Highlights of 2016

What are the experiences of 2016 I’ll remember the most?

The trip to New Mexico for the Festival of the Cranes tops the list for memorable travel. My husband and I enjoyed it so much we’re already looking for similar events at National Wildlife Refuges elsewhere in the country.

My son-in-law defending his research and getting his PhD…finding a postdoc for 2017…tops the list for memorable family event. It’s quite a milestone. My daughter will have a similar one in 2017. This kind of milestone is a huge change for them --- no longer a student, physically moving somewhere very different, etc. --- and has the potential to be a pivot point in their lives. It’s on my list for memorable experiences because of the flurry of activity we’re involved in these last weeks of the year…and knowing that there is more to come in early 2017.

Of course – there are many other things I could put on the list – courses, volunteering, travels to familiar places. I chose these two because they were so different...they are not part of the ‘norm’ that we enjoy all the time!

Desert Arboretum at Bosque del Apache

I spent some time in the Desert Arboretum at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on our last full day at the Festival of the Cranes. Almost immediately I spotted a dragonfly that wasn’t sitting still but would pause long enough to be photographed. I was glad to have the extra power of the digital zoom on my new camera.

I also spotted some white-crowned sparrows which I had been told about on one of our tours…but hadn’t seen. They nest in the far north and are only in the US during the winter. They have very distinctive black and white stripes on their heads.

Rather than take pictures of whole cactus plants, I decided to look more closely at the spines. At first, I looked for color.

Then I looked more closely about how the spines were attached to the fleshy part of the cactus. I did a series that zoomed in more and more and discovered that the spines almost look like they pierce the flesh rather than grow out of it!

The image below are some prickly pear spines.

Some spines look sharper than others…or maybe it is the golden color of the spines that make them look more menacing. Again – there is a grayish mass (like a blob of putty) where they go into the cactus flesh.

Enough about spines. There was a gall on one of the plants that reminded me a little of the cedar apple rust gall I’d seen at Mt. Pleasant Farm last spring (described in this post).

The only bloom I saw was a tiny plant that looked like the top had been eaten.

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the yucca pods. Yucca pods have always been one of my favorite seed pods. There are some I harvested about 40 years ago in a dried arrangement at my house!

Home Again

We returned home yesterday after a week in New Mexico at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge’s Festival of the Cranes. So many photographs….they’ll come out in blog posts over the next few weeks. We had early mornings at the refuge to see the cranes and snow geese take off from wetlands where they roost as the sun came up…and a few programs that were in the dark at the end of the day to see owls and for my husband to make a side trip to the Very Large Array Radio Telescope for stars and radio disk photography. We stayed in Socorro, NM and flew in and out of Albuquerque.

We drove from Socorro to Albuquerque on Sunday because our flight on Monday was early. I was reminded again of how much I like the ‘highway art’ of the area with the mountains, buttes and arroyos….the blue and terracotta of the overpasses…a Kachina themed sculpture… and a rabbit pebble mosaic on an embankment.

The airport is New Mexico specific too with sculpture and Black Mesa coffee.

The theme continues with the tile in the bathrooms…and I appreciated that they seemed to be cleaner than most airport bathrooms and that the stall doors opened outward (easier when you have roll aboard luggage in tow)!

We got home by mid-afternoon to a cold and breezy Baltimore. Today is grocery day….to buy all the fixings for our Thanksgiving feast!

Centennial Park – November 2016

The walk at Centennial Park was full of fall color a week ago when I took these pictures. I took a lot of pictures with the reflections of trees in the water. The leaves on many of the tallest trees like tulip poplar had already lost a lot of their leaves but the maples and sweet gums – the reds – were still plentiful and the beeches provides some yellow. The oaks still had some green. My favorite of these pictures is the one that include the rocks that are beside the boat launch; they break up the reflection with their smoothed surfaces.

Then zoomed in on some leaves – maple

And oak.

There were also seed pods along the shore of the lake that I recognized – goldenrod

And Queen Anne’s Lace.

Every time I go to the park there is something to photograph….this time is was ‘fall.’ (Last time it was ‘birds’.)

Staunton River Star Party Hikes

My husband was the one staying up late viewing (and photographing) the skies --- utilizing all the equipment he brought to the star party. I went to bed at almost normal time and was ready to explore the park. We both enjoyed the warmth of the sleeping bags in the mornings. I missed the sunrise by an hour or more except for the last day (more on that in another post). We took two short hikes before lunch (last week – Tuesday and Wednesday). Both were through the woods with occasional glimpses of water (river and lake).

