Friendly Faces

This spring is not really spring, yet.  Winter doesn’t want to let go and keeps sending more snow and cold temperatures.  The calendar tells me it’s April 9th, but when I look outside it seems more like January 99th.

I enjoy rambling through woodlands looking for early spring wildflowers.  Every year at this time I see the flowers of Bloodroot, Hepatica, Rue Anemone, Twinleaf and more, except for this year.  Everything is late, at least their flowers are.  The plants are there, but the flowers are waiting.  Being the reproductive part of the plant, flowers are susceptible to extreme cold and since a plant’s sole purpose in life is to reproduce itself, if the flowers freeze, there will be no fruits or seeds — no reproduction.

Even though I knew the flowers wouldn’t be there, I decided to take a walk in a nearby 50 acre woodland and I was greeted with a great many friendly leafy faces.  Having hiked the ridges and valleys throughout West Virginia so many times during all seasons, I am familiar with many plants in all their stages of growth.  And I did see the flowers — but just in my mind.  Only seeing the leaves, I was able to view the flowers imprinted in my memories.  And not just spring flowers.  I saw the leafy beginnings of summer wildflowers as well and then viewed their flowers in my mind.  Here are a few of the leafy friends I saw.  The flowers that will appear later are on the right.

Tall A.

Tall Agrimony (Agrimonia gryposepala) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

A Buttercup

Aborted Buttercup/Kidneyleaf Crowfoot  (Ranunculus abortivus) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

False Mer

False Mermaidweed (Floerkea proserpinacoides) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

Heal a

Heal All/Selfheal/Bumblebee Weed (Prunella vulgaris) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

m apple

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

M E Chick

Mouse-ear Chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

H Woodmint

Hairy Wood Mint (Blephilia hirsute) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

sweet cicely

Smooth Sweet Cicely/Aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

White-flowered Leafcup

White-flowered Leafcup (Polymnia canadensis) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

P D Nettle

Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

S W Violet

Striped White Violet (Viola striata) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

Great Chickweed

Great Chickweed/Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

It is important to go out in Nature as often as possible.  If you do, you will soon begin to recognize the friendly faces of so many more special friends.

 

Owls In the Family… part two… Eastern Screech-owls

In 1974 I received my Master Personal Bird Banding Permit.  I chose to research the breeding biology of Eastern Screech-owls (EASO).  For the next 28 years I was knee-deep in Screech-owls.

I began organizing Screech-owl counts associated with the Wheeling, WV, Christmas Bird Counts.  Every year that we counted, we had the highest EASO number in North America.

Later I began a trapping program using bal-chatri traps.  Through this I learned much about the secretive EASOs and also about myself:  I developed an awareness of nature in a new and peaceful way.  I became accustomed to being outside alone in what some would call horrible, unwelcoming weather.  It showed me how absolutely wonderful it was to be comfortable in creation in all circumstances.  Nothing compares to the quiet of cold, cold temperatures, treacherous roads and early morning hours.  It’s a quiet that few ever experience.  While everyone else was in bed, I was alone, outside, learning to be in touch with the very essence of life. I would gaze into the starlit sky and think about how I fit into the universe.  Then a Screech-owl would arrive and I would think about trapping Screech-owls.

Screech owl (Otus asio) and white pine tree H

Eastern Screech-owl called out from hiding in the boughs of a white pine tree. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Thinking back on my EASO research, I believe the alone times trapping owls in the winter along remote gravel-dirt roads were my favorite times.  I remember one night in particular.  The night was cold, about 20 degrees, with 4 inches of snow on the ground.  The snow was fresh and still covered the branches of the trees and bushes.  Before going about my business of trapping an owl, my mind studied the patterns and images in the dark, snow-covered branches.  If I looked for mountains, I saw them.  Thinking of animals, I found distorted shapes of animals — perhaps a long snake with contrasting black and white stripes running the length of its body — maybe a small squirrel-shaped stub of broken branch with a massive tail composed of a thick tangle of snow-covered wild grape vines.  There were partial faces, some friendly, but most contorted and fearful, as if ravenously protecting the forest from all unwelcome intruders.  I  valued these alone times immensely.  If I had been with someone we would have talked about a multitude of things, not allowing my mind to pause and glory in the wonder of the universe.  So often while alone in wild places I never noticed the cold, wind, rain and other elements that keep most people in the superficial comfort and apparent safety of their homes, but I was always sharply aware of the marvels of Nature that surrounded me.

Shortly after I began trapping EASOs I discovered something quite amazing about these little owls.  The first few times I wanted to set a trap I would first make Screech-owl calls until I heard a response from a distant EASO.  Then I would put the trap in a visible spot off the edge of the road and continue to call as I hid behind the car.  Soon the owl came closer and onto the trap.

But soon I discovered that all my careful hiding and trying making the owl think no one was there was totally unnecessary.  I found I could just stand in the open when I called the owl in.  We could easily see each other.  Most of the time the owl perched on a tree branch and watched me as I set the trap just below.  Before I could even get back to the car I would hear a “THUMP” as the owl hit the trap.

Sometimes an EASO even hit the trap while it was still in my hands.  The first time that happened, the shock seemed to stop my heart.  The owls were much more interested in getting the food from the trap than they were worried about my presence.

In 1988 my approach to EASO studies changed significantly.  The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Divisions Non-game Program awarded me a grant which allowed me to study EASOs in nesting boxes.  With the money I  bought climbing equipment to make it possible for me to “easily” get up to the nesting boxes.  The state constructed 30 EASO nesting/roosting boxes per my specifications.  West Liberty State College granted me permission to mount boxes in their 154 acre arboretum and in a wooded area on campus.  I also placed boxes in the 14 acres behind my house.  Two years later I left my job at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park.  I had enjoyed  working there but I wanted to be in the field more and still make a living at what I loved.  Working at the Brooks Center, I had been limited to mostly night-time owl work.  Now I was able to spend daytime with the owls.  Although the surveys continued, most of the trapping ended.

Using the nest boxes, I was able to monitor the owls’ nests and behavior during breeding season and their roosting activities the rest of the year.  Without injuring or disturbing the owls, I was able to watch and photograph many details of EASO life.

female eastern screech owl (Otus asio) incubating eggs

Eastern Screech-owl incubating 5 eggs (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

egg 1day old

Eastern Screech-owl egg hatching and the same owl 24 hours later (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

5 two week old screech owls (Otus asio)

Two-week-old Eastern Screech-owls – one of these 5 owls is the owl hatching from the egg in the above photo, but I do not know which one (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

For many years I held a Federal Bird Rehabilitation Permit specifically for EASOs.  It allowed me legally to keep and work with injured EASOs until the time they could be released back into the wild.  Most adult injuries were car-related as the owls seem to be attracted to small mammals crossing roadways.  The adult owls were ferocious and capable of significant scratches from their thin, but sturdy, sharp talons.  To me, the worst injury was a talon under a fingernail or cuticle.  This was painful and healed slowly.  The baby owls also had attitude, but they didn’t have the strength or determination to back it up.

My children sometimes argued over who got to care for a young or injured owl.  My son, Josh, was too young to care for an owl by himself, so he sometimes helped me.  Julie and Kelly were old enough to be assigned the duties of feeding, exercising, and cleaning the cage of a particular owl, most often a young one.

easo nest box

Gray phase Eastern Screech-owl looking from an owl box and red phase Eastern Screech-owl ‘apparently’ sleeping/roosting in a nesting box. (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One day I received a call from a lady in Washington, PA.  She had been walking in the early morning and saw something unusual which she described as, “A pure white pile of feathers that moved.”

Upon closer examination she saw it was a baby bird unlike any she had ever seen.  “It’s bigger, has tiny white feathers covering the body, and long claws on the toes,” she said.  I suggested it might be a baby owl.

Once she knew I had permits to keep owls until they could be released, she was happy to bring the bird to me.  It was a baby EASO.  Unlike most other birds, newly-hatched EASOs have feathers covering their tiny bodies.  Attempts to stand the little owl upright caused it to wobble back and forth, then lean to one side, and finally fall over.  I guessed it was two days old.  My family just adored this tiny baby.  All other owls we had kept had been much older by at least by a week.  (For baby birds, a week is a very long time.  They change and grow up very quickly.)  Everyone wanted to be part of this tiny one’s care, but I decided I would be its primary caregiver for the first week.  Even so, when I fed or did anything with the baby, the entire family was present.  Although the baby owl didn’t realize it, it had five doting parents.

I had always been adamant that we not name the owls we cared for because they would eventually be released.  This little guy was different.  Secretly, he came to be called, “Archie.”  When I first heard the whispered references to “Archie,” I scowled (a little) but said nothing.  Soon it was all out in the open and ARCHIE was a major topic of conversation.  Unlike the other owls we had cared for, Archie had strongly imprinted on our family, and three young members of our family were strongly imprinted on Archie.  After school, I could usually find my children lying on the floor surrounding the tiny feather ball, just watching and laughing, gently touching his soft feathers.

Archie liked having the top of his head lightly scratched, leaning in to get more.  But he didn’t like our hands anywhere near his toes and feet.  He would become wide-eyed, dance a bit, clack his beak, and backup, with a look that seemed to say, “I don’t like that.  You should know better!”  Foot sensitivity seems to be typical for owls — other owls we cared for had sometimes reacted hostilely when their feet were bothered, too.

