Nature’s Jewels

Sometimes I have to stop and reorient myself to the magic of nature in front of me. Is it a human tendency to not see what’s obvious? Are we always looking for the grand and glorious without actually realizing the magic right in front of us? I’m not sure what the answer is to that one. I just know sometimes I have to stop. Slow down. And bring back that inner wonder of a 4-year old child that really does see it.

On a hike this past week, the sunlight landed just perfectly on an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly. Now wait…before you close this blog or have your eyes glaze over at the mention of an insect, just take a look at this one. It’s something I’ve not seen till now.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen plenty of Ebony Jewelwings. The one in this photo is a female and is generally described as having brown colored wings with white spots at the tips. But on this day, the sunlight caught this creature and made me truly see why it is called a “jewelwing.” The metallic sheen to the thorax, the look of almost gold threads decorating its wings. Exquisite.

The males are also colorful in their own way with jet black wings and an almost metallic blue abdomen. How did nature create such beautiful colors in such a delicate package? Amazing what we see when we look.

Nature’s jewels come in all colors, whether one is talking about insects or flowers. This one caught my eye as well; I think because the contrasting color combination is so dramatic. Surprising that this little flower fly is only about a half inch long. It’s a Margined Calligrapher – also known as a hover fly. It seeks nectar and pollen. It’s a bee mimic and gains protection from would-be predators as a result. It not only helps pollinate flowers, it also eats aphids from those flowers. A true jewel of nature in many aspects!

And with more flowers coming out in bloom right now, so do more bees. Like this little one. It’s from the genus Melissodes (long-horned bees) but unfortunately this photo isn’t good enough for a species ID. As you can tell by the photo, they’re pretty good pollinators. Only females collect pollen; males do not.

I’m always mesmerized by the coloring of bees, like this Two-Spotted Bumblebee I found on my flowers this week. Dramatic contrast against the vivid purple of the flowers, don’t you think? Ohio has about 10 different species of bumblebees, with the most widespread being the Eastern Common. I’m always thrilled when I find a species that isn’t quite so prolific. Not sure why…guess it’s just recognizing it’s something out of the ordinary.

And, as usual, sometimes when you take photographs you manage to capture more than what your eye originally saw, like in the photo below. I took the photo to capture the bumblebee, not seeing it had a sidekick friend.

The tiny bee to the left could be an Osmia in the genus Agapostemon because it appears to be bright green metallic and carrying pollen on its abdomen. But there are also some cuckoo wasps which look somewhat similar. Just guessing on this one; the photo isn’t clear enough to determine. But still a thrill to catch two bees on this Purple Coneflower.

Sometimes you never know what you might find on flowers, like on this Yellow Pond Lily which was a true surprise upon closer inspection. I saw the bee enter the flower from a distance away and zoomed in to see what it might be, but the damselfly on the edge and the two below on the stem were a true surprise. I do appreciate the zoom on my FZ300!

And speaking of catching a photo of something you weren’t expecting…It took me a while to realize what was happening in this photo. This female Eastern Pondhawk flew off with what looked like a twig in it’s clutches. Curious behavior. Until I looked closer at the photo and realized that “twig” was (unfortunately for the damselfly) lunch for the dragonfly.

Golden hues abound in the summer and catch ones eye. We’re fortunate to be near a very successful breeding ground for Prothonotary warblers. This flooded woody area offers many nest boxes mounted to trees just above the water. Food is plentiful there for them and their young. Catching sight of this winged wonder always makes me smile.

As does this dainty little Summer Azure butterfly. A delicate pale blue with a wingspan of just one inch, it’s a tiny little thing that flits about very quickly. Its size is more apparent when seen on this piece of clover that is commonly found in most yards. Such a delicate little butterfly.

Nature’s jewels…all of them. And they’re all around us if we only take the time to stop. Slow down. And really see what’s in front of us. There’s so many jewels of nature out there that can bring a smile to the face, a lightness to the heart, and yes, even a spring to your step.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. I hope you find some jewels of nature that bring you joy.

Gossamer wings…

Butterflies always mesmerize me – enough so that I’ve been known to instantly stop in my tracks to admire and observe. So much beauty in such a delicate fragile package. A true miracle of nature.

