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.

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

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

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(Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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

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

           

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

                               

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

      IMG_6049    floating pondweed (Potamogeton epihydrus)

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

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

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

                                                  

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

                                                  

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

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

Wildflower Appreciation

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Hiking boot and Yellow Corydalis                      False Mermaidweed and penny

 

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

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

Ground Ivy…normal view                              Ground Ivy through a hand lens

 

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

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

Welcome Home My Little Chickadee — by Jan

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

Bill grins at an old friend

Bill grins at an old friend (c) Jan Runyan

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

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

Ladybug Hibernation…a fortunate discovery

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

Contemplating Mortality

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

Louisiana Waterthrush (c) Bill Beatty

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

Virginia Spring Beauty (c) Bill Beatty

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

common water strider (Gerris remgis)

Common Water Strider (c) Bill Beatty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shorttail Shrew

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

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Am Goldfinch male showing spring molt (c) Jan Runyan

 

AMGO female winter

Am Goldfinch female (c) Jan Runyan

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

AMGO head with pin feathers circled

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

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

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

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage

Am Goldfinch in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

Three American Goldfinches

3 Am Goldfinches in breeding plumage (c) Bill Beatty

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

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

Behold…the American Goldfinches are coming.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) on bird feeder

American Goldfinches on thistle feeder (c) Bill Beatty

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

Spring Is Here…by Jan

While most of us are tiredly digging out from the most recent blanket of snow and watching the ice retreat from our driveways again, Nature is smugly telling us that Spring is Here!  Driving by the remnants of last summer’s cornfield on a nearby farm, we counted 60 Wild Turkeys foraging through the stubble.  With the window down, we could hear the male gobblers “gobble-obble-obble-obble-obble”ing to each other and watched them asserting themselves, jockeying for position in the pecking order to impress the best hen.   At our bird-feeders we are noticing a subtle change in the plumage of some birds.  The male American Goldfinches are beginning to show a feather of bright gold here and there.  The heads of the Male House Finches are slowly turning redder, as if they are embarrassed at eating so much of our seed.  For two days we noticed one male Goldfinch with a molted feather sticking wildly askew from his head…molted but not yet dropped.  And American Robins…I know some of them remain all winter, but somehow they have stayed hidden…until now.  In the sugar bush where harvesters of the transparent liquid which will become delicious golden maple syrup have been sitting idle, bemoaning the continued cold of the “endless” winter, they will soon discover they can’t keep up with the flow as this week’s 50 degree days coax the sap to rise in the Maple trees.

As a bird bander and Project FeederWatch counter I am watching our cold weather friends with new thoughts.  When will I see the first migrating bird making a rest stop at our feeders?  Is this the last day I will see American Tree Sparrows?  How long will the Dark-eyed Juncos stay this year?  When will our winter Goldfinches leave and the first wave of migrating beauties hit the mist nets?  How could it be that late with the sun still so high…dinner is really going to be late today.

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Wild Turkeys (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

Perhaps the most telling sign of Spring is that my inner urge to plan this year’s garden has now become an undeniable compulsion.  While I watch the feeders I must also be scanning seed catalogs.  Writing down numbers of birds will alternate with drawing plans for plant placement in the soil which has still been alive, deep down, all winter.  But now the life energy will push to the surface and foster food and “weeds” alike to support the summer activities of Nature.  SPRING IS HERE!