Mt. Pleasant – May 2019

I arrived at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant before one of the elementary school field trips – early enough to take a short hike and photograph some of the May sights along the trail. One of the first birds I saw was a small flock of gold finches near the Community Garden – eating ravenously.

Earlier in the week, when I was hiking with 2nd graders, we had spotted some caterpillars on a newly planted hickory tree. I never try to photograph things while I have a field trip group with me, so I was going back to try to photograph the caterpillars. The morning was cool…and I couldn’t find the caterpillars on the tree! The walk through the quiet area of new trees – invasive removed – was worth it anyway - a contrast to the noisy enthusiasm that would arrive on the school buses.

On the walk back, I was quite enough approaching a nest box to see the tree swallow at the hole. It looks almost like a plug – a perfect fit!

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There was a feather in the grass beside the mowed path. From a hawk? The feather was large…must have come from a large bird.

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The dew was still on the funnel spider webs. It’s hard to find them after the grass is dry.

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Dandelions had already had a first round of flowers…and gone to seed.

The tulip poplar (also called yellow poplar) had lots of buds…ramping up to blooms. The flowers do look a lot like tulips!

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Belmont – April 2019

The Howard County Conservancy spring field trips at Belmont and Mt. Pleasant are into prime time. The two I volunteered for last week had beautiful weather for hiking – almost perfect temperature and dry. I always arrive more than 30 minutes before the students. It’s a short walk from parking to the Carriage House….long enough to get some pictures. Birds that are around: chipping sparrows, robins, and red winging blackbirds. There is at least one resident mockingbird which I heard but didn’t get a picture.

The warmer weather is also causing things to bloom and new spring green leaves to unfurl.

As I wait for the bus, I take pictures toward the manor house, down the entrance road, and down toward the pond. It’s the calm….before the students arrive.

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The students, teachers, and chaperones come on buses and there is a flurry of activity to get the groups sorted into hiking groups and activity groups.

The hikes are about an hour. There are forest and meadows…lot of opportunity for good observations. One of my hiking groups was making BioBlitz observations…documenting a common blue violet blooming in the middle of the mowed path!

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Belmont – March 2019

Howard County Conservancy hosted a training session at Belmont for upcoming elementary school BioBlitzes last week. I hadn’t been to the location since January, so I looked around before going into the Carriage House for class. The plane trees (they are like sycamores but are a little different – have some seed balls in pairs rather than single) seemed full of seed balls. We’ve had quite a lot of wind and the fibers holding the balls to the tree look worn at this point. I wondered how long they would stay attached after I saw the zoomed image through my camera.

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It was sad to see the stump of the red maple they had to cut down recently. Evidently it lost a lot of big branches during some of the recent winds. The colors in the stump drew my attention. The tree was not extensively rotten but there were some insect holes. The stump would have to be sanded to count the rings. The tree had been struggling in recent years, but I always pointed it out because it had small branches low enough on its trunk for children to see the flowers and leaves.

It also had a root that was above the surface and been injured by mowers…but still survived.

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I almost always pointed out the red maple to contrast with the nearby sugar maple – which is still standing with some ivy growing on it. It was a good concept for student to think through – how the trees were alike and how they were different…both maples.

The class had an outdoor portion to try out the app and tablets the students would be using. I used the time to take a few more pictures. There were crocuses blooming in the grassy area near the mailboxes.

The wind had blown pine cones and sweet gum balls into the same area.

The pond still looked like it has all winter. The clouds had rolled in while we had been indoors. And this landscape shows the dimness of the day.

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I turned back to the view the manor house and notice a maple that no longer had its upper branches. One of the them was very rotten. But the tree is still blooming!

We headed up to the cemetery and I checked the hemlock. The tree looks like the treatment for wooly adelgid has worked. I tried an experimental shot with a cone highlighted…and blurry branches above and below.

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By the time I am at Belmont again – there will be even more signs of spring.

Mt. Pleasant – March 2019

I was at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant on a sunny cold morning last week – and took a few pictures. There were two things that have always been there and almost always on my walk from parking to the nature center that I don’t think I have photographed before: 1) The old tractor that has been in the same place for so long that it is sinking into the soil under it (or silt is running down the slope to the wagon shed and accumulating around the tires).