Within 10 days of Archie’s arrival, he could easily have been mistaken for any other EASO his age if not for his uncharacteristic behavior.  The door of his cage in the house  was kept open and usually he would just sit on top of the cage.  It was decided that Julie, my oldest child, would be Archie’s main caretaker, with Kelly’s help when necessary.  Josh became the official Archie observer.  Soon it was commonplace to see Archie on Julie’s shoulder being chauffeured around the house and yard.  Archie spent more time in Julie’s bedroom than at his cage, and so did Kelly.   I often saw all three kids playing outside with Archie perched nearby on a picnic table, on a low branch of a cherry tree, or even on a bicycle handlebar.   Archie followed their every move as they played and ran around the yard.  One day when we were all outside with Archie on the ground among us, a cat ran in and went right for Archie.  All five of us lunged for the cat.  It finally managed to escape with only a bruise or two and some well-deserved reprimands.

Julie Kelly and Archie Jul 1987 at West Liberty

Julie and Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We decided that Archie needed a safer place to stay while outside.  I attached a roomy wood duck box to a porch support that faced out into the yard.  The box was low enough to allow us to reach it, but high enough to keep daytime marauding cats and dogs at bay.  The box had a flat roof so Archie could either sit in the entry hole or stand on the roof top.  Most of the time, he sat in the opening contentedly watching the other birds, visitors, and family activities.

12-year-old girl with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Kelly with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Archie was fed commercially formulated food known as “predatory bird diet” for about 3 weeks.  Then I announced it was time to introduce him to live mice for food to help him be ready to feed himself when he learned to fly.  In a period of 24 hours, we discovered two shocking things about Archie.  When I placed him on the floor and put a live mouse in front of him, instead of intently watching the mouse, clawing at it, or  pouncing on it like other owls did, Archie became wide-eyed, turned, and ran to the nearest corner of the room.  There he remained, cowering.  Archie was afraid of mice!  After supper that same day, we took Archie into the backyard for a flying lesson, as was our standard procedure.  The usual method was to toss an owl gently into the air.  Our rehab owls would spread their wings and gracelessly glide a short distance to  land awkwardly in the soft grass.  After repeating this process several times a day for three or four days, the owls made great progress in learning to fly.  When Archie, on the other hand, was gently tossed into the air, he opened his wings, and, in a panic, flew straight into the ground.  After several more attempts resulted in nose-dives straight into the ground I thought, “Archie is afraid of heights.  Now what?” Now we knew we had an owl who was afraid of mice and afraid of heights.

7 year old boy with 2-week-old screech owl (Otus asio)

Josh with Archie (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

His vulnerability made this young owl all the more endearing.  Another discovery that really surprised me was the range of foods he would eat.  One evening during supper, Archie was perched on a nearby cage while we were busily eating and talking about the events of the day.  One of the kids accidentally dropped a piece of a beet on the floor.  Archie jumped from the cage, ran over, picked up the beet, and swallowed it.

Archie likes beets!” Kelly said excitedly.

All of a sudden another small piece of beet was on the floor and Archie ate it, too.  “That’s enough,” I reprimanded.  “He may eat beets, but that doesn’t mean they are good for him.”

“Well, if beets aren’t good for us, why do we have to eat them?” Josh asked, thinking he had found a chink in the family rule that everyone ate anything we grew in the garden.

“Archie is not an us,” I answered, but someone quickly rebuked me:  “Archie IS one of us!”

The beet incident sparked a discussion which brought up a point that everyone needed to remember:  Archie, like every other owl we had helped, would one day be released back into the wild.  That sobering truth calmed everyone and we resumed eating.  Later we discovered that Archie would also eat green beans and watermelon.

Unfortunately Archie was not making good progress toward becoming releasable.  We were quickly approaching the 90 day point at which time, according to my rehabilitation permit, “Any owl not rehabilitated within 90 days is to be destroyed.”

Did Archie fit into this category?  Well, Archie had never been injured, so he wasn’t being rehabilitated from some kind of injury that prevented him from surviving in the wild.  So did that sentence apply to him?   I had never believed in keeping owls as pets, so I knew he would eventually need to be released when he had learned the skills to survive.  I didn’t want my children to view Archie as a pet and be emotionally crushed when the time came to release him.  I thought of this dilemma daily as we continued his survival skill training.

After a time, Archie would eat a dead mouse if it was offered in pieces.  Of course, it was my job to slice up the mouse.  Eventually, he learned to tear a dead mouse apart by himself, but he still ran away at the sight of a live mouse.  One morning I made a unilateral decision concerning Archie’s hunting skills.  Each morning before work I  placed Archie outside in the wood duck box.  Most days when I returned, he was just as I left him, comfortably sitting peering from the box.  I decided that this day would be different.  It was time for Archie to learn to deal with living prey.  One of my live traps had captured a short-tailed shrew, so I put the shrew in the bottom of the outdoor box, pushed Archie inside, and nailed a square piece of paneling over the entrance.  I told my wife what I had done and then left for work.  When I returned home that evening and saw the box with the covered entry hole, I remembered that this was Archie’s living prey day.   I put my ear near the box and even tapped the box several times.  There was no sound at all.  I was a bit concerned as I pried out the nails to remove the board.  The instant I removed the cover, a feathered ball of orange shot from the box as if fired from a cannon — it was Archie.  I picked him up and lifted him so he could sit in the entry hole, but he kept jumping to the ground.  I was certain he had eaten the shrew, but when I opened the front of the box, the shrew was running around inside, alive and well.

In a shocking moment of enlightenment I thought, “What have I done?  I put this poor owl through eight hours of its worst nightmare.”  Imagining myself locked in a darkened room for eight hours with a black mamba snake, I regretted what I had done.  More than a week passed before Archie would go into that box again.

Archie never cooperated in our attempted flight training exercises, but eventually he did begin gliding from his box to the ground every day about dusk.  He didn’t seem to mind when Bev scooped him up and brought him inside for the night.  Then he began to leave his box during the day and someone would find him on a nearby tree branch.  Bev called me at work one day and asked, “Archie’s on the neighbor’s porch roof.  What should I do?”

I replied, “Get a ladder and get him down or keep an eye on him and I will get him when I come home.”

Soon I regularly heard, Dad, Archie’s up in the tree,” or “Dad, Archie’s on the roof.”  Each time, I would retrieve him and place him back in the box.  Even though Archie frequently left the comfort of his box for a nearby lofty perch, we never did see him fly.

One day when we were all home, Julie said, “Archie’s out of the box again but I can’t see where he went.”  We all went out to search for him.  Finally, he was spotted high up in an 80-foot Norway spruce tree.

Kelly asked, “How are we going to get him down from there?”

“We aren’t,” I answered.  “He’s on his own.  We are going to have to say our goodbyes from here.”

Josh reacted by crying and yelling in despair over losing his companion.  We all were sad but had to accept the situation.  We were also glad, knowing that he was fulfilling the purpose for which he was created.  He had been with us for two years.  That was the last we would see of Archie.

Except, maybe, for me.  One day while checking owl boxes in the 14-acre woods, I was climbing a tree when a red phase EASO popped its head out and looked at me.

“That’s odd,” I thought, “That’s never happened before.”

Never before had an owl inside the box peered out at me.  As I climbed closer, the owl looked out at me again, then nervously looked around and flew out.  This happened one other time at a different box in the same woods.  Although I couldn’t be one hundred percent sure this owl was Archie, I thought, “Of course, it’s Archie.  He’s always been different.  He’s his own owl.”  I was able to reassure the family that Archie was alive and well, hunting and surviving on his own.

EASOs

Eastern Screech Owls (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

I studied these interesting and secretive birds for 28 years.  I learned many things about them and ended up with more questions to wonder about .  Now I monitor two nest boxes, occasionally do EASO surveys, and very rarely trap an EASO.  Eastern Screech-owls are my favorite bird.

In 2010 Jan and I did a Christmas Bird Count survey from midnight to dawn and found 27 EASOs in part of the count area.  In 2014 we were able to band our first EASO from one of the two nest boxes on our property and Jan was able to experience first-hand the amazingly soft feathers and the feeling of sharpened pins from the talons of an Eastern Screech-owl.

Eastern Screech-owl

Jan holding her first ever Eastern Screech-owl (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Kayaking the Headwaters of the Blackwater River…and Searching for Wildflowers

Recently Jan and I decided to make a trip to Canaan Valley for what has become an annual event:  kayaking a section of one of the rivers in one of the most scenic parts of West Virginia.  Our original plan was to do part of the Dry Fork River along River Road beginning east of Hendricks, WV.   We reconnoitered the river on our way down.  To our surprise the Dry Fork was high for August and the current was too swift for the kind of kayaking we like to do.  Unlike white-water kayakers, we like to explore slowly along the river banks and in back channels looking for wildflowers, listening to bird songs and finding other interesting things along the way.  Our exploration via car did alert us to one special discovery:  the wildflowers were spectacular this year!

