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: 3

departingA couple of snaps from the road. I rode the Auto Train south to Florida and drove my car back, swinging wide to Charlotte to visit a colleague for dinner. As an added bonus, I got to ride Charlotte’s LYNX Blue Line in to Uptown for dinner.

MOTELBack in Titusville, I circled back to get a shot of this lovely MOTEL sign, calling out for Wade’s Motor Inn on Washington Ave. The M and the L have lost a few lights from their enclosing diamonds, but it’s still a cool sign.

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.

On deck: 19

bookshelf December 2019 1/4bookshelf December 2019 2/4My to-read bookshelf has spilled out into an annex of three to-read crates. Free books rescued from work, possibly interesting reads from book exchange, a few things of Leta’s that I might pick up, a good-intentions attempt to review my college calculus text (what’s a Lagrange multiplier, again?) (water-damaged from a small basement flood some years ago), a couple of doorstops for a long train journey, some finds from the AAUW used book sale, time to read Pirsig again.

bookshelf December 2019 3/4bookshelf December 2019 4/4

A mystery: 18

notepad 1notepad 2In Leta’s (and by inheritance, Ann’s) effects I found a promotional notepad from the Southern Railway System, with a handy list of freight facilities on the inside cover. (Leta’s grandfather worked for a railroad.) Southern would have used that branding up until about 1980. A historian of the system might be able to pin down a date, given the list of facilities. It’s possible that 200-79 on the inside cover encodes a printing date. Yankee that I am, I used up the notepad.

notepad 3On the back of the backing is the real mystery: the inscription GLV 823. A vehicle license plate number, perhaps? But what state? Who made the hasty note, and why did they use the backing rather than a leaf from the pad? Does it capture a red light runner? A hit-and-run accident? The imagination trembles.

Walk among the Giants

Stephanie Mason led a small group through very changeable weather this morning. This is a regular loop for her, following the River Trail from the C&O Canal NHP visitor center and returning along the canal towpath. Because this stretch of floodplain has some majestic trees, among them 200-year-old sycamores, she has styled this trip Walk Among the Giants.

overwinteringStephanie pointed out some abundant drifts of the basal rosettes of Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). I need learn that not all winter rosettes in the floodplain are Gill-over-the-Ground or Garlic Mustard.

scarce here 2scarce here 1We stopped for a Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii), an uncommon tree for the metro area.

At this point, my camera’s power gave out. But we did have some interesting discussions and opportunities for follow-up. I confessed a distaste for the messy suckerish habit of Box Elder (Acer negundo), yet Stephanie mentioned the tree’s food value for overwintering wildlife, and the rather attractive clusters of samaras persisting on the tree’s branches.

The question of where non-native invasive Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) came from came up (it’s native to Japan-Korea-China) and when it was introduced. Sources indicate that it was brought into North America in about 1890 as breeding stock for other blackberry cultivars.

It is used today by berry breeders to add specific genes to berry varieties or species. Wineberry is an example of one man’s flower being another man’s weed. Given containment, wineberry has desirable and useful qualities, but due to its invasive nature, it is considered a significant pest of agricultural and natural ecosystems.

We saw a good ten or twenty Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) feeding and loafing on the river.

VMN conference 2019

Three interesting workshops at the conference, formally the Virginia Master Naturalist Program Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training, held this year in Harrisonburg.

Michael Pelton and David Kocka talked about the natural history of American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)—which comes in four color morphs, including the blue-gray “glacier bear” found in the Pacific Northwest—as well as problems in human-bear interactions. Fun fact: bears actually do eat Bear Corn (Conophilus americana).

Emily Thorne’s dissertation research consists of understanding the Virginia habitat preferences, distribution, and genetics of Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spirogale putorius). She’s recruiting VMN volunteers to set up and monitor game cameras pretty much statewide; it’s known from the Blue Ridge west, but could be found east of the mountains as well. This little critter does a handstand as a defensive warning behavior—very cute.

Chelsey Faller, Wildlife Disease Biologist with DGIF, is spreading the word about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Virginia. 69 cases have been reported in the state since its arrival in 2009. It’s particularly prevalent in Frederick County, and a Disease Management Area has been established for Frederick, Shenandoah and two adjacent counties. Inspections of deer harvested this season in Shenandoah County are mandatory.

right theresnip snipFor a hands-on exercise, we learned how to perform the dissection to obtain specimens for lab testing. Although CWD is a prion disease that affects the nervous system, in White-tailed Deer it can first be detected in the lymphatic system. So the dissection removes the retropharangeal lymph nodes (behind the voice box).

open wideHow to age a deer? Pry open its jaws with this gizmo and check the dentition.

Chelsey is also looking for volunteers at check stations.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 7

Plants Report

I hadn’t planned on spending any time botanizing… and yet, these interesting plants kept appearing and reappearing. Our guide Elis had a folding brochure with some of the very most common and conspicuous plants of Iceland, but midway through the trip I felt the need to pick up Hörður Kristinsson’s Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland (2017, 3/e), with entries for 465 species (including 17 for genus Saxifraga—go figure). With the brochure, I quickly learned to recognize Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Vallhumall), the non-native invasive Nootka Lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) (Lúpína), and Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica) (Ætihvönn), a truly preposterous-looking plant.

But, provisioned with Hörður, I went looking for more. Some of the following IDs are rather provisional.

This bushy prostrate plant, with flowers gone by, was very common, and the first to catch my eye: possibly Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpina).

The next day, on the grounds of our hotel in Hövn, Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a mystery plant with purple tepals, Mother of Thyme (Thymus praecox), and unmistakeable Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) (Bláklukka).

