Category Archives: Wanderings

More signs of Spring!

Out with the cold, in with the woo. 
~E. Marshall, “Spring Thought”

A hike this afternoon at Arabia Mountain (my favorite local place!) led to a couple good finds. A very brave Jay scooped up this gelatinous mass of salamander eggs(?) from a vernal pool for me to poke and squirm at. There were lots of these (that I’m guessing might be Spotted Salamanders) and a couple of others that maybe are Blue Spotted Salamander eggs.

Very cool, kinda gross and entirely too squishy for my taste.

: )

The opposite end of the same vernal pool held lots of teeny-weeny frog tadpoles… could these be chorus frogs in my reflection?
I’m hoping Spring is making progress towards wherever you are…

Trout lilies, by the millions

We very purposefully stumbled upon the Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve near Cairo GA this past weekend. Cairo (pronounced like the famous syrup) is not a place that you can easily stumble upon… it’s really in the middle of nowhere. There’s no hint from the roadside to the casual passer-by of the miracle contained beneath its trees.


Probably, I expected that the people who wrote the brochure were exaggerating.

: )

Nope… millions of Trout Lilies bloom in this very special place beside a stretch of highway that looks like every other stretch of highway in GA.

Trout lilies as ground cover, can you imagine?

I suspect that this was, for many years, a closely guarded “secret spot” of the local wildflower enthusiasts. I also suspect that it was only made available for public enjoyment when it became threatened by a road crew or a developer and the locals needed money to preserve it. Not that it matters any; it’s now owned by county government and protected as the treasure it is…

Trout Lilies are a common harbinger of Spring in the Northeast; I don’t believe they’re very common in this part of the country and certainly not in this number. It’s said that this is the largest concentration anywhere. The day we visited was overcast and it was almost dark by the time we found the spot… that’s evidenced by the nearly closed flowers. We also found many, many Spotted Trillium and a couple (impossible to photograph) Twayblade Orchids. I’d think with more time there, I might’ve found all sorts of interesting things.

If you want to go out looking for Trout Lilies in your part of the world, pick a sunny afternoon (when the flowers will be fully open!) and look for them blooming on wet hillsides near streams. They’re a spring ephemeral, so do all their work of blooming and setting seed before the forest canopy puts them into shade for the season. Go early while it’s still freezing cold out. It makes finding them sweeter, trust me. Happy hunting and let me know what you find!

A counting

There’s 92 species of birds on the list for the year already; some favorites are American Pipit, Loggerhead Shrike and Wilson’s Plover. I’ve never kept a year list before. I don’t generally “do” lists, but thought it might be entertaining for a while. I’m wondering what a reasonable expectation for the year might be… 200? 250? Any additional birds will accumulate slowly until Spring, unless of course there’s travel involved. 2013 was a good year for new birds for me and I took a couple nice trips that added to my (only in my head) life list.


In February, we went to Sanibel Island, Ding Darling NWR, Cape Coral and Ft. DeSoto. The weather was crappy and the drive was interminable, but I hope to get back to that area sometime. Lots of neat birds…

Common Ground Dove – easily overlooked, but striking when they show their rusty wings.

Monk Parakeets feeding in the same field we found this Burrowing Owl; hard to say which felt more unlikely to this Jersey Girl.

: )

We also saw Nanday Parakeets and a Long-billed Curlew on that trip. Talk about impossible to imagine birds!

This Vermillion Flycatcher was probably the least expected bird I added to my nonexistent life list last year – just gorgeous! A friend of a friend on FB gave me directions to a town just west of Tallahassee and I found it in the exact tree where he said it would be – imagine!

I’ve no idea what new birds 2014 holds for me…

Surprise yourself

May your coming year be 
filled with magic and
dreams and good
madness. I hope you read
some fine books and kiss
someone who thinks
you’re wonderful, and
don’t forget to make some
art – write or draw or build
or sing or live as only you
can. And I hope,
somewhere in the next
year, you surprise
-Neil Gaiman
Happy New Year!


We went wandering over to Apalachicola this afternoon to look at the shrimp boats there and found this gentleman first. He came over to tell us about the bald eagle he sees around the marina. I thought maybe he was the watchman, but no, he said he’s camping out there beneath the maritime museum building until they give him a job. He told us he’s worked on fishing boats in Alaska too, so I figure he can handle the Florida cold.

