayakers floating peacefully along this State scenic waterway. The trail we were on continued along this river and then made a turn to cross the Kokosing bike path and lead upward into the woods.

The woods was moss-covered with varying shades of green throughout the area. At this time of year, one might think it’s pretty gray outside, but this woods proves different. Like the colors found on this decaying log and at the base of the beech tree. What I believe are puff balls are at the tree’s base, though they have undoubtedly seen their better days.

Ferns covered the north-facing hillsides which are typically more shaded and provide moisture for these plants which grow in colonies. In the fall, ferns reproduce via spores which are so small they can’t be seen by the naked eye. However, some spores are encapsulated within something called “sori” which can be seen on the underside of the frond. I’m not sure how many species of fern call Ohio home, although I’ve read Wakeena state nature preserve in Fairfield county is home to 29 of them.

There was an interesting building at the Brown Family Environmental Center closer to the administrative building. It appeared to be used for storage. It had a stone base with some type of concrete or stucco wall. There were tiny cylindrical windows which were oddly shaped and not flat. Upon closer inspection these turned out to be bottles that had been incorporated into the walls. Pretty creative!

Within the woods is a pine plantation which was planted in 1991 by the biology faculty at Kenyon College. The area was used for student research to look at relationships between growth rates and tree spacing. The trails were softly carpeted with pine needles and you could hear the gentle breeze in the branches overhead.

But the trails were not all within the forest. A huge prairie meadow was in the lowland and was home to many types of wildflowers and native grasses. The prairie is maintained by annual spring burns which discourage tree growth – a necessary thing to do to maintain prairie.

On the return to the parking lot we took one last look at the Kokosing River beneath the bridge and found what we believe is a type of liverwort growing on the wet stone abutment. I believe it’s in the genus Conocephalum, but am unsure of species. Regardless, it’s an interesting looking plant when viewed up close. I’ve read that this plant is reproduced by spores and is somewhat similar to mosses as it is non-vascular.

From here we took the car to a parking area on the northside of the Environmental Center just off New Gambier Road. The trails here were quite different from what we had encountered so far. The forest area embraced Wolf Run stream and contained beautiful large White Oaks. The trails climbed ridges and followed the stream in the low land. Some of the wetter areas had recently had boardwalks installed. It was so new the boards didn’t show signs of weathering as yet.

The trails were quite pleasant with footbridges over Wolf Run which meandered through the area. As we walked, we encountered not a single soul unless you count the squirrels. It was like having our own private park.

One spur trail climbed a hillside and descended to a small pond. On the way up we encountered this huge White oak which overlooked the pasture. Quite stately looking and regal. Much larger than any tree in the vicinity. Not sure how old this tree must be but you can estimate it’s size by comparing it to the metal gates beside it. It was impressive.

We didn’t hike all the trails on this day but we easily had about 8 miles that we explored. I would imagine this area would offer great wildflowers and migrating birds in the spring. The terrain would suggest so. If you’re looking for a good area to hike that offers diversity and very few people, this is it!

A copy of the trail map is below. Additional information can be found at: https://www.kenyon.edu/campus-life/sustainability-green-initiatives/brown-family-environmental-center/ Go exploring. It’s well worth the drive.

BROWN FAMILY ENVIRONMENTAL CENTER at Kenyon College

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

The Preserves Among Us

This year has been different, to say the least. For all of us. One of the things that has proved helpful to me is exploring nature preserves – especially scoping out ones I’ve never visited or, in some cases, have never heard of. It’s like having little mini vacations. I explored a couple preserves near Lake Erie just a few weeks ago.

DuPont Marsh State Nature Preserve (SNP) is part of the Erie Metroparks in Ohio. The short loop trail (with it’s soft footing of pine needles) connects to a longer Metroparks trail that offers views of the marsh.

It’s a quiet place where nature thrives and encourages those wandering to slow the pace and absorb the peaceful surroundings. Ducks and other water fowl abound. Great egrets slowly move through the water, putting all their effort into fishing; their concentration and patience is quite admirable and readily pays off.