1 cardinal flower

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) was in full bloom along the Dry Fork River. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

1 great mullien

Along Rt. 72 to Back Hollow Road and Canaan Valley we noticed lots of Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) still in bloom. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

misc. wildflowers - tall purple ironweed (V. altissima), chicory

Along a fence line and in other places we noticed these wildflowers and many more. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Whenever we have hiked the Blackwater River trail in Canaan Valley State Park, Jan always said, “I would love to be out there on that water!”  This spring we discovered the access to that section of the river.  After much discussion we decided we would explore this section of the Blackwater River close to its headwaters in Canaan Valley State Park.  After a hearty breakfast we headed for our input point.

blog 1

Our Advanced Elements kayaks, before inflation (left) and fully ready (right).  (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The kayaks we use are referred to as “foldable-inflatables”.  They suit our purposes perfectly.  They are extremely stable — I once tried to test the stability and was not able to (purposely) flip mine — I fell off/out numerous times, but the kayak remained upright.  The quality of materials and construction of our crafts is very impressive — they have proved very durable over the years.  Perhaps the best quality is that each one packs into a large suitcase-like container so inside our Prius we can easily fit two kayaks along with other kayaking gear, clothes, a large cooler and all the other things Jan travels with…all enclosed, safe and dry until we are ready to hit the water.

blog 1

Bill made sure the professional camera was in a dry-bag and off we went. (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

blog 2

In the water and ready to explore.  (Left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

One thing we noticed and have noticed along many waterways is the abundance of Long-jawed Orb-weaving Spiders.  Although we often accidentally knock a spider from its web into the water, they are able to run across the water expertly and quickly to a nearby dry spot.

long-jawed orb weaver spider (Tetragnatha extensa) hiding on pla

Long-jawed Orb-weaving Spider (family Tetragnathidae)  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

5

Jan exploring some shallows and looking at the Meadowsweet Pipestem. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

 

We found lots of backwaters and little passageways to explore.

blog 3

Meadowsweet Piptestem (Spiraea alba) is one of the dominant shrubs in this area of the Blackwater River. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

We immediately began seeing lots of evidence of beaver activity, both old and new.

IMG_3413

Sticks and branches piled up by beavers.  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

On one of the main back channels, we encountered a fairly high beaver dam.

blog 4

Left – Jan paddling in the main channel of the river.  Right – Jan encountered a beaver dam on one of the main back channels.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

The photographer couldn’t resist the opportunity to see things from a different angle.  Precariously he stepped on dry hummocks and into the swampy water to find just the right spot.

blog 19

Bill made his way to the perfect photo spot above the beaver dam.  (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

With Bill as the photographer, the resulting picture usually captures the story very well.

8

(Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

When we encounter a beaver dam sometimes we portage around it and sometimes we explore other channels.  We wondered how the water level above this dam could be so much higher than that in the main channel, so we decided to go back to the main channel and continue upstream to see what we might find.

blog 5

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is another common plant along the Blackwater. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

9

As Jan paddled and Bill took the picture, he noticed the Canaan Valley State Park ski slopes on the right and the beginning of the Dolly Sods Wilderness on the mountaintop to the left. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Spotted Jewelweed wasn’t as common as some other flowers we saw, but we did see it in many places.

blog 6

Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Deptford Pink is not a wetland plant, but we did find a beautiful stand flowering atop a large flat rock that had sometime ago fallen from a high ridge along the river.

blog 7

Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

As we paddled upstream against the gentle current we were constantly looking at and listening to what was around us.

10

In the background is Canaan Mountain.  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Blue Vervain was in full bloom in many places along the Blackwater River.

blog 8

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

We soon came upon two low beaver dams just a few yards apart.  Because of them, the water level in the main channel rose to match the level behind the large beaver dam we had seen earlier.  We used a fisherman’s trail to portage around the two dams.

IMG_3438

After the portage, Bill returned to his kayak.  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

We often stopped to check out the incredible variety of plants along (and in) the river.

IMG_3440

Bill examining a flower.  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Sneezeweed is another common plant along streams in West Virginia.  We saw many beautiful stands blooming while we were kayaking.

blog 9

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Some parts of the river were very straight, but some were quite curving — future ox-bows in the making.

 

Video (c) Jan Runyan

Bill could keep his feet inside his kayak, but in warm weather he likes to keep cool by using his feet like outriggers in the water.

We carried one bottle of water and also drank water from the river using our Life Straw bottles which are able to filter the water well enough to make it safe for drinking.

blog 17

On the left Bill is filling a Life Straw bottle and on the right he is inserting the lid and filter into the bottle. (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Although not considered a wetland plant, we did see Common Thistle in several locations where it appeared to be thriving.

blog 11

Common Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

13

Everything was beautiful about the day! (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Pondweed was found in many areas of the river.  Sometimes it was sparse, but one section was thick enough that we had to paddle over it.  Arrowhead could be seen with its beautiful flowers and fruits.

blog 12

Pondweed (Potamogeton sp.) on the left and Arrowhead (Sagittaria sp.) on the right. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

As we paddled one large channel which was fairly far from the edges of the river/wetland, we realized that we had come full circle, back to the first beaver dam we had seen…but this time we were on the high side above the branches.

blog 20

Beaver dam from the high side. (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

As Jan explored a side channel near the dam, she discovered many small dams along the side of the channel in the bushes.  They help keep the water level high in a very large impoundment area.

blog 21

Small dams alongside a channel.  (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

We only saw Tall Coneflower once on our trip.  We do see more Coneflowers on the nearby land when we lead groups every year hiking the Blackwater River Trail that parallels part of this section of the river.

blog 14

Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

There was always something new or interesting to see around every bend.

15

Jan pointing at something she wanted Bill to see on the shoreline. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

15a

White-tailed Deer watching from shore (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

16

Jan found another small beaver dam in one of the channels. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

In some places, the river channel ran very close to higher land.  It was amazing to see things we had seen before from the trail, now from a very different perspective.

IMG_3466

Effects of erosion and plant growth along the banks of the Blackwater River.  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Some of the patterned-ground rocks that we show people along the Blackwater River Trail had fallen into the water and almost look like man-made places to dock a kayak.

IMG_3474

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

All kinds of living things thrive in the moist areas surrounding the river.

The only fungus we saw was this one.  Until recently it was known as Collybia dryophila, now Gymnopus dryophilus.  It is a common mushroom often considered a ‘weed’ mushroom.

IMG_3469

Gymnopus dryophilus  (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)

We only saw three Cowbane plants during our trip.  It is usually an uncommon or rare plant.

cowbane (Oxypolis rigidior)

Cowbane (Oxypolis rigidior)  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

When the main channel was blocked by yet another beaver dam, we found a way to continue our trip through a very narrow passageway.  We got through by pulling on clumps of grass and branches.

blog 22

Photos (c) Jan Runyan

All along the trip we enjoyed watching dragonflies and damselflies darting about, chasing their winged prey as we paddled.  Several even landed on our kayaks.

mating ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata)

Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating.   (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Finally we arrived at a newly-constructed beaver dam more than a foot high.  Many of the alder branches used to make it still had green leaves on them.  When Jan realized Bill was getting out of his kayak for a walk-about she decided to relax for a while.

blog 15

(Left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We checked our watches and decided, rather than portage again, we would end our progress toward the headwaters here.

Anytime Bill was out of his kayak exploring he was quickly reminded that Arrowleaf Tearthumb (Persicaria sagittatta) (right photo) can wreak havoc on one’s toes, feet and bare legs.

blog 16

(Left photo (c) Jan Runyan, Arrowleaf Tearthumb (Persicaria sagittatta) right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

During our trip downstream we took more time to savor the beauty of the river and the day.

 

Video (c) Jan Runyan

For much of our downstream trip we could see the Dolly Sods Wilderness mountains in the background.

19

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

When we arrived at the take-out, Jan declared that this had probably been the best kayaking trip she had ever experienced.

24a

A celebratory kiss for what Jan called, “The most fun kayak trip I’ve ever been on.” (Photo (c) Bill Beatty… a selfie)

We made short work of drying, deflating and folding the kayaks so they could be put into their travel bags.

25

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Although we would have loved to spend longer on the river and we had enjoyed a wonderful, wildflowery trip, Siriani’s and friends were calling.  We had spent most of the day answering the call of the water, now we would answer the call of “O Mike Goss”!  (When you eat there you will understand.)

A Grandkid Discovers the Nature of Dolly Sods

When each of our grandchildren reaches eight years old Jan and I take them on an eight day Dolly Sods Wilderness adventure.  This was Lila’s year.  Below are a few highlights.

3

The only site open at the Red Creek Campground was No. 1 so we settled in for our stay.  Lila helped me install our solar panels so we could have power for charging camera batteries and using the computer for transferring photos. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

7

The next day, after filling water bottles at the spring, we hiked Northland Loop Trail and looked closely at the insectivorous plants along the Alder Run Bog boardwalk.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

10a

Left – Spatulate-leaved Sundew (not native, but showing up in several bogs in West Virginia); Right – West Virginia’s native Round-leaved Sundew.  Fortunately the habitat requirements are different enough to allow both of these insect-eating plants to thrive together in the same bogs. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Round-leaved Sundew pad with trapped cranefly.  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Jan and I always start with easier hikes for the grandchildren when we take them on their Dolly Sods adventure.  After the Northland Loop trail and lunch we hiked part of the Allegheny Front Vista Trail.  This trail is full of scenic overlooks and interesting rock formations.

