Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Learn Tree ID Like a Two Year Old

As I look out over our woods, I think back to the many walks I have enjoyed with my grandchild. In the last year, she has learned to identify trees and become a budding naturalist (no pun intended).

Last March, when she was not yet two, we took walks in the woods, and I (or her grandfather) pointed out things we observed along the path.  The trees were always there, so we repeatedly pointed out certain species of interest.  I know that young children use their senses to explore the world, so I pointed to a tree and invited her to touch it.  She recoiled at the thought, so I did not press it.  Rather I tried to encourage her to touch it by touching and marveling at the feel of it myself.  "It is really bumpy," I said. Still she would not touch it.  As we walked the trail, I stopped at other "bumpy" trees to feel the bark.

Fast forward to this December.  At just two and a half years of age, we walked the same path.  It was she who pointed out the trees.  "Look, bumpy trees," she said.  She eagerly ran to the tree to touch it.  As we continued, she ran to more and more "bumpy trees", each time touching the bark.  These trees are hackberries, and she could identify them perfectly!

I smile to think how much she had grown in nature in such a short time.  She is a budding naturalist for sure!

Next time we go on our walks, we will have to find another texture...maybe we'll explore the shagbark hickories.  Will she call them flaky trees or shaggy trees?  I know that one day she will learn the real common names for these species.  For now I am content with the names she is using.  Maybe they are better names anyway.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Where is the Best Place to Eagle Watch

The forecast was for 50 degree weather.  The latest news story said that an estimated 167 eagles were in the area.  This area is supposed to be the best place to see wintering Bald Eagles in the US outside of  Alaska. So it was with great expectation that we left for the Great River Road near Grafton, Illinois to eagle-watch.

We were not alone!  As soon as we left Alton, Illinois, heading north the first cars were pulled over to get a better look at eagles on the ice in the Mississippi River.  I was amazed at the amount of ice on the river and the back up of barges apparently waiting to get through the locks.

We pulled over many times to get a closer look ourselves.  My iphone does not give an accurate picture of what I saw through binoculars, but we quickly had the search image in our minds.  We could tell the buoys (which were dark but much larger), from the chunks of wood (which were dark but didn't move) and could identify eagles (dark spots on the ice).
Here is a view through the iphone:
There is an eagle in this picture.  Can you spot it?  There were also eagles flying on the thermals against the bluffs and perched in trees across the river.  In all, in the nearly 20 mile stretch of river from Alton, Illinois to Pere Marquette State Park, we counted 81 eagles....an awesome sight.  Seeing one of these majestic birds is an awesome experience, but 81 is an experience of a lifetime.  I have never seen so many of these birds in one place.

This image is from the IDNR web site for Pere Marquette State Park:
 Bald Eagle breaking through the ice to eat a fish

To top off the experience, we decided to hike some trails at Pere Marquette State Park.  We stayed on the bluff trails along the river and were treated to an eagle flying right in front of us just above the trees.  It was also fun to explore the large tree stumps or climb the rocks.  After the many days of winter snow and cold, it felt like spring to be out on this day and I felt like a kid. What an awesome day.

Where is the best place to see eagles in the continental US?
For me, The Great River Road, in January!  I will visit again next year when the winter blues hit.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Day in the Woods

I was inspired by a video of a year in the woods.  I thought I would try to see what a day in the woods looked like.

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sub-zero Hike Reveals One of Nature's Mysteries

The thermometer was not to reach zero, but I decided to take a quick walk in the woods anyway.  According to the news, I would get frostbite in less than 30 minutes.  From the inside, the bright blue sky and white blanket of snow were calling me.  So I bundled up and headed out.

The blue sky looked bluer than I had seen in many weeks.

And I liked the way the sun bouncing off of the trees created shadows in snow.

There were no other tracks ahead of me so it was an adventure. 

What would I discover?  Where were all the animals?  The previous day, with warmer temperatures, I had seen many squirrels scampering about.  Today none were visible.

I headed down the familiar trail to the ravine, my favorite place on the property.  The place where my husband had discarded deer heads from his chronic wasting disease project.  Many animals had visited this place in the past, so I was anxious to see what would happen after a foot of snow had covered the heads.

As I approached, I saw tracks!  But with the deep snow, they were hard to identify.  And it looked like 3 separate tracks indicating 3 separate animals.
All three continued over the trail and into the ravine.  As I looked below, I saw one of the heads had been pulled out of the snow drift.  Due to the size of track, its meandering course, and knowledge of animals of the area, I thought these were bobcat tracks.  My husband had seen 3 similar size cats earlier, probably siblings.  Where are these animals living on our property?  I wanted to find out.  So I back tracked, following the meanderings through woods. 

This proved more difficult than I thought, however.  It was still very cold, and the tracks went through some brambles covered with snow.  They also continued for quite a ways.  With the drifts, brambles and cold, it was hard going.  I started to wonder about the size of a bobcat's territory.  Maybe I couldn't follow this trail for that long.  I saw several spots of "yellow snow", indicating I was within the territory of these cats.

Finally, I was rewarded with the site!  The mystery...where do the bobcats live....was solved.  There were many tracks around the base of this old dead snag.  The base was huge and many dead logs on the forest floor at this point.  It was located at the edge of our property, next to an open field.  Across the field, I saw tracks as well.  Good hunting grounds for the cats.

Now that I know where they are, I can't wait for warmer weather and better visibility.  Maybe I'll set up a tent near the site to get a better look at these marvelous creatures.

But now it was time to head home.  I no longer followed the bobcat tracks but had to blaze a trail of my own through the brambles and snow drifts.  This was hard going, and I was getting cold.

Finally, I saw the house ahead of me.  I was glad that I had braved the elements, solved some mysteries, and made plans to visit again, but now it was time for that warm bowl of soup and a hot cup of coffee.  Mmmmm good.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Bird song wonders

Yesterday was a weather day in the midwest.  We woke up to snow....all day it snowed.  And cold.  That is not unusual. It is often snowy and cold in this region.  However the snow was impressive...almost 11 inches in one day.  And the cold has been oppressive overnight..real temp below zero.
But before it all got so bad, I took a walk in this winter "wonderland".  I could barely see where I was going, but I trudged through the snow drifts along the familiar path.  This is how it looked:
I marveled at the activity of the birds.  They flocked to our feeders in great numbers: chickadees, titmice, cardinals, juncos, woodpeckers, and more.
I wanted to get some exercise before hunkering down in the house, so I followed the familiar trail  through the woods.
Since the blowing snow made opening the eyes difficult, I found myself focusing on the sounds.  Many birds were chirping in the woods.  At the edge of the woods, near a ravine where my husband's CWD project is decaying slowly--AKA rotting deer heads---I heard a sound that should have been familiar.  I had seen and heard several red tailed hawks in this area since the dumping of the heads.  But this was a little off.  It sounded like a red tail, but then again it didn't.  As I approached I saw what had been making the noise---a blue jay.  How remarkable.  This bird has the ability to sound like other birds of the forest, a common trait of corvids (family: Corvidae).  This includes crows, magpies, and ravens, and they are considered by some to be the most intelligent birds.
Although I had read about this ability to mimic sounds, I had never had such a direct experience.  I wonder what caused this jay to call in this way today?  I wonder what the red tail thinks when it hears that sound?  I wonder what other species it can imitate?
As I left the area, the jay returned to the "normal" jay call.  I wonder if I will have this experience again?  I hope so!