Wood ducks are notoriously camera shy. They generally fly at the slightest hint of human presence – a voice or even the slightest movement. So when I happened upon a large group of them I was extremely surprised to get a few quick photos through the tree branches. This photo shows probably just a third of the number of wood ducks enjoying this marsh cove on this day. One can imagine this is a favorite destination for many types of water fowl.

We also explored Old Woman Creek State Nature Preserve which is a National Estuarine Research Reserve. An estuary is typically defined as a place where salt water meets and mixes with fresh water. But in this case Old Woman creek mixes with water from Lake Erie and combines to create a chemically different water from either the creek or lake. It offers researchers a field laboratory to learn about estuarine ecology in a natural setting with habitats of marshland, forests, barrier sand beach, open water and swamp forest.

Boardwalk trails provide solid footing through potentially wet areas, while well-managed trails lead one through heavily wooded areas with magnificent views.

And in the midst of the woodland close to the estuary is a swamp forest. It’s an upland forest in an area that is poorly drained for a portion of the year. Soil here is too wet for most woodland trees, but it still provides habitat for some trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. It’s prime habitat for wood ducks, warblers, woodpeckers, belted kingfishers and even eagles.

I’ve never been particularly appreciative of scrubland – that is new growth areas with small scrubby trees and shrubs – although I have a new appreciation for it after visiting Old Woman Creek.

Scrub uplands never really caught my attention as particularly attractive but when I learned their value and their place in natural forest ecology, I now have a different mindset.

These scrubby areas provide habitat for bird nesting as well as provide a good food source. They protect birds during storms and can help as floodwater retention when located in lowlands. Because of their scrubby nature, it also protects animals from predators. Scrub lands are simply a natural progression through habitat changes over time. I guess I never really thought about it in this aspect before. Visiting Old Woman SNP expanded my view.

If you get the opportunity, take some time to visit Old Woman SNP and Estuary or any of the nature preserves near you. There is so much to explore and appreciate within the preserves. Nature abounds and awaits you.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Bee amazing

This has been an unusual year for everyone. One of the things I’ve gravitated to has been learning online about nature, as well as experiencing it outside.

This fall I participated in a 5-week online class about bees in the eastern United States. Now I’m probably like many of you, and at the mention of bees I instantly thought of honeybees and the nasty stings of yellow jackets. But the Eastern Bees 101 class offered by The Ohio State University Extension office has changed my mind. Completely.

Bees are pretty amazing creatures! Let’s look at the bumble bee as an example.

Isn’t she beautiful? This is a Bombus fervidus or a female Golden Northern bumble bee. This is one you don’t see nearly as often as the Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) which is prevalent here in Ohio. Look at how “golden” she is. Her abdomen is yellow on the first four (tergal) segments with just the last two being black. A Common Eastern bumble bee would have just the first abdomen segment that is yellow. In the photos below you can easily count those segments.

And she has a unique black “stripe” across the top of her thorax (the middle part of her body where her wings attach).

Bumble bees live a year or less, depending upon whether they are male, female workers or the queen. They are primitively eusocial, that is…partly social and partly solitary. Their life cycle explains this.

A fertilized queen will emerge from underground in April to early May. She will be by herself. She will feed on pollen and nectar after her winter “nap” and will frequently be seen flying close to the ground looking for a good place for a new nest. She then starts a nest and lays eggs – all daughters. The eggs will quickly turn into larvae, which the queen provisions with pollen and nectar so they may become bumble bees.

Once the daughters go from larva to bumble bee, they are able to forage for food for the nest, and the queen stays in the nest and lays successive generations of eggs. She will lay anywhere from 50 to 300 eggs over the summer (depending on the species of bumble bee).

Queens have the ability to determine whether their eggs will be male or female. In late summer she produces what will be future queens and males. Males will find mates from different colonies and the new queens will mate with males from other colonies. At this point the hardworking daughters in the colony will die, as will the old queen and the males.

Newly mated queens will find a hibernaculum (a place to hibernate for the winter). And next spring the cycle will start all over again.

There is so many interesting things about bees – such as how they carry pollen and nectar, which is different for different bee species. A female bumble bee has what is called a “corbicula.” It’s a smooth indentation in the upper part of their hind leg that is slightly concave. This allows them to carry a mixture of pollen and nectar back to the nest.