11

Photos (c) Bill Beatty

25

Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

 

All along the Dolly Sods road we saw spectacular wildflowers.

30

Turks Cap Lily  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

On day two we did a more physical hike beginning at Bear Rocks and continuing out to Stack Rocks.

14

The Bear Rocks escarpment (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

_DSC0011

Jan and Lila on Pancake Rock (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

31

Continuing to Stack Rocks (in background)  (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

The next day one of the trails we hiked was the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail.

_DSC0001

Lila and Jan ready for another hike (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

19

Hiking the Red Spruce/Rhododendron section of the Rohrbaugh, Lila found a snail and hummed it from its shell (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Because of the moist summer, there were many colorful mushrooms and other fungi along most of the trails we hiked during the week.

20

Left to right – American Caesar and Chanterelle mushrooms (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

21

Left to right – Crowded Parchment, Chicken of the Woods and Artist’s Conk (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

22

Left to right – Fly Amanita and Bleeding Mycena mushrooms (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

23

Left to right – Turkey Tail and Violet Toothed Polypore fungi (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

24

Left to right – Orange Mycena and Yellow Fairy Cup fungi (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Besides our days on Dolly Sods we also took trips off the mountain to explore Canaan Valley and other nearby areas.  Canaan Loop Road offered a wide variety and abundance of wildflowers.

28

Black-eyed Susans (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

29

Bee Balm flowers (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

On our last full day on Dolly Sods we hiked the Beatty Labyrinth.  We saw and heard many fascinating creatures.  Jan and I were surprised that we heard Hermit Thrushes (my favorite bird song) singing every day…every where.

hemit thrush 2 Laura Meyers

Hermit Thrush  (Photo (c) Laura Meyers)

Song of the Hermit Thrush –

26

At the pond at the bottom of Blackbird Knob Trail we caught a Red-spotted Newt.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

27

Lila along Alder Run Bog Run and crossing the rock field on the Beatty Labyrinth.  (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

Sadly, this was our 4th and last grandchild trip to Dolly Sods.  Luckily, however, one of our grandkids has asked if he could return to the wilderness with us and do some more hiking.  We are already thinking about Dolly Sods with him next year.

Owls In the Family…Great Horned Owls

My first full-time job was as the Interpretive Naturalist at the Brooks Nature Center in Oglebay Park, Wheeling, West Virginia.  Many nature-related duties were required of me, but one job I took on that wasn’t required was raptor rehabilitation.  When someone brought in a hawk or owl that was ill or injured, I couldn’t help myself–I had to see what I could do to make the bird whole again.  I often had birds at work and at home in cages being rehabilitated from dehydration, gunshots, car encounters or other mishaps.

Great Horned Owls became my favorites perhaps because of their demeanor… always aggressive.   At the top of their food chain, they are the very powerful kings of the bird world.   I always had a great appreciation for their value in controlling rabies by preying on skunks.  I had an overwhelming desire to help these injured birds, but little knowledge and few tools to accomplish my goal–but I did my best.  Over time I learned much from visits to local veterinarians who often volunteered their expertise and time to help one of ‘my’ birds and to teach me some ways I could be a better rehabilitator.

One day I was working with a Great Horned Owl that had been shot through the foot by a hunter.  (Side bar: even though I occasionally received a bird apparently shot by an uncaring hunter, those same birds were always brought in by some other caring hunter who wanted to help it.)  As I worked, several men came into the nature center’s exhibit hall which also served as my rehabilitation facility.  One of the men noticed the owl and came right over.  Soon he was explaining and showing me things I could do to help the bird.  Right away I could tell he knew what he was talking about and I was very appreciative.  He introduced himself as Ron Austing.   I realized then how fortunate I was, knowing that he was one of the world’s best-known nature photographers, specializing in pictures of owls and falcons hunting their prey.  Soon I was asking all kinds of questions about owls and photography (this was about 20 years before I became a professional nature photographer).  Mr. Austing was very gracious and we talked for a very long time.

Great Horned Owl (c) Bill Beatty

A Great Horned Owl was the only animal that hurt me to the point that I had to go to the hospital – this story and many others are in my book, “Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads” (  https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/rainbows-bluebirds-and-buffleheads/   )

I often used rehab or live-animal exhibit birds in my teaching at the Nature Center or at other venues.  One day I received a call from a teacher in Steubenville, OH.  She wanted me to visit her classroom to do a program about owls, including, if possible, bringing a live owl.  The Good Zoo at Oglebay Park had a Great Horned Owl being rehabilitated so I made plans to borrow it.  The day before my owl program, I put a cage and my owl gloves in the back of my car and drove to the Zoo.  The owl was alert and showed no signs of its previous injuries.  It was a very healthy specimen and seemed to have even more of an “attitude” than most Great Horned Owls.  I put on the gloves, grabbed the owl’s legs and transferred it into my cage.

The young lady helping me wondered where I got my owl gloves.  I told her they were specially made.  I bought them locally, had them reinforced with heavier leather and added the arm extensions myself.  They were designed to work specifically with Great Horned Owls.

“Do you think I could borrow them?” she asked.  “They would make my job so much easier with some of the animals we have to deal with today.”

“You can use them, but I have to have them back before the end of the day.  I have to work with this owl at a school tomorrow morning,” I answered.

She was very appreciative and promised to return them at day’s end.  At four o’clock when the Zoo closed, I began wondering about the gloves, but thought she still might deliver them before we closed at five o’clock.  At four thirty I phoned the Zoo but there was no answer.  I even drove over, only to find the doors locked and no one there.

Before I had created those owl gloves, I had used shorter, heavy-duty leather work gloves and still had several pairs, so I wasn’t too worried about not getting the owl gloves back.

At home I showed my kids the owl in its cage.  They gawked and watched the owl huffing and puffing, while bobbing and slowly moving from side-to-side.  My son, Josh, reached to touch the cage and the owl lunged toward him grabbing the thick screening on front with its talons.  All three kids fell backwards and stared at the owl with wide eyes.

“Don’t get too close,” I said, “Great Horned Owls are very powerful birds.”  After my children went back to playing I thought, “This owl could be a handful tomorrow morning at the school.  I better make sure I can adequately handle it with the shorter gloves.”  I was thinking about several years before when a Great Horned Owl I was working with held onto my hand so tightly that I couldn’t get if off.  After a while the bird on my hand seemed to get heavier and heavier and my arm had dropped lower and lower.  As my arm sank, the owl had slowly walked onto my wrist, up my arm and onto my shoulder.  Since that owl was used to being held and the trail of puncture wounds up my arm had been shallow, I hadn’t panicked.  I had been at the Nature Center at the time, so I had finally been able to get help removing the owl.  If the same thing were to happen  in front of a group of school children, it wouldn’t be good at all.

I put on the leather work gloves.  They looked so scanty compared to the gloves I had become accustomed to using.  I was reminded of information that I taught in my programs–owls have 200 to 300 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons.  An average adult human male has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands.

When I opened the top of the cage to reach in, the owl was in a typical defensive position:  on its back with legs and sharply-taloned toes reaching for me.  It was prepared to defend itself.  If the owl grabbed a glove, it would take a while to unwrap those talons after I was holding its legs.  Wanting to avoid this, I just reached quickly for the legs as I had done before.  Something went terribly wrong–this time I was too slow.  And worse yet, the gloves were not thick enough.   One of the talons went through the glove and deep into my hand.  Even without being able to see my hand, I could tell the damage was substantial because of the intense pain.  Trying to keep the owl still only disturbed it more and it squeezed tighter sending even more pain through my hand.

“Now what?” I thought. “There is no easy way out of this!”

I managed to get the owl out of the cage and lying against the ground.  Right then, around the corner of the house, came Richard, a photographer friend.

“Richard!” I called, “I need help!  I have a talon in my hand!”

Richard smiled and answered, “Okay, but let me take a few pictures first!”

And he did take pictures…many pictures!

Finally Richard asked what he could do to help me.  I directed him to put on leather work gloves and take tight hold of the owl’s legs.  I took the glove off my good hand so I could feel my way through what I was about to do.  With my thumb and pointer finger I grabbed the talon and took a deep breath.  The talon was almost two inches long and curved, making it very difficult to pull straight out.  As I pulled as hard as I could on the talon, it scrapped the inside of my hand its entire length, but, finally, it was out.   I took the glove off.  The talon had gone all the way through my hand.  It had entered my hand between my middle and ring finger and had come out between the knuckles.

“Richard, I can’t believe you showed up when you did!” I said.  “I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Richard responded, “It was perfect timing. I think I got some great photos!”

Even though the wound went all the way through my hand, there was little bleeding.  I washed my hand and put a band aid on each side.

When I awoke the next morning my wound didn’t look bad and there was hardly any pain so I went to the school with the owl.  This time I didn’t want to take any chances so I wore two pairs of thick leather gloves.  The program was a huge success even though the owl was quite rambunctious,  bobbing its head and looking from kid to kid as he refocused his eyes.  The kids were amazed.  That afternoon I delivered the owl back to the Zoo and retrieved my gloves.  The young lady who had borrowed the gloves had forgotten to deliver them to me and was very apologetic.  I didn’t tell her what had happened.

Back at the Nature Center I told my secretary, Dot, about my bad owl experience.

She asked, “Did you go to the doctor?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m fine now.”