2) The hook closure on the blacksmith’s shed….probably made by the blacksmith!

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The flowerpot people were dressed for spring…but looked a little bedraggled. The March winds have probably made some adjustments.

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I took a picture of a pine on the way to a stop in the Honors Garden. The pines are still the main greenery around.

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In the Honors Garden, the sun was highlighting last season’s cone flower seedpods.

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But the reason I was in the Honors Garden was to check out the little pond. As I walked up a frog swam rapidly through the water to a new hiding place. It was too cold for a lot more activity.

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This little pond is a favorite of the local Wood Frogs and they have been busy. There were egg masses in the water….soon to be tadpoles if they are not too far out of the water and freeze before they can develop. I posted about the frogs here back in March 2016….but it was a warmer day and I noticed the frogs more than the eggs.

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I continued to the Nature Center for the training session scheduled for the day.

Signs of Spring

Last week, a kindergarten class was the first field trip of the ‘spring’ at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant Farm. The temperature was in the 30s and there was a little breeze – very wintery feeling. The children and I had our coats zipped, hoods up, and gloves on. We hiked and looked for signs of spring….and remnants of other seasons.

We saw daffodils coming up and snow drops blooming…signs of spring. We looked at holly with its shiny green leaves and red berries which is often symbolic of winter. One holly was leaning over the snow drop bed.

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We saw evidence of squirrels around: lots of opened black walnut shells which had been their food all during the winter. We searched the trees for squirrel nests but decided that the strong winds recently must have blown the nests away.

There were some trees that had been cut down recently. We noted that the centers had been rotting which was probably why they had been cut. The largest stump was near the farm house and the children crowded onto it for their teacher to take a field trip picture!

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The children were surprised to see the witch hazel in bloom and learning that it normally blooms in late winter. They saw the brown leaves on the ground and still clinging to the branches of the tree – correctly identifying them as the leaves from last summer/fall.

There was a winter jasmine with buds of all sizes – and a single flower. It was another sign of spring on the way. They were surprised at the different sizes of buds and identified the ones that were about ready to open.

In the old orchard, we looked at the buds on the apple trees and the pear tree – deciding that the pear tree would probably bloom first based on way the buds looked.

By the end of the hike – they were ready for a little warm up in the nature center then back outdoors for a focused lesson starting with looking for animal tracks in the muddy areas.

It was a good start to the ramp up of spring field trips!

Skunk Cabbage

Every winter, I hike the trail to a wet area at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant Farm to see the Skunk Cabbage coming up. I was a little later than usual this year, but it’s been a cold February and the skunk cabbage was still blooming last week. I found all stages of its early development after slogging through the muddy trail to get to the location. Some of the plants appear damaged (outer part black or brown) but the center might still be alive and able to continue development. Most were near or in water; it’s been a very wet winter and these plants like to be wet. They come back year after year from a rhizome; this stand appears to be about the same size as previous years which caused me to wonder if the plants are producing any viable seeds.

The best picture of the morning was a bloom (like a golf ball (spadix) inside a purplish hood (spathe)). I’d read that the inside of the spathe is warmer than the surrounding air and may be attractive to insects/spiders. Sure enough – there appears to be a spider web inside this spathe!

Twigs and Witch Hazel

I have been looking more closely at twigs of trees recently and trying out simple dichotomous keys. As an example: here is one I looked at during a class on winter tree identification. Looking at the full branch – it was obvious that the leaf scars were opposite. Next, we needed to look at the leaf scars in more detail. There were hand lenses for everyone but I used my 15x lens clipped to my phone so I could share what I was seeing. The leaf scar was D shaped and had three bundles. And the new growth was red. We had to break the twig to smell it…its didn’t smell rank, so it was a RED MAPLE.

It turns out that multiples buds at the twig tip is indicative of maples and oaks…and that maples are opposite, and oaks are alternate. So – it’s possible to take a picture looking up into a tree and make a tentative identification. For example – this was a picture I took in my neighborhood with alternate branching and multiple buds at the end of the twigs – an OAK.  I had been using the relative height of the trees in my neighborhood (oaks are taller) but this identification is better and maybe easier too for the street trees planted by the builder 25-30 years ago – oaks and maples.