I’m always pleased to find shelf fungus. Turkey tails are the most common. In the forest near Staunton River, most of them seemed dry and without very much color.

There was one cluster with leaves sprinkled on top…that looked more colorful on closer inspection.

There were other shelf fungus that stood out because of their contrast with the other parts of the forest (this one a bright white)

Or their texture.

There was a group growing on a small branch in the middle of the path that it photographed from both directions. In the image from the front – note the lichen on the branch too – very curly.

This was not the only instance of lichen that was curling off the bark surface.

I also started looking for contrasts on the forest floor – green moss and a yellow leaf,

Three leaves that were different colors and shapes,

A fern with a multi colored oak leaf, and

A red and yellow leaf in a patch of sunlight…and surrounded by browns (leaves and dirt).

On one of the hikes we took a side path to a lookout over the lake and saw seagulls in the distance. There is a shallow area where they find an easy time catching fish (see the gull in the lower right of the very last picture of this post)!

Waggoner’s Gap

On the way home from State College, we stopped at Waggoner’s Gap – a place known for being an excellent place to watch the fall hawk migration will thousands of birds migrating overhead between mid-August and December. We’d heard about it from some birding friends and decided to see what it was like even though the viewing was not optimal with low lying clouds overhead. We decided this would just be a reconnoiter type stop and we’d come back on a day when the weather was better. It was scenic drive through central Pennsylvania countryside west of Harrisburg to the small lot for the site.

There were clear maps of the trails up to the viewing area and ridge at the beginning of the trail and trail junctions.

The trail was over rocks and was marked by bird stencils. Do you see the orange stenciled bird in the  pictures? It did make it easier to pay attention to not tripping over rocks to have the markings at your feet rather than at eye level on trees.

At the top – there is a few of the colorful forest below and the valley beyond. Next time we’ll pick a day with fewer clouds, pack everything in a backpack rather than having anything in our hands (the hike is not hard but is over rocks, better to have both hands free) and plan to stay longer. I’d like to refine my skills at identifying raptors in flight!

Mid-October Road Trip

We made a fall foliage road trip last weekend from our home between Washington DC and Baltimore MD to State College Pennsylvania. We headed out on I 70 to western Maryland and then I99 to State College. Our first rest stop was in Maryland – the South Mountain Welcome Center with a rock façade (maybe from a local source?) and the morning sun showing off a little change in the leave color.

The next rest stop was the Pennsylvania Welcome Center (still on I70). That had big sunflowers in various stages of development. It was easy to see how the seeds look as they begin to mature.

Two of the flowers I photographed had bugs in them (I discovered when I looked at them on the big screen of my monitor. This one looks like and assassin bug

And then was is a milkweed bug.

Just after we left the welcome center – we started to see more color. It wasn’t the peak of fall foliage colors…but a beginning.

There was also fog hanging in the valleys…with a clear sky above.

The drive to State College was a good start to our fall road trip. I’ll post more about it tomorrow.

Fall Foliage Trips in the 1980s

Back in the early 80s when we were living near Dallas, we took annual fall foliage trips to southeastern Oklahoma – to the Ouachita National Forest Area. Sometimes we took curvy forest roads into Arkansas as well. We camped at Cedar Lake State Park in October of 1980.

We took frozen steaks in an ice chest to cook over a camp fire – little realizing that it was going to be cold enough that the steaks would take a long time to thaw!

It was quite an adventure during the night too – with skunks and racoons being used to finding food around the campsites.

The next morning, we were up early since it was cold and we all wanted to move around as soon as the sun was up. We decided to hike as soon as we scarfed down breakfast. There was a heavy dew which made for some good leaf pictures

And the sunshine was bright enough to showcase the colors of the leaves still on the trees too.

In the forest we saw ground pine

And a large spider (tarantula?).

Along the dam the sumac seed pods looked very red.

The overflow for the lake seemed pretty elaborate too.

The next October we went back to the forest again but it was very wet the entire time we were there. My husband took very few pictures – lichen,


And a very wet campsite. We managed to spend the night but left the next morning – in the rain.

In 1982, the weather was a little better although we didn’t go until November. Many of the leaves had already fallen off the trees.

There were some startlingly red leaves (maybe sumac?)

And some beautyberries (although I did not know what they were when the picture was taken).

The highlight of the trip was the critters: a millipede

And two harvestmen – a type of arachnid that is not a spider. Unlike spiders, their body segments are fused and they have a single set of eyes. These two seem to be kissing!