I try to put names to them, but even more importantly I like to focus on their behaviors. Some flit by your face and do a few circles around you like some Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have done to me quite often. Though once in awhile, one lands and does a nice pose.

Even the underside of their wings are colorful with vivid orange and blues with a black stripe along the body.

Some butterflies are so absorbed in their acquisition of nectar that they’re practically oblivious to humankind, unless that is, you get too close, move suddenly or create a shadow over them. So…maybe they’re not so oblivious. Perhaps that’s what makes the photography such a challenge.

Zebra Swallowtails are rather notorious for flitting quickly and avoiding photos, at least in my experience. They’re a very beautiful butterfly, perhaps because I so rarely see them, although they are found in the eastern U.S. Their host plant for laying eggs is the Pawpaw tree as this is the only kind of food the caterpillars will eat, which is somewhat similar to the Monarchs requiring milkweed.

There is another type of Zebra butterfly; this one is the Zebra Longwing. While somewhat similar, it’s overall shape is quite unique. They are typically found in southern states in the U.S. plus parts of Mexico and Central America. Its grace and beauty are unparalleled.

Zebra Longwings are unique not only in looks but also in lifespan. Most butterflies lifespans are just one month or less, while the Zebra Longwing can live up to six months because they eat not only nectar but also pollen. They collect pollen and externally secrete a substance to combine with the pollen to make it liquid so they can drink it. The pollen helps extend their lifespan.

Of course, there are exceptions to standard butterfly lifespans. The Monarch lifespan can be 2 to 6 weeks except for the last generation which (I’ve read) can live about 8 months. This is the generation that migrates south in the fall and north in the early spring. There are other butterflies that overwinter as adults in Ohio including the Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma and Question Mark.

And…here’s a photo to exemplify that Zebra Longwings and Monarchs play well together.

There are many beautiful and unique butterflies out there. Take this Question Mark for example. It’s shape is very similar to the Eastern Comma with the most distinguishing feature the pattern of dots on the forewing, and even then it’s easy to confuse the two. Both the Question Mark and Eastern Comma feed on nectar and enjoy the liquid from rotting fruit. It’s a super sugar charge for them.

The White Peacock is another beauty on the wing found in predominantly south Florida and southern Texas in the U.S. and also in Mexico and Central America. This beautiful creature feeds on nectar from plants such as Spanish Needle which was plentiful in many parts of Florida. This gorgeous beauty unfortunately has been in battle and lost part of it’s wing.

Another butterfly found in southern states is the Queen. It’s a majestic beauty with mahogany brown wings illuminated by white spots and outlined in black. Stunning! The Queen and the Monarch can easily be mistaken for one another due to their similar coloring, but they also have another factor in common. They both feed on milkweed and are toxic if birds should decide they look edible.

And not to be outdone is the Spicebush Swallowtail with it’s vivid black and blue coloring. As the name implies, it’s hostplant is the spicebush though I’ve read they also like white sassafras as well. The adults favorite source of nectar is Jewelweed, Joe-pye weed and honeysuckle.

And here’s a second photo of the Spicebush swallowtail that shows rather dramatically the “tail” in swallowtail.

Another colorful butterfly is the Common Buckeye with its toasty brown and orange coloring with eye-catching eye spots, though this photo isn’t a good rendition of that with it’s faded coloring and tattered edges. This little one has seen better times.

One of the largest and most magnificent butterflies is the Eastern Giant Swallowtail. It has a wingspan of up to or more than 6 inches. It is actually the largest butterfly in North America. Nectar plants for this butterfly include milkweed, butterfly bush and zennia. Once you see this beauty flying about, you just may be out there planting things that attract it. It’s pretty memorable to see.

The photos of the butterflies I’ve shared with you in this blog were taken while in Florida this past winter. Their beauty brightened my winter adventures and brought smiles to the face. I hope they brought smiles to your face as well.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

Wekiwa Springs

Ever seen a Sherman’s fox squirrel? Probably not unless you visit northern Florida or southern Georgia where they call home. Come along on this journey of Wekiwa Springs State Park and neighboring natural areas of Apopka FL to see what wonderful colorful creatures abound.

