Sunday, April 24, 2011

With, not apart from

I was on a mission. There was a flower I had seen the previous evening that I had never seen before, and I wanted to get a picture of it. I grabbed my camera and my binoculars, put on my boots, and off I went to get my pictures. I walked deliberately through the field and into the woods. I had a destination in mind, but I wasn't absolutely sure where the flowers were, so I would have to pay close attention. I was very much aware of myself, of my camera, of my footsteps, of my destination. There was separation between myself and my surroundings.

Ground Ivy (or Gill-over-the-Ground) - Glechoma hederacea

I tried to walk softly and quietly, because I wanted to be able to hear the birds. They were quiet at first. I did, however, hear the creek running - a soothing sound. A sound to help me slow down. I stepped on ground ivy and a wave of minty odor wafted up to my nose. I stopped to bend down and inhale it more deeply. The evening sun was starting to fade, so I had to keep moving, but my pace lessened. Stop. Look. Listen. Smell. Keep moving, but keep noticing. Be open, aware, and receptive. I began to meld into the landscape. I was soon rewarded for my noticing. No, I hadn't found the flower I was seeking, but instead I happened upon the business of creation.

Snowberry Clearwing moths, mating - Hemaris diffinis

My first reaction was one of awe and immense gratitude. How lucky was I to come across this scene? This is, after all, not something you see every day: a pair of insects mating. I felt blessed to be able to observe them in this amazing but fragile state. Then there was the work of documenting what I saw. Thank goodness I had my camera with me! As I took photos, my brain started to process what I was seeing, wanting to put a name to it. What I thought at first to be bumble bees were, upon closer inspection, most definitely moths. But which species? With no field guide at hand, I knew I would have to research it later, so I let it go for the time being. After taking a few more photos, I gave them their privacy.

white deadnettle and purple deadnettle - Lamium album and Lamium purpureum

A quick meander away from the moths I found the flowers I was looking for: white deadnettle. It was mixed in among stands of purple deadnettle and readily stood out. Even though I was using my camera to get close to this flower, I did not especially take note of this tool in my hands. By this time, 20 or so minutes into my walk in the woods, I had become my senses. Even though I was aware that I was this person, sitting in the woods taking pictures of flowers and moths, there was also a feeling of belonging with everything around me. I felt that I was with, not apart from, the landscape that I was in. I was invited to have a seat and continue with this feeling. So I sat - I listened to the birds, watched the bumble bees and let my senses take over. I allowed myself to just be for a bit.

I've said it before, and I will say it again: we should allow ourselves to do this more often. I know I should, at least. To take time to get away from politics and money and our goods and possessions and just blend into the world around us. To be one with it. It is uplifting and refreshing. I am very fortunate to have woods and fields nearby and at my disposal whenever I feel like stepping into them. I acknowledge that not everyone has this luxury. Even if it's just a small patch of yard, a local park, a playground, a bike path, a lake - find a place that resonates with you, go there as often as you are able, and drink it in. And let it drink you in, too.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) and white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

After finding the white deadnettle and realizing I still had plenty of sunlight left for a leisurely return trip, I took my time the rest of the way. I stopped to cross the creek and look at the white trillium growing on the steep hillsides. I found, with effort, the Dutchman's breeches that had obviously been in peak bloom when I had seem them the day before. As dusk began settling in, the birds became more vocal, and I heard for the first time this spring a Wood Thrush singing. This beautiful song holds a very special place in my heart, and it always stops me in my tracks the first time I hear it each spring. If someone had come across me at that moment, they might not have guessed that I was listening to a bird sing. My hands were raised to my lips in a prayerful gesture, I was smiling and there were tears in my eyes. All my attention was focused on the ethereal notes of that thrush, an angelic voice to be sure. It was pure bliss.

As I emerged from the woods and onto the road, there was a spring in my step and not a cloud in my heart. I was at peace. I look forward to returning to that state again soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting ready

In less than 2 weeks, I will be taking off on the adventure of a lifetime. I will be birding with the pros, gathering with old friends, and making new friends. I will be getting warbler neck and doing the Life Bird Boogie more times than I can count. I'll be up and at 'em well before the crack of dawn, eating breakfast around the crack of dawn, and start birding right around dawn. I will hear and see so much cool stuff that I imagine my brain might shut down temporarily due to overstimulation. And that will just be on the first day!