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I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the crumpled bark on the red maple twig. I wonder if they smooth out as the twig grows when the weather warms?

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On a more colorful note: be on the look out for witch hazels. Some bloom in the fall but others bloom now. There is one at Howard Country Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant location that I am watching. Hopefully bitterly cold weather will not damage the flowers that are beginning to unfurl.

Belmont in January 2019

Last week, I attended a lecture for Howard County Conservancy volunteers at the Belmont Carriage House – arriving early to walk around a bit before the lecture. There was still quite a lot of snow on the ground.

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I stayed on the cleared roads until I made the trek up to the old cemetery.

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The old tulip poplar looks even more ancient in the winter with all the hollows and bark injuries more clearly visible. It had a lot of seed pods from last season just as the younger trees do.

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One of the people I was hiking with pointed out an ash tree on the Patapsco Valley State Park side of the cemetery that had evidence of emerald ash borer (the lighter color on the bark). This tree will have to be cut down before it falls on the cemetery taking down fences and stones.

On a positive note – the hemlocks in the cemetery seem to be thriving. A few years ago they were infested with wooly adelgid but they were treated and it seems have saved them.

The wind must have ‘pruned’ the holly in the cemetery. A branch was draped from one of the headstones – no footprints in the snow around the headstone.

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There were lots of deer tracks in the snow as we walked up to the cemetery and back. We didn’t see any rabbit tracks. Maybe a coyote?

We circled back along the row of white pines. The snow stands out even on a very cloudy day.

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It was time to head back. I stopped near the mailboxes to take a picture of the pond with the bald cypress standing just to the left of it. It does have a classic cypress shape but if I wasn’t familiar with the tree, I’d have to hike down to the pond and see the cypress knees that surround it for a definitive identification.

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Mt Pleasant in January 2019 – Part 2

Continuing the images from last week’s hike at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant….

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I noticed a bluebird box with lichen growing on its roof. I wondered how long the houses lasted. This one had a plaque below it saying it had been installed in 2009 so it’s held up for 10 years!

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There was some farm equipment near the edge of a field – covered in vines. It must not have been used for at least one season…and maybe longer. Nature is taking over! I didn’t get close enough to determine what kind of vines they might be – mile-a-minute or oriental bittersweet (both invasive) would be a good beginning guess.

With the record amount of rainfall we got in 2018, there was a root ball of a tree that fell – probably last spring.  What a dramatic change it must have been for the organisms around the roots before it fell…there would be a complex story to document different organisms came along after the tree feel and the elements alternatively dried out and filled in the hole (with water or soil washed into the hole). Nature is always in motion!

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A beech tree had been cut down and the big logs left in place.  Maybe the tree had fallen and was cut up to clear the trail or maybe it was a standing dead tree that was cut before it could fall. The center was rotting. The beech bark looks so smooth from a distance but often looks wrinkled upon closer inspection.

Ranger, the barred owl, is back in his quarters near the nature center. He seemed very calm as we hiked by. There aren’t school fieldtrips with lots of students to crowd around his space during the winter; it’s easier for him to be Zen.

It was good to be back at Mt. Pleasant for a hike…maybe I’ll go again sometime with my husband…wear boots that can get muddy and hunt for skunk cabbage peeking through the muck.

Mt Pleasant in January 2019 – Part 1

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My first hike at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant was last week on a cold, blustery day after a night rain. We were prepared for the cold and managed to work our way around the muddy parts of the trails. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds. I was taking pictures of winter trees. I am very familiar with a black walnut near the rock wall on the meadow side.

The nuts on the ground all around it would give it away even if I didn’t know it was a black walnut. I am always amazed that the squirrels can get the shells open with their teeth.

The path along the wall was in relatively good shape – still mostly covered with grass. We didn’t go all the way down to the Davis Branch…but cut across the meadow mid-way down the hill.

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We took the long way around to an overlook of the Branch since the lower trails were too muddy to attempt.

The water was not high, but everything looked wet. I was noticing the beech trees – easy to identify by their smooth bark.

One of the root balls that had been placed upside down in the restored part of the stream had been washed downstream by an earlier flood…and was still balanced where I’d seen it last fall. It will stay there until the next big flood. It had a collapsed pillow-like orange fungus growing on it.

