Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Scarred for life

A mile north of the railroad cut that I featured in my "Crystalline Wall" (January 17) post, the railroad right-of-way becomes broader, but is still characterized by steep, though not precipitous, banks.  Here, trees established themselves many, many years ago on the lip of the cut.  Over the years, they've developed some pretty impressive buttresses to anchor themselves at the rocky edge.

My new camera allows me to create monochromatic images so, when I took the time to really examine these trees, I thought they might make good subjects rendered in black-and-white.

Slowly engulfing a stone

And, to finish up, some splashes of color...
Low sun enflaming American beech leaves on a darkening afternoon

Moss- and fungus-encrusted log

Monday, January 23, 2012

One Trail Twelve Times - January

 Hikers on a newly installed bridge.  Kali stands third from left.

Yesterday was the first installment of a year-long series of hikes I'm going to lead called "One Trail Twelve Times."  I shamelessly stole this concept from a Cleveland (Ohio) Metroparks naturalist who led hikers on the same trail once a month for 12 months to experience the natural world throughout the seasons.

My group is walking a 0.6-mile trail called the Beech Springs Trail, which features venerable old woodlands, expansive goldenrod meadows, and voluminous springs bubbling up from the ground in a grove of American beeches (hence the trail name).
The trail begins in a beatuiful, mature mixed woodland

Lichens encrusting a white oak trunk

 From the woods into the meadows

Goldenrod fly gall produced by the maggot of a peacock fly (Eurosta solidginis [Tephritidae])

Goldenrod moth gall produced by the caterpillar of Epiblema scudderiana

Preying mantis egg case awaiting spring warmth

 One of the eponymous beech springs

Water was flowing beneath the ice

A Pileated Woodpecker had been at work on a non-native bird cherry tree trunk, leaving its characteristic rectangular calling card.

We also encountered a Hermit Thrush at the edge of the woods--a rare, but not completely unexpected winter visitor.

Back out into the meadows to complete the circuit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chistina River Marshes

Looking over the Christina River and its fringing marshes.  
Wilmington, Delaware is in the background.

Every other month or so on a Friday morning, 10 of my colleagues and I gather for two hours of professional development, camaraderie, bitch sessions, and a sub sandwich lunch.  The venue circulates amongst our various organizations.  Yesterday, we met (for the first time) at the nearly new DuPont Environmental Education Center built in the marshlands on the banks of the freshwater tidal Christina River in Wilmington, Delaware

Like all tidal marshes on the East Coast, the marshes of the Christina River have been abused during the centuries of European settlement.  The location selected for the environmental education center had actually been filled with fly ash generated by coal-fired power plants.  To erect the building, the ash was excavated, and 212 acres of marshes were restored.

After tidal flow was re-established, though, a monoculture of Phragmites (common reed) quickly took over, limiting the ecological value of the new marsh.  So, the caretakers worked to control the Phragmites, and did a pretty good job.  Then, the marshes were overwhelmed by narrow-leaf cattail, another invasive species. which is where the situation currently stands.  Fortunately, there are clones of native broad-leaf cattail among the non-native cattailsin the marsh, and there are extensive and spreading stands of wild rice, which the land stewards safeguard and encourage. 
The environmental education building was actually built and is owned by a municipal authority charged with trying to re-develop and re-energize the Christina riverfront.  The redevelopment authority leases the building to the Delaware Nature Society for environmental education, but it also hosts parties on the upper floor for well-heeled clients.  The building, which is not LEED certified (i.e., is not especially environmentally friendly), and the extensive new boardwalk through the marshes cost $11.3 million.  Yikes!  That's a lot of parties to host to pay back that investment.  But the building is shiny, new and has a lot of "wow" factor, and the view from the upper floor over the river and marshes is breathtaking. 
Artwork gracing the entranceway
Unfortunately, an active railroad line separates the building from the main commercial part of the Christina riverfront, so the site is somewhat isolated.  For birders and nature lovers, that's a plus, but for casual visitors and the general public, visiting requires making a real effort.  The railroad would not allow an at-grade publicly-accessible crossing, so the redevelopment authority was forced to build a long, 3-story-high pedestrian bridge to span the tracks (visible on the right in the image above the owl sculpture).  It's an impressive entrance experience, but the Delaware Nature Society feels that it puts off some potential visitors. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Crystalline Wall

The county park that Kali and I frequent when it's too muddy to walk in our own backyard features a long, deep railroad cut through metamorphic gneiss.  The cut is about twenty feet deep and about two hundred feet long - the longest and deepest cut on the entire line, which was built in 1876.
Perennial springs seep from the northern face of the cut, and the moist, rocky niches support hanging gardens of mosses and ferns.  The recent cold weather utterly transformed the vertical landscape.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Heller's Bend

 A gall on a California live oak in Heller's Bend Preserve
Following up on my previous post...