The Sherman’s squirrel is a bit larger than other squirrels and prefers sandy areas with long-leaf pines. Coloring can vary though they typically have a black head with white ears, nose and tips of feet. They are a bit elusive, like this one who thought it was hidden by laying flat on a branch above me.

Squirrels aren’t the only thing to inhabit trees. Red headed woodpeckers are a special sight to behold with their bold red head and striking black and white coloring. They’re particularly special for me as their numbers have decreased in Ohio and are not seen nearly as often as they once were.

Pileated woodpeckers are also of the same coloring but larger in size with quite different vocalizations. We were very lucky to have multiple sightings of these dramatic birds in most of the Florida state parks we visited this past February and March.

But shore birds were the most dramatic and amazing on most of our explorations. Whether paddling in canoes or on the shoreline, birds abound.

An immature Little Blue heron explores the shore seeking breakfast. Very intent and focused.

While not too far away a Green heron is also scouting the banks as well. These little guys are shorter and stocker than most other herons, and generally not posing quite as well as this one.

One of my all-time favorite birds (and the most difficult for me to get a photo of) is the Belted Kingfisher. This male was quite a distance away, but halted its flight long enough for my quick photo.

The Glossy Ibis is one bird I don’t see quite as often as the others, but when the light hits the feathers just right, it’s easy to understand how it got it’s “glossy” name. According to what I have read, I believe this to be a breeding bird which can be identified by the pale lines extending from the bill to the eye.

Another fisherman this day was the Snowy Egret with it’s distinguishing markings of black legs and yellow feet – though this photo does not show that. I believe this bird to be an immature as its legs are a dull yellowish green.

And then there’s this little cutie. Small, and a bit on the chunky side with not much of a tail to speak of, you might think this is a duck but it’s not. It doesn’t have webbed feet but rather has “lobes” on it’s toes (which to me, if I had to describe it, looks rather like it has little paddle toes) which surprisingly makes it a good swimmer. It’s small, actually smaller than a crow in size. This is a breeding Pied-bill grebe which you can tell by its whitish bill which has a vertical black stripe. Normally the bill is a yellowish brown.

And speaking of breeding attire, here’s a Great Egret in it’s breeding attire with long plumes of feathers over its back and neon green skin between bill and eye area. It’s a large bird – about three foot tall. Very elegant looking.

Then there’s this beauty – a Tri-colored heron. It’s a mix of grayish-blue, white and almost lavender in color. This is a non-breeding heron indicative of it’s yellowish legs and without breeding plumage.

And of course, we have the Great Blue heron – the largest heron in North America. Majestic. Regal. And when disturbed, you hear the ear-piercing call that sounds almost prehistoric.

These beautiful brown/cinnamon colored ducks with their dark gray bills and legs are Fulvous Whistling ducks – a new one for me. Beautifully colored. No ID on the black and white ducks accompanying them because they turned their heads in all photos taken. Too busy preening feathers – one does have to keep up appearances.

Here’s a beauty – a Ring-necked duck, a breeding male. Magnificent colored bill with black tip. Looks almost like artwork. It is…nature’s artwork.

And yet another type of duck. These are Blue-winged Teals. I’ve read they’re smaller than a Mallard. They fly great distances, migrating between Canada and some as far as South America. They’re some of the latest ducks to fly north in the spring and earliest ducks to fly south before winter.

And looking out over the water, observing all the water fowl below, is a Bald Eagle. Truly majestic and magnificent. We saw quite a large number of Bald Eagles in Florida State Parks, with some parks having 11 or more nesting Eagle pairs.

And so, whether you’re hiking wonderful trails like this one in Wekiwa Springs State Park…

Or biking trails like this one…

Or exploring magnificent water vistas like this one (yes folks, that is an alligator partially submerged there)…

Wonderful nature adventures are awaiting you in Wekiwa Springs State Park and the natural areas of Apopka Florida.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close.

A Magical Place

There are times in life when you find a new, magical place that nearly defies description. One that almost overwhelms the senses and can take you beyond anything you’ve experienced before. A place that makes all your senses come alive, and you realize how wonderful it is just “to be” in that moment.