The photo below is of a female Common Eastern bumble bee. If you look closely at the leg you can see a slight bit of yellow on the corbicula. Only bumble bees and honeybees have a corbicula. Other bee species may transport pollen on the underside of their abdomen, or on their hairy legs or even eat it and regurgitate it to their young. It varies based upon the type of bee.

I was fortunate enough this summer to be at Clear Creek Metro Park and see a bumble bee “warming up” on a flower. Bumble bees have this unique ability to disengage their wings and operate their flight muscles in order to warm their bodies. Sort of like how we shiver. Bumble bees need to have a body temperature of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit in order to fly. I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to get a good photo of this to share with you.

And one final item you might find interesting…if you look carefully in the early fall, you just might see some of those male bumble bees “sleeping” on flowers in the early morning hours because once they initially leave the nest, they never return to it. If you ever see a bumble bee “sleeping” on a flower, you can be assured it will, in all likelihood, be a male.

Bumble bees are really pretty docile and aren’t aggressive (unless you threaten them or their nest). The photos in this blog were obtained not by a zoom lens but rather by getting my camera close without being threatening.

I hope the next time you see a bumble bee, you take a minute to look more closely. They’re really very beautiful and interesting creatures.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Sheldon Marsh

Exploring nature preserves is a great way to banish “Covid fatigue.” It’s like a mini vacation wrapped up in a single day and provides a bit of exercise, fresh air and restores the spirit. I can highly recommend it.

This week we packed our hiking boots, a snack, water and drove an hour or so (on as many backroads as possible) to explore Sheldon Marsh state nature preserve near Lake Erie in Ohio. It’s offers about 470 acres, is home to 300 species of birds and is a well-known place for quite a number of wildflowers in the spring.

SHELDON MARSH

But it’s not all marshy, by any means. Even at the end of October the leaf colors are beautiful, though a bit past their prime.

The Preserve offers some wide straight, wide trails directly to the beach area, but I would suggest following the woods trail instead. It meanders through the trees and provides great views of the marsh and the creatures that live there.

According to signage, the Marsh has hundreds of turtles that bask along the shoreline including Midland painted turtles, snapping turtles and the Blandings turtle (Emys blandingii or Emydoidea blandingii). According to Wikipedia, Blandings turtles are an endangered species in some areas of the eastern U.S. and Canada, can reproduce for 80 to 90 years and show little or no common signs of aging. Wow! That’s a turtle I would like to see.

Unfortunately on this day there was little if any sun so it wasn’t conducive to those basking turtles (which is why I plan to come back).

This area is very attractive to ducks and shore birds. On this day we saw Wood ducks, Mallards. Gadwells, Canada geese, cormorants and Great Blue Herons. I have a few photos to share of these, but the zoom on my FZ300 wasn’t quite up to it, as the ducks/geese were quite a distance away.

GREAT BLUE HERON (forefront) and WOOD DUCKS (rear)

We also ran into a pretty aggressive groundhog. Now before you start laughing (I did too when a fellow visitor first warned me), take a look at the photos. They just might change your mind.

NORMAL GROUNDHOG, RIGHT? NOT!

Now normally groundhogs are pretty timid. They run away when they see a human. Not this guy! He would look at you, then come out onto the trail and face you like he was taking a stance. If you moved, he moved to face you and showed some teeth. He didn’t act rabid; he just acted old and mean like we were on his turf – which we were I suppose. Poor guy.

But that didn’t stop us from sliding around him to get to the Lake. It was a bit windy on this day and quite choppy. The gray/blue skies blended well with the icy gray color of the lake. The wind was quite loud in the tree branches and leaves along the shoreline.

Very near the water in some shrubby areas was a Yellow-Rumped warbler flitting about. They DO move quickly. I was surprised I could get any photos at all.

This is a barrier beach and (according to signage) is one of the most fascinating habitats at Sheldon Marsh. It’s one of the largest protected beaches on Lake Erie’s south shore. It provides the potential for bird nesting habitat of such endangered species as the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) and Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus). (The Common Tern is listed as endangered in Ohio and the Piping Plover is on the federally endangered list.)

