Feb 22, 2012

Signs of Spring

Red-spotted Newts return to the water as 
adults to breed.
Photo by Pam Owen.

After days of working on client projects and, even more exhausting, marketing my own writing, I decided I needed a break today. Although I couldn't tell it from inside my tight and at this point rather stuffy little house, the temperature had climbed into the low 60s. My dog and I had been suffering from cabin fever, and I was curious about whether signs of spring were popping up outside, so I roused myself out of my lethargy, grabbed the hiking pole, called the dog, and walked down to the ponds.

Although I'd been down there just a few days ago, a close examination now revealed harbingers of spring that I hadn't noticed before. Spring was obviously underway alreadynot surprising considering how warm the winter has been generally.

At the upper pond, while my dog sampled some delicacies left by passing wildlife, I examined the water for any signs of amphibian life. Although on warm days for the last couple of weeks, I'd seen some Water Striders that had been roused from their winter slumbers, that and a few small flying insects had been all I'd seen that maybe winter was on its way out.

The Red-spotted Newt lives
part of its life on land. Its bright
red coloring at this stage led to
its being 
known as a Red Eft.

Photo by Pam Owen.
Now, walking slowly around the pond, I noticed a flurry of activityRed-spotted Newts (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) were starting off their spring breeding, although there was no sign yet of the jellylike clusters of eggs (resembling frog eggs) they'll soon produce.

This species has long been a favorite herp of mine, because of its interesting life cycles"one of the most complex and variable life cycles of any North American salamander," as the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries' Fish and Wildlife Information Service website puts it. That's because it has three life stages after hatching, rather than the usual two of most salamanders. It starts as a tadpole (aquatic larva), as most salamanders and frogs do, then emerges to live on land in upland forests. In this terrestrial stage, it takes on a bright red hue and is known as a Red Eft. The interesting part is that the salamander then returns to the water as an adult to mate and reproduce.

Two Water Striders appear to be mating while 
a Red-spotted Newt, a predator, lurks below.
I took this photo last August.

Photo by Pam Owen.

Continuing my walk past the lower pond, which also had a lot of newt activity near the edge, I decided to explore the wetland beyond to see if Skunk Cabbage was finally coming up. I hadn't ventured over there since I moved onto the property last June, since I didn't realize the wetland was part of the property until I asked my landlords. I was glad to finally check out the boggy area, although it's drier than it should be this time of year. With little snow and not much rain either this winter, everything was drier down there than it should have been.

Nevertheless, I found plenty of Skunk Cabbage already starting to bloom, which comes before the leaves appear.

First blooms of Skunk Cabbage (top and middle) on Feb. 23. By later March, the leaves should create a green carpet (bottom, from last year in a different location).
Photos by Pam Owen.
Coming back up the mountain, I found a black, woolly caterpillar in the yard (below). Looks like it belongs in the tiger-moth (Arctiidaefamily, as the Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth) does, but without the orange banding that every school kid in Virginia would recognize. In fact, other than barely discernible lightening at the tips of the longer set of bristles, this guy is totally black. Looks like I need to whip on my deerstalker hat, for the game is afoot. First stop: BugGuide. I've already posted the photos there to see if I can get some help from fellow creepy-crawly lovers. Look for more on this in future posts.

Black, woolly  caterpillar, likely in the tiger moth family, like the Woolly Bear  caterpillar (Isabella Tiger Moth).
Photos by Pam Owen.

Feb 16, 2012

Beep and Whir: The American Woodcock Looks for Romance

Illustration of an American Woodcock
(Scolopax minor)

A few days ago, I had just finished my latest "Wild Ideas" newspaper column, about animals that breed in winter, in which I'd mentioned the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). As if on cue, that evening I heard its characteristic slow courtship beeps outside my window, at the forest's edge.

This species arrives here in the Blue Ridge to start courting as soon as the ground thaws enough that they can find their favorite food, earthworms. While this can be as early as January, they more typically show up in late February.

