Thursday, March 31, 2011

Georgia on my Mind

Earlier this week, we flew south, like confused birds, to get an early taste of spring on the Georgia coast. I had actually hoped for more of an early taste of summer... last week, I followed the weather and it was in the upper 70's and lower 80's in Savannah. What a treat that would be after a late March in Illinois that just wouldn't seem to get out of the 30's, at least not for long. Well, we arrived in Savannah at about the same time as a cold front, headed up by torrential downpours. Driving unfamiliar roads in an unfamiliar car isn't fun, but it gets even worse when your visibility is about 5 feet and roads are closed due to flooding, but detours aren't marked. But even so... it was green and it smelled fresh and new.

When we got to the b and b where we were staying, guests on their way out told us of the perfect weather they'd had, assured us that we'd have the same. We didn't. That night, it stormed spectacularly, causing a power outage on the entire island... but it stopped by morning and we had rain-free days. But not warm ones. It stayed in the 50's -- the low 50's a lot of the time -- and we didn't see even a glimpse of the sun the entire time we were there.

Still... the weather couldn't stop us from enjoying the southland in the springtime.
The live oaks spread their branches over streets and walkways, creating tunnels. Epiphytic Spanish moss hangs down, creating a fairy tale atmosphere.
Everywhere trees are flowering, leaves emerged but still lime green and new, thin and almost translucent.
The last to leaf out, even this oak has tiny leaves...

While we weren't able to lounge on the beach, we did explore the beach and, at low tide, made several discoveries:
Lettered olives, alive and shiny... we also found a few empty shells.
Sea stars...
Jellyfish, most dead and washed up, but this comb jelly still alive and trapped, momentarily, in a pool. (The jellyfish is the blurry blob to the left and just below the broken sand dollar.)
A crab exoskeleton, perfect and unbroken, next to some of the plentiful clam shells.
A huge piece of horseshoe crab...
And plenty of other shells and treasures.
We also saw a lot of shore birds, laughing gulls and several small varieties of waders and pelicans.

I carried my nature journal but it really wasn't warm enough for sitting outside and drawing to be pleasant. Until... you guessed it... the morning we had to leave! So I did get in a quick drawing, of the tree whose leaves were hanging right over our balcony, since I didn't have the time to go anywhere or look for something exciting and Georgia-y, or we'd miss our plane (which ended up leaving 2 hours late, so I guess that wasn't a real issue, but whatever).
I thought is was a hackberry, but apparently I was too far south and it was probably a sugarberry, which is a lot like a hackberry.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

In Mourning

This dove sits on a nest that was once occupied by robins. Although mourning doves do make their own nests, they will also reuse their own or other birds' prior constructions... hey, why not take advantage? This particular site is very protected and watched over by a class of kindergarten kids, which may stress out the dove, but doesn't hurt, as no kindergarteners are 8 feet tall. If this dove is sitting on eggs, they'll hatch within 2 weeks... and this process could happen 3-4 times over the course of the spring and summer. This nesting dove is probably pretty bummed that his (the male doves sit on the nests during the daytime, and females work the graveyard shifts) view looks something like this:
Keep those eggs warm and toasty, little guy! (Really, though, if this is our spring snow storm, we can't complain too much, can we. It's typical to get a big snowfall in spring when the daffodils have bloomed already... which they have not, as you can see -- there are some right below the tree in the photo.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spring Takes a Break

It is, at this moment, snowing.
(That's all I've got for you.)


The weather may not know it's spring... this week is finishing up with cold rain, probably turning to snow as the temperatures continue to drop.

The plants may not look particularly springy except to those who are inclined to look for tiny, subtle changes...

But my face sure seems to know it's spring! Itchy eyes, sneezing and runny nose. There must be pollen in the air! That, or I'm coming down with a cold just in time for break, which would make me grumpy. I'm thinking it's allergies, though.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tour de Spring

This time of year, I have a little route that I walk to check on the trees/shrubs that I know are going to do things soon. Today was an eventful day on my tour de spring. Before I even got to my first tree, I heard the distinctive, comb-plucking sound of chorus frogs chorusing. Yea! Froggies!