We moved to the east coast in 1983 and in the fall of 1984 we made a fall foliage trip to Shenandoah National Park area. We were a little late for the fall color but we enjoyed waterfalls,

Clouds in the valleys,

And mushrooms in the forest - very different than in Texas!

All this looking at pictures of past fall foliage trips has me planning one for this year too! Hopefully it will include some post worthy items.

Baltimore Inner Harbor in September 1984

I found some pictures of my very first trip to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It was in 1984 – a little over a year since we’d moved to the east coast. We were still living in Virginia so it was a day trip for us to see Baltimore. It’s hard to internalize that it was over 30 years ago!

It must have been a great day for being out on the water based on the number of boats. The rental paddle boats were simpler then that the ones that are there now.

The National Aquarium had been open for a few years (according to Wikipedia it opened in August 1981) and was expanded in the early 2000s – so this show what it was like before the expansion.

We were making a lot of day trips and exploring the Mid-Atlantic area back in the mid-80s. My husband was working on a post doc and we weren’t sure how low we would live in the Washington DC area --- but we ended up staying. Now we favor the natural areas over the urban attractions of museums and tours.

Ten Days of Little Celebrations – September 2016

This September includes some unique ‘little celebrations.’ Two of them occurred in Florida.

OSIRIS REx successful launch. This was only my second time to see a launch (Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral). I can’t imagine that every launch I attend will not make it to the celebration list!

Pelicans. I don’t remember every seeing American white pelicans before…or if I did I didn’t realize what I was seeing. They were the highpoint of the drive around Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge for me.

Happy ‘what if’ thoughts. Both my daughter and son-in-law are close to finishing their graduate work and looking at post docs. September was the first month that there seemed to be a potential ‘what next’ and we all spun all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios. The celebration will get bigger when we actually settle on a plan – which might not finalize until early spring 2017.

There were things that were not entirely unique – but not things that happen frequently either:

4 hikes with three and four year old children. I was very excited and keyed up while I hiked with each of the groups (about 10 children and 4 adults in each group) talking about trees in the fall and seeds. I celebrated when they were done (I was exhausted) but even more than I’d managed to connect. It was probably my best grandmother-in-training experience to date!

Stream assessment with high schoolers. Putting on boots…checking water quality…identifying macroinvertebrates….with high schoolers that are interested in what they are finding --- celebrating the fall day in the stream as much as I did.

Hummingbird moth. I’m not sure why – but I don’t see hummingbird moths all that frequently. I didn’t see one at all last year. And then there was one at Brookside earlier this month. Celebration (and lots of pictures).

Chipmunk in the garden. I heard some rustling noise in the dried leaves under then bushes then looked around….and saw the chipmunk looking up at me from the end of the drain tube from the sump pump. Yes – chipmunks are rodents…but they are the cutest ones as far as I’m concerned and I celebrate that they survive in my front flower bed.

And then there are the normal things that happen frequently enough…but that I still celebrate when they do:

A rainy day after a long string of hot and dry days. All the plants seem to be celebrating too.

Abundant fall veggies. I celebrate the amount – the colors – the flavors. The harvest time is a special kind of celebration.

Celebration being home. Every time I am away for a few days…or even a week…I celebrate returning. The ‘no place like home’ sentiment rings true for me.

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa

After spending most of our time on the Atlantic side of Florida (Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island), we spend one day on the Gulf of Mexico side and took a tour of the Big Cat Rescue facility in Tampa. The morning was normal for Florida in September – hot and humid. Each tour participant had an earphone and player. The segments of audio were keyed by the tour guide as the group walked around the large enclosures where the big cats were housed.The cats looked comfortable – relaxed or walking around their enclosures. I tried taking pictures where the cage was not as obvious.

But even when the fence is in the picture – I liked the zoomed images of the individual cats.

Many of them had been abused prior to coming to the rescue facility. They at in their ‘forever home’ at this point and it is more lush than any zoo with lots of different parts to their individual enclosure and larger areas where they are taken periodically for ‘vacation.’

Many of the cats have had their claws removed which takes some of the bones of their feet and changes the way they walk.

Even the cats that looked like they were dosing, followed the group with their eyes. Were they picking out the weakest looking?

Whiskers seem to come out in more places than I realized before looking more closely at the pictures of the big cats.

Cats seem to preserve their aura of dignity even when they are in cage.

