Sunday, November 1, 2015

Miracle Monarch

 Several years ago, I created a nectar garden to help the plight of pollinators and one species in particular -the Monarch Butterfly.

How I remember their numbers from my childhood! Every year they'd come through on their yearly migration. I'd see their caterpillars, loved them but took them for granted. They were part of the landscape, certainly appreciated, a comfort as a child and something I thought would always be there.

Their numbers are in sever decline so I wanted to do what I could do to help them.

One thing I planted was milkweed. The monarch lays its eggs on milkweed, and once the tiny caterpillars emerge, they feast on it.  The loss of milkweed across their migration route is the major contributor to their decline. It is the only plant they use for reproduction and it is being wiped out at an alarming rate to farming.

For three years now, my milkweed has stood mute as no monarch has yet to discover it. But my nectar garden has been.

Every fall and spring I look for them. I’ve never spotted one is the spring only during the fall season. I see very few. In the past three years I've seen maybe five, one here, one there, enjoy the nectar, then head south. So every fall, from time to time, I go out and look over my deck, which is above the garden to see if I spot one. It is hit and miss and few and far between.

This year, on a lovely Monday afternoon, I was outside on my deck and something compelled me to look out over the railing into the garden. I saw something move - sure enough it was a Monarch Butterfly.

I ran inside, grabbed my camera and shot these images. I watched this monarch for about ten minutes as it moved from flower to flower intently partaking of nectar for its long journey south. 

As I watched, I wondered how far from the north it had traveled. I thought of its journey ahead - across the rest of the southern US then to its wintering grounds in Mexico where it would wait for spring with thousands of others. But most of all I wondered how it found my garden, a tiny patch of land on a journey spanning thousands of miles.

What were the chances of me seeing this lone monarch while it was in my garden for perhaps a half-hour? I thought how fortunate I was. How lucky to see this one monarch out of the thousands that make the  journey south.

It was a rare gift as rare as the Monarch Butterfly may become.

Monday, October 19, 2015

I ache for wilderness

My treks into nature are within small islands of fragmented forest among neighborhoods and cities. It is a denuded forest logged out once or twice with many species gone from the landscape. The apex predators are gone - wolves, bears, cougars and what is left are the small mammals, who don't pose a threat to humans, and surviving species of birds, amphibians and invertebrates.

The closest I've come to wilderness was a visit to Yellowstone National Park, yet, that experience is managed. Wolves are collared, bison are culled if they stray from park boundaries and wildlife is confined by invisible yet set borders. Famous female wolf 832f was shot and killed, legally, by a hunter when she strayed outside of park boundaries. How can you tell a wolf, "Hey, you can't go there?" 

How do you contain the wild?

Another experience was a hike at Mount Rainer National Park. Along a trail, where the edges were muddy from a recent rainfall, I spotted a paw print of a mountain lion. I stood immediately at attention, sensing with my ears and eyes the surrounding vicinity. It was a deep, innate, instinctual response, deep from the ages of time, a response to a predator of challenge. For the remainder of the hike I was on alert. When a couple passed by, their presence brought me comfort until they left the area then the unease returned.

Prior to venturing into these areas, I had read up on bear and mountain lion attacks, how to avoid and what to do in a confrontation. Although I went over in my mind how I would handle it, I wondered if I would do as I had read or collapse in a heap of fear.

To be honest, there was something edgy, something of an exciting feeling knowing I could go toe to toe with an apex predator. Crazy I know, not something I wanted nor desired but, I believe seeing that print brought me close to feeling what it might just be like in true wilderness. It was a leveling feeling.

 I sit at a campfire now, writing among nature knowing the surrounding forest is less than half of what it was. Why are there county parks, state parks and national parks where people come in droves to be with nature? Do they have a yearning for wilderness like me I wonder as I look around at my fellow campers enjoying the serenity that only nature can bring.

I’ve read a number of books written by authors who trekked and lived in the wilderness. How I admire their tenacity, their courage, their self-reliance. I want to do the same.

And I ponder, is it a good thing or a bad thing that there is little left of the wild? Do we need wilderness? Do we need wild? All I know is that my spirit aches for it, it aches to experience it, it aches to feel how it was, and without feeding spirit and without that connection to what once was and what our ancestors lived with and among, what are we?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Nature highlights this year, so far

The images were taken around my home or while on my travels.

The richness and diversity of life is astounding. The mix and magic of these animals and plants is stunning.

Such a wonderful, fantastic planet we live on.

So much to discover, so much to see, so much to appreciate.

Eastern Bluebird in the snow

Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica

Foamflower, Tiarella cordifolia var. collina

Wild Bleeding Heart, Dicentra eximia

Black Hyacinth

Red Fox

Orb Spider

Northern Diamondback Terrapin

Harnessed Tiger Moth

Milkweed Bug

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Close-up of wing

Black Swallowtail

Lunar Eclipse Partial

Lunar Eclipse Totality

And, just for fun, a paw print in my morning coffee

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Nature never disappoints . . .

