Monday, May 30, 2011

Heard Only

Lake Nettie in the Morning

I wake this morning to the sound of tree frogs.
Warm, heavy air has been spread over the Ohio River valley like a scratchy wool blanket that I would peel back and crawl out from underneath, if I could.
The weight is almost stifling—the dampness on my skin, constant.
But in the hush of dawn, those few brief moments before daylight brings the rustling of leaves and the chorus of songbirds to these woods, I recall the sounds of northern Michigan—the birds heard only, not seen.
And I remember in a dream the richness their simple song can bring to a cool and silent night.

Just beyond NettieBay Lodge, our home-base for a week of Birding & Botany in beautiful Presque Isle County, a narrow gravel lane draws a straight line north past woods that give way to water, then become woods once more. Thick and brushy, an undergrowth of alders rims the single-lane road. Peering past them, white cedars with buttressed bases can be seen standing in several inches of dark swamp water. As daylight fades, the dim woods become darker still.
The sounds from beyond the road’s edge are sharp and strong as we walk past—a veery’s strident call.
Soon, the distant song of a whip-poor-will is answered by another, much closer, who sings faster and stronger, from deep within the alder thicket. This narrow lane with its dimming light is the only opening in these very dense woods--the perfect place for the wide-gaped birds to wait and snatch some tasty moths drawn to this clearing in the brush.
High overhead, against what little faint blue remains, an almost imperceptible twitter betrays the dusk display of a woodcock. Around the sky he tumbles on whistling wings, then drops to the ground in a small, grassy clearing beside us to resume his courtship dance for the benefit of one we cannot see. We leave his persistent peent at the edge of the dark woods and wander further down the road.
The sound of frogs has grown loud and shrill. Spring peepers fill the wetland. Gray tree frogs’ calls resound all around. Here, amidst the foreign, I find the familiar—what I know so well of the warm spring nights spent beside my vernal pool. Yet, to listen for birds at this water’s edge, their calls are overpowering.
Stepping away, we wander slowly back to the car and roll softly down the lane, windows down, combing the night air, soaking in the sounds of northern Michigan. The whip-poor-wills are now perched at the road’s edge. In the moonlight, their red eyeshine eerily flashes in the headlights of our approaching car as they grab insects from their posts beside the road and cross in the beam of our light to the other side.
Lake Nettie is calm and still beyond the door of my cabin. Beneath a clouded moon, the mournful call of a pair of nesting loons spreads across the 278-acre lake. Perhaps more than any other sound, it is theirs that, to me, captures all that is wild and pure of the north woods.
A call, like the others of this night, that is rich and distinctive, revealing of its place.
A call that with it brings a cool breeze to a dream in an Ohio River valley summer night.

Lake Nettie
from NettieBay Lodge

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Taking Time

Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

A tiny bird sings incessantly from the highest branch of the tree beyond my window—a blue-gray gnatcatcher…that seemingly miniature mockingbird, with his wispy, whistle-y song. Oh, how he teased me to watch him weeks ago, playing his tiny kazoo, as I fussed with preparations for my trip to New River—a week of nature camp for grown-ups, as I’ve come to think of it.
He’s still at it today, though I’ve taken the time as he’s warned I should.
I’ve taken the time to watch nature.

blue-gray gnatcatcher's nest

Last year, afternoons were spent there watching a wee bird as she repeatedly brought small flakes of lichen to shingle her nest just feet from the Meadow House door. By mid-week, early morning wake-ups had left me with a sleep debt, but how can one nap while such business is going on?

I watched her each day, my choice only to sleep or engage with nature.
I chose wisely, and slept wonderfully upon my return.

Pennywort gentian, Obolaria virginica

This year, I spent afternoons in search of wee wildflowers—pennywort gentians just inches tall growing in the shade of mighty trees above them. And as I stooped low to marvel at the sweet, white blooms dotting the brown, leafy bank behind the Meadow House, I found an even tinier spider stepping from flower to flower, dragging his silken cord.
From one to the next he rappelled, his entire world smaller than my palm.

Again, I think I chose wisely.
For how can one sleep while such business is going on?

tiny spider
(for scale, the flowers are only 1/2 an inch long!