When I was growing up, my grandmother was always the one who took care of all kinds of medical conditions that, for some folks, might have required a doctor, including delivering an occasional baby.  The only time I ever went to a doctor was for broken bones and for a nail through my foot.  My present injury seemed fine now so I hadn’t even considered medical help.  When Dot went to Oglebay Institute’s Administrative Offices to get the mail that afternoon she talked to others about my run-in with the owl.  Shortly after she returned I received a call from the head of the Institute.

“I want you to go to the hospital…now!” he said, “If you don’t go today and there are any future complications, they will not be covered under workman’s comp.”   So I agreed to go.

At the emergency room I told the nurse about the owl putting a talon through my hand.  She furrowed her brow and asked, “An owl?  You did say an owl, didn’t you?”

She was even more shocked when she asked about my insurance carrier and I answered, “It’s covered under workman’s comp.”

“You’re serious aren’t you?” she remarked.

“Yes I am.”

Soon a doctor pushed aside the curtain of my examining area, looked at my chart, glanced at me and then went back out.  I could hear him say, “You aren’t going to believe this!  I got a guy in here who says he has a puncture wound all the way through his hand from an owl!”

This seemed to cause a bit of a stir.

I thought, “It’s not as if I were in gun battle on the street or had crowbar through my skull.  It’s a little hole through my hand and hardly noticeable.”

Then I heard the doctor say, “And he also says it’s covered under workman’s comp!” which caused an even bigger commotion.

Someone said, “You know, we should call that guy at the Nature Center to see if an owl could even do that.”

I raised my voice and called out, “I AM that guy!

Without further discussion they treated me and sent me on my way.

 

Bluebirds and Blue Birds are not Blue!

Some may think, “If I see an Eastern Bluebird, I certainly see blue.”  Well, yes you do… and no you don’t.  It’s complicated!

Eastern Bluebirds nest on our property. We trap, band and release them. (c) Bill Beatty

My daughter, Julie, was active in Science Fair when she was in school.  In ninth grade her project was “Pigment and Structural Colors in Bird Feathers”.  Most birds’ feathers get their color from chemicals in the foods the birds eat.  Those foods provide different birds with different kinds of pigments in their feathers.  The pigments show color by absorbing some of the colors of the light spectrum and reflecting the other colors…we see the reflected colors.  Northern cardinals reflect red, therefore we see red; American goldfinches reflect yellow, Baltimore orioles reflect orange and so on.  The color blue is different, however.   Bluebirds do not reflect blue, yet we see blue.  There are truly no blue colored birds…anywhere.  The blue we see is not a reflective color from a blue pigment, rather a refractive color.  It’s physics and light playing tricks with our eyes.  For blue birds, instead of the light reflecting off the feathers and showing the color of the pigment, the light enters into the feather  and bends (refracts).  This refracted (not reflected) light is what we see.

Can you identify these ‘not really blue birds’ by their feathers? All are native to the United States. Answers are at the bottom of this page.  Click on the feathers to enlarge and then click again. (c) Bill Beatty

To study this, Julie gathered feathers from different kinds of dead birds we found along roadways.  Certain federal laws forbid collecting birds or any parts of birds, including feathers, but my Bird Banding Permit allowed me to salvage dead birds.   I already had several in our freezer.  With mortar and pestle Julie ground the red feathers of a cardinal with the resulting powder being a red color.  After grinding the feathers of a goldfinch, the powder was yellow.  The color resulting from oriole feathers was orange.  She destroyed the structure of the feathers but the pigments were still there and their respective colors did not change.  This showed that these birds’ colors resulted from the pigments in their feathers.  When she ground the eastern bluebird feathers into a powder, however, the powder was black.  This demonstrated that the bluebird’s color comes from the feather’s structure, not its pigment:  destroy the structure and the blue color disappears.

Every time I see a blue bird I’m thankful that nature has made a way for me to see the blue color that is not really there.  Nature is AMAZING!

For a more detailed explanation of how birds make colorful feathers, see – https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/how-birds-make-colorful-feathers/

Answers: Left-to-right… Bluejay, Blue-winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Eastern Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Wood Duck, Steller’s Jay

Shirley Temple Wildflowers…..by Jan Runyan

For the “Greatest Generation”, my parents’ young years, Shirley Temple was a mega-star. Between 1935 and 1938, from ages 7 to 10, she was Hollywood’s #1 box office star, but by age 22 she had retired completely from making films. She started acting at age 3 and by age 5 she had flowered into a major actress, singer and dancer.   She could do it all and, by the standards of the time, she was a natural.

This early flower who blossomed at such a young age came to mind yesterday as Bill and I walked through woods and meadows. We saw many very early flowering plants already strutting their stuff in the cool spring breezes.

All around the yard the small, leafy rosettes of Pennsylvania Bitter Cress have already sent up tiny flower stalks. The four-petaled white flowers are often overlooked since they are so miniscule. Because of their plain design, they will never be stars in the flower world, but it’s worth kneeling to see these little gems against their backdrop of tiny leaflets (which are a great addition to a spring salad).

Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica)

Pennsylvania Bittercress (c) Bill Beatty

Pennsylvania bittercress (Cardamine pensylvanica)

Pennsylvania Bittercress flower stalk (c) Bill Beatty

In a large “empty” flower planter, Bill spotted Purple Henbit just beginning it’s display.  Ringing the stem is a circle of flowers — the first layer of flower rings which will build above each other like a flower apartment building. These showy flowers that no one ever sees rival orchids in their intricacy and beauty. The tiny tubes open upward into nodding hoods and lips in a variety of white to purple colors with deep magenta decorations splattered here and there. It takes magnification and, perhaps, muddy knees to get close enough to see the delicate loveliness of this undiscovered talent.

purple dead-nettle/purple henbit (Lamium purpureum)

Purple Henbit (c) Bill Beatty

purple dead-nettle or purple henbit (Lamium purpureum) mint

Purple Henbit flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Down the hill, we knew the Skunk Cabbage was blooming on its wetland stage where, this time of year, it is the only actor. Although swampy areas may not be ideal for a spring walk, it’s worth donning high boots to examine this unique character. Next to the unrolling large leaves is the green and purple, pear-shaped piece with a top that gently curves over and around. This is what many people think of as the Skunk Cabbage flower. Actually called a spathe, it almost completely surrounds the thick round spadix on which bloom a number of very tiny flowers of the same off-white, gray-beige color. Like a play way off-Broadway, Skunk Cabbage flowers are not the easiest things to see, but are definitely worth the trip.

Symplocarpus-foetidus michigannatureguy

Skunk Cabbage (c) MichiganNatureGuy

Of course dandelions can bloom in any month of the year…but be careful–what you see may not actually be a dandelion. This is the Coltsfoot time of year! It flowers so early along the road and driveway edges that the plant hasn’t even put out leaves yet. The large, hoof-shaped leaves will come later, but now the thick gray-green stems, rippled with stem leaves, reach up. The flower reminds me of a child’s drawing of a sun: dozens of long, thin, bright yellow petals seem to burst out from the center crowd of round stamens which look like the bubbly surface of the sun. Next time you think it’s just another smooth-stalked dandelion early in the spring, take a minute to look closer–you just may have a miniature sun on a leafy stem.

Coltsfoot and dandelion

Coltsfoot on top, Dandelion on bottom (c) Bill Beatty

Coltsfoot trio

Coltsfoot flowers (c) Bill Beatty

At first Sharp-lobed Hepatica flowers huddle in the woods with a bell-like shape, protected from the brisk spring winds by 3 green bracts. Soon this early-bloomer opens to show 6 or more long, rounded sepals (“petals” to most of us) of white to deep purple. Above the “petals” and a yellow pistil, the tall stamens look like a ring of bursting white fireworks celebrating the premier of the flower.

sharplobe hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (c) Bill Beatty

Also in the woods, the young Bloodroot flowers seem similarly protected from harsh spring weather by the large leaf wrapping almost totally around the bud. Eventually the stem grows beyond the leaf and the flower with a multitude of white petals and a sunny crown of bright yellow stamens stands proudly on the stage of early spring.

bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot (c) Bill Beatty

The first daring daffodil, while not a wildflower in this area, has already braved the cool weather to dance in the wind. It stands tall, looking as if it were singing in the sunshine spotlight.

IMG_9867 LR

The first Daffodil, photo by Jan

Other plants are also starting their careers early, hoping a prompt start gives them an advantage. In open places in the woods, the ground is carpeted with bright fresh green Common Chickweed. As I found out two years ago in the garden, left unchecked, Common Chickweed will take over everything, doing a solo and keeping other plant actors out of the cast.

common chickweed (Stellaria media)

Common Chickweed (c) Bill Beatty

Tiny, exquisite flowers on our Red Maple are so early that they go almost unnoticed compared to super-stars like dogwood, apple and magnolia. When the tree just seems to have a reddish blush, I grab for a lower branch to examine it more closely. The multitude of long stamens beyond very tiny petals gives the flowers a fuzzy look. Most people have played with the winged samaras (“helicopters”, “whirlybirds”) that are the maple seeds, but few have seen where they originated.

red maple tree (Acer rubrum) flowers

Red Maple tree flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Also mostly unnoticed are the delicate flowers of the American Elm, now nearly past their season. Hanging down from the branches are the thin, long, green stems which end in petite flowers of white to pink. Spraying down from each flower are the white stems and large dark ends of the stamens reminding me of a two-layer firework display at the opening celebration for a new movie.

