The Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO), Hiking, Wildflowers and More on Dolly Sods – late September, 2017

The AFMO has been operating each fall since 1958 and is the oldest continuously operating bird banding station in North America.  I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired. We are both federally licensed bird banders, but at AFMO we volunteer as net-tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds. The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front (eastern continental divide) near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods. Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated as Wilderness Area comprising 32,000 acres. The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

Dolly Sods Wilderness fall scenic

Dolly Sods looking south from Castle Rock with the Allegheny Front to the left. (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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photos (c) Jan Runyan

In late September this year, we spent 15 days on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  We stayed at Red Creek Campground.  Our days began at 5 a.m. when it was still dark.  Before 6, we walked to the AFMO to help open the mist nets at 6:15 a.m.  The thrushes began hitting the nets while it was still dark and we usually needed headlamps to take  them from the nets.

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Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush just banded;  right – Jan releasing a reluctant Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a Gray-cheeked Thrush from a Swainson’s Thrush.  Having them side-by-side makes the differences easier to see.

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Left – Gray-cheeked Thrush;  right – Swainson’s Thrush (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

We also caught other thrushes:  Wood Thrush, Hermit Thrush and Veery.

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Veery (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley area and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular. Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.

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Dolly Sods sunrises (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The following video is from the AFMO.  We see something similar almost every morning. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

During and after the sunrise we begin to catch other kinds of birds, especially warblers.

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Black-throated Green Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Palm Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Black-and-white Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes we catch a bird that is uncommon at the AFMO and everyone stops what they are doing to get a good look. That was the case this year with this Mourning Warbler.  It was only the 34th of its kind banded at the AFMO since 1958.

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Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Many of the warblers we band are referred to as ‘confusing’ fall warblers due to the drastic color and pattern differences from their spring plumage.  This Chestnut-sided Warbler showed no signs of the beautiful chestnut colors it had during the spring, however the golden crown is a good indicator for identifying this species in the fall.

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Chestnut-sided Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

And this Hooded Warbler showed little or no indication of the black hood it will have when it wears its breeding plumage next spring.

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Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Hooded Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Sometimes identification comes down to the color of the soles of the feet or of the lower bill.

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Cape May Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

One of the things the banders record is the age of each bird that’s banded.  Among other things, they examine the wear, molt limits and colors of the feathers.

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photos (c) Jan Runyan

Occasionally there is a bird who is so young that some of his feathers are still emerging from their sheaths.  Still, he is already in the middle of his migration flight.

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photo (c) Jan Runyan

After sunrise there is often fog or mist in the valleys or rising from them. (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

Each day after the birds were done with their morning feeding flight, we helped furl the nets to keep them safe and out of the way until the next day when net-tenders would be back to monitor them.  The station is usually closed by noon each day which gave Jan and me time to see many of the other wonders of Dolly Sods and other nearby areas.  One of the hikes I led was on the Bog-to-Bog Loop Trail with Jan and two friends.

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Left – In the Red Spruce woods adjacent to the the west side of the Alder Run Bog dog-leg;  right – eating lunch in the Red Pine plantation near the High Mountain Meadow. (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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Left – Fisher Springs Run Bog in background;  right – a Christmas-in-September Red Spruce surrounded by Black Chokeberry shrubs. (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

During our 15 days we were fortunate to see three species of gentian in full bloom including the rare Fringed Gentian (found only in one place in West Virginia).

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Left to right – Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bottle Gentian and Fringed Gentian (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

Due to the dry conditions most wildflowers were in poor condition, but those associated with wetlands seemed unaffected by the lack of rain.

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Left to right – Nodding Ladies’ Tresses, Black Knapweed and Orange Hawkweed (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

 

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Left – Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia);  right – a mosquito trapped on a fleshy Sundew leaf (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Oblong-leaved Sundew (Drosera intermedia) (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

One afternoon we went to the beaver dam along Forest Service Road 75 just south of Bear Rocks Nature Preserve to photograph the beavers.  Fortunately on this particular day the beavers  were quite cooperative.

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

The following three videos show just how much fun we had watching the beavers. (all three videos (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

 

The AFMO can be a busy place.  Sometimes groups from schools or other organizations visit.  Some individuals who know about the banding station stop by to see the birds, the scenery, and familiar faces.  Sometimes people just happen upon the banding operation by following the well-traveled trail east of the Blackbird Knob Trail parking lot.

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Left – LeJay talking to a group from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy;  right – Carol showing a bird to a school group (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Bill showing a school group how the birds are captured at the demo mist net. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Left – One of four groups from Marshall County Schools that visited the AFMO;  right – other visitors not with any organized group. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Giving people their first personal contact with birds is magical.  Young (and old) lives can be changed for all time.

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Jan putting a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in this young girl’s hand (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left – Chip about to release a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet;  right – Jackie holding a bird against a young lady’s ear so she can hear the heartbeat. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Left – Jan with a Black-throated Blue Warbler;  right – Lauren with a Common Yellowthroat (left photo (c) Bill Beatty, right photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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Left – Apryl releasing a Swainson’s Thrush;  right – Jenny and Bill with one of her very favorite birds, a Mourning Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Girl releasing a Black-throated Green Warbler (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Birds are not the only animals visiting the AFMO.