These are the kinds of things that I have to look forward to when I head to my southeastern neighbor-state of West Virginia for a week for the New River Birding and Nature Festival in early May. I'll be staying in a cabin the woods at Opossum Creek Retreat, and I imagine it will feel a lot like home - except I bet the birding will be a little better!

In the mean time, I've got some studying to do. I can't possibly hope to go in knowing all of the birds that we might come across during the trip, but I am going to focus my efforts on learning the wood warblers, both by sight and by song. This is one of my many birding weak spots, and I plan to make it less of a weak spot, both for the sake of this trip and just for my own personal knowledge.

I have a number of super helpful resources to consult for my studies, including Jim McCormac's Birds of Ohio, the Sibley Guide to eastern North American birds, the Warblers of Ohio CD guidebook (and CD) from the Ohio Division of Wildlife, and my trusty iBird app on my iPod, along with CDs of birdsongs that I have downloaded to said iPod. Oh, and let's not forget the vast array of information available on the interwebs!

I have been casually listening to songs by headphones while at work, but in the evening I try to do some old-fashioned homework by reading about the birds, taking notes, and studying photos and drawings of them. Hopefully by the time I find myself out in the middle of wooded West Virginia, I'll at least be able to identify half of the wood warbler species without too much trouble. If nothing else, I'll just stand and stare in awe, and I'll smile and nod when someone tells me what I'm seeing and hearing. That's okay too.

Wish me luck with my studying!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In search of the ephemeral

Crocus flowers in bloom

Spring is a season for celebration. It is a time of bursting forth after a long season of gray dormancy. Such bursting forth is noticeable in eye-catching flowers like crocuses, daffodils, tulips, and hyacinth. Also there are trees that catch our eye with their beautiful blooms and blossoms, like magnolia, cherry and redbud. We can also hear spring coming alive, as the peepers and toads sing their songs of love, birds serenade us, and maybe we'll even hear a group of bees as they work on pollinating a blooming fruit tree. Birds can be seen carrying nesting material. Gardens start getting cleaned up and lawnmowers start roaring.

All of these, such obvious signs of spring.

There are, however, flowers out there that are not so easy to spot; flowers that, although small and fleeting, are very much an important part of the early spring landscape. These are the spring ephemerals. Their bloom time is short, sometimes lasting only a few days, if that. They take advantage of the fact that the trees are not yet in bloom and soak up all energy of the sun that a still-open forest canopy offers. And finding them requires some effort. You will likely have to get your knees dirty if you want to really see them, as seeing them from a standing position often does not afford you the best view of their true beauty.

Going on expeditions with those who know where to look helps, too!

Leavenworthia uniflora - Michaux's Gladcress. Had the morning been sunny, the flowers themselves would have been showier, but we made do with seeing any portion of these Ohio rarities at all. At right is the basal rosette that we began to see everywhere once we found the first flower or two.

The very unique leaf of the Virginia Waterleaf plant.

Common Wood Rush

White Trillium flower, ready to bloom

Spicebush blooms

Field Pansy in a sea of Dead Nettle

Mouse-tail (Myosurus minimus) - an Ohio rarity

Driving around rural Adams County, our caravan stopped here and there, pulling off the road to poke around in a field, a nature preserve, a cemetery, and a seemingly nondescript patch of land that's actually a lovely little cedar prairie. Someone would shout out, "What are we looking for?" "Something that looks different!" would be the reply. Eventually, a sharp eye would latch on to the object of our searching. And then, on hands and knees, we would each get down and look at the specimen, often not much more than an inch tall. We would look around, trying to find yet a better, more beautiful, more fully bloomed specimen.

Little Whitlow-grass, in fruit (Draba brachycarpa) - another Ohio rarity. This is a flower that grows best in dry, sandy soils, and benefits from regular disturbance. This was one of our cemetery finds.

Pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

White Trout Lily and Yellow Forest Violet. The forest floor was literally covered with Trout Lilies in flower and in fruit.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

Now here I am, several weeks after our excursion into small and rare mustards (officially known as The Annual Adams County Ohio Lilliputian Mustard Expedition and extensively written about at Ohio Birds and Biodiversity, Weedpicker's Journal, Red and the Peanut, Nature Remains, and Indy Parks Nature Blog), internalizing some new botanical vocabulary, and making sure to pay better attention to even the tiniest of flowers on my own property. The season of ephemerals has just about passed, but I will keep a better eye out in years to come.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Roadside flowers

I will resume coverage of my Adams County flora expedition shortly, but first I want to wrap up my "roadside" series (remember the Roadside vernal puddle and the Roadside slip?).