I found this little guy lying on one of my windowsills. He must have been frantically trying to get outside but died.

I try to rescue the ones I find in my home but this one I missed.

Intrigued, as the body seemed intact, I decided to collect and photograph him using my macro lens.

I believe this insect to be in the Megachilid genera, which are solitary bees. They are also known as Mason Bees and Leafcutter Bees. I am not an entomologist, so my ID may be incorrect, but I am almost certain it is not a fly. Some flies do make excellent bee mimics.

After downloading the images to my computer, I took a good look at the body structure and details as revealed by the lens. As I slowly went over the head, wings, thorax and abdomen, something small and blue caught my eye. Something I was not expecting to see.

In the above image, do you see the tiny blue appendages sticking out of either side of the upper part of the bee's abdomen?

Here's a close look,

I was amazed and struck by the blue color! I would never have thought that this insect, found on my windowsill, would yield such an amazing discovery.

I have no idea what they are or what their function is despite doing research. If you know, please post.

When your eyes are opened to truly see the magnificence around us and surprising discoveries, even in the tiniest of creatures, it gives a deep appreciation of our fantastic world and forces you to look outside yourself to the next discovery.

And, as John Muir observed,  "Nature never disappoints." And it certainly didn't in the case of this little bee.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A contemplation on a lost bird

One-hundred and one years ago today, the Passenger Pigeon was extinguished from this earth. Once numbering four billion, they flew in great flocks that were miles wide and miles long. Imagine a flock so large that it took fourteen hours to pass overhead. Yes, we can only imagine.

The extinction of the Passenger Pigeon occurred in a mere 40 years. Forty years to erase four billion souls.

Twenty-five million erased every year.

68,493 erased every day.

What happened?

This is Martha. She was the last surviving member of her species who died in her aviary at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.

They were elegant birds of lovely iridescent colors who lived in highly social flocks.

They were hunted and persecuted and lost habitat to farming. They were horrifically slaughtered by using nets set to capture them in flight. Then, once entangled, young boys were employed to snap their necks.

Their massive rookeries, where they would rest and mate, were not safe either. Men would fire aimlessly at the huge mass of birds huddled in trees so numbered that their weight would snap branches.

They were not only slaughtered for food and sport but also because they were perceived as pests. When huge swaths of forest was logged for farming, removing many of their ancestral rookeries, they would gather in the fields eating crops and seeds where they were baited.

It was a massive slaughter of the most numerous bird ever to populate the planet.

This is all that is left.

A memorial plaque and statue outside the aviary where Martha spent her last days.

On the day of her passing, how many humans contemplated the profound meaning of this loss or reflected on their culpability in the extinction?

The Passenger Pigeon is but one of many species that have been pushed off this planet by us. There are many, many more. And the extinctions continue. Currently, worldwide, there are over 44,838 on the endangered species list.

I've come to know my neighborhood birds as I've been feeding and observing them now for about five years. And, even though they are familiar with me, they still flee when I emerge from my home to fill the feeders. I cannot gain their trust. I do not wonder at their fear.

What horrors have they witnessed committed by humans with each rising and setting of the sun? What memories are imprinted in their genes carried from generation to generation that informs them to be wary of us? It is said that the pioneers would walk through the forest blasting everything in their wake. Wild turkey, doves, cougars, bear, deer and many more well felled for fun by their guns. Did their ancestors witness such carnage? Did they witness the slaughter of the Passenger Pigeon? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The Carolina Parakeet? It is possible.

And what of now? Do they see and hear the hunters blasting in the forest and the lakes? Some people today, although illegal, shoot song birds from the skies or feed them rice so their stomachs explode from the swelling of the grain.

Charles Darwin, during his voyage on the HMS Beagle, encountered birds on the many islands he visited who were not afraid of humans but would come and land on a shoulder or a hand. It was their first encounter with our species so they had no reason to fear us.

It pains me to know I will most likely never gain such trust no matter what kindness I show them. Their ingrained fear of us runs deep and can only be gained by the witnessing of horrific acts.

But, I can dream of a day when one may alight on my shoulder.

If you are interested in knowing more about the Passenger Pigeon and other birds that have gone extinct at the hands of humans, I recommend reading "Hope is a thing with feathers: A personal chronicle of vanished birds" by Christopher Cokinos.

To know more about endangered species, visit photographer Joel Sartore's site and purchase a copy of his book "Rare." He is on a mission to photograph species before they are gone forever and hopefully inspire people to care.

And through my writings, it is my hope too.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The horses of Assateague Island

I finally had the opportunity to visit Assateague Island National Seashore. A beautiful and nearly untouched pristine island that's off the coast of Virginia and Maryland.

A population of wild horses lives there, leftovers from settlers who placed them on the island to avoid paying taxes for livestock kept on the mainland. Eventually the herd was forgotten and the horses reverted back to wild.

