Monthly Archives: March 2013

March 31- Easter flowers

Lions and lambs notwithstanding, March is going out much like it came in, mostly cold, gray, and wet.   Drizzly Easter Sunday presented quite a contrast to the Sunny Saturday that preceded it.  I spent the morning depressed about some expensive musical equipment that got lost last night, then went for a walk in the dripping woods to get my mind off of it.

The berries in my backyard (at least the raspberry and gooseberry plants) have started to put out leaves, although fruit is still many weeks away.  Image

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In the woods, I’ve been noticing more and more holes in the trees, presumably made by woodpeckers.  This one was unusual for how clean and perfectly round it was. Image

Many flowering trees and shrubs in the forest lack the kind of large showy blooms that we imagine when we think of wildflowers, but their flowers, though small and inconspicuous  are actually quite pretty.   These were growing on some spindly understory plant to which I had never given a second look previously.Image

At the graveyard, I spotted these opening blooms, which had been planted on the grave of a woman who had been born at Twin Oaks and died young a decade ago.  I hadn’t noticed them on past trips up this way.  Although they were clearly planted by someone, the semi-wild look of the Twin Oaks cemetery gave them a “forest wildflower” feel.   I’ll try to return in a week or so when they’re fully opened– should be pretty spectacular.Image

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In the orchard right next to my house, which was planted about four years ago and is still a work in progress, the flowers on the cherry trees are just starting to open.  There are many buds which look like they could pop at any minute, and a very few open flowers.  This, too, will look pretty amazing in just a few days!Image

In another corner of the orchard is a “plumcot,” which bears a tasty fruit that is unfortunately a favorite of worms and grubs.  The plumcot’s flowers, while not quite as spectacular as the cherry blossoms, are numerous, and have all started to open just over the past couple of days.   With this latest patch of cold wet weather, there is a feeling of building potential, as though all it would take is a couple of warm sunny days to trigger a frenzy of leaf and bud.   Image

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Mar 30- shorts and t-shirt

Warmest day of the year so far, and for the first time I went for a walk in shorts and a t-shirt.  Walked down to the river, where the overall look of the forest was about the same as a month ago when I was last here. Image

looking closer, however, there were more signs of the arrival of spring.  In the ‘floodplain’ bit of the woods, the flat area just above the river banks, these tiny wildflowers were plentiful, sometimes growing singly, sometimes in pairs or small clusters.  Image

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Tufts of new green grass were muscling their way through last year’s brown detritus.Image

And a little hoppy toad was exploring the forest near a mostly-dry but still kind of swampy creekbed.  Image

Although this bush is just starting to open its leaf buds, the vine growing along its branches is beginning to burst with new growth. Image

I was examining stumps on my way up from the river, looking for any signs of new fungal activity.  No ‘shrooms, but one of the stumps was covered with pointy knobs of wood, unlike anything I have seen before.  I don’t know if this is a natural growth pattern, or a response to disease or insects, or what, but it was very interesting looking.Image

Like the back of a dinosaur or mythical spiny beast, or the profile of some treeless, remote mountain range…Image

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Mar 29- back in the woods

Got back out in the woods today, for the first time since returning from California.  Initially, it was something of a letdown being back in Virginia, after the vernal extravagance of the Bay Area– I guess I’m still feeling a bit underwhelmed with early spring in Virginia.   While I was away for a week basking in Pacific sunshine, the weather here remained persistently cool and gloomy, with a heavy weekend snowfall that still remained in isolated pockets when I got home.  Despite the fact that it was still technically winter when I left, and now it’s “officially” springtime, things ’round here don’t look a whole lot different than they did a week ago.

Spent an hour this afternoon walking in the woods, exploring more or less at random.  Noticed a few things– the leaves of the forest trees and shrubs remain steadfastly closed, with very little greenery in the form of opening leaf buds.  This small, relatively abundant plant was the one exception. Image

I came across several places where dead trees had been ripped apart, by some sort of mammal or bird.  I hear woodpeckers all the time in the forest; it’s less common to come across spots where they’ve been hard at work. Image

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This tree bore some heavy-duty slash marks.  It doesn’t look like it was made by people, and it was in a part of the woods where the forestry crew doesn’t operate.  I’ve never seen bears around here, but others have, and this looks like the kind of marks they leave on trees.Image

In another part of the woods, I came across this scene, where an oak tree, in the process of being blown over in a storm, made a direct hit on the top of a beech tree, and snapped it in two.  It’s pretty awesome imagining the violence of that exact moment, the sound it must have made.Image

Further along, I came across another one of these bizzare spongy black fungi, all dried out.  My curiosity got the better of me, and I did some internet research.  It’s a sooty mold (Scorias spongiosa)  which grows on aphid droppings– fascinating stuff!  Check out http://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/black-masses-on-beech-trees/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scorias_spongiosa

Indeed I have learned something new today.Image

In another part of the woods, I came across this long, low, moss-covered mound, in an area relatively clear of trees– not quite a clearing, but a spot where the forest gets thin.  It looked like a weird grave or something, maybe like something had been done deliberately and intentionally by someone in the past.  An odd spot in the woods, and I was surprised that I had never come across it previously.Image