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Clockwise from top left – Red-spotted Purple Butterfly, Steve with a Smooth Green Snake, and Green Darner Dragonfly (photos (c) Jan Runyan

On our second Saturday on Dolly Sods, after banding I led a 5 mile hike on some well-known and lesser-known Dolly Sods Wilderness trails.

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In the beginning at “the Rock” and hiking cross-country between Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Crossing Red Creek and hiking cross-country on the NE side of Blackbird Knob (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left – Time for lunch and rest;  right – play time at the confluence of Alder Run and Red Creek (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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Hiking upstream along Alder Run and crossing the Beatty Labyrinth rock field (photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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The end…the Rock where it all began (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

For two days while we were at the AFMO a tick researcher studying the occurrence of Lyme’s disease was taking ticks from around the eyes and mouth of birds that nest on or near the ground.  She was also taking blood samples.

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Amanda explaining her tick research to Bill and removing a tick from a Swainson’s Thrush (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Wetting the underside of the wing to make the vein more visible and piercing the vein (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Taking blood and then applying an anticoagulant (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each and every morning the bird banding research continued.

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photos (c) Jan Runyan

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photos (c) Jan Runyan

More and more birds were caught, removed from the mist nets, and taken to the ‘gurus’ in the banding shed.

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Bay-breasted Warbler (left) and Blackburnian Warbler (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Female (left) and male Black-throated Blue Warblers (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Ovenbird (left) and American Redstart (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Philadelphia Vireo (left) and Red-eyed Vireo (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Left – The reddish iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo is an adult;  right – the brown iris indicates this Red-eyed Vireo was born this year. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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From left – Savanah Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow and Lincoln’s Sparrow (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

One day after banding was done, Jan and I decided to check the out-and-back Old Growth Forest Trail to see if we could make it into a loop trail.  Anytime we are on this short trail we are mesmerized by the variety of habitats and the beauty, especially of the mosses and the mature oaks at the end of the trail.  The magic of the Morning Star (the planet Venus) early that morning had seemed to be a good omen of how wonderful the day would be.

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Left – Venus, the Morning Star;  right – Jan beginning our hike on the little known Old Growth Forest Trail (left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Left – the verdant Old Growth Forest Trail;  right – Jan looking closely at a Red Spruce nursery (left photo (c) Jan Runyan and right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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Bill found this Hen-of-the-woods fungus and took it back to the campground where our good friends and campground neighbors turned it into a delicious meal (which they shared with us). (left photo (c) Jan Runyan,  right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We never did find a way to turn the out-and-back trail into a loop trail, but we had a great time trying.

One day we caught a bird with a bewildering difference.  A male Black-throated Blue Warbler had a red plastic band on his leg.  Researchers often use various colored plastic bands during research like nesting site studies so they can spot specific individual birds by sight.  But we were baffled because this bird did not also have a numbered metal band which would identify the bander and location.  That day’s AFMO bander put one of his numbered metal bands on the bird and made note of this anomaly in his records.

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Left – the Black-throated Blue Warbler arrived at AFMO with just a plastic band;  right – the warbler left AFMO with the additional aluminum numbered band (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Always special at the AFMO are the larger and unusual birds, especially raptors.  There were two hawks caught while we were there.

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Station Manager Jeff with an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the red iris and orange-brown horizontal bars on the breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Station Manager Shelia with a young Sharp-shinned Hawk.  Notice the yellow iris and brown vertical barring on breast. (photos (c) Jan Runyan)

Each year, for many years, I have spent 1 to 3 months on Dolly Sods taking photos, leading wilderness hikes and volunteering at the AFMO.  Each time I leave I feel as if I’m leaving a wonderful dear friend…sad to leave but so glad to have been there.  What a wonderful place!

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Two of the many moods of our friend, Dolly Sods.

Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads program at the South Charleston Library … October 16, 2017 at 6:30 pm

This program is open to the public.  It is sponsored by the Handlan Chapter of The Brooks Bird Club.

I have spent much of my life outdoors surrounded by multitudes of birds and other wild creatures.  I have hiked every ridge and valley I could find, taken many thousands of photos for some of the world’s most prestigious magazines, handled tens of thousands of birds, been surrounded by lightning and drenched from head to toe in torrential downpours and loved every minute of it.  Through all of this, many unusual things happened…often with birds.   Although I became well known among photo editors for my work with insects, spiders and other invertebrates, birds were always my favorite.

In this program I will share some of my favorite stories from a lifetime of pursuing birds.  I will speak about some of the highlights of my Eastern Screech-owl work.

Screech owl (Otus asio) and white pine tree H

For 28 years I studied the breeding biology of the Eastern Screech-owl. Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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Eastern Screech-owls – These two photos represent the kinds of nature-related wonders I was fortunate to see on a regular basis. Photos (c) Bill Beatty

I will share stories from my new book, Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads, which relates many of my favorite tales from a lifetime of wonderful bird experiences … all are informative, some are funny and some are almost unbelievable.

