Sunflowers and Gourds

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1362acs

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0843a

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0983acsFUN FACT: Sunflowers are composite flowers, where all is not what it seems. What look like petals are actually infertile ray flowers that attract vital pollinator species to the plant. The center of the sunflower is made up of hundreds of small flowers, each with five petals, a male stamen and a female stigma, where pollination takes place.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0909acsGrasshopper.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1114acsSoybean pods.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0862acs161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0995acs161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0851acs161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1331acs2161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1103acsSquash.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1322acs161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0949acsWheel Bug, Arilus cristatus.

FUN FACT: One of a group of true bugs known as assassin bugs, in the ambush bug family, Reduviidae. They eat soft-bodied insects, stink bugs and, as we witnessed, bees. A wheel bug injects enzyme-laced saliva into its prey, which paralyzes the victim and liquefies their internal parts, which the wheel bug proceeds to consume. Yuck! Adding to their allure, they inflict a painful bite on humans.

They have their good side, though; many of their preferred prey are pests, so they are welcomed in gardens and on farms. And they just look cool.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0873acsThis gourd looked just like a goose to me. I took him home and cleaned him up.

Behold – Gourdon Goose.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0880acs161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_1092acsLeft behind.

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0868acs

161013_pa-sugartown-sunflowers_0981aLooking back on a fun fall day on the farm.

On Empire Bluff

The old ones say “the journey is the destination,” and many times that is true. There were wonders to be found along the trail in Sleeping Bear Dunes, to be sure. But the destination – oh, my, the destination…

The destination at the end of this trail quickly became my new favorite place in Sleeping Bear: Empire Bluff, a sandy ridge high above Lake Michigan. The path to it snaked through thick forests of beech and maple, ending at a boardwalk along the bluff. 160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4791acsOpenings in the greenery offered a sneak peak of the vistas to come.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4806acsLooking down at Lake Michigan 400 feet below. The variety of hues never cease to amaze me. How many names are there for these shades? Blue, green, turquoise, aquamarine, cerulean, azure, beryl, cobalt, peacock… I don’t think there are nearly enough words to describe the colors of the lake.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4846acsThe view from the Empire Bluff Overlook. The shoreline stretches north along the Empire Embayment. A sand bar separates South Bar Lake from Lake Michigan. Sleeping Bear Dune itself – or what is left of it after years of wind erosion – is a small dark hill perched on the tip of the sandy bluff in the distance. Offshore to the left, partially obscured by cedar trees, is South Manitou Island.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4895acsEveryone comes for the view. Not everyone pays attention to it. Sometimes I wonder where the next generation of conservationists will come from if kids never get their faces out of their phones, even when in the presence of beauty such as this.

At least some folks are putting their phones to good use. I took cell photos here too, mostly to tease my friends: “I’m on top of the world, and you’re not!”

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4873acsNot all is right with that world up here, but it’s hard to find fault with this loveliness. I was enthralled with the purple flowers that covered the open sandy slopes. I couldn’t resist them, even though I knew them for what they were – a dreaded invasive plant.

Spotted Knapweed, Centaurea stoebe, to be precise. It’s an Eastern European aster that arrived on the West Coast in the 1800s, probably in an alfalfa shipment. In 80 or 90 years, it spread to 26 counties in the Pacific Northwest. 20 years later, it was in 45 of 50 states. A pioneer species, it takes over fields, road sides, sand prairies, anywhere there is open disturbed land. Nasty, nasty, nasty.

But it’s such a pretty nasty

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4834acs2This metallic green sweat bee thought so, too. There are a lot of species of sweat bees all over the world. Which one this is, I have no idea. It was enough to just watch it flashing emerald green in the sun, busily pollinating the invasive plants.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4885acsDriftwood and weathered old logs made for decorative accents among the wildflowers, grasses and small shrubs.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4880acsA pair of Bald Eagles soared over the ridge.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4919acsThe joint was jumping, literally. Grasshoppers abounded. If I got too close, they’d hop a foot or two in the air, and fly away with buzzing wings. In flight, they looked like butterflies. Here’s the Grasshopper King, about to take up his scepter.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4933acsLooking up the hill to the east.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4898acsBeyond the boardwalk, the sandy trail continued along the knife’s edge of the bluff. To the south is Platte Bay. I turned back here, leaving other wonders to be discovered another time.

