Thursday, February 28, 2013

Myth of the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

For many in my generation, Yosemite Sam immortalized the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker as the epitome of cowardice and generalized despicableness with his half-crazed rants calling out Bugs Bunny in the old Looney Tunes cartoons.

Departing the park yesterday, we spotted this handsome male adjacent to the parking area, flitting from one young hickory to another, apparently checking its sap holes for food.

It never came near enough (or remained stationary long enough) for a great shot, but it was such a striking individual, I thought I'd share the few images I did capture.

In this last photo, the sap holes are clearly visible; they were made previously, and this fellow seemed to be "making his rounds" to check for sap, or perhaps insects trapped in the sap which had flowed since his last visit.

I saw nothing in my brief encounter to reinforce the low-down, cowardly impression of the sapsucker perpetuated by old Yosemite Sam. To the contrary, I was most impressed by the beauty, grace and ingenuity of this fine creature. Guess you can't believe everything you hear on TV...

On the Road Again...Ambling Amphibians

A quick trip to Grandma and Grandpa's Tuesday night over rain-drenched roadways was accompanied by the late winter soundtrack of the spring peeper. As the temps dipped into the lower fifties (F), their song slowed a bit, but Hunter did spot this little guy on the move around 8 p.m.

Looks like the spring peepers aren't the only amphibians in the chorus tonight. This toad was also on the move, most likely hoping to bump into another like-minded bufo on this late winter's eve.

NC is home to three large toad species, and this particular stretch of road in the Sandhills is practically on the line between the ranges of the southern and American toad populations. Most likely this is a southern toad, and we wish it success on its quest for a mate, because Carolina's toads consume vast quantities of insects each year.

On the trip home, temps had fallen still further, and Hunter spotted very few amphibians on the move. The lone exception was this cool character, still sporting a coat of mud from its burrowing. This eastern spadefoot toad is in a different family than NC's true toads, and has much smoother skin that they.

These gifted diggers have a special spade-like projection on their hind feet for better burrowing, and they emerge on only a few rainy nights each spring to mate. As the weather warms up a bit more, we'll keep our eyes and ears open for more amphibians on the move...

More Early Bloomers - Hepatica (Liverwort)

As winter wanes and the weather warms, trout lilies aren't the only wildflowers worth watching. The distinctive three-lobed leaves of liverwort offer a clue to the keen observer that the early-blooming hepatica is here.

Sure enough, lovely lavendar-blue blossoms peer forth a few feet from last year's latent leaves. 

Nearby, another pair emerges. Hairy stalks and three-lobed leaf confirms the call, Hepatica americana,  round-lobed hepatica or liverwort. 

Not nearly as numerous as yesterday's trout lilies, but all the more appealing for their scarcity, these tiny towers arise from the monotony of the forest floor across a quarter acre or so of dry, rocky hillside.

Living amethysts scattered carelessly among the cast off leaves of summers past.

What meaning, this revelation? This tiny explosion of color from a bed of brown? 

Beauty in the eye of the beholder; Joy at witnessing another of life's little mysteries...

Oh, look! Those are a different color! I wonder...

Monday, February 25, 2013

Seer of the Swamp and Forest

Seer; sage; surveyor of the deep, dark wood.
Keeper of the ancient forest;
Sharp, keen eyes of the swamp.
The dark of the moon is broad daylight
For the midnight watcher's perfect sight.

What's become of the forest;
What of the deep, dark wood?

Scant clues to the mystery
In the seer's deep, dark eyes.

Barred Owl. San-Lee Park.

Winter Wildflowers - Trout Lily

Hoot Owl Karma recently happened upon a reference to North Carolina's native early bloomers; winter wildflowers which portend the advent of spring. First on the list were skunk cabbage, trout lily and hepatica. Since other commitments precluded the three hour drive to skunk cabbage territory, the Hoot Owl clan settled for a brief visit to nearby San-Lee Park, a "hidden gem" for nature lovers in the Central Carolina area. 

We had barely entered the heavily forested "Big Woods," when the sun-dappled forest floor came alive! Where just weeks before there was nothing but leaf litter, pinestraw and sweet gum balls, the slope above the small stream was completely overtaken by a sprawling encampment of trout lilies.
Although many locals refer to these abundant spring wildflowers as dogtooth violets, they are actually lilies.  The piscene portion of their name apparently refers to the resemblance of the mottled pattern of the lily leaves to the mottled dorsum of the brook trout, which shares neighboring habitat with the trout lily in many locales.

Sun-drenched lily prominently displaying the trout-like mottling of its leaves...
A closer look at the strongly recurved petals/sepals of the lily blossom; the petals are yellow above and below, while the sepals are yellow above and burnished bronze or chestnut brown below. 

Although one of central Carolina's most common early wildflowers, the trout lily is uncommonly beautiful, and well worth the effort of a trip to the woods from now until mid-March in your neighborhood. They are highly photogenic as well, the shot below was taken with a phone; just take care not to trample the little beauties if you approach for a closer look.

Special thanks to Hunter Randolph for his contributions to the photography for this post; he may soon be buying his own camera so as not to compete with Dad for shutter time...
This little cluster of lilies is getting pretty cozy with the wild ginger, we'll have to come back when it warms up a bit for a glimpse of their blossoms. Stay tuned...