The silver maple (above) was flowering. They flower from the top down, and it was over the weekend I noticed the top flowers in bloom, but I can't reach those to photograph, or even confirm. But by today, the lower buds had started to open, as well.
Then I check the American hazels, whose girl-flowers are so tiny most people would never notice them. (Notice the size of my fingers behind them). Their bright pink color is a treat, though, if you're one of the folks inclined to look closely. They were just starting today, only some of them... and the catkins aren't even swelling at all yet.

Finally, I check the alders, which have excitement in both the girl-flower and the boy-flower world. The catkins, as you can see to the left, are even greener than last week, and left a chartreuse pollen print on my brown jacket... though they're not yet pollen-y enough to make yellow clouds when tapped.
And the tiny pink female flowers, the future cones, have also changed since last week. (Oh, the trees, they are a-changin'... never mind, I shouldn't have gone there.)

My add-on at 5:00 pm...
In the bird world, I saw buffleheads... which is the best duck name ever... and possibly some other diving ducks that were too far away to ID (but, they could have been more buffles). Had to pull a crazy driving maneuver and get out of the car to get pictures. And this is the pair of birds that are apparently nesting in my neighbor's house. Which I think is totally awesome, but only because it isn't my house. I probably shouldn't have posted a picture of someone else's house, but it's so cute, and it's not like you can tell the address, and I'm pretty sure they don't read my blog. Bird nerds, please ID the birdies for me!

I love it, every day something new!!! Finally! (Although I hear that tomorrow's new development may be wintry weather, too bad after a lovely today!)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vernal Equinox

It may be a rainy and chilly day, but today we welcome the sun back to the northern hemisphere. We look forward to leaves emerging, casting a chartreuse haze on the horizon. We look forward to flowers blooming and the prairie greening. We look forward to days that stretch into evening, sweating in the garden and then reclining on the deck as the light grows dim, to open windows and the free toes of sandals. OK, so it may yet be WAY forward that we're looking... but it is, as they say, all down hill from here.

At 6:21 this evening, we celebrate the vernal equinox, and we welcome the sun, the source of energy for all living things, back to our half of the world.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ice Off

Ice is completely off this morning... this happened sometime between early yesterday afternoon and early this morning, but I'm going to go ahead and call it for today. Why? Here's some historical perspective.

Ice Off dates:
2006 -- Mar 10
2007 -- Mar 18
2008 -- Mar 31
2009 -- Mar 9
2010 -- Mar 18
So if 2011 is also Mar 18, that's just pretty crazy random...50% of all my ice off data points are Mar 18!

I saw a muskrat swimming in the lake, too.

Also, I finally saw a heron, though I know they've been around...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Party On!

Nature is throwing a party to celebrate our warm weather... Migrating sandhill cranes sent out the invitations, their loud calls catching everyone's attention, alerting us that today is something special.

The witch hazel flowers were on the decorating committee -- their orange streamer petals are flying!

The alders? They are starting to put their green on. It is St. Patty's day, after all... the party needs to have some green, and the grass sure ain't wearing it yet!

Ice status: it's at about 40% coverage. Maybe even less. It's so windy that that the remaining ice is blowing up against the shore and cracking there, sheets upon sheets. Standing next to it, I hear the clink-clinking sound of ice knocking against other ice... like spring cocktail party in full swing!

(Did I take the metaphor too far?)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I've Got the Fever

Spring came! With temperatures topping 60 today, we finally had one of those early warm days that makes you really feel like it's over, we're on our way out, Spring has Spring! Inevitably, these days come before a huge snow storm or something... but while it was here, I took full advantage. I walked at lunch, I walked after work. (The later was, ostensibly, for fitness. I walked instead of working out, which was my original plan. The problem with this is, I stop to look at things. I could somewhat alleviate this problem by not carrying my camera -- thereby also ensuring that I saw "the coolest thing ever" -- but not entirely. I'd still stop to study and admire things.) So anyhow... here are some of the discoveries, both phenologically significant and not:
Aspen catkins.
Bulb plants emerge, here, hyacinths.
The lake was filled with ducks (and geese and swans). I think these are goldeneyes based on the white cheek spot in the right photo... but I didn't have binocs and I'm not that great of a birder anyhow -- it's possible there were 5 types of ducks there rather than just 2 (the other being mallard). Note: That open water isn't on the same lake I always use to determine ice off, which is still covered. Have to remain consistent!
A maze of goose prints... they just looked cool.
And a maze of vole tunnels, with a little, igloo-esque house! The snow melted and they left it abandoned, a vole ghost town.
The moon and a redtail.
So many birds today... Cardinals calling constantly for the last week, robins galore, killdeer, a bunch of LBBs, and plenty of these RWBBs. I just chose to include the photo because it was a good picture.

