Monday, December 30, 2013

A Twinge of Regret

(This is Chris Evans, not my intern)
Our organization offers "internships" for college students during the summer.  I would like to think that our internships contribute to our students' educations but, in reality, the internships are mostly unpleasant "slave labor" in the hottest, steamiest, and buggiest months of the year when repeated rounds of string-trimming, lawn mowing, and herbiciding consume the students' days.

Most of the kids move on and disappear after they finish college, but a few stay in touch.  One of our previous interns is nearing the end of his doctoral program; he described a new subspecies of bird after doing field work in South America.

Another of our previous interns stopped by the office this afternoon.  He is close to earning his Master's degree in marine zoology - working on the effects of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  This young man is now 28 years old - handsome, bearded, bespectacled, and so much more mature than when he worked here as an undergraduate.  And, most of all, he is optimistic and motivated.  I bent his ear for nearly an hour, reveling in his enthusiasm, excitement, and professionalism.

I'm pretty sure that a lot of his demeanor has to do with his youth and the stage at which he finds himself in his career, but he brought back for me some of the same enthusiasm I felt when I was in graduate school at his age.

He also made me feel a little bit sad, too, because I've all but lost that spark.   

Winter Traffic Jam at the Beach for an Owl

A traffic jam on Wildlife Drive; the white specks in the water are overwintering Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens)
Kali and I enjoy visiting the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge just north of Atlantic City, New Jersey during the winter to observe the overwintering waterfowl; we've paid a visit on or around New Year's Day for three years now - looks like we've got a tradition going.  Because the forecast showed last Saturday (December 29) would be the best day for a week, we took advantage of the sunny skies and temperatures in the low 50s F to make our annual migration. 

Forsythe is always a great place to visit but, this year there's a special "draw": two of the large number of Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) that have erupted from the Arctic and which are spending the winter in the eastern United States have decided that Forsythe is good overwintering habitat.  We hoped we would be lucky, but we knew we'd enjoy the day regardless.

Upon reaching the refuge, we knew we were in for an unusual day.  First, the parking lot where people stop to register and pay their entrance fee was filled to capacity (usually, there are one or two cars when we visit).  Then, as we started on the 8-mile Wildlife Drive through the refuge, we could see cars everywhere.

Our first stop was a lone tree crowded by birdwatchers alongside the drive.  Sitting calmly about 15 feet off the ground was a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
Male Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)
Another handsome Northern Pintail (slightly pixelated from being digitally enlarged)
Our second stop was alongside the drive were a large group of birdwatchers had gathered and were looking down the embankment into high grass and weeds.  I couldn't see what they were observing until one of the birdwatchers pointed out an American Bittern (Botarus lentiginosus) stalking mice.  Bitterns are so perfectly camouflaged that they all but blend into the grass and weeds they inhabit, so they are rarely observed on the ground.  I have no idea how these people found this bird (unless it flew in) because I could hardly see it even when they pointed it out to me.  This was only my second bittern ever, so I was excited.

We continued along the drive observing waterfowl until we came to a point at which all traffic stopped and everyone got out of their cars and crowded the verge.  Of course, we followed the crowd - and were rewarded with one of the highlights of our birdwatching careers: one of the Snowy Owls.  Jokingly, I said it looked like a soccer ball on the ground, and I immediately got some dirty looks from the other birders.  Below are the best pictures I could capture with my camera.  The first image was how the bird looked in the field; the second two images are digitally enlarged on the computer.  What a great day all around!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wildlife Incident Report

Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
(The image accompanying this post is a detail from a woodcarving of a Sharp-shinned Hawk by Tim McEachern of Nature's Way.  It captured the intimidating look of this raptor better than photographic images I reviewed.)

Kali is using up some of her vacation time before the end of the year, so she stayed home today and slept in.  I came home around noon and we had lunch together.  Just as we had finished eating, we heard the muffled sound of breaking glass.  "Damned cats!  What have they gotten into now?"  But everything seemed copacetic on the feline front.