There’s a state park in Florida called Hillsborough River that became “that place” for me this past winter. Oh, some might say it’s similar to other state parks there, and it may be, but I want to share some of what I experienced with you. Then you can decide if it’s truly magical.

As the name implies, the Hillsborough River flows through the park. And it appears almost “jungle-like.” It’s dense with overhanging palm trees and sweeping branches of live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and epiphytes (air plants). Underbrush can be thick limiting the view in places. Birds erupt in song overhead in the tree tops, and bridges like this one provide trail access to both sides of the river.

A suspension bridge lures you invitingly across the river and onto single-track trails replete with nature where flowers abound. Such as this Carolina Jessamine.

It’s a native vine that blooms with a two-inch long trumpet-like flowers in late winter to early spring in Florida. Its golden yellow color, reminiscent of the sun, fills the eye with wonder and provides a sweet glorious fragrance that embraces you as you walk by.

And winged creatures accompany you on your journey. This Queen butterfly was rather prolific along a portion of one trail. It’s deep rich mahogany color is quite striking with the black wing edging and vivid white spots. It’s a native of some of the southern states across the U.S. and an amazing sight for me as it’s one I rarely see.

Other butterflies in Florida are also quite striking, like this Zebra Longwing (also called Zebra Heliconian). It’s a native of the southern U.S. states and central America and has a wingspan up to 4 inches. It feeds on both nectar and pollen which helps extend it’s life cycle.

On this magical day at Hillsborough River I was also fortunate to watch a Zebra Longwing and a Monarch playfully explore flowers lining the bank of the river. Neither seemed bothered by the others presence as they shared these flowers in their search of nectar.

There’s an interesting trail that skirts along the river, offering spectacular views of nature and wildlife, with boardwalks that beckon you along its length.

The river is truly a pleasure to behold. It meanders through the park and provides not only glorious vistas to the human eye, but also to those creatures that inhabit the park, like this Little Blue heron which finds ample food along the river banks.

The river is a true joy to paddle as well and is rather mesmerizing with its overhanging branches and unique vistas at every turn…scenery that is difficult to describe for its full effect on the senses.

Cypress trees line the stream in places, with water lilies edging the banks. Quiet. Peaceful. Simplistic as you quietly slip the paddle into the water moving the canoe forward in your journey.

You share the river with many creatures, such as this Great Blue heron which was peacefully observing and unbothered by our presence.

Here’s a closer look at a Great Blue so you can truly appreciate its magnificence.

And alligators, of course. Most are preoccupied with absorbing the sun’s warmth, although they usually keep an eye on you.

Birds flitter about the trees and shrubbery. Sometimes just a glimpse, while others stretch out their wings to the sun, like this male Anhinga.

Flowers line the river banks around you. And sometimes, the sun focuses a spotlight like nothing else can. This is a Swamp lily (Crinum americanum) I believe.

Nature provides the most dramatic visions in colors almost beyond the imagination. Like this Roseate Spoonbill which was carefully maintaining its balance with wings outstretched as it moved further up the branch. The outstretched wings give you a good glimpse of the varying rose colors that make this bird so striking.

Turtles bask in the sun where fallen logs provide perfect venues for them. Often you will see six or more turtles on a single log. A turtle’s shell is made of bone and is part of its spine. UV light from sunshine is needed for vitamin D for bone and shell growth, which is why you will see turtles frequently basking in the sun.

One of my favorite turtle photos is the one below with mom and baby, reflecting the exact same pose. “I wanna be just like mom.”

Turtles are truly amazing creatures. I admire their abilities. Many of these little guys balance precariously on a rounded surface, with legs stretched and fully extended. I’ve often wondered whether this is needed for balance, or just because the sunshine feels good on the skin. No matter…it appears they enjoy it immensely.

I could share many more photos of glorious flowers, butterflies, birds, dragonflies, but these photos I’ve shared should be enough for you to decide. So…is Hillsborough River state park a truly magical place? It is for me.

Until next time, keep exploring nature up close. I hope you find your magical place too.

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.