Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Stay at Home #KentuckyTogether

This is the time of year when we enjoy getting out to watch the wildflowers bloom. This year, however, it's even more important. Early in March, we celebrated my recovery from cancer by heading to Gulf Shores, AL, for a week's vacation. Yes, we heard about the Corona virus, but that was in China. Then it was in Washington state. Then it started spreading across the country. We had a trip to Arizona scheduled for April and started thinking about canceling it even before we got home.
When we arrived home, I got my nails done and went to Kroger's, knowing that many of their shelves would be bare. And life began to change. Schools and day cares are closed. Our 8 year old grandson started spending days with us doing e-learning. We decided not to go to the YMCA and then it closed altogether anyway. "Non-essential" stores are closed, and there's lots of confusion about what is essential and what isn't. Liquor stores are deemed essential. Church has online FaceBook services and our Sunday School class meets by Zoom online as well. I've discovered that the camera on my laptop doesn't work. I never tried to use it before. All sporting events and other mass meetings have been cancelled, including the Kentucky Derby. Even Beckham Bird Club has cancelled everything. And no one can predict how long all this will last. Our governor, Andy Beshear, is doing a great job keeping people informed, but the numbers get worse every day. Even orchestras and choruses are performing with each indivdual at home- some great software there.
Yes, they say, go to parks, but now the playgrounds and restrooms at the park are closed, and Bernheim has closed to the public altogether. So we walk in the neighborhood, or go to Creasey to keep up with the spring wildflowers. It keeps us sane. It keeps us (and our grandchildren)  from going nuts.
Tavia has started doing live FaceBook walks in the Fern Garden. I'm learning more about FaceBook then I ever guessed, and they want people to start using their new version. ACK!

Bombylius Major
We spotted a fuzzy looking "bee" on some of the flowers at Creasey, so I took photos for later identification. I'm familiar with the clearwing moths, and had looked for this guy among the moths, unsuccessfully. Finally got a response to my request from an entomologist, who said it was actually a fly!

I must admit, it's more fun to walk when the sun shines!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Life in the Bog

Red Rat Snake
The Gulf State Park naturalists did a short program on carnivorous plants earlier this week, and led a trip to the secret bog today to see them in their natural habitat. When the naturalists piled out of the park vehicle, one of them had a beautiful red snake around her neck! She said it was a Red Rat Snake that lives in the nature center.

Cottonmouth juvenile
It looked just like the snake we found on the trail at Bon Secour yesterday. But when I showed her the picture and mentioned the pale tip on the tale, the naturalists said we had, in fact, seen a juvenile Cottonmouth! She pointed out that the stripes on ours go all the way around, while hers were only on the back.

 This park does a great job with staffing. Our naturalist at the pier the other day was very good too.

Black-banded Watersnake

As we walked around a lake, scanning for alligators, someone saw this dark colored snake that looked like a log to me. It was a Black-banded Watersnake the naturalist said, and by the bulge in its belly had just eaten a good meal. The non-venomous snakes have stripes on their lower jaw, if you get close enough to see it. Thank goodness for a long zoom lens.
Termite Swarm
 Huge numbers of flying insects swarmed out of a dead stump. Looks like termite swarm photos online.
Raccoon Prints
Bogs are mushy, but don't have a lot of water standing in puddles. We were careful to keep to the work road, or on a deer path. If you step anywhere else your footprint leaves a little puddle, which doesn't help the Pitcher Plants.
Whitetop Pitcher Plants and Blossoms

The park had done a controlled burn in this area last winter, and the Pitcher plants were taking advantage of all the extra sunlight. As we walked, we saw more and more areas of them through the blackened branches. Looking online, I found that these plants are endangered in Georgia, and the park doesn't let people know where these plants are unless led by a naturalist.
I was surprised to learn that the open "pitcher" is actually formed from a flat stem at the bottom.
The beautiful dark red blossoms are on tall stems, and you wouldn't guess they are part of the same plant as the pitcher. The blossoms are usually taller than the pitcher so the pollinators won't fall in and get digested.
The pitcher is hollow with a lid that folds over the tube like an umbrella. If you pull it back, you can see down inside the tube which has a sweet substance to lure in the prey, and downward pointing hairs to keep them from climbing back out again. The lid itself is paper-like in texture rather than being soft and flexible as I expected. This was so cool to see!

