Field Notes Friday 0014: Perfect Ordinariness

Sometimes it’s the small things that make you take notice of life. Since starting our Home Nature Journal, and since Spring is really beginning to spring here in North Texas, I’m noticing signs of life arising anew from the cold. But they’re tiny signs. I have to look closely, and that makes discoveries even more gratifying.

Here are just a few of the simple, normal, everyday moments I’ve seen – and just around the house, not in any grandiose nature preserves accompanied by sweeping vistas – over the last few weeks. Sometimes, ordinary is extraordinary.

A leaf on my Monstera, a lovely shade of new. This plant has family history – its progenitor belonged to my mom, then to my aunt, and now to me.

A bug – I don’t even know what it is yet – but I was delighted for days warm enough that a bug was able to move enough to get into the house!

My new Nasturtium is blooming beautifully, exotically, alluringly. I wonder who it attracts. Looks bee-worthy to me.

A cozy little cove for a spider… in a single Pothos ivy leaf.

Small Things

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The Richness of Listening

There’s more depth to our outdoor experiences when we take the time to listen. This hazy previous knowledge suddenly crystallized into understanding as I was participating in a bird banding research project this week. This is an excerpt from my field journal about the experience.

The richness of listening

Ken heard a call and almost instantaneously identified it and its location. He suddenly had an even deeper knowledge of The Bowl [an area of the prairie we were in]. He knew there was a Ladderback woodpecker in the trees. Maybe 2, calling to each other. In short order (when we were done banding) he had located a nest. Now there’s a game cam there, hoping to catch evidence of activity.

So  I realize: knowing nature by SOUND makes an experience so much richer. Birds. Frogs. Even some trees can be identified by their sounds in the wind.

Jim said he couldn’t hear the calls I asked him to identify. Rock & roll music & heavy machinery were the culprits, he said. I joked that it feels like by the time I can identify birds by sound, I’ll be so old I can’t hear them. But Jim said women seem to hang on to their hearing in that range longer. We’ll see. I know I protect my hearing with earplugs more often than anyone I know – although more people are admitting to bringing earplugs to movies lately.

So I want a way to study bird calls. I can A) attend more birding walks. B) Hang out with birders more. C) Design my own course: Pick key species in the area & season, look at their photos, & play their calls from my Audubon app. Repeatedly.

I consider myself a fast learner when it comes to music tunes, but those are created by humans & I can generally repeat them, practice them. I can’t whistle and haven’t found a way to faithfully imitate or recollect bird songs in a meaningful way, and I can’t rely on devices yet to listen & identify. This is hard work!

How and when do you like to listen? How do you remember calls? I’m all ears.

Field Notes Friday 0013: Lucky Snake

We found our first snake in the yard! We’ve been living in this house for almost a year and a half, so I suppose it’s about time. I wouldn’t have thought of seeking out this sign of ecological diversity without finding it, though. Not that our yard is very diverse. Right now it’s Bois d’Arcs and so-called “weeds” (albeit edible ones).

We don’t hang out in our backyard much, but we want to change that. We also want to change how unwild our backyard is. The transformation will be a never-ending labor of love, which we’ve already started. I’m sneaking in native and fruit-bearing plants every now and then… but my failure rate with transplants is pretty high.

With the inspiration to wild our yard, and inspiration from a New Year’s visit to friends’ land, we’ve finally started our home nature journal. Here it sits in its pride of place, a showcase area of the countertop.

Home Nature Journal

But enough about that. The snake! The snake seemed paralyzed with cold, so I felt bad manipulating him/her for more than 2 photos. Hopefully I got enough for identification.

I looked on TexasSnakes.net and HerpsOfTexas.org, and I lean toward a *newbie* identification of Texas Brown or Checkered Garter.

What snake do you think this is?

What sites/resources do you use to identify snakes?

Mystery snake

Mystery snake

Here’s a pic of the journal entry, with transcript/translation(?) below, because… well, my handwriting is hard for even me to read sometimes.

Snake entry in home nature journal

Sunday, March 16, 2014

We found our first snake in the yard! We’d been digging up parts of the yard to change the slope. (The rain on Saturday nearly came in our back door.) Every earthworm & grub I found went into the compost pile, and then I put a thick layer of leaves over the dirt & worms. Right by the house & the sump pump, under a layer of leaves, I found a small grey snake. I remember a light underbelly & staring, round pupils. I took a picture. The poor thing was so cold (wind chill ~35°, temp 45ish, wind gusting 30+ mph) it wasn’t moving. We put it under the leaves in the compost pile. Landon looked for it later and found it more coiled up, hopefully comfortable. We’ll await an identification from Lisa. I’m hoping that we wild our yard enough that eventually we can’t even keep track of the wildlife sightings.

Oh! And thank you, thank you to all who helped with the butterfly mystery. I’ll be sharing the identification you made and giving proper kudos soon.

For more about Field Notes Friday and how you can participate, visit the #FieldNotesFriday tab, or click here.

Field Notes Friday 0012: Kayaking for a New Perspective

If you want a new perspective of wilderness, travel by water. This is Part II of my journey down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com (Part I is here). Shameless plug: join us next time! Or tour your favorite wild place via water soon.