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Join me as I share with the Brooks Bird Club some of the magic of birds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Male and female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in my hand. Photo (c) Jan Runyan

Directions to South Charleston Library – https://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=https%3A%2F%2Fgoo.gl%2Fmaps%2FWvktXM4uvnk&h=ATMImeLeLYz7ObavFoV5InBR9GRzhAsh3EYZkhk9xjIjHN_3PkfGXCsb_yJ_sDMMNk67zB6Kihc2PcWp3xA-mnneQhp2pWSQItSSFwBbKPTLJKfbbecJZlv-Pno-UtKQzEolnLrqtw&s=1&enc=AZNK_4TQtDtfTCOV7SXQFTsBgjluhCxmPGZWsYDBC77B5f0x4L8aAV7zQSAwExkpms2w6t_BaOD-PHEt8LCUhI5K

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!

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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)

We found lots of backwaters and little passageways to explore.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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Jan drinking from her Life Straw. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Jan caught Bill photographing this Shrubby St. John’swort (Hypericum prolificum). (Left photo (c) Jan Runyan; right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

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

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

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

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Three White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), two does and a small buck, were curious enough to stop and watch as we floated by. (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Photos (c) Jan Runyan

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.

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(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.

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Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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Photo (c) Jan Runyan

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

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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.

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(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.

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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)

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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)

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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.

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All along the Dolly Sods road we saw spectacular wildflowers.

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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.

WV Nature Conservancy Bear Rocks Nature Preserve in the Dolly So

The Bear Rocks escarpment (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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

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Lila and Pap/Bill on the escarpment (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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Bee Balm  (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.

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Hermit Thrush  (Photo (c) Laura Meyers)

Song of the Hermit Thrush –

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

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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.

The 2017 Brooks Bird Club Mountain Nature Camp

Mountain Nature Camp had a mix of wild and mild weather, nature-nature-nature, great music, delicious food, new and old friends, and (did I mention?) nature.  Year after year for 90 years this longest-running adult nature studies camp has attracted nature enthusiasts from many states.  Traditions have developed over the years including campfires each evening (weather permitting) and early morning bird walks every day.  In between there are on-site programs and field trips to some of West Virginia’s most scenic and biologically rich areas.

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Lenny, on guitar, and Chuck (right), on harmonica.  Besides traditional campfire songs like “Country Roads”, “Those West Virginia Hills”, “Paradise” and “The Ash Grove”, we also have a few not sung anywhere else outside of Mountain Nature Camp:  “Let’s go Down to Good Old TA” and “The Lug Nut Blues” (with its guitar and harmonica accompaniment this song is sure to become a hit!)  Photo (c) Bill Beatty

Early morning bird walks along the camp’s long tree-lined lane, adjacent trails, fields and roads provide a nice variety of songs and sightings.

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Left to right – Gray Catbird, Scarlet Tanager and Turkey Vulture.  Left and right photos (c) Bill Beatty, center photo (c) Jan Runyan

Monday’s two on-site classes were Birds and Botany.  Because of rain, the first part of the Bird class was held indoors.

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For part of the Bird class Larry showed campers how to adjust, focus and clean binoculars properly.  Photo (c) Jan Runyan

I was the Mountain Nature Camp botanist for the week and taught my classes outside…plants are still easily available even in the rain.  The Flowering Plant list (plants whose flowers we have seen since 2006 during camp week) has 105 species found on or adjacent to the 18 acres of  Mountain Nature Camp property.

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We learned the fine differences between Curly Dock and Clustered Green Dock via the keys in the Flora of West Virginia.   Photos (c) Jan Runyan

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Left to right – Black-eyed Susan, White Avens (flower and fruit) and Bluets  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

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Left to right – Blue-eyed Grass, Whorled Loosestrife, Jack-in-the-pulpit and Poke Milkweed  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

The rainy weather brought out some unexpected visitors during my wildflower/botany walk.

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Orange crayfish found along the road  Photo (c) Jan Runyan

After supper Lenny gave an indoor Astronomy class in preparation for outdoor classes that followed each evening’s campfire.

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Lenny, the campfire leader and astronomer, showed us the finer details of planet rotation, revolution and eclipses as well as explaining the constellations of the zodiac.  Photo (c) Bill Beatty

On Tuesday morning Jan and Kimberlee presented a class about Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants.

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After Jan talked about the edible value and ways to prepare a wild plant, Kimberlee talked about the plant’s medicinal qualities.  Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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They served Spearmint tea, Sassafras tea and Day Lily jerky as part of the class.  Photos (c) Bill Beatty

On Tuesday afternoon Mick Brown, master falconer and president of the Ohio Falconry Association, gave a talk about his Harris’s Hawks and falconry adventures.

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Mick Brown and one of his Harris’s Hawks  Left photo (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty

On Wednesday we had an all day trip to “Old Hemlock” in Bruceton Mills, WV, where LeJay Graffious took us on a tour of the property and his MAPS bird banding operation in the morning.   In the afternoon, he and his wife, Helen Ann, showed some of us the historical aspect of the property while other campers took a canoe ride on the Big Sandy River.  For more information about the Old Hemlock Foundation visit: http://oldhemlock.org/

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Along the roadway to Old Hemlock we saw several American Kestrels  Photos (c) Bill Beatty

Old Hemlock

Left to right – LeJay removing a Hooded Warbler from a mist net;  banding and recording data about the bird;  lunch in the Old Hemlock facility.  All photos (c) Jan Runyan

On Thursday I led a hike into the Dolly Sods Wilderness.  Heavy rains were forecast, but no rain happened.