Then I went out into the enclosed porch.  The porch is attached to the back of the house on the second floor and, as such, is at least 10 feet off the ground.  The porch was likely built along with the rest of the 1925 addition to the house and is enclosed with 10 large (3' x 4') single pane windows permanently caulked into wooden frames.

Once I got out on the porch, I saw that one of the windows was shattered and a raptor lay crumpled on the floor amid shards of glass.  Great...either this magnificent bird's dead or I've got to make a trip to the wildlife rehab clinic an hour away.

When I approached the bird, though, it gather itself together, spread it's wings, opened its beak, and glared at me to make itself look as fearsome as possible.  It worked, and I backed off.  I went out to get a heavy blanket to throw over the bird, but when I got back, the bird had jumped up onto the windowsill.  Within a few seconds, it had found the hole in the glass and flown off.

A very large female Sharp-shinned Hawk has been patrolling my bird feeder for the last few weeks, and she must have been chasing a fleeing victim or she saw a reflection in the window and tried to confront a rival.  All's well that ends well (for the bird).  For me, now I've got to try to get the window replaced.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Vanity (A Failed Experiment)

Creek in the moonlight - with my condensing breath
There's a very special place in "my" preserve called Peak Woods.  It's a 7-acre remnant old growth forest with huge American beeches, tuliptrees, and oaks cloaking a rocky, east-facing hillside rising up steeply from the bank of the creek.  I love to walk the trail alongside the creek at the base of the slope early on moonlit nights because the moonlight penetrates deeply into the forest and it reflects on the riffles in the creek, turning the water to quicksilver.

Last night, there was the added benefit of freshly fallen snow on the landscape, so I went for a walk soon after the moon rose - and I took my camera with me to try to capture some of the magic. 

In general, I was sorely disappointed - but I'm sharing the images with you anyway (hence, the first part of my post's title).  The woods and the creek were beautiful, but I was unable to capture the ambiance.  My camera has a "night scene" setting, but there just wasn't enough light even for that setting.  To do the woods justice, I need to bring along my tripod and shoot with a very long exposure.  And, to dress much more warmly!
The shadow of a bankside tree
My camera's flash kept going off; I assumed the camera was trying to measure the distance to the nearest object in order to focus the lens properly.  And, it probably was doing so, but it was also artificially illuminating the woods, an effect I was trying to avoid.

After photographing the creek and the woods, I was headed back to my car when the moonlight shining behind a post-and-rail fence caught my eye.  I figured, "What the heck; I'll give it a try." but the camera didn't seem to respond, so I gave up - and moved slightly just as the shutter clicked.  Here's the result.  If I'd had more patience, it might have made a nice image.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Snow at First Light

View of my back yard at first light on Tuesday
The northern Piedmont got about two inches of snow on Sunday afternoon, much of which melted when the precipitation turned to rain on Sunday night.  Monday was cold, overcast, and dreary, but precipitation-free.  At rush hour on Tuesday morning, snow began again in earnest, finishing up around 3 p.m. after leaving three more inches. 
We intentionally left this dead pine standing in our front yard to attract woodpeckers; visitors call it the "totem tree."
Catching the first rays

Pink and blue
The second-oldest part of the house in which we live; the oldest part was built in 1791.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thanksgiving Survivors and Turkey Turds (for Robin Andrea & Mark)

With my recent surgery, I've been "mobility challenged" so I can't go for walks or take images.  Hopefully, that situation will improve over the next few weeks.

I'd mentioned previously that a hen turkey and her single "adolescent" chick (probably hatched in early August vs. a typical early May hatching) had been coming to my feeder to eat every morning.  They "survived" Thanksgiving, but I think I jinxed them.  On Friday after Thanksgiving, I photographed the pair at the feeder, but on Saturday I noticed a single hen mixed into an otherwise all-male flock...uh oh.  Yesterday, I noticed the same configuration of a single hen among two dozen toms.  Then, this morning, the hen came up to the feeder unaccompanied by her youngster.  I don't know what happened; we've had relatively mild weather, so I doubt that the adolescent succumbed to the elements.  I wonder if a Great Horned Owl could have picked it off its perch at night, or if the youngster fell victim to a coyote.
Follower Robin Andrea mentioned that she'd never seen turkey feces (that she recognized, anyway), and Follower Mark said that the feces of male and female turkeys twist in opposite directions, so I photographed a few examples.  When the turkeys have plenty of good stuff to eat, their feces look like those in the following images (gender unknown).  Most of the fibrous fecal matter is brownish or greenish, but there's a bit of white uric acid at one end.