Purple Pitcher Plant
The Purple Pitcher plant grows unobtrusively on the ground, and its blossom is shorter as well, but it opens up more and you can see its inside.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
On the way back to the cars, we finally saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker, after hearing them pecking and churring in the woods for several days now.
Ribbon Snake
We almost stepped on this little guy sunning on the sidewalk. The naturalist said he was a juvenile Ribbon Snake. What a day for snakes!
Bald Eagle chicks in nest
 We saw the Osprey nest near the Nature Center the other day, and the Great Horned Owl using an Osprey platform for her chicks. Now we learned that there is an active Bald Eagle nest on park property as well. The ladies in the Park Headquarters graciously gave us directions and we found it with no problem. The area is marked off, of course, but an Eagle Scout candidate built a viewing platform and the trees were trimmed back enough that everyone could see them. The chicks weren't interested in us, of course, but watched for a parent to return with a fish. Looks like these will be ready to fledge any day now!

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Bon Secour NWR

Dune Succession
The Bon Secour NWR manages five different properties in the Gulf area around Mobile Bay. They have several listings on the Alabama Birding Trail, so we thought we should spend some time here. I think we may be 2-3 weeks early for good migration birding. This area should a real hot spot for migrants, but we seem to be finding the resident birds more than anything.

Today we heard the resident woodpeckers, etc, but didn't see them, so Dick and I started talking about dune succession along the coast as we walked the trails. (Do we know how to have fun or what!) It's amazing how the habitat changes in such a short distance from the ocean. We walked along the first dunes right by the beach, hoping for a Snowy Plover or Least Tern, but again, we are just too early. As the wind blows onshore, it blows the sand until hardy grasses catch it.
After an area of grasses, the small shrubs and hardy trees take over. I don't know the names of everything we saw, although most of them looked familiar. We have been to some many beaches, parks, refuges and beach towns in the last ten years that we can't keep straight what we have seen where or when. I'll tell you though, hiking through loose sand takes a lot more energy than walking on the treadmill at the YMCA. Talk about cardio training!
 We noticed an area with a few widely separated tall pine trees, while the younger trees below them were at the same height for the most part. We speculated that the tall trees had survived Hurricane Ivan, while the smaller ones all started growing 15 years ago after the storm cleared out most of the competition.
Scoliid Wasp
 Delicate blossoms attracted big bumble bees and this Scollid wasp with shiny blue wings.
Wood Duck
Much of the water is brackish, but occasionally a fresh water lake or pond attracts these Wood Ducks, while frogs call along the edges.
Green Anole
A little green anole flashed his red throat at us while sunning on a rail.

 A 12-14 inch snake rested on the trail in front of us. I took photos from a distance using the camera lens to get closer. Another time on another trail, we got down on the path for good photos of what turned out to be a cottonmouth, but we didn't realize it until I went through the photos more closely that evening. I tried to look this one up, thinking it might be a Copperhead, but the photos online don't have the same patterns as this one. I'm going to show it to a naturalist we will see at the state park tomorrow to see if she knows. It does seem to have the triangular head that I always thought meant it was venomous.
Eastern Towhee
The Eastern Towhee finally came out to pose for a bit, but the Black-and-White Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo and Blue-headed Vireo with his white spectacles, stayed safely in the brush. It would help a lot if I knew the winter ranges of more birds. The field guide always seems to stop at Texas.
Red-breasted Mergansers

Down at the lagoon, we found a group of about 40 Red-breasted Mergansers, actively swimming back and forth, while diving down for fish. A few gulls followed along, hoping to steal a fish whenever they could. One of them may have been a juvenile Bonaparte's Gull with a black rim on his tail.
Look through the trees! Could that possibly be a Great Horned Owl? Why is it out at mid-day?
You guessed it - a closer look revealed this to be just Spanish Moss growing on a snag. Sigh. Oh well, time to go back. My feet hurt like crazy after all the walking we have done this week.