Before heading home, I walked over to check out a stump that was covered with interesting green-tinged turkey tail mushrooms.  At its base, I found a number of dried up old Reishis, one large one and a number of smaller individuals, one of which was home to an impressively large larva.Image

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I harvested the largest of the Reishi, and examined it closely as I carried it home.  In so many places in nature, one can spot patterns that look like writing or drawing, some type of incomprehensible language or perfect abstract art.  The more one looks for this sort of thing, the more one sees it, sometimes in the broken-off stem of a Reishi, sometimes in the pattern of decay on its underside.Image

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March 20-26 California dreamin’

When I first decided to keep this journal, I knew I would spend part of this year traveling, as I do every year. I had to decide whether to continue to record nature observations while I was in other parts of the country, or keep it fully focused on central Virginia. It is important to me that this blog is about what’s going on around me in the natural world, rather than “about me,” and I certainly don’t want to turn it into “Ezra’s travelogue.”

With that in mind, I think I still want to share some observations and photos from my recent trip to California, which I returned from just this morning. I went out to see family and friends, enjoy springtime on the west coast, and use up a travel voucher that was in danger of expiring. I enjoyed a week of the most glorious springtime weather that I could have possibly hoped for– seven days of sunshine, cool ocean breezes, flowers and green hillsides, good food, good times with family and friends, and the chance to explore some natural areas quite unlike my Virginia home.    Some photos and random thoughts to follow…

Flying over Mono Lake east of the Sierra Nevada.  Unfortunately, most of the flight out west was cloudy, especially in the more interesting mountain areas, but I got some cool views of the western deserts.Image

On my first day in San Francisco, I went with my mom to the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park, where I was fairly blown away by the overwhelming sights and smells of springtime.  The nearly-instantaneous transition from the very beginnings of spring in Virginia to the full-on floral abundance of plants from all around the world, all blooming at once, left me drunk on flower-scented air.  Here, my ma is enjoying a Japanese cherry tree in glorious bloom.Image

This “Chilean rhubarb” (Gunnera tinctoria) was another amazing huge-leaved plant, which looked like something out of dinosaur times– this photo doesn’t really do it justice.Image

A couple of days later, I was with friends up in the Sierra Nevada, spending time at Donner Lake, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the snowy region around Donner Pass.  I didn’t take out my camera very much, but did get a couple of photos of this most un-Virginian landscape.Image

From there, it was on to Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where I spent a glorious couple of days being shown around the farms, redwood forests and coastline of this beautiful part of California.  The artichokes weren’t quite ready to pick and eat, but the plants were strikingly attractive.Image

In a redwood forest near Guerneville, I spotted this giant banana slug, part of the charismatic megafauna of this ecosystem.  I don’t know if it’s pooping or if its guts are coming out of its head or exactly what is going on here.Image

I liked the pattern of the bark on this madrone tree.Image

Root system of a giant redwood that had fallen over at some point in the past.Image

Does this look like a spooky skull to you?  Because it looks to me like a spooky skull.Image

Later, I made my way out to the Sonoma Coast, where the irises, which were among my favorite wildflowers when I lived in California, were blooming in great profusion.  When I lived here, I would make special efforts to go hiking near the coast at exactly this time of year to enjoy the wild irises, and I seemed to time it perfectly on this trip, as they were blooming all throughout the coastal grasslands.Image

Exploring tidepools along the Sonoma coast, I spotted lots of anemones, starfish, and a group of crabs that was crushing mussels in their claws to pick out the soft flesh inside.  Taking inspiration from the crabs, I harvested with my bare hands as many of the mussels as I could fit in my pockets, and feasted that evening on some shell-fishy bounty!Image

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Day after day of blue skies, bright green grass, trees–some of which were fully leafed out, and some of which were just starting to grow leaves.  Late March truly has to be the most scenically satisfying time of year in the Bay Area.Image

One photo from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, which I had the pleasure of touring.  My home community of Twin Oaks certainly could learn a lot about aesthetics and artistic awareness from this place, which blends the natural and built environment to create a place of incredible beauty.Image

On my final day in San Francisco, I traveled out to Ocean Beach to visit with more of my extended family and take advantage of one last glorious California spring day.   The air was warm and clear, with a gentle breeze blowing off of the Pacific.  I could not possibly have asked for a better final afternoon in California.Image

California poppies, another one of my favorite wildflowers, growing alongside invasive Oxalis, one of my least favorite.  Still, even the obnoxious yellow flowers of the oxalis was pretty on a day like this.Image

Later in the afternoon as I relaxed on the beach, I spotted a whale, which by size, shape, location, and time of year, I’m guessing was a migrating gray whale.  It was too big to be a dolphin, too small to be a humpback, and not shaped right for an orca.  As I watched, it swam from south to north, repeatedly spouting, kicking its tail up, and then breaching entirely out of the water over and over– I counted six times before it had swum out of sight!  I tried to get a good picture, and this was the best I could do, catching the whale just as (s)he was beginning to leap out of the water.  Funny enough, even though there were many other people enjoying the beach, I don’t think anyone else (other than my ma and I) saw it. A perfect end to a pretty damn perfect trip.

