Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Wildflower Pilgrimage

 When our friend suggested we join them at the 63rd annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage at the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, we gladly agreed, since we haven't been to the park for many years. I thought the name was unusual, until I looked it up.
A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone's own beliefs.

Purple Phacelia and Robin's Plantain

Since the GSMNP has over 500,000 acres, we didn't get to see everything, of course, but we usually put in 8 - 9 miles hiking each day in different parts of the park. Sessions covered wildflowers, of course, but ferns, mosses, trees and shrubs, birds, and other topics of interest to the nature pilgrim, led by experts in the field. Sometimes the leaders were a little too expert, and academic, so I appreciated anyone who spoke English rather than Latin when discussing the flowers!


One trip went to Cade's Cove for birding, following the winding road tucked between a roaring mountain stream and high limestone cliffs. You have to keep your eye on the road in such conditions, but my attention was distracted by bright red flowers clinging to the cliff as we rounded one corner. "Columbine!" I shouted, soon followed by "Fire Pink!" On the way back, we drove extra slowly, searching for the cliff with these two flowers we had seen nowhere else. A narrow pull off area allowed us to risk life and limb crossing the road to peer up at the rocks for columbine and fire pinks who prefer this habitat.
Fire Pink

Painted Trillium

Trilliums are the stars of the wildflowers in the Smokey Mountains, as we saw many different varieties, but my target for the week was the painted trillium, which I have never seen anywhere. We asked if anyone knew where they were, and only one group had spotted them on one certain trail. It rained all day, but we were determined to find them! So it's pouring as we make the 2.2 mile one-way climb up Porter Trail. As we began to think about giving up, we turned one last corner and there they were! About 15 painted trilliums grew on a large mossy boulder, shining wetly in the rain. I expected them to be as large as the others, but these were only 3 - 4 inches tall, probably due to the limited nutrition available when living on a rock! Laughing in triumph, we celebrated with BBQ at the bottom of the road.

Sweet White Trillium
The large white trillium and yellow trilliums were more common than the painted trillium, but I never tired of seeing them. I don't know which is more beautiful - a hillside covered in trilliums or focusing in on the heart of just one perfect flower.
Yellow Trillium

Although I avoid the Latin scientific names as much as possible, I'm starting to swing the other way. It's hard enough to recognize the plants and learn all the common names for them, but many related flowers, such as trilliums, are so similar and the multiple common names are so confusing, that I'm starting to learn Latin for them. Sigh!

Sweet Orchis

Orchids are always a prize finding on any wildflower trip. The showy orchis bloomed everywhere...

Yellow Lady's Slipper

...but we had to make a long hike for the yellow lady's slipper. 

Maidenhair Fern
What else did I learn on my pilgrimage? Take a magnifying glass or loupe along - it's essential for identifying most ferns, and fascinating for any plant. Learn the proper names for the parts as much as possible - the vocabulary doesn't transfer over from flowers to ferns. Mosses don't have common names at all, so I'll just make up my own. Get a small white umbrella to use as a filter for bright sunlight. Use low gear when driving downhill in the mountains, and pull off to let the speedsters pass while you enjoy the view. Don't let rain stop you. Everything dries once you get back to the motel, and you feel so strong by reaching you goal even in the rain. Take lots of Aleve for sore feet and back muscles. Be sure you have a fully charged extra battery for your camera. Yes, indeed, I was a nature pilgrim at the Wildflower Pilgrimage. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spring is Here!

A little bird, he told me so
He said come on, get on the go

Open your eyes the sky is full of butterflies

The blossoms on the trees stir up the honey bees

Spring makes my fever right

Spring fever, spring is here at last

Spring fever, my heart’s beating fast

Get up, get out spring is everywhere!

 Don't waste time! The Spring wildflowers don't last long. It you wait, you might miss it!

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Follow the Birders to Goose Pond

Muskrat Den in Marsh
The Kentucky Bird List sends emails to subscribers about sightings in this state, and, of course, Indiana has one too, but I don't subscribe to it. Others in the Beckham Bird Club do, however, and at the board meeting they were talking about a Redshank sighted at Goose Pond, IN. "What's that?" I asked, and as birders do, someone pulled out their smart phone to show me a picture. It is a Eurasian sandpiper-like bird with bright orange-red legs and bill. It doesn't belong in mid-America though, and would be considered a very rare bird here. Hmmm, I've heard about Goose Pond, and this might be a good opportunity to explore it and get a rare bird on the same day. Let's do it! Google maps says it's about 2.5 hours from Louisville, on two lane roads most of the way, to Linton, in western Indiana. "Just look for all the cars and follow the birders."

The flat corn fields spread for miles, with natural gas pumps nodding here and there. Suddenly the sun shines off water, as lakes, ponds and shallow pools in the corn fields announcing my arrival at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. The last glaciation flattened most of Indiana, and left a large ice chunk at Goose Pond creating a basin which still retains water due to the clay layer underneath. Farmers fought with the marshiness for years, with limited success. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) purchased the entire 8,000-acre Goose Pond site from a private landowner in 2005. The Goose Pond project is part of several very large Wetland Reserve Projects that NRCS has put together up and down the Wabash River to help re-establish part of the weave of the Mississippi flyway. As a result, Goose Pond is attracting some of the most diverse birds that anyone has ever seen in the state. Listen to these chuckling leopard frogs! I thought they were some kind of strange bird at first.

Northern Shovelers and Blue Winged Teal Ducks
I followed the birders, who all had long faces. "No luck today," they said. Although the Redshank had been sighted for 4-5 days, it was gone now. Goose Pond attracts the normal water birds - ducks, geese, Sandhill Cranes, and sandpipers, but in its short existence, has also hosted a number of very unusual birds for Indiana, including a Roseate Spoonbill, Whooping Cranes (whose whereabouts are not broadcast to the birding world), a Hooded Crane (also from Asia), and Black-necked Stilt.

Look at the normal range for the Redshank! I know that birds can fly from the Arctic to Antarctic on a regular basis, but Indiana is definitely NOT in the normal territory of this bird. I was sorry to miss it. But of course, Goose Pond is about 8,000 acres, and it could easily have moved to a different area, along with the Black-necked Stilt which I also missed. I often wonder how the first birds who needed to move developed the whole pattern of migration. How in the world did this one bird get so far off track and away from everything familiar? Now it will have to find its way home somehow.

American Pelicans
I did, however, get some good views of about 500 American Pelicans, Double Crested Cormorants...
Green-Winged Teal
...some Green-Winged Teal, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels...

Rough-legged Hawk
...and a beautiful Rough-legged Hawk. I actually lugged my scope for at least a mile, moaning about its weight every step. I need a scope wallah - a servant who does nothing but carry and setup the scope when I want it. Had trouble getting it to focus well too, or is that just my eyes at this stage of life? Hooray for Indiana, for restoring wetlands - we need more of them!