American elm tree (Ulmus americana) flowers

American Elm flowers (c) Bill Beatty

Like Shirley Temple, these flowers bloom early in the season, early in their young lives.

So many plants are growing, greening, and blossoming right now. Their visual chorus tells us that spring is here! But it’s like a tiny local theater production–beautiful and classy, but seen by almost no one.

Don’t miss out on Nature’s early spring pageant. The actors are dancing and showing off spectacularly right now, but soon they’ll be gone. Grab a coat, hat, gloves and hand lens.   See the Shirley Temple wildflowers!

Tick—ed Off: a tick—lish situation

On January 11th as I woke I found myself picking at something on the inside of my arm, just below my wrist.  It was tiny—almost like a scab.  Jan took off her glasses and peered at it.  “I think it’s a tick!”  No, that’s not possible.  So I checked it with my hand lens.  It was a tick–a deer tick!

My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) (c) Bill Beatty

Some may wonder why would I be excited enough to write about a tick.  Considering that my career has been 100% nature-related – 18 years as a full-time naturalist at Oglebay Institute’s Brooks Nature Center and then 17 years freelancing as a nature photographer/teacher–one would think I would be familiar with ticks.  Well, I’ve seen them, identified them, photographed them and even extracted them, but this is the first tick I have ever had embedded in ME.  I can remember just two others on the surface of my skin and several more on a pants leg.  No one I know has spent more time than I have lying in grassy meadows (sometimes for hours) or hiking through grassy areas.  My routine during warm weather months used to be that I was outside before sunrise and did not return home until about 3 PM.  If I didn’t shoot at least 3 rolls of film in those 8 hours I felt like I hadn’t done anything.  Upon arriving home I changed clothes, cut up half a watermelon, found a book, and lay in the hammock to read and rehydrate myself.  I never checked for ticks.  Years before I had learned that ticks apparently didn’t like me and I was happy about that considering all the time I spent outside in tick territory.

When my son was young I would take him fishing at a nearby lake.  Much of the time we hiked the shoreline casting here and there or we sat in one location waiting for a fish to pull on the line.  Some of our time was always spent picking ticks from his pants legs–at times there were many.  I never had any, ever.  So I never felt the need to check for them on me.  A friend once suggested that, since I shave my head, ticks would climb to the top of my head and, finding nowhere to hide, they would jump off to the ground.  Interesting theory, but I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case.  Most likely it’s a body chemistry thing considering that I never use repellents.

So, here I was, in bed, with a deer tick feeding on my body fluids and hoping to remain there long enough to engorge herself and nourish her eggs.

My female Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis) feeding on my body fluids. (c) Bill Beatty

 Considering the stories about the ravages of Lyme disease, the first thing most people would want to do is to get that dreaded thing out as quickly and carefully as possible.  But MY first thought was, “I need photos of this!”  It took some time to change from my standard 28-85mm lens to my 50mm with all the extension tubes and a ring-flash.  Finally it was time for the photos.  I sat on the floor and held the camera with my left hand.  Since this was an extreme close-up, “in” or “out” of focus was just a matter of about 1-2 mm but I was able to focus by resting the camera against my right arm and leaning slightly nearer to  or away from the tick.  Jan pulled on the skin of my arm to get more of a side view of the creature.  But, wait a minute–not so fast.  Because the tick was embedded near my right wrist I had no way to push the shutter button on the right side of the camera.   It’s nice to have a willing helper.  In a whisper, so I wouldn’t move and lose focus, I said, “Okay.”  Jan reached around and carefully pressed the shutter release button.  I checked the photo and set it up again and again.  Someone coming into the room would have thought we were engaged in that old game “Twister”.  Actually “twister” was even more true later.

We took lots of photos–some are seen here to illustrate this story.  When we had taken a number of really good ones, we also decided to get some shots of our “Tick-twister” holding the tick.  Jan had decided to get some of these for us earlier this fall after reading about them.  These tick extractors come in a pack of two tiny plastic crowbar-looking tools.

This was the first time we ever had the opportunity to use our Tick-twisters.  Jan and I were amazed at how fast and efficient this tiny crowbar was.  Once hooked around the tick’s body, it did not fall off, even during numerous photos.

Tick twisters…two sizes…the Deer Ticks take the smaller size (c) Bill Beatty

When the photos were done, a couple of twists and the tick came out easily, head and all.  (Jan says to beware of cheap imitations—she bought the exact one described in the article last fall.)

Hook and twist (c) Bill Beatty

The general consensus is that a tick has to embed for at least 24 hours before there is a danger of Lyme disease.  I hope that’s true since I know the tick wasn’t there when I went to bed the night before.  Fortunately this tick looked to be in the “unfed” stage based on medical charts like the one pictured in the post.  And, yes, we both checked ourselves carefully for other unwanted attachments.

(c) University of Rhode Island…TickEncounter Resource Center

Not only was this tick surprising since it was my first ever, it was especially unexpected since it is early January and, even though we have had some milder temperatures than a typical winter, there have been some cold days far below freezing.  One would think that ticks wouldn’t be out and active at a time like this.  So now we know that anyone chasing birds, taking photos or hiking this time of year still has to check carefully when they come back inside and even remember to check the next day.  Even someone who has been tick-resistant.  That’s the tick—et!

-- 

Hail, Hail the Gang’s All Here….Pine Siskins………by Jan Runyan

Raft of Ducks

Band of Jays

Vein, Treasury or Charm of Goldfinches (truly)

Exaltation of Larks

Murmuration of Starlings

Parliament of Owls (political commentary?)

Congress of Ravens (more political commentary?)

Siege of Herons

Ballet of Swans

Banditry of Chickadees

Herd of Wrens (really?)

Descent of Woodpeckers

Slurp of Sapsuckers

Asylum of Loons (yes, really)

Many kinds of birds have a special word to designate their flock, often a word that is appropriate in a subtle (or not so subtle) way. But for the species of bird Bill and I almost always see in flocks, there appears to be no group name. That’s a shame because on our property Pine Siskins are the ultimate flocking birds. There is never just one. If we think we only see one it’s just because we haven’t checked the bushes or trees nearby.

Bander holding Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Siskins have been especially prevalent this late fall and early winter. We hear their rising “eeeeeeep” and chatters in the tops of the spruces along the driveway. We see the flock occupying every small perch in the top of the Black Locust. We futilely try to count the number of tiny black dots as they zip across the open sky. The count sometimes reaches two or three dozen before they are out of sight.

IMG_5400

Pine Siskin’s yellow wing patch (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

 

_DSC0023

Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But we see the flocking compulsion most when we have the bird banding nets open. Just as they do everything else, Pine Siskins feed together. At times they almost cover our sunflower feeders. And they don’t seem to be net wary at all. So as the flock flies in to feed, many bounce off the nets and a few get caught. After a few moments in a tree or bush, the rest of the flock returns.

 

_DSC0015

Pine Siskin in net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Some of the birds eat, but others just perch near their netted brothers and sisters. “I’m here for you,” the free birds seem to say. Some balance on the top string of the net. Others alight on the strings which run the length of the net forming the pockets. A few even grab hold of the netting near a captured friend and just hang there. Sometimes the net sitters will fly over to feed and then return again to sit watch near their buddies.

As the free Pine Siskins remain near the flock members who can’t fly away, it is inevitable that little by little more of the birds hit the net and fall into the pockets. So we also rarely band just one siskin. Sometimes the nets have more than a dozen at one time.

Pine Siskins in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

If you are a Pine Siskin, it’s a group thing. Fly together, perch together, eat together, watch over each other, get banded together! Like the three Musketeers, it’s one for all and all for one!

So for loyalty above and beyond just the usual hanging out near each other, I think Pine Siskins deserve to have a special name for their flocks. I have searched the thesaurus extensively to find the word that truly conveys the level of closeness and concern evidenced by these birds. A word that goes beyond “acquaintance”, “familiarity” or “relationship”.  I would like to make two suggestions for consideration by those who are fascinated with birds and who would like to see Pine Siskins get their own appropriate group name:

a Friendship of Pine Siskins                             an Alliance of Pine Siskins

What do you think?

 

 

A Bluebird Brings Happiness…..by Jan

This morning as we were banding, Bill showed me just the head of a bird he was about to band and asked, “What is it?”

IMG_7984

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

This is one of the tests a “sub” bander gets from time to time. I could tell it was in the Thrush family, but I had to admit in the dim light of the garage I couldn’t tell which one. Then he revealed the tail. The bold sapphire color made it clear he was holding an Eastern Bluebird.

IMG_7985 tail

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

“Male or female?” was his next query. I smiled because that’s not hard to determine.

Then he showed me the back. Yes, the tail and rump were in-your-face azure like a male, but the back and wings….so much brown, so dull like a female.

IMG_7987

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

He definitely had me scratching my head over this ID. I felt pretty uneducated until Bill finally said, “I don’t know which it is, either!”

We dove into the bird banders’ guides. The differences they wrote about sounded pretty clear for older birds—maybe this could be a young one? The key seemed to be working pretty well until we came to these two entries for young birds:

“5A Wings, tail, head and back bright blue or, in winter, tinged with brown…..Male*.”