We were surprised to see Wild Bleeding Heart still blooming in many places along the road.  Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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Left to right – My hikers at the “ROCK”; the Mountain Laurel was in full bloom; and crossing the Beatty Labyrinth rock field.  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

DS hike 2

Left to right – My hikers in the Red Spruce forest; crossing the High Mountain Meadow; along the headwaters of Fisher’s Spring Run; and posing with more Mountain Laurel.  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

DS plants

Left to right – Red Spruce flag tree; Ruffed Grouse; and Cucumber Magnolia tree with Hay Scented ferns  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

In the morning while I was hiking with my ‘guys’, the other campers explored along Canaan Loop Road identifying wildflowers and chasing birds.  At their first stop, they  listened in awe to the songs of several Hermit Thrushes and Winter Wrens echoing through the forest.  (video (c) Jan Runyan)

Later stops brought other bird songs and lots of interesting plants for Helen to tell campers about.

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Campers exploring along Canaan Loop Road and a Pentstamon/Beardstongue flower.  Photos (c) Jan Runyan

In the afternoon they were invited to visit a special place hosted by a very special person.

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The woman who lives here designed and built this house stone by stone using stones from nearby streams.  All photos (c) Jan Runyan

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She is also an artist in many media.  Her art and design can be seen inside and outside the house and throughout the property.  All photos (c) Jan Runyan

At the end of this all-day field trip both groups met at the Pendleton Point Shelter in Blackwater Falls State Park for supper.

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Left to right –  Singing grace before eating; Larry took a group to the ‘Point’ to look for Black Vultures;  my great friend, Cindy, visited with us at Blackwater Falls.  All photos (c) Jan Runyan

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Some of the group went to see the falls in Blackwater Falls State Park while the rest of us went to Saffiticker’s for ice cream.  Left photo (c) Bill Beatty  Two right photos (c) Jan Runyan

Friday was our last full day at Mountain Nature Camp.  I presented a program about some of my “TA” experiences from the “TA” chapter in my new book.  (“TA” stands for Terra Alta, the small town near the Mountain Nature Camp facility.)  Some of the campers there had shared in my some of my experiences including Michelle’s White-throated Sparrow and Marsha’s White-crowned Sparrow.

TA book program

In my program I told about two people I first met at Mountain Nature Camp in 1972 — Libby Bartholomew and Forest Buchanan.  These two people were a great influence on my life.  Left photo (c) Jan Runyan

In the afternoon we all met Dr. Zach Fowler of WVU at Cathedral State Park for a class about mosses.

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Left to right – Two generations of naturalists (Martin, me and Zach);  campers focused on looking at the tiny mosses Zach was showing us on the ground and on the trees.  Left photo (c) Jan Runyan  Two right photos (c) Bill Beatty

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We discovered that you can’t learn about mosses without learning some about lichens and liverworts, too.  All photos (c) Bill Beatty

The interest in mosses never waned.  We just ran out of time and had to return to Mountain Nature Camp for supper, but we had no idea what a treat awaited us back at camp.

Breakfast, lunch and supper were great every day, but Friday’s supper was spectacular!

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Left to right – Bobby and Jane made delicious meals all week long;  the baked salmon and steak shish-kabobs served for Friday’s supper were even more outstanding.  All photos (c) Jan Runyan

Last year Randy’s tent had been partially eaten by some unknown creature.  Some said, “You shouldn’t put your tent so close to the water.”  What did he do this year?  Yes, he camped in the same spot.  However, this year things were different.

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Mystery solved!  Left photo (c) Jan Runyan  right photo (c) Bill Beatty

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2017 Mountain Nature Campers and Staff  (c) Jan Runyan

Great Birds, Wonderful People and Beautiful Weather at the 2017 Canaan Valley Birding Festival

DAY ONE:  Jan and I led an all-day birding trip along the 11 mile Stuart Memorial Drive (a.k.a. Bickle Knob/Bear Heaven) in the Monongehela National Forest.  We began along the Shavers Fork River (elevation 2240 ft.) and continued upward through mature deciduous forests, younger forests with shrubby undergrowth and meadows/farm fields with many wood edges.  At the top (Bickle Knob…elevation 4003 ft.) we were surprised to find six different singing male Mourning Warblers.  We all had a great view of one of the birds.

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Birding along the Stuart Memorial Drive  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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Happy birders on the Bickle Knob Fire Tower Observation Platform  (photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We even got photos of a few of the beautiful birds we were fortunate enough to see.

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Left to right:  Eastern Towhee, Indigo Bunting and Rose-breasted Grosbeak  (first two photos (c) Jan Runyan, right photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We continued our journey occasionally encountering coniferous habitats, stopping often trying to spot singing birds.  All along the route we heard male Scarlet Tanagers singing their territorial songs.

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Scanning the trees for birds…male Scarlet Tanager  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

DAY TWO:  Another all day tour, this time to the Olsen Fire Tower area and Fernow Experimental Forest.  Our first stop was near Olsen Fire Tower.  It was difficult to see the singing Canada Warbler, American Redstart and Veery.  And although we didn’t see the Veery, it began singing its ethereal song loudly from a nearby hidden location.  Click the following link to hear this beautiful song:

 

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Left to right:  listening to the Veery…one of our group climbed just high enough to get a fantastic 360 degree view from Olsen Fire Tower…chasing birds at Mill Race Park in Parsons  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

After a lunch stop with lots of birds at Mill Race Park in Parsons, we birded the road on the way to Fernow Experimental Forest.  We didn’t have time to explore all the different habitats at Fernow, but we were treated to a wonderful look at a singing Mourning Warbler at eye-height, just a few yards away.