I enjoyed the tour more than I thought I would even though the stories of how the cats came to be at Big Cat Rescue was very sad. At least now there is a home for them…and an organization focused on reducing the number of big cats that are in such dire circumstances. Big cats are not pets or entertainment.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge – Part 2

Continuing on from yesterday’s post about the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge….

A plant community that becomes more evident the further south we drove is epiphytes with the Spanish moss being some of the most noticeable. But I took pictures of smaller ones as we walked around the boardwalk of the visitor center.

Flowers are always attention getters too.

Insects are even a bigger draw. Different kinds of bees were competing for flowers. The bumblebees are so big they usually drive the others away!

A long tailed skipper stayed put long enough for me to take a picture too.

The dragonflies looked similar to the dragonflies of Maryland.

We found a dead Polyphemus moth on the ground before we even walked into the visitor center. We perched it on a bush to photograph. It’s a male (large antennae to detect pheromone emitted by the females).

The seed pods on the button bushes in Florida look the same as the ones in Maryland.

And then there was a small tree in the pollinator with seedpods at various stages of maturity…and flowers too – obviously a legume.

When we got to the beach (the wildlife refuge abuts the Canaveral National Seashore), I noticed the sea grapes had color variation in their leaves and also had clusters of fruit.

These plants are planted on the dunes along the shore for stabilization.

There were a few gulls about but they were not as interesting as

The juvenile sanderling that seemed very interested in every piece of seaweed tossed up by the surf.

Morse Museum of American Art

On the morning before the launch, we opted for an activity in an air conditioned building: a visit to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. The museum houses a large collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. It is located close to Orlando so convenient enough to where we would need to be later in the day to get on the buses to head to the OSIRIS-REx launch.

This was my third visit to the museum. The first time I was on a business trip and my meetings finished early enough to make a quick walk through of the exhibits before I headed to the airport.

The next time I visited was during the trip we made to Florida for the MAVEN launch. That time my husband and daughter were with me.

This time there were even more people in our group and it I became more aware that museums are enjoyed at different tempos. Of course – the first time through always takes more time.

One of the things I like about the Morse Museum is their brochures with information rather than a lot of labeling of the pieces themselves. Much of the time I enjoy just looking rather than reading…the blocks of texts can be distracting and detracting! But I like having the information available too.

I turned tourist in the gift shop of the museum and bought some earrings (my most common purchase when I travel) and some glass frames that are the perfect size for 3.5 x 3.5 Zentangle tiles. I like the dragonfly that is part of the museum’s logo too; it’s on the boxes for jewelry and shopping bags…gold on brown paper.


We were on bleachers at the Kennedy Space Center’s Saturn V facility to watch the OSIRIS-REx launch on September 8th.  OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Idenentification, Security – Regolith Explorer) is a mission to fly to, study, and retrieve a sample from the asteroid Bennu and return the sample to earth. The launch happened shortly after 7 PM at the beginning of the launch window on the 8th and the first day in its launch schedule. The clouds built up in the afternoon but were benign by launch time. The evening was still hot and humid – typical for Florida in early September. We arrived about an hour before the launch and watched the outgassing from the fueling process (the white plume to the right of the rocket).

The slide show below shows my pictures of the first minute of the launch. Even in that short period of time – I had to adjust the zoom to keep the rocket in the frame!

By 3 minutes after launch – only the drifting plume remained.

My husband took my favorite picture of the launch with distinct Atlas and solid rocket plums. Awesome!

OSIRIS-REx Pre-Launch Activities

Our first day in Florida was spent with check-in as a launch guest, a mission briefing, and touring the Kennedy Space Center. The check-in was at the ATX (Astronaut Training Experience) Center.

It was a busy place with people picking up the packets with a badge/lanyard, information sheets, a paper model, stickers, patches, and pens. We also picked up the tickets for the mission briefing.

We had previously signed up for the 12:30 briefing that would be held in the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center so we headed there as soon as we had our packets. We made arrangements for a bus tour in the afternoon and then had a quick lunch.

After the briefing we boarded the bus for a tour. We were able to see the OSIRIS-REx capsule atop its Atlas rocket (one booster) on the pad. We didn’t get as close as we did for the Maven capsule back in 2013.

The launch pad where the SpaceX rocket exploded recently was also visible.

We also saw some wildlife while on the tour: some cormorants and an alligator.

The next day we would come back for the launch --- the topic for tomorrow's blog.