160725_mi-sleeping-bear-dunes-4-empire-bluffs_4811acsThat’s the thing about favorite places. They always leave you wanting more.

Almost Heaven: Bear Rocks and Bogs

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3578acsWe came to the end of the road – and found a trail.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3573acsTo the north of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia lies Bear Rocks, a spectacular outcropping of white sandstone and quartz perched on the Allegheny Front. The rocks are surrounded by the 477-acre Bear Rocks Preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, which has been instrumental in preserving and protecting land in the Dolly Sods. After touring Dolly Sods by car, Robb, Don and I were eager to get out and explore on foot, stretch our legs a little.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3552acsA view of the Bear Rocks trail. No, that’s not a creek, it’s a trail. A very wet trail. After a lot of puddle-jumping, we turned back. The trail doesn’t go to Bear Rocks, which is what we were interested in. So we followed a cobweb of informal trails through the heath barrens to the ridge.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3575acsI’ve been using the word “heath” a lot. What is it?

“Heaths” are a family of acid-tolerant, low-growing plants. Huckleberry, blueberry, sheep and mountain laurel (left), rhododendron, tea berry, bear oak.

All of these plants are old friends of ours from the low-lying but acidic NJ Pine Barrens. Time and again, we find them in the higher elevations of the Appalachians.

Here they inhabit tundra-like meadows known locally as “huckleberry plains.”

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3590acsFlagged red spruce trees on Bear Rocks.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3614acsThe view east from the ridge. The Allegheny Front drops 2000’ here to the valley of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Rumor has it that on a clear day, a visitor can see seven mountain ridges, and on the clearest days, Hawksbill and Stony Man peaks in Shenandoah National Park. This wasn’t a clear day. I still can count four ridgelines.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3634aRocks, rhododendron and red spruce.

We had a lot of fun clambering all over Bear Rocks. Finding our way back through the heath to the main trail was a little challenging. We were glad the plants were so short that we could see right over them.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3650acsOn the way back through Dolly Sods, we had time for one more stop, the interpretive Northland Loop Nature Trail. Lots of different ecosystems on one short trail.

Also a stern warning about unexploded ordnance. The Dolly Sods was a training area during World War II.

We managed to survive the walk with all limbs intact.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3666acsThe trail started through a typical forest of red spruce and rhododendrons.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3731aIt was raining, still, which gave me some nice water droplets to play with.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3663acsExcept for a few unidentified birds, this was the only wildlife we saw in Dolly Sods. No deer, no chipmunks, NO BEARS. Somehow that absence made this snail all the more welcome.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3708acsThe highlight of the Northland Loop is Alder Run Bog, a large northern peat bog. Bogs are waterlogged ecosystems where the plants actually grow on the surface of the water. They are unusual at high altitudes, but not in Dolly Sods.

The margins of Alder Run Bog are populated by spruce trees, heaths, sedges and ferns. A boardwalk leads out into the bog, which is covered in sphagnum moss and…

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3717acsSundews! This is a much-loved carnivorous plant we see sometimes in the Pine Barrens. We were unprepared for the vastness of the sundew stands here in Alder Run Bog.

FUN FACT: No more than a couple of inches high, these tiny plants attract insects with a sweet secretion, than trap them with the sticky mucilage of their moveable tentacles. The prey dies of exhaustion or asphyxiation, whereupon the plant digests it. Charming, aren’t they?

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3738acsBack through the forest, we came upon a river of rocks.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3743aAmong the rocks we found some white reindeer moss. Not a moss but a lichen, it’s common in the Pine Barrens, just like sphagnum moss and sundews. The similarities between the plant life of the Pinelands and that of high-altitude acidic Appalachian ecosystems continues to amaze us.

