Gorge-ous Ithaca: A Change of Plan

A wise man once said “You can’t always get what you want…but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”

For my last day in Ithaca last summer, what I wanted was to go to Buttermilk Falls, one of those MUST-SEE places people were talking about. What I got was a balky knee that wouldn’t handle the steps to the second floor without complaint, much less all the climbing to be done at Buttermilk.

Change of plan.

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September Song

A melody drifts over the meadows, to the accompaniment of cicadas and crickets and birdsong. The tune is deep purple and golden, and it calls to the small creatures of the air with a silken voice: “Come to me! Feed on my rich nectar while you may!” The little aerialists are happy to oblige, raising their voices in sweet harmony to the music of the wildflowers until all the world is ablaze with the Song of September.

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Milkweed Morning

It was a dark and steamy morning…The clouds offered conflicting gifts. Limited light made photography a challenge. On the other hand, with dew points in the 70s, the absence of the blazing sun was a relief. There was a dense layer of mist hovering over the surface of the creek, and the woods were cool. But my destination this morning was the meadows where patches of milkweed could be found. Continue reading

Batty About Bats (Part 2) Chatty Batties

Bat Week continues… In Part 1, we talked a little about bats, and their importance to the environment. We then followed the intrepid Heinz Refuge Bat Team into the field to search for these important critters by recording their high-pitched echolocation calls.

We left the team with lots of memory cards filled by chatty batties… Continue reading

The Guest Request Fest

Critter Radio Logo v3Well, hel-loooo to all you birds, bugs and beasties out there in Critter Land. You’re tuned to KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright. So glad you could join me tonight for the Guest Request Fest.

Yes, boys and gulls, it’s time for you loyal listeners to let us know what you want to hear. Don’t wait, don’t hesitate! Call, text or tweet now with your requests. Miss Opal will make all your dreams take flight, that’s right.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3540acsWe’ll start right in on the ground floor, shall we? Master Grasshopper brings our first entreaty of the hour: “Kung Fu Fighting”.

150711_PA Nockamixon Cliffs_1293acsThe butterfly brigade chimes in with this weighty wish from slim Ms. Tiger Swallowtail. She’s an edgy sort of dame, that’s right. Her fave tune? “Edge of Seventeen”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3502acsFor a Red-spotted Purple, what could be more appropriate than “Blue On Black”? How apt.

150722_DE Bombay Hook_1761aWell, what have we here – a twin tweet! A pair of lookalikes indeed, the Monarch…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3764acs… and the Viceroy.

Monarchs taste bad, Viceroys don’t, but most butterfly gourmets will shun both. Viceroys are big copycats, and more than once that has saved their silly little – oh, excuse me, family show, that’s right.

Let’s get back to their song, “Me and My Shadow”, shall we?

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3705acsIs that the phone ringing? Yes, I think it is. And who have we here? Why it’s the Rev. Green Frog, he of the roly-poly peepers. What dark secrets have been confessed to the good preacher?

He wants to hear “Your Lying Eyes”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3628acsOn the other side of town, someone is lonely tonight. Jeremiah Bullfrog feels he’s lost his only friend. Here’s a little ditty for his melancholy blues as he contemplates the vastness of the pond – “It’s Not Easy Being Green”.

Miss Opal could cheer up this sprite, that’s right.

150804_PA HNWR Dragonfly_3428acsMr. Pondhawk has a request…

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3557acs…and wait, we’ve got Mrs. Pondhawk on the other line. What a lovely couple – they’ve both asked for that romantic oldie, “I Got You Babe”.

150809_NJ Palmyra Cove_3675acsWe have time for one more rhythmic requisition, and it comes tonight from a croaker immersed in self reflection. “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, how true!

Oh, my, my, Miss Opal hears her theme song; it’s always too soon to leave you. Another splendiferous edition of the musical petition, the Guest Request Fest, has come to a close.

Until next time, I’m Opal White, that’s right, white hot and bright, and this is KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio. I bid you farewell with Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, like me, doing it “My Way”.