Equipped with a search image from Elis’s brochure, I spotted something interesting and hopped off the bus in Djúpivogur to get a quick snap of the lovely daisy-like Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum).

So, Heather (Calluna vulgraris) is actually a thing.

In the north, at the Ásbyrgi nature reserve, peely-barked Downy Birch (Betula pubescens).

moonscapeLet us not overlook the pioneers of the barrens and lava fields. There are indeed places in the highlands where nothing is growing.

footholdfoothold 2Nevertheless, there are lava fields that are in the very slow process of being overrun by lichens, mosses, grasses, creeping flowers, and taller things. I took a morning walk around our hotel at Mývatn. All sorts of green things happening. Shrubs sheltering in the potholes.

watch your stepBut watch your step!

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 6

Other Reports

Pro tip: As you are preparing your luggage for a flight to Keflavík (KEF), do not pack your windbreaker in your checked baggage. You’re going to need it for the short scrambles to and from the shuttle bus that will take you to the terminal. Sited on a peninsula jutting out into the North Atlantic, the air field is well positioned for the defense of sea lanes (as it so served in WW II). But the nasty cross winds make it an adventure to traverse on foot, at any time of the day.

balcony viewThis is the quite pleasant view from my shared balcony at the elegant Hotel Holt. Several of my guides emphasized that Iceland is somewhat allergic to city planning—hence the lack of other commercial amenities around this hotel. (On the other hand, my second hotel, the Hotel Reykjavík Centrum, was surrounded by eateries and night life.) The University of Iceland campus is visible in the distance.

walltourists for scaleÞingvellir National Park is one of the places where the rift between the North Atlantic and Eurasian Plates is visible on land. I’m standing in the rift, with the North American Plate looming above and on the left. Þingvellir was the meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament, which first met there in 930. As dramatic as the scenery might be, this place was more or less centrally located for the delegates traveling to it across the country, and the rift valley afforded relatively flat terrain.

where does the water go?Rifts and cracks mean interesting water features.

tourist for scaleThe atmosphere of the Njámafjall hot springs area in the highlands of the north is sulphurous. Stay on the boardwalk, and make sure you’re standing upwind!

not big sur 1not big sur 2In the East Fjords, this “golly” prospect is on highway #1 between Höfn and Djúpivogur. At left, looking north, and at right, looking south. We didn’t stop for the lighthouse at Hvalnes. Iceland needs to up its lighthouse game.

the chair nowhereIt’s a long drive to get anywhere in the East Fjords. Sometimes you just have find opportunities to stop, no matter how silly—like the chair nowhere.

Dark Hollow Falls loop

common mysteryIt’s Labor Day, so it’s time for a walk in the park. I shared Dark Hollow Falls with many weekenders; the horse trail back from Fisher’s Gap was much quieter. I made the acquaintance of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), which popped up all over the place. Why have I not noticed this flower before? I also found a little patch of Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). Both IDs resisted efforts to key them out; thanks, iNaturalist! About 4 miles in the loop, 215 meters of elevation change, a leisurely 3:10 for the circuit.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 5

Waterfalls Report

Iceland has a few waterfalls.

And we stopped for many more gorgeous cascades than I could photograph. I was chasing cliff-nesting seabirds at Seljalandsfoss, for instance. But I did get my camera out for a few of them.

plungingoh, there it goesGullfoss (the gull means “golden,” like the local beer, but I never got an explanation of why the name applies to these falls) is the mystery waterfall, as the water appears to disappear into a crack in the earth. Once you look back, you can see where it’s gone to.

quick stopFossá (“waterfall-river”) in the East Fjords region might be my favorite. It’s small, not spectacular, but it does what a waterfall needs to do. According to an interpretive sign at the site, the average flow is 8 m3/sec, but in spate the flow can exceed 150 m3/sec, and a peak in 1980 was measured at 395 m3/sec. A 30 kW power plant takes off some of the river’s energy.

the beastDettifoss, in the north, is nicknamed “the beast.” This one feels as powerful as Niagara.

cleanAt right is Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the outflow from Dettifoss. The river continuum model of stream ecology doesn’t really fit Icelandic rivers. There is very little vegetation along the banks to fall into the water, and thereby to feed shredders and other organisms. These cold-clean-rocky, often braided, streams are strange and quite beautiful.

the beauty“The beauty” to Dettifoss’s beast, so they say, is Goðafoss. I’ll buy that.

Mammals Report

my rented mountOn our first day of the bus tour, we stopped at Sólhestur farm for a short ride on the local breed of Icelandic horse. My ride, whose name I didn’t quite catch, patiently endured my clumsy mount and dismount. (I haven’t been on any kind of horse since summer camp as a kid, and I am sure that all equines compare notes on what I klutz I am in the saddle.) Only 3 of our busload of 14 opted for the ride, while almost all of us did the glacier. Hunh.

the farm and the backdropramblingThe farm is in the shadow of Ingólfsfjall. At left, you can see the no-barn solution to storing fodder for livestock: great bales of hay wrapped in plastic sheeting. At right, more horsey friends.

ready for usone more glacier shotAt the end of our three-quarter loop around the island country, we boarded the Hólmasól in Akureyri, to see some cetaceans. And perhaps some more glaciers, while we were at it.

the speckled oneOur guide turned up a small handful of Megaptera novaeangliae (Humpback Whale) in the fjord. It turns out that humpbacks can be individually identified by patterns on their backs and flukes. So, for instance, this whale has the nickname “speckled” (maybe “deckled”? audio quality on the boat was sub-optimal).

the hooked onethe hooked one's flukesWhile this fellow, a particular favorite of our guide, can be distinguished by the hook in the dorsal fin.