Monday, March 09, 2020

On the Pier

Hurricane Ivan made landfall on the Alabama coast as a Category 3 storm on Sept. 16, 2004. The Gulf State Park sustained major damage but has been able to rebuild and recover in the last 15 years. The park buildings were destroyed, Route 182 was wiped out, and the dunes were basically gone. Much effort has gone into restoring the dunes, and they look pretty normal by now. Construction of a new pier was completed in 2009 and was the longest pier on the Gulf of Mexico at 1540 ft. at the time.The new pier is 20 feet wide and 1,512 feet long. It has a concession area with rest rooms, picnic tables, snack bar and tackle shop. The end of the pier is an octagon shape that is about 65 feet across, whereas the old pier’s end cap was only 30 feet wide. It is also is two feet higher with an elevation of 20 feet above sea level, where the old pier was at elevation 18. The location of the new pier is 250 feet east of the old pier. They have experimented with treatments for the planking to preserve it. We have been on many fishing piers, but never on a guided tour by a naturalist.
Usually only one of three young Pelicans will survive from a nest each season. If they come to the pier for easy fishing, they don't get enough nutrition from the leftover pieces thrown in the water by fishermen. Of course, they get caught in fishing line too. There is a rehab center in Orange Beach, if they can catch the bird before it starves.
Yes, these are both Boat-tailed Grackles - what a size difference!
Herring Gull Juvenile
Ruddy Turnstone
Ring-billed Gull Adult
The beach at the pier was very deep, very soft white sand-a real challenge to walk through until you reach the water line. But we did see several birds we hadn't located so far. These gulls and the little Turnstone all breed much farther north, so I wonder if many of them started their migration already.
We did find a Swamp Sparrow in the marsh in the middle of town, called in with chip notes from my phone app, but he was a speedy little guy, and I didn't get any photos of him today.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Fort Morgan

If you drive west on Ft. Morgan Road in Gulf Shores, in about 20 miles you will arrive at Ft. Morgan, which has protected Mobile Bay since the War of 1812. It is built of bricks and dirt as a fortification for cannons of varying sizes through the years. During the Civil War, it was the site of a major naval battle between the Union and Confederates, in which Admiral Farragut (of "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" fame) took part. Some of the ships where "ironclads" while others were wooden sailing ships. The mouth of the bay is filled with small islands and sand bars, making navigation difficult at best. The Confederate troops laid torpedoes which were more like underwater mines to add to the confusion. After each war, it would be decommissioned, then opened again for the next war, including the Spanish American War, WW I and WW II. Imagine being stationed on this spit of sand, subject to storms, swarming insects and absolute isolation from everything else you might want to do. The cannons could fire a mile or more across the bay at attacking ships.
An ongoing problem was dealing with the water. The slaves who constructed the fort used calcium lime in the brick mortar, using lime and seashells excavated on Dauphin Island across the bay. Rainwater, which is slightly acidic, seeps through, dissolving the mortar into little stalactites. The military engineers tried many options, but it still leaks.
Many flags have flown over the area including Spanish, French, English, Confederate, United States and the Montgomery Rifles, an Alabama militia unit stationed there in 1861. Since Alabama had no state flag at the time, the militia made one of their own.
Greater Yellowlegs
Ft. Morgan has 5 stops on the Alabama Birding Trail. When the weather is bad during migration, birds will literally "fall out" of the sky, since this is the first land they have seen for many days. The weather was wonderful today though, so while we did not see large numbers of birds, we were pleased with those we saw. I always have trouble with pipers and plovers, but recognized the yellow legs on this bird standing on a brick wall. In the winter they range from the coastal areas of the US through South America, so this guy might be resting after a long flight home.