150804_PA HNWR Great Egret_3208 acs“Egrets, I’ve had a few…”

Bearly There

Appalachian Spring Title SubtitleDon and I didn’t go to the Appalachians for the wildlife. Well, I did, as you’ll see later. But our main interest was in exploring habitats vastly different from what we are used to in our little corner of the Piedmont. Appalachian mountains, coves, boreal forests, balds – we wanted to experience it all.

It’s not that critters weren’t on our radar; it’s just that we were trying to cover too much ground to spend a lot of time in one place looking for birds and such. What wildlife we saw would have to find us.

150412_TN GSMNP_3949acsAnd it did. A Pileated Woodpecker on the banks of the Little River, a Black and White Warbler near Laurel Falls, a Cooper’s Hawk on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hummingbirds on the feeders of our cabin porch. There were lots of Wild Turkeys and lots of Turkey Vultures. A few gray squirrels. Several very tame deer at Cade’s Cove. Nothing we hadn’t seen before, but all enjoyable to watch. Especially the Pileated.

We did see three species new to us, and none of them were birds. All were exciting. And all were found by somebody else first, and we just followed the crowds.

On the Laurel Falls Trail, it was the children who led the way. We came upon a father and some kids staring intently at the rocky cliff rising above us. “Look!” they said “it’s a salamander!” Sure enough, basking in the warm sun was a six-inch striped long-tailed salamander.

150412_TN GSMNP_4018acsOr so I thought.

We saw three of these critters, and for two months I thought they were salamanders. No warning bells went off in my thick skull. Despite the fact that the animal we saw didn’t look like any of the salamanders in the Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies book. Despite the fact that this little guy had scales. Despite the fact he was basking in the sun, which no amphibian in its right mind would ever do. No, despite all these obvious signs, I stubbornly persisted in believing that I had found one of the Smokies’ famous salamanders.

And I call myself an amateur naturalist? This was amateur hour at its finest.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove_4450 acsFinally, upon reviewing the photographic evidence I saw what I should have known in April. This was no amphibious salamander, but a lizard, a reptile. In fact, it’s one of the skinks that call the Smokies home. The scales are one clue; reptiles have them, amphibians don’t. But it’s the behavior and the habitat that should have tipped me off. Salamanders are moist skinned critters, and stick to shady, damp places, like under rocks at the edges of streams. Skinks, like all reptiles, are cold-blooded, and like to sunbathe to help regulate their body temperature.

Properly identified at the time or not, these were cute little animals. We saw two that first day on the Laurel Falls Trails, both found by kids.

150412_TN GSMNP_4036acsHere’s Don posing with one.

I found our third skink myself at the base of a farm building in Cades Cove.

150418_NC BRP Hawk_4495acsThere were no such identification issues with our next new species. I knew these magnificent animals frequented this particular area of the park, had almost been expecting them, but did not dare to hope. Yet at the end of a very long day, there they were. They stood out, big and dark in the light green grass of the open field.


150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4252acsElk used to roam the Smokies and the southern Appalachians, but they were eliminated from the area by the mid-1800s. In 2001 the National Park Service began a program to restore elk to the park. Here’s proof it’s been successful!

150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4354acsOne of the places the elk like to hang out is Oconaluftee, at the eastern end of Newfound Gap Road, which is where we came upon them that late afternoon. I quickly pulled the car onto a side road and Don and I joined the small crowd of visitors and NPS volunteers watching the elk do basically nothing.

Eleven elk all lying down, placidly munching on grass. What entertainment! One got up and walked across the field, which stirred the crowd into a tizzy.

150417_NC GSMNP Oconaluftee Elk_4403aImagine our excitement when another elk appeared behind us and started grazing just feet away.

150412_TN GSMNP_3929acsWhile Don and I went to the Smokies for the mountains and varied habitats, I was secretly hoping for bears. The American black bear is my all-time favorite animal – let’s be honest, it’s the cute factor. I’ve never seen one before, though. There are an estimated 1800 black bears in the Smokies. That’s two bears a square mile, so my odds of seeing one must have been good, yes?

No. Bears are shy creatures who avoid contact with humans at all costs, unless there’s food involved.

