Walker Nature Center

Staying close to home, I walked over to Reston’s Walker Nature Center, past the high school and the mini-mall with the Domino’s and 7-Eleven. A crossing over Snakeden Run was not passable after yesterday’s rain—too muddy/slippery across the new weir.

The center’s trails are not well-marked, but the place is small enough that you can’t get lost. Not too many folks out in the woods on this unseasonably pleasant day. Pretty much our usual winter birds in the suburbs. Spotted a likely Hermit Thrush, a couple Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), a teed-up Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). Coming the back way to the high school (RA’s maps really need an update in this patch), I heard a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) vocalization I’d not heard before, and got a quick photo of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), just to boost my iNaturalist species count.

My year in hikes and field trips, 2020

Oh, dear. I managed to visit one new state park (with my spiffy new annual parking pass). But a minor injury in August piled on to other restrictions leads to a puny list this year:

A few early work trips to my home park, Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Va.

The Mason and Bailey Club did not meet this year.

Lost Mountain loop

Another trip to Sky Meadows State Park, but this time to east side of U.S. 17, the Lost Mountain side. I set out from the Turner Pond parking area—I was one car too late to park in the nearer parking area.

The Rolling Meadows Trail is just what it says: some gentle ups and downs around grasslands. One field was being grazed. Once you clear the first ridge, traffic noise from the highway is somewhat muffled. And indeed I was listening more than looking today.

Best bird of the walk was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). If he was talking, I didn’t hear those top notes. I did see and hear a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

I saw as many mounted travelers as walkers. Equally friendly.

aren't we a pair?There is an unnamed tributary of Gap Run that you have to ford going and coming on the Rolling Meadows Trail. The Washington’s Ridge Trail is scored ◆ Difficult by the park’s trail guide, but it’s barely a ■ Moderate.

About 3 miles, 40 meters elevation change, 2:30, via Corporal Morgan, Rolling Meadows, and Washington’s Ridge Trails.

I found a smidgen of Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron). And I made the acquaintance of Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus), which was running all over the place. The Flora of Virginia gives it a *?.

Shenandoah River State Park

viewpointFollowing my very casual plan to visit more state parks, I rolled out to the Ridge and Valley Province for a pleasant visit to Shenandoah River State Park. It’s a relatively new park (1999), and indeed there is a dramatic overlook of the South Fork.

The park is oriented to recreational activities: there’s a canoe launch; all of the hiking trails are open to bikes; picnic shelters and parking spaces are numerous. But, fortunately for this loner, attendance was relatively sparse on this overcast November day.

markerI picked the moderate-rated Allen’s Mountain Trail for a walk. Trails and junctions are clearly marked, once you find the trailhead. Walking is easy, with switchbacks around some steep ravines, rather than up-and-downs.

left behindtwo-stemmedI was looking for overwintering plants, but found only a scattering of Chimaphila maculata. In the understory, evergreen Kalmia latifolia was in evidence. Overstory trees were a typical mix of oaks, pines, a little hickory and beech. The land certainly shows the marks of human occupation; this White Oak was cut, then resprouted two stems.

115 meters of elevation change, 3+ miles of distance, 2:30 for the round trip.

And my mystery berry-ish observation turned out to be Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens), a plant that I’ve seen before but totally stumped me in the field today. It’s just ones and twos in the park, nothing like the profusion that Mark Garland showed us in the Pine Barrens.

At the park: 111

First time back in Huntley Meadows Park since mid-March. The parking lot was already hopping by 07:30. The big Red Maple by the “phoebe bridge” came down. I chatted with P.J., who was working an improvised contact station at the boardwalk entrance. No nest box work today, just birds and botany. Not much happening out on the water, but I still listed 25 bird species. Sweet Cicely (Osmorhiza sp.) has already gone to fruit. The summer bloomers are popping open: Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) and Purple Milkweed (Ascleapias purpurascens) with its non-exserted horns. I keyed out Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) and Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata).

Mason Neck State Park

I had a quite pleasant out-and-back walk in Mason Neck State Park along the Dogue and Meadow View Trails: about 3 miles in 3:00. A little muggy, but ample shade in woods of beech and holly. I (mostly heard) detected 25 of our usual species, with visuals on Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) and Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) (seen but not heard?!). At the observation mini-tower at the (more or less recently) restored wet meadow, I heard (just once!) a King Rail (Rallus elegans).

I pulled a recording of what must be amphibian activity, but I can’t pin it down.

It’s always nice to stop for some cloud ears. The Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in this woods is very white, showing not much pink at all. This is the first time I slowed down to look at the flowers of American Holly (Ilex opaca).

Sky Meadows State Park

Virginia state parks are still open for day use! A staffer directed me to a spot in the overflow parking area at 10:30 on a pleasant, gusty Saturday morning.

I made a loop with the North and South Ridge Trails, about 3 miles in 3:15. That 700-foot (or so) climb just gets harder every year, but I can still do it, a few minutes at a time. Not too busy on the trails, mostly couples and small groups.

Among the butterflies, Eastern Tailed-blues were out, along with a few Zebra Swallowtails. A quick glimpse of an anglewing. Trees had not leafed out, so there were some spring ephemerals: Spring Beauty on the warmer, lower slopes; Bloodroot at higher elevations; a bit of Early Saxifrage; Cut-leaved Toothwort was fairly common; Rue Anemone always confuses me the first time I see it for the year.

Field Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks singing in the pastures.