Pine Warbler
The coastal areas are covered in long needled pines (when not covered in vacation homes!), so a fast trill lead us to look for Pine Warblers in the trees. Finally, I got out the birding app on my phone and played a few songs. The first one must have had the wrong accent, because he didn't care at all, but the next one brought him right overhead to see who was singing in his territory!
Savannah Sparrow
Sparrows are confusing birds too. The are mostly brown, and they don't sit still long enough for me to get a really good look usually. This stripy sparrow bears a strong resemblance to the Song Sparrow - even the field guide says so, not just me. He didn't sing, which would have been a big clue, so I looked for a small yellow patch above his eyes. A slightly forked tail would have helped in the ID - if his tail were visible at all!
 The waves splashed up in front of this Great Blue Heron and he didn't blink an eye. In fact, look at the blue lores around his eyes. He's ready for breeding season, along with his long fancy feathers that blow in the wind.
The marshes and edge of the dunes make a great hunting area for this female Kestrel. Having a telephone line to perch on helps too.

Ospreys took advantage of a large tower at the Fort to build their nest. Probably a bit early for eggs, but she stayed at the nest and called him the whole time we visited.

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelicans have blond heads when it's breeding season. The lighter brown birds are juveniles.

Several pairs of Bluebirds flashed their bright blue wings. The male has a darker breast while the female's is paler than his.
As far as the eye can see in Mobile Bay and the Gulf just outside it are oil rigs. I looked online to find a total number for them, but mostly found only old information. Apparently most of them are natural gas rigs rather than crude oil. In 2011, one news station said, "There are about 50 gas and oil rigs operating in Alabama waters. Some were erected as many as 40 years ago, but most came on line during the late 80s."

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Back in Gulf Shores

Back in Gulf Shores, AL, for the first time in many years. It's very early in the season though, and hard to dress for the weather, since the temperature changes from cold to comfortable during the day, and the wind blows without ceasing. It's good to get away since I've spent the last six months battling cancer - successfully!
Our familiar bird friends were waiting for us on the beach, and we are looking many of them up in the field guide again since it's been so long. It's always a challenge to tell the immature birds and those with winter feathers apart.
The Laughing Gulls are here year-round, and have grown in their breeding feathers, so they are ready to go. Still looking for Ring-bills and Herring Gulls who go north to breed.
I never know what they find to laugh about so much!
Gulf State Park is right down the road, so we spent most of the day there. They have over 500 camping spaces, and we saw so many enormous RVs it was hard to find the hiking trails. Actually, the trails we saw were paved and used more by bicyclists than hikers. We almost got run over several times. The buildings looked newer than we usually find in a state park, and the ranger said they had lots of damage in Hurricane Ivan, so they got to put up new facilities.
A pair of Ospreys sat on the nest platform near the Nature Center...
...and called back and forth to each other. Couldn't tell if she has eggs yet or not.
The Purple Martins have arrived and were making quite a racket when we first arrived, then seemed to disappear when we returned to the car.
These Shrikes were all over though. I've never heard them singing before. Also had lots of Mockingbirds and Yellow-rump Warblers. Heard Red-winged Blackbirds in one spot, but expected more of them.
We were the sole attendees at a presentation on carnivorous plants, then she took us outside to a small collection of them growing next to the Nature Center. And they were blooming! The flowers all grow high above the rest of the plant so the pollinators don't slide in accidentally.
 Look at the little hairs growing inside the mouth. They all point downward, so any bug that fall inside can't climb back out again and gets digested.
She's going to lead a hike to the real bog later this week, and we'll probably join her. They don't share its location with the general public.