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A river birch is easy to identify with its curly bark.

As we turned back toward the nature center, I noted that one of the trees across the smaller stream had finally rotted enough to collapse.

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The only ‘bloom’ I saw on the hike was the beginning of the witch hazel bloom on the tree near the farmhouse. The streamer like petals are still curled up in the opening flowers. I’ll have to remember to look at the tree every time I go to Mt. Pleasant over the next month or so!

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Ten Little Celebrations – December 2018

It was easy to find 10 little celebrations in December before today. I divided the month into three segments: before I went to Texas, in Texas and then after I got back from Texas.

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Before I went to Texas there was the Howard County Conservancy’s Natural Holiday Sale (ate lots of cookies and bought suet garlands from the garden club),

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A glorious hike along the Trolley Trail between Banneker Historic Park and Ellicott City,

The Maryland Water Monitoring Conference and managing to find a replacement travel mug in a store (since I didn’t have time to wait for an online order before I left for my travel to Texas.

While I was in Texas, I enjoyed the birds at Josey Ranch Lake,

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Two sunrises (the first and last mornings in Texas!),

Listening to vintage to modern Christmas music…getting in the mood for Christmas and making progress on a Christmas themed jigsaw puzzle that took us almost the whole week to finish.

Afterwards, I celebrated being home again – the usual for me after being away for a week – and staying indoors on some cold, wet days.

Hope everyone is enjoying today’s holiday – Merry Christmas! It’s always of time of year to savor.

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Last Fall Field Trip

The last Howard County Conservancy fall field trip was a little later than usual this year – December 4th. It was cold…but not wet as so many of the field trips were this season. I bundled myself up in several layers and took a few pictures of Mt. Pleasant before the buses arrived. The flower pot people are dressed up for Christmas.

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The pines have delicate ‘flowers’ – some of which will eventually become cones.

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Dried seed pods and flowers are all that remains of the gardens…bright colors muted to almost parchment now.

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I like the seed pods that still hold a few seeds.

Most of the students came dressed for the cold and I modified the field trip, so we could all keep our gloves or mittens on. I had two very enthusiastic hiking groups and we kept moving to stay warm! It was a good ‘last field trip’ for the season.

December on the Trolley Trail

The Howard County Conservancy organized a winter hike for its volunteers last week on the Trolley Trail (Trolley Trail #9 near Ellicott City/Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum). We were celebrating the end of another fall field trip season. About 40 people met in the Banneker parking lot and headed out.

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The connecting trail from Banneker to the Trolley Trail was through the forest and very muddy. There was an Osage orange tree that had dropped its fruit recently. Most of the fruit look pristine. When I got home, I did some research and discovered that the fruit is not eaten except sometimes by squirrels. One theory is that the fruit was eaten by large mammals that are now extinct (ground sloth, mammoth, mastodon) and that these animals would have spread the seed. Now the tree is propagated by people for its wood and as windbreaks.

We headed north on the Trolley Trail first. I didn’t take many pictures because I was so busy trying to keep up with the group. It was the same the last time I was on the Trolley Trail in 2015 with my Master Naturalist class (posted about it here).

There was some stream restoration (and maybe something else since there is infrastructure like sewer lines in the streambed) that was active next to the trail.  The stream did look more scoured than the last time we were in the area.

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We reached the end of the trail at the north and retraced our steps…passing the trails to Banneker to continue south on the Trolley Trail.

We got to the part of the trail that was damaged in the last flood. Repair work was not complete, so we stopped before getting down to Ellicott City; I turned around and took a picture back along the trail. The asphalt of the trail was damaged by the flood; the asphalt edges were uneven, and pieces were missing.

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There were bright green Christmas fens on the cliff to the right

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A little further back up the hill, winter trees looked good against the sky. It’s easy to pick out the sycamores this time of year.

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A waterfall was scenic rather than roaring. I thought more about what it must have been like during the flood to sweep away asphalt a little further down.

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We’ve gotten so much rain this fall/early winter that the moss is thick and bright green – like a carpet.

We made the muddy trek back up to Banneker to retrieve our cars…and head for lunch with healthy appetites.