Road Trip to Florida

We were in Florida last week – for the OSIRIS-REx launch and a few days of touring…more that in upcoming posts. The drive down from Maryland was done in an easy two days with a stop in Florence, South Carolina. The weather was hot so we didn’t stop for any of our usually outdoor activities. We retraced our steps coming back. The first day was very hot but the navigation system routed us to the Beltway around Jacksonville, Florida rather than saying on I-95 and we crossed the Dames Point Bridge. I managed to get my camera out and take some pictures of it.

It’s quite a sight.

I also liked the colorful mass of shipping containers just past the bridge.

We stayed in the same hotel in Florence, South Carolina on that night and I managed to get a sunrise photograph from the window. It was the only sunrise picture from this road trip!

The weather has cooled down a bit and the humidity was not so high for the last day on the road. We lingered a little at one of the rest stops – still in the Carolinas – and I took some pictures of a late blooming day lily

And some grasses swaying in the breeze catching the morning sun.

There was a dragonfly lying on the sidewalk – dead but still relatively intact. The plates of color on the abdomen reminded me of a Mayan turquoise mask.

The thorax was yellow green.

Hummingbird Moth at Brookside

I was thrilled to see a hummingbird moth enjoying the flowers at Brookside Gardens last week. The insect is always one I look for during the mid to late summer in the fragrance garden since that is where I’d seen one before. They are probably their every year but I have not seen then consistently so it was a special treat to see it and photograph it too. The images are good enough to identify it as a snowberry clearwing hummingbird moth (Hemaris diffinis) (Info from USDA and Wikipedia).

The wings have red veins but are almost always moving so fast that they are blurred or can’t be seen at all. The insect moves rapidly from flower to flower – similar to the way a hummingbird moves. I watched this one in two stretches. (Interrupted by a group of women with strollers in the garden for a ‘new mother’ outing; they need the full path and I stepped out of the way…remembering fondly that time of my life that is now more than 25 years ago).

I took lots of pictures, trying to get every angle and proboscis position. Look for the following in the slideshow below:

  • A skipper butterfly photobomb
  • Extended proboscis
  • Fully extended wings – with a flower send through the ‘clear’ wing
  • Coiled proboscis
  • Antennae structure
  • Bristles on the end of the abdomen
  • Fuzziness of the thorax

1981 Road Trip to New Mexico

My Monday posts are trips back in my own history…. brought into the present via pictures that I have been scanning. This week I’m remembering a road trip to New Mexico in September of 1989. We spent considerable time at Bandelier National Monument. We walked around the main ruin area,

Did some hiking,

Climbed into some reconstructed ruins,

Saw the carvings of mountain lions, and

Tried to image how it must have been when the canyon was populated in ancient times.

My husband was taking flower pictures then too…and managed some stunning ones at Bandelier.

I remember the hike down to the Rio Grande vividly. There is an elevation change between the visitor center and the river.

We followed the water for part of the hike and my husband too pictures of a waterfall from many angles.


And finally made it to the river….very muddy and much reduced by up river irrigation.

We drove over the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge and my husband took a dizzying picture from when we walked out onto the bridge. I remember feeling the bridge vibrate when cars or trucks went by…and not wanting to stay out on the walkway for very long.

We also went to Pecos National Historical Park on that road trip…but it was overshadowed by Bandelier.

Thinking back on this and other times I’ve vacationed in New Mexico – I have enjoyed them all…and am ready to go again.

Queen Anne’s Lace in the Fall

Many of the Queen Anne’s Lace plants at Centennial Park are finished flowering and in the fruit cluster stage. I find the clusters as attractive as the flowers. There is still a lot of visual complexity. Some of the clusters are green.

Looking closer you can see the oval fruits beginning to form.

Later they will turn brown….and early harbinger of fall color.

This one has some fruits that are still green…others that are reddish brown.

Some Birds at Centennial

My short walk at  Centennial Park last week included several bird sightings. I was most excited about a green heron that flew into a tree not far from where I was walking. I didn’t know what it was until I managed to zoom in enough with my camera. It is surprising how well camouflaged the birds are in the foliage. It flew down to the water’s edge from the tree and I didn’t see it again until it flew away across the water.

There was a mourning dove enjoying the morning sun on a park bench. When I walked closer it flew down to the shore…then squeakily away to the island in the lake.

There were birds in some foliage near the shore with berries. One flew out and perched on the top of a sign. I think it was a mockingbird. It proceeded to fluff its feathers – looking rather comical as it preened.

Way across the lake – a great white egret was fishing in the shallows. This picture is about at the limit for the zoom on my camera but I like to take pictures of these graceful birds. There were two great blue herons that flew low over the lake while I was there…but I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture of either one.