BARRIER BEACH AREA

If you get the opportunity, take a break from “Covid fatigue” and visit Sheldon Marsh. It’s a glorious place to explore nature and let go of some of life’s stresses. While not too many people feel comfortable going on vacations these days, a mini-vacation day trip to a nature preserve is almost perfect.

VISIT SHELDON MARSH STATE NATURE PRESERVE

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A New Appreciation

My favorite season of the year is Spring. Always has been. Primarily because I am always so in awe of the new little leaves on the trees and the promise of spring wildflowers popping through the ground, especially after living with bare tree branches and cold Winter weather.

But I moved into the Fall this year with an amazing new respect for the season. In the past I’ve seen it as the beginning of Winter, wherein I dread the cold weather and have a feeling that everything has died. But this year, for the first time in my life, I truly embraced Fall. I really reached out and was amazed to find a new appreciation for the glorious color and splendor all around me.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I think it’s a side effect of the Covid pandemic, wherein you realize how important it is to appreciate each day. I know everyone always says to try to find the positive side of everything, but I think in this case, the positive side found me!

Just look at this photo. It’s of a rail trail (the Ohio to Erie Trail in central Ohio). It’s probably much like a trail you have in your area – perhaps in a local park, or in a neighborhood – but it’s absolutely glorious in the Fall! I’m so shocked that I’ve never appreciated this in the past.

I went on a hike at Boch Hollow state nature preserve earlier this week with friends. The colors in southern Ohio weren’t yet at their peak, but it still supplied yet another amazing Fall experience.

PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Papps

This scene mesmerized me. It was as if God had flipped on the light switch and illuminated the forest. There weren’t the vivid oranges and reds that maple trees provide, but it had an appeal all its own. It was primarily a beech/oak area of the woods with steep ravines and beautiful golden leaves gently filtering down to the forest floor. Quiet. Peaceful. The rest of the world just didn’t exist. No politics. No news updates. Just you, and the earth and the realization that it really is possible (at least for a time) to let go of all the “stuff” that bogs down our lives. And just be.

Of course we always have a few creatures to keep us company on any hike. Little friends whose primary goal this fall may be to build up their food supplies to survive the winter. This little guy (or gal?) blended well into the background. He was as curious about us as we were about him. Usually chipmunks don’t stick around long before they sprint off to find their hidey hole for protection. This guy was the exception.

While this wasn’t a bird watching trip, we were able to capture a photo or two of a White-throated sparrow hiding in the brush. I’ve never had much appreciation for sparrows in the past. I guess I’ve seen them as rather non-descript brown birds that weren’t nearly as appealing as warblers in the Spring. But I don’t see how I could have overlooked this little beauty with it’s spots of yellow, black head stripes and brilliant white throat. Another new appreciation I guess.

One thing I’ve learned to appreciate this Fall is when I see something suddenly illuminated by sunlight. Almost like (just like the earlier forest scene in this blog) a light switch is turned on and a spotlight focuses on something in an extraordinary way. I thought I’d share one of these with you.

TURKEY TAIL FUNGI

This is Turkey Tail. The sun just beamed down on this one specific thing for a very short time, while all around it, the area stayed dark. Like someone was saying “just LOOK at this!” And you don’t have a choice but look and admire. Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is a polypore mushroom and if you haven’t seen this before, you’re in for a treat, because this little jewel comes in many, many colors. They can be shades of brown, tan, gray, black, green, tinged in purple… and I’ve yet to read exactly why they are the colors they are. Oh I suppose there has to be research out there somewhere that explains it, but I haven’t read it yet. Maybe a reader of this blog will share that with me sometime.

And I can’t end this blog without offering another mesmerizing photo of Fall. This one is from a trail close by. It offers a little glimpse of the stream below (which is very low right now), as well as the beautiful colors of the tree canopy above the trail. It’s an absolute pleasure to walk there.

I hope you take the time to fully embrace the colors of Fall and, like me, learn to appreciate its beauty every single day. May your path be lined with the many wonders nature provides.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.