As an actively researching scientist, I generally call this blog a "science blog." However, I would argue that most scientists are first and foremost "naturalists." As such, much of my time outside of the lab is not necessarily spent dwelling on all the intricate details of my own research (I try to limit how much "work" I actually bring home - though it is rarely further than a few action potentials away from consciousness). No, much of my time is spent pondering and observing nature. My drives to work usually consist of me staring out the window looking for red-tailed hawks, deer, and any of the other wildlife common along NC backroads and interstate 40, with occasional glances back to the road and traffic.
The point is: I love nature. Paying attention to it is first-nature to me, having been raised as a country boy in the Ozark mountain forests. It is for this reason that I also consider this a "nature blog." In fact, I recently joined the Nature Blog Network - THE community for nature bloggers - which was created by the wonderful Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and I and the Bird fame (note: Mike is in Guatemala at a birding conference right this minute - be sure to look out for what is sure to be an amazing photography collection and story when he returns).
In tribute to my own inclusion in the Nature Blog Network, I give you the first in a series of posts consisting of my own observations from taking walks into nature. I've been posting similar things for a while now (check out the SWEET footage I got of a Great Blue Heron with a catfish recently), but I'd like to make this a formal posting event for me - especially since spring is looming and I will no doubt be making many forays into the natural world.
Although it is still very wintery here in North Carolina and wildlife is relatively sparse (I miss the bugs and other invertebrates...) there is still much to see if one looks closely enough.
In fact, I had barely stepped outside my front door when I saw one of my all time favorite creatures: the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). When I was a small child I read some tale of a now-forgotten Native American and his spirit or guardian animal - the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Ever since then the hawk has been one of my favorite animals. If I had a "spirit animal" it would be a hawk. Yes, it's insanely silly, but I always pretend like it's a good luck sign when I see one - the key word here is pretend. Really, I love all raptors.
As I walked down my driveway, I heard a squawking sound coming from my neighbors yard. When I looked up, I saw two red-shouldered hawks - one in a nest and the other in a nearby tree. I quickly tried to photograph them, though they were still about 40 yards away. I have a great digital camera, though it is NOT a professional DSLR. However, the 12X optical zoom and decent manual options are more than good enough for me until I have cash to burn.
As soon as I snapped the pic above, both of them took flight. I tried to get an in-flight shot, but the one below was the best I could do in the 1.5 seconds I had before they were gone. Luckily, it was good enough for me to identify it as a red-shouldered rather than a red-tailed. My neighbor (Flyzeyes, who has some pretty awesome nature photography himself) and I both hope that the nest is theirs and that they will return - we shall see.
I mosied on past my neighbors house and through the woods behind it, where a small pond lies hidden within the forest. The pond is surrounded by beaver-chopped trees from last spring. Here are two shelf fungus-laden remnants of the beaver's work:
The pond overflows over a small levy into a large swamp below it.
Flitting throughout the trees, flocks of tiny birds surround the entire marsh. I managed to get one decent picture (they tended to keep a good distance between them and me), and through my trusty bird guide I'm almost certain they were
Swamp Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) Note: I had it wrong initially - so much for my bird ID skills... thanks to Mark Shields! The lateral eye-mark and streaked breast with dark spot in the middle is the give-away sign.
The swamp was also surrounded by one type of bush (I have no idea what kind) covered with cool looking pollen pods (see my non-existent botany lingo and knowledge?).
One of my favorite things about wet areas (like swamps and marshes) are that there tend to be various epiphytic species everywhere (epiphytes = things that live on other things - usually on plants. Most are not generally parasitic, but just use plants for structure, though parasites like mistletoe are still considered epiphytic in habitat. Small plants, algae, fungi, and lichens are among the most common - or visible anyway - epiphytes).
I also managed to snap two different woodpecker species - both from fairly great distances, so the images aren't superb. I'm almost 100% certain of both of their identities. The first is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), and the second is a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).
After watching the birds for a while, I made my way to my own back yard, where I found a returning Lamb's Ear (Stachys sp.)
And finally, I took a few photographs of one of two native North Carolina orchid species I've found on my property. The first is the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor). What's interesting about this species is that they only bear one leaf - and only in the fall/winter. Once flowering season arrives in the summer, the leaf dies and they send up a shoot filled with tiny flowers. In the fall, the flower stem dies back, to be replaced by the single lone leaf, which has a bright purple underside.
Unfortunately, after a while of searching I was unable to find any of the second orchid - which I know I had several of last year. This second native orchid is quite a beautiful plant - and it has an awesome name: the Rattlesnake Plantain - or Rattlesnake Orchid (Goodyera pubescens). We've had 2 years of pretty bad drought, and an unseasonably cold winter - so I am hoping they have not all died. Perhaps I will find more in the spring. Here's a picture of some I took last September. Pretty amazing foliage pattern, no?
And with that, my first nature walk of the year is concluded. I cannot wait for everything to start blooming and for all the insects and other crawly critters come out of the woodwork. Keep an eye out here for more nature photos and stories to come...
If you know the identity of anything above, or if I've misidentified something, please let me know.