Power line grassland

pendentabundanceNelson DeBarros led a walk for the Potowmack Grass Bunch and FCPA staff to a power line easement along South Run. This is a high-quality patch that probably benefited from a fire on 1 April. About an acre was burned.

I recorded one grass observation (to maintain my Grass Bunch apprenticeship), Nuttall’s Reedgrass (Greenechloa coarctica), but mostly I went after yellow forbs, as is my wont. Maryland Golden-Aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is new to me, and it’s always good to have someone help with an ID of Bearded Beggarticks (Tickseed Sunflower) (Bidens aristosa).

Purple False Foxglove (Agalinus purpurea) is hemiparasitic on graminoids and other hosts. Another illustration of my (not well-articulated) principle that every organism has a different way to make/buy/beg/borrow/steal a living from its environment.

Sacramento 2023

Boots on the ground (well, sneakers) in Sacramento. I met the abundant Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), host to a wasp that induces huge apple-like galls; got reacquainted with Spotted Towhee (Pipilio maculatus); found new dragonflies, like Variegated Medowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum ); puzzled over yet another carrot family member, Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides); and watched a small flock of songbirds that iNat and I are still sorting out.

SanchoHere’s faithful Sancho the Chevy Bolt, my rental car, taking a break in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, where I unsuccessfully sought a jinx bird who shall remain unnamed. eBird reported only a few individuals lingering in the week prior. All in all, August is rarely a good month for birding, wherever you are in the north, but this trip wasn’t just about birding.

The arboretum at the University of California, Davis was quite nice, and worth the quick trip. And the Crocker Art Museum, newly expanded since my last trip west, was a pleasant surprise. There’s some great ceramics there, and a decent collection of 20th and 21st century work. More Wayne Thiebaud than you usually get to see.

going outarriving 2arriving 1I rode the light rail out to Folsom and had a dish of ice cream in memory of Mom.

Summary statistics and other data for the trip:

  • Observations of Chris Ware in Oak Park: 0
  • El car numbers: 5030, 2621, 5374, 5471, 5483, 5195 (twice), 5573, 5291, 5435, 5198, 5286
  • Trainspotters spotted: 3
  • Zephyr Salutes (none returned) along Moon River: I lost count

A passage in Jonathan Franzen’s recent “The Problem of Nature Writing” struck a note with me:

The very presence of a piece of writing leads us to expect an argument from it, if only an implicit argument for its existence. And, if the reader isn’t also offered an explicit argument, he or she may assign one to the piece, to fill the void. I confess to having had the curmudgeonly thought, while reading an account of someone’s visit to an exotic place like Borneo, that the conclusion to be drawn from it is that the writer has superior sensitivity to nature or superior luck in getting to go to such a place. This was surely not the intended argument. But avoiding the implication of “Admire me” or “Envy me” requires more attention to one’s tone of written voice than one might guess.

Whether it’s Borneo (never been) or the Blue Ridge, it’s true that I am fortunate to have the resources to travel across the commonwealth (and sometimes the country) and to bring back a bit of documentation. And I try to remember that I’m fortunate.

I keep this blog (a) to exercise my writing muscles, (b) to occasionally demonstrate to someone else that I can string sentences together, albeit with capricious use of punctuation and conjunctions, and (c) to leave a record for myself that I can come back to. OK, every once in a while (d) I get to write about something cool that I accomplished.

I’m too old to be the object of someone’s admiration. I guess that I need to keep that in mind.

Clifton Institute bioblitz August 2023

looking more or less northAlmost perfect weather yesterday for traipsing and documenting. We surveyed a farm up on the Piedmont of western Fauquier County that is being converted from cattle pasture to a more native plant-based flora.

low flowgetting the shotquarryThe farm backs on to an upper reach of the Rappahannock River, this summer not running with much water due to our moderate drought. But Bert Harris and helpers managed to net a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) for observation and release.

After I chased an Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) for half an hour, it settled down to sally from a perch, giving me some excellent, well-lighted looks. I’m not fond of Box Elder (Acer negundo) as a rule, but some of the trees in the river bottom are delightfully gnarly and chonky.

It’s a bioblitz, so everything counts, including Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) and Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This one caught our attention because it was loudly gnawing on a bone.

After sifting out the out-of-focus shots and doing my best to color-correct the greenish cast given off by the mercury vapor lamp, I was able to contribute 49 observations to the project.