Early in our tour of Cades Cove, Don asked a local what our odds of seeing a bear were. “About 1%”, he replied.

Five minutes later we had our first bear.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4108acsBears in the Smokies frequently cause “bear jams”, carloads of tourists on the side of the road looking at bears. So when we came upon a lot of parked cars and lots of people standing around, all supervised by a ranger, we knew what was going on. Don, being the gentleman that he is, jumped out of the car to see before I could get properly parked.

Our bear was about 200 yards away, and disappearing into the trees by the time I could get my camera on him. I only got a few shots, all blurry.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4132acsIt wasn’t long before I got another chance. This time, a bigger crowd was watching not one but three bears about 300 yards away. A mother and two yearling cubs. We got a longer look, and I tried hard to get good shots, but once again distance led to fuzzy photos. Usually I wouldn’t show photos this bad – and believe it or not, this is my sharpest shot.

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bears_4163 acs2But what the heck, I’d finally gotten to see black bears, and here’s the proof!

Don and I had one other encounter with a black bear, and it happened too fast for either of us to get a photo. We were driving home from the Smokies on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mt. Mitchell. It was pouring rain, and the fog masked everything but the trees lining the road.

Suddenly a bear appeared from the woods on the right, maybe 10 yards away, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods on the other side. We only had time to point and start shouting “Bear! Bear! BEAR!” before it was gone. Not more than 5 seconds, but by far the best look we got at a black bear on the trip.

That quick but exciting view of a black bear was an apt metaphor for the wildlife Don and I saw on our two week Appalachian excursion. Every brief sighting was thrilling, but in the Smokies the wildlife was…

150413_TN GSMNP Cades Cove Bear_4118acsBEARLY there.

Map GSMNP Bearly There

Wild Horses

141017_Chincoteague NWR_9571 aThundering hooves pound the grasslands. Over the rise the herd appears, horses with manes flowing in the wind of their own passage. Their varied colors of chestnut and sorrel, palomino and pinto mirror the reds, tans and golds of the canyons and mesas that edge the Plains.

Say “wild horses” and this is the image that springs to mind, mustangs roaming the deserts and prairies, an echo of the Old West. Coastal salt marshes and maritime forests are not where you would expect to find these wild creatures. Yet the southeastern coast is dotted with small herds of ponies. One of the most famous of these herds lives in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of Assateague Island National Seashore in Virginia and Maryland.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1230 acsLocal legend says that the Assateague ponies are descendents of horses that struggled ashore from a shipwreck. More likely they are the offspring of tax-evaders! Farmers in the 17th century would turn their animals loose on the island to avoid the taxes levied on free-roaming mainland livestock.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Beach Road_1728Today there are two herds on Assateague Island. The northern Maryland herd is owned by the National Park Service, and roams free in the Assateague Island National Seashore. The southern Virginia herd is privately owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. Once a year, on “Pony Penning Days”, they are driven across the channel to Chincoteague Island. Many of the young foals are auctioned off before the herd is swum back to Assateague. This helps keep the horse population at a healthy level, and proceeds benefit the fire company.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Beach Road_1742 aLone horse under a loblolly pine, the predominate tree of the maritime forest here.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1226 acs2The wild horses live rough, no cushy stables for them. Cold stormy winters find them in the shrub thickets and woods. The moderate months of spring and fall are spent in the marshes. In summer, heat, humidity and hordes of biting insects drive them to the beach and into the water.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1331Dead trees and shrubs are everywhere, fascinating in their naked beauty. The salt marsh is a harsh mistress.

For the ponies, too. Most of my photos were of headless horses, their faces buried in the grass. They graze constantly. I thought their rotund appearance meant the ponies ate well. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Their diet of salt marsh cord grass and salt hay is abundant but poor in nutritional value. It’s also salty, which leads the horses to drink twice the amount of water a domestic horses would drink. Those round tummies are the result of water bloat.