The SIZE of this tree! The photo doesn’t even capture it. I wondered how on earth a tree so big could have roots so shallow. I took this photo to pose the question to you. However, I think I found the answer (below). You’ll have to tell me whether you agree.Mystery tree roots

Those aren’t leaves. Grackles! It was amazing hear their noise before we could see them. They are a cacophonous group! I’ve only previously seen them congregate like this in parking lots. It was quite majestic (raining poop notwithstanding) to see them in such a large group in a wild setting.Grackles!

These look like the same root structure that puzzled me (above), and they’re attached to a live Sycamore tree. More evidence below.Sycamore roots

We discovered a mystery, and formed a hypothesis. This boat may belong to Waste Management, who runs the (very) nearby landfill. That pole may be for picking up trash along the river. Oh! And I just noticed the shovel to the right of the walkway. Perhaps there’s a regular effort by WM to clean up what the wind carries from the site. If I worked for WM, I’d ask to be on that crew.Mystery boat

As close as I could get to a nesting Great Blue Heron.Great Blue Heron and Nests

The same tree the Heron and nests are in. Look at those white branches: Sycamore for sure. Now look at the roots. Same as the mystery tree? I think so. What do you think?Sycamore with Heron Nests

The white Sycamore branches against the blue sky. (Because… color!) Without the river to erode the land, I’d never see Sycamore roots displayed so clearly. Sycamores are spread widely in the area, so unless I hike for many miles, only traveling by river will give me this perspective.Sycamore and Sky

Two species compared: Turkey vulture and Black vulture.Black and Turkey Vulture comparison

I learned something about kayaking in the late winter: it’s a birding fiesta. Winter birding on the water is breathtaking. You startle Great Blue Herons and Egrets (unintentionally, of course), who fly hundreds of yards down the river just to be disturbed by you again and take to their giant wings in dramatic fashion, uttering prehistoric calls.

Approaching a volt of vultures who watch you dispassionately till you cross a threshold only they perceive, then suddenly, individually, take off and soar above you, is awe-inspiring.A Volt of Vultures 1 A Volt of Vultures 2 A Volt of Vultures 3

My grandfather-in-law wanted to reincarnate as a vulture, and I can see why.I love vultures.

I hope you’ve glimpsed how much wildness you can experience via kayak (or other human-powered water craft). Join us next time, or take a kayak or canoe to your own wild space.

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Kayak for Better Eco-Vision

There’s nothing like seeing wild places via river! This is a mix of thoughts and images from a February 15 kayak trip down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River with KayakPower.com. I’ve made the trip before, but it’s enticingly different every time. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to explore, too.

Here’s Mike Swope (owner of KayakPower.com), demonstrating 1) a cut bank being eroded by the river, and 2) his dislike of being photographed. It’s great to review geology and hydrology while floating on the water and basking in sunshine. KayakPower.com

I love kayaking along tight lanes and tangled banks. Tangled Banks and Tight Turns

Have you noticed certain spots that are favorites of, and apparently often visited by, wildlife? This one wouldn’t be visible to me except via boat. This pile of barely-digested hackberries says ‘raccoon’ to me. What do you think? Raccoon Scat?

One of those tangled banks I love. I haven’t figured out how to photograph them and do them justice. The wilder the river, the more beautiful sites like this.Tangled Bank

In a side channel, I ventured out of the kayak, walked around and found stark differences in soil types exposed by the river. The yellow is sandy/rocky, and the grey is clay. The clay was sculpted by the ripples of the years. I’ve felt skeptical about ancient wave patterns becoming fossilized, but after seeing this clay preserve wave shapes so faithfully, I don’t doubt anymore.Clay and Sand

I thought this was the largest bobcat track I’ve ever seen… but the animal appears to have sunk in the mud so deeply that claw marks show. I reminded myself with a little research that bobcat tracks have an ‘m’ shaped palm or ‘interdigital pad’. But the track is so wide! I know a large male bobcat lives at LLELA near where I took this photo – I know it’s male because I saw him mark a tree – so I thought maybe this track was his. LLELA is an urban wilderness, so this could be the track of a very large, wide-footed dog. What do you think? Coyote? Bobcat? Dog?

It was a spot well traveled by several species. Again, inaccessible unless you’re willing to get wet.Well traveled waterway

Soil horizons? Urban upheaval? Different flood deposits? I look forward to spending more resources (like time) learning about soils. To me, this looks like Blackland Prairie soil overlaid with Crosstimbers soil. That might make sense along the Elm Fork, which has spent centuries blurring the boundaries between the two in its floodplain. Rivers lay bare the secrets of the soil. Soils

A tree which budded out very early. Elm?Elm?

The remains of a bridge from Old Town Lewisville. Was it for trains or regular road traffic? My kayaking companions debated.Old Town Lewisville Bridge

A perfect bank for a rest, a snack, and a sneak photo from a hill. I’ll take another rest now and keep my 500-or-fewer words promise. Please join me for Part II of the river trip!River bank

KayakPower.com offers paddling trips down the Elm Fork of the Trinity River starting from LLELA on the third Saturday of every month.