HCC’s Natural Holiday Sale

I’m catching up on some posts for the events early this month. Back on the 1st of the month, the Howard County Conservancy hosted their annual Natural Holiday Sale. Volunteering in the kitchen for the sale has become a tradition for me; it’s a great way to start the Christmas season. I keep the big coffee urn suppled with Russian Tea (Tang, instant tea, lemonade mix, spices) and restock the trays of homemade cookies for shoppers. The table requires near constant attention to look bountiful and festive.

This year the garden club added suet decorations to their holiday arrangements. I bought two garlands and a large pine cone. My deck will be the most decorated part of my house – all for the birds!

The bins of natural materials and glue guns were a big hit as they are every year…lots of creativity…center pieces that tell a story. See some pictures of the event from 2016 here; it changes a little every year but the cookies and Russian Tea and critter creations are a constant!

Cold and Blustery at Mt. Pleasant

Last week, the Howard County Conservancy hosted a Weather Conference for representative 6th grade students from 10 middle schools in the county….about 100 students with their teachers.

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It was sunny…but cold with wind gusts up to 50 mph. The plan to have students interact with tree experts while they worked on a large tulip poplar was nixed because of the potential of branches falling with the higher winds.

I was bundled up and outside for most of the conference – directing groups of students to their sessions and directing small groups to the County’s Emergency Services Command Unit. When all was quiet, I took a few pictures. I like the colors of the ferns as some fronds succumb to the cold.

There was a pine cone that seemed to be glowing from within because of the way the sun was shining on it.

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The tulip poplars are releasing their seeds.

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I am always surprised when I see the heron sculpture. I know it’s there but somehow forget.

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There were some small branches torn off by the buses making the tight turn after they let the students off close to the building.

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There were two things blooming: a witch hazel where most of the petals had already fallen (it will be forming seed pods) and some unknown flower that was in the flower bed near the flower pot people. The flower is probably warped by the cold but is still a welcome bit of color in the wintery landscape.

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By 1 PM the students were climbing on buses and the clean up of the big room was underway.

Field Trips in the Rain

Last week, I volunteered for two elementary school hiking field trips at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt Pleasant Farm….and it rained both days! On Monday it was kindergarteners and the ‘hike’ was shorted from 40 minutes to 20 minutes and accomplished in mostly the nature center. We started out on the terrace above the nature center looking out over the Honor Garden…talking about trees with leaves (and looked at leaves on the ground). Then we walked quickly around the front of the building to get to the nature center…and were wet enough already. Inside the nature center there were animal skulls and pelts…seeds and leaves…preserved insects…

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And tree cookies.

When I talk to kindergarteners about tree cookies, I take time to explain what they are…and that they are not to eat! We count the main rings on the Royal Paulownia and then note that the other trees grow more slowly. My favorite is the dogwood because the rings are not as regular the other samples. The children are always enjoy learning about sugar maples…and maple syrup.

The rest of the time that would have normally been hiking was spent observing and hearing about Ranger, the barred owl.

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On Friday, it only sprinkled a little on the first hike with second graders while we were out and about in the meadow. It was a very cloudy day.

During the second hike, it started raining. The children were dressed for the weather and more than half of them had umbrellas. We were in the meadow collecting and analyzing soil samples when it started raining. We decided we’d done enough samples and went to learn about the rocks by looking at an old stone wall. We started making our way back to the nature center by way of the goat and chicken enclosures…noting what the animals were doing (both enclosures have shelters and that’s where the animals were…out of the rain). We stopped briefly at the old stump in front of the farm house and discovered a snake skin fragment. Then we headed in to the nature center to see the living black rat snake (Onyx), a snake we see frequently at Mt Pleasant. They were ready for lunch too!

These were my last elementary field trips for the fall season. Even with the challenge of rain, they were good experiences…for me and for the students.

A few minutes observing…witch hazel

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On a very wet morning earlier this week – I arrived at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt Pleasant Farm before a field trip with 1st graders and spent a few minutes observing witch hazel. There is one that I knew was blooming close to the Gudelsky Center entrance. It’s a low growing tree; in a forest it would be in the understory. This time of year, the leaves are yellow.