141018_Chincoteague NWR_0957 acsLike many children, I grew up on Marguerite Henry’s 1947 book Misty of Chincoteague, about Pony Penning Days. Little did I dream I’d someday get to see those wild ponies, grazing peacefully at sunset.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1209 aThere’s another critter with hooves at Chincoteague NWR that’s equally captivating. This is a Sika Elk.

They look like a smaller version of the native White-tailed Deer. But they are a non-native species introduced from Asia by an Eastern Shore man named Clemment Henry in the early 1900s. He released a half dozen elk onto James Island in Chesapeake Bay, and from there the population grew and spread.

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1204 aWe encountered several Sika Elk on a walk through the woods. They regarded us with much curiosity, coming closer to us to get a good look when we stood quietly. See the spots on the white rump? They remain throughout adulthood, unlike the native White-tails. This elk demonstrated an unusual way of bounding away that I can only describe, poorly, as a stiff-legged bounce. Watching it hop had us in stitches.

Yes, like the wild horses of Assateague Island, these little Sika Elk are quite “endeering”!

141019_Chincoteague NWR Woodland Trail_1360 acs


140821_Bartrams Garden_8021acsOnce upon a time, there was a handsome frog. He sat upon the edge of a pond, waiting. But not for the kiss of a human lassie to change him into a human prince, for he was happy and proud to be a bullfrog. So proud that he soon burst into robust song. His skillful bellowing quickly drew a pretty female frog to him. All around him that spring, frogs and toads were staging similar little romantic dramas in ponds and bogs throughout the land.

140409_Tyler_8623 FrogspawnNot long after, little clumps of clear jelly filled with dark spots began to appear. Eggs! Thousands of them. This is the frogspawn of the wood frog, and the tadpoles-to-be are already visible.

140416_Tyler Toadspawn & Tadpoles_8961 acsToads lay their eggs not in round masses, but long strings. When the tadpoles emerge, they will consume the gelatinous casing for the nutrients it holds.

140423_Tyler Frog Bog_0969 acsIn spring and early summer, tadpoles are everywhere, swimming above the leaves left behind the prior fall…

140503_Mt Cuba_6509Harassing a fish who has no interest in them as a snack…

140416_Tyler Tadpoles_9041 acsAnd just doing what tadpoles do, eating and growing. Tadpoles are exclusively aquatic, and breathe through gills like fish. Dinner is algae and water plants. The length of time frogs and toads spend in the tadpole stage varies according to the species; in bullfrogs it may be up to two years. Eventually tadpoles begin the amazing transformation from aquatic larvae to terrestrial adult. Legs appear, and then arms. Their bodies change shape, the tail shortens, and gills are replaced by lungs.

140809_Bartrams Garden_7524acsBehold the froglet. Not yet fully mature, but no longer a tadpole, this youngster can breathe air and move about on land. He’s still got that tail, though.

140821_Bartrams Garden_8078acsYoung bullfrog, finding shade from the hot August sun in the lily pads. The tail has been absorbed into his body, and he’s fully mature, but he will continue to grow in size. Adult bullfrogs rest during the day, and hunt at night. Anything they can catch becomes prey – insects, fish, birds, even small mammals.

140821_Bartrams Garden_7983acsThe small pond is home to a surprisingly tame group of young bullfrogs. The presence of humans with cameras doesn’t seem to bother them much. Bullfrogs will remain near water much of the time, as they must keep their skin moist.

140813_Tyler_7665aAnother pond finds a green frog amidst the cattails. Green frogs are also primarily aquatic. See the ridges running along the frog’s back? That’s the best way to tell green frogs from bullfrogs; the latter lack these dorsolateral ridges.

FUN FACT: The roundish circle behind the frog’s eye is the tympanum, an external “ear” of sorts. It transmits sound to the frog’s inner ear. In females, the tympanum is about the same size as the eye; in males it’s twice as big. An easy way to tell the boys from the girls!

140810_Mineral Hill_7643acsA wood frog sports a robber’s mask as he lingers on the leaves scattered across the forest floor. Wood frogs live in low moist woodlands and forested swamps. In the winter they migrate to nearby uplands, returning in the spring to the vernal pools, to search out a mate and begin the cycle anew.