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Left to right:  Listening to a Hooded Warbler and American Redstart and hoping to get a good look at one of these bird…one of our group at the “Rose-breasted Grosbeak site” at the top of the Fernow Forest Road…the group looking at a Mourning Warbler  (all photos (c) Jan Runyan)

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The singing Mourning Warbler in Fernow (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

That evening I presented the keynote program, telling personal stories from my book, Rainbows, Bluebirds and Buffleheads.

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I ended the program with two stories about Pileated Woodpeckers  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

DAY THREE: Jan and I led a 1/2 day tour in Canaan Valley called “From Floor to Ceiling” beginning along  Freeland Road at 3220 ft. and ending at the top of Forest Service Road 80 near the Dolly Sods Wilderness at 4000+ ft.

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The Freeland Boardwalk in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

I have been on this boardwalk dozens of times, but this morning was special.  Willow and Alder Flycatchers were singing constantly from all directions as we slowly made our way along the trail.  What a treat — their singing made it possible to tell what each of these look-alike birds was.

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Left, Willow Flycatcher…right, Alder Flycatcher  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

We also watched a Swamp Sparrow singing from a nearby shrub for a very long time.

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Swamp Sparrow  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

See and listen to the following video of the Swamp Sparrow we saw and heard, with a Willow Flycatcher singing in the background, at the Freeland Road boardwalk.  (video (c) Jan Runyan)

 

 

This Yellow Warbler posed on a Balsam Fir tree for everyone to see and photograph.

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Yellow Warbler  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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We were surprised and delighted to find these Pink Lady Slippers still blooming in the valley  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

The video below ( copyright Jan Runyan) shows how this wetland is a great example of “perched water”:  groundwater supported by a zone of material of low permeability located above an underlying main body of groundwater with which it is not hydrostatically connected.

 

We made several stops on our way to the top of the mountain and compared the difference in the kinds of birds we encountered based on habitat and elevation.

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This stop was to compare the wood edges and open meadows with the wetlands we had just left  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

At the top of the mountain we found Magnolia Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes and a Brown Creeper.

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Dark-eyed Junco (Northern race of the sub-species, Slate-colored Junco)… soon after this photo was taken we watched this bird feeding one of its young recently out of the nest  (photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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Listening to the Hermit Thrush…scanning the trees for a Magnolia Warbler that was singing its alternate song  (both photos (c) Jan Runyan)

The Hermit Thrush song is my favorite and all of us took the time to be still and listen to the beautiful music.  Click on the following link to hear the song:

 

Two of the birders opened the back of their car to offer us a spread of blueberries, red raspberries and blackberries and as we were standing there eating, a Brown Creeper sang its lovely song several times.  It was the only time this bird was encountered on any trip during this year’s Canaan Valley Birding Festival.  Click the link below to hear the beautiful airy song of the Brown Creeper.  https://download.ams.birds.cornell.edu/api/v1/asset/508341?__hstc=226533890.0540c3cdd0d4d15ded888b41495ced28.1496720896681.1496720896681.1496720896681.1&__hssc=226533890.1.1496720896681&__hsfp=4162655610

It was a beautifully fitting end to a great weekend of terrific birding with wonderful people in the West Virginia mountains.

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.

 

Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) on Dolly Sods – 2016

I have been visiting this bird banding station since 1972 and volunteering since 2004.  Jan has volunteered since 2007, the year she retired.  We are both federally licensed bird banders, but volunteer as net tenders removing birds from the 30 mist nets used for trapping migratory birds.  The AFMO is located along the Allegheny Front near the Red Creek Campground on Dolly Sods.  Most of Dolly Sods is federally designated wilderness comprising 32,000 acres.  The banding station is in the Dolly Sods Scenic Area.

In late September this year, we spent two weeks on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO.  At the banding station our days begin  at 6 am when it is still dark.  Being on the Allegheny Front, looking east toward the ridge-and-valley and the piedmont, the views from the AFMO are spectacular.  Each sunrise (or sometimes just sky-lightening) is different.  Click on photos to enlarge… use back button to return to blog.

Dolly Sods sunrises (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

Views from along the Allegheny Front at the AFMO. (c) Jan Runyan

Right away we are busy removing birds from the nets.  The earliest birds are mostly thrushes:  Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit, Wood and Veerys.  It is usually still dark and head lamps are necessary.  Some of the other net tenders are also back-up banders.  If the day gets busy, they start banding, too, so that the birds are on their way as soon as possible. As the morning progresses we are mesmerized by the birds as well as the sunrise and other scenery.

Busy removing birds from the mist nets (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Each bird is put into a separate brown paper lunch-sized bag.  Those small bags are collected in grocery store bags with handles.  Then they are taken to the banding shed where all the banding takes place.