“5B Wings, tail, head and back bright blue, or, in winter, tinged brown…..Female*.”

Yes, the difference is just the word “with” and a comma.

The asterisks took us to a note below: “Some birds may be difficult to sex and should be sexed U if plumage characters are doubtful.”

Eastern Bluebird

Side-by-side seems pretty obvious, but a female by herself can sometimes be confusing.  (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

I had to smile. We know so much information about birds. Sometimes the color of one tiny feather or subtle wear of feathers can speak volumes about a bird’s age. Sometimes the difference between deep black and brownish-black or between white and buffy-white tells the gender.

But yet there is still so much we don’t know. I am truly glad to live in a world where we don’t have all the answers and where there are still things to be searched for, studied and just plain wondered about. There is also happiness in not knowing…just enjoying the mystery.


 

Post Script: We finally labeled the bird as unknown sex, unknown age, which later caused the software which receives our bird banding data to say the electronic equivalent of, “What?! I don’t think so! Do you want to rethink this entry?”

 

 

Make Your Photos Pop!

It’s fall here in the east and the deciduous forest is producing some spectacular color.  Now is the time to be out looking for photo opportunities and use those colors as backdrops for your photos.  Be patient, be creative and, above all, be outside.

Staghorn Sumac color and Jan at Canaan Valley State Park (c) Bill Beatty

Think big with scenic backgrounds… with your subject in the forefront.  Find the right angle to show the most and brightest colors possible.

Scarlet and Green Leafhopper on left and Seven-spotted Ladybug Beetle (c) Bill Beatty

Think small with your subject surrounded by the color of fall leaves.  One leaf is enough if your subject is small enough.  Sometimes I find myself at a spectacular Sugar Maple looking for the perfect leaf with a contrast of bright reds, pinks, oranges, yellows and greens on one leaf.  The Ladybug photo above will appear in the Sierra Club’s 2017 Engagement Calendar.

Green Frog and Eastern Garter Snake (c) Bill Beatty

The Garter Snake photo has appeared in many publications.  Without the fall-colored leaves as the background I would not have been able to sell the photo at all.

Skull-faced Jumping Spider (c) Bill Beatty

This Spider photo is one of my best selling photos…especially during October…for Halloween stories in kids books and magazines.  The skull appearance makes it appealing for Halloween, but the color filling the entire photo makes it attractive to almost any photo editor.

Get out there and take advantage of the leaf color only available for a short time during this season of the year.

Not GOLDFINCHY . . . . . . by Jan Runyan

“That bird doesn’t really look goldfinchy,” said a perplexed Bill.   “But I can’t tell what it is.” Bill had been keeping watch on the mist net near the back feeders as we swam and splashed in the pool with family members. Normally we just band birds in winter, so this was a trial to see what, if anything, we could discover by summer banding. It had been a good way to learn the looks of young birds and to get some practice at skulling—looking at the development of the skull bone as a way to identify hatch-year birds. Cardinals, Song Sparrows, Titmice, occasional Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, lots of House Finches (banded and transported as part of our homing research), and Goldfinches had graced our nets and each one but the “hummers” left with a tiny numbered band on one leg.

All birders know the feeling of being able to identify some bird, not by seeing all the specific field marks, but by more of a gestalt–it just looks like that kind of bird. And more often than not, if we chase the bird to get a good look, we find we are right. Male American Goldfinches in their brilliant gold and black breeding plumage are some of the most beautiful and easily identifiable birds.

American Goldfinch in mist net

American Goldfinch in mist net (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

But this bird in the net, while it was a dazzling yellow and about the right size, just did not look “goldfinchy” to Bill. He left the pool-yard, dripping, to retrieve our puzzle.

“So what is it?” I asked when he had the bird in hand. “I don’t know!” This was not the answer I expected. Bill doesn’t know what it is??? I made a towel-wrapped dash through the house to get Peterson’s Warblers and Sibley’s. We had to ID the bird correctly before Bill could band it.

We turned page after warbler page in Sibley’s looking for a warbler-sized bird with plain yellow on the belly from beak to the tip of the tail and a darker “greenish” color on top from the bill to the tip of the tail.

Yellow underside, greenish top

Yellow underside, greenish top (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

The flight feathers of the wings and the tail feathers had multiple colors: pale black, yellow and “greenish”.

 

IMG_6512

Wing and tail colors (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

It was strikingly colorful and plain at the same time.   Looking back and forth between several possibilities, we finally made a preliminary identification as a female Yellow Warbler although we could not see even faint rusty streaks on the breast.

Plain yellow breast (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Then I remembered—under-tail coverts! Looking at the color of feathers that cover the base of the tail on the underside of a bird and looking at the color, pattern and shape of tail feathers is one way to differentiate warbler species. And the Peterson Warblers guide has two pages showing all of the possibilities.

Undertail coverts and tail (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

Scanning the 52 tail and covert feather options, it was clear that our preliminary identification was, indeed, correct. There wasn’t anything else with undertail coverts that looked like the bird in Bill’s hand.

 

 

 

Yellow Warbler female (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

So we formally said “Hello” to our female Yellow Warbler—the first Yellow Warbler ever banded on our property, in fact, the first Yellow Warbler Bill or I had ever held or banded.

She got her tiny band, posed for some photos and soon was on her way. And as she departed, she left us a little something which, thankfully, landed just outside the edge of the pool.

The Field Trip that….SUCKED!

Jan and I had just returned from leading an all day Master Naturalist Conference trip to Big Run Bog in Tucker County.  25 intrepid people had accompanied us to explore this botanical treasure trove.  From the front porch of the Graceland Inn on the Davis and Elkins College campus a woman called my name, “BILL, BILL!” she yelled.  “I just wanted to tell you…your field trip sucked!”  Two women standing nearby looked at her in shock.  I think they were even more surprised to hear me laugh and respond with, “It sure did!”

For all but two people in the group this was their first trip to the bog and so most weren’t sure what it would be like.  In the tour description I had mentioned to expect getting their feet wet and to wear “proper footgear”.  That phrase brought a whole variety of “shoes” from sandals to water shoes to hiking boots.  Some people wore calf-high or knee-high rubber “muck” boots that easily slip on and off…a good choice for normal muddy conditions.

IMG_6030

Entering Big Run Bog a.k.a. Olsen Bog (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

And so it began.  People not used to choosing the bog vegetation best suited to support them often found that they had misjudged the firmness of “terra firma”.  And the longer a person stood in one spot, the more often a foot would end up slipping through the sphagnum moss mat down into the mud.  Many times someone would find their foot stuck in the muck.  Pushing with the above-ground boot for leverage often ended up pushing that foot deep into the muck, too, and then both feet were stuck.  With footgear tightly tied or strapped on, it was easier to get unstuck by working the foot and lifting with the whole leg slowly.  The people wearing slip-on boots had it much harder, however.  Understandably, they did not want to just lift their foot, leaving the boot still firmly trapped in the mud.  But keeping the boot on while doing all the other movements needed to extricate the booted foot was nearly impossible.  After trying numerous ways, sometimes almost to the point of exhaustion, and often with the help of one or two other people, the foot or feet were freed at last.  Finally, we decided the easiest way to free trapped “muck boot” people was simply to have them slide their foot out of the boot and then let someone else pull the boot from the muck.  As the helper pulled firmly on a boot, it slid from the bog with a long slurping, sucking sound.  Hence, “Your field trip SUCKED!”  Yes, it did…..frequently!

IMG_6039

(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

   Left — Discussing the bog and the strange, unusual plant communities.                               Right — Cinnamon Ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) (c) Bill Beatty

          PF04013 16-16                                    PM02004 1-12

Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) (c) Bill Beatty …were everywhere and some of the leaves had many floating insects.

           

Insectivorous Round-leaved Sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) (c) Bill Beatty …numbered in the thousands and were sometimes found dining on trapped insects.

                               

Many of the Beard-flower Orchids (Pogonia ophioglossoides) (c) Bill Beatty …were in full bloom.

      IMG_6049    floating pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus)

At the beaver dam parts of the pond (c) Jan Runyan … were full of flowering Floating Pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus) (c) Bill Beatty.

After lunch I took our explorers (in smaller groups) into a part of the bog where few people have ever been.  Here is where some of the rarest plants in West Virginia can be seen and photographed.

              IMG_6058                    IMG_6064

I knelt in the bog as a border not to cross because there were so many rare plants (c) Jan Runyan.  Just beyond me were several large patches of Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata).  Then I pointed out several Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) plants in flower (c) Bill Beatty .

                                                  

Dozens of Grass Pink Orchids (Calopogon pulchellus) (c) Bill Beatty …were mixed in with the Buckbean, Golden Club and Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia).

                                                  

Along the wooded edges of the bog were Small Green Wood Orchids (Platanthera clavellata) (c) Bill Beatty …and on the trail to the road were small stands of American Yew (Taxus canadensis) (c) Bill Beatty.

All that evening and the next day people came to Jan and me to tell us how much fun they had at the bog and how seeing all the rare plants was such a delight.  The challenges of the stuck feet soon became a fun memory to laugh about…as we did the rest of the weekend.