The flowers have petals that look like curly streamers coming out of the center part of the flower. On this plant they were pale yellow.

I kept by cell phone pointed downward to keep any rain from getting on the lens of the camera. It was raining enough that I needed to dry off the front of the cell phone as I walked inside.

Hiking with 4th Graders at Belmont

Last week I spent a morning hiking with 4th graders at Howard County Conservancy’s Belmont location. The theme for the hike was how the land has changed from it was all a forest 300+ years ago…to the way it is today with emphasis on the impact of our development of farms and factories…streets and homes.

I arrived early to help with set up. I carried a bag with materials for the terrain model to the table mid-way along the hike and then carried the other bag into the forest for the students to compare aerial photos of the Belmont area.  I took some pictures since I knew once the students arrived I wouldn’t have time for more – I am totally focused on the students while we hike. Some areas in the forest have deep leaf litter and would soak up a lot of water before the water would run off…and right now there are some leaves that are still colorful too.

Coming out of the forest I took a picture of the Belmont cemetery and the row of white pines. I took my hiking groups to the side of the cemetery and talked about the ground penetrating radar that was used a few years ago finding graves under the ground within the cemetery even where there are no markers and also where we were standing outside the fence (lot’s of fun to point out on a Halloween hike) but the conversation also included the idea of shifting of sediment and deterioration of grave markers that might have been made of wood. The pine needles that have accumulated over the years under the pines make the ground feel spongy; that surprised some of the students….and that area would soak up a lot of water just as the leaf litter does – like a sponge.

There was a terrain model that we poured blue liquid over to represent the normal river level…then more blue liquid to be a minor flood (houses nearest the river wet)…up to the level representing the 1868 flood which washed away Elkridge Landing and parts of Ellicott City. The mills never recovered, and towns ceased to exist. The students were surprised to learn that the flood experienced by Ellicott City in 2018 was not that much below 1868 and it was higher than the flood caused by Hurricane Agnes (1972) in Ellicott City.

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Overall – it was a great day for a fall hike with 4th graders!

BioBlitz with 7th Graders

I spent two mornings at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant with 7th graders for a BioBlitz.

Both days were cool and a little breezy. I arrived early enough the first day to take a few pictures of the fall gardens (in the calm before almost chaos)

And to look at the Green Infrastructure Network map again….enough to locate the approximate location of their school and think through how to talk about hubs/corridors in the county.

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I had 11 students and a chaperone for about 2 hours and we found quite a lot. The most exciting – for me and the students on the first day – was a spotted salamander when we rolled over a log.

The brightly colored shelf-fungus and a wolf spider were good finds too.

On both days – one of the students borrowed my macro lens and became a specialist at getting macro pictures. Overall – the students handled being a little cold very well and stayed focused the BioBlitz for most of the two hours.

Saturday Hike – Part II

We started down from the Howard County Conservancy’s Belmont Carriage House shortly after 10 AM with 21 hikers. I wanted to make good time for the downhill part of the hike to the Patapsco River in the Avalon area of the state park. I didn’t stop for any pictures. Until we got down to the river.

The water was cloudy with silt and the gravel bars that used to be in the center (where tiger swallowtail butterflies liked to puddle in the summer) were gone. The high volume of rainfall has swept them way. The shallows don’t look so shallow any more.

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I noticed a stand of young sycamores as we started back. I wondered if they were planted or had just come up from seeds. There are not many truly large trees along the river because of the violence of the floods.

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The paths were muddy and sometimes slippery with wet leaves. The rain from the night before was still running off. There were two downed trees across the trail at one point…the leaves on one still looked fresh – like it might have fallen the night before. It was easy enough to go under them rather than over.

We’d had enough dry days that there were some noticeable shelf fungi but none of the brightly colored ‘new’ ones that appear after several days of rain.

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There was a light coating of leaves on the forest floor but a lot of green too.

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We knew were past the half way point going back when we came to the Morning Choice Trail.

There were more signs of trees that had fallen recently. I zoomed in on part of this one when I saw a funnel spider web that looked a lot like an owl!

We came out through the stand of big leaf magnolias and into the trail beside a hay field and thne were within sight of the carriage house shortly after noon. I had my 12,000 steps for the day!