Left – AFMO volunteers… and Right – some visitors observing and learning about birds and banding (c) Jan Runyan

All of the people who work at the station are highly trained volunteers who apprenticed at the station and return year after year to work.  They pay for their own training, equipment (except bands) and travel expenses.  Some help at the station for one or two weeks during the month and a half it is open (mid-August to early October) and several stay for almost the whole time.  The AFMO is funded completely by donations.

Visitors are always welcome and if the day is not too busy, we can teach about birds, bird banding and the science behind what we do.

Left to right – Banders checking a Lincoln’s Sparrow, Blue-headed Vireo and boy being handed an Ovenbird for release. (c) Jan Runyan

Most of the birds we catch are warblers (“fairly small, vocal, insectivorous, perching songbirds which vary widely in color and pattern”).   Some days we capture many hundreds; other days only a few.  The banding is weather dependent.  We do not open the station on rainy, foggy or very windy days.  Most birds are caught in the early morning hours, often before 10 am.  The banding is over by noon except on very busy days.  On October 26 of this year we caught and banded 829 birds and the banding (3 banders with several helpers) continued until 2:30.

Left to right… Connecticut Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Nashville Warbler and Hooded Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

On days with few birds the station closes earlier and we are able to take more time to appreciate Dolly Sods’ scenic beauty.  On slow days I often hike and sometimes Jan joins me.

Left to right… view from the AFMO and red spruce forest along the Bog to Bog Trail. (c) Jan Runyan

One day I led a group on a 4.7 mile wilderness hike for some friends. We traversed part of the Beatty Labyrinth, Alder Run Bog, several red spruce forests, a CCC red pine plantation, a high mountain meadow and Fisher Spring Run Bog.  Much of the hike involved bushwhacking into beautiful areas most hikers on Dolly Sods never see.

The wilderness hike and the Wilderness (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

On the hikes we see wonderful kinds of wildlife.  During any season there are many beautiful and interesting plants to enjoy.  The fall glows with Goldenrods and Asters accented by plants like Joe-Pye weed and different kinds of Gentians.

Left to right… Narrow-leaved Gentian, Bumblebee at Closed Gentian and Five-flowered Gentian (c) Bill Beatty

With the plants we often find an interesting variety of insects and spiders.  Some of the spider webs are spectacular, especially when wet with dew or fog.

Grass/Funnel Weaver Spider and male at funnel entrance (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

If we look fast, we might see several kinds of small snakes “running” away from us. Occasionally when the day is warm, we get to watch a Milk Snake sunning itself on a rock.

Left to right… Camouflaged Smooth Green Snake, holding a Smooth Green Snake and Red-bellied Snake (c) Bill Beatty

Because of its geology, the top of the mountain is dotted with bogs.  Some are small wet spots; others are huge open areas that take a long time to traverse.  In the fall, the Cottongrass spikes speckle the bogs and dance in the wind. In wetter parts, the bogs are filled with insectivorous Sundew plants–both the native Round-leaved Sundew and the invasive Spatulate-leaved Sundew.  In the fall the Sundews often have flower stalks above their insect-catching leaves.  Dolly Sods’ bogs are a moss lover’s delight.  Sphagnum can be found everywhere, but many other kinds entice us to kneel down and look carefully.   This year the Reindeer Moss (which isn’t a moss at all, but a complicated lichen) was very dry and crispy in exposed areas, but lush and spongy in the deep, moist woods.

Left to right… Sphagnum Moss, Cotton Grass and Spatulate-leaved Sundew (c) Jan Runyan

After our hikes or cranberry picking or photo expeditions or visits with friends, we savor an early dinner and fall asleep as the sun goes down.  Each morning while it’s still dark we are back at the banding station looking in awe at the Milky Way, watching the sunrise and, of course, catching more birds.

Left to right… Jan with Black-throated Green Warbler in mist net, Grace with a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Jan with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (c) Bill Beatty and Jan Runyan

One of the very special things about being involved with bird banding is experiencing and examining the birds so closely.  We can see the subtle differences which give clues to the age and gender of each bird.

Left to right: Cape May and Blackburnian Warbler comparison; back and front of the Cape May Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Of the 44 species of warblers listed in Peterson’s East/Central guide, the AFMO has banded 38 species.  The real challenge for fall banders comes because, of those 44 possible species, 24 species change their plumage, sometimes radically, after the summer breeding season.  In the species that do change, both the young and mature birds look very different in the fall than they do in the spring when most of us see them.  Of Peterson’s 24 “confusing fall warblers”, the station has caught all but one species.

In the spring most warblers look very different from each other.   In the fall their  different and muted colors can make us search for hints of washed-out color, faint streaks, a couple of different colored feathers or even the color of the feet to tell them apart.  Although we are sometimes left scratching our heads for a while, we relish the challenge.

Left to right… Bay-breasted Warbler with band, Bay-breasted Warbler head and Chestnut-sided Warbler (c) Jan Runyan

Although warblers are the most frequently banded birds at the AFMO, many other types of birds are also caught and banded.  From tiny Kinglets (both kinds) and Brown Creepers to Blue Jays, Hawks and even Northern Saw-Whet Owls, birds of all sizes leave the Allegheny Front with numbered aluminum bands on their legs.