On the first evening there, at about 7:00 p.m. or so, five horses sauntered into the campground to graze on grass no more than 30 feet from my camper. I was mesmerized as I watched these beautiful equines enjoy an evening meal.

Seemingly ever so peaceful, it was easy to forget they are wild.

I continued watching them as twilight set in.

The group, I learned, is called a "harem," which is a closed family group consisting of one adult male with females and their offspring. A lead mare decides where the group should go, while the stallion protects the harem.

There are two herds of wild horses on the island, one to the north and one to the south. They are kept separated by a fence.

The southern herd is managed by the Chincoteague volunteer fire department who round them up every year for the famous Chincoteague pony swim.

The firefighters auction off the young horses for fundraising. This practice culls the herd and keeps it genetically healthy.

The harem I was observing was part of the northern herd that's managed by the National Park Service.

As it continued to darken, I lit a campfire and I sat before it while continuing to watch the horses graze.

After a little while, I was astonished to see two of the mares join me at the fire.

They stood gazing at the fire with me for a time, then, the lead mare came over pushing the two aside and taking the center, standing right over the fire.

I was amazed to see her dip her nose into the fire not quite sure what to make of the behavior.

We all continued to enjoy the fire and eventually the remaining mare and stallion joined us.

And there we were, two species quietly enjoying a peaceful evening together.

Other campers came along and, seeing the horses around the fire, I heard exclamations of, "Wow, look at this!" and "Can you believe this!" while cameras clicked away.

I never thought I'd experience such while visiting Assateague Island but the moment was surely a gift from the horses who let me share their space and a moment that seemed primordial.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Me, a whale, the sky, the sand, the seagulls and the sea

I set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. but was up at 5:50 a.m. I was eager to get going. I did the usual morning routine and had a quick cup of coffee. I was in the rental car by 6:18 a.m for the short drive to the parking area at the Otis Pike Wilderness Area on Fire Island National Seashore.

Two days earlier, a friend I was visiting on Long Island mentioned that a whale had washed ashore. The conversation moved to other topics and I did not ask where.

A day later, I visited the ranger station at the wilderness area. While in conversation with a ranger, he mentioned that a whale had washed ashore. I thought to myself that this must be the same whale my friend told me about. Quickly, I asked the ranger where and he said about three-quarters of a mile down the beach heading west.

I was camping at Smith Point County Park and the Otis Pike Wilderness area is adjacent. How fortunate I was, I thought, to have the opportunity to see a whale.

I would rather see a live whale then a dead one, but I was aware of the human-caused perils they face from hunting to ship strikes to pollution. Not knowing just what had killed the whale -- perhaps it was a natural death -- nevertheless I wanted to pay my respects and knew I had to make the trek.

I had a tight schedule that day so I planned on going early the next morning.

And here I was. The parking lot was deserted when I arrived and the sun was not yet over the horizon.

Determined, I began my hike into the wilderness.

Dawn at the Otis Pike Wilderness Area looking west

I walked quickly and it was not easy going. There was little, if any, hard areas of the sand to walk on and my sneakers sunk in. The tide was coming in and I knew I had to move quickly. I kept looking to the west down the long stretch of shoreline to see if I could sight the whale to get a sense of the distance. I saw nothing but beach.

Suddenly, I realized how alone I was. There was not one other person on the beach. It was me, the sea and the seagulls.

I liked the feeling and, oddly, had no fear at all.

I continued to hike, and at one point, sunk deep into the sand from the incoming tide. I kept my eyes on the beach, continuously stepping around saturated sand and hiking around slowly filling pools of water.

I was so preoccupied by navigating a safe route, I lost track of time and distance.

After a bit, I looked up to get my bearing and about thirty-feet before me lay the whale.

I was immediately overcome with a humbleness that I've never experienced before.

I walked slowly to the whale, keeping my eyes on it as I drew closer. I stopped, not more than five feet away and stared. I grew emotional. I felt a deep pang of sorrow for this majestic giant of the sea lying alone on the beach.

I walked slowly around the whale, a humpback, taking in its eyes, mouth, baleen, fins, tail , skin and size - at least thirty-five feet in length.

Staring at an eye, I sensed an ancient and deep intelligence. I wondered where this whale had been, thought about his travels, his family, his life. What songs* had he sung? What could he tell me about the sea, his world?

I hoped that the demise of the whale was not human caused and I suddenly blurted out loud an apology to the whale for all the pain humans had caused his kind and that I had hoped he did not die because of something my kind had done. I would be ashamed if that were so.

I stood awhile with the whale, not wanting to leave.

I knelt down next to the whale, reached out my hand, lay it flat on the smooth skin in an act of connection and deep reverence for his life.

I then walked behind the whale and stood there staring out to sea then to the whale several times imagining him swimming back to his home. 

Farewell, my friend.

Note: Two weeks after my visit, it was determined "the whale suffered some type of trauma to its body which resulted in its demise."  

I also found out, that another whale had washed ashore a week previous to this one, a victim of a ship strike. 

*Humpback whales are known for the complex songs they sing to communicate.