Finally, this is today's mystery. If anyone knows this plant, please tell me what it is... These seedpods (2 inches long) were painfully thorny and stiff, filled with hard black seeds about 2-1/8 inch in diameter. The plant itself was about 2-3 feet tall with a thick stem and no leaves to be found. It branched in a pattern that reminded me of the flower heads on wild indigo.
I also sketched the mystery pod. But it had a lot of thorns and I kinda got tired of them...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Little Peeks

Peeking out from behind its protective bud scale, that tickly reminder of youth, the pussy willow, emerges... calling our tactile inner children to stand and pet the fuzzy little cat(kin) toes before they fulfill their pollen-y destiny.

Which hazel? The witch hazel! I just couldn't wait until these fully opened, with their streamer-like petals fully uncurled, decorating for the upcoming party that is spring. So I have showed them here still curled up tightly... but the buds are open and the bright orange is clearly visible!

Well, this isn't really a good picture of anything. But see, right in the middle, looking like a stick at an odd angle, that's a hawk. Carrying a vole. We had a right-time-right-place moment this afternoon. A red-tailed hawk swooped down to pick off a vole in the prairie right near our outdoor classroom. We watched it fly with the struggling rodent dangling from its talons... it circled around us and then off into the distance, presumably to eat its meal without 44 eyes staring at it. (I didn't get my camera out until after I made sure all the kids had seen, and then I had to get over the awesomeness of it, and then I had to think to unzip my coat and get out the camera and turn it on and by the time all that occurred, it was already pretty far away. Oh, well. I took a mental picture.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thoughts on March 11

Each year on March 11, I try to write something... good and deep (but not obnoxious) and worthy. I started thinking about it earlier in the week, perhaps that was my mistake. I didn't come up with much, but I didn't worry too much. I figured that the day would come and something would happen. Some sign, something almost spiritual even though I don't really believe that way. Open water on the lakes... but there's more ice cover today than yesterday (the rivers are open -- and very high -- but have been for weeks). A heron returned (which won't happen without the open water first) or maybe a V of sandhills interrupting time with their calls. The first uncharacteristically warm, sunny day that calls everyone out of doors after a winter inside. Even a witch hazel flower.

I didn't get any of it, except for sun. It is a lovely, dazzlingly bright, late winter day with nothing to separate it from another except our thoughts and our memories. And I find I have everything to write about, which really means I have nothing to about. (I tell kids that... if you say "everything" was your favorite part, you don't really have a favorite part. I suppose it's not the same with writing, but it feels like it is.) Luckily, my mom rescued me with some thoughts of her own... so I'll allow myself a year off. Plus, stressing out about it doesn't really seem a fitting tribute.

Here are my mom's thoughts on March 11:

"It’s in the mid-40’s here today – a far cry from the warmth of this day four years ago – but the sun is shining brightly, a rare phenomenon during the past several months. Though the snow has only recently melted from the drifts that surrounded the memorial tree and stone, last year’s crop of crab apples is withering and new leaf buds are emerging. It is a day when one’s thoughts could easily turn to spring and spring activities, to canoeing and canoeists.

"The lagoons are still ice covered; the river is clear. The two small streams entering the river below the dam are running rapidly. Together with the water coming through the dam, they make a swirl of currents that could easily daunt even the most experienced boatman. Two hardy fishermen were casting into the eddies this morning. They did not think they were commemorating a life-altering event or memorializing a life-altering personality. However, their life-affirming optimism was a testament to Grandpa’s equally life-affirming and optimistic nature.

