Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

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We visited a second National Wildlife Refuge last weekend: Blackwater. We usually visit Blackwater on the same trips at Chincoteague because it is ‘on the way.’ Of the two – Blackwater is my favorite. It is the first place I saw a bald eagle in the wild. It was back in 1990 when by daughter was a baby - a pleasant spring day and we were sitting out side on a blanket letting her finish off a bottle….and a bald eagle soared overhead. It was idyllic when it happened and in my memory. We saw eagles during this visit too. On the first day it was raining and the eagle was looking very wet. Note in the last picture of this series, the membrane eyelid on the right eye is closed (must have gotten a rain drop in the eye!).

The next morning when we drove around the wildlife loop again, it was sunny and there was an eagle on the same platform – maybe the same one – looking much happier. It took off before we could get pictures and continued to soar in the area until it vanished into the trees. There was another eagle on a snag near a blind – almost out of range for my camera.

The visitor center has a little garden at the back with small trees (like dogwoods) and a butterfly sculpture. There are bird feeders that attracted a few small birds. The red-winged blackbirds were very vocal. I saw a hummingbird sampling the clumps of columbine in the gardon on the sunny morning.

My husband saw a lump in the road and stopped quickly for us to get out and take a look: a baby snapping turtle. It didn’t move while we watched it, but it was in a patch of sun and would warm up enough to finish crossing the road soon after we left. It was already close to the edge of the road.

I’ll post later about the other birds we saw at Blackwater. I see something new just about every time we go to Blackwater…and this trip was no exception.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

We visited Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge last weekend…an afternoon and the next morning. The afternoon was very wet so the picture of the visitor center sigh with plants growing through it was taken the next morning in the sunshine.

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The growth around the visitor center was very green…dogwoods were in bloom and pine pollen was everywhere.

The growth around the visitor center was very green…dogwoods were in bloom and pine pollen was everywhere.

On the first day we drove down the main road toward the beach. It was raining and we didn’t try to take any pictures. The wildlife loop is only open to cars after 3 PM and there was a lull in the rain about that time. We started around. I noticed thistles in bloom (attractive to bees),

Heard lots of red-winged blackbirds and managed to photograph one eventually,

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And photographed a glossy ibis almost out of camera range.

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Near the end of the wildlife loop there were a few of the Chincoteague ponies munching on the wet grass….about that time is started raining again and we headed to our hotel for the night.

The next morning was very breezy and almost cold. Our trip to one of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay was cancelled – winds made it unsafe for small boats. So – we bundled up and headed to the beach at Chincoteague. It is a narrower stretch of sand than when we first saw it more than 35 years ago and when we flew kites here with our daughter about 20 years ago. The gulls were not flying. Only the laughing gulls were at the beach and they were on the ground near the parking lot rather than at the water’s edge.

It was a little disappointing to see only people and roiling water at the beach.

As we started back, we saw a few herring gulls in shallow water protected by the dunes.

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The group of birds a little ways from the herring gull was the high point of the morning at Chincoteague: royal terns and black skimmers (and laughing gulls)!

I’ll post later about the egrets and a heron we saw at Chincoteague. Even with the rain and doing most of our photography using the car as a blind, my husband and I both enjoyed the spring birding opportunities at Chincoteague.

Winter Tree Identification – Part 1

Leaves are an easy first step to identifying a tree…but not in the winter. Other identifying characteristics come to the fore. I’ve collected up some photos from the past few winters and will show the ones I find easy to identify even in the winter. Do you recognize the white barked trees that grow near rivers and have round seeds that often stay on the tree during the winter?

The sycamores are common in our area and are easier to spot in the winter than in the summer when their big leaves sometimes hide the whiteness of their branches.

They are only one of the trees that have distinctive bark. Others are spicebush (it can be a bush or understory tree) and beech below. They both have relative smooth bark. The spicebush is speckled with light colored lenticels.

Both the sycamore and river birch have peeling bark.

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Sometime thorns can be an identifying characteristic – like with the honey locust.

The bald cypress is the only conifer I’m including in this post since it sheds its needles for the winter. It is easy to recognize by its shape and the presence of knees…and that it likes wet areas.

The dogwoods have distinctive buds. Sometimes they are described as onion-shaped. They look more like slightly flattened Hershey’s kisses to me!

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Dogwood Sawfly Larvae

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The saddleback caterpillars were not the only new insect for me last weekend at Brookside Gardens. I noticed a lot of white ‘caterpillars’ on a yellow twig dogwood near the gift shop end of the conservatory….they were dogwood sawfly larvae!

When I went back with my husband on Monday, there was a person spraying the plants just as we got to the gardens. I’d heard that other plants in the garden were infected and it didn’t take me long to find some that had not been sprayed. I got close enough pictures to realize that the larvae have a similar color and texture to lemon bars: white (like a dusting powdered sugar) on top and glistening yellow underneath.

They were so plentiful on the dogwoods that some fell off into the grass below

Or started climbing up into the bald cypress that was overhead.

Probably by the time I go to Brookside this weekend they will mostly be gone – either because of spraying or the plants will be devoured and the larvae in the pupa stage.

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center - Part II

Continuing about my day at SERC last Friday…

I got to SERC early enough that I walked around a small pond and took my first pictures of marshmallows.