Belonging to the taxonomic order of
shorebirds, S. minor evolved to live in upland forests and is the only woodcock native to North America. It ranges from Tex as east to Florida and north to southern Canada. Overwintering to the east of the Appalachians and south of Pennsylvania, it migrates west and north to breed.

While the American Woodcock spends most of its life in young upland forest and brushy woods near rivers and streams, it prefers brushy clearings and meadow bogs scattered with woody plants one ot two feet high for breeding. Up around my house, it's mostly lawn and forest, with only a shallow edge, so I figured this guy was just checking out the neighborhood and would move on.

This evening when I was walking the dog, I heard beeping down by the pond, a much more promising habitat for Woodcock romance. It's not exactly a meadow down there, but there are some scrubby areas that are broader than further up the mountain, and it's wet, with streams and ponds.

In the dying light, I tried to remain quiet and make out the bizarre courtship display that should follow, but the bird must have figured out my dog and I were there, because he went silent. I'd just gotten home, it was time for my dog's dinner, and we still had to walk back up the mountain to the house, so I decided to try again some other night when I didn't have Mai Coh in tow.

Woodcocks are famous for their courtship displays. Along with beeping, the males “spiral up high on twittering wings with melodius chirping and then circle back sharply to the ground to resume their unique peenting display,” as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America” website describes it.

Henry Marion Hall, in his 1946 book Woodcock Ways, describes the male’s descent a bit more poetically: “Descending, at first gradually but then plunging dizzily, the little musician eventually flickers into the brush….” The downward vertical spiral reminds me of a helicopter landing. Courtship displays also include bobbing, fanning the tail, raising the wings, and fluttering the wings in a short flight with legs dangling.

Trying to discern all this in the growing dark is frustrating at best. The bird’s brown, black, and gray feathers, which makes it virtually impossible distinguish from its surroundings, doesn't help. Every time I try to see the show, I yearn for infrared binoculars.

Living on the border of Shenandoah National Park, I discovered long ago that a great place
to try to view this show is Big Meadows, a huge, boggy meadow that is a prime Woodcock mating area. Mostly, this has involved waiting patiently in what always seems to be a damp, chilly evening.

While the displays have been carefully studied, they are not well understood. What is understood is that, after mating, the female is on her own in raising her young.

The coloring of the American Woodcock provides good camouflage for both adult(above) and juvenile (below)(Top photo by guizmo_68; bottom photo by Jacob Enos. Both licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

File:American woodcock chick.jpg 
Woodcocks feed in damp, muddy areas mostly on invertebrates, particularly earthworms, and on some vegetation, particularly seeds. On summer and winter evenings, they can flock together on their feeding grounds. With so little open area other than lawn on this property, it's unlikely I'll see flocks, but it would be nice to make out, in the dim light, at least one Woodcock giving it a try.

The Cornell Lab of Ornith
ology’s “All about Birds” website has recordings of the vocalizations of the American Woodcock, along with descriptions of its courtship behavior. Henry Marion Hall’s Woodcock Ways and the third volume of the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior also detail the Woodcock’s courtship display and other behavior.

Feb 14, 2012

The Romance of Cloudspotting

Clouds are Nature's poetry spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag….Nothing in nature rivals their variety and drama; nothing matches their sublime, ephemeral beauty. 
—Gavin Pretor-Pinney,
The Cloudspotter’s Guide 

Cumulus clouds hang low over the Blue Ridge Mountains
on a fall day in 
Rappahannock County, Virginia
Mare’s tail, mammatus, thundercloud—evocative names for clouds, actors playing out a drama over our heads we often ignore while going about our lives down here on earth.

As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a cloud is “a visible mass of particles of condensed vapor (as water or ice) suspended in the atmosphere of a planet…or moon.” Clouds can inspire a range of emotions, from peace, awe, excitement, and pleasure to fear and sadness. A deep blue sky is beautiful, but the contrast of a fluffy white cloud moving across it makes it exponentially more so.