160705_WV Dolly Sods_3750acsThe road home. We had a wonderful day exploring Dolly Sods, despite the mist and rain. But our time in West Virginia was drawing to a close.

While doing some research for these posts, I have seen many images of Dolly Sods and Bear Rocks unlike any of mine. Photos of clear blue skies, mountain ranges rolling off into the distance, meadows abloom with flowers, heaths ablaze in autumnal reds and golds. Something to aspire to, I guess. Something for a return visit (or two!) to West Virginia. I could spend several days right here in Dolly Sods.

Maybe I’d even see a bear…

Birthday Flowers

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5741acs160420_DE Mt Cuba_5758acsToday is the Wild Edge’s birthday!

Together we’re 3 years old, this little blog and I.

I thought I’d send myself a floral bouquet, photographically picked at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware.

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5755acs160420_DE Mt Cuba_5867acs

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5835acs

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5850acs

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5941acs160420_DE Mt Cuba_5903acs160420_DE Mt Cuba_5935acs160420_DE Mt Cuba_5887acsOn our first birthday, I wrote an impassioned plea for readers to get outside, to appreciate and protect Nature. Slightly paraphrased, those words are no less vital today:

My hope with the Wild Edge is to reach beyond fellow photographers and nature lovers, to those who may be more at home inside. If I can pique their interest with photos, words, humor and random fun facts, maybe they’ll go outside. If they go outside, maybe they’ll fall in love with the wildness around them. If they fall in love… Well, the rest is up to them.

160420_DE Mt Cuba_5764acsSo, the Wild Edge has been running for three years now. Has it worked?

Has anyone out there been intrigued enough by something you’ve seen or read to go to a park, preserve or other natural place yourself? Do you now make a habit of it?

Do you recycle, pick up litter, support land preservation? Are you encouraging young conservationists?

Will anyone stand up for Mother Earth and her creatures?

If so, great! You have the appreciation of a grateful blog mistress. If not, keep reading the Wild Edge. Maybe something in the days and weeks to come will spark your interest and inspire you to GO OUTSIDE!

My Happy Place

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3199acsEveryone needs a place of retreat, a place to restore one’s soul. Through the long winter I pictured it only in my dreams. Serene. Meditative. Calming. My happy place.

Y’all close your eyes now. Let’s go there in our minds…

Ah, that’s better. Wave goodbye to the dark, dreary, landlocked days of winter. Shed the layers of thermals and fleece. Wade through the shallows, and settle into the kayak. Turn your face to the warming rays of the sun.

Now, dip the paddle blade into the water, and smoothly, gently, pull. Feel the boat glide effortlessly forward.

Ahhh. That’s better.

After six long months on land, I am once again a creature of the water. Blessed with a warm sunny day in the middle of April, I pack up my kayak and head for the Pine Barrens. Lake Oswego awaits, glittering indigo under a clear blue sky. No longer a dream, my happy place is now reality.

The water of the lake flows dripping off my paddle, and runs chuckling down the length of the kayak’s hull.

Ssssshlooooop -drip-drip-drip – drip – d r i p – d r i p – gurglegurgle

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3190acsThe first strokes are awkward, and I find myself paddling not across open water, but through a mass of lily pads and dark green pondweeds. Oops! Better watch where I am going.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3429acsHmmm. That looks interesting on the other side of the bridge. I wonder if I can fit under there?

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3415acsEasily spooked, turtles dive at the mere hint of my presence. I stow my paddle and drift, and soon a turtle forgets me and begins to nibble at a nice wet salad.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3193acsMy happy place. Around the upper curve of the lake and down the far shore, past the dam and the portage beach. Blue sky, green trees, dark blue water. Ahhh.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3373acsAt the southeastern end of the lake, I find this fantastical sculpture, the twisted remains of a long-deceased tree.

Lakes don’t occur naturally in the Pine Barrens. Something had to die for the pond to be born.