"It is one of the first days of the year when one dare think that winter’s gloom might be past. It is a day when one’s heart can soar with the memories of joys of the past and hope for the future. I join you all in remembering how lucky we are to have been part of Stanton’s life."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Snow Drops

(Probably missed them at first, but it's not everyday I get home while it's still light out! Until next week, with daylight savings time... then I will be. But this week, FINALLY, it's been almost light out when I woke up. Almost, like, you could at least tell it was getting on morning, and by the time I got out of the shower the sky was actually lightening... and that will be taken away, going back to waking up in the middle of the night. Oh, well...)

Red Flagged

The ice safety flag switched sometime between school yesterday and this morning. It's now red indicating not safe to walk on ice. I have to say, I kinda think that people who wanted to walk on the ice yesterday were already... well, on thin ice. (See picture from yesterday's post, from the same lake.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Misty Morning

This morning was subtly lovely, in that understated Midwestern way of hedgerows disappearing into mist... bare skeletons of trees reaching their bony fingers toward the sky, holding up the red-wing blackbirds... fat water droplets clinging to berries and branches, reflecting tiny, distorted worlds in their bubbles... surprise bursts of color in a red twig or a curl of yellow grass or a colony of lichens whose muted hues seem amplified by the wetness... the loud silence of chattering birds and human absence... ice that's melting and mud that's squishing under my feet...

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bird Brained

Saw a killdeer today. Of course, not being a birder, if I saw one yesterday, they've probably been here at least a week. Have I ever told you the story of the first time I (knowingly) saw a killdeer? I'm sure I'm not the only one out there with a similar story... I was just a budding nature nerd of middle school age, and a naturalist entered the nature center where I was taking a class all excited because there was a killdeer, and we just had to come out back and see. Of course, teachable moment, we abandoned whatever we were doing to go outside and see the killdeer. Which I though was going to be a dead deer. Possibly, with all the excitement, a freshly dead one with, like, coyote tracks around it, and its guts dragged across the ground or something. This is what I was looking for as the naturalist pointed to what appeared to be an empty lawn and proudly presented the finding. A "who's on first" style conversation occurred before I figured out that a killdeer and a deer kill were two very different things, and I decided to pretend I knew what the heck was going on. Embarrassed, I privately looked up the killdeer later on. It's plover-esque appearance and "kill dear" voice are unmistakable to me today.

Also saw a blue jay (year-round residents, but certainly seen more in the warmer months) and a redtail, all within minutes of each other. This reminds me of a not-too-funny but containing-important-message comic that we saw at a session of the Wild Things conference. Reluctantly, I have pasted the cartoon below. I say reluctantly because I don't know the rules about putting things like that on my blog. As a general rule, every image I use on here is my own, and if I want to use another, I'll put a weblink to someone else's page. But I couldn't find one for this, and describing a comicstrip does kind of lose something in translation, and really, I don't think I have enough readers to attract a law suit. Knock wood.
Kinda cute. Although it was a Chicago Wilderness conference, the presenter was using the comic as a lesson about the (over-)analysis of poetry (bird poetry, to be sure) rather than as a lesson about the analysis of phenological events. But of course, it works both ways. The hawk need be no less special to see just because it lives here year round and I saw one just last week. Only the small minded think they can see something once, check it off a metaphorical list, and be done with it.

Anyhow, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for herons, but haven't seen one yet. Of course, there's not a lot of open water yet, either; perhaps I need to be looking by the river instead of the yet-frozen lakes.

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's Ominous Outside

It's rumbling and thundering and dark as night out there. Pregnant raindrops splatter against my window.

Tomorrow, we go to the Chicago Wilderness Wild Things Conference... a big bunch of nature nerds hanging out together!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Aerial Acrobatics

Chickadees are crazy this morning. A whole flock of them seems to be darting from tree to shrub to tree, ducking over and under branches, darting in and out. Occasionally two break away and chase each other, a little airborne wrestling match, before rejoining the general commotion.

It is my understanding that this is not mating behavior, but maybe the break up of winter flocks. The wrestling matches are probably males having scuffles with each other as the chickadees find their mates and break away from their protective winter flocks to spend their summers in a more solitary fashion. Or rather, as couples rather than in the large winter group. Territorial fighting, of a sort, I guess. So maybe still a sign of spring...

That, and the weather... still cold, but a mild, gentle sort of cold as winter gives up its icy grasp. And the mud! Everywhere there is mud, and every little boot seems to be attracted to it like a powerful magnet.