Pennywort gentian with tiny spider

Pennywort gentian, Obolaria virginica, is a small flowering plant native to southeastern North America. The only member of the genus Obolaria, it is so named from the Greek “obolos,” meaning small coin, in reference to its thick, rounded, coin-like leaves.
Varying from shades of brownish-green to dark purple, the leaves of Pennywort gentian contain little of the chlorophyll that many plants use to produce energy from sunlight through photosynthesis. Yet, these small plants are able to thrive in the shade beneath a densely leaved canopy. How?
Pennywort gentian is a mycotroph ( Gr., myco=fungus + troph=feed or grow)—a plant which gains nutrients needed for growth from the fungi in the soil layer beneath it. The fungi, in turn, have derived their nutrients from the roots of a host —a woody, photosynthetic plant (tree) towering above. In essence, the mycorrhizal (Gr., myco=fungus + rhiz=root) fungi in the soil act as the intermediary, passing carbohydrates from the tree roots to the small pennyworts covering the hillside. The woody plants gain, as well. Soil inhabited by mycorrhizal fungi is able to hold more water and minerals needed by the trees for healthy growth.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's underneath it all

May apple blossom in the Rain

A blue school bus makes the steady climb along a narrow gravel drive in West Virginia.
From behind its steamed windows on a chilly morning, a group of birders looks out into the Appalachian woods, rich and wet from yesterday’s passing rain.
Higher and higher we climb.

The Bobolink Field

We’ve just come from a field in “High Country,” where bobolinks burst like popcorn from a broad, green hillside while the brisk wind tore at warm coats snuggly wrapped around birders waiting atop a grassy field on this morning in early May.
I remember them from years past in this very same place, perhaps the very same birds--
their bubbling, bell-like song falling like a shower on every upturned face.
Happy birders, every time—delighting in the abundant birdsong that each year we hope eagerly to hear again.
And then it is time to move on, leave the bobolinks to bury themselves in the knee-high grasses. Pack ourselves, bubbling, back onto the blue bus.

The New River Birding and Nature Festival provides a week’s ration of journeys just like this one—each day escorting onlookers to widely differing habitats from a misted river’s edge to high pastures and heavily wooded hills.
For me, it’s a trip beyond words.
For in the few hours’ drive that I make from southwestern Ohio, I leave the till plains of the central lowland behind and cross to the eastern Appalachian plateaus. The land becomes sharp and rocky. The trees and plants become different, too.
Instead of limestone and dolomite beneath it all, there’s sandstone, silt and shale.
What’s beneath it all determines what grows where.
What grows there, defines who uses it.

Red Trillium, Trillium erectum

This is red trillium or purple trillium, Trillium erectum, an acid-loving trillium found in the moist woods of the eastern United States. Usually bearing a deep red or purple flower, a white or faint yellow form is less commonly found.
Both color forms can be identified by the deep purple ovary visible in its center.
Commonly known as Wake Robin or Stinking Willie, the foul-smelling flower is pollinated by carrion flies. Fruit and seed dispersal is taken care of by ants.
Plants may take up to 15 years to mature before flowering!

Red Trillium, Trillium erectum

distribution of Trillium erectum
copied from Flora of North America

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Birds of Sugar Creek

photo courtesy Jim McCormac

What’s wrong with this picture?
It's a group shot, from the Sugar Creek field trip at the New River Birding and Nature Festival where I spent the last wonderful week...a picture of fellow-birders, gladdened by a very birdy morning, hungrily having taken in long, lavish looks at a prized warbler as we wove a slow path down this gravelly West Virginia mountain road.
I’m that speck in the background—that stooping, bending form that seems otherwise occupied, oblivious to the purpose of the day--diddling in the ditch, while birds drip from the trees all around.
But odd as it may seem, I capture it better that way.

Scanning the bank, with each plant I create a richer picture of where I am, define a habitat a bit more thoroughly in my mind. With birdsong overhead, my snapshot is complete—a perfect picture remembered with as much detail as one might find when they recall exactly where they were or what they were doing the day that Elvis died.

Cerulean Warbler
Early meadow rue was blooming.
Little wind chimes tinkle

on a morning wet with dew.

Hooded Warbler
Through the thick woods,
brilliant birdsong hangs in the air

like tiny bells of Solomon’s seal.

Kentucky Warbler
A tangled bank is heavily planted
with bellwort, Canada waterleaf,
and a quick glimpse of a bird.

American Redstart
Jack-in-the-pulpit, tall and proud,
stands at the berm surveying the scene,
guarding the nest.

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