Gone, but not forgotten.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3295acsMy happy place is… a cemetery. The ghosts of drowned cedar trees haunt the shallow places, a reminder of the forest that once was.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3357acsYet life abounds among the tree spirits. A fallen phantom attracts a turtle, very much alive. Several of his shelled buddies are also soaking up the sun nearby.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3285acsBleached cedar tree trunks are the totem poles of the Pine Barrens lake, the resting places of arboreal souls. I drift among them like the clouds wisp across the sky, soaking up the twitter of tree swallows.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3264acsA spectral white trunk leans on another for support. Like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face, its weathered skin whispers of all that it has seen. Wait – what is perched on the right end of the log? Photobombed by a dragonfly!

There’s that sound again. QUONK! Like a metallic thunk. I heard a few of them near the launch, but at this end of the lake the sounds are much more numerous. No bird I know makes that sound. It has to be a frog. But what one? No matter how close I get to each QUONK, it’s not close enough. I see no frogs.

One of my missions is to find where the Oswego River comes into Oswego Lake. I follow a pair of honking geese into a cove. At the far end is a narrow passage into another cove. Beyond that a thin little stream squeezes between trees and disappears.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3322acsCould this be the Oswego River?

But there’s another cove, with another stream beyond it disappearing into the trees. This one looks wider, more like a real stream. Hmmm. Mission postponed. Best to leave some mystery for another day.

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3393acsLeft also for another day is this inviting little pathway.

Journey’s end.

Ahhh, that’s better. My spirit has been soothed. Winter is past; its cold and confinement have faded. A season of warm days and blue water unfolds before me like a map. A map that leads to…

160418_NJ Oswego Lake Kayak_3448acsMy happy place.

Early Green

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3075aI’m not fond of the color brown. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a color. It’s more like a background, and one I’m tired of. For most of my life I lived in a beige house, which is brown in a wishy-washy mood. With apologies to my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service friends in their brown and tan uniforms, the only good brown thing is chocolate.

As mild as this past winter was, I really have no cause to complain. But since the trees and shrubs lost their leaves in November, life outdoors has been a sea of brown bare trees and beige dried foliage. Now, I admire the structural bones of a single bare tree as much as the next person, but this is too much of a good thing. Momentary escapes to the Pine Barrens and Jersey Shore offered only momentary relief from the monotony. After five months, I am ready for change.

Nothing says “change” like green. Pale yellow-green. Bright kelly green. Deep forest green. The green of Nature. The green of Spring.  The green of New Life.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3126acsWhat a relief to see green in all its variations on a recent evening walk at John Heinz NWR, and soak in the sights and sounds of the new arrivals early Spring brought with it. Like the willows dancing in the breeze while a jet contrail slices the clear blue sky.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2573acsSpring greens are subtle. Pussy willow along the water’s edge.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2492acsSometimes the green is the canvas on which other colors are painted. Just the carpet of green leaves would be welcome sight. The golden flowers add that touch of flair.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2779acsSometimes spring greens are red! At this time of year, many of the trees are bright crimson, as the red maples burst into bud…

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2699acs…And flower.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2716acsSometimes the green is not so welcome, like new shoots of Phragmites, an invasive plant found throughout the Refuge that a friend and I are trying to eradicate from a small plot. We knew it would come back. The fight is renewed for another growing season.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3198acsThe greening of the land brings with it new arrivals freshly returned from their wintering grounds. Red-winged Blackbirds have been back for a few weeks. Their CONK-ER-REE calls are anything but musical, but nonetheless music to my winter-weary ears.

The air is filled with the songs of birds. Song Sparrows, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals join the blackbird chorus. There’s an amphibian choir singing as well, as frogs have come out of the mud where they spent the winter to look for mates. The aptly named Spring Peepers make a surprisingly loud, high-pitched PEEP continuously. These are tiny frogs, no bigger than a fingernail. In all my searching, I have never seen one, though I have been nearly deafened by their noise. Singing tenor to the peepers’ soprano are the Wood Frogs, who sound more like ducks, with their ragged QUACK call.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3106acsSnapping turtles have also come out of the mud, and cruise along at the water’s surface.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3230acsTree Swallows came back recently. Now the sky over the impoundment is filled with the little blue jewels hawking insects. Which means, of course, that the insects are back too. The marshy environment of Heinz Refuge would be miserable with mosquitos were it not for our swallow friends. Which is why we have nest boxes for them.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3263acsFrequent squabbles break out over those nest boxes. This is prime real estate.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_2560acsGreat Egrets arrived last week. This one was enjoying an hors d’oeuvre, hoping for a more filling main course.