Field Notes Friday 0011: Do You Know This Butterfly?

Yesterday I was preparing for the eco-adventure-themed Spring Break camp I’ll be helping lead next week. My favorite assignment in preparation was to check out the Blackjack trail at LLELA, which winds through one of the easternmost outposts of the Cross Timbers ecosystem. It wasn’t just a pleasure hike (although it was delightful; I even disturbed resting deer!). I was there with a mission: discover the places where novice hikers are most likely to get lost, and plan to prepare next week’s young hikers for what to do if they feel lost in the wilderness.

Toward the end of my hike, I found a startlingly brilliant, iridescent orange butterfly on the ground. I didn’t have a camera or my phone with me. Frustrated, knowing I had only my nature journal and my rudimentary sketching skills, I pulled out my permanent pen and began sketching. This is (sort of) what I saw:

Butterfly sketch

Having no camera and no other recording device, I was forced to spend quite a while observing the creature, rather than taking a cursory look and a photograph and moving on. After many moments with open wings, the butterfly surprised me by closing its wings suddenly. It seemed to wobble as if stiff with arthritis, or as if drunken. It couldn’t stand straight. I wondered if I was observing its last sacred moments alive, or if it was just struggling in the 50 degree weather and would be flying fine tomorrow. Its orange, q-tip-like antennae were pressed together as if at attention, taut at not-quite-90 degrees from its body.

After making several sketches, I rushed to my car to find a camera and rushed back. Because of that, I can share these photos with you:

Butterfly compilationHopefully you see some resemblance to the sketches.

I’m grateful to have had access to a camera, and to be able to share these images with you. But I’m also glad to have been forced to sit down and take a few minutes to observe an animal I rarely pay much attention to. I noticed behaviors and details I wouldn’t have seen if I’d been relying on my “external brain” devices to do all the recording. And I think, when I figure out what kind of butterfly this is, I will remember the species readily because I’ve had a deeper experience simply abiding with it for a time.

The lesson? Sometimes, it’s good to be caught without your camera or digital devices.

So, do you know this butterfly? What about its behavior?

What methods and tools do you use to identify butterflies and other insects?

I’m always grateful for your response, thoughts, and comments.

For more information about #FieldNotesFriday and how you can participate, click here.

Idea for Lent (or any time): REFUSE Plastic

You want to make your life and the world better. Do both by reducing your plastic footprint! Here are some tips (just in time for Lent) about refusing single-use, disposable plastic.

What do I do?

Reduce how much plastic you buy and throw away. Find reusable, recyclable, compostable alternatives to plastic and Styrofoam. (Want to make it official? Take Plastic Pollution Coalition’s pledge.)

Why refuse plastic?

Pollution: In all production stages, plastics produce chemicals we end up breathing and eating. Single-use plastics (e.g. bags, straws) become plastic pollution.

Energy: Plastics are made from oil and require energy to produce. Let’s use our resources more wisely; it doesn’t make sense to create something permanent for a temporary use.

Health: All water (and trash) rolls downhill… and much of our trash ends up downstream. If you eat seafood, you ingest chemicals leached from plastic.

But you don’t have to eat seafood to be affected. Plastics are already in you, and even in newborns. Plastic additives (like BPA) are linked to cancer.

At best, we’re not sure how plastic affects human health. At worst, we’re poisoning ourselves. Diminishing the plastic waste stream can only be a good thing for our health and the planet’s.

What about recycling?

Recycling isn’t bad, but it gives a false sense of security.

  1. Most plastic isn’t recycled or recyclable. It ends up in the landfill, taking up precious space.
  2. Most “recycled” plastic is actually down-cycled. Bottles aren’t turned into more bottles; they become something of lesser quality that will be thrown away shortly. That’s not a continuous cycle; it’s just one added step before the landfill (or the plastic gyres in the oceans).
  3. Recycling saves energy, but produces pollution. Recycling isn’t as straight-forward as you think.

Can I make a difference?

Every thing you do makes a difference, especially setting an example. What if, through your example and others, American’s decided to go just one day without buying plastic water bottles? That would save 576 million bottles!!! (Americans throw away 2 million plastic water bottles EVERY 5 MINUTES).

How about inspiring people to use reusable bottles? Millions of bottles could quickly become billions of bottles saved. That’s a lot of plastic and oil saved, and a lot of trash that wouldn’t end up in our streets, our drinking water, and our food chain. Change starts with you, and continues because you set an example.

But plastic is everywhere!!!

If you’re overwhelmed by how much plastic you use, pick one item you regularly purchase and find an alternative. Change one habit a week, and by the end of a month you’ll significantly reduce your plastic consumption and start great habits.

Don’t throw out perfectly functioning plastic items. If you’ve already bought it, use it till it can’t be used any more, then recycle/repurpose it, then buy or create a non-plastic alternative.

 

There are lots of ways to reduce your plastic footprint. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more tips, and share yours! Together, we can make this a #plasticfree world. #RefusePlastic!