While I was out and about recently I was reminded that I need to post about Coltsfoot, one of our earliest-blooming spring wildflowers. It's also one of the most visible due to it's bright yellow color. We've had some warm and sunny days here lately, and the Coltsfoot blossoms are out in full force.

Coltsfoot may look at first glance like a Dandelion to the uninitiated, but closer inspection will reveal the differences (this could get a little technical - please bear with me).

Coltsfoot is comprised of both ray and disk flowers, whereas Dandelions have ray flowers only.

Coltsfoot, with disk flowers in the center and ray flowers radiating out from the center.

Dandelion, with only ray flowers.

I can't resist sharing these side by side - these are photos of Coltsfoot taken about a week apart. The disk flowers in the photo on the left are mostly closed up tight, except for a few on the outer edge, but after a week they really begin to open up, as seen in the photo on the right.

Another key difference is that the leaves of Coltsfoot do not show themselves until after the flower is gone. Dandelion leaves precede the flowers, often a cue for those who like their lawns manicured that they had better call the lawn treatment service.

The leaves of Coltsfoot, with nary a trace of the flower stalk left. These leaves might as well have a note on them that says "Coltsfoot was here."

The leaves of the Dandelion in what is called a "basal rosette" formation. This is probably one of the most easily recognized set of plant leaves in American due to the Dandelion's reputation as a nasty "weed" and ruiner of lawns.

I happen to find Dandelions to be quite handsome and striking, so I don't mind them in my yard. One of the many reasons that I live on rural property - no expectations of a manicured lawn here!

While they have their differences, there are quite a few similarities between Coltsfoot and Dandelions, such as:
  • Both are members of the Aster family.
  • Both have only 1 flower per stalk.
  • Both are non-native flowers originally from Eurasia
  • Both are named for the shape of their leaves (AND both of those names are based on similarities to some animal: dent de lion (translated from the French as "lion's teeth") due to the jagged edges of the leaves for Dandelion; and, well... I think Coltsfoot is pretty self-explanatory - the leaf is said to look like a colt's foot).

Both are quite prolific, but Coltsfoot only blooms during the spring, whereas you will find Dandelions in bloom from spring to fall, and maybe even during winter if you get a stretch of sunny, warm-ish days. And while you can find fields full of dandelions in some places, I feel like Coltsfoot can be observed in "colonies," if you will.

A roadside colony of Coltsfoot in a ditch near our house - a profusion of yellow and cheer in early spring.

There are certainly more dainty flowers to be found in early spring, as I will show you when I return to the Adams County floral expedition, but seeing such showy and bright flowers as Coltsfoot are a blatant sign that spring truly has sprung.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Getting my nose to the ground

This post finds me tired from a full day in the field, but the pressure is on after spending the day with a group of fellow nature enthusiasts and flower lovers, several of whom are bloggers themselves - who will be the first to post? Some photos have already made their way to Facebook thanks to others in the group, and I'm too wiped out to do a full-blown post myself, but here are some highlights from a wonderful day spent wildflower hunting in Adams County, OH.

Old barns abound in rural southern Ohio, this one made all the more picturesque when framed by a field brimming with Purple Dead Nettle.

Even though I was only about 2 hours WSW of Athens County, some flowers are much farther along in Adams Co. then they are in Athens Co. For example, in Adams County, some of the Bloodroot has already gone to fruit (it's just started to bloom here in Athens County)!

Our trip today was not only a feast for the eyes, but for the nose as well, as one location was full of Wild Leeks (AKA Ramps - or, if you want to say it with the proper accent, "rAImps")

Our group clogged the back roads of Adams County. I'm sure all who drove by wondered what kinds of cool things we were up to!

I always like to get shots of the folks I'm with on these trips, showing how immersed we get with our subjects. You know it's serious business when the paparazzi come out!

While we saw many neat flowers today, a number of which were life plants for me, this was by far my favorite, simply due to its bizarre nature. Tricia West and I spotted this at just about the same time. It looks like a Rue Anemone as far as I can tell, but it looks like a double-flowered form. Pretty cool!

More to follow soon!