If the turkeys don't have enough to eat, or if what they're eating is moist, or if they've drunk a lot of water, they produce feces like this one, which (trust me) is as slippery as a proverbial banana peel.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Partial Nephrectomy

In late June, I got very ill from a viral disease (that may have been mononucleosis, but the doctors still aren't sure).  In the course of my diagnosis, one of the tests revealed that I had a suspicious growth on the top of my right kidney.  Long story short: the growth was cancerous, but small and contained.  Surgery was scheduled for November 19. 
The surgery went as planned.  The surgeon was able to do the procedure robotically, which allowed him to make four very small incisions instead of one relatively large incision.  And, he was able to just remove the portion of the kidney that was diseased and to save the remainder.  There will be no need for chemo or radiation follow-up.  After the procedure, I asked the surgeon about the potential for (1) regrowth of the tumor in situ and (2) appearance of a tumor on the other kidney.  He said he wanted to review the pathology reports before giving me a definitive answer, but said that typically the odds for both are about 5%.

I was discharged from the hospital at noon on Thursday, so I was in just Tuesday (surgery day), Wednesday (one day of recovery), and Thursday (another half-day of recovery).  I had no ill effects from the surgery or the anesthesia--no nausea, very little pain.  Though I'm taking an analgesic, I think it's mostly prophylactic because I'm not really in pain; I just have a little discomfort at the incisions.

I have a drain (and a collecting bulb) exiting my abdomen.  It's draining blood and urine from the cut portion of the kidney.  The volume of fluid has declined remarkably over the last three days (like it is supposed to do).  If everything continues to go smoothly, I will have the drain removed on December 2.  The drain is probably the biggest hassle, but even that is not really much of a bother.

Actually, the worst part of the whole experience may have been my roommate, Jim.  He was 71 and had had a partial liver removal.  Tuesday night he was disoriented and confused, slept very little, and kept urinating all over the floor when he got up to use the urinal.  Every two hours or so, half the night staff invaded the room to clean up his messes.  Wednesday night, his confusion had vanished, but he still slept very little and repeatedly told the nurses that he was going to call his wife to pick him up - at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m, etc.  Plus, he and his wife (who was in the room from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.) liked to watch TV with the volume up loud.  Actually, they were pleasant people and they said that it was nice for Jim to have a "quiet, understanding" roommate, but needless to say, I didn't do much reading - or sleeping.  I was nice to get back to my own bed.

Mononucleosis very well may have saved my life!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Autumn's Last Hurrah

Last Saturday (November 9), Kali and I circumabulated Lake Galena, a flood control and water supply reservoir in Peace Valley County Park about 15 miles north of our house.  The walk around the lake covers 6 miles, so it's a commitment of a walk, and the scenery is not inordinately interesting, so we don't do the walk very often.  But, we had to pick up a prescription for one of our cats at a specialty pharmacy near the lake, so we took advantage of the nice day to get some exercise.

Throwing sticks for a happy retreiver

Lake Galena was formed by damming the North Branch of Neshaminy Creek in the 1970's.  The lake is is very narrow, about 2 miles long, and covers about 365 acres.  The county park encompasses over 1,500 acres. 

Lake Galena was so named because of rocks in the area. Galena is another name for lead sulfide, an important ore of lead.  Lead was discovered in the area around 1860 when two people digging a post hole came across a large rock. When split open, it glistened and the diggers brought it to a blacksmith who smelted it and determined that it was indeed lead. A mine was established, which raised land prices, but enthusiasm for mining quickly waned. Towards the end of the 19th century, the metal ores were examined for both gold and silver content and were found to contain about 10-15 ounces of silver per ton of ore.  A small gold speck was also found, which was deemed rare enough a find to put it on display in the Philadelphia Mint. 