Left to right… Brown Thrasher in the orange light of early morning sun, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Gray-cheeked Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

No matter what we catch, it is always a thrill to release a bird.  Sometimes when the station is not too busy and we have the right kind of birds, we can teach a visitor how to hold and release a bird.  Usually the bird flies away almost before the person holding it opens their hand.  But occasionally a bird will stay on a hand for a few moments, not realizing that the covering hand has been removed.  That is always magical.

Lee releasing a Wood Thrush (c) Jan Runyan

Field markings which may be hard to see on a bird in the field become very obvious when the bird is in hand.  Even the almost-indistinguishable Flycatchers can be identified with the help of expert books (and expert banders).

Left to right… Eastern Phoebe, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and White-throated Sparrow (c) Jan Runyan

Hawks are always a rare and exciting event.  Because their feet and wings are so much larger than those of most perching birds, hawks have an easy time getting out of a net.  Most of our captures occur on the rare occasion when a hawk tries to go after a bird that is already in the net.  When a hawk hits the net, it usually bounces off and flies away.  But if it hits just right, it falls into the pocket of the net.  If there is a net tender close enough, he or she can gather the net around the hawk before it has a chance to fly away.  One morning Jeff was net tending on a nearby south net when some of us saw a hawk hit a net near the far end.  People yelled, “Run, Jeff, run!”  and he took off running toward the far nets, not knowing exactly where he was headed, but knowing exactly why we told him to run.

One day I was fortunate to remove a hawk that hit near where I was removing another bird.  I was able to reach it before it could fly away.  He was a beauty!

Juvenal male Sharp-shinned Hawk in the process of being banded, sexed and released (c) Jan Runyan and Bill Beatty

Note the difference in eye color between the young male Sharp-shinned Hawk above and the older female “Sharpy” below. The iris color changes from grayish-yellow and yellow to orange and reddish during the first couple years of life.

Some sparrows can still be difficult to identify, even in hand.  But being able to turn the bird around and see both the top and bottom makes it easier to see the finer points of identification.

Left to right… Lincoln’s Sparrow, Yellow-throated Vireo, Indigo Bunting and adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk (c) Jan Runyan

Jan and I always collect Dolly Sods spring water the day before we leave for home.  Because everything was so dry this year, the spring was running much slower than most years.  We usually bring home enough water to last us the entire year, but we didn’t think we would have the time or patience to fill all of our containers this year.   With the help of an old coffee pot and a beautiful day to distract us while we waited, it only took a couple of hours to gather a year’s worth (we hope) of water.  In the middle of winter, the taste takes us right back to the sunny, green warmth of the Wilderness.

Filling our water containers at the Red Creek Campground spring.  Jan fills, Bill carries. (c) Bill Beatty

There is always something new and special to discover when we are on Dolly Sods and at the AFMO.  At night, the stars or moon are so bright and close it seems that if you climbed to the top of a spruce tree you could reach out and touch them.  Bushwhacking in the forests, meadows and bogs brings unexpected discoveries, both natural and, occasionally, human-made.

On our last day on the Sods, we were pleased to realize that we had helped add a significant number of birds to the AFMO tally for the year.  We feel very satisfied to be able to help with such an important scientific endeavor and very happy to be able to spend time with such good friends in a place as incredible as Dolly Sods.

Left to right… the early dark sky greeted us with a beautiful full moon, a Dolly Sods Wilderness boundary marker and the daily tally of total birds banded and total species on our final day of net tending.

Battle of the Songs…….by Jan Runyan

The Crows were upset!  Well, that’s nothing new.  Crows love drama!

We know there was a successful nest of Crows down back this year.  The very strange sounds and un-birdlike calls we heard frequently in early July were eventually traced to young Crows.  By early August they had learned to sound more Crow-like.

crow

(c) Charles Tysinger

But today as I worked in the garden, all the Crows were upset and calling loudly and frequently in the back woods.  The cacophony carried on at such a level for such a long time that I began to rule out a cat or other ground dwellers as the cause.  Crows usually succeed in convincing them to move on fairly soon.

This noise kept going and going.  Maybe they had found an owl roosting in one of the tall trees and were calling all their friends within shouting distance to join the party.  Owls will often tolerate the Crow’s ruckus as long as the noisemakers don’t get too close.

GHOW

(c) Bill Beatty

As I weeded, I heard at least 4 or 5 young and old Crows yelling battle songs.  After more than an hour of the Crow serenade, I heard a Broad-winged Hawk call.

BWHA

(c) Judd Patterson

The Broad-wings had a successful nest down back, too, and this sounded like the not-quite-right call of the young hawk.  I looked up to see two large birds flying between tall locust trees beyond the garden.  One, the youngster, perched where I could see it.  It kept calling and calling.  Was it whining again?  “Mom, I’m hungry!”  Or was it shouting insults and dares at the crows?  “You better not fly past this branch or you’ll get it!”  The Crows moved closer to the young Broad-wing.  Back and forth they exchanged “words” for quite a while.

Then, all of a sudden, there was one scream from a Red-tailed Hawk.

RTHA

ninnescahlife.wichita.edu/node/618

Junior Broad-wing shut up and both large birds in the locust trees took off for the deeper woods.  The Crows continued to fuss until one more Red-tailed scream sent them all flapping their way south in silence.

Apparently the Broad-wing and the Crows agreed that the Red-tail had won the battle of the songs.  No broken bones or blood…but the battle was decided.