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There were more of them in the marsh near the boardwalk as we made our way out to Hog Island. They were – by far – the biggest flowers of the area.

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A tiny flower that I photographed along the trail from very close up was a mint. I was careful to look for poison ivy and plants with thorns before I positioned myself to take the picture.

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And then there were trees…trees with lichen…a canopy of green…a pathway lined with green.

There are ongoing studies that make exact measurements of tree trunks over time. Metal bands are used; they expand as the tree grows and the amount they have expanded is measured.

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There were trees with holes in their trunks. The rows of holes are probably made by a bird – a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I remembered seeing a similar tree during my last hike at Belmont and being thrilled that the campers already knew the bird that made the holes!

There are young paw paw trees in the forest and I realized that I had seen these at Belmont as well. I know the tree from its bark but not is leaves!

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There was a standing dead tree that had the thickest collection of shelf fungus I’ve ever seen.

A sickly dogwood had more colorful bark that I am used to seeing on a dogwood.

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As we got back to the cluster of buildings – on the road by the geothermal well area – there were some sycamores – with a few skeletonized leaves…something was eating them…and the last flower of the day:

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Some black eyed susans.

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After the hike, we had lunch followed by a lecture about orchids. The North American Orchid Conservation Center is based at SERC and there are 9 native orchids that have been found there! We saw one on the earlier hike (the cranefly orchid) – unfortunately I didn’t get a good picture of it. The website for the organization - https://northamericanorchidcenter.org/ - is full of get information about native orchids and there is a colelction of orchid-gami printables if you want to make paper models of orchids!

Macro photography before hiking

Last week I was at Howard County Conservancy’s Mt. Pleasant Farm for several field trips (kindergarteners and second graders). Before the field trips, I walked around the grounds and experimented with some more macro photography with my smartphone – using the same set up as I did at Brookside Gardens earlier (results from Brookside here).

It is sometimes surprising how different something looks with the macro lens. The textures along with the small structures I wouldn’t see otherwise are what makes it so appealing to walk around taking pictures with the macro lens. My favorite in this group is the baby pear.

The highpoint of the hikes with the school groups happened during the kindergarten field trip. I had walked up to the front of the farm house with my first group of the day. We were talking about what might live in the big oak tree near the house. They answered squirrels and birds right away. I turned around to look at the tree – and noticed a black coil in a depression of the trunk about at the eye level of children! The sun was shining on it like a spotlight. I turned back to the children and told them that black rat snakes live in trees too – and there was one right on the trunk of tree (and I was glad we were not standing any closer than we were). The two parent chaperones took a step back. The children just watched as the snake started moving and crawled under the loose bark of the tree. What a fabulous drama to start a field trip!

Macro Photography with a Smartphone

Before my second shift at Brookside Garden’s Wings of Fancy exhibit, I spent a few minutes doing some macrophotography with my Smartphone. I ordered a clip-on macro lens from Amazon last fall to use to photograph macroinvertebrates but haven’t done a lot of other photography with it until now.

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Brookside Gardens is a great place to experiment. There is so much in bloom right now including the buckeye near the conservatory. The flower has a very odd shape through the macro lens (it looks like it has Mickey Mouse ears!). Even the tips of evergreen shrubs become something unexpected.

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The center of the dogwood bloom is a riot of shapes. I’m going to photograph them again next time I go to see how it changes as the seeds start to develop.

Dandelion seed puffs are recognizable.

Just about any flowers are good subjects for macrophotography.

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I ran out of time in the garden. My shift was beginning. I got one last picture just before the first visitors came into the exhibit – a spicebush butterfly egg on spicebush leaf. It looks like a very tiny pearl.

Blooming Pathways

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During the same walk where we saw tulips near the end of their time in the Brookside Gardens, We noticed a lot of other spring finery along the pathways.

I always look at the ginkgo tree near the conservatory; the leaves are unfurling, and the mail flowers are abundant. Multiple leaves come out from a single bud, so they look like clumps early in the season. As the leaves get larger the clumps overlap and are not as obvious.

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 The azaleas are beginning to bloom. Bushes peak at different times. Some were still just buds last week. The flowers that are a mix of white and deep pink are probably my favorites.

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There was a peony near the path…. lovely from every angle.

Dogwoods are blooming too. The tree is one of my favorites. We had a dogwood in our yard when we first moved to the east coast 35 years ago; that’s when I really learned about the tree…observing it throughout the year. The trees in our area now survived the disease that wiped out many of the trees about 10 years ago….and they are blooming robustly this year.

So -  the blooms will fade, and their will be even more abundant greens – all shades…deepening into the richness of summer.

Tree Cookies

I was in a class recently that included looking at some labelled tree cookies – for trees that are relatively common in our area. Each one is about a foot across. I photographed them to study on my large computer monitor.

Some of them have split as they dried and the saw marks are still visible…but the rings show through reasonably well. They would probably show up better if the cookies were sanded a little. There is something unique about each one: the sugar maple looks light colored throughout; the dogwood has wider dark marks (reddish in color) and they don’t appear to be concentric further away from the center); the cherry has a dark center; the white pine shows come places where branches come off and this cookie has the most clearly visible rings all the way out. It is possible to count the rings out from the center to determine the age of the tree when it was cut done.