In a moment of leisure, we might ponder whether a cloud looks like a bunny or George Washington. When a summer thunderstorm or winter blizzard is heading our way, we peruse the sky more anxiously, wondering what hardship its clouds may portend.

Enormously attracted to the endless variety and beauty of clouds, I spent many a summer afternoon outside as a kid lying on my back to watch the show above, trying to determine who the lead characters were and the story they were trying to tell. As a teen, I once emerged from an arroyo on a horseback ride with an uncle in Utah to see narrow white funnel clouds eerily reaching down from a bright blue sky. It took a minute to realize they were tornadoes, which did millions of dollars of damage to Salt Lake City. Camping in Kansas as an adult, I took the clue from an ominous welling up of black clouds, throwing my gear into my car and leaving a campground just ahead of a tornado. 

While living on the Northern Plains, I thrilled to the enormous canvas of sky on which clouds played out their lives, often serving as a dark backdrop for complete rainbows formed by light gloriously refracted by water molecules. In the Pacific Northwest, I lived under the pall of dark, wet, brooding skies that contributed to the lush green landscape but also to the high incidence of depression in local residents.

I’m hardly alone in my love of clouds. Thinking they were not adequately recognized for their important role in the water cycle on which all life depends, British author Gavin Pretor-Pinney formed The Cloud Appreciation Society. The society’s website includes a magnificent photo gallery of clouds.

Although a proud, badge-carrying member of the society, I’m still struggling with the nuances of the taxonomic system for classifying clouds, which is modeled on the one for living things, with species grouped into genera. In 2006, Pretor-Pinney wrote The Cloudspotter’s Guide as “a celebration of the carefree, aimless and endlessly life-affirming pastime of cloudspotting.” I’ve found the book not only really useful in sorting out clouds but also an enjoyable, quirky read.

To me, cumulus is the loveliest and most peaceful genus. These are the fluffy clouds we most associate with warm days. However, they can grow into more ominous cumulonimbus, or thunderclouds, that can release pounding downpours accompanied by lightning and thunder. As the rain passes, the sky breaks into stratocumulus clouds, which “gather into snow-covered mountains and melt into winding rivers of blue,” in the words of Pretor-Pinney. Altocumulus clouds appear clumped in layers that form between the ground and the top of the troposphere.

Stratus is the flat gray sheet of cloud that may produce light rain. Nimbostratus, darker than stratus but slower moving than cumulonimbus, releases steady rain over many hours.

Wispy cirrus clouds fly high over the Rappahannock
Farmer’s Co-op (now CFC Farm & Home) on a winter day
Cirrus clouds are the highest. Made of ice crystals, they are wispy, feathery creatures we see most often on winter days. Cirrocumulus, another high-flying cloud that typically appears en masse, is so tiny that it can be hard to separate out individuals. These clouds sometimes look like “no more than ripples in a high, smooth layer,” as Pretor-Pinney puts it.   
Each genera is further organized into several species and varieties. Cirrus uncinus (meaning "curly hooks" in Latin) is one of my favorites species. This  comma-shaped cirrus cloud has wisps flying out below a thicker top and is commonly known as “mare’s tail.”

If you’re a serious cloudspotter, you can attempt to sort out clouds’ taxonomy—or you can just enjoy them. And you needn’t leave the house to do either.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, about connecting children with nature, also wrote an article on the same theme, “Cloudspotting, Wildcrafting, and Wildwatching,” for the Barnes & Noble website. In the article, he tells of meeting a boy who loved nature but suffered from a condition that “caused him to be overwhelmed when he went outside” and therefore spent most of his life in his room.

Louv later stumbled onto The Cloudspotter’s Guide in an airport shop and sent it to the boy, who was a friend of his son. “He might not be able to step outside the front door comfortably,” Louv wrote, “but he and his family could still exercise his curiosity about nature—they could still see the sky from his bedroom window.” 

Pretor-Pinney, in his manifesto for The Cloud Appreciation Society, encourages us to “Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds.”

[First published in January 2012 as a "Wild Ideas" column in subscribing Virginia newspapers.]