This photo is #10 in my 100 strangers project. Find out more about the project and see pictures taken by other photographers at Flickr 100 Strangers or

Happiness doubled by wonder

Cape May Point, Sandhill Cranes

It’s easy for me to forget where I am sometimes and get excited about birds that I shouldn’t. Eastern Phoebes and Pine Warblers, for example. They merit a FOS (first of season) post heralding the arrival of Spring to the local birding group in NJ, but here they’re regulars and spend the winter without anyone getting excited. The opposite of that almost happened with these Sandhill Cranes passing over Cape May Point… in Atlanta you can see scores of them heading south along the interstate on any fall day, but in NJ, they’re something special. In my heart, they’re something special. The wild sound of their cries drifted back to me long after they’d soared out of sight.

While I would’ve loved to visit all my favorite places and all my favorite people, there just wasn’t enough time. There was a visit to Sandy Hook for a very-far-away Snowy Owl and a drive past the coastal ponds that hold ducks all winter long. There weren’t many ducks yet, but those familiar places felt good anyway.

Stone Harbor Point, Snowy Owl

At Stone Harbor, we walked slowly, scanning the dunes and grass for what we knew was there, and found it facing a small rise that served as a windbreak. Snowy Owls may occasionally perch in trees or on a fencepost, but they are birds of wide open places and prefer to rest on the ground. This is not my first Snowy Owl, but as with all birds of prey, I’m impressed with the indifferent serenity of this predator with few fears, beyond the local pair of Peregrine Falcons.

First through binoculars and then with the spotting scope, we watched the owl’s half-closed eyes and mottled feathers, the head swiveling around occasionally in a smooth, liquid fashion as if it might just come unhinged at the next turn. The bird’s presence, despite the crowd of onlookers, was such that it seemed to transform this popular beach into tundra. When you see a bird like this, one that is so unconcerned, so self-contained and so strikingly beautiful, it is hard to turn away. The desire to see every detail and to keep looking is strong. The temptation to get closer is almost overwhelming. Instead we take photos, perhaps to assure ourselves later that the bird was real.

Near the 2nd Ave. jetty in Cape May, invisible Snow Buntings

Walking the beach with the Cape May lighthouse in the distance, a flock of Snow Buntings came flying right at us. There must have been at least a hundred of them and right before it seemed that they would mow us down, they parted and we were surrounded. Their colors seem copied from fields where snow drifts hide all but the tops of the tallest weeds… large spaces of pure white touched here and there with black and gray and brown. All I heard was the rustle of wings and the ocean… it was glorious. I felt lifted up and then they disappeared back into the dunes.

Forsythe NWR, Northern Harrier

Gosh I miss marshes and the harriers that haunt them! The sight of this one, troubling shorebirds as they fed on the mudflats of the refuge, had me laughing and singing to myself, “Watch while I make these Dunlin nervous…” which is a random reference to a Wheeler Boys song…

Forsythe NWR, Snow Geese

These birds, too, belong to a far away winter world. It was late afternoon and I was standing out in the cold waiting for the Snow Geese to fly across the road from one side of the refuge and over my head to the other side. It is one of the most spectacular things to witness… the gigantic flock of them, the lowering sun coloring up the white of their undersides, the noise of them. I love seeing them this way on a winter’s day too, with the hotels of Atlantic City as a backdrop. There might be a hundred different things in your head: things to do, worries and hopes, resentments and regrets. But it’s all forgotten listening to the noisy waves of geese and I felt my mind go clear, silent, here.

These words are here just to remind myself now. I was there. I was happy. Has it been a month already?

Almost perfect

I’m home now from Thanksgiving in NJ… tired but happy. I’m glad to report that vast quantities of mashed potatoes were consumed (as was a piece of Brian’s homemade cheesecake). I found my winter coat and was thankful for it. Surprise of all surprises, I found time amid the holiday craziness to see some good friends, as well as some good birds. Thankfully, we did not forget the Brussels sprouts or the mashed turnips. There was a beach walk and lots of wide-eyed staring at the places I miss so much. I thought about my dad a lot.

Rails and other birds I can’t identify

So, the other day at St. Marks NWR, I took the not-awful photo of a rail you see above.

Do you think I know what kind of rail it is?

Do you?