The second day I visited with my ailing father in northern San Diego County, we repeated a morning stroll along the San Luis Rey River Trail, then he snoozed in the afternoon.  I took the opportunity to visit the Fallbrook Land Conservancy's 50-acre Heller's Bend Preserve.
Ferns sprouting from a horizontally rent granite boulder
None of the few walkers I encountered at the preserve knew its history, but it seemed to me that the land had been a private estate on which a house had never been built or on which a house had been demolished.  The preserve entrance is located in the floodplain of Tamarack Creek, a perennial rarity in arid southern California.  The paved entrance drive crosses the creek, then ascends steeply several hundred feet to a bench of land that provides fine views eastward over the suburban development of Fallbrook to the mountains beyond.
Much of the land in the preserve looks like it needs to be rehabilitated--that it had been damaged by human manipulation as it was forced to be an estate showplace but had been neglected and was trying to recover.  There were numerous dead and dying trees, and groves of ornamental shrubs peppered the landscape.
Along Tamarack Creek

Root of California sycamore along the bank of Tamarack Creek

Monday, January 9, 2012

Montserate Mountain

The trail to the top of Montserate Mountain
From Wednesday to Saturday last week (January 4-7, 2012), I was in San Diego visiting my father, who is dying of congestive heart failure.  My stepmother told me that my father's condition improved markedly when she told him that I was coming to visit, and we had a great few days together.  On both Thursday and Friday mornings, I pushed him in his wheelchair for 5 miles along the sunny, breezy San Luis Rey River Trail in Oceanside, California, where we enjoyed watching birds in the riparian trees and other people using the popular trail.

The walks left him tired in the afternoon (even though I was doing all the work). So, on Thursday afternoon, while he napped, I explored the Fallbrook Land Conservancy's Montserate Mountain Preserve.  The trail to the top of 1,269-foot Montserate Mountain is a 1,200-foot climb over a distance of a little less than two miles, so this flat lander had to rest frequently on the ascent.
Along the trail to the top of Montserate Mountain.
Boulders along the trail; the saddle between the two crests is in the upper left.
The image above is a view to the northwest.  The terraced hills visible in the midground are used for avocado orchards (Fallbrook is the avocado capital of the United States), but they are quickly being converted to residential subdivisions because Fallbrook is a high-end community with a lot of development pressure.  The mountains on the horizon are the Santa Ana Mountains just outside Los Angeles.

Flowers along the trail.  Because it's winter, there weren't many flowers blooming.  I can't identify the blue flower, but I believe the orange flower is called Mexican honeysuckle.
The cairn on the crest of Montserate Mountain. This view is eastward.  The mountains in the distance are the Aqua Tibia Mountains, which are protected in the Aqua Tibia Wilderness.  The Aqua Tibia range is a northwestward extension of Palomar Mountain, the site of a famous astronomical observatory.

Although I didn't notice any insects on my way to the top of the mountain, at the crest I was greeted by a fluttering aggregation of about three dozen butterflies.  Strange and unexpected.
The moon rose while I caught my breath and enjoyed the scenery at the top.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Birdin' Eve

At a friend's suggestion, Kali and I visited the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge's Brigantine Unit just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey, on New Year's Eve.  The day was perfect for a tour of the 8-mile Wildlife Drive:  mostly sunny, with temperatures in the balmy (for New Year's Eve) upper 50's F.
Atlantic City across the marshes
This unit of the refuge consists of a series of shallow impoundments whose water levels are manipulated by the refuge managers to provide habitat primarily for waterfowl.  Outside the impoundments, the remainder of the refuge offers upland pine forest habitat, grasslands, and large expenses of unmanaged salt marsh.  It's the impoundments that attract the waterfowl (and the human observers), though.
A male Pintail leaving a wake
We added two birds to our life lists while we slowly cruised the Wildlife Drive, making frequent stops to get better look at the birds: a Peregrine Falcon perched on an Osprey nesting platform enjoying lunch, and many Brants (a species of goose).  In fact, we didn't realize that we had added Brants to our lists until we got home and looked at some of the images I took; birds that we had tentatively identified as Canada Geese in the field (tentatively, because they were darker than the Canada Geese with which we are familiar, and because we didn't give them much additional notice after we "identified" them) turned out to be Brants, and there were lots of them.
The refuge also hosted thousands of Snow Geese--I believe the register at the Visitor Center said there were 4,000 on the ponds.  We also observed an adult Bald Eagle that caused a flurry of crazed activity among the waterfowl when it swooped over the ponds and then landed on another Osprey breeding platform.
A few of the thousands of Snow Geese overwintering in the refuge
Kali and I agreed that it was great to get away for the day, even though the trip to the shore took two hours each way.  Plus, it gave us an excuse to try a new pair of binoculars that we were given for Christmas: a pair of Canon 10X binoculars with an image stabilizer.  I would have been skeptical about the value of the stabilizer if I'd been considering new binoculars, but it was truly wonderful.  After Kali reluctantly tried the binoculars for the first time, I couldn't get them back from her for the rest of the day.