Friday, February 22, 2013

In the End... A Buzzard's Roost

Rusty tin roof. Vine covered eaves. Boarded up windows. Sagging steps. Peeling paint. Leaning chimney. Weed-choked yard. 

What's your story, little house?

From whence have you come to this end? 
Skillfully crafted with love and care. Carefully groomed, maintained, and admired. 

Wind, weather, sun and chill of night; the years exact their toll.

Is this a fate we all will share... in the end...

a buzzard's roost?

Photos courtesy of Jay Randolph

Bald Eagle, American Eagle, Carolina Eagle

In 1967, the year of my birth, the fate of the bald eagle, America's national symbol, was still very much in doubt. An endangered species with a surviving population somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 nesting pairs, extinction was a possibility for a bird which had once numbered in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. By 1984, the number of breeding pairs in my native North Carolina had fallen to zero. 

Last Sunday, my son took this picture from the shoulder of the highway near our home in central North Carolina. A "Carolina" eagle, adult, complete with brilliant white head and all!

Intrigued, we returned to the area later for a closer look. Wow, what a thrill. A mature adult and three dark immature birds sharing a perch along the river.

In a chilly but thrilling hour before dusk, we sighted six or seven individuals, two of them mature adults. Before we left, Jay snapped a parting shot of this adult in flight. What a joy for a dad to experience a moment in nature with my sons which was an impossibility for my dad when I was a their age.

May the future hold many more such moments for them and their children...

The View from the Quince - Butcherbird

What better perch for the butcherbird, then a roadside copse of flowering quince? 

An abundance of spiny branches, open space aplenty, and bushes high on the bank, the better to spy careless rodents or smaller birds on a late winter morn.

Death visits swiftly when the sharply hooked bill of this vigilant voyeur finds the spine of its hapless prey.  

The thorny branches of the quince secure the prey, while the talon-less, but otherwise raptor-like, shrike tears the flesh with its bill. 

The crimson geyser of early quince blossoms hints at the grisly truth behind this handsome hunter's striking pose. Success in filling winter's larder portends success in filling springtime's nest; another day in nature's struggle for survival...the view from the quince. 

Today's photos courtesy of Jay Randolph.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Two and Twenty Blackbirds Framed by the Sky

"Last night I heard the wild goose cry, winging northward in the lonely sky..."

These days the birds are on the move. All manner of birds, and they are everywhere. These silhouettes raised quite a ruckus from their perch atop an old sweet gum just before sunset today. Common grackles and red winged blackbirds, judging by their cacophony of calls...

There are just three gnarly old sweet gums left, towering above the willows and cattails in a pool of stagnant water, surrounded on three sides by parking lots and an old field on the other.

Perfect place to pause for the night among kindred spirits; there's a bare branch just there with your name on it, brother.

Huddle close. We're in for a bit of weather by morning...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Possum by Porch Light - Two-Faced Tail Hanger

Pervasive, oddly amplified, disembodied growls fill the darkness; sourceless, ceaseless, emanating from everywhere and nowhere. Adrenaline surges, shouting flee, flee, flee!

Somehow reining in my cowardly instincts, I zero in on the location of the ferocious growler. Prepared for a quick retreat, I peer cautiously beneath the deck, expecting a rabid fox or wounded coyote to attack at any moment... 

Ferocious possum instead! Eyes lock, growls intensify, I flee, spontaneously!

Next night, same possum, change of venue. Not so ferocious by the front porch light.

Minus the growling, gaping and drooling, this little cat food bowl raider cuts a somewhat sympathetic if not downright cute and cuddly figure. Neither fight nor flight prevail this night. A brief commune, then the Virginia Opossum melts into the darkness, and I remain, reflecting, in the chilly porch light. Why so moody, marsupial?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Land's End at Day's End - Homeward Bound

At day's end, the travelers are homeward bound. Tired but cozy in the warm car, after a brisk afternoon of hiking in William B. Umstead State Park, Hunter and his lens braved the cold again to frame the perfect ending to a gorgeous day outdoors.

A relentless icy blast played havoc with his focus, uncontrollable shivers rocking his frame; but a little blur does nothing to diminish the remarkable palette of the sun's farewell. 

Land's end offers safety to a flock of seagulls as night hastens near, they too are homeward bound.

Thoughts turn to the wind-driven waves and the beings for whom the water itself is shelter, haven...

What of this spectacle penetrates the depths of their abode? Are they witness to the marvelous, moving sky?

Day's end at land's end... home, sweet home.

In response to numerous inquiries regarding our recent ode to birdwatching, there is a bird in the drab brown picture. A white-throated sparrow is visible peering from behind the dead branch directly in the center of the image (also contributed to Hoot Owl Karma courtesy of Hunter). 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Bird Watcher - Who's Watching Whom?

Hunter treads softly, camera at the ready. Some small living creature is near; he has heard it. Rustle, scratch...silence. Scurry, swish...silence.  Now, not a peep.

There!         Where?        Just there, beyond the cattails...  I could have sworn that's where it was...

What did it look like? I'm not really sure.      This bird watching's for the birds!