I may have missed it the last time I was in the park: the American Chestnut Foundation has a baby orchard planted along the Boston Mill Road.

At the park (not): 109

This week’s message to my team:

I believe that all the team has received word from Halley that volunteer activities at the Park remain suspended. Quite disappointing, but necessary.

I hope, but don’t expect, that the siege will be lifted and that we can get at least one work day in at the end of the season, maybe mid-May or later.

’til then, as a thin compensation, I’ll offer a couple of YouTubes: Wood Ducks hanging out and 23 (!) ducklings exiting a box.

Stay safe, thanks for your patience, and wash your hands!

At the park: 108

From this week’s report:

No new nests started this week. We’re watching box #5, which has a full clutch of eggs but no evidence of incubation. Chris rescued my stick, which went for an extended swim in the new pool by the observation tower.

We plan to work again next week, 22 March. We will keep an ear out for guidance from the Park.

At the park: 107

First week of nest box monitoring. From my report:

box 5Earlier and earlier! We have eggs in three of our boxes already: 12 Hooded Merganser eggs in #5 (on the remains of last year’s songbird nest), 13 Hooded Merganser eggs in #7, and 4 Wood Duck eggs in #1 — all subject to recheck and confirmation.

We did not fill boxes #68, #60, and #13 with chips, in anticipation of their replacement. Box #13 is the priority for replacement: the term of art applied was “hot mess.”

Bonus bird sighting was a flock of 500+ Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) moving across lower Barnyard Run.

iced-over easyProtip: your walking stick serves double duty as an icebreaker.

Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival 2020: 2

I took a break from the birds to look at some specialties of Floridian flora with Jim Stahl. We walked the grounds of the Merritt Island NWR visitor center (some of the greatest hits had interpretive signs), as well as the oak hammock trail not far from there.

We learned some quick keys for distinguishing between two very common native palms: the shrubby Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and the tree-sized, covered with “boots,” Cabbage Palm (Sabal palmetto). Saw Palmetto has flat fronds and those prickles, while a Cabbage Palm leaf has a central vein that causes the leaf to form a V, and an older leaf will split along this vein. Cabbage Palm also shows brown stringy bits. On a Saw Palmetto, the fronts radiate from the distal end of the petiole, while a Cabbage Palm is costapalmate: the petiole extends farther into a midrib, forming sort of a teardrop shape.

terminalaxillaryJim pointed out two myrsine species, Marlberry at left and “Rapanea” at right.

We saw far too many examples of the non-native invasive Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolia), one of six species on the refuge’s hit list. The tree was in bright red fruit in January.

upsideundersideThe heavy, ruddy streaks of sori on Swamp Fern (Blechnum serrulatum) are quite distinctive.

interpretedFlorida has a very large fern with pinnae that suggest our local Christmas Fern; it’s Acrostichum danaeifolium. Perhaps now I can remember the back half of the scientific name of our fern, Polystichum acrostichoides.

coastal plain willowAnd a specialty willow, Salix caroliniana.

Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival 2020: 1

I returned to Florida for the first time in far too many years for my first SCBWF. I twitched 120 species, give or take, including 10 new birds for me. Many of my lifers were Florida specialties, including Snail Kite (Rostrhamus sociabilis) and the introduced Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio). Compared to the similarly-colored Purple Gallinule, the swamphen is huge.

let's take a walkI did some pre-birding in Ocala NF before the festival opened, hoping to find a Florida Scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) for myself. No bird, but I did walk the Florida National Scenic Trail for about 100 meters.

where are the birds?Many very early mornings, but absolutely worth the missed sleep. Here, sunrise on the St. Johns River.

they're out thereOn a special trip to St. Johns NWR, we heard Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) responding to a recording (habitat photo at left). Then, a couple days later, a few of us at Merritt Island NWR got a fleeting visual of the bird!

VABSomewhat more conspicuous on Merritt Island was the Vehicle Assembly Building on the Kennedy Space Center campus.

Trip leader David Simpson likes to call Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) the flying Cuban sandwich, because of its appressed body.

get on that birdChasing sharp-tailed sparrows in Shiloh Marsh, we had some extra company: a Canadian film crew collecting footage for a documentary. They were following Paul, seen here at the extreme left in the photo.

I was excited to see a few birds that weren’t new to me, but might as well have been, since I see them so rarely: Mottled Duck (Anas fulvigula), Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata), Sora (Porzana carolina), Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), Black-bellied Whistling Duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis). Over on iNaturalist, I have posted some observations of the easier-to-spot Limpkin (catching an apple snail) and Tricolored Heron, as well as a couple butterflies: White Peacock and Long-tailed Skipper (missing its long tails).

try netsOur pelagic trip results were somewhat subdued (it’s entirely possible that our bad luck was due to the banana that someone brought on the boat), but we had some fun scooting around the shrimp boats. The captain will drop small “try nets” to sample the waters, haul them in and count the shrimp that have been caught, then toss the bycatch back. That’s when our birdy friends swing into action. Here, the Miss Lynn is hauling in a try net.

On our return from the Gulf Stream, about 30 miles offshore, our chum attracted a couple of kleptoparasitic Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), who put on quite the show harassing the terns, gulls, and pelicans just trying to catch an honest meal.

Every festival is a little different. Perhaps the most comfortable difference of Space Coast was the extra room in our buses for the longer trips. I had a double seat to myself for all three trips.

target speciesAnd after all that, I did get my scrub-jay.