Considering that I’m sitting here surrounded by every single field guide I own, don’t you think I ought to be able to figure it out?!?

I can at least narrow it down, I think, but beyond that I get confused in a mess of details that I can’t decipher. The Peterson’s makes me certain it’s a Virginia; the National Geographic Guide convinces me it’s a Clapper of the Gulf Coast race scottii because of the rich cinnamon underparts; Sibley contradicts this by saying it’s the Virginia that’s bright reddish below and the Gulf Coast Clapper whose breast and foreneck are a drab gray. Crossley shows me a bunch of pretty photos, any one of which I can convince myself is this bird, and suggests that size and habitat are the only effective means of telling one from the others. The Stokes suggest King.

What the heck!

I get similarly paralyzed by certain gulls, sparrows and peeps. For a long time, I couldn’t stand terns and many shorebirds; I just couldn’t “get” what everybody else was able to see so easily.

All you snarky birders who admonish newbies to “buy a field guide and use it” simply don’t understand people like me. I’m often amazed by birding buddies who can rattle off the field marks of random birds, at will. I can not do that, ever. Even the most familiar of birds stymies any effort on my part to describe it beyond broad strokes of color and relative shape. Sometimes, I think that I see birds the way that Charley Harper paints them.

Thinking about this, coupled with the recent popularity of left-brain vs. right-brain quizzes on FB (I scored a ridiculous 87% in favor of right-brained thinking) made me wonder if this might explain the confusion and mystery I feel about IDing birds by field marks. It turns out that I’m not the only person this idea has occurred to. I was glad to find this article, published a while back on the ABA blog, which makes the argument for left-brained and right-brained birders. While the author was speaking in a different context (left-brained birders being the “listers” and right-brained birders being the “watchers”) I think his distinction between the two can just as easily be extrapolated to explain why field guides are not equally useful for all birders, and maybe, especially, not for all beginners. Maybe.

When I was a beginner, I couldn’t tell a tern from a gull, never mind which tern or what gull. What changed that for me was not having field guides thrust in my face over and over by helpful birders. It was the most patient teacher of all: time. Summer after summer spent at the beach and endless hours “wasted” enjoying terns just going about their lives at the ocean’s edge taught me how to distinguish them from the other birds that make the shore their home. Summers spent watching over Least Tern colonies taught me to distinguish them from the others of their kind. Nowadays, I can know a Least Tern from a Common simply by the level of its shrieking and the speed of its shadow as it passes overhead. Knowing Leasts this well makes the others easy, because it provides a starting point from which to distinguish them from the others. But ask me what color a Least’s legs are and you’ll draw a blank stare in reply.

I think the difficulty with many of the “hard” birds is that we simply don’t see them often enough to really experience them. Or in the case of gulls, I simply don’t care enough, yet, to learn them apart.

: )

When Jay and I lead beginning bird walks together, he often tells the story of his birding mentor and how she was so patient with him in learning the varied calls of the Carolina Wren. No matter how many times he asked, she replied patiently, “That’s a Carolina Wren!” A field guide in his face would have done little good; a patient teacher and experience are what counts. (I still have to do this for him with Catbirds!)

So… back to my questionable rail. I have probably half a dozen photos of vaguely similar birds that I’ve taken over the years. I’ve never correctly ID’d any of them, and that frustrates me, but I like to think that I’m gathering experience with these elusive birds and one day soon, I’ll “get” them and be able to review those old photos and know, finally, what I’m seeing.

Or maybe somebody out there will tell me…

Ghost signs

I’m happy to finally have a name for these faded advertisements that I like to photograph. I find them painted on falling-down buildings along rural roads and in the old parts of sleepy Southern towns.

Wikipedia, my source for everything that I didn’t know had a name, says they were most common before the Great Depression and that the artists who painted them were known as “wall dogs.”

In some places, there’s an effort to preserve or restore them. Oftentimes, they just fade away like so much history.

I’m not even sure, myself, where I took these couple photos, but for the last one. On the way to somewhere else is all I remember.

This one is a favorite, simply because I get to see it most often. It’s on the way to Tallahassee and, despite many tries, I’ve yet to get a photo that I like.

Apparently, other people like to photograph these old signs, too. And if you’re so inclined and have some favorites, you might consider adding them to the Ghost Sign Project so other people can find them, too.