160322_PA HNWR Early Spring_3031acsHere’s the greenest photo of all. Yes, I know – there’s no green, just the dreaded brown. This is one of our Bald Eagle pair sitting on its nest. Inside that nest are one or more eggs. Any day now (it might already have happened) a tiny, fluffy eaglet will break its way out of the shell and start its new life.

New life. It just doesn’t get any greener than that.

Lost on the Lakes

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1665acsNow, as the cold days draw near, close your eyes and dream…dream of a Michigan summer…

The sun shines brightly in an azure sky laced with fluffy white clouds. All is quiet but for the fading voices ashore and the rhythm of the paddle. Dip, swish, drip, drip; dip, swish, drip, drip.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1527acsThe kayak glides effortlessly across the deep blue of Hamlin Lake toward an island of rich greenery and white sands. A cool breeze brushes warm skin and paints ripples on the canvas of the water.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1546acsAt the small island’s tip, driftwood and old pilings bleach in the sun while a single tree keeps watch. A kayak rests on the shore, awaiting the return of its paddlers from an exploration of the island’s wild interior.

Across Hamlin Lake lies the inviting inlet of the much smaller Lost Lake. A spit of land barely ten feet wide separates the two lakes.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1598acsThe Lost Lake Trail spans the inlet on an elevated walkway. Underneath, an uprooted stump has wedged itself under the bridge. This is the land of drowned forests, cut down and buried under water in the name of progress. Progress complete, the lakes are now a place for play.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1550acsLost Lake is serene, and the water amazingly clear. Every tree stump and aquatic plant can be seen with clarity.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1620The coves offer a sheltered place for water lilies and sedges to grow. On the isthmus, a tree leans at a precarious angle. The peacefulness of a summer’s day is deceptive; the Lake Michigan coast is a harsh environment, and whipping winter winds take their toll on trees clinging to the water’s edge.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1661acsA towering sand dune offers a place to stop, rest and explore.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1681acsIf snails would seek sanctuary from predators, they will not find it here. The shallows of Lost Lake offer no hiding place. Yet again, the crystal clear water astounds.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1712acsA pair of damselflies patrols over a field of water lilies.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5156acsWee mushrooms loom large over moss and pine needles, a landscape in miniature on the forest floor.

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5163acsTiny treasures such as this captivate the imagination and tempt the soul to linger.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1728acsBut nearby the narrow entrance to a small cove beckons, dark and mysterious.

150821_MI LSP Lost Lake Kayak_1754acsAt its mouth, a fallen log has been eaten away by time like Swiss cheese. In one nook, new life has taken root.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1814acsNothing is so tenacious as a plant. It takes but a tiny bit of soil, tucked in a crevice of an old tree stump, for a new tree to sprout and grow. Water, soil, light. What more could a tree wish?

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1900acsMallards splash and bathe by the roots of an overturned tree…

150820_MI LSP Lost Lake Trail_5134acs…while a green frog idles in the shade.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Lake Kayak_1846acsAn intricate entwining of twisted white limbs adorned with greenery graces the shore. Tree sculpture is but one form of Nature’s artwork.

All too soon, fierce winter will intrude upon peaceful meditations of summer. When it comes, find sanctuary in dreams of sheltered coves and sand beaches. The dip, swish, drip, drip of the paddle. The plants swaying sinuously beneath the clear water, the sparkle of the sun on the surface, the sand and the trees reflected there.

150821_MI LSP Hamlin Kayak_1890acsSavor the moments spent lost in reverie… on the lost lakes.