Lake Galena has been eutrophic from the time it was originally impounded.  As the lake's watershed  became urbanized, farm field pollution was replaced by runoff from suburbia, with the same net effect on the lake. In addition, fecal coliform concentrations have always exceeded Pennsylvania water quality standards due to both human and animal wastes, preventing any use for contact recreation and rendering useless the bathing beaches originally included in the lake design. 
The legions of Canada geese don't help, either

Canada geese circling for a water landing

There is a lot of interest  in improving water quality since the lake serves as a significant source of drinking water in the area. Water is purified in a treatment plant about 2 miles downstream.  In order to ensure that enough water remains in the reservoir,  water is actually pumped from the cleaner Delaware River (about 15 miles away) into the headwaters of the North Branch of the Neshaminy Creek, which then flows to Lake Galena. When the pumping station was built in the 1980's (to supply drinking water and to provide a consistent source of cooling water for a nuclear power plant) it was very controversial and many people fought it, using the slogan "Dump The Pump." In the end it seems that any negative consequences of the pump were inconsequential.
The trail around the lake crosses the earthen-fill dam
Wooly bear caterpillar
The asphalt trail across the dam sported scores of wooly bear caterpillars, the larvae of a tiger moth (probably Isia isabella).  Folk wisdom suggests that it is possible to forecast the severity of the upcoming winter by comparing the dark and orange strips on the caterpillars, but anecdotal observation by Kali and me revealed that such prognostication is ridiculous because the variation in striping is very high.  The caterpillars were probably enjoying some of the last warmth of the autumn and looking for a place to safely overwinter.  Unfortunately, many had fallen victim to careless recreationists.

Long view (eastward) down the lake

Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
Many of the trees around the lake had lost their leaves, but the woodlands were ablaze in places with the yellow candles of Norway maples, an invasive species that holds its leaves longer than most of the other trees in the area.  They're easy to pick out in late autumn.
For the last week, I've had a lone hen turkey coming to my bird feeder accompanied by a single poult.  Based on its size, the poult probably hatched in August (rather than the more typical late May-early June).  I hope it makes it through the winter; I've been putting out extra seed for mother and offspring - and rooting for them both!
On Tuesday, November 19, I'm going in for some surgery, so I won't be posting (or commenting) for a while for those of my followers who check me out regularly.  I'll provide more details when I'm up to snuff again.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Frosty November Morn

I awoke on Saturday morning (November 9) to beautifully frosted native grasslands adjacent to my house.  I did my best to capture the crispness before the rapidly rising sun dispelled the magic.

Weedy, non-native foxtail (Setaria spp.) in front of tawny Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Rimed thistle rosette and oak leaf

Monday, November 4, 2013

Autumn...At Last!

I was in a bad mood most of the weekend, which was a shame because "autumn" had finally arrived and I wasn't in much of a mood to appreciate it.  I'm having big personnel problems at work, I've got to complete a major grant application in the next two weeks for a project that my heart's not in, I've got to deal with a proposed capital project that once was my "darling" but has transmogrified into a monster, and I'm scheduled for surgery in two weeks.  Plus, Kali wants to re-upholster two living room couches and we don't agree on new fabric.  We spent most of Saturday looking at upholstery fabric in stores on "Fabric Row" in central Philadelphia, which consumed most of that day.  On Sunday morning, I proposed to Kali that we hike at a state park about 1-1/4 hours away that we haven't visited in several years; she said that she didn't want to drive that far (that was a legitimate and understandable response), but when I pressed her for what she would rather do instead, she gave me her standard answer: "I don't know."  That reply drives me crazy, so I just went out into the back yard to rake leaves until she decided what she wanted to do.  About an hour later, she proposed that we walk a long route in "my" preserve, to which I agreed.  After lunch, we walked about four miles on trails that we don't frequent regularly; most of the walk was in silence, though, because I was still seething.  I don't know how Kali puts up with me.
A glowing candle in an otherwise dark wood
This sycamore along the creek had lost most of its upper leaves, but I liked the contrast in tones
Wineberry (Rubus phoenocolasius) backlit

Sweetgums ablaze on the floodplain