Wildflower Appreciation

During the spring I often teach wildflower classes or lead field trips to some of West Virginia’s most remarkable spring wildflower locations; often in the mountainous counties.  My students are captivated by the trilliums, bluebells, wild geraniums, bloodroot, buttercups, fire pinks and other obvious dashes of bright color wowing us from the sea of green foliage.  After exhausting the identification and appreciation of these larger wildflowers I often take out my hand lens, find a previously unnoticed plant and show everyone its tiny, seemingly invisible flower.  It’s an entirely new world!  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

                             bishop's cap/miterwort (Mitella diphylla)                   bishop's cap/miterwort (Mitella diphylla)

                             Bishop’s Cap..normal view          Bishop’s Cap through a hand lens

 

deptforb pink (Dianthus armeria)              deptford pink (Dianthus armeria)

         Deptford Pink…normal view                       Deptford Pink…through a hand lens

These tiny flowers present a different perspective to looking at wildflowers.  They are the ones often trampled on the way to see the larger, more visible color creations.

            hiking boot trampling pale corydalis (Corydalis flavula) flower                       false mermaid weed flower (Floerkea proserpinacoides) and In God

Hiking boot and Yellow Corydalis                      False Mermaidweed and penny

 

Even at home, growing as weeds in our gardens, these tiny wildflowers make an appearance only to be pulled and composted for future use as nutrients and soil conditioners.  Even though their beauty is apparent to those familiar with using a hand lens, when they grow unwanted as weeds in a flower or vegetable garden, they can still be removed, but with a much greater appreciation.

ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea)                                       ground-ivy mint (Glechoma hederacea)

Ground Ivy…normal view                              Ground Ivy through a hand lens

 

purple dead-nettle/purple henbit (Lamium purpureum)                                    purple dead-nettle or purple henbit (Lamium purpureum) mint

Dead Horse Nettle…normal view                  Dead Horse Nettle through a hand lens

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

People often ask us how many years songbirds can live. Sometimes it is hard to know for sure…is the Northern Cardinal you see at your feeder this year the exact same bird as the one you saw last year? Unless there is something distinctive about the look or actions of the bird, it’s hard to tell. The bird banding we do on our property is beginning to give us some data about this question, however. Shortly after noon today Bill arrived in the sunporch with a bird in hand and he (Bill) was grinning from ear to ear. “You know what’s special about this Black-capped Chickadee?” he asked me. Although I thought most of the Black-caps had already traveled to their more northern breeding grounds, I could not spot anything out of the ordinary about this little guy. So I admitted I had no clue.

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

Bill announced, “We banded him on the very first day we ever banded here—December 10, 2010!” So that little bird is at least 5 years old…more if he was born before 2010! Although our place will not be his (or her?) summer home, it felt great to know that he had survived so long and that our feeders were part of his migration path…again. UPDATE:  Shortly after 3 on the same day, Bill again arrived in the sunporch with the same grin and a different bird. He was holding a Tufted Titmouse, all pecks and bites and tough-guy yelling (the bird, not Bill). We had also banded him on the first day we ever banded here, Dec. 10, 2010. This male is the first bird listed on the page of size 1B bands, so he might even have been the very first bird ever banded here! He is at least 5 years old, if not more. Titmice don’t migrate so he is one that we have been hearing year-round. And judging by the number of other Titmice we hear nearby, he is doing quite well at finding mates and providing new generations.

Jan with a Tufted Titmouse who shares their yard (c) Bill Beatty

Ladybug Hibernation…a fortunate discovery

Jan and I spent the weekend at the “Wild Edibles Festival” in Hillsboro, WV.  We saw many wonderful plants and saw and heard a multitude of birds. However, the most exciting discovery was a colony of native Spotted Ladybugs (Coleomegilla maculate).  In recent years the introduced Asian Ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) has displaced many of our native species making this find especially significant.  Jan shot the video below.  Hundreds of Spotted Ladybugs were flying from their hidden underground hibernation chamber to unknown locations to begin feeding on aphids and other insect pests.  This was a rare find and everyone was taking photos and videos.

Contemplating Mortality

I went on a hike through the West Liberty University woodlands.  It’s a great place for anyone who wants to gather their thoughts without people distractions so I knew I would be alone.  As I hiked I began counting bird songs.  There were many familiar voices and one new for me, at least for this year: a Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush (c) Bill Beatty

My physical work, while I counted bird songs, was to cut a new trail for two classes I’ll be teaching in the near future:  a spring nature hike with my college students and a wildflowers and weeds class for the Master Naturalist series.  As I progressed, an eastern garter snake caught my eye and refused to move far enough to avoid an imminent collision with my weed cutter.  I caught the snake and gently tossed it a short safe distance away.  Old friends greeted me as I continued: Virginia Spring Beauties, Bloodroot, Sharp-leaved Hepatica and others.

Virginia Spring Beauty (c) Bill Beatty

After my work was finished I sat on a fallen oak branch overlooking a stream.  In a quiet pool there were water striders gliding and chasing across the surface guarding unmarked territories.

common water strider (Gerris remgis)

Common Water Strider (c) Bill Beatty

A thought suddenly caught me off guard and I was unexpectedly face-to-face with my mortality.  The same giant, gnarled, dead, dry branch I sat on was the very same branch I had sat under 40+ years earlier.  Then the tree had been very much alive and massive.  Today the tree exists as fodder for bacteria, fungi and many kinds of invertebrates…and as a comfortable seat for a tired explorer.  I sat back watching clouds, avoiding intellectual distractions and thinking things from my heart.

That Bird Vanished!…a shrew-d sighting — by Jan

That bird vanished! I was sitting in my favorite place at the bird-feeder window. My eyes were drawn by the movement of the dark gray back of a junco under the hopper feeder near the house. Before my eyes could focus on the familiar shape, it was GONE! It didn’t fly away suddenly. Not caught by a diving hawk. Not even time for my eye to blink. Just VANISHED – like magic! Couldn’t have been a junco! I was starting to tell Bill about the bird that wasn’t there when I glimpsed it again a foot to the right in the grass. Again, before I could focus and analyze the shape – it wasn’t there!

Searching around I noticed a slight wiggle of the matted grass just to the right. Then a half-seen dark gray shape, not quite perceived before it vanished. More shaking of the tangled grass. Maybe a form. Movement closer to the house. More shaking. Another grass patch trembled even nearer. Then nothing. My eyes quickly scanned the nearby lawn, back and forth, feeder to house, hoping my peripheral vision could catch more action telling me where it had gone. But nothing. It was gone.

With Bill’s help, I put together the clues and then smiled knowing I had been lucky enough to see (sort of) a rare sight: the seed-gathering of a Northern Short-tailed Shrew.

Three things make this sighting especially notable. First, these shrews are primarily carnivorous, so seeing them gathering seeds is uncommon. Then, they commonly forage for a few hours after sunset or on a cloudy day. So spotting my feeder shrew just after noon on a sunny day was remarkable. Finally, actually seeing a shrew at all is extremely rare since most of their food (insects, earthworms, voles, snails, other shrews, salamanders and mice) can be obtained underground or at least under the cover of vegetation. They work hard to remain hidden and to avoid becoming food themselves.

I smiled and wished him (or her) well, knowing that just as it gathers seeds from our feeders, some of our birds gather shrews…hawks are part of the food pyramid of Nature, too.

Shorttail Shrew

Short-tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) (c) Bill Beatty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View the comments to see another great shrew story by Gwen.

Return of the “Gold”finches….almost — by Jan

American Goldfinch males are starting to look at bit like clowns!

Splotches of black feathers on the head…a bright yellow feather here and there among the tan.   Did they lose at paintball?

IMG_5002

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

IMG_5012

Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

AMGO female winter

Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan

After last summer’s breeding, all Goldfinches gradually lost and replaced all their feathers. The new male feathers were not the bright “gold” of breeding season, but a more “understated” look similar to females– “basic plumage” in human words.

AMGO head with pin feathers circled

American Goldfinch showing new pin feathers (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Now, in response to complex hormonal changes triggered by seasonal changes, one-by-one the body feathers (not tail or flight feathers) are being replaced. So going through these gradual changes, the males have some pretty strange looks before all of their breeding “gold” returns. (See photo with tiny “pin feathers” just beginning to grow.)

In the past 3 days we have banded 40+ Goldfinches…none in their full breeding plumage. It won’t be too long, though, until our Goldfinches are back in all their gilded glory.  This is just the beginning!

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Three American Goldfinches

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

If you want to see month by month pictures of the male Goldfinch’s year, check out:

http://www.sibleyguides.com/2012/05/the-annual-plumage-cycle-of-a-male-american-goldfinch/

Behold…the American Goldfinches are coming.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) on bird feeder

American Goldfinches on thistle feeder (c) Bill Beatty

So far this year Jan and I have banded 198 birds.  Soon the American Goldfinches will begin moving through our area en masse.  Some will eventually nest nearby while most will nest farther north all the way into Canada.  Although I can’t be sure, I expect to band 500+ (in 2013 we banded 543 and in 2014 the number was 557).  We have already noticed the males getting their new, bright yellow/black-capped spring plumage.  Soon their migration will begin and, weather permitting, we will be able to trap the goldfinches visiting our feeders.  Other seed eaters will also be caught and a few strict insect eaters will hit our mist nets and be banded, too.  But it will be the goldfinches that will highlight our spring banding season.