The woods were now totally silent…except for one sound.  The insistent call of a Tufted Titmouse which told me he thinks he chased off all of them.  Because, of course, he knows (and if you have ever seen one being banded, you know) he really is the toughest bird on the block.

TUTI

(c) Bill Beatty

Kayaking the Blackwater and Little Blackwater Rivers

The stars aligned so Jan and I made a spur of the moment decision to take a kayaking trip.  We took our favorite drive to the WV mountains and got a cabin at Canaan Valley State Park.  The next day the weather was perfect (partly cloudy, 74 degrees) to spend the day kayaking the Blackwater and Little Blackwater Rivers into the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.  Surprisingly, we didn’t see another person on the rivers.  Except for the treetop fighter jet that thundered down the valley, we were alone all day in one of West Virginia’s most scenic areas.  It was a spectacular day!

Following are some of the highlights.  Click on photo for a larger image.  Use back button to return from photos to the blog.

We use foldable/inflatable kayaks because they fit easily inside our Prius with all our other gear. Here we began our journey upstream from Camp 70 Road on the Blackwater River. (c) Bill Beatty/Jan Runyan

I was surprised to see dozens of Blue Monkshoods flowering on the shady east shoreline early in the trip.  It was the only place we saw them.

Blue Monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) (c) Jan Runyan

Along both banks of the stream we saw what appeared to be the dominant plants in flower: Yellow Sneezeweed and Sweet-scented Indian Plantain.

Yellow Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) (c) Bill Beatty and Sweet-scented Indian Plantain (Hasteola suaveolens) (c) Eric Lhote

Jan and I happily paddled from shore to shore looking at plants and other creatures, listening to the few late-season bird songs and enjoying the ‘Almost Heaven’ scenery.

Continuing upstream on the Blackwater River. (c) Bill Beatty

The most dominant shrub along the Blackwater River is Ninebark.  We were about 6 weeks too late to see it bloom.  When the Ninebark is in snowy bloom along the river it is spectacular.

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)… third week in June (c) Bill Beatty

Large patches of Swamp Milkweed are along sections of the Blackwater, but most of it had already gone to seed.  The few last flowerheads were quite colorful.

PF90017

A close photo of the individual flowers on the Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) flower ball. (c) Bill Beatty

After 2.1 miles of paddling we came to the mouth of the Little Blackwater River and decided to follow it upstream as far as we could.

Jan relaxing in the shallows of the Little Blackwater, Black Bear footprint in the mud and stopping to look around. (c) Bill Beatty/Jan Runyan

Just off the Little Blackwater, the view of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge wetlands extends for miles.

Jan on a high bank overlooking the Little Blackwater River, Jan collecting a delicious snack for us… blueberries and dewberries. (c) Bill Beatty

We were able to paddle .4 miles up the Little Blackwater until it became impassable due to dense Speckled Alder shrubs overhanging from both banks.

Jan at the end of the navigable portion of the Little Blackwater River, lunch time and paddling back downstream to the Blackwater River. (c) Bill Beatty/Jan Runyan

The following video shows me paddling downstream at the mouth of the Little Blackwater where it enters the Blackwater River. (video by Jan)

Back at the confluence with the Blackwater River, we decided to continue upstream on the main watercourse.  On both banks we continued to find different wildflowers and other creatures.

left to right… Crooked-stemmed Aster flowers (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides), Blue Vervain flowers (Verbena hastata) and Common Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) (c) Bill Beatty

Dragonflies and damselflies perched on our kayaks.  Beaver slides from the high banks into the water looked like inviting fun.  I was surprised at the large number of Viceroy Butterflies.

Left to right… Mating Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) and Viceroy Butterfly (Limenitis archippus) (c) Bill Beatty

After .33 more miles upstream from the confluence of the Blackwater and Little Blackwater, we came to a fallen tree totally blocking the river, sticking up several inches above water level.   The day was getting late and the portage would have involved standing in deep water to lift the kayaks now and when we returned, so we decided to start the leisurely paddle back downstream.  We noticed large patches of Halberd-leaved Tearthumb in some locations which would have been painfully difficult to walk through wearing shorts and sandals, but were beautiful to float by.

Left to right… Halberd-leaved Tearthumb (Persicaria arifolia), Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia) and Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) (c) Bill Beatty

The following video shows the beauty of the stream, wildlife refuge and day.  (video by Jan)

Jan and I had a wonderful day renewing body, soul and spirit.  We will do this trip again.

Paddling downstream on the Blackwater River. (c) Jan Runyan

Happy Camper back at the cabin after a day of kayaking (5.66 miles) and supper at Siriani’s.

Jan (c) Bill Beatty

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!

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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.

Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) (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.

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

Pine Siskin’s yellow tail flash (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.

Pine Siskin in net (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 (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?”

(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.

(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.

(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!”

(c) Jan Runyan

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.”

(c) Jan Runyan

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 (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

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 (c) Jan Runyan

 

 

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

 

Wing and tail colors (c) Bill Beatty

 

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 (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 (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 (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.

Entering Big Run Bog a.k.a. Olsen Bog (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!

(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.

          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.

                                  

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) (c) Bill Beatty.  Then I pointed out several Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) plants in flower.

                                                  

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