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If I’m looking relaxed in this photo, it’s because I am.Image

March 18- down but not out

I’m aware, of course, that it’s still technically winter, so I wasn’t too surprised that yesterday was cold and gray, and wasn’t even too surprised to see some sort of unpleasant slushy-half snow dropping from the sky.  St. Pat’s day is kind of a big holiday in my family, so I was hoping for a nicer day, but being mid-March, you can’t exactly count on it.

But I must admit I was a bit surprised when I looked out my window this morning and saw this:Image

Kind of pretty, kind of just yukky and muddy.  I don’t know that the temperature ever dropped much below freezing, and by the time I stepped outside this morning, the ground was a soupy mess of melting snow and mud.  I was definitely thankful for those dealing with the cows or chickens or other essential outdoor jobs this morning, and even more thankful today was not my day to split wood or take care of the chickens.Image

The daffodils seemed depressed.  Can a flower be depressed?Image

This red-budded plant had just begun to flower outside of our dining hall.  Now it’s covered with snow.  Tomorrow, it will probably be 60 degrees and it will flower again.  March is odd.Image

I had a couple of tasks to take care of down in the courtyard.  On the way home, I took the ‘scenic route’ around the pond, enjoying the aesthetics of a wintry landscape that (with any luck) we won’t be experiencing again for quite a few months.Image

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March 16– thunderstorm, rainbow, and fog…

Today we had our first spring thunderstorm of the year– lightning, thunder, heavy rain, the whole bit.  As you can see in the photo below, a thunderstorm is a difficult thing to photograph in a way that gives any sense of what it feels like to actually be in it; the smells, the contrast between the warm air and cold rain, the look of a sky that is dark gray on one side, while still sunny on the other.Image

The storm swiftly passed overhead, west to east, clouds sliding away and revealing a low, late-afternoon sun, perfect rainbow conditions.  I ran outside with my camera and didn’t have to look long to see a full 180-degree double rainbow.  Getting a decent photo was a different thing, and by the time I made it to a clearing where you could actually see the sky, half of it had disappeared.  Still, it was quite a sight.  My youngest kid, who turns four on the 17th, commented that although he’s seen rainbows in books and movies and whatnot, it’s the first time he has really been aware of seeing a real one in person.  Image

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The day ended with the sun lighting up water dripping from the leaves and trees,  and eerie tendrils of wispy fog gathering in the woods, collecting in low spots and drainages, the kind of fog that you might see in a horror movie but rarely in real life.  I guess that between the thunder and lightning, the rainbow, and the fog, the entire afternoon had a kind of otherworldly feeling.Image

March 15– beware the Ides

 

Over the past couple days, I had occasion to travel up to Baltimore to speak in a couple of classes at Goucher college.  So I didn’t get to observe much in the way of central Virginia nature.  I did observe a couple things– first, that Baltimore, although not all that far north of Virginia, is certainly a lot colder than around here, or at least it was yesterday!   And on the campus of Goucher, I saw a couple of enormous shelf mushrooms that looked like something out of a Paul Stamets book (I don’t know what sort they were, but they looked kind of like this: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_iKawzGKhsv0/S80bXBWxNcI/AAAAAAAAFuo/IdHgsMVU-ZU/s1600/GiantShelfFungus.jpg)

I was quite happy to get back to sunny central Virginia yesterday afternoon.  Today wasn’t quite as sunny, but I took a stroll around the community to see how things have been going in my absence.

The ground has dried out a bit from the crazy snow and rain of last week, but there are still places where the forest floor bears the imprint of the cascades of water that must have been moving along at the height of the storm.  Image

All over one part of the forest, this little plant was starting to poke its way up through the leaves.  I’m not sure what it is, but there certainly was a lot of it.Image

I got to thinking about how, once the leaves come out, it will be a bit sad that all of the vegetative growth of the warm season will obscure the shape of the trees, especially the smooth-barked birch trees that are so abundant in our woods.  This intertwined pair is growing just a couple hundred feet from my house (which you can see in the lower left). Image

Walking along the edge of high south field, it is plain to see that the tender green grass of spring is beginning to poke up over the dead yellow thatch of winter, although it hasn’t completely broken through yet.IMG_2600

A few years ago, a frequent visitor to Twin Oaks from North Carolina was planning on moving to Colorado.  He was growing pitcher plants, carnivorous plants that are native to North Carolina swamps.  He figured that they might do well here (and certainly wouldn’t in Colorado), so he planted a couple on the edge of our pond’s biopool.  This afternoon, I went up to see how they lasted the winter, and to weed them, which I try to do a couple times a year.  I saw that they are still alive, although in rough shape (as might be expected in mid-March), and that someone had already weeded them earlier this winter, or perhaps last fall.  I’ll check back in on them when it warms up and they grow their pitchers, maybe even see them catch some bugs.Image

 

And that’s the Ides of March at Twin Oaks, with the early signs of spring poking through everywhere you look, but the general look and feel of the landscape is still pretty late-wintery, still more yellow, gray, and brown in the color scheme than green, but a feeling in the air that things will change soon.Image