At the end of the day, as we started to drift back towards the cars, someone gave up a shout, because a female Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) had come to the light.

Clifton Institute NABA Butterfly Count 2023

I stepped into the role of sector co-leader for this year’s Clifton count. I did some scouting on Thursday, if anything to start to make sense of the maze of mown paths in the Woodcock tract and elsewhere.

lunchtimeVery pleasant weather on Saturday. Not outstanding numbers, but everybody had fun. Our less experienced team members found all the good stuff: Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor).

At the park: 143

Wrapping up reporting for the 2023 nesting season.

OK, with the last results coming in from far-flung precincts, I can total up results for our nesting season.

For our Wood Ducks, 7 nests started, 1 nest lost to predation, 2 nests abandoned for unknown reasons, 4 nests fledged; 76 eggs laid, 53 ducklings fledged. For our Hooded Mergansers, 4 nests started, 4 nests fledged; 47 eggs laid, 45 ducklings fledged. Good absolute numbers for WODU, but a much better fledging rate for HOME….

Once again, thank you, monitors and staff!

Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser trend chart

Clifton Institute dragonfly/damselfly count 2023

A couple highlights (and a lowlight) from Sunday’s count.

At Silver Lake Regional Park, a new damsel for me, Blue-ringed Dancer (Argia sedula). At Leopold’s Preserve, nice images of Calico Pennants (Celithemis elisa), both male and female.

We got good looks (no pix) of a Comet Darner zipping across one of the ponds at Leopold’s.

And along Broad Run behind the houses adjacent to Leopold’s, my first encounter with Spotted Lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) in life.

Since I knew the track at Silver Lake, I changed to my more comfortable shoes so that I could keep up with Larry until nearly 16:00.

BANO banding at Clifton Institute

out of the boxin the handClifton Institute technician Caylen Wolfer has her banding kit out again, this time for Barn Owl (Tyto alba) nestlings, just about ready to fledge. A few of us got to ride along.

There are five nestlings (a/k/a fluffballs) in this nest box, which replaced (as far as the owls were concerned) a barn that was pulled down in order to make room for a greenhouse.

Baicich and Harrison write that the owlets are flying after about 60 days in the nest.

I could spot one bird in the box before Caylen got her mitts on it, so this sighting is ABA countable. Yay!

Sweet Run State Park

Virginia’s newest State Park is Sweet Run SP, not far from Harpers Ferry and nestled in the Blue Ridge synclinorum. The site of the former Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, the amenities have not yet been updated to state park standards. Without a GPS, you’d likely not find the gravel driveway leading off Virginia 671.

to be upgradedI had a couple hours before visiting Charlie in the afternoon, so I walked the Farmstead Loop Trail. The pleasant news is that, in this park, the trails are shorter than they look on the map. Walking counterclockwise around the loop, there’s only one stretch of climbing. The blazes are sufficient for you to find your way around in this woods.

I pulled a reasonably good recording of Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina ).

I’ve a mind to return for a longer visit.

Acidic seepage swamp in Fairfax County

look but don't touchNelson DeBarros led a walk to a small acidic seepage swamp tucked into a Franconia neighborhood. The park is variously named Springfield Forest Park or Franconia Forest Park, depending on whose map you use. Here, Nelson points out a Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), while all of us keep our distance.

rather drydoing wellThe wetland was rather dry today, but it was supporting a vigorous community of acid-loving heaths, like Black Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum), as well as some drifts of Netted Chain Fern (Lorinseria areolata)—which I learned as Woodwardia.

For the most part, I left the sedges and rushes to Grass Buncher Margaret C, but I did pick up the tidbit that the green above the inflorescence on Juncus effusus is actually a bract, not an extension of the culm.

A bitsy Krigia virginica had escaped the mower in a patch near the play equipment. Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) was coming into fruit—with a big swath of unidentified galls on its leaves.

Southside Virginia getaway

Continuing to chase badges in the Virginia State Parks Trail Quest program, I booked a motel room in Clarksville and laid out an itinerary to visit three parks (starting with Occoneechee, across the bridge over the Kerr Reservoir) and two Natural Area Preserves. On my way home, I added a stop at Lake Anna State Park, bringing my parks-visited count to 13.

Even accounting for the fact that I was visiting midweek, traffic at the parks was much reduced from the early COVID-19 months.

At the visitor center for Staunton River State Park, there’s a winding path mowed through a meadow that’s better visited in the morning when your eyes and legs are fresh. “Winding” is too weak: “labyrinth” is more like it.

Turkey Run Trail in Lake Anna turned up numerous Blue-fronted Dancers (Argia apicalis), while the railroad trail at Staunton River Battlefield Park yielded a Blue-Tipped Dancer (A. tibialis).

on the road againThe centerpiece of the road trip was Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve, in Halifax County. Dr. Hardtacks, parked outside the gate, is all ready to help with the visit.

serried 1serried 2The preserve is in the process of being converted from pine farm to the open savannah that was typical in pre-contact days. When the trees are lined up like dominoes, you know you’re looking at a farm.

restored savannahHere’s a view of the restored habitat. I found several plants to puzzle out, including Lobelia spicata, an evening primrose (a nemesis species for me), a skullcap (Scutellaria sp.), and Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina).

But the best observation of the stop was hearing, and then later flushing, Northern Bobwhite (Colinus viginianus). I don’t think I’ve seen bobwhite since the days that I birded with Susan.

The pickins at Chub Sandhill NAP, in Sussex County, were pretty slim, although I did find a species of Venus’s Looking Glass (Triodanis perfoliata) on the roadside. However, the best bit of the visit was stumbling across a restoration area of Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris). I’ve seen this tree in slide shows, but nothing can prepare you for what you see in the field: its spray of needles is magnificent.

I’m always on the lookout for tiger beetles. The only ones I find around here are Six-spotteds (Cicindela sexguttata). Looking at one of my zoomed-in crops, I noticed that it’s quite common to see an extra pair of spots, in the middle of each elytron rather than along the edge. We should have called them eight-spotted tiger beetles.

Box Turtle research at Clifton Institute

Andrew Eberly of the Clifton Institute led a show-and-tell-and-do workshop on the organization’s research into Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina). The research focuses on what habitats the turtles are using, and what habitats nearby that they give a pass to. Like the kestrel research, one of the goals is to inform landowners about management choices (i.e., when and how to mow). The Institute has numbered more than 100 turtles (there are lots on the 900ac property) with small, harmless notches on the edge of the carapace.

tale of the tapeweigh-inOne aspect of the research is simple mark-recapture, with the collection of various vitals. Andrew is weighing and measuring a turtle that hadn’t been observed on the property before—so it’s a new entry in the database.

found 'ergot my ears onCertain of the turtles carry radio transmitters (attached with marine glue to the carapace). These turtles are surveyed more regularly. They are relocated with a receiver and antenna (not unlike the gear that I saw in use in North Carolina tracking Piping Plovers). Each turtle is transmitting on a distinct frequency, and the transmitters are good for about 400 days.

To sample nearby habitat that a turtle isn’t using requires finding a randomly selected point within a 100m radius of where it was found. Bushwhacking required.

At the park: 142

The season is winding down:

Box 67 - 7 May 2023The Magnificent Seven did a quick run through the boxes, as we had competing obligations later in the day. Four boxes completed hatching, including Box #67, bringing us up to 7 successful clutches this season. The three ducklings that I found in the box two weeks ago had departed the box (whew!). B made some repairs to Box #3, but reported that the hardware cloth needed immediate repair; C said that he would fix it that afternoon. The other interesting thing about #3 is that the Wood Duck hen is incubating only 3 eggs. (Box #67 at left.)

Box 60 - 7 May 2023Box 60 - 7 May 2023We’ll do one more check-em-all pass on Sunday, 21 May, with the expectation that we will have hatches in Boxes #10 and #3. It would be possible but unusual for a new clutch to be started between now and then. I will experiment with sealing gaps around the predator guards for a few of the boxes…. (Box #60 at left and right.)


Kestrel research at Clifton Institute

Sam, beforeSam, afterYesterday’s trip to Warrenton provided a recap of current research results from studying American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) behavior in the field, a bit of hands-on experience preparing ink traps (to detect the presence of prey items) and walking transects (ditto), and the opportunity to observe (at a safe remove) a female kestrel being fitted with a GPS-based transmitter. At right, the bird (nicknamed Sam [her mate is Frodo]) after getting her backpack.

A few Eastern Forktails (schnura